Return to Transcripts main page


Victory for GOP Establishment; Prince Charles Versus Vladimir Putin; Obama Says Misconduct Will Be Punished; Interview with Sen. Richard Blumenthal; GOP Strikes Back; Russian Troops Moving Away From Border

Aired May 21, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, President Obama calls alleged behavior by veterans' hospitals dishonorable and disgraceful but he says he won't punish anyone until he has more information.

So, here's the question, is the president doing enough?

Also right now, Tuesday's primary results look like a big win for mainstream Republicans. We're digging deeper into what it means for the Tea Party, what it means for Democrats in November.

And right now, Prince Charles is in some serious hot water after reportedly comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. His comments are reviving a longtime argument about whether royals should only be seen and not heard.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We begin here in Washington where President Obama says today -- he says today, he will allow veteran Secretary Shinseki to stay in his job, at least for now. Shinseki met with the President earlier this morning over at the White House.

The retired U.S. Army general has been under intense pressure to resign over disturbing revelations that some V.A. facilities may have falsified records and compiled secret patient wait lists. Some of those patients died while waiting for care. The White House says it first learned of the allegations from CNN's reporting last month but is still trying to gather all the facts.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know that people are angry and want swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. Once we know the facts, I assure you, if there is misconduct, it will be punished.


BLITZER: Our Senior Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin broke the story for us. He's joining us now live from Phoenix. That's where the scandal first erupted. So, were you surprised, Drew, that the president, at least for now, has allowed Secretary Shinseki to stay at the job?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: I think -- I'm getting messages from many veterans groups who were surprised. And the fact that the president has said this is near and dear to his heart. This is a cause he takes seriously. And that he won't stand for the mistreatment of our veterans who are seeking health care, yet the person who has been in the job trying to fix that and hasn't is going to be allowed to remain in the job going forward to try to fix it.

The American Legion, again, called for Shinseki's resignation in a statement. Basically, they are saying that the question is this, if the administration has known about these issues for at least four years, why is it just now taking action? That is from the American Legion president.

So, it's surprising that the president still has faith that Eric Shinseki, who has been in office since 2009, has known about these problems since at least 2009, if not before, is the person who the president believes is going to lead the V.A. out of this crisis.

BLITZER: We'll see what the president decides to do about Shinseki. After he gets this audit, this inspector general report that he's ordered up as well.

We also learned, Drew, that the director of the Phoenix V.A. hospital received an $8,500 bonus last month, just as the scandal came to light. She was placed on leave. According to the V.A. policy, Shinseki most likely had to approve that bonus. I don't know if you know whether he personally approved it, but what is the V.A., Department of Veterans Affairs, doing to say they justified that bonus?

GRIFFIN: They haven't justified -- they haven't responded to our questions about the source or where that bonus came from. Keep in mind, this bonus was sent to, Sharon Helman, the Director of the Phoenix V.A., at the very same time there was an open inspector general's investigation into her management and the management at the V.A.

Congressman Jeff Miller, who heads the House Veterans Affairs Committee, was given an explanation from the V.A. that we have not been able to verify but, according to Congressman Miller, he was told this was some kind of a low-level clerk who did this by accident. That is the explanation that Congress is getting for this -- I believe it's a $8,493 bonus that was sent to Sharon Helman at the very time that she was being investigated here in Phoenix.

BLITZER: Yes, that's not a good move, clearly. Drew, thanks for your excellent reporting. Drew Griffin will be in Phoenix for us.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee. He's also on the Armed Services Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us. SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D-CONNECTICUT: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you believe the president is right to allow Secretary Shinseki to stay on the job at least for now, or should he ask -- should he have asked for his resignation?

BLUMENTHAL: Ultimately, the president is accountable and needs to take stronger steps, and those steps need to include a new management team.

Whether or not Secretary Shinseki stays, there is a need for house cleaning, a change of faces and voices to impose accountability. This bureaucracy has been insular and isolated for too long. Many of us have complained about the lack of sufficient record keeping in the past.

So there has to be a new era and a new day there. And I've also called for the involvement of the FBI in this investigation; if there is credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing, as there seems to be now, the FBI ought to be involved.

And the director of the FBI told me this morning and the testimony he offered at the Judiciary Committee that if there is falsification of records, destruction of documents, there's more than ample predicate for the FBI to be involved in the criminal investigation.

BLITZER: Because that clearly could be criminal.

Did you get a commitment from the director of the FBI that they would launch a criminal investigation into these allegations?

And I ask you the question because you speak not only as a United States senator but a former attorney general in the State of Connecticut.

BLUMENTHAL: As a former federal prosecutor, I can tell you right now, my belief is that the allegations of criminal wrongdoing, which include falsification of records, manipulation of documents, obstruction and possibly obfuscation in connection with this investigation are pretty credible allegations that deserve criminal investigation.

Now, he said to me that he would be involved if he was asked by the inspector general. The inspector general ought to ask for the involvement of the FBI before he concludes his investigation, which is now scheduled for some time in August.

Before he completes his report, we shouldn't jump to conclusions or rush to judgment, but the FBI as a credible source of investigative authority ought to be involved before the completion of that report if there's evidence right now.

BLITZER: Well, there clearly is some evidence. And if I were an investigator, I'd be concerned about tampering with that evidence between now and the end of the summer, let's say, because documents could disappear. E-mails could disappear. If there's going to be an investigation, the time is now to start it, I assume.

BLUMENTHAL: The evidence produced by CNN and other news sources, very credible and compelling evidence, indicates that a criminal investigation would be appropriate.

That judgment has to be made by the inspector general or by the attorney general of the United States, and I will be in touch with both to ask them what evidence they have and whether or not this kind of investigation is appropriate. I believe it is.

BLITZER: All right. Let me read to you -- Drew mentioned in his report at least part of the statement just released by the American Legion national commander, Daniel Dellinger.

"If the administration has known about these issues for at least four years, why is it just now taking action?

"Moreover, the president's decision to keep Secretary Shinseki at his post is an unfortunate one.

"The V.A. has been aware for some time that inappropriate scheduling procedures are widespread among its medical facilities, yet Secretary Shinseki has taken no initiative in correcting the problem.

"Veterans continue to die waiting for their health care. Senior V.A. executives continue to get their bonuses. And only after all of this is the secretary now pledging to fix what's wrong."

This is the commander of the American Legion. The American Legion clearly, as you well know, highly respected in these kinds of matters.

BLUMENTHAL: As a member of the American Legion, I certainly have great respect for Mr. Dellinger's opinion. I think that we need to have new management, fresh faces and voices at the V.A. There have been reports of this kind of problem for some time. And that's the reason that there has to be a house cleaning at the V.A.

Whether Secretary Shinseki stays, it's not about him alone. It's about the entire management structure that has been isolated from accountability for too long. Part of the accountability has to be the criminal investigation.

But it also has to be a real new team that will impose the kind of accountability that's necessary and give veterans, 6.5 million of them, depend on this facility and this kind of health care, the kind of first-class, state-of-the-art treatment they deserve.

Medical care delayed all too often is medical care denied because it can result in the kind of fatalities and other kinds of problems that have been documented.

BLITZER: Doesn't sound to me -- correct me if I'm wrong -- as if you still have a lot of confidence in Secretary Shinseki.

BLUMENTHAL: I'm going to ask and continue to pose tough questions to Secretary Shinseki. I think he's going to have to provide answers, not only to the Congress, but to the American people, most especially to the heroes, the veterans of the United States, 6.5 million of them that depend on these V.A. facilities for health care they need and deserve.

And Wolf, looking forward, General Shinseki has told me that a million Americans will separate from the military in the next five years. That's the biggest number of active duty military to come out of the military in any time since the Vietnam War. And that's going to be a challenge in and of itself.

So these kinds of issues are only going to grow and become more serious in the years ahead. The V.A. has to fix this problem now.

BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks very much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: And stay with us for more on the fallout from CNN's reporting on the V.A. delays at the half hour. The "CROSS FIRE" co- hosts, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, they are standing by to join me live. We'll get their take on Secretary Shinseki's future.

Up next, reading the political tea leaves. The Tea Party comes up short against the Republican establishment. So, what does it mean for the midterm elections in November? Gloria Borger standing by live. She's going to discuss with me.

And the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, says his troops are moving away drop the Ukrainian border. The United States begs to differ. There is new information, though, coming in right now. Barbara Starr standing by at the Pentagon.


BLITZER: Pundits and political analysts, they're trying to read all the tea leaves after the primary elections, after the Tea Party came up short. We're taking a closer look at what all this means for the midterm elections in November. First, a closer look at one of the most watched races in Kentucky. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, coasted to an easy primary win over the Tea Party challenger, Matt Bevin. McConnell faces a much tougher fight in the November general election. He's already taking aim at his Democratic challenger, linking her to President Obama.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY, MINORITY LEADER: Kentuckians are not going to be deceived. Alison Lundergan Grimes is Barack Obama's candidate. They know it. And they'll issue the same verdict on this candidate that they've issued twice before on him.


BLITZER: Alison Grimes, the Democratic nominee, was quick to fire back. She told reporters last night she's an independent thinker and she says the race is not about the president. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES, D-KY, SENATE CANDIDATE: President Obama is not on Kentucky's 2014 election ballot. Nothing about this election will change who is in the White House, but we can change who is in Washington, D.C., and finally put someone for the commonwealth of Kentucky.


BLITZER: In other races, establishment candidates also defeated Tea Party backed challengers in Idaho and in Georgia.

You can call it the establishment strikes back, but what do the primary results of yesterday mean for the upcoming midterm elections in November? Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here to discuss what it means.

What does it mean?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, what it means is that in a primary in which you're looking for your base voters, which means usually in the Republican Party your more conservative voters, it was easy for the establishment in a way, and they were smart about this, to co-opt a lot of the Tea Party issues, adopt them as their own. The key one, of course, repealing Obamacare, which they all agree on. Second, you know, don't raise taxes, immigration, trade.

So what you saw here was some of the most strident Tea Party candidates getting defeated because the establishment candidates, who are used to campaigning and had a lot financial backing, actually sounded a lot like Tea Party candidates, so they were appealing to some of those most conservative voters in the base of the Republican Party. So it was a clever strategy. Chamber of commerce spent over $4 million just yesterday. So it worked.

BLITZER: The widespread assumption is the Republicans will stick on (ph), stay in the majority in the House of Representatives.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: The key prize in November, will they be able to get a net gain of six Senate seats and then become the majority in the Senate?

BORGER: That's a good question.

BLITZER: The results yesterday, does that bode well for a takeover of the Senate or not so well?

BORGER: Well, I think if you were the grand puba (ph) looking at the map here for politics, you'd have to say that Republicans would feel pretty good about what happened yesterday. A, they got Mitch McConnell to go up against Alison Grimes. Mitch McConnell is a tough campaigner. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He was out there fighting his heart out in this campaign. He's going to fight to the finish. So they'd rather have him, even though that -- and that race, by the way, could cost $100 million. Just think about that. But they're happy because they want him to be leader.

Secondly, you look in Georgia. You've got a runoff in Georgia. But it's not for that Senate seat. But it's not a runoff between an establishment and a Tea Party candidate. It's a runoff between two establishment candidates. And so if either of those candidates wins, the party believes that their -- either one of them would be pretty electable.

So I think if you're - if you're looking at the lay of the land, you're saying, you know, we're not going to let -- Republicans are saying, in 2010 and 2012, they believe they lost about six Senate seats because they nominated the wrong candidates who were Tea Party backed.


BORGER: They are now pretty sanguine and say, you know, we're not letting that happen this time around. We've learned our lesson and we've got a shot at it.

BLITZER: Right. They don't want Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, for example -

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: To be the Republican nominee -

BORGER: Chairman Engle (ph), right.

BLITZER: Because, you know, she's the one who made that famous comment, I'm not a witch and -

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: That obviously did not go over well in Delaware.

Let's talk a little bit about Pennsylvania. Marjorie Margolies.


BLITZER: She is Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law -

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Former congresswoman. She wanted to become a congresswoman again. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, they campaigned for her. Bill Clinton was doing robo calls for her yesterday. Didn't exactly work out all that well.

BORGER: Didn't have the pixy dust she quite wanted. Look, she is somebody who lost her seat -- a lot of personal history here, Wolf - lost her seat 20 years ago when she voted for Bill Clinton's economic plan. She was trying to make a comeback 20 years later. Now the Clintons are in-laws. You know, her son married Chelsea Clinton. And the Clintons were willing to help to a limited degree, raising some money, they weren't out there every day on the campaign trail, but Bill Clinton really did those robo calls and -

BLITZER: So does it say that there's less power for the Clintons?

BORGER: I think what it really says is that, when you've been out of politics for 20 years, you're a little bit rusty. You have to show up more on the campaign trail. And the person would beat her is a current legislator with a lot of union support and I think even the Clintons couldn't do it for her. So, does it take some luster off? Maybe. But not - not in the long term.

BLITZER: And that Democrat who did win probably will be the congressman because that district was redistricted. It's pretty Democratic.

BORGER: And now it's Democratic, exactly.

BLITZER: Yes. All right.

BORGER: Which is why she was running again because she sort thought it was a no brainer, but it wasn't.

BLITZER: She wanted to run (ph).

Gloria, thanks very much.

Still ahead, Vladimir Putin says troops are pulling back, but, if so, they appear to be moving slowly away from Ukraine's border. We're going to the Pentagon for a live report.

And later, Donald Sterling, accused of trying to bury his racist remarks. The NBA says he asked a key witness in the case to lie, to destroy evidence. We're taking a closer look.


BLITZER: The group responsible for the Nigeria school girl kidnappings is stepping up its campaign of terror and violence. Today, Nigeria asked the United Nations to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization. One hundred and eighteen people were killed yesterday in a market in the central Nigerian city of Jos. The back-to-back explosions went off about 20 to 30 minutes apart.

Nigerian authorities describe the blast as terrorist activities but declined to speculate on who might be responsible. Besides the attacks in Jos, at least 30 people were killed by Boko Haram in Borno (ph) state this week as well. Up on Capitol Hill here in Washington, lawmakers heard from a 15-year-old survivor of earlier attacks by the terrorist group. Debra Peter (ph) is originally from the village where the more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped, almost 300 in total. She told her story ahead of a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Boko Haram.

They may be packing up, but there's no sign, at least yet, they are actually moving. We're talking about the tens of thousands of Russian troops along Ukraine's border. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, reportedly orders the forces back to their bases on Monday. There was, at least early on, no indication that was actually happening. Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr's got new information.

What are you learning, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, U.S. intelligence is pouring over satellite imagery right now. They are beginning to see some very interesting initial preliminary signs. What a U.S. defense official tells me is they've seen some indications that Russian forces are beginning to pack up their gear in some locations. This could, could be the beginning of some movement off the border.

But here's why they can't be definitive, because right now all they're seeing is some packing up. The Russian forces aren't moving yet. And what they've seen over the last several months is the Russians rotate troops in and out. Some leave, more come in. They rotate around. They move around. But it's been left with about 40,000 troops from the Russian -- Russian troops on the border very consistently.

So the question now, is this latest packing up the first sign that they're actually going to reduce the number of forces on the border and move them back to their home bases.


BLITZER: It would be very encouraging if they did, especially coming only days before the scheduled elections in Ukraine this weekend. They'll be several thousand international observers, including a lot of high-ranking Americans, going into Ukraine this weekend to watch those elections. If, in fact, the Russians are doing what the U.S. and so many others have asked them to do, that would be an encouraging step and could head off further U.S.-led sanctions.

STARR: Well, it might, but the U.S. has been very adamant that it wants to see all 40,000 Russian troops get out of that border region and go back. But would that really change the situation on the ground inside eastern Ukraine because the U.S. also feels that there are a number of Russian special forces, provocateurs the State Department has called them, that Russia has moved into eastern Ukraine to basically stir up the unrest in that eastern sector.

And that's why the election is going to be so carefully watched over the weekend. Will these pro-Russian forces, already inside Ukraine, not regular Russian military but special forces, agents of the Russian regime, will they stir up more trouble? One of the people (INAUDIBLE) our very own Jim Sciutto, we watch for his reports over the weekend as he arrives and begins to file the news from what is happening in that very volatile region.


BLITZER: Good point, Barbara, thanks very much.

Hillary Clinton caught some heat earlier this year after comparing the actions of Vladimir Putin to those of Adolf Hitler. Now a member of the British royal family has reportedly made a very similar comment. Details coming up.

Up next, though, President Obama and the V.A. scandal. Did he miss the mark with his comments today, or did he do well? I'll ask the "Crossfire" co-hosts. Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, they're both standing by live.