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Interview with John McCain about V.A. Scandal; Obama Lays Out Policy for Next 2 Years; Poet Maya Angelou Dies; Mississippi Senate Race Gets Nasty.

Aired May 28, 2014 - 13:30   ET



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

We've got some breaking news we're following right now out of Phoenix, Arizona.

Senator John McCain is joining us.

Senator, I know we booked you to talk about the president's foreign policy speech at West Point, but I need to get your immediate reaction to the breaking news just coming into CNN. From a report from the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs saying, "An initial review of the veterans hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, found multiple unofficial wait lists of veterans seeking care and identified" -- get this -- "1,700 veterans seeking care but were not on any existing waiting list." The inspector general's report says this: "We recommend the Veterans Affairs secretary take immediate action to review and provide appropriate health care to the 1,700 veterans we identified as not being on any existing wait list."

I want to get your immediate reaction. This is pretty shocking information, Senator.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R), ARIZONA: Well, it's terrible, too. And it obviously calls for immediate action. The report requires. I think also, Wolf, it's probably about time for the Justice Department to get involved here. If records were falsified and people were denied care and people died, as is the allegation here, 40 people dying while on that mythical list, these are criminal activities that deserve the Justice Department involvement. And finally, I really believe that general Shinseki should review, in his own mind, whether he can adequately serve the country carrying out the responsibilities, given the things that have happened on his watch.

BLITZER: I spoke to Senator Blumenthal in Connecticut. He wants the FBI involved as well.

Let me read to you more from the inspector general's report. This is from your home state, Arizona, the Phoenix V.A. hospital. "The inspector general review found that outside of the official wait list, the review found other scheduling practices that are not in compliance with policies, suggesting additional lists may be the basis for allegations of creating secret wait lists." Additionally, according to the I.G. report, "The inspector general found numerous allegations of daily mismanagement, inappropriate hiring decisions, sexual harassment and bullying behavior by mid and senior-level managers at the facility." It gets more shocking as you read into this report.

Now, the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs is an honest outside observer who has to inspect and investigate. You say the FBI needs to come into this investigation right now.

MCCAIN: I think, yes, absolutely, because this is obviously -- must be viewed in some respects as criminal activities. I also believe that, Wolf, if it happened here, tragically, in Phoenix, you cannot believe this is an isolated case. Finally, I think we need to -- and we will next week -- come up with comprehensive education that revamps the V.A. Also, we've got to give these veterans an opportunity to seek health care where they can get it best and easiest. That's got to be a fundamental change in the V.A.

It's, you know, I've been traveling around my state and spent a lot of time here. I was hear a couple Memorial Day observances. I have never detected such anger on the part of all of our citizens, but most of all, amongst our veterans, as I'm feeling here while being back here in Arizona.

BLITZER: But you're stopping short, I want to be precise, from saying General Eric Shinseki should resign?

MCCAIN: I think it's -- I think it's reached that point. I have not called for it. I was going to wait until the hearing that's going to take place here very soon. But this keeps piling up. And it can't be just an isolated -- the V.A., Phoenix V.A. is not an island. It's not immune to other influences. Every other V.A. is probably going to have these same influences on them because they were trying to comply with guidelines that were laid down from the headquarters of V.A. which they couldn't meet. That's what this whole phantom waiting list stuff is all about. So I haven't said this before, but I think it's time for General Shinseki to -- to move on.

BLITZER: Senator, I know that was a painful, difficult announcement that you just made, given his record in the United States Army and Vietnam, where you served as well.

I want you to stand by. Because when we come back, I want to talk about the president's speech to West Point cadets. Today, the commencement address. We'll get into that right after this.


BLITZER: President Obama is laying out his vision for U.S. foreign policy over the next two and a half years, detailing the blueprint earlier today during the commencement exercises at the West Point Military Academy. The president says, while the U.S. military will always be the backbone of America's leadership, it cannot be the primary component. And he outlined his plans for addressing several critical hot spots around the world, including Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine.

Joining us once again from Phoenix, one of the president's more vocal critics on foreign policy, Senator John McCain, the Republican Senator from Arizona.

You heard the president outline his vision. You want to give us your immediate reaction to what you heard, Senator?

MCCAIN: First of all, I resent, deeply, the criticism that the president lodges at those of us who are, I believe, deeply concerned and involved for years in national security, saying that there's really only two choices, no intervention whatsoever or total commitment of American troops. No one I know of wants to commit American troops anywhere right now. But we do believe that the president should have learned the lesson from Iraq, when we pulled out without leaving a residual force. By the way, as we have after other wars in other places. And of course, now, the black flags of al Qaeda fly over Fallujah. The director of National Intelligence has said Syria/Iraq border area now a base for al Qaeda who will be planning attacks on the United States of America. It's a total failure. The place is in chaos. He's making the same mistake in Afghanistan, setting the date for total withdrawal, sending a message to the Taliban, all you got to do is wait.


BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt for a second, Senator. Because Secretary John Kerry was on CNN earlier today on "New Day" and he responded to that criticism that you and Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and others, have said by having this deadline two years, all U.S. troops would be effectively out, that would be a mistake to just keep it open-ended.

Listen to Secretary Kerry.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: It is only by setting dates that we have been able to meet milestones. If you left it open-ended, if you said to the Afghans, well, we'll be here as long as it takes, you can absolutely bet your bottom dollar, and it probably will be the bottom dollar of the U.S., that they'll take just as long as they want to. So what the president is doing is appropriately empowering the Afghans, giving them the opportunity to take control of their future, and that's the best way for them to step up and do so.


BLITZER: So he's defending the deadline. What's your reaction?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, obviously, Secretary Kerry must be ignoring the chaos that has now ensued in Iraq as we set time for complete withdraw.

Second of all, I think it's rather insulting to the Afghans to think that they would not want to be able to defend themselves. That's not the Afghans that I know.

And third of all, the president spoke at West Point today. I think a first year cadet at West Point will tell you, when you're in a conflict, you don't tell the enemy exactly when you are leaving.

That doesn't mean I think we have to continue fighting. We don't. We can succeed and have a residual force there, the same which we had Germany, Japan, Korea, after those conflicts. And which we didn't do in Iraq and we now see Iraq becoming a -- first becoming chaos, but also a base for -- as the director of National Intelligence has said, for attacks on the United States of America.

Look, the United States is not weak. The United States is not credible. We're not reliable. When the president of the United States told Lindsey Graham in the Oval Office he was going to attack Syria, when he told the world they had crossed a red line, the president had set and then didn't do it, it reverberated throughout the entire world. We are unreliable. And all of our enemies believe that. And so I believe that Afghanistan possibly could revert to the situation that it did after we helped them drive the Russians out.

BLITZER: But I don't know if you heard the interview, but Secretary Kerry made the point as far as that red line, drawing that red line in Syria, the U.S. did follow up, and working together with the United Nations, working together with the Russians, they have effectively destroyed, he says, 92 percent of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile already. And 8 percent is being controlled, for all practical purposes, they're just finding a way to get rid of it. Hasn't that objective, the narrow objective of destroying Syria's chemical weapons, been achieved?

MCCAIN: Meanwhile, the horrible barrel bombs are being dropped, slaughtering innocent people. Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is there. Meanwhile, the Russians have increased their supplies of weapons to Bashar Assad and the slaughter, mindless. 160,000 people dead, millions of refugees. And we have sat by and watched it happen, while we have the chemical weapons, to some degree, removed. But there are allegations of chlorine attacks, which are chemical attacks, which are not covered by this so-called agreement. It is -- I can't tell you how it breaks my heart to see us continue to sit by and watch the Syrian people slaughtered not just by Bashar Assad, who was going to lose before Hezbollah came in and the Iranians stepped up their help and the Russians stepped up their help. This has turned into a regional conflict and a tragedy of monumental proportions, for which we will pay a heavy price for decades to come.

BLITZER: There's a huge and growing al Qaeda presence in Syria right now, there's no doubt about that. U.S. intelligence officials have said that is among the top threats potentially, as far as terrorism is concerned, facing the United States.

Unfortunately, Senator, we have to leave it right there. But as usual, thanks for joining us.

MCCAIN: Thanks, Wolf. BLITZER: She gave voice to a generation and shined a light on injustice. The author and the poet, Maya Angelou, has died at her home in North Carolina. Angelou led a remarkable life. She spoke six languages. She was a single, teen mother. Went on to become a singer, a dancer and a civil rights activist.

Here, Maya Angelou reads the poem she wrote for Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural.


MAYA ANGELOU, POET & ARTIST: Lift up your hearts. Each new hour holdings new chances for new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness. The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day, you may have the courage to look up and out, and upon me, the rock, the river, the tree, your country.


BLITZER: Oprah Winfrey has just released this statement. Let me read it to you. "I have been blessed to have Maya Angelou as my mentor, mother, sister and friend since my 20s. She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. The world knows her as a poet. But at the heart of her, she was a teacher. 'When you learn, you teach. When you get, you give,' is one of my best lessons from her." Maya Angelou was 86 years old.


BLITZER: He was already working on the race but the battle for Mississippi's Senate seat just got nastier. And it involves a candidate, often called the next Ted Cruz, in a bizarre scandal that's been unfolding.

Here is Dana Bash.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A conservative blogger is in jail, arrested for breaking into this Mississippi nursing home to photograph U.S. Senator Thad Cochran's ailing wife, suffering from dementia.


ANNOUNCER: It's the worst.


BASH: In a new ad, Cochran's campaign pokes fingers at his GOP challenger, Chris McDaniel.


ANNOUNCER: Posting video of Senator Thad Cochran's wife in a nursing home? Had enough?


BASH: And it gets deeper in the Mississippi mud.

Cochran supporters argue the reason the blogger took his wife's picture was to feed questions about Cochran and long-time aide, Kay Webber, who has traveled extensively with the Senator on the taxpayer dime. Cochran's campaign calls it part of her job and suggestions of anything untoward, sexist.

The Republican primary was supposed to be about the struggle of ideas within the GOP.


BASH: A young Tea Party-backed upstart challenging a fellow Republican for being out of touch and too entrenched in Washington after 36 years in the Senate.

(on camera): Dana Bash --

(voice-over): Now, Chris McDaniel is fending off questions about whether his campaign had anything to do with photographing his opponent's sick wife.

MCDANIEL: Our campaign had absolutely no connection with that whatsoever.

BASH (on camera): You personally, when did you find out about the break-in?

MCDANIEL: Look, we're going to focus on his record right now.

God bless the Tea Party.

BASH (voice-over): McDaniel would like to be the Senate's next Ted Cruz, stick to principles, compromise be damned.

MCDANIEL: I am not going to Washington, D.C., to be a member of a cocktail circuit or to make back room deals. I'm going up there to fight and defend the Constitution.

BASH (on camera): Mississippi Republicans and Democrats say, come on, Cochran has been there a long time, he's a good public servant. He helps people.

MCDANIEL: I say, come on. I say name one fight that the Senator has led against Barack Obama? Name one time that he has raised his voice in defense of conservatives.

BASH (voice-over): For the Tea Party movement, after a string of primary losses this year, McDaniel has been their great hope, the best chance of toppling an establishment Republican in 2014, especially after this Cochran stumble.


SEN. THAD COCHRAN, (R), MISSISSIPPI: The Tea Party is something I don't really know a lot about.


BASH: Millions of dollars pouring into Mississippi against Cochran come from a who's who of Tea Party groups nationwide.


ANNOUNCER: McDaniel says he's a life-long Republicans.


BASH: But like other Republican incumbents, this year, Cochran and his allies fight back, painting McDaniel as extreme and inconsistent. After four decades in Washington, Cochran has loyal supporters, like this Democratic mayor.

(on camera): You're a Democrat.


BASH: And you're supporting Senator Cochran?


BASH: Why is that?

FLAGGS: One is I understand politics and I understand what is needed in his state. And he's what we need in Washington, D.C., to stay and as long as he wants to stay.

BASH (voice-over): At this point, Cochran is trying to avoid unforced errors, going to head-scratching extremes to avoid talking to us. We tried to catch Cochran after this event, but when an aide came out and saw us, they did a bait-and-switch. The car they told us Cochran was getting in screeched away without him while he snuck out another door to a different car, leaving reporters like us in the dust, unable to talk to the Senator.

(on camera): There are no reliable public polls to indicate who can win this GOP primary next Tuesday. But Republican sources in Washington, who are fighting for Cochran, insist he will survive, and deal the Tea Party yet another devastating blow.

Dana Bash, CNN, Biloxi, Mississippi.



BLITZER: The 1960s were certainly a fascinating time.


DICK SMOTHERS, COMEDIAN & SINGER: Our government is asking us, as citizens, to refrain from traveling to foreign lands.

TOMMY SMOTHERS, COMEDIAN & SINGER: OK. All you guys in Vietnam, come on home.



DICK SMOTHERS: The times were changing so quickly in the 60s. And we didn't change them.

TOMMY SMOTHERS: We just reflected them.


DICK SMOTHERS: I can't hear you. What are you doing?

TOMMY SMOTHERS: I'm getting ready to go college.


DICK SMOTHERS: CBS gave "The Smothers Brothers" that show because they were clean-cut folk satirists. They wore blazers. They could sing well. They were funny.


TOMMY SMOTHERS: Mom liked you best!

DICK SMOTHERS: You lower your voice.

TOMMY SMOTHERS: Mom liked you best.




BLITZER: Dick Smothers will be a guest on CNN's "@thishour" tomorrow morning, 11:00 a.m. eastern. And be sure to watch or set your DVR for the premier of "The Sixties," tomorrow night, 9:00 p.m. eastern and pacific, right here on CNN.

That's it for me. I'll be back in "The Situation Room," 5:00 p.m. eastern.

NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for joining me.