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President Barack Obama Has Spoken on VA Issues; Tornado Warning Today in Denver; Tornado on the Ground in Denver; McConnell's Big Wins as Incumbent; Democratic Dynasties Try to Turn Georgia Blue

Aired May 21, 2014 - 16:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The president called Shinseki and others to the White House before making his remarks. But anybody who is waiting for Shinseki to get the boot, well, like our wounded veterans, have to keep waiting.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief but also not as an American.

TAPPER (voice-over): Earlier today President Obama pledged to take action against any wrongdoing at the VA. The president stopped short of firing the VA secretary, retired General Eric or Rick Shinseki, although he did seem to dangle a Shinseki exit as a possibility.

OBAMA: If he does not think he can do a good job or this or if he has let our veterans down then I am sure he is not going to be interested in continuing as secretary.

TAPPER: Shinseki has come under fire for in oversight of the VA during a period of not only lengthy wait times for veterans but accusations of backlog cover-ups. Improving care for veterans was a campaign focus for then senator Obama, and Shinseki was a wounded and decorated veteran who was his picked truth-teller to get the job done.

OBAMA: It breaks my heart, and I think that General Shinseki is exactly the right person who is going to be able to make sure that we honor our troops when they come home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: He is the man who lost his job in the Bush administration because he said we would need more troops in Iraq than secretary of defense Rumsfeld thought we would need.

OBAMA: He was right.

TAPPER: But is he the man for this job? The administration points to improvement in the VA backlog and in incubating homelessness among veterans. But memos from 2008, and 2010, sent to the Obama team from the VA warning about veteran treatment raised questions today, an issue that exploded onto the national scene after the whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote told CNN that up to 40 veterans had died while waiting for treatment in the Phoenix VA hospital.

OBAMA: If these allegations proved to be true, it is dishonorable. It is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it, period.

TAPPER: But the president's critics argue, he sure tolerates a lot when it comes to mess-ups on his team.


TAPPER: Whether health secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the fumbled rollout, or director of national intelligence James Clapper giving untrue testimony to Congress about NSA surveillance.

OBAMA: He should have been more careful about how he responded.

TAPPER: Today, privately, even democratic allies are concerned.

OBAMA: I will not stand for it, not as commander-in-chief but also not as an American.

TAPPER: Earlier today, President Obama pledged to take action against any wrongdoing at the VA. The president stopped short of firing the VA secretary, retired general on improving the VA system.

OBAMA: We're going to fix whatever is wrong.

TAPPER: On the other hand, that bar is just the promise he made veterans seven years ago.


TAPPER: So did the president go far enough to satisfy veterans with his comments which did not include a call for the VA secretary Shinseki to resign?

Let's bring in two veterans who also happen to serve in Congress, Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is an Iraq veteran, served with the National Guard. Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois flew mission for the U.S. air force in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congresswoman Gabbard, let me start with you. Democratic colleagues of yours have now began to call for secretary Shinseki's resignation. I know that you have said you don't agree with that. Why shouldn't he resign? Shouldn't there be accountability here?

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: What I am focused on very specifically is seeing what action needs be taken to fix some of the systemic problems that we have within the VA and how we can actually make progress so that the veterans are getting the kind of care and treatment that they deserve.

I think what we'll see through some of these investigations and this really deep audit of what has gone on both in Phoenix but across the country will make the answer to that question more clear. What we have to be very careful about is not calling for a symbolic change just to make people feel better but actually look at saying OK, what needs to be done. Who needs to lead this charge forward whether that is secretary Shinseki or somebody else? That is where we need to be able to answer that question.

TAPPER: That is the policy, congresswoman, let me ask you a crude political question. Don't you think Republicans are going to use this against Democrats in what is going to be an already very tough mid- year election for your party? I talked to a senior Democrat earlier who said that if Shinseki is still in office in November, it could cost Democrats the senate.

GABBARD: They may or may not. You can ask Adam about that after you talk to me. What I'm really concerned about though are my brothers and sisters in arms, the veterans who I have the opportunity and privilege to serve with who are facing some challenges in getting the basic care and benefits that they deserve. So I think both parties would be best served if we actually focus on a productive solution to this rather than talking politics. This is not a political game.

TAPPER: Congressman Kinzinger, what is your response to Congresswoman Gabbard? She says that just firing somebody to make people feel good is not necessarily the best course of action. Shinseki has been there for six years, you could argue bringing somebody new in, would take a whole new year or two for that somebody new to get their sea legs and there is no one other than Shinseki who has as much pressure to get this job done right now?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: Well, I agree with my friend, Tulsi, on that. We don't want a symbolic change. You know, that obviously will not solve the problem in effect. For the last year, I have resisted calling for his resignation because I don't like to jump on resignation bandwagons. I think it is sometimes cheap politics. But when I heard not only do we have a VA backlog, but now there is people that are putting names on the fake waiting list and it has gone literally from being incompetent to criminal, I think it is time for General Shinseki to resign, not because he is a bad guy.

He is a great American, (INAUDIBLE) country. But at some point you have to say OK who is going to head up the VA to be able to come in and really make a difference? Maybe it is a CEO of some hospital group or something like that. It doesn't necessarily have to be a military general but somebody to come in and say this is completely unacceptable.

And I think what really gets to me is it seems like the president has consistently taken every decision to not look like he is taking any kind of leadership decision. And the press conference today I think was more of the same. I don't really know what I got out of it.

TAPPER: Congresswoman Gabbard, what did you get out of it?

GABBARD: Well, I think, what Adam has said is absolutely the question we need to be asking in a very (INAUDIBLE) way is who is the best person to lead the charge here to make sure that our veterans are served --

TAPPER: But that is what I don't understand. Why wouldn't that be Shinseki? He has been there for six years. And just to play devil's advocate here, I mean, there are some serious problems. What makes you think that the next two or three years are going to be better?

GABBARD: I'm not saying that it necessarily has to be Shinseki. I am saying over the next two years after the audits are completed, going across the country looking at these clinics, looking very seriously at what happened in Phoenix, which is tragic, unacceptable and criminal then we can begin to answer that question. Is it general Shinseki or is it someone else who can take us for the next couple of years in a way that will actually make real substantive change and quality care for our veterans.

TAPPER: I want to play something for you congresswoman. It is something that then candidate Obama said when he was running president to the veterans of foreign wars.


OBAMA: I pledge to build a 21st century VA. We need to cut through the red tape. We need to make sure the VA is strong enough to treat every veteran who depends on it. And that is what I will do as the president of the United States.


TAPPER: Is that what he did? Did he keep the promise?

GABBARD: Look, there is clearly more that needs to be done. There is still a backlog, there are still veterans who are living without homes on the street, Veterans who are placed in unemployed, who are still facing health challenges. Those who say that it is because of the huge influx of returning veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, we have been in conflict for the last 12 years. This is something that should have been foreseen and planned for it. And really there is no skies where we are today.

TAPPER: Congressman Kinzinger, this obviously is not new. These problems have been going on, in some cases, for decades. But certainly, since the renewed wars of this century, of Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of people out here and veterans, too, may be saying yes, the Republicans are mad about this now. But where were they when all of these problems were going on in the Bush years? What is your response?

KINZINGER: Well, look, bloated bureaucratic government doesn't work very well. And in this case in point a, right? There is a lot of great people that work for the VA and provide great service. But the bureaucracy behind it has led to people that are more interested in keeping their bonuses and paycheck than they are in keeping the people alive and in protect who defended the country.

Look. Has it happened under Bush? Sure, the Bush administration, in fact, told the Obama administration that they first saw these problems coming and they need to get on it. But look, President Obama has been president the last six years. President Bush has been out for quite a while. General Shinseki knows about these problems.

And again, a great American, I'm not saying he is a bad person but I don't think he is the right guy for this job anymore. You need to bring somebody from the outside, again, hospital CEO, anybody that can come in, shake things up, fire who needs to be fired, prosecute people who created a fake waiting lists and get them prosecuted in a federal court or local court. Get this thing done. I think no more talk, no more press conferences, let's act.

TAPPER: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Congressman Adam Kinzinger, thank you for your time, and as always, thank you for your service.

GABBARD: Thank you, aloha.

KINZINGER: You bet. Thank you.

TAPPER: And coming up, we're keeping an eye on that tornado warning in Denver as a strong storm is headed right for the Denver international airport.

And plus, the top Republican in the senate crash his tea party primary opponent. But his Democratic rival has Bill Clinton in her court. And donors with deep pockets, can she beat him in November?


TAPPER: Let's go back to that breaking news in our national lead, if you are in or near the Denver international airport it may be time to take cover right now.

Let's get right to our meteorologist Chad Myers who is in the CNN severe weather center -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Great pictures right there. Very large hail now falling in the airport and on the south side of the airport. But what we're more concerned with is the tornado on the ground right here. The airport runways will be right here. The trail is on the ground south of the runways and just north of i-70 moving just to the east there, right, just moving through almost going right over where the radar dome is here into Denver.

Here is what we do know is the Doppler velocity signature. Looks likes the center of the hostess (INAUDIBLE) right there. The red moving away, the green moving toward, that's where the tornado is right now.

One of the things I can show you here is the velocity at this point in time moving very close to the radar sites. We are going to lose a little bit of our -- the ability to see it. When it is so close, you can't really get a great idea of what it's doing at this hour. But we do know, and we have some pictures here earlier of that -- on one of our affiliates that there's -- and by the National Weather Service that the tornadoes was on the ground south of DIA airport, Denver International, moving to the east at about 20 miles per hour.

And we'll keep that watching. I want to keep this -- this is our affiliate KMGH, and it has some really great video here. This is the same pictures that I can show you here but they had video on the ground of a very large wall cloud and the rotation and reports now of a fairly significant tornado, although this now at least, Jake, at this point in time is not a huge populated area. This back out here is Denver. The story is well to the northeast. The far you go to the northeast, the less populated you get.

TAPPER: Chad Myers in the CNN Weather Center, thank you so much. We'll come back to you in a second just to check on this very powerful storm. But in the meantime, it's time for our "Politics Lead."

It was a big win last night for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell who beat the Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin by double digits in the primary. He'll now face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election this fall that could become the most expensive Senate campaign in history. Not just in Kentucky history, in history history. Grimes gave a fiery speech last night and let McConnell know that she is really for the challenge.


ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES (D), KENTUCKY SENATE CANDIDATE: I am not an empty dress, I am not a rubber stamp and I am not a cheerleader. I am a strong Kentucky woman.


TAPPER: Let's talk about the Kentucky race and all the big winners and losers from last night with Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for the "New York Times."

Jon, I want to put something up that I thought was interesting. A conservative blogger, Dan Reel. Maybe (INAUDIBLE). This was the first photo I saw of Grimes back in 2013, made me think Mitch may have to work to win. Look at that picture of her. A real Kentucky woman looking like she knows how to handle a gun there.

Is there an authenticity question that McConnell faces because he is now such a creature of Washington?

JONATHAN MARTIN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, that's going to be the entire case that she makes against him is that he has gone in Washington and he has forgotten his roots, whereas Mitch McConnell is going to make the entire race about Barack Obama because obviously the president is not very popular in Kentucky.

To me, what is fascinating about this race, though, is can Democrats take advantage of McConnell's, you know, basement popularity? Mitch McConnell's numbers, they are under water. He is far more unpopular there than he is popular. And --

TAPPER: But he is a devastating campaigner.

MARTIN: But he has been in the Senate for 30 years. Not because he is beloved but because he can be a ruthless campaigner. Look, the difference between Mitch McConnell and somebody like next (INAUDIBLE), Lamar Alexander, for example, is that Lamar Alexander is sort of iconic figure in that state. McConnell is not beloved because he's won every six years in a very brutal fashion. He's never created a positive image for himself in the minds of a lot of Kentuckians and so that's going to be his real challenge this fall. But keep in mind, Kentucky, Jake, has not elected a Democratic senator since 1992. So it's been a long time there.

TAPPER: Right.

MARTIN: And given the fact this is an off-year and President Obama is in the White House it's going to be a tough drag on Grimes.

TAPPER: But let's look ahead because I want to talk about this Mississippi Senate race that has gotten so ugly over the incumbent Senator Thad Cochran facing a stronger Tea Party challenge. But this has gotten really ugly with all sorts of allegations. Cochran has a wife who suffers from dementia and this conservative blogger has been charged with taking a picture of her inappropriately. And now there are all sorts of charges and countercharges.

MARTIN: It's sort of Mississippi gothic. Look, a 21st century high- tech twist because of the presence of blogger.

Look, Thad Cochran of all the incumbent senators on the GOP side has the most severe challenge here. His opponent has raised some money. He has support from the Club for Growth. The most financially potent of the outside group. And Cochran is -- sort of traditional appropriator. And so he's going to have some challenges.

But this is offering, I think, the incumbent some sympathy. Nobody likes to see this in the context of any campaign or any context, frankly, so I think in essence it's helping Cochran some.

TAPPER: Is there anything that really ties this blogger to Chris McDaniel, the challenger?

MARTIN: Well, I was going to -- I was going to say there is this sort of hyper aggressive effort on the part of Cochran supporters to tie it to McDaniel, so much so that you wonder if they're concerned about the state of the race because it kind of speaks for itself in terms of the actual action of breaking into a nursing home.

MARTIN: There is no evidence --

TAPPER: The suggestion is that Cochran has somehow --


TAPPER: Yes, and also that somehow Cochran has not been good to this wife even though the children say it's not true and it's a really ugly charge.

MARTIN: I think that was a broader play. A very hand-handed one at that. But I think that was the idea. This is now put out there in the public that there was scenario as though that would somehow help McDaniel, which to me, is crazy.

TAPPER: It's crazy. And let's talk about Monica Wehby, the doctor in Oregon who won her primary challenge last night despite a lot of personal baggage coming out about her.


TAPPER: She could face -- she could pose a real challenge theoretically to the Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley.

MARTIN: Yes. Oregon has been a tough state for Republicans. They haven't won there statewide in over a decade. But that said, if this is a great year for the Republicans then she's going to be primed as a solid candidate.

TAPPER: Pediatric neurosurgeon.

MARTIN: Has a very extraordinary tale in terms of (INAUDIBLE). And also is running against a first-term member who's not that well known in the state who won in '08. Pretty small margin, thanks in large part to Obama's coat tails now running in an off-year, which of course we'll see a lot fewer Democrats come out to vote in places like Portland. So it's one of those races to watch that I think is that sort of second tier. This is a great year for the Republicans. This is on the map.

TAPPER: Pretty swept in.

Jonathan Martin, as always, a real pleasure to have you in.

MARTIN: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Thank you so much, sir.

Also in politics, it's far from the first time you've seen their famous last names on bumper stickers. Two southern Democrats that just so happen to be the heirs to the powerful political dynasties who are hoping to somehow turn deep red Georgia blue.

Our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux has the story.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dynasties continue to shape the national political landscape. Think Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, now Georgia could add two more names to that list and create a political sea change.

MICHELLE NUNN (D), GEORGIA SENATE CANDIDATE: Georgia, are you ready to make history?

MALVEAUX: Michelle Nunn won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

JASON CARTER (D), GEORGIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: We all know, the people in this room know what a bright future we have.

MALVEAUX: Georgia state senator Jason Carter sealed the Democratic nomination for governor. In old photos where Jason appears as a kid his family looks like any other, riding bikes and goofing off with his sister, Sarah. His grandfather who appears smiling from behind is President Jimmy Carter.

CARTER: It gives people a reference point from the kind of family that I come from. For the kind of faith background that I have.

MALVEAUX: And Michelle Nunn has her own powerful relative -- her father, former Senator Sam Nunn, was once of the most powerful men in the U.S. Senate. She made sure to include dad in a campaign commercial.

NUNN: My dad was point guard for the Perry Panthers. I tried to follow in his footsteps, he went into politics. No, I didn't follow him there.

MALVEAUX: Except she is now and dad weighs in.

I think you've got a pretty good shot.

MALVEAUX: Jim Galloway who has been covering Georgia politics for 30 years believes both candidates will be competitive in November.

JIM GALLOWAY, REPORTER, ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION: The names matter for two reasons. One, it gives both Jason and Michelle a chance to tap national networks for fundraising. More importantly they've got to do very well in south Georgia, in the agriculture section. Nunn and Carter are names who still sell down there.

MALVEAUX: A fact certainly not lost on President Carter whose e-mail blasts asked voters to contribute to my grandson, Jason, to help defeat Republicans extremist.

Both Carter and Nunn are trying to appeal to moderate voters. Carter embracing gun rights, and Nunn, highlighting the work she did with President George H.W. Bush as head of the Points of Light Foundation. But Galloway says their biggest challenge is being associated with President Obama.

GALLOWAY: He's got a 51 percent disapproval rating in Georgia. That is -- and 75 percent among white voters, white voters are essential to the formula of winning the state.

MALVEAUX: Susan Malveaux, CNN, Washington.


TAPPER: Our thanks to Suzanne.

Coming up we'll have the very latest on the tornado that was just spotted on the ground in the Denver metro area. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Back to our breaking news, a tornado spotted on the ground in the area of the Denver International Airport. You're looking at live pictures there. The warning has now been extended for the area.

Let's get right to our meteorologist Chad Myers in the CNN Severe Weather Center -- Chad.

MYERS: Jake, I'm going to put this into perspective for the people that don't live in Colorado. Me I've never been there. Here's the state of Colorado. That is it, that one big square. There is the one cell that we have been watching all day in near Denver. Let me zoom in. I'll get a little bit close. I'm going to zoom in again.

It is the only game in town, it is a super cell thunderstorm. And that means that it's using all of the energy too big -- as big as it can. Not sharing that energy, not bumping into other storms. And so therefore is a very large tornado on the ground.

Here's the Denver International Airport. There is the storm but it is moving away. It is moving in this direction away just to the north, probably a (INAUDIBLE) than there is I-70. Just to the north of I-70 there is a large tornado wrapped in hail, wrapped in rain. I don't want you to go out and look at it. But the good news is, we take a look at what this farmland looks like here. There is not much here, there is Denver, there is the population. There is where we're talking. So to zoom in here just to the east of Watkins, and keep going, there is the airport that moves south of there but if you keep looking there is not much there.

Now they're all small towns here, we'll keep watching those small towns. But this is not an emergency for Denver proper but this is a very big tornado on the ground east of Denver moving away from the city. That doesn't mean it is the only storm all night. Certainly there could be more -- Jake.

TAPPER: And Chad, what do we know about this funnel itself? It's touched down and it stayed on the ground?

MYERS: Absolutely. And what we know about it, when we talk about wrapped in rain think about standing in the shower and taking the curtain and pulling it all the way around you. Well, based on the outside, they can't see you. So it's like a person inside of a shower with the curtain around. This is a tornado inside of a curtain of rain and you can't see it. That's why we don't have any pictures.

We have been looking at some pictures earlier but all you really see is the rain and the hail shaft. You don't see where the damage is happening in the middle with that tornado right now -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Chad Myers in the CNN Severe Weather Center. Thank you so much.

That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jake Tapper. And we'll turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Wolf.