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Mitch McConnell Wins Primary; VA Scandal Grows; Fmr. Football Players Sue NFL; Obama to Meet with VA Secretary Shinseki; Fires Burning in Arizona, Alaska

Aired May 21, 2014 - 07:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get to Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash in Louisville with more. I qualified my formidable a little bit there because this is a big jump for the secretary of state. She would be the first female senator. That's something. But McConnell is no joke and he seems to have a very definite argument to make about her which should be popular in his state. Tell us why.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Because it's about Obama, as you pointed out. And Obama is not popular here, and that is the understatement of the year. He never did well in the elections, the presidential elections, and he's become even less popular in the last two years. So what McConnell is doing is he is really banking on the fact that the president is less popular than he is, and the reason I say that is because that is a big problem that McConnell has is that he is very well known here, of course. He's been here for 30 years and represented the state for 30 years but he's also extremely unpopular.

But you are exactly right, Chris, to hedge the idea of the fact that she may be formidable, because she is not that well-known and she is going up against an arsenal of opposition in Mitch McConnell. He knows how to play and he knows how to play dirty, and he's making it pretty clear he's not afraid to do that even against a 35-year-old woman.

CUOMO: And he's got just the momentum now on his side. And the only challenge will be if going negative on the president is enough in this state. What do you think of that in terms of her ability to counter the negativity with saying, well, I have better ideas?

BASH: It's going to be hard because he's making this a national election. She is very emphatically saying it's not about the president. He is not on the ballot. It's about me. I can represent Kentucky better than he can. It's time for a change, all of the kinds of arguments you hear typically from a challenger.

But it is going to be very hard because, Chris, Mitch McConnell is also playing another card, and that is the Senate majority leader card. He's playing to Kentuckians sense of pride. It's really fascinating to watch that he's not running for his seniority. He's saying, look, only one other time in history have we had a chance to have a majority leader from Kentucky. I'm your next guy. And after me it's not going to happen for generations probably. So that's another thing that he's running on. Unclear if that's actually going to work here.

CUOMO: Very interesting. Let's take another step down that road. It sounds counterintuitive because nationally you could argue, well, he's got trouble. He's been in there and a lot of factions in his party are not happy with the leadership. But in his home state maybe that's not the lens. You're saying the lens might just be the history of it.

BASH: That's what he's hoping. He's hoping that's the case. But, you know, just to counter that, look at what happened last night. Even among Republicans, those in his own party, he won -- he says he lost 30 plus percent of the vote to somebody who was not well-known at all but just because the opponent, Matt Bevin, wasn't Mitch McConnell. So he's going to have a challenge also in getting those Republicans back into the fold, because if the trend continues, that it is a neck and neck race which polls have shown up until now it has been, he does lose even just a small percentage of those voters, and chances are that would mean they would just stay home and say forget it, I'm not going to go vote, that could hurt him.

So that's why the McConnell campaign knows, they've been prepared for this, that this first month, two months is absolutely critical because Alison Lundergan Grimes is so undefined that they are going to try to define her big time, and it's going to happen in a lot of ways that probably we're not going to see until later on in the game.

CUOMO: I'll tell you, when we look at the local races to see what might lap on the big national stage, and one message that's clear is that money from outside groups is going to be bigger than ever. They had over $1 million from these Tea Party sympathetic groups going after Mitch McConnell. It's interesting to see how much ammo they wind up wasting against their own. That will be an interesting dynamic as well.

BASH: And real quick, on both sides, because Alison Lundergan Grimes is the darling of the Democratic Party for lots of reasons, but the primary reason is because they on a national level want to topple the Senate Republican leaders. So they are also sending so much money into this state, from super PACs, from the national party, you name it. That's the other thing you hear from McConnell, saying that she's part of the Hollywood elite because that's where she's getting her money, which doesn't play well here in Kentucky.

CUOMO: It has been and it just gets more and more true. The problem in politics isn't the illegal money, it's the legal money that's allowed to come in. Dana Bash, thank you very much for dealing with the complexities of that state and the complexities of wind during a live shot, beautifully done. See how she was sweeping her beautiful blond hair out of the way and still able to speak. Very difficult to do, very well executed.

We're going to have more on the primaries coming up on "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King coming up.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Also new this morning, President Obama will be sitting down with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for a meeting at the White House today. This as the administration continues to the battle to contain the growing outrage over the potentially deadly wait times for veterans who were seeking care at VA facilities. Now officials say they're investigating 26 different VA hospitals and clinics, and the president is dispatching a top aide to the Phoenix VA facility where CNN first reported on those secret wait lists.

Let's get over to Michelle Kosinski first, who is at the White House with much more. What are we learning maybe about the meeting or the response coming from the administration, Michelle?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: VA Secretary Shinseki has faced multiple calls now for his resignation. Questions from the president as to why he wouldn't give interviews for a long time, but the administration has really stood behind him, in fact detailing his successes over the last several years in trying to make the VA better. This morning though he has been called to meet directly with President Obama in the Oval Office. Also in attendance will be that top administration adviser Rob Nabors who has been tapped to work alongside the VA investigation.

President Obama has also faced questions as to why he hasn't come out and spoken publicly about this widening scandal. The White House says that will happen soon. So this raises at least the possibility that we could hear from the president as early as today. Also, it will be interesting to see what comes out of this meeting. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely right, and what comes out when Rob Nabors heads down to that Phoenix facility and what he finds. Michelle, thank you very much live from the White House for us this morning.

Let's discuss this more with Dr. Samuel Foote, a retired VA physician who first told CNN about workers covering up long delays at VA hospitals, specifically the facility he worked at. Dr. Foot, thank you for coming in with us this morning.

DR. SAMUEL FOOTE, RETIRED VA HOSPITAL PHYSICIAN: Thank you, Kate, for having me on your show.

BOLDUAN: Of course. So you say you knew this was happening at your facility in Phoenix. Now we hear that 26 VA facilities are under investigation for similar problems. Did you have any idea that the problems you saw in Phoenix could have been happening on such a large scale?

FOOTE: Yes, I did. I talked to people in Spokane, and also in Albuquerque, so I knew it was going on everywhere else as well.

BOLDUAN: So it's not a surprise to you?

FOOTE: No, no, ma'am.

BOLDUAN: What does it tell you about the system? Did you speak up when it was happening? You spoke to other people in other facilities. What was the discussion? FOOTE: Well, basically that the problem is that if the director of the local hospital director turns in good number to the veterans and graded service network director, they look good. If the numbers go to Washington and Congress asks them about it the Congress -- rather, the VA looks good. So there's really no incentive for the upper management to getting accurate numbers.

BOLDUAN: So the director of the Phoenix VA system, Sharon Helman, she has been put on leave. Did you work closely with her? Is that enough? Does that fix the problem in Phoenix?

FOOTE: I would say I never worked closely with Sharon Helman but I was well aware with what she and her administrative staff were doing. There's still, the new director is still putting out that their average waiting time for new patients is 55 days when it's six months. I have no idea why he's still getting that. I can only imagine that he's getting bad information from someone there.

BOLDUAN: It sounds like you don't think the problem is even close to being fixed yet. Deputy chief of staff to the president Rob Nabors, a very close adviser of his who is well -respected in getting things done. He's heading down to Phoenix to interview the interim director, to look at the VA facility. What is he going to find, what do you think?

FOOTE: I think so the VA needs to get out of the delay and deny mode and start admitting that there really is a problem, and that's generally the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. And then I think they're going to have to be much more candid with Congress so Congress can assist them where they need assistance.

BOLDUAN: Do you think Rob Nabors is going to get that?

FOOTE: I don't know what they're going to say to him. I doubt I'll be privy to that conversation.

BOLDUAN: So folks are disputing your claims. Top Phoenix VA officials have said that they deny any knowledge of any secret list, that they have said that they never ordered any staff to hide their wait times. What do you say? Are they going to find clear evidence to prove your claims?

FOOTE: William Shawnhart, who was the boss of all of the vision directors in 2010, basically put out a memo with all the various gaming strategies and told all his people not to do it. So the VA has known for many years that this has been going on. And again, in terms of the allegation that I originally made, that was up to 40 people may have died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA, we never made the comment that they all died because of the wait, just that they were dying while waiting for care. And I'm pretty confident the IG will uphold that.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Foote, at the end of the day, who do you blame?

FOOTE: That's tough, because there's certainly a lot of that to go around. The VA bureaucracy has engaged in cover-up and they're still doing cover-ups now. Their delay and deny policy just really needs to come to a stop and they need to be more transparent. They need to grant interviews when interviews are requested and explain themselves. As long as they continue -- it's like a secret club for the senior executive service. And once you get into that you no longer have to answer to anybody, it seems.

BOLDUAN: Why do you think that Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, that he should stay in that position?

FOOTE: Well, that's a complicated question. I think the greatest danger is if he leaves, then it will shift the focus away from correcting the problem to who the new chief of staff is going to be. And he knows -- he should know who he can count on in that organization and who he can't. And what he really needs to do is quit taking a passive role and letting somebody like Dr. Petzel run the operation and take a more hands-on approach. I think if he does that then he should stay. If he's unwilling or not capable of that for whatever reason, then the president should remove him. But I think one last chance to have him jump up to it and get going is what we really need.

BOLDUAN: And real quick, one final note, the president's spokesman has said he has known about the issues at the VA for a very long time although he did not know about the extent of the issues, especially at the Phoenix facility, until CNN's reporting and other reporting came out. The president has not spoken out in three weeks, I believe, since this has broken. What do you want to hear from the president because the White House says he could speak soon?

FOOTE: Well, I would like to see him be fully supportive of the investigation and looking into the allegations. I think the most important thing we need here is accurate numbers. And if Debra Draper and the GAO, General Accountability Office, could do a truly anonymous survey, which most VA surveys never are, but a truly anonymous survey of the providers and the staff at the facilities and get the numbers, and then give the directors a one-week amnesty period to report the real numbers and compare the two. If the numbers match, fine. But if the numbers don't match, then the IG will need to go out and investigate them. And if they fudge the numbers yet again, then I think those directors need to be fired and persecuted.

BOLDUAN: And we will see, but unfortunately as this happens, as the investigation continues, while important, it sounds like more veterans continue to wait for their service, to have their care and the service of the VA. Dr. Samuel Foote, thank you very much for coming on. We'll speak to you soon.

FOOTE: Thank you very much.

BOLDUAN: Of course. Michaela?

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Kate, thank you so much. Let's look at your headlines at this hour. This morning a stream of terror threats has intelligence officials concerned about potential Al Qaeda strikes inside the U.S. Officials telling CNN the threat stream is evolving but none of the threats have been corroborated. They're trying to determine how the threats may be linked and what it could reveal about Al Qaeda's strength in other countries.

This morning members of Congress will focus on another terror group, Boko Haram in Nigeria. They are going to hear from a 15-year-old girl who survived a Boko Haram attack and is originally from the village where they abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls. Six weeks later, despite an international search effort, still no sign of the girls.

We're also learning of more Boko Haram attacks. And 30 people killed in two villages in northeastern Nigeria this week. Police now say a suicide bomber was behind the first of three bombings in central Nigeria that killed at least 118 people.

We show you some stunning video out of Minnesota. You see a school bus burst into flames at the highway. That's not the stunning part. The crazy thing is, as the bus burns, suddenly, watch this, it starts moving. It starts rolling down the freeway towards a fire truck that is sitting just yards away. Look at this. Imagine that you see this hurdling towards you. Smartly, though, the fire crews quickly hustle to get the truck out of the way, no time to spare. Here, look at this. Back it up just before the bus veers off the road. We do know the fire is under investigation. They're looking for the cause. Thankfully no children were on board the bus and we're told the driver is just fine.

BOLDUAN: Talk about just in time.


CUOMO: That looks like some kind of possessed devil bus.

PEREIRA: I know, yes.

CUOMO: That sounds terrible. At least they were able to get it out of the way and get it put out.

Coming up on NEW DAY, many have wondered if NFL players need to be drugged up to play with the injuries that occur. Well, guess what, a player is saying yes, they do. They're given painkillers, and the teams lie to them about what effects the drugs will have. He and others are suing for damage to their health that they say they never saw coming. We have the details ahead.


CUOMO: Welcome back to NEW DAY.

New this morning, a group of former football players says the NFL liberally handed out prescription painkillers and lied about the severity of their injuries to keep them on the field. The lawsuit claims the drugs led to serious life-changing health problems, including dementia and addiction. Nobody warned them about it.

Here to breakdown the case for us, Jeffrey Toobin, our senior CNN legal analyst, and Mr. Jason Reid, sports columnist for "The Washington Post". Jason, let me start with you. Let's just lay out the particulars here. What are they saying that the drugs were not just available, but that there were suggestions made about what would and wouldn't happen if they took them?

JASON REID, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, the allegations are that they were given these drugs without actually prescriptions being written in their names, that the teams were just getting these prescriptions sent to them in the names of players who actually, you know, had no knowledge of this. And then when they -- when the drugs were being disbursed they were told, take these things. They will help you get through the day. They will help you sleep. And obviously the allegations are very concerning.

CUOMO: What do you think of the examples of -- that are offered up here for what players endured and how?

REID: Well, when you talk about what NFL players go through, these guys are basically going through the equivalent of a car crash with the tackling and the hitting throughout these games. I mean, they put their bodies through an incredible amount of trauma, not just during game days, but also during the week. So they need medication often to get through the season. I mean, that's common knowledge.

Now, what's being alleged in this lawsuit about the painkillers and not being given information about what the side effects could be, now, that's also -- that's very troubling; that's new. But as far as, you know, needing painkillers or needing pain medication, I mean, that's been common knowledge for some time.

CUOMO: Jason (sic) Newberry is going to come on the show, Jeffrey Toobin. He was the center for the 49ers, great player.

He says that he would limp in on crutches, wearing a boot into the training room and come out running, sprinting, into the game because of the effect of the drugs. Dramatic, but not surprising, as Jason suggests.

What do they have to show when the NFL says, look, we made them available. You took them. You knew what they were doing. Don't blame us now for what risk you assumed as a player.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. Assumption of risk, that's the legal doctrine that is involved in a case like this is that, hey, you know, it's a dangerous game. You knew it. A lot of players often ask for drugs, often ask for off-label use of drugs.

So, you know, the individual situations are going to be very important. And I think it's a going to be difficult to make it a class action because the individual situations are so difficult.

But you know, the NFL is really at a paradoxical moment right now. It's never been more popular. TV ratings have never been higher. You know, the franchises are more valuable than ever.

But it's becoming increasingly apparent that playing football is just dangerous to your health, period. And the NFL has not really come to terms with that and figured out a way to compensate athletes for, you know, a game that's just -- that hurts them.

CUOMO: Now, it's going to be tough to prove in court for what Jeffrey outline there's. You have different teams, Jason. You have different doctors, different scenarios. It will be tough to show a pattern of conduct that is in any way coordinated among these teams.

But is there another level of this in terms of the public, the court of public opinion here and that the players are hoping that the league will step up and do what's right because the situation is so obvious? Is that part of the strategy?

REID: Well, I think Jeffrey obviously hit that on the head. I think the hope is is that the players will be able to persuade the league from a pr standpoint to do the right thing.

Now, you know, the NFL is a $9 billion a year industry, and the NFL essentially prints money. Now, whether or not the NFL is going to just want to do the right thing, we have seen that that's not been the case in the past with other lawsuits and with the class action suit that was -- appeared to be settled but then was thrown out. You know, that's a very long hard road for players.

So I don't know if we're going to see this being something that's just going to be taken care of to the satisfaction of the players in a very expedient matter.

And you know, the NFL does have a huge pr problem here because whether or not the -- the allegation in the lawsuit can, you know, bring players the compensation they want, it -- once again, you see that playing NFL football, it's such a dangerous sport and players, you know, look, these guys are suffering. There's no doubt about that part.

CUOMO: Jeffrey, quick last button on this. We all know that suffering is apparent. Because that's why we like the sport. We like the violence of it. If it weren't as violent, people wouldn't watch it.

TOOBIN: You know, I'm not sure I agree with that. You know, it's not professional wrestling. You know, I love NFL. I'm a big fan.

But you know, sure, the hard hits are part of the game, but, you know, so is Peyton Manning throwing a 60-hard pass. You know, the question though is, I don't know how you could change the game.

CUOMO: How you take the violence out of the game.

TOOBIN: Take the -- make it safer when the athletes are bigger, stronger, faster, than ever and they're still going to crash into each other. That's the problem, is that there doesn't appear to be a safe way to play football.

CUOMO: The biggest nod to that is we talk about helmets all the time and helmet technology. Jason, you've written about this as well. And it comes out at the end of the day, the science tells us it's not about the helmet. It's about how your head snaps during the hit, and you will never be able to change that as long as the --

TOOBIN: And it's not about necessarily the big hits, it's about the repetitive small hits that are part of practice and part of games.

CUOMO: Violent game. But it will be interesting what they can show in the court of law and how that will echo into the case of public opinion.

Jason, thank you very much. Jeffery, as always.

And as I suggested in the interview, you're going to get to hear from one of these four former players, a great 49er. He was a center. So he knew about getting hit every play. His name is Jeremy Newberry, and he is a party to this lawsuit, and he's going to tell you what years of painkillers allegedly did to him and what he was told and not told. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Coming up next on NEW DAY, he has politics in the blood. Jason Carter, grandson of the former president Jimmy Carter. He is now the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia. But will the name help or hurt him? What are his chances in general? He's going to join us live to discuss.

Plus ahead, Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law losing in her quest to return to Congress. Is the Clinton touch not as powerful as it once was? That ahead.


PEREIRA: Almost half past the hour.

Let's take a look at your headlines here on NEW DAY. President Obama called a meeting at the White House this morning with the embattled V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki; 26 Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics are now being investigated for allegedly covering up long, potentially deadly wait times for patients. The president is also sending top aide Rob Nabors to the Phoenix V.A. hospital tonight. CNN has reported employees at that facility cooked the books to hide delays that are being blamed now for the deaths of dozen of veterans.

California's Bay Area Rapid Transit system has settled a federal civil rights case related to the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by a BART officer back in 2009. Five of grant's friends who were handcuffed and detained for several hours will split $175,000 in the settlement. The shooting inspired the popular film "Fruitvale Station", which chronicled the last day in Grant's life.

A massive fire is growing near a state park in Arizona. Two miles of homes and cabins in the Oak Creek Canyon are under threat. Some evacuations have been order with the fire now more than 400 acres. Officials say the fire is man-made. An investigation is under way. So far, no injuries have been reported.

In the meantime, two large fires in southern Alaska also burning. They've charred a combined 8,000 acres. Fire season is for real. It is here. It is in several areas.

CUOMO: Not just in California.

PEREIA: No, not just in California.

CUOMO: Boy, it's too bad that there's nothing going on in politics today.

BOLDUAN: I know.

CUOMO: Not only do you have all of these big elections overnight, but you have the V.A. scandal that is just getting bigger and bigger. a beautiful time for a segue to Inside Politics with a beautiful man named John King. There he is.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, Kate, Michaela, good morning to you. And you're right, a lot of talk about.

Let's start with that big White House meeting. The president, his Veterans Affairs secretary, and this new troubleshooter.

With me this morning to share their reporting and their insights, Margaret Talev of "Bloomberg News" Dan Balz of "The Washington Post."