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Interview with Rep. Elijah Cummings; John Kerry Agrees to Testify Before House Committee; Testy Exchange in House of Reps over Immigration Reform; Putin Blames U.S. for All Unrest in Ukraine; Making a Secure Blackberry for Obama

Aired May 23, 2014 - 13:30   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington.

There are new developments emerging right now on the investigation of the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Just in to CNN, the Secretary of State John Kerry has now agreed to testify next month, not necessarily before the new select committee set up by the Republicans to investigate, but by a separate House committee.

Let's get some more details. Joining us now is the ranking Democrat on both of those committees, Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland is here.

Thanks very much for coming in.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-MARYLAND: Good being with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Here's the letter.

The secretary of state, John Kerry, has now agreed to testify next month, not necessarily before the new Select Committee set up by the Republicans to investigate, but by a separate House committee.

Let's get some more details. Joining us now is the ranking Democrat on both of those committees. Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland is here.

Thank you very much for coming in.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-MARYLAND: Good being in with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Here is the letter the secretary just sent, Darrell Issa's, the chairman of the other committee you're on --


BLITZER: -- saying he's willing to testify either June 12, June 20th. But he also says, in this letter, the secretary will not testify before Issa's committee. You're the ranking Democrat on that committee. He won't testify before the Select Committee that Trey Gowdy, the Republican Congressman from South Carolina, is chairing. You're the ranking Democrat on that committee as well. What exactly is going on here?

CUMMINGS: I think the speaker has lost control of Issa. Mr. Issa's trying to interject himself into Select Committee's business. Keep in mind, Wolf, when the Select Committee was formed, what the speaker said was everything comes under the Select Committee. And now here we have Mr. Issa trying to bring the secretary in, and the secretary is saying, you know, I'm going to come but I'm just going to come one time, this is it.

BLITZER: He's just going to the Issa committee --


CUMMINGS: Right. Right. By the way, Wolf, it undermines the Select Committee. This is the very thing we were worried about.

BLITZER: I thought if there was a Select Committee that would supersede the other committees --

CUMMINGS: that's exactly right.

BLITZER: This is the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

CUMMINGS: That's right.

BLITZER: They've been holding, as you know, holding a lot of investigations, a lot of hearings on the Benghazi terrorist attack.

CUMMINGS: That's exactly right.

BLITZER: But I assumed once there was a Select Committee, the speaker put together seven Republicans, chaired by Trey Gowdy, five Democrats, Nancy Pelosi has agreed to participate, instead of trying to snub it, if you will, that that would take precedent. But what surprises me now is that Kerry's willing to go before Issa's committee, not the Select Committee.

CUMMINGS: He's trying to obey a subpoena. He hasn't gotten a subpoena from our Select Committee because we haven't formed yet. We haven't gotten it all together yet.

BLITZER: You met with the Trey Gowdy, the chairman?

CUMMINGS: I met with Trey.

BLITZER: How did that go?

CUMMINGS: It went very well. I will tell you, I would think Trey would be a little bit upset about this. It's his committee now, the Select Committee. Now he sees Issa operating on the outside. And the speaker said it would not be a circus, but we've got a circus on the side. BLITZER: Explain to me -- you understand this. He was a Senator, John Kerry, during that tragedy in Benghazi. He played no role. He has no firsthand knowledge of the decision-making process going on.

CUMMINGS: That's exactly right. That's exactly right.

BLITZER: Explain why he has to be subpoenaed. I know Darrell Issa's rationale for that. But what is the rationale that you've been told?

CUMMINGS: I don't know. I mean, I think what he's saying, what Issa's saying is, I want to bring him in and possibly embarrass him. He said in that letter, and they told us, there are other people, like the custodian of the records, that could get him much better information. All he wants to know is about the records that he's trying to subpoena.

BLITZER: Did Trey Gowdy say to you what the most important question he wants answered by the Select Committee?

CUMMINGS: Not yet. That's one of the things I asked him to do. We're going to meet next Thursday. Come back and tell me exactly what the purpose of this Select Committee is and give me some kind of scope. You cannot do an investigation unless you have scope of what you're trying to answer and where you're going.

BLITZER: I want to play a couple sound bites on an unrelated matter.


BLITZER: It's a sensitive issue that's come up. Jay Rockefeller, the Senator from West Virginia, making a pretty explosive charge against a whole bunch of Republicans. The Republican Senator Ron Johnson, Wisconsin, very upset about the suggestion that Republicans are going against the president on a whole bunch of issues, like Obamacare, because of the president's race.

Listen to what both these Senators said.


SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I'll be able to dig up some e-mails that make part of the Affordable Care Act doesn't look good, especially from people who made up their mind that they don't want it to work because they don't like the president. Maybe he's the wrong color, something of that sort.

SEN. RON JOHNSON, (R), WISCONSIN: It was regrettable and I would say it's offensive. Seems like the only one in the room really talking about opposition that you would play the race card. That you would say opposition to Obamacare necessarily must stream from some inherent racism.


BLITZER: Did Senator Rockefeller go too far? CUMMINGS: I can tell you, Rockefeller is a friend. I have admiration for him. You know, I don't know that he went too far or not. I try to stay away from the argument. It distracts from the problem. Any time anybody even mentions race, what happens is we get caught up in the race issue but we don't deal with the problem. For example, all these Republican governors that will not expand Medicaid, so that hundreds of thousands will be covered, that concerns me. Democrats have said over and over, let's expand Medicaid. Republicans have said no.

BLITZER: You can be critical of the president --


BLITZER: And disagree on a whole bunch of policy issues, but you don't have to bring race into it.

CUMMINGS: You don't have to bring race. That's why I don't raise race because of exactly what's happening here. Our interview then becomes about race as opposed to people who are sick and who are suffering. And I see them every day. I'd rather concentrate on them, because race becomes a distraction. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but it becomes a distraction.

And both Senators are good men. I know both of them.

BLITZER: They're both good men.

CUMMINGS: But I try to --


BLITZER: You can disagree with the president on Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act --

CUMMINGS: But there are a lot of people who wonder why everything that this president proposes, Republicans go against him, even things that they believe in, even things that would hurt their constituents. They wonder, you know. And I leave it to them to --


BLITZER: When George W. Bush was president, a lot of Democrats would go against him, no matter what he was doing.


BLITZER: Had nothing to do with race.

CUMMINGS: That's exactly right. That's why you have to be careful in the broad accusation.

BLITZER: Politics is politics.

CUMMINGS: Politics is rough, man.


BLITZER: If you don't like politics, get into something else.

Congressman, thank you very much for coming in.

CUMMINGS: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Always good to have you here on CNN.

Up next, sharp words on Capitol Hill as the House speaker is grilled on why the House of Representatives hasn't moved on immigration reform. His response may surprise you. Our political commentator, Ana Navarro, she's standing by.

And later, Vladimir Putin breaking down the unrest in Ukraine, saying it's not his fault at all. We're live in Ukraine.


BLITZER: Testy exchange up on Capitol Hill when the House speaker John Boehner was confronted on the sensitive issue of immigration reform, specifically, why the speaker has not allowed the House of Representatives to vote on the immigration bill passed last June by the U.S. Senate.

Listen to this.


JORGE RAMOS, ANCHOR, FUSION: Mr. Speaker, we came here to ask you, why are you blocking immigration reform. It's been almost a year since the Senate passed --



RAMOS: Yes, you could bring it to a vote and you haven't. It's been almost a year --


BOEHNER: Well, actually, it's an issue that I've talked about for 18 months, starting the day after the 2012 election, the fact that Congress needs to deal with this. And I made it clear we're not going to deal with the Senate bill, 1,300-page bill that no one has read. And we're not going to do it. Think moving in a piece by piece fashion in a commonsense way is the way to do this.

But the president, the president has responsibility here as well. When he continues to ignore Obamacare, his own law, 38 unilateral delays, he reduces the confidence of the American people in his willingness to implement an immigration law the way we would pass it. So the president has to rebuild the trust if we're going to do this.

(CROSSTALK) RAMOS: What does Obamacare has to do with immigration reform. The Senate passed it almost a year ago and you haven't moved on that --


BOEHNER: I gave just gave you --


RAMOS: -- questioning your leadership --


BOEHNER: I just gave you an answer. There's nobody more interested in fixing this problem than I am.

RAMOS: But you can do it --


RAMOS: -- and you haven't done it. You can do it, Mr. Speaker. You can do it and you really haven't done it.

BOEHNER: I appreciate your opinion. Thank you.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our CNN political commentator, Ana Navarro.

What did you think about that exchange?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Know both of them. I like both of them. I spoke to Jorge Ramos this morning before doing this interview. He told me he'd been seeking an interview with Speaker Boehner for months, had not gotten it, so he decided to show up to the speaker's press conference and ask the question. Sat in the front row, sitting there next to Dana Bash.

Jorge Ramos is a tough interviewer. He's also more than just a journalist. He really speaks for the community. He's one of the most popular Latinos in the U.S. I think he was expressing the frustration there is in the community.

Mind you, we just say his exchange with Boehner. But then he went to the other side of the capital and had a somewhat heated exchange with Harry Reid and a group of Democrats as well, saying to them, why do you continue offering false hope and why aren't you pressing the president to stop deportations. So he is an equal-opportunity tough interviewer.

BLITZER: That's what journalists are supposed to be, tough with everyone, irrespective of political opinions.

On the House side, going back to that House side, there's the so- called Hastert Rule that the majority, in this particular case, the majority of the Republicans, need to support it before the speaker would even allow it to come up for a vote. Is that still part of this right now?

NAVARRO: I think the Hastert Rule is greatly exaggerated. When Dennis Hastert himself has said there is no Hastert Rule, I think it's not something that should rule. But certainly, look, when a party is in the majority, they want to put bills on the floor that will pass with the support of the majority party. In the same fashion that Nancy Pelosi didn't bring up bills that would have passed with 90 percent Republican votes and 10 percent Democrat votes, Speaker Boehner's got the same issue. He's also in a very difficult situation, with a caucus, a Republican caucus, that frankly is like herding cats trying to get them to act in unison.

I do not doubt his willingness, his desire to want to move on immigration. I have confidence in him. I trust him. I don't know if he will find the way if he will find the right window. I hope he keeps trying. He's got a commitment made with a lot of people. I think it's something that needs to be done.

BLITZER: We're told the president later today will make some major cabinet changes, including the San Antonio, Texas, mayor, Castro, to become the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development. What do you think? He's 39 years old. He had a big speech at the Democratic convention last time around.

NAVARRO: I think it's a good thing for the administration. There is not much enthusiasm amongst Latino voters this time around and as midterms approach. I think they've got to do some things. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more executive action on immigration, on stopping deportations before the elections.

And I think, you know, naming Castro is something that means something to the community. I'm not sure it's all that good for Castro, who is one of the most personable, likable people in politics. He has been all over the country, speaking at Democrat events and raising his profile. But you know, who wants to be in the Obama administration cabinet? Everybody I know that's been in it tells me it's a prison micromanaged by the White House. So I think he loses his independence. He loses the ability to choose what he says, where he says it, when he goes, where he goes. You know, it's a step up for him. I hope it works. But I also think he's going to end up losing a lot of his own voice and I hope he doesn't get lost in that cabinet.

BLITZER: Ana Navarro, helping us appreciate the world of politics a little bit. Thanks, as usual.

Turning to Wall Street where investors hope to start their long holiday weekend on a high note. Stocks have gained ground for most of the day and they're near another record high. Look at this. The Dow Jones Industrials up about 150 points, 16,594.

Now to a disturbing new trend in emergency rooms all across the United States. A new federal report says the anti-anxiety drug Xanax is responsible for a huge number of patients overdosing. Just six years later, that number doubled to more than 123,000. Doctors say patients too often mix Xanax with alcohol or other prescription drugs, like Oxycodone, an interaction which can be deadly. Up next, preparing for the elections in Ukraine. President Putin weighing in on what he plans on doing after the vote.

And later, when the president took office, there was one thing he couldn't give up. What was it? We'll explain.


BLITZER: The NBA now responding to all these reports, including reports from CNN that it looks like the Sterlings may have capitulated. Donald Sterling and his wife, Shelly, may be getting ready to sell the team. Donald Sterling giving up his interest and letting his wife take charge. She is negotiating, we are told, to start the process of selling the L.A. Clippers. We just got a statement in from Mike Bass, the spokesman for the NBA. I'll read it: "We continue to follow he process set forth in the NBA constitution regarding termination of current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers and are proceeding towards a hearing on this matter on June 3rd." That's when all of the owners of the NBA are supposed to get together and vote. They need a three-fourths vote to terminate the ownership of the Sterlings. Now this is suggesting maybe the Sterlings are willing to sell the team and they will not have to fight in a legal battle with the NBA. We'll be all over this story later today in "The Situation Room," 5:00 p.m. eastern.

Other important news we are following, a frank assessment today on Ukraine fro the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Speaking at an economic forum, Putin blamed the United States for all of the unrest.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translation): It was a state coup, with the support of the West, the U.S., and now there's civil war. So as far as the Crimea is concerned, that is our position. We have nothing to hide. In the Crimea, we are assuring the possibility of free will for the people. And they voted at the referendum and voted for their future.


BLITZER: Putin referring to Crimea on that last point. He went on to say that he will respect the outcome of Sunday's presidential election in Ukraine.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is in Eastern Ukraine for us. He's watching, getting ready for the election.

First of all, what can you tell us about the new clashes between Ukrainian troops and pro-separatists, pro-Russian forces?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It has been another remarkable day of violence. We now have reports of Ukraine officials claiming that perhaps 30 pro-Russian separatist militants were killed. Close to the Russian border, clashes there, there along with two Ukrainian soldiers. And in separate clashes, potentially another one person killed and nine injured as well. That comes on top of yesterday's six dead Ukrainian soldiers. Quite remarkable violence here. In fact, we near Slavyansk, the heart of the pro-Russian insurgencies. And today, hours ago, we heard 10 explosions and it sounded like an exchange of artillery fire. That had been going on all night. Russia's self-declared mayor says quite clearly there will be no election at all on Sunday. And Wolf, say that he is not going negotiate with the authorities until Ukrainian forces pull back 50 kilometers away from that town. But the opposite is happening, with some Ukrainians forces moving down the highway towards that town, and pro-Russians digging in on that road, too. A dangerous situation -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh. We will, of course, have a lot more in the coming hours and days as they get ready for the upcoming elections Sunday in Ukraine. Thanks very much.

Still ahead he was a well known Blackberry addict. When President Obama took office, he didn't want to give up the habit. We will take a closer look at what it took to keep the president connected.


BLITZER: All right. So many of us cannot live without our Smartphones. When the president wanted to keep his Blackberry back 2009 when he became president, security was certainly an issue.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's talk about the Blackberry. You got to keep it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can I see it? Do you have it?

OBAMA: I didn't bring it down here.


OBAMA: No. It's like Inspector Gadget. If you touched it, it might blow up.


BLITZER: One person was tasked with protecting President Obama's Blackberry. Our "CNN Money" senior technology producer, Erica Fink, interviewed that person.

Erica, tell us how a retired NSA technical director, Richard George, came up with a secure Blackberry for the president.

ERICA FINK, SENIOR TECHNOLOGY PRODUCER, CNN MONEY: Hey, Wolf, when the president was elected and he asked for a smart device it actually got the NSA really nervous. And the reason why is because it's really difficult to secure a commercial device. The president was actually a well-known Blackberry user at the time he was elected but choice of model was not up to him. That was really up to the NSA. And that's where this guy, Richard George -- he goes by Dickie -- that's where he comes in. He was tasked at looking at the algorithms and figuring out a way to make them secure and manipulating the innards of this device. There was a lab at the NSA that he helped oversee in terms of manipulating the wires of this little Blackberry.

BLITZER: What kind of functionality does this secure Blackberry really have?

FINK: That's the funny thing, Wolf. Like many things surrounding the president, the functionality of this thing is really classified. The NSA won't even confirm that he can send a text or an e-mail. But we do know this, every app is an opportunity. There's probably very limited apps on this thing. He cannot use it to play Angry Birds and probably not too many Oval Office selfies.

BLITZER: He will use it to send e-mails and get e-mails, and presumably use it to make phone calls.

FINK: Yeah. Probably to a very small group of people. Dickie said, at the time it was constructed, we were talking about 10, maybe a dozen people that he could communicate with.

BLITZER: He's not communicating with me or you. I assume he is communicating with Valarie Jarrett among other top aids.

Erica, thanks very, very much.

FINK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's it for me. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM." We're following lots of developing stories.

In the meantime, NEWSROOM with Don Lemon starts right now.