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Eric Cantor Out; Bowe Bergdahl Controversy; Interview with Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas

Aired June 11, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: While the number two Republican in the House was busy eating porterhouses, he was about to become the main course himself at a tea party.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The politics lead, a political earthquake. Eric Cantor gets blindsided on the road to reelection, the first House majority leader in American history to be defeated in a primary. What does this mean for the Republican leadership? Should establishment Republicans be running scared?

We will hear from Cantor live this hour.

The world lead, new revelations about the hours leading up to the disappearance of Sergeant Bergdahl -- his platoon mates say he was talking about becoming an assassin before he vanished. Was that for real?

And the money lead, Uber, the cars, on-demand service, it's now valued at $18 billion. But you don't get this big, this fast without throwing some serious elbows.

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

We're going to begin with the politics lead today. You know, Goliath laughed at David when he took out that sling. The hare was so confident that he would beat the tortoise, he took a nap.

And right now, the number two Republican in the House, Eric Cantor, is at a GOP meeting trying to explain to his party what comes next after his shocking loss in the Virginia primary race last night.

Later this hour, we're expecting Cantor to speak publicly for the first time since his concession speech. And we will bring that to you live. A senior House Republican sources tells CNN that Cantor will step down as House majority leader on July 31, now that he's been beaten by David Brat, an economics professor who framed Cantor as not conservative enough.

According to "The Washington Post," Cantor's own internal polling showed last month he had a 34-point lead over Brat. So he probably never saw the stone flying out of the sling.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: Obviously, we came up short. I know there's a lot of long faces here tonight and it's disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us.

DAVE BRAT (R), VIRGINIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: The miracle that just happened, this is a miracle from God that just happened. That miracle did not just float down from heaven. That miracle went through a bunch of people across every county that worked tirelessly.



TAPPER: The Cantor campaign outspent the Brat campaign by a ratio of -- listen to this -- 40-1.

And this chart tells you everything you need to know about that discrepancy. Cantor reportedly spent more on steak house bills than Brat spent on his entire campaign; $168,000 on steaks? The sides must have cured cancer or something.


ROB REINER, ACTOR: Sides, $26,000 worth of sides? What do these sides, they cure cancer?

JONAH HILL, The sides did cure cancer. That's the problem. They were there -- that's why they were expensive.


TAPPER: Well, that makes sense, then.

So, how exactly did the seven-term congressman from Virginia, a man who has one of the most recognizable faces and names in his party, lose to an anonymous college professor with comparably almost no money?

Well, you're probably hearing a lot about the Tea Party backing David Brat. And it's worth pointing out that while national Tea Party groups have been quick to congratulate him, many did not give a cent to his campaign.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is standing by live outside the meeting where Cantor is speaking to other House GOP members.

Dana, what sank him?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, before I answer that question, I should tell you that Eric Cantor literally just walked by moments before you came to me.

He's heading into that meeting to make his speech, to announce, as we been told, that he's no longer going to be the majority leader, at least until there's a race to replace him. So, that just happened moments ago. It's the first time we have actually seen him all day, even though he's been huddled with his advisers.

To answer your question about what sank him, Jake, would probably take a very long time. But, in a nutshell, people close to him are trying to figure out, but they think it's just the fact that he failed politics 101.

And you know what it is, Jake. You have got to make sure that you tend to your constituents. He was, by many accounts, a very active, very attentive leader to his leadership here, to his rank and file here, but not so much back home, and that he recognized the threat, that it was a real threat, too late and perhaps attended to it in the wrong way.

So that's number one. And then, of course, there are issues. Immigration was something that really galvanized people back home. The other question, besides what sank him, is already, what does it mean for other rank-and-file Republicans and perhaps the gridlock here?

I talked to one of those Republicans, Lee Terry, today. He told me that he has shivers down his spine because of what happened and that he is going to think twice before he compromises, for fear that he will get a challenge from the right. Listen to this.


BASH: Hard to imagine it worse, but it will be?

REP. LEE TERRY (R), NEBRASKA: I think it will be worse, in the sense that that was one of the specific things used again Eric, was not only was he establishment, but that he had been part of some of these compromises, like what kept the government open, and that was used against him. And so the message to us is, negotiation or compromise could get you beat.


BASH: Jake, you know this. He, Eric Cantor has been one of the most -- probably the most conservative member of the House Republican leadership.

So, although a lot of the Tea Party groups and those who are in the sort of firebrand wing of the party are saying that he wasn't conservative enough, it seems much more of an establishment vs. outsider, as you said, David vs. Goliath, kind of thing that really caught him by surprise.

TAPPER: Dana Bash, thank you so much.

And ,of course, we should remind you that after Congressman Cantor comes -- finishes speaking with the members of the House Republican Conference, he will come out and speak. And we will carry that live.

Before the double-digit annihilation last night, many had assumed that Cantor would some day take over as House speaker. Of course, now he's been usurped by a guy who had just two paid staffers, ran his campaign on a flip phone and was described by a student on as total eye Candy.

Senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns joins me now live from Richmond.

Joe, who exactly is David Brat?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's an interesting guy. He is an economics professor, and a lot of people say he has a lot of things going for him.

At the end of the day, though, I think he had a lot of help in this race from the incumbent, who was widely seen as disconnected from the district. Dave Brat pushed very hard on Tea Party issues, among them, amnesty, immigration. In the end, it all worked out for him.


JOHNS (voice-over): The surprise of the year in American politics was pulled off by a guy who did not expect to win.

BRAT: This is the happiest moment, obviously, of my life.

JOHNS: He was as unprepared for victory as he was for the tough questions about U.S. policy, on the minimum wage that started almost immediately.

BRAT: I thought we were just going to chat today about the celebratory aspect.

JOHNS: Following that sudden stumble, the candidates' two-person paid staff reversed plans for an afternoon news conference, saying, instead, they would issue a statement.

It was an inauspicious welcome to national politics for a college economics professor who has never held office. He teaches at Randolph-Macon College, in the same school where his Democrat opponent in the November election, Jack Trammell, is on the faculty.

Brat's fund-raising was dwarfed by Eric Cantor's. "The New York Times" reported that Cantor's campaign spent $168,000 on steak houses, while Brat raised only about $200,000 for his whole campaign. And though Brat claimed allegiance to Tea Party ideals, he did not get the kind of financial support you would have expected for a political giant killer who just went into the history books.

Political writer Jeff Schapiro of "The Richmond Times-Dispatch."

JEFF SCHAPIRO, "THE RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH": Sometimes, ideas are bigger than dollars. Also, in thinly attended primaries, fewer votes make for bigger surprises.

JOHNS: What may have helped Brat most was Cantor himself, whose disconnect from the district may have led to his downfall. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I honestly wasn't very impressed.

JOHNS (on camera): Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little too extremist, a little too close-minded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's kind of a lose-lose situation. I'm happy that Cantor lost. I'm not sure how happy I am about the guy that won.


JOHNS: So, it's on to the general election now. This is a strong Republican district. It's pretty clear, one way or the other, they have traded in one of most powerful politicians in the country for somebody who's headed to the backbench in the House of Representatives -- Jake.

TAPPER: Joe Johns in Richmond, Virginia, thanks.

Of course, even congressman -- oh, I'm sorry. Even the nominee, David Brat, was surprised at his showing last night. And a funny thing is now happening on YouTube. After that MSNBC interview earlier today, according to tweet from our CNN political commentator Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" -- quote -- "Wow, someone is taking down Brat's videos."

Hmm. It's probably just a coincidence. Virginia is for lovers, we're told. It's also apparently now for mind-scrambling political upsets. So, what exactly is happening on the ground right now in Old Dominion to allow for such a Shenandoah-rattling shakeup?

Let's bring in two guests that know a little bit about Virginia politics, Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and president of the Free Congress Foundation, and Tom Davis, former U.S. congressman from Virginia and former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman.

So, Congressman Davis, what went wrong for Eric Cantor?

TOM DAVIS (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Well, I think they misdiagnosed the electorate.

They didn't understand what was going on, on the ground. When you're in leadership, you have to make compromises, you have to pass debt ceilings, and that was disconnected from the Republican base, and he didn't go back to explain it. He's all over the country raising money for other candidates, trying to help the team, but he ignored his base.

TAPPER: So, Jim Brat, Governor -- I'm sorry -- Jim Brat -- professor Brat attacked Cantor, saying -- quote -- "A vote for Eric Cantor is a vote for open borders. A vote for Eric Cantor is a vote for amnesty."

This was an issue he hit time and time again, Governor, immigration reform. Now, in Washington, I don't know that Cantor was viewed as somebody willing to compromise on immigration reform, but that's how Brat went after him. Was that very important in the electorate, do you think?


I think that the Republican electorate is very committed to the rule of law, and so they're very worried about that aspect of the issue. But it isn't the central point here. There are a couple of central points, Jake.

One is that I think, though, the message that came out of the Cantor office for several years has been about being leader and being the speaker-to-be, as opposed to really what was material to the people within the district, as Tom said.

But the biggest issue, the most important point is that the Tea Party electorate and people who will vote like them are a legitimate voice of rage and discontent within the society today. You're seeing, not just here, but also in Texas, in other places around the country as well, people are upset about the direction of the country, and they don't think the Republican leadership is being strong enough to offer a reasonable alternative to the president's policies.

TAPPER: So, was this a Tea -- the Tea Party didn't give any money, the national Tea Party groups, but was this a Tea Party victory because of the grassroots?


DAVIS: Oh, absolutely.


DAVIS: -- grassroots.


DAVIS: This was completely grassroots. it was -- you had a couple of talk show hosts that--


TAPPER: Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, yes.

DAVIS: Exactly.

But this was from the ground up. Just remember this. Being a leader has its costs. It's a very unpopular Congress. And think of a congressional leader now that's held in high esteem by their constituents. Almost all of them have problems back home.

This is an electorate right now that is very upset with the direction of the country and this was their chance to protest. I would just add one other thing. In November, this doesn't portend good things for the Democrats, who control the presidency and the Senate. These people are going to be coming out in November against Democrats. But Cantor was their object on Tuesday, and they defeated him.

TAPPER: So, I want to ask you, governor.

A Republican source told me the following about this leadership race that's coming up to succeed Cantor -- quote -- "The next month is going to be fascinating, probably ending terribly for the country" -- reminder, this is a Republican source -- "because we're going to end up with one, maybe two people in Republican House leadership who don't qualify as grown-up and/or ready for prime time. I'm terrified of the promises some will have to make to win."

What do you think of that?

GILMORE: Oh, I don't agree with that at all.


GILMORE: No, I don't agree with that.

I think there's plenty of good leadership in the House of Representatives, but that really -- we're too focused on this person or that person or that Tea Party leader. I'm telling you, the issue here is that there's a giant feeling in the American electorate that is unhappy with the way this country's going and they want to see strong, decisive leadership for change and they're not seeing it.

And that's why you're seeing these kinds of election results, not just in this race, but in others across the country as well. And you're going to see more.

TAPPER: Yes. But do you think that dissatisfaction is just on the right or do you think it's across the board?

DAVIS: No. Well, I think -- first of all, I do think that it is among conservatives in the Republican Party.

But this was a broad-based election yesterday. This was not a small little convention with a few people. This was a large turnout in a primary selected by Eric Cantor, and the results were across the board, all across the district, a very Republican district, to be sure, but across the entire district, there was a desire for change. And I think there's a desire for change here in the United States, and they expect the Republican leadership to offer positive alternatives to the patterns and trends that we're seeing from the Democrats in this country today.

TAPPER: Do you agree?

DAVIS: Well, Jake, I think there's a discontent right and left and center at this point, when you look at right direction, wrong direction of the country.

But I think for the midterm elections, I think the conservative electorate is very angry, and their turnout model is going to be a very Republican turnout this midterm. Eric's defeat is not good news for the Democrats. It shows how angry that base is.

TAPPER: There are Democrats who say this shows that they're going to -- the Republican Party's going to nominate people that they can beat in November. You don't agree with that?

DAVIS: Not this November, because midterms are going to be basically sending a message to the president. The presidential elections are about the future. But this midterm will be a good Republican midterm.

TAPPER: Congressman Davis, Governor Gilmore, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

GILMORE: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up, we will hear directly from the soon-to-be former House majority leader, himself, Eric Cantor, meeting with Republicans right now behind closed doors. What is he saying about his shocking loss coming up?

Plus, a different side of the Bowe Bergdahl story, three new platoon mates now coming forward, saying Bergdahl was talking about becoming an assassin just hours before he disappeared.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

You're looking at a live shot right now. We're waiting for a soon-to- be former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to speak about his stunning loss last night. We'll bring that to you live as it happens.

But first, the world lead. The mind-set of then-Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl in the days before he disappeared in Afghanistan in the summer 2009 gets more confusing with each new report. According to members of Bergdahl's platoon who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, the night before he disappeared he spoke about wanting to become an assassin, walking his way to Pakistan or India, and working his way up in a gang as a hit man, somehow ending up in the Russian mob. At the time, the soldiers thought Bergdahl was just joking around. He had a reputation for saying off the wall things.

But after he vanished they wondered if he had been serious, after all, though he sent e-mails home expressing concerns about the war, according to "Rolling Stone" magazine, to some fellow soldiers. Bergdahl seemed eager to be more violent than the rules of engagement allowed. A friend of Bergdahl's identified as Kim Harrison gave to "The Washington Post" today some journal entries and records from Bergdahl that arrived in the mail for her shortly after he disappeared.

In one entry Bergdahl wrote that, quote, "I've spent a lot of my life thinking blackness was all I had in front of me, blackness to the very last instant. I know this is not right. I know there is light in the darkness and that I can actually reach it if I keep walking, keep moving to. Bergdahl's friends told "The Post" she's going public with these

entries because she wants to counter the notion as Bergdahl as a deserter. He was, she says, a fragile man, ill fitted for combat. CNN has contacted her, but she has declined comment.

Adding to the mystery, CNN has confirmed that Bergdahl served in the Coast Guard in 2006, and was discharged after about a month as first reported in "The Washington Post." It's unclear why he was discharged. Defense officials call it an administrative and uncharacterized discharged. Friends told "The Post" that Bergdahl was discharged because of psychological issues but CNN has not confirmed that.

All of this comes on the day the Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel went before the House Armed Services Committee to defend the decision to swap five mid to high level Taliban members for the release of Bergdahl. At times, today's testimony became heated such as this exchange about why Bergdahl has not yet been sent back to the U.S.


REP. JEFF MILLER (R-FL), VETERANS' AFFAIRS CHAIRMAN: You're trying to tell me that he's being held at Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition?

CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Congressman, I hope you're not implying anything other than that. The fact is --

MILLER: I'm just asking the question, Mr. Secretary, and you won't answer.

HAGEL: I'll give you an answer, too.

MILLER: Well, answer it.

HAGEL: I don't like the implication of the question.

MILLER: Answer it.


TAPPER: Bergdahl family friend reported that his parents were watching that hearing, Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas is the vice chairman of that committee. He joins me now live from Capitol Hill.

Congressman, thanks for joining us. We've now confirmed that Bergdahl's travel arrangements to the U.S. have been finalized but no return date is set.

Do you share, Congressman Miller's concerns there's some other reason besides his health that Bergdahl is being kept in Germany right now?

REP. MAC THORNBERRY (R), TEXAS: Oh, I don't know. Actually, today's hearing very little of it focused on Sergeant Bergdahl's condition or the reason -- or the circumstances around his capture. But we focused on with the secretary was the national security

decision that was made here, was it a good deal for the security of the United States to trade these five Taliban for Sergeant Bergdahl, that was our focus.

TAPPER: Right. And the issue of sharing information about the transfer with Congress ahead of time, a very significant one at the hearing, and it evoked this exchange between Secretary Hagel and Congressman Mike Conaway. Take a listen.


HAGEL: I never said I don't trust the Congress. Those are your words.

REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R), TEXAS: No, no. Your actions --

HAGEL: No, I didn't say it. You said I said it.

CONAWAY: Your actions demonstrate, Mr. Secretary, that you do not trust Congress because --

HAGEL: Now, it's my actions.

CONAWAY: The ranking member, something like this, your actions say you don't trust Congress. I get it.


TAPPER: Congressman, Secretary Hagel said multiple times in the hearing, that the administration could have handled sharing the information with Congress better. Was that enough of an answer for you? Do you think Hagel and the Obama administration didn't tell Congress because they didn't trust Congress wouldn't leak the deal and maybe try to stop it?

THORNBERRY: Well, I think probably multiple reasons, maybe they were concerned about leaks though we get sensitive information all the time.

I think the bigger reason was when they first broached this deal back in 2011, Republicans and Democrats both said, this is a bad deal. We don't want to release those five Taliban from Guantanamo.

So, they knew Congress was opposed on a bipartisan basis, and they chose to ignore the law. And this is a lot more than just, you know, Congress getting its feelings hurt. There's a whole structure of oversight of the military and the intelligence community that depends upon getting timely, accurate, information to Congress in order for us to do our job under the Constitution.

And it is true, once that trust is eroded, then it calls into question all of this oversight structures that we've all come to depend on.

TAPPER: And, of course, the Pentagon and others in the government, I'm sure the Congress as well, wants to know what Bergdahl learned while he was in captivity. Take a listen to this from Secretary Hagel.


HAGEL: This guy was held for almost five years in God knows what kind of conditions. We do know some of the conditions from our intelligence community, not from, by the way, Bergdahl. This is not just about can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane.


TAPPER: How did you take that, Congressman? Did you take that remark that they haven't debriefed Bergdahl yet?

THORNBERRY: Yes, I think the bottom line is, physically, he's fine. Mentally and emotionally, maybe not so much. And so it's been hard to question him and that's part of the reason that he's been in Germany for so long and part of the reason it's taken so long to debrief him.

That needs to come in time. And in accordance with whatever investigation there is, if there are appropriate military sanctions or judgments that come from that, so be it. But the focus we've had is regardless of those things, regardless of him, what about releasing these five guys from Guantanamo, what about negotiating with terrorists, and what about violating the clear law that says you have to tell Congress ahead of time?

TAPPER: Speaking of the threat of the five Taliban members, listen to what both Hagel and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this morning.


HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: These five guys are not a threat to the United States. They are a threat to the safety and security of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

HAGEL: The risk they pose to the United States, our citizens and our interests, were substantially mitigated.


TAPPER: What do you think the threat is of the five mid to high level Taliban members, sir?

THORNBERRY: Well, what I know is we spent the last 13 years trying to take high-level Taliban commanders off the battlefield, and now in a single stroke we have put five of them back on to the battlefield, at least a year from now.

So, whether or not they will plot to attack us here at home, what we know is they will plot to attack American soldiers in Afghanistan. And the secretary admitted in that hearing, we will have soldiers still in Afghanistan when these five guys can go back to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So, it is a huge morale boost from the Taliban, you can see that from their statements. It also replenishes their command and control, the depth of their leadership, and that adds to the threat, to the Afghan government, absolutely, but also to our soldiers and other personnel that are trying to support the Afghan government.

TAPPER: Congressman Mac Thornberry, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

THORNBERRY: You're welcome.

TAPPER: Coming up, we're still waiting for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to come out and speak. He's meeting with Republicans right now. What will he say about his stunning defeat? We'll bring those comments to you live, coming up.