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Shinseki Grilled on Deadly V.A. Wait Times; Wildfires Raging Across California; Clintons Back In The Spotlight; Protesters Angry About Mine Accident in Turkey; Rove's Remarks about Clinton; Clinton Benghazi Response

Aired May 15, 2014 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, the Veterans Affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, says reports of health care delays make him, quote, "mad as hell." But he says he won't resign unless he's asked to by the president.

Also right now, nine confirmed wildfires are burning in San Diego County. High temperatures, strong winds, a record-breaking drought mean the worst may be yet to come.

And right now, Turkish police using fire hoses to head off protesters angry over the government's response to a mine disaster. So far, nearly 300 miners are dead. Dozens may still be trapped inside.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. A Senate panel demanding answers in the scandal over veterans dying while waiting for medical care. A CNN investigation first exposed the problems. We've been reporting for months now on the deadly wait times and the efforts to try to cover them up.

The Veterans Affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, faced some tough questions today from senators. Shinseki says the inspector general should be allowed to finish investigating but he says he's, quote, "mad as hell about the situation." Senator John McCain called the treatment of veterans shameful.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: No one should be treated this way in a country as great as ours. But treating those to whom we owe the most so callously, so ungratefully is unconscionable. And we should all be ashamed.

GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI, RETIRED VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: If any allegations are true, they're completely unacceptable. To me, to veterans, and I will tell you the vast majority of dedicated VHA employees who come to work every day to do their best by those veterans. If any are substantiated by the inspector general, we will act.


BLITZER: Chris Frates is joining us now from CNN Investigations. So, how did the senators, Chris, respond to Shinseki's testimony?

CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIONS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, lots of tough questions today from both Democrats and Republicans. Chairman Bernie Sanders himself questioning Shinseki and asking him directly, was he cooking the books? We have the exchange here.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (R), CHAIRMAN, VETERANS AFFAIRS: Is -- in your judgment, based on what you know, are people, quote, unquote, "cooking the books?" Is that, in fact, a problem within the health care system?

SHINSEKI: I'm not aware, other than a number of isolated cases, where there is evidence of that. But the fact that there is evidence in a couple of cases behooves us to go and take a thorough look.


BLITZER: You know, the president asked Rob Neighbors, his Deputy Chief of Staff, to come in to help the Department of Veterans Affairs deal with all of these investigations. What does that say, that the president is now asking a top adviser at the White House, to go over there and deal with this crisis?

FRATES: Well, Wolf, I think it's clear that the president knows that this is a big problem. We've seen this from this White House before. Remember when we had trouble with Obamacare. He brought in Jeff Zients, the fixer to fix the Web site on Obamacare. So, this is not uncommon, and it's a way for the president to say that I'm engaged. I'm putting my top guys on it and that I know that this is a problem and that Shinseki's going to get help from this White House moving forward.

BLITZER: It's not necessarily a vote of confidence although they say they're not asking him to resign, at least not yet. The American Legion though is asking him --

FRATES: That's right.

BLITZER: -- to resign, a veterans group, as we all know. Now, Drew Griffin, our Investigations unit, they have done excellent reporting on that phoenix V.A. hospital. The delays, some leading, apparently, to deaths of some of those veterans who needed health care but didn't get it in time. How widespread is this? We know there's a serious problem in Phoenix but what about elsewhere across the country?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIONS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're getting tips from all across the country. And it looks like this is not an isolated incident. In fact, the V.A. itself has said that they can tie at least 23 deaths back to these delays in care. So, this is something that we're continuing to investigate. And senators later today will have a chance to answer -- excuse me, to ask the Office of Inspector General these same kind of questions. They're investigating this. They're the independent agency looking into it. So, we may get some more answers this afternoon about just how widespread the investigators think this is as well.

BLITZER: Chris Frates reporting. And by the way, Chris, Eric Shinseki, the Secretary, he's still inside that hearing room. But he's supposed to come out, speak to reporters at the microphones set up outside. We'll have live coverage of that coming up this hour. Let's see how long that takes. Thanks very much.

Coming up at the bottom of the hour, Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut will join us live. He sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee. He's a veteran himself. We'll ask him what he thinks that Secretary Shinseki should do next.

Nine serious wildfires now raging across California, San Diego County. At this time yesterday, there were only one -- there was only one. Some of these blazes are perilously close to the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. The San Diego nuclear power plant, that's not far away along the coast. One of the most ferocious wild flyers is -- wildfires is in the city of San Marcos. San Diego County officials say at least three homes, dozens of other structures already have been lost. A firefighter describes the difficult conditions.


BUZ MILLER, CAPTAIN, SAN DIEGO FIRE DEPARTMENT: We have erratic winds. We have low humidity down into the single digits. And we're being handed severe -- a bad hand right now in fighting this fire.


BLITZER: Akiko Fujita is joining us now. She's covering the story for us in the coastal city of Carlsbad. Akiko, are the residents there heeding the evacuation orders? What's happening on the ground?

AKIKO FUJITA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are certainly heeding the evacuations, Wolf. You know, you heard from that official right there about that fire in San Marcos. That's to the east of us. That is the big hotspot today. Firefighters scrambling to control the blaze out there.

Yesterday, it was here in Carlsbad. This building right here was completely engulfed in flames. But today, the blaze out here, 60 percent contained. That's the good news. The bad news, we're seeing homeowners out here come back to see what's left of this wreckage.

I want to introduce you to Sophie Payne here, because this is her house. Sophie, I know yesterday, you came back at night. You saw what's left of your house. Tell me what went through your mind.

SOPHIE PAYNE: What went through my mind is all the good belongings that we did, our beautiful home is all gone. The next-door neighbor's is all gone. Ours is all gone. There was singeing down below us and I thought, oh, my goodness. We couldn't get in here till 5:30 last night, and then we had to double around trying to get in in the first place. And what went through my mind is finding Rocky the dog for Bronson, because our son wanted to find the dog. So, Bob and Bronson jumped over the fence and they went all along the line and then, Bob shouted, "Rocky, Rocky, where are you?"

FUJITA: And you found your dog. That's the good news.

PAYNE: And he was all singed in the back and it was so sad. It was so -- he was dehydrated and everything else. But the good was he was OK.

FUJITA: I know that's your family back here. They've been going through what's left of the house. You've been trying to salvage anything you can. Show me what you have here in your hand because this is what --

PAYNE: I have all the letters -- all the letters except the five which is all singed. And my daughter says, mom, as long as you got the five, that's OK. We'll get it all sorted out sooner or later. At least we were all OK. And I thought, well, yes, you're right. So, that was it. That's all we have. And all our -- my beautiful clothes and everything else is all gone. Everything's gone.

FUJITA: And just last week, really just a few days ago, this house was intact, and you hosted a wedding reception for your daughter.

PAYNE: Yes, my daughter and my son-in-law, yes. We had the parties over there. We had the Mexican food and the gate was open to everybody and everything. There was about 50-odd people here. And it was beautiful. It was absolutely beautiful. And nobody wanted to go home. You know? And now, it's all gone. And it's, like, oh, my goodness.

FUJITA: Well, I'm just glad that your family is OK. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

PAYNE: Thank you. Thank you very much.

FUJITA: Wolf, you can see just -- this is just one of many stories that we're hearing out here in San Diego County. We're still seeing some of the flames kick up even in this debris. But crews just trying to put out the hotspots. The focus right now to the east of us in San Marcos. This family will be digging out all -- for the rest of the day, trying to salvage whatever they can in this debris.

BLITZER: Yes, and other families just like that. Akiko, thanks very much for that report. Our hearts go out to those families who have suffered already and presumably more will be suffering.

Let's check in with our Meteorologist Jennifer Gray. She's monitoring the situation from her post at the CNN Severe Weather Center. Jennifer, triple-digit heat, 100 degrees in some places in the L.A., San Diego area today. Very strong, dry Santa Ana winds. What's the outlook?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, we have had temperatures 20 and even 30 degrees above normal. It is still going to be hot today. But as you look forward to the next two or three days, temperatures do calm down. We'll still be running about 10 degrees above normal. But temperatures will come down into the 70s and low 80s. That will give those firefighters a little bit of relief.

You're right, we've had those very strong offshore Santa Ana winds, 50 and 60 miles per hour in the foothills and the mountains during the past 24 hours. Those will start to relax a little bit. We'll actually start to get more of an on-shore flow. And what that does, Wolf, is it brings in a little bit more humidity. It brings in a little bit more moisture. And so that is going to help those firefighters as well.

Winds are dying down slowly but surely. We'll start to see those winds die down this afternoon into tomorrow, Wolf. Things should get much, much better. But this is unprecedented. It is going to take much more than a couple of days of rain to start to reverse this, unfortunately.

BLITZER: It's going to get to 100 degrees in L.A. today, is that right?

GRAY: Yes, some areas outside L.A. could see triple-digit temperatures, but those should start to come down by tomorrow.

BLITZER: Jennifer, thanks very much. Jennifer Gray reporting. We'll check back with you.

Other news we're following including Bill and Hillary Clinton. They're back in the spotlight in a big way. You're going to hear why their words, their actions are fueling lots of speculation about 2016.

Plus, anger over a deadly mine accident spilling into the streets of Turkey. We're going there live. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Turkey's president is vowing to fully investigate a deadly mine fire in the town of Soma, an accident that's triggering outrage across that country. For the second straight day, thousands of people are taking to the streets. They're protesting the deaths of at least, at least 282 mine workers. Riot police are responding with water cannons, tear gas.

Flames ripped through the soma coal mine after a power transformer blew up on Tuesday. Eighty-eight people were rescued but as many as 120 others are still believed to be trapped inside.

Our Hala Gorani is joining us now from outside that mine. Hala, is there any hope at all that there will be more survivors?

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, miners themselves are saying really there is very little hope, at this stage. That 48 hours into this disaster, that there is almost no way anyone could survive, even with a gas mask. If you had a gas mask, perhaps 45 minutes to one hour. And one of the issues here and what has become the worst mining disaster in this country's history is that people are complaining that the government did not do enough to implement safeguards to make the mines safe for those people who work underground in case of an accident or a fire, such as the one that devastated the mine right here behind me.

Wolf, interestingly, in the last several hours, we did not see anybody pulled out of the mine. We did yesterday. Dozens of people, many of whom were dead, sadly, were pulled out. But right now what we're seeing is we're seeing ambulances lined up in a row with their lights flashing and a cluster of miners. In fact, some of the rescue workers are ordinary miners. They're gathering at the opening of the shaft. So the expectation is perhaps that we will see some of those miners, not alive, that is not the expectation, being pulled out in the coming hours, Wolf.

BLITZER: Hala, as you know, so many people in Turkey, they are infuriated as how the country's prime minister responded to this mine disaster. Tell us about that.

GORANI: Yes. Well, he essentially said, look, mining is a risky business, deal with it. That's how people heard what the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had to say. He even went back to mining disasters of the 19th century and industrial revolution Britain, for instance. They're saying not only did he not do everything he could as the prime minister of this country to make sure that rules were in place to ensure the safety of miners, but he's also unfeeling and callous. So this is a country divided with a big chunk of the population against the prime minister and his government saying, you know, are you kidding? Is this all you have to say? Almost 300 people died in this mine, perhaps dozens more are still trapped, believed dead.

And then, adding insult to injury, a photo that sparked outrage online, Wolf, of a man in full suit and tie apparently kicking a protester pinned to the ground. It emerged later that that man was an aide to the prime minister. He acknowledged it himself to BBC Turk. He promised an explanation. We have had no explanation so far today.


BLITZER: So, so far, Prime Minister Erdogan, he has not apologized. He's not gone on television to try to fix this disaster. Has he said anything since then?

GORANI: No, we haven't heard anything from him. However, the president, Abdullah Gul, came to the mine site today. Just below here. The area was cleared, though. Interestingly, Wolf, yesterday, you'll remember there were many relatives wailing, mothers, wives and sisters of the men trapped below. Today we saw basically a sprinkle of relatives and friends waiting. And what they told us was that they believed that some of those relatives were held far away, were prevented from entering this mine zone, that only journalists were allowed in and officials and rescue workers, so that the visit of President Abdullah Gul would go a bit more smoothly than that of the prime minister, who was heckled and booed yesterday when he drove out of the mine site, Wolf.

BLITZER: And that's understandable. All right, Hala Gorani on the scene for us. Thank you, Hala. Thanks very much. There's growing concern today over the deadly MERS virus. The second case has now been confirmed in the Netherlands. The first case was discovered there yesterday. Nearly 600 people worldwide have now contracted the disease according to the World Health Organization. While officials say MERS is not yet a global health emergency, it is new, it is rare, it kills one out of every three people who get it. Two cases have been confirmed in the United States. One in Florida, another in Indiana. Both health care workers had recently returned to the United States from Saudi Arabia.

So why are some veterans dying before they can get medical care? The Veterans Affairs secretary facing tough questions up on Capitol Hill. We'll talk with one of the senators involved in today's hearing. Stand by.

Also, more fallout from Karl Rove's controversial comments about Hillary Clinton's health. You're going to hear why one top Democrat now thinks Rove could actually be helping Hillary Clinton in the long run.


BLITZER: Rather controversial comment that the Republican strategist, Karl Rove, made about Hillary Clinton still continuing to generate lots of debate, lots of speculation at the same time about the motive behind it. Rove raised lots of eyebrows when he suggested last week that a concussion Secretary Clinton suffered at the end of 2012 may have left her somewhat brain damaged. The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, gave me her opinion about why Rove said what he said. Listen to this.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: I think that Hillary's strength, her popularity, the prestige she enjoys has driven the Republicans to their wit's end. That's what I think. I think what he said is -- is just - he only makes her stronger.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

I just want to point out, Eric Shinseki (ph) may be coming to the microphone shortly outside of this committee hearing up on Capitol Hill. He's the secretary of Veterans Affairs. If he speaks to reporters, answers questions, we'll go there live. I just wanted to alert you in case I interrupt brilliant thoughts. That's why I'm going to be doing that.


BLITZER: All right, so Hillary Clinton, the Karl Rove -- this whole uproar that has been generated, Gloria, has it helped or hurt Hillary's potential 2016 prospects? GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I -- actually, I don't think it affects it one way or another. In the short term, Republicans are kind of separating themselves from Karl Rove on this because they don't want to be seen as saying she's got some kind of sustained brain damage, right? But, you know, it does set a narrative which is that the questions about her health, about her age. And, you know, we do these things in campaigns. People just throw stuff out there, like Harry Reid, you'll recall, Mitt Romney didn't pay his taxes. John Kerry was an elitist and on and on. You throw it out there, it gets in the ether, and so you know it's going to come back if she runs.

BASH: Right, becomes the zeitgeist.


BASH: I talked to a Hillary person, probably the best way to describe this person, who said, oh, I think I'm going to send Karl Rove flowers. Because -


BASH: Obviously not because of the content of what he said, but the way he said it and the fact that he is the one who made these comments because now, particularly because of the way the Clinton operation works, every single time somebody brings up questions about her health, about her age, it's going to be you're pulling a Karl Rove. And it's going to be hard for either the opponent or maybe the reporter to get past that and separate what he said from questions that Hillary Clinton, if she runs, should have, and every single candidate for president, Democrat or Republican, have had in the past and will have. And I think Republicans, in general, that I talked to who are going to be potentially running against her say that those are, you know, fair questions and they're not wrong.

BLITZER: Yes, maybe if the Republicans wanted to raise this issue, they should have had some eminent neurologist raise some questions as opposed to Karl Rove.

BORGER: Dr. Rove?

BLITZER: Is that - yes, he's not necessarily an eminent neurologist.

All right, let's take a look at another issue, Benghazi. That's clearly going to be on the Republican agenda. Was Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, asleep at the switch when that crisis developed? Here's her husband, Bill Clinton, speaking on this sensitive issue here in Washington.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: They looked into what was wrong. They gave 29 recommendations. She took them and started implementing them. And they established the fact that, whether it was right or wrong in the past, secretaries of state never were involved directly in these security decisions. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So, Dana, he's defending the secretary's record. She did create this commission that investigated, that came up with recommendations, all of which have now been implemented. But that's not good enough for a lot of the critics up on The Hill.

BASH: Oh, absolutely not. You know, there's a divide about whether -- amongst Republicans about whether or not the decision to have this select committee on Benghazi is about the near term, the midterm elections or really about getting Hillary Clinton. But with regard to Hillary Clinton, what I find fascinating is that some pretty senior Democrats who I talked to on Capitol Hill who are arguing behind the scenes not to participate at all, they haven't made a decision yet, they say part of it is to help Hillary because -- Hillary Clinton, because they feel that, you know, she's a big girl. She can handle Republicans coming at her on her own. And even the optics of her sitting there defending herself, they think that she'll be able to do it pretty well. With (ph) seven Republicans will be beneficial to her politically, never mind, you know, what it means (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: If - you're assuming there are no Democrats who are -

BASH: Those are the Democrats arguing not to participate at all.


BASH: And again, that's still an open question. They're on recess this week.

BORGER: We don't know.

BASH: We don't know if they're going to -

BLITZER: And Nancy Pelosi told me yesterday she hasn't decided yet.

BASH: Exactly.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: She wants to meet with the speaker. She's going to go on a book tour, Hillary Clinton, early next month.

BASH: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: She's going to start selling her new memoir, her four years at the State Department. She's going to have to answer a lot of reporters' questions in the course of that book tour.

BORGER: She is going to have to answer a lot of reporters' questions. But tonight, Wolf, she is going to a -- do a fund-raiser for a congressional district in Pennsylvania, for Marjorie Margolies. And it's not just a political event. It's really a personal event because Chelsea is married to Marjorie Margolies' son. And so the big question in this race has been, how much do you use the Clintons? Do you use them too much? Do you use them too little? And take a look at what Marjorie Margolies told me.


MARJORIE MARGOLIES (D), PA. CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: We always knew that if they came in too much, we would be blamed for their coming in too much. If they didn't come in enough, that people would say they didn't come in enough. You're kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't.


BORGER: But, tonight, Hillary Clinton will be raising an awful lot of money for her. Bill Clinton has done it as well. She's used the Clintons in an ad in the district. She's in a tight four-way primary. It's going to be a squeaker. This is a seat she lost 20 years ago when she cast a vote to give Bill Clinton his economic plan.

BASH: They owe her.

BLITZER: I remember that.

BASH: They owe her big time.

BORGER: A little bit of redemption.

BASH: And I'll tell you, there are a lot of Democrats running for the House right now. Never mind will she or won't she or should she or shouldn't she --

BORGER: Uh-huh.

BASH: Who kind of wish that the Clintons had more than one child, that they can get their kid married, so that that would entice the Clintons to come campaign -

BORGER: To come campaign.

BASH: Especially Hillary Clinton, because there's a little bit of frustration beneath the surface that she's not doing enough to help congressional candidates.

BLITZER: I remember Marjorie Margolies - I remember Marjorie Margolies when she was a reporter here at a local TV station in Washington before she became a congresswoman and then a former congresswoman. And now the in-laws. (INAUDIBLE).

BORGER: And you can -- and you can see some of those - some of those shots of her and the old days, Marjorie Margolies with the Clintons on "Erin Burnett Tonight."

BLITZER: You just posted a - you just posted a report,, right?

BORGER: Yes. Right, I did, and it's on "Erin Burnett Tonight" at 7:00.

BASH: It's a great piece.

BLITZER: I just retweeted your tweet, @gloriaborger.

BORGER: Thank you, Wolf.

BASH: As did I.

BLITZER: Did you? @danabashcnn.

BASH: Of course.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody's tweeting and retweeting.

BORGER: I've died and gone to heaven. Thank you.

BASH: Click, click.

BLITZER: Go ahead, read Gloria's excellent, excellent piece.

Guys, thanks very much.

BASH: Thanks.

BORGER: Thanks.

BLITZER: Still ahead, the events of 9/11 are now memorialized in a new museum at Ground Zero. We're going to speak to Tom Von Essen, who was the New York City fire commissioner at the time, about his experience touring these new exhibits.

But up next, the secretary of Veterans Affairs under fire over the V.A. hospital scandal. We expect to hear from him any minute now. That hearing has just wrapped up. He's going to go to the microphones. We'll also speak live with Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He's a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee.