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Interview with New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez; North Carolina Senate Primary; Crisis in Ukraine; Eight More Girls Kidnapped in Nigeria; CNN Investigation: Vets are Dying Waiting for Doctors

Aired May 6, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Ukraine's hopes are pinned on elections that will be held there in fewer than three weeks, but Russia asks, can they really be held there with people dying in the streets?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. In the middle of all of this, Ukrainians are supposed to go to the polls, pick a new president? Russia now questioning the timing of Ukraine's elections, even though President Obama strictly warned Putin not to interfere.

The politics lead, we are off to the races. It's just one primary in one state, but today's key North Carolina Senate Republican primary race is the one making establishment Republicans the most nervous.

And the pop culture lead. Unless you have stayed there, you are nobody in that town. But now some big names in showbiz are turning away from the hotel that oozes old-school Hollywood cool. They're doing it over some even older-school laws about adultery, homosexuality, and more.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the world lead.

The way the White House sees it, the future of Ukraine is bound up with the elections happening there in fewer than three weeks, on May 25. But Russia today started poking holes in Ukraine's election plans, while Ukraine forces and pro-Russian separatists try to shoot holes in each other.

You're looking at the twisted remains of a Ukrainian helicopter reportedly shot down by pro-Russia separatists in the Eastern Ukraine city of Slavyansk. And this video, while undated, purports to show Ukraine's forces near Donetsk. It's one of a dozen cities in the eastern part of that country where pro-Russia forces have seized government buildings.

The Ukrainian military is in the middle of its biggest offensive yet to retake those cities, but Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, today pointed to scenes such as the ones you just saw to lay the groundwork for Russia to possibly question the legitimacy of Ukraine's elections.


SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): In this situation, when they use an army against their own population, it is quite an outstanding one. This is not Afghanistan. This is a completely different situation.


TAPPER: How very reassuring.

President Obama has said that, if Russia interferes with Ukraine's elections, it will result in harsher sanctions targeting entire sectors of Russia's economy. Lavrov also dismissed the idea of more talks in Geneva to ease tensions in Ukraine unless the pro-Russian separatists get a place at the table.

Ukrainian forces have been focusing on the eastern city of Slavyansk, where Ukrainian authorities claim 30 pro-Russian rebels have been killed in fighting, though a spokesman for the rebels put the number of dead at 10. The violence we have seen so far there may just be the beginning.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is there near Slavyansk.

Nick, what have you been seeing there?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I mean, there is a -- this is just actually getting under way, rather than finding itself coming to a climax.

The concern is of course that a second assault that may happen against Slavyansk in the days ahead. We went into the city again to see the results of yesterday's assault by the army down the main highway, and, bizarrely, despite the fact they themselves said they lost four Ukrainian soldiers, the militants said to us they had lost 10 of their own people.

That's a lot of casualties for what must have been not much more than an hour worth of fighting, damage done on the highway. The Ukrainian army pulled back right up the road, no sign of them holding the ground that they are actually taking.

And we saw inside the town people furious, funerals due to happen tomorrow, barricades being put up, a sense of siege certainly. There expecting worse to happen. And I have got to say, if the Ukrainian army tries to move in, in full force, it will be an extraordinary bloody occasion. This is not a particularly combat-experienced military at the best of times, dealing with a population very hardened against them.

You said there talk about these elections. Well, I mean, it's far from everybody's mind here right now. This is turning into a civil war, not a pre-electoral campaign, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Nick, we have talked about this before, about the diplomacy going on in other countries vs. the reality of what you're witnessing on the ground. Does the diplomacy going on have any relevance to what you're seeing?

WALSH: It's kind of troubling to hear diplomats today talk about the need to respect the Geneva agreement, the main tenet of which is both sides should refrain from violence.

Well, they are at each other every day almost here. So, that's far, far removed from what is happening. I think those who criticize Russia's position in this perhaps suggest they have an autonomous timetable they're following around the elections. Washington certainly believes they are trying to undermine that particular vote, and willing to do sanctions, they say, if that is the case.

But I think we see diplomacy carrying on as a backdrop to it, but what is happening on the ground here are clearly pro-Russian militants, protesters pursuing their own timetable towards a referendum, merely five days away from today. That will potentially give them the chance if they say, on their own mind, to join Russia or at least separate further from Ukraine.

And I think diplomacy simply just provides sort of an echo chamber for the noises we're hearing here, rather than some sort of actual direction to get people out of this mess -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh in Ukraine, stay safe.

And, right now, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding a hearing where Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland are other U.S. officials are testifying in front of the committee about the U.S. assessment of what is going on in Ukraine.

Let's just say Nuland was not fawning over Russia's role.


VICTORIA NULAND, ASSISTANT U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Moscow is providing material support, funding, weapons, coordination. And there are Russian agents on the ground in Ukraine involved in this. Russia can still step back from supporting separatism and violence and do the right thing.


TAPPER: And joining me now is the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Senator, good to see you, as always.

President Obama said I believe last week that if Russia was meddling with the elections, that he would impose these larger sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy. In your judgment, are they meddling and should those sanctions be enacted?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: I think that there is another calibration here to go right now, which is, looking at Rosneft, the oil company, Gazprom, the gas -- Russian gas company, and Rosoboronexport, which is their arms exporter, sending arms to Syria, by the way, and looking at those three companies as potential targets of sanctions.

TAPPER: The Russian foreign minister said he's open to another round of international talks, but he wants pro-Russian rebels in the east and in the south of Ukraine to be included in those talks.

Is that on the table?

MENENDEZ: Well, I find it hard to envision that.

Look, the Russians had a first round of -- in Geneva, meeting with the -- Europe, the United States, and the Ukrainians. They totally disregarded everything that they supposedly had agreed to. They have not de-escalated. They have ratcheted up their activities in Eastern Ukraine. So, going to a second round and suggesting that, you know, Russian separatist rebels should be part of a -- any negotiation, just simply to de-escalate the tensions and to actually permit the Ukraine to hold its elections, would seem to me to be pretty outrageous.

TAPPER: Russia responded to U.S. sanctions by sanctioning a number of individuals in the U.S. government, including you. I'm sure you wear it as a badge of honor, but how is it affecting you at all?

MENENDEZ: Oh, it's not affecting me, except that I won't be visiting Russia in my travels abroad on behalf of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But that inures to their detriment, from my perspective. To the extent that there can be a dialogue, they won't be able to have that dialogue with me, as the leader of the committee and as an advocate for U.S. foreign policy here. So, if anything, I think it hurts them, not me at all.

And, listen, I'm not going to stop speaking out for Ukrainian independence, for territorial independence, and for the national security interests of the United States that are not just the Ukraine. But, beyond that, as I think we have discussed in the past, the messages the U.S. and Europe send as to how we deal with the Russians in this context is going to be viewed by the Chinese as they look at their South China Sea, the territorial disputes with Japan and South Korea.

It's going to be looked at by the Iranians as they sit across the table from us negotiating on their nuclear weapons program. How far can they try to take the deal? It's going to be looked at by North Korea. It's going to be looked by many.

And so this has significant interest, and I'm going to continue to speak up, as I believe is appropriate.

TAPPER: If that's true, Senator, don't you fear that the United States looks weak and impotent?

MENENDEZ: No. I don't think the United States looks weak and impotent at all. First of all, I think you have seen the poll that basically says Americans do not want to engage militarily. And no one is speaking of that anyhow. But they do support strong sanctions, about 65 percent, combinations of sanctions and diplomacy. That's exactly what we're pursing here right now.


TAPPER: But, by your own admission, Senator, they're not -- the sanctions are not going far enough. And, as you saw, the last time sanctions were announced, the Russian stock market actually went up.

MENENDEZ: Well, the last time that the Europeans announced their sanctions there, the market had a bit of a rally because they thought the sanctions were even going to be worse. That doesn't mean that they weren't hurt.

Look, this is always a calibration. If you go too far, then the Russians say, well, we have already faced the consequences; let's invade Eastern Ukraine. If you don't go far enough, you don't add the equation of Putin to see the risk.

So getting this calibration right is important. I think the administration is moving in that direction. I also think they are trying to lead the Europeans. As Chancellor Merkel was here last week, and I had an opportunity to share a dinner with her and a few other members, I made it very clear that the U.S. will certainly be leading, but, by the same token, the Europeans, this is happening on their continent.

And they need to understand that it's been Georgia, Moldova, now the Ukraine. They have to decide how close it's getting to their own national security interests.

TAPPER: Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thank you so much for your time, as always.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up next: Armed men go door to door kidnapping more girls overnight, adding to the hundreds taken by a terrorist group last month. Will Nigeria finally formally except the U.S. offer to help?

Plus, she deeply regrets what happened, Monica Lewinsky breaking her silence after a decade, what she thinks about Hillary Clinton calling her a narcissistic loony toon -- coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In other world news, instead of bringing back the girls, more girls are gone today. People who live in a village in northeast Nigeria say armed men from a terrorist group came in, went door to door and grabbed eight more girls who are just anywhere from 12 to 15 years old.

The terrorists with the Islamist group Boko Haram have already vowed to sell these girls and more than 200 that they have already abducted into a life of slavery and arranged marriages.

Also today, Nigeria's president said he welcomes the offer from the U.S. to send a team to the country to explain how the U.S. can help find these girls has been frustrating for the U.S. Many officials not understanding why there have been so many days of reluctance by the Nigerians to accept U.S. help before now.

I asked Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez earlier today what he made of this reluctance.


SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ), FOREIGN RELATIONS CHAIRMAN: It is beyond my imagination. I cannot fathom why they have not readily accepted the assistance and been out there asking for it. You know, Boko Haram is a real challenge to the Nigerian government. Whether they feel that they are embarrassed by this challenge, this is the most populous and largest economy in Africa, whether it's the government's own history of its armed forces sometimes committing human rights violations. I'm not sure what it is but it is unacceptable.


TAPPER: CNN's Isha Sesay just spoke to a Nigerian government official about this investigation. She joins us live from Nigeria.

Isha, it sounds like Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with the president of Nigeria and there actually is some sort of formal acceptable help. Tell us about it.


Yes, we spoke with President Jonathan's senior special assistant on public affairs, Dr. Doyin Ukupe, just a short time ago, live on CNN, and we put it to him, what is the status of that offer of help from the United States? Has it been accepted by Nigeria?

He was very clear. He was very clear and unequivocal that, yes, the Nigerian government has gone ahead and accepted that offer of help. They said, you know, they went on to say, we'll accept help from anyone.

I mean, the reality of the fact is, it's been three weeks since these girls were snatched from their beds in northeastern Nigeria and the president of Nigeria himself has admitted they have no idea where these girls are. But today, Nigeria accepting help from the United States.

We'll need to take a listen to some of my conversation with Dr. Okupe as he details what that assistance actually is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DOYIN OKUPE, SR. SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO NIGERIAN PRESIDENT: I can confirm to you that President Goodluck Jonathan spoke with the secretary of state today, John Kerry. And between them, they agreed, you know, America has offered assistance in the area of high technology, including imagery, you know, reconnaissance, and also those things. And the president has accepted. I think it seems very (INAUDIBLE).

SESAY: But it has been accepted. It's going ahead --

OKUPE: I've said it before. We will take help from anyone.


SESAY: You heard that it has been accepted. We'll take help from anyone.

So, you know, Jake, whatever has gone on in the days gone by, the situation has changed now and the U.S. is coming in to help with efforts to find these girls -- Jake.

TAPPER: Isha Sesay, thank you so much. Keep up the great work.

So, how involved will the U.S. be?

Joining me now is Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow of the Africa program for Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also a former BBC correspondent.

Thanks so much for joining us.

We just heard from a Nigerian government official who says after weeks of the U.S. pleading for the Nigerians to accept help from the U.S., they are now formally accepting the assistance despite some parsing from the president of Nigeria earlier. U.S. policymakers have been so frustrated with the situation here.

What do you think, are the Nigerian leaders embarrassed, as Senator Menendez suggested to me today? Why do they seem to be dragging their feet on this?

RICHARD DOWNIE, DEPUTY DIRECTOR & FELLOW, AFRICA PROGRAM, CSIS: I think there is some embarrassment. Nigeria is a proud sovereign nation and is used to helping out in the region of West Africa rather than asking for help itself. Maybe their also a worry, a concern that having overt support from the United States could make the situation worse because Boko Haram, this terrorist group may be very quick to seize on this partnership and see potential targets -- high value Western targets to attack.

TAPPER: Richard, let's talk about Boko Haram, the name of the group means "Western education is sinful." They have been called Nigeria's Taliban. They have declared war on the West, on Western education, especially women getting a Western education.

How dangerous is this group to Nigeria? How dangerous and how big of a threat are they to the entire region?

DOWNIE: Well, it's a very dangerous situation and for the last 10 years, Boko Haram has operated in Nigeria, concentrated in the northeast, but able to strike, as we've seen in previous weeks in the capital of Abuja.

It's also a threat to the broader region, that's partly because of the very porous borders in West Africa, Central Africa that allows the group to pass through without anyone stopping them and have shown their ability to link up with other terrorist groups operating in Africa, not least the local Africa franchise of al Qaeda. So, there are a whole host of reasons why we should be worried about Boko Haram.

TAPPER: Richard, yesterday, the leader of the terrorist group said there's a market for selling humans. He said it as casually as if he was discussing the stock market.

How widespread is the trafficking of humans in this region?

DOWNIE: Well, there's a market for everything in this part of Africa and again, it's a function of the poorest and ungoverned or under- governed spaces. From West Africa, North, through the Sahil and Sahara, up to North Africa has been used for a smuggling route for not only people but drugs, cigarette, all kinds of contraband goods, you name it.

TAPPER: We should also mention that the lives for young women in Nigeria, even not women -- young women in slavery, is not necessarily what we would hope there to be. There's genital mutilation, women are clearly second-class citizens.

What is it like for a 13, 14-year-old girl in Nigeria?

DOWNIE: Well, you're right. It's very tough, and particularly in the northeastern region where Boko Haram predominantly operates. It's particularly tough. Girls even before Boko Haram arrived on the scene didn't get much access to education, to schooling.

And that really has limited their ability to go on, to get good jobs and to rise through society. You see this at the national level as well, a lack of female representation in politics and maybe that's part of the reason why the government is not being asphyxiated on this crisis as the rest of us have been.

TAPPER: Richard Downie, thank you so much.

Coming up, an eye-opening CNN investigation about dozens of veterans dying as they waited for care at V.A. hospitals. Now, two veteran groups are demanding that the V.A. chief step down. What does President Obama think?

Plus, dire predictions of a new report. Is your home in one of the areas that could be hit the worst?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The buried lead today is 273 days, 273. That is the average time a veteran waits for his or her paperwork to process through the Veterans Administration, according to a top veteran affairs official. This news comes at a time of an epidemic of veteran suicides. Dozens more have died after being forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to an investigation conducted by CNN.

And now, two senators, along with two major veterans group, are calling for the head of the Veterans Affairs Department to resign. They are not the only ones.

Our Drew Griffin has been on this story for months and joins us with the latest -- Drew.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, the issue is this. And vets know this all too well. Veterans have been dying waiting for doctors' appointments, waiting months and months and months at V.A. hospitals across the country. That's led to tremendous pressure on the V.A. to reduce these wait times and our reporting has found at least in Phoenix and possibly many more hospitals, those wait times may have been eliminated simply by purging the list.

The government's accountability office has been trying to figure out how it's possible 1.5 million veterans request for medical service disappeared last year. And what we've heard from the government's own watchdog is the record keeping, the data, and the oversight is so bad at the V.A., you simply can't tell what happened to these vets.

Today on Capitol Hill, Republican senators have had enough. They are now calling for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to resign.


SEN. JERRY MORAN (R), KANSAS: There's a difference in wanting change and leading it to happen. Today, I'm demanding accountability and true transformation within the V.A. system and its culture, from top to bottom, and all across the country. Secretary Shinseki seemingly is unwilling or unable to do so and change must be made at the top. I ask the secretary to submit his resignation and I ask President Obama to accept that resignation. We must never forget that our nation has responsibility to its veterans. That means receiving the care and support they earned.


TAPPER: Drew, General Shinseki is a cabinet secretary. Does the White House have anything to say about this?

GRIFFIN: Jay Carney, the White House press spokesman, read a statement out loud that he basically gave us in print yesterday, the president stands behind Eric Shinseki. He's going to say with him until the inspector general's report comes out. They just say it's a serious allegation, but they are sticking behind their man right now.

TAPPER: General Shinseki served honorably in Vietnam, very respected before he took this job. But he won't talk to CNN?

GRIFFIN: You know, this is really puzzling, Jake. We have been on this for six months and we have been asking for an interview with a cabinet secretary of Veterans Affairs Committee for six months. We get virtually no response from the V.A. on this and we're not alone. Congress has been stiffed by him and families we have found out -- a family that I talked about two years ago whose World War II vet died from contracting Legionella at the Pittsburgh V.A., nobody is held accountable there. They have been trying to reach Eric Shinseki for a one-on-one meeting. They don't even get the courtesy of a response.

I can't understand it. I don't know why this fellow isn't come out. He's a vet, as you said. He knows the struggles that families go through. I don't understand why he's cloistered in his V.A. headquarters.

TAPPER: A lot of people who work at the V.A. who are underpaid but work hard and it's a department that has a lot of problems and it's puzzling why he wouldn't speak to you, Drew, after all of the work that you have done. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Coming up next, if Republicans have any shot of taking back the Senate, they are going to have to beat back the Tea Party first.

Next, the one race the Republican establishment is worried about right now, one that could hold the key to November.

Plus, Hillary Clinton opening up about a painful chapter on her husband's presidency on the same day that a little lady Monica Lewinsky coming out to talk about her affair with Mrs. Clinton's husband.