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Truce Blows Up In Deadly Clashes; Ukraine Sanctions Being Fast- Tracked; Al Qaeda Bomb-Maker Could Be Behind The Threat; Governor Christie's Town Hall Meeting; Abbott Ducks Questions; Does Nugent Help or Hurt

Aired February 20, 2014 - 13:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, the crisis in Ukraine is getting more violent. Today alone, 100 reportedly killed, more than 500 injured. The White House says it is outraged.

Also right now, airports on guard against the shoe bomb threat. And we're learning more about the man who may be behind it. He's known as Al Qaeda's master bomb maker.

And right now, Senator Ted Cruz opens up to CNN on the debt ceiling, Harry Reid and what it feels like to have members of his own party mad at him.

Hello, I'm Jim Sciutto in today for Wolf Blitzer. And we start today in the Ukraine where night has fallen now but darkness cannot hide the scars and stains of a bloody day in Kiev Independent Square. Take a look at this video now. Those are snipers taking aim at anti- government protestors. Those protestors say that at least a hundred people there died today in the latest clashes with government force that would easily making this the deadliest day since protest erupted in November between the pro-Russia government and pro-west anti- government demonstrators.

The White House has now condemned the bloodshed saying, in very strong terms, we are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people. We urge President Yanukovich to immediately withdraw his security forces and we urge protesters to express themselves peacefully. And that last part is important because there are reports that those protestors have now taken as many as 70 hostages from among the security forces. And police say they've had dozens injured and many police killed in the fighting.

So, joining me now live from Kiev is our own Senior International Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. Right in the middle there today, the violence, what are you seeing? Can you tell us?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Behind me now over the crowds of chanting, dark has fallen. They've fortified their barricades. We've actually seen some of the bodies of the dead taken out of the hotel where I'm standing. I heard someone on the stage talking about Ukraine's fallen heroes, anger and, of course, grief here. But that comes after a long day of ratcheting up tension. You mentioned that statement from the interior ministry claiming that there were 67 hostages being taken. We haven't got that confirmed nor any evidence to back that up. But still, it's a sign of police trying to raise the stakes here and fears of an escalation. I should warn you, the report you're about to see does contain graphic images from the gunfire this morning.


(voice-over): This is what a truce looks like. Protesters carried away from police lines, dead, wounded gathered inside the lobby of the hotel. Under the sheets, head wounds, most here hit by bullets. Of the dead, the number rising. Together, with disbelief and rage, outside this makeshift mall and hospital, live fire whizzed around.

Eight hours earlier, the president agreed on a truce and something changed. Police suddenly withdrew and protestors moved forward. It's unclear why. This man said he fired a shotgun at police once protestors had been fired upon by a sniper. He didn't want his face shown. And this many said stun grenades have injured protesters causing them to surge forwards. Opposition leaders blame the provocation and the debris of what was once peaceful protest, shotgun pellets, the tips of live rounds, ring pulls from grenades.

On the road off to parliament, police and protestors are face to face. Barricades being re-enforced as many fear an escalation is ahead. Are you ready, one protestor asks a young man behind the (INAUDIBLE) shield? He may not be. Ukraine may not be. What comes next?


(live): Now, Jim, really, we've just been hearing negative signals from security forces here. The police saying they're taking up arms to protect themselves. And the military saying they would use arms, if necessary, to keep Ukraine from slipping into a civil war. The president blaming the opposition for this. The opposition telling the police to join them, to defect and turn over to their side. No real signs that negotiations are afoot.

And the big fear behind me, anyway, that regardless of what's happening, the politicals fear is the tension on the ground, the front lines here that cause violence to spur. The police are on the back foot now behind a series of defenses burning ties trying to keep them back. But they are massively superior in their equipment and numbers. And the fear is, at some point, they may try and push again into the square despite the bloodshed of this morning -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Jim, I have to ask you, I was speaking to a friend who's there who talked about his camera being targeted by snipers. You're right in the middle of it. I know there were bodies in the lobby of the hotel where you're staying. How do you -- how do you stay safe as you're covering this?

WALSH: It's reasonably fine given that most the sniper -- what we have heard as sniper fire from protesters seems to be targeting them. We do -- one of our colleagues saw, in fact, near the first aid worker being targeted here. This building, took, ism in fact, being shot as well. But the real risk, I think, is to the protestors who move around here. They are emboldened. They are angry. So, the safety for themselves isn't the first priority they're taking.

And the real fear, certainly I think for anyone for anybody covering this is at all, is what comes next? The security forces, as I say, have been pushed back. Now, they have been on a back foot for about 12 hours. Anybody really (INAUDIBLE) given what we've just been -- sorry. That's just a flair going up behind me but it did sound like gunshots. So, yes, as I say, still a tense environment here. Many people are concerned about what may come next, particularly given, as I sway, security forces have been on back foot for some time -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Nick, please stay safe there. We got a taste of it right there, the kind of thing you're facing. And as you say, the prospect of a civil war right in the middle of Europe, more violence. Thanks very much.

Back here in Washington, sanctions on the Ukraine are being, quote, "fast tracked for the president now." I'm joined now by our Foreign Affairs Reporter Elise Labott who's been following this from the State Department. What are we hearing about those sanctions? And, really, how powerful a tool is this a tool for the U.S. government to try and influence the situation on the ground in the Ukraine?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, we're talking about some asset freezes of individuals that are believed to be involved in the recent crackdown. If you remember yesterday, the administration announced that it had banned visas of individuals -- of 20 individuals that were involved in the recent violence. And this goes on top of these type of small sanctions that the U.S. has been imposing on certain individuals here, not on the government itself.

And so, that's the question. Is this really any type of solution? Is this any influence that the U.S. can really offer here? As you noted that the administration came out with a very tough statement from the White House saying, listen, urging the military to not get involved saying it's outraged by what's going on.

But what type of in-depth mediation is the U.S. willing to provide? Right now, it's really willing to leave it up to three E.U. foreign ministers on the ground to try and get some kind of diplomatic process going. But administration officials are telling me they're very concerned about the violence on the ground. And they see snipers -- government snipers pointed at the protestors. Very concerned that the government may impose some kind of state of emergency and then anything goes -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, state of emergency troops move in and that's a tactic targeting the senior leaders they've used on countries like North Korea before. But, as you know, that doesn't always have an effect. Thanks very much, Elise, at the State Department.

Coming up in the bottom of the hour, I'll talk to the former U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson, about the effectiveness to propose sanctions and, importantly, the role that Vladimir Putin of Russia is playing in the Ukrainian unrest.

Now, as well, we're learning more about the latest airline terror threat, including the master bomb maker who may be behind it. The potential threat involves terrorists who could be plotting an attack using shoe bombs. Officials tell us that the Department of Homeland Security is warning airlines to be on the lookout.

And our own Brian Todd has been digging into this from "THE SITUATION ROOM." This suspected bomb-maker, we're not sure that it's him --


SCIUTTO: -- because there's not any credible or specific intelligence about this --

TODD: Right.

SCIUTTO: -- but chatter. But we know this guy.

TODD: We know him.

SCIUTTO: And he's tried this in the past and had some success.

TODD: He has, Jim. Terrorism experts say that his name, Ibrahim al- Asiri, that he could be the one who could well be connected to this potential threat. He is -- as you mentioned, he is Al Qaeda's master bomb maker. He works with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 31- year-old, Saudi born, a college dropout who studied chemistry. That doesn't do him justice though. I got off the phone with two U.S. intelligence officials. Here's a quote from them. "He's the best bomb maker we know of in any Al Qaeda affiliate." He's a very dangerous man. They believe he's a live and he's in Yemen, they say.

He's the one -- as you mentioned, he designed the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomb that failed to go off at the last minute on the airliner headed to Detroit. He is the one who designed the 2010 printer cartridge bombs that were hidden in cargo planes headed for the U.S. Both those plots were foiled.

But in both cases, Jim, they evaded security detection at airports overseas. He has learned from the mistakes, experts say. Intelligence two intelligence officials just told me, quote, "He's made efforts to study our detection capabilities." It's chilling to think of that.

SCIUTTO: And it's chilling because we know his past. He's a ruthless guy. He sent his own brother in an attack like this.

TODD: And extraordinary plot. In 2009 -- August of 2009, he sent his own brother, Abdullah al-Asiri, to try to kill the Saudi Arabian interior minister, Mohammad bin Nayef. He hid a bomb in his brother's underwear or it might have even been in a body cavity. That's not been quite clear since then. The bomb went off. His brother was killed. The interior minister survived the attack.

But the brother -- again, the bomb and brother got through security measures and got right next to the interior minister of Saudi Arabia. These guys are ruthless. They know what they're doing. They could be behind this latest threat.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and it's a tough -- it's one of these tough orders of business for the intelligence community.

TODD: Sure it is.

SCIUTTO: They know these guys are out there. They don' have great vision on them. They just do the best with what they hear and then issue the best warnings that they can.

TODD: That's all they can do.

SCIUTTO: All right, thanks very much, Brian Todd.

TODD: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Something that we'll continue to watch here at CNN.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faces his constituents and feels their questions. His first town hall meeting since the bridge scandal focuses on Superstorm Sandy. How will that affect the political storm swirling around him?

And later, CNN asked the presumed GOP frontrunner for Texas governor about campaigning with Ted Nugent. Commentator Michael Smerconish joins us with his take on that controversy.


SCIUTTO: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held his first town hall meeting today since the bridgegate scandal service. Most of the questions dealt with Superstorm Sandy relief funds. Christie told the audience the storm did $37 billion in damage but federal aid has only been in the range of $17 to $22 billion.

Our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger joins me. The other Gloria in my life in addition to my wife.


SCIUTTO: Back in the spotlight, granted a friendly audience at a VFW in New Jersey. How did he do?

BORGER: He did -- he did really well. I mean, he was charming. He was responsive. He was anti-federal government, which is always a good thing to be when you're saying the feds weren't helping out enough. He reminded people of why they liked him after Superstorm Sandy. He reminded them that he still spends 40 percent of his time on recovery efforts and that's 15 months after the storm. So I think he did - I think he did what he had to do, which is to answer their questions, let them know that he's on top of it. And, again, attacking the federal government, finding a common enemy kind of is not a bad thing to do.

SCIUTTO: Right. Around 40 percent of his time still, that's incredible.

BORGER: Yes, exactly.

SCIUTTO: Nationally, though, of course, we're already talking about 2016.

BORGER: Right.

SCIUTTO: His national approval ratings took a major hit since bridge- gate.


SCIUTTO: An NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll from 31 percent in October to 22 percent last month.


SCIUTTO: Is there any sign that he's pulling himself off the bottom?

BORGER: Well, look, he's trying to proceed on two different tracks. You've still got a special investigative committee in the state of New Jersey that's trying to force two of his former top aides to turn over some documents which they are - which they are not doing. So he has that real cloud hanging over his head. And that's going to have to play itself out.

What's interesting on a national level though, is because he's been attacked so much by the media, it's actually helped him with conservatives who didn't really like Chris Christie very much but they're kind of rallying to his defense within the Republican Party. So while it's hurt him nationally, it really hasn't hurt him within the Republican Party, which is honestly what he cares about right now if he wants to be president, right? He's got to get a nomination.

SCIUTTO: At least now. Right, fair enough. Win the nomination, worry about independent voters (INAUDIBLE).

BORGER: Yes, yes, sure.

SCIUTTO: OK, another 2016 contender, Scott Walker of Wisconsin.


SCIUTTO: A little bit of a brewing gate (ph) issue -- scandal on e- mails, but not quite rising to that level.

BORGER: Yes. Right.


BORGER: But, you know, we have thousands of pages of e-mails which have been released. Some of them are distasteful from former aides of his when he was county executive. And these aides were clearly mixing politics on government time. And that's a big no no.

SCIUTTO: And using - weren't' they using -- they were using private e- mail accounts to kind of hide that they were doing it (ph), right?

BORGER: Exactly. And that's a big no no. A handful of them have already been convicted on this. And Walker himself has not been charged with any crimes. And his office is clearly pointing that out. You know, so does this rise to the level of the question of abuse of power in the Christie scandal? No, I don't think so at this point. But, what you look at is, how do these people, who are on the list, governors who might want to be president, what you look at is, how do they handle these situations? So you look at Chris Christie today, doing his job. You look at Scott Walker, he's going to continue doing his job and defending himself. So, you know, this is part of the process that you go through if you really want to get that brass ring in 2016.

SCIUTTO: And while I was reading this, the thought occurred to me, the idea of politicians mixing politics and state business, that would never --

BORGER: Shocked.

SCIUTTO: Shocked. No.

BORGER: I'm totally shocked. I'm totally shocked. But you know what, the state of Wisconsin, which is the sort of birthplace of campaign finance reform, these are very tough issues in that particular state.


BORGER: And so I think it could have some impact for him statewide.

SCIUTTO: OK. We'll be watching it. I know you'll be watching. Thanks very much, Gloria.


SCIUTTO: Just ahead, CNN confronts a Texas politician about campaigning with Ted Nugent after Nugent called President Obama a subhuman mongrel.

And later, the worsening situation in Ukraine. The U.S. now poised to impose sanctions, but is that an effective strategy? I'll talk to the former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson.


SCIUTTO: Turning now to domestic politics. The gubernatorial campaign of Texas GOP candidate Greg Abbott has been overshadowed this week by controversial campaign appearances with Ted Nugent. Nugent recently made hateful and racist remarks about President Obama . CNN's Ed Lavandera caught up with Abbott and asked him directly about his association with Nugent.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Texas Republican Greg Abbott is in a high profile race for governor against Democrat Wendy Davis. On Wednesday, Abbott found a friendly crowd inside this Tyler, Texas, restaurant owned by the grandparents of college football star Johnny Manziel. But when we asked about his campaigning with right- wing rocker Ted Nugent, things got tense.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Mr. Abbott, why do you - why did you think it was a good idea to campaign with Ted Nugent?

GREG ABBOTT: You know, it's funny how reactive the Davis campaign is to this. It shows that he's driven a wedge and exposed the fraud that they have displayed on Second Amendment based issues. And so Ted Nugent was a way to expose Wendy Davis for her flip flopping on gun related issues.

LAVANDERA: But this is -- this is Texas. But this is Texas. Finding someone who is pro-guns is not that hard. Why does it have to be Ted Nugent?

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Neither Abbott nor his campaign would answer the questions. Abbott wants voters to see him as a crusader for gun rights. Abbott's credentials aren't really in question. This picture greeting voters at this campaign stop showing the candidate next to his hunting trophy says it all. When we tried to follow up on the Ted Nugent question, a campaign aide stepped in.

LAVANDERA (on camera): You could have found a lot of people to talk about gun rights, Mr. Abbott.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take care. Thank you so much.

LAVANDERA: Mr. Abbott -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And, thank you. I appreciate it.

LAVANDERA: You could have -- you could have found a lot of people to talk about gun rights -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll be happy to. The press conference -

LAVANDERA: It's not a press conference. You know that's not a press conference. Once question is not a press conference.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody got to ask a question.

LAVANDERA: That's not a press conference. No, come on -- we told you we -- specifically what we wanted to talk about and now you're --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, but just - and you -

LAVANDERA (voice-over): We tried one more time to ask if Greg Abbott would appear again with Ted Nugent?

LAVANDERA (on camera): Mr. Abbott, would you give us a chance to clarify on Ted Nugent?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He already has (INAUDIBLE). I appreciate it. LAVANDERA: Why would you associate yourself with someone who describes a sitting president as a "subhuman mongrel," has described female politicians in vile ways? Will you use him again in the campaign?

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Greg Abbott didn't answer the question that time either and headed back out on the campaign trial.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Tyler, Texas.


SCIUTTO: Well, we just heard Greg Abbott take a shot at his Democratic rival, but otherwise avoid addressing the controversy over Nugent's remarks despite tough questioning by Ed Lavandera.

Sarah Palin has since jumped into the fray endorsing Abbott. She wrote on FaceBook, "if he is good enough for Ted Nugent, he is good enough for me!"

Now, CNN political commentator and SiriusXM radio host Michael Smerconish joins me from Philadelphia.

Michael, you know, you look at something like this and you have to wonder if candidates like this say that sort of stuff or associate themselves with people like Ted Nugent because, you know, there's an audience for it. There are parts of their base that like to hear this kind of think.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, "THE MICHAEL SMERCONISH PROGRAM ON SIRIUSXM RADIO": I think that the person - the only person who's happier than Ted Nugent about this whole controversy is Wendy Davis, Greg Abbott's presumptive Democratic opponent. And I say that, Jim, because this is what primary politics looks like. I doubt that Ted Nugent will be visible at time of general election. But this serves Greg Abbott's base well. This fires up the troops. Any discussion of Second Amendment rights plays very well for his base in Texas. I'm sure he's fundraising based on this linkage and association.

And I know that Wendy Davis is also drawing great attention from the same issue because she gets to go to her base now nationwide and say, look what I'm up against, my God it's Ted Nugent now campaigning with my opponent. So each gets to do what they seek to do in primary season and that primary is on the horizon.

SCIUTTO: You know, it's interesting, and he's not alone. Someone like this candidate in Texas, Ted Cruz, spoke to our own Dana Bash yesterday. And when he was asked about this he said, you know, he doesn't share Nugent's sentiment, but he said, quote, there's a reason people listen to him. so not exactly disassociating himself from it. So that gets to some of what you're talking about, that there's, at least in primary season, that there's some appeal to this line.

SMERCONISH: These sort of sound bites -- it used to be that the path to longevity and success in Washington or on a state by state basis was to get elected to office, pay your dues, establish seniority and over time you would accumulate power. Those days are over. Now you say something explosive in the cable television news world or on the AM band of talk radio and you become a super star. Everybody wants to associate with you, at least to an extent to which they can fundraise. They don't want to get too close.

What's surprising about Abbott in this case, you can't pick your supporters, is that he's actually campaigning with Ted Nugent because Ted's been a factor politically for a long time. Most candidates have kept him at arm's length.

SCIUTTO: OK, so how about on another issue, certainly hot button. Why is Abbott campaigning on the Second Amendment? Is there an effort to repeal it in Texas that we don't know about, that makes it a hot button issue now?

SMERCONISH: My God, I would be shocked if, in all places, if in Texas there were an appeal movement for the Second Amendment, I think because when you talk about what motivates a primary voter, there's nothing better than guns, maybe abortion. In fact, he's probably talking about abortion as well. Those are the sort of issues that drive people who are the hard core registered in a primary process to come out and vote. Again, I suspect, and we can revisit this in six months, it will be a completely different set of issues and a different focus come general election time.

SCIUTTO: But for now certainly grabbing a lot of headlines. Thanks very much on the Second Amendment, on those comments about the president. Michael Smerconish speaking to us by satellite.

SMERCONISH: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Ahead this hour, he accuses his fellow Republicans of show votes and trickery. Senator Ted Cruz says he's not the problem, they are. Dana Bash goes one on one with Cruz.

But up next, try to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine. Does the U.S. have what it takes to play peace maker there? We'll take a closer look.