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Interview with Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb; Eric Shinseki Stepping Down; Donald Sterling Declared Mentally Incapacitated; Officials: Suicide Bomber from Florida; Ballmer's Got Next

Aired May 30, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Busy day for the White House human resources department.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accepted.


TAPPER: The national lead, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki caving to calls for him to resign. So, what's the plan to fix his broken department?

And, in a role reversal, the president speaks for his press secretary for a change, announcing that he's leaving too.

The sports lead. How do you force a man to sell his own NBA team when he's vowed to fight to the bitter end? Well, in the case of Donald Sterling, you reportedly take away his right to make any decisions at all.

And the politics lead. If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, how many times do you think critics will bring up Benghazi? Well, now Clinton is trying to head them off with a defiant chapter on Benghazi leaked from her upcoming book.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin with the national lead.

After CNN revealed egregious negligence in his department, Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, well, he had better get his resume ready. More heroism, decades of service, honesty about troop levels needed in Iraq, success in combating homeless among veterans, but also ultimately a failure to reform that dysfunctional veterans system that has kept many veterans waiting endlessly for medical care, some of them dying while waiting, a system that lacks accountability and one that right now in too many cases rewards superlatives on performance reviews over actually providing care to those in need, those who served our country.

Shinseki is out. He handed in his recognition today after a closed- door meeting with President Obama. General Shinseki handed over to the White House preliminary results from an internal audit which found -- quote -- "questionable scheduling practices" and a -- quote -- "systemic lack of integrity" at VA hospitals nationwide.

This, of course, all follows CNN's reporting that blew this story wide open, uncovering excessive wait times, even a secret waiting list at the Phoenix VA Hospital.

President Obama repeatedly portrayed today's resignation as Shinseki's own decision.


OBAMA: Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. And with considerable regret, I accepted.

He does not want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need. That was Ric's judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans. And I agree. We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem.


TAPPER: This did, however, come after a source close to General Shinseki told CNN that he would not resign unless he was asked to do to.

Shinseki, a decorated, wounded veteran himself, spoke before his meeting with the president at a conference for homeless vets and owned up to the national disgrace inside his department.


GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: That breach of integrity is irresponsible. It is indefensible and unacceptable to me.

I said when this situation began weeks to months ago that I thought the problem was limited and isolated, because I believed that. I no longer believe it. It is systemic.


TAPPER: Also during his appearance at that conference this morning, Shinseki gave what ultimately amounted to his swan song.


SHINSEKI: Thanks for your hard work. It is the lord's work. I'm honored to have been in this fight for justice with all of you. God bless all of you.


(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: The president appointed VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson as temporary chief of the VA. A West Point grad, Gibson spent more than 20 years in the banking industry. He's only been on the job at the VA for three months. He will serve until a permanent replacement can be nominated and confirmed.

One of those whose names has been floated for the job is former Democratic Senator from Virginia James Webb. He is a decorated Marine, former secretary of the Navy, and author of the new memoir "I Heard My Country Calling."

Senator, thanks so much for being here. I appreciate it.

JIM WEBB (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: My pleasure to be with you.

TAPPER: So, first it of all, the reaction to the move from both sides of the aisle has been pretty universal that Shinseki needed to go. Do you agree? Was that the right move?

WEBB: I have been saying for -- ever since this latest problem erupted that that's between the president and General Shinseki.

But I have been working in veterans issues all my adult life. I started as a counsel in the House Veterans Committee many years ago, when we put the G.I. bill, post-9/11 G.I. bill together out of our office. I'm very, very proud of that.

So, I have been speaking for a number of years about the backlog in the VA, not just on the medical side, but overall. And it's got to be fixed. And it's a leadership issue.

TAPPER: You are a veteran, a Marine. Your new memoir is about your service to your country. You served as secretary of the Navy.

What does the VA need to do to fix this backlog problem?

WEBB: I would just say, first of all, this isn't a political memoir.

TAPPER: No. No. It's about your service.

WEBB: I want to make it clear that...


TAPPER: No, it's about your service. And we will get to it in a moment. But...


WEBB: But in terms of the Veterans Administration, when I was mentored many years ago by the World War II veterans as a young counsel, we learned all the mechanics, had to learn all about the VA bureaucracy and those sorts of things.

And I was really surprised when I got to the Senate in '07, when we saw that the backlog in resolution of claims, not the medical side, but just claims, was 600,000. And by the time that I left the Senate in 2013, it was 900,000.

And that's a leadership issue. It's a very complicated issue, because part of it is the post-9/11 veterans coming into the system, the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, and part of it is the Vietnam veterans sort of moving out of their careers and needing to rely on the system.

But you could see the demographics. And you need to put your people on those problems in order to get our veterans into the system.

TAPPER: House Speaker John Boehner responding to the news at a press conference earlier today said this:


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: His resignation, though, does not absolve the president of his responsibility to step in and make things right for our veterans. Business as usual cannot continue.


TAPPER: We obviously all agree that business cannot continue.

Does President Obama share some of the responsibility and some of the blame for this?

WEBB: I wouldn't really go that far.

I think that what we need is a set of eyes now that can go in and fix the broken places to move the system forward, to allow the claims to go forward, to allow people access to VA medical care. It's pretty good care.

TAPPER: Those who get the care, who can give it high marks, absolutely.

WEBB: Yes.

TAPPER: But the problem has been getting the care, yes.

WEBB: The problem in both areas is, we have a good benefits system. We spend a lot of money. This isn't a money issue. We spend a lot of money on our veterans.

When I was committee counsel all those years ago, we had 30 million veterans and the budget was $20 billion. We have about 21 million, 22 million veterans now. The budget is about $160 billion. It's not apples to apples, but we're putting money on the problem. We need to put leadership in the areas where we can access the system or allow people to access the system.

TAPPER: When there was speculation about Shinseki, Margaret Carlson, who writes for Bloomberg, wrote this earlier this week: "It's a parody of crisis management Shinseki said he was mad as hell. Let's find someone who is. As they might say in Hollywood, get me a Jim Webb." I think the idea that she was trying to get at there is somebody who has a passion for this that would be effective in leadership. Is this a job that you would consider taking?

WEBB: I am really not asking in any way to...

TAPPER: I'm the one floating it. You have not said anything.

WEBB: Yes.

TAPPER: You were booked to talk about your book. You are not here to campaign for this job. But you're somebody whose name has been mentioned.

WEBB: Well, I care a lot about it. I have a family who has a citizen soldier tradition that goes a long way back. My son left college and enlisted in the Marines and fought in Iraq.

I have followed these issues. I have worked on them pro bono. And I'm here to help if they want some advice, but I'm not particularly interested in the position.

TAPPER: Let me talk about your book, "I Heard My Country Calling," a remarkable memoir, nothing really about politics, just about your experience.

One of the passages I found so interesting is when you are at the Naval Academy. And for four years, you're on the ethics board to make sure...

WEBB: The Brigade Honor Committee.

TAPPER: The Brigade Honor Committee, yes.

And people come, and there is a very intense honor system there. And a midshipman got kicked out because he saw a young lady. And she was there for a blind date. And he went over there and said, Midshipman X is what you call him. Midshipman X got punished and he's in his room.

But let me give you on a tour of campus, took her on a tour of campus. A half-hour later, the guy ran into them. The jig was up. He got kicked out of school for that.

WEBB: And I actually read the case to the entire brigade of midshipmen when he was kicked out on an honor -- that's true.

TAPPER: That kind of honor, that kind of ethics, have you seen that since you graduated from the Naval Academy?

WEBB: Well, I think what that system did was to imbue in almost everyone who went through it this notion that integrity is vitally important to anything that you do.

If you're out on a patrol in combat, or if you're putting the screws to an aircraft carrier -- carrier before it takes off from a carrier, if you don't do what you say you did, or if you're not where you say you are, bad things can happen to a lot of people. So the notion of integrity in everything you do was a vital part of what we learned.

And I wrote about these cases because it is kind of amazing. There are more than one.


TAPPER: I know. I know. But that one stuck out at me because I thought...

WEBB: Yes, I know.

TAPPER: Sailors certainly have a reputation. So, I didn't know.

But, anyway, Senator Webb, it's great...


WEBB: Thank you very much.

TAPPER: Thank you so much for being here. It's an honor.

WEBB: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: Turns out General Shinseki's departure wasn't the only shift in the ranks for the Obama administration today, the president this afternoon making a surprise announcement that after three years of giving carefully worded answers to daily hammerings by reporters, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is leaving.

The president interrupted today's briefing to deliver the news himself.


OBAMA: Jay has become one of my closest friends and is a great press secretary and a great adviser. He's got good judgment. He has good temperament. And he's got a good heart. And I'm going to miss him a lot.


TAPPER: It's not clear what's next for Carney, but the president indicated that he wanted to spend more time with his beautiful family.

And, also -- this is just speculation -- maybe he wanted to grow that beard back, without jabs from the likes of me in the press.

Who will inherit the ultimate burnout job? Well, the president named Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest to the role. He will take over after Carney departs some time in mid-June.

Coming up, mentally incapacitated, two reported neurologists, both with the same assessment of Donald Sterling. He's not mentally fit to make decisions regarding his team. How is his lawyer responding?

Plus, another tech giant reportedly trying to get into the music game, but all those songs on the tops of the charts now? Well, you won't have access to those. So why is Amazon making this move?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In our world lead: Americans still tend to think of terrorism as a scourge that comes from over there, which is why it's so jarring to learn that the man suspected of carrying out this suicide bombing in Syria was an American. The State Department today confirming that the bomber was a U.S. citizen. Two U.S. officials tell CNN he grew up in Florida, he went to school there. His real name has not been disclosed.

The spokesman for the some of the Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad told CNN that the attack was coordinated by the al- Nusra front, an al Qaeda-linked group that the U.S. has listed as a terrorist organization.

What could make someone from the West want to go over and join terrorists? Well, it turns out it happens more than you think.

Let's bring in Thomas Sanderson. He's the co-director and senior fellow for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And he recently got back from the region.

Thomas, thanks for being here.


TAPPER: So, a report in "The New York Times" states, quote, "More than 70 Americans are thought by intelligence and counterterrorism officials have traveled to Syria to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad."

Obviously, it's a policy of the Obama administration they want the Assad regime to end, but it seems with the terrorist threat, it's become almost less of an imperative.

SANDERSON: We certainly don't know who would come after Assad if in fact there was a violent overthrow of the government. We're clearly more in favor of the managed transition where all parties get to influence who in fact takes its place. But we certainly would not want to see chaos come to the country beyond what we've already seen and to have a flip-flopping of who runs the country. I think we would see quite a mess there.

TAPPER: So, 70 Americans over there. The same report claims as many as 3,000 Westerners in general. Are we able -- is the U.S. government able to track these people? Do we know who they are? Would we be able to prevent them from coming back to the United States?

SANDERSON: Well, I think it's very difficult, first of all, to prevent anyone from going over there. They're free to travel there as they see fit, preventing their return is something we can certainly do if we have evidence that they were engaged in the fight. We can certainly pick them up at the border.

But these are people coming back on American passports or potentially on European passports or the passports from other visa waiver countries. It's up to the customs officer at Dulles or wherever to make that call and to determine. It's very difficult.

TAPPER: Why are they allowed to travel -- I mean, why would they be allowed to go there and fight? It seems like -- is that something the U.S. government thinks is OK for (AUDIO GAP) doing?

SANDERSON: No. Of course, the U.S. would not be in favor of these individuals --

TAPPER: There's only a travel advisory from the State Department. It's legal to go there and fight.

SANDERSON: Absolutely. There's nothing they can do to prevent Americans from traveling to another country to do this. And, of course, these individuals are not advertising for the most part that they're going over there to engage in the battle. They can go to support the regime, they can go to support ISIS or the Free Syrian Army. But we can't stop them from doing that.

What we can do is certainly arrest them upon return if they've engaged in terror activities and accounted for the loss of life. And then decide what to do from there.

TAPPER: Someone who works in national security told me that this group ISIS is so out there that even al Qaeda disavowed them earlier this year, that ISIS is the group that he worries that the next attempt to hit inside the U.S. will come from this group.

SANDERSON: It could. It certainly could come from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but ISIS was disavowed by al Qaeda leadership, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

TAPPER: I mean, what do you have to do to be disavowed by al Qaeda?

SANDERSON: Well, don't forget, there's a history of this happening where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri sent a note to the al Qaeda in Iraq leader.

TAPPER: Right.

SANDERSON: The precursor to this group, saying stop cutting off the heads of Westerners and stop killing so many Shia because the U.S. is using this as propaganda.

So, this is a long story of ISIS or the al Qaeda in Iraq or the Islamic state of Iraq, causing a problem for al Qaeda management in Pakistan.

TAPPER: Terrifying. We'll keep an eye on it. Thank you so much, Thomas Anderson. We appreciate it.

SANDERSON: You're welcome. TAPPER: Coming up in the sports lead, a doctor's note that says Donald Sterling cannot make his own decision as a record offer comes in for the L.A. Clippers. How long until he's really gone from the league for good?

Plus, it seemed like a simple why, the Redskins asking loyal fans on Twitter to help defend the team's name. But we're guessing the NFL team was not exactly expecting the response it got.


TAPPER: Welcome back to the lead.

The sports lead now: Microsoft's former CEO Steve Ballmer reached a deal to buy the Clippers for an unprecedented $2 billion. And, yes, we all assume Clippy is going to be the next Clippers mascot. Ballmer might want to call this guy in to be his new graphic designer.

But now that a man who helped oversee text ninth level of hell (ph), Microsoft, I'm looking at you, now that he has an NBA franchise, we do have some concerns. Will it take two hours to reboot the concession cash registers? While I'm trying to buy a hot dog, will the JumboTron default to the blue screen of death every five minutes? And please, for the love of all things, calling Mr. Ballmer, do not audition for the dance team.

Donald Sterling plans to fight to the end even as two physicians have determined he's mentally incapacitated. Jeff, as I just reported, two physicians this reported sterling mentally unfit. Is there nothing he can do to stop this?

Before Ballmer takes over for the Clippers, band leader Donald Sterling says he plans to fight to the bloody end to keep his team, even as two physicians have ruled Sterling is mentally incapacitated.

Joining me now is CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and sports columnist for "The Washington Post", Mike Wise.

Jeffrey, as I just reported, two physicians have ruled that Donald Sterling mentally unfit. That would make Shelly the sole trustee of the Sterling business empire. So, is there nothing he can do to stop this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, this is America. Anybody can file a lawsuit and presumably it is legally possible for him to go to the clerk and file a lawsuit. But as a practical matter, this tragic comedy is over and Steve Ballmer is going to own this team and the Sterlings will go off to their very, very profitable retirement.

TAPPER: And what's the next actual step in the process? The NBA has to OK this?

MIKE WISE, WASHINGTON POST SPORTS COLUMNIST: Correct, there will be an actual formal board of governors meeting in which so many will approve the sale if in fact the financials are good on both sides. And there's no legal challenge. I don't think there will be now that this new news has come out that Jeffrey has reported and others, that I can't see it not going through.

So, I think this will be a formality. And, frankly, I know you might even be amazed how quickly this all happened.

TOOBIN: Well, and I think, you know, in a crazy way, the Sterlings have benefitted from this whole crisis.

TAPPER: It's a billion dollars.

TOOBIN: Well, and also not just that they sold it, but they sold it for so much. That this created this sort of whipped up, quick sale hysteria where you got big bidders involved very quickly, clearly it seems overpaying for the amount of money they can make from the team.

TAPPER: Seems nuts.

TOOBIN: But you know --

TAPPER: We had -- you were on the show a few weeks ago and we asked you about this $2 billion number that was being floated out there. You said and I think a lot of people agreed with you, that it was crazy talk.

How on earth is this team worth the same as the New York Yankees?

WISE: Well, I think one some of these franchise values that Forbes has estimated are probably not as accurate as they are. And, two, I think it shows you, if you've got money and clearly you view a sports franchise as possibly a toy or something elsewhere you could cross- promote your own business interests in other ways, that's the way to go.

And people are out there willing to pay the money. That's the shocker to me is that -- go ahead.

TOOBIN: Well, I'm just saying, Steve Ballmer now has $18 billion instead of $20 billion. This is a guy who can still order the appetizer at dinner.

WISE: Right.

TOOBIN: So, it's not like it's going to affect his life. And now, he's one of the -- you know, I think 70 people in America who own a major franchise.

WISE: But it's the very point, the whole notion of the Yankees and the Manchester United are suddenly behind the Clippers for actual sale value.

TAPPER: The Clippers. Let me repeat that. The Clippers.

WISE: That is frankly insane.

TAPPER: But that obviously all of these other teams' value is going to skyrocket. The Clippers are worth $2 billion, then, the Lakers have got to be worth $7 billion.

TOOBIN: And next time you hear how overpaid the players are, let's remember who's making like crazy money. Forget a million dollars a year.

WISE: I don't want to hear anybody in their mind talking about a public subsidy for a stadium in their city anymore.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about this mentally incapacitated. We've all seen the interview that he did with Anderson Cooper. He seems like a jerk, but he does not seem mentally incapacitated.

TOOBIN: Think how few interviews would be conducted here in Washington, D.C., if being a jerk meant you were unable to function. I mean, he didn't seem --

TAPPER: What's the standard?

TOOBIN: You know, it's --

TAPPER: I really want my husband to sell this team, please make him mentally incapacitated.

TOOBIN: There is some definition in the trust documents where the -- that the Silvers have to control the team. We don't have access to those. I mean, I think this is all on the way to just being resolved. I don't know if this is actually a forbidden process for Donald to be involved in at this point.

But remember, in our interview yesterday with Maxwell Blecher, the lawyer for Donald Sterling, he said, lock, we want to give Shelly the chance to negotiate this deal. That's what they did. I mean, this is all going to fade away. All these objections are going to go away and they're going to make a lot of money.

TAPPER: Putting aside his abhorrent racism, putting aside the kind of person he seems to be, OK? At the end of the day, these still seem like phone calls illegally taped and leaked to the media and now, he's being forced to sell the team. That's what his lawyer says and he's factually correct.

WISE: I think that there is going to be a big argument about a person losing $1 billion, $2 billion entity over a private conversation. I think that's always going to be out there.

The fact is, the moment it was made public, I don't think they had any other choice.

TOOBIN: And remember, he didn't lose it. He was forced to sell it.

WISE: And he's made a lot of money.

TOOBIN: So, right. So, it's not like they took the franchise away from him. He turned the franchise into $2 billion. He was forced to do that. You know, under the law, as far as I can tell, you know, he has a claim perhaps against V. Stiviano if this was illegally taped. We still don't know that for sure. But the NBA was dealing with a situation where they were losing advertising. They were losing players and they have to get rid of him.

TAPPER: I get that. One last question. Is it possible Ballmer is going to move the team to Seattle?

WISE: No. And I think that Adam Silver and the board of governors, the owners, if they thought this was going to happen, I don't think they would even think about permitting the sale. And the reason is, if a team is going to end up in Seattle in the NBA, I believe it will be an expansion.