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Police Update Las Vegas Shooting Case; Hagel Defending Bergdahl-Taliban Swap; Cantor Defeat Sets Off GOP Shock Wave; When Teachers Can and Cannot Be Fired

Aired June 11, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, defense secretary Chuck Hagel in the hot seat. Lawmakers are grilling him on the controversial deal to get Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl back and whether that deal puts American lives at risk.

Also right now, the Republican Party is reeling from House majority leader Eric Cantor's surprise primary loss. Why did he lose? What does it mean for the future of the GOP?

And right now, California's scrapping tenure laws that protect so- called grossly ineffective teachers. Supporters say it's good for the kids, good for education. Critics say it turns teachers into scapegoats. We're going to hear from both sides this hour.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. And on Capitol Hill, defense secretary Chuck Hagel is explaining the controversial prisoner swap that freed Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five high-valued terrorists held at Guantanamo. Did the U.S. give up too much? Hagel stood be -- stood firm before the House Armed Services Committee. He called the deal legal, the right thing to do. But Hagel phased a tough exchange over the release of the five and the risks of having to capture them again.


CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The intelligence community has said, clearly, that these five are not a threat to the homeland.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Secretary, you have said it here that if they rejoined the fight, they do it at their own peril. My question is a pretty --

HAGEL: In Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- my question is a pretty simple one. Would we put American lives at risk to go after them?

HAGEL: We have American --


HAGEL: -- we have American lives put at risk -- (CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand that, Mr. Secretary. My question is, will we put American lives at risk to go after these individuals if they rejoin the fight?



HAGEL: Because --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If that's the case -- let me ask two other questions.

HAGEL: You could use the same argument, Congressman, on Yemen or anywhere else.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can -- I could do that but not because of individuals we released.


BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto, our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, did the secretary of defense make the case effectively for justifying the swap?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you can come to the judgment, as we often do, that probably, in Congress, no minds were changed. Everybody who went into that room was either for or against and probably comes out of that haring room for or against. But it did, by every measure, get quite testy on several points. One on, you know, was not telling Congress about it legal? In fact, Hagel went on to say that, you know, in hindsight, maybe the government could have done a better -- maybe could have informed Congress. That whole point got very testy.

But I want to play an exchange here because extraordinary -- one of the most extraordinary moments was with Congressman Jeff Miller, a Republican of Florida, who actually chairs the House veterans committee, actually questioning whether Bowe Bergdahl should still be in the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Have a listen.


HAGEL: And what we are doing is we are allowing --

REP. JEFF MILLER (R), FLORIDA: I'll tell you what, Mr. Secretary --


MILLER: Mr. Secretary, I'll tell you what -- Mr. Secretary, Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Why hasn't he been returned to the United States? We have seriously wounded soldiers that are returned to the United States almost immediately after they are stabilized. How long did Jessica Lynch wait before she was returned to the United States? You're trying to tell me that he's being held in Landstuhl, Germany because of his medical condition?

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

MILLER: I'm just asking the question.

HAGEL: I'm going to give you an answer, too. And I don't like the implication.

MILLER: Answer it. Answer it.

HAGEL: He's being held there because our medical professionals don't believe he's ready until they believe he is ready to take the next step of rehabilitation.

MILLER: Have you have ever seen a traumatically injured service member brought to the United States immediately upon being stabilized at Landstuhl? We do it all the time.


STARR: I'm not sure that in 13 years of covering the war I have ever heard such an exchange between Congress and any secretary of defense about whether the military is holding an injured service member at a hospital. Of course, the answer to this, Wolf, is that Bowe Bergdahl is undergoing a repatriation process, a medical and psychological series of events that will take some time. U.S. officials say for him to recover for this is a very set procedure for the return of hostages and captives to open society.

I exchanged communication a little while ago with a top Hagel aide who said, yes, the secretary is very unhappy about this line of questioning. It is worth remembering, politics aside, Chuck Hagel himself is a wounded veteran of Vietnam. He still carries shrapnel in his chest. He is very unhappy at anyone questioning the veracity of U.S. military medical care -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, because -- and I want to just pick up the thought with Jim. Jim, the implication being that for some political reason, they don't want Bergdahl to speak to anyone, so they're keeping him holed up in Landstuhl, Germany.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's a remarkable charge to make. And I'll say, echoing Barbara's thoughts, I got similar communications with the Pentagon about that particular exchange. Listen, I think you see him here in an unyielding, sometimes impassioned defense, of this decision by the administration. He makes a legal case. He calls Bergdahl a POW. He says that this was a negotiation between warring sides at war. We did not negotiate with terrorists.

In fact, one of the other spirited exchanges was when one someone challenged him to say, you know, did you negotiate directly with the Haqqani network, right, which is the (INAUDIBLE) terrorist organization? He said, no, we let the Qataries (ph) play intermediary there. He wants this to be -- the administration wants this to be a negotiating between warring parties in wars, as we've done since the Revolutionary War, to secure the release of a soldier.

He makes a political case, you know, apologizing, as we've talked about before, off script, saying that, in his words, we broke trust by not keeping Congress better informed here and admitting that they could have done a better job at that. But also making an emotional case in defending Bergdahl, not just in that exchange with Jeff Miller, but also clearly bristling at the criticism that the Bergdahl family has faced, saying that he is shocked and disappointed at that.

And also, for Bergdahl himself saying, you know, he has not been accused of anything. He has never been charged with anything. We'll go through that process. At this point, though, we've got a wounded soldier that we have to take care of. So, real passion there. And as Barbara says, from a fellow soldier, a fellow wounded soldier.

BLITZER: Yes, a very passionate indeed. We'll stay on top of this story. Jim, Barbara, guys, thanks very much.

Another huge story we're following right now, shock waves rippling across Washington today after the stunning defeat of the number two Republican in the House of Representatives. The majority leader, Eric Cantor, has lost to the Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat. Shakes up the GOP leadership. Will it also reinvigorate the Tea Party? Will it be the final blow for immigration reform this year? Brat says his win is about returning power to the people.


DAVE BRAT (R), VIRGINIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: The race is pretty simple. When I go to D.C., every vote I take will move the pendulum in the direction of the people away from Washington, D.C., back to the states, back to the localities and back to you.


BLITZER: Cantor is looking ahead, even though his political future is murky.


REP. ERIC CANTOR (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Looking forward to continuing to fight with all of you for the things that we believe in, for the conservative cause, because those solutions of ours are the answer to the problems that so many people are facing today. Thank you, all, very, very much.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our panel, our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger, our Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash and our CNN Political Commentator Ana Navarro.

Dana, you've got some breaking news for us. What have you just learned?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, this has -- this has first been reported by "The Washington Post." But the House Republican source confirms that House majority leader Eric Cantor plans to step down from his post as majority leader at the end of July. And that means that he is going to allow a race to replace him, to happen before next year. That is something that has been debated all morning long, actually, since last night, whether or not it is best for the majority leader, Eric Canter, to stay in his position and do so through the end of the year or whether to step back now and whether that is the message -- and those are the messages from the election results tonight.

So, it seems as though he has made the decision to step aside sooner than his -- never mind, his term in the house seat but his term as majority leader would allow him to.

BLITZER: And he's not going to run as a third-party candidate as a write in either. So, at the end of July, he will no longer be the majority leader.

Gloria, you have a piece you have just written. You are about to post it on What happened here? From Eric Cantor's perspective, this was a huge, huge upset.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, this is one of the perils of becoming a leader which is that you very often lose touch with the people back home. And I think what happened to Eric Cantor is that he didn't see this coming for whatever reason. He is somebody with a lot of ambition who was seen as a potential next speaker of the House.

And I was talking to a Republican strategist, yesterday, who said that, you know, measuring the drapes is never a good strategy. And it certainly didn't work for him this time. You know, the charge was, as always is with leaders, that you're out of touch. The irony here, of course, is that Eric Cantor was the most conservative member of the Republican leadership. He was a real thorn in the White House's side during the 2011 budget negotiations.

But as a leader, he wanted to find a way to end the government shutdown, and that caused him a lot of problems within the Tea Party, as did his leadership position on trying to enact one part of immigration reform. So, you put it all together, it was a perfect storm for an insurgent.

BLITZER: On that issue of immigration reform, Ana, he was willing to come up with some sort of compromise, as far as the so-called dreamers are concerned, the young kids who came here illegally, brought by their parents, they've grown up here. This is the only country they've really ever known. He was opening to find a pathway to illegal residency and eventual citizenship for these dreamers, if you will. Does this mean his loss right now that any notion of comprehensive immigration reform for all practical purposes is dead?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, I think this is the fifth or sixth time this year that I have heard the announcement of the death of immigration reform only to see it peter back to life in some way or another later on. I think we are misreading the immigration issue, I think comes to Eric Cantor. The problem with Eric Cantor was not his position. It was that he ran away from his position. I can tell you that for the last three or four months, I've been getting nothing but complaint calls from immigration advocates who were incredibly frustrated and angry with Eric Cantor.

So, this idea of him being a champion and a leader on immigration is news to many of us who want immigration reform. He had been waffling. He had been sitting on the fence. And what voters want is leadership. Take a look at what happened in South Carolina with Lindsay Graham. He owned his position. He defended it. He explained it to the voters of North Caroline -- or of South Carolina. And what they saw in Lindsay Graham was the leadership that Eric Cantor did not demonstrate in Virginia.

BORGER: I agree.

BLITZER: Hold on --

BORGER: And so, this is going to get over-read by Republicans who are going to run away from it.

BLITZER: -- hold on for a moment because I want all three of you to stick around. We have more to discuss. Up next, we'll also take a look -- a closer look at the Democratics of why Eric Cantor lost and how Dave Brat won.

And later this hour, public school teachers all over the country, they could soon feel the effect of a controversial court ruling in California, a ruling spelling out when teachers can be fired and when they can't.


BLITZER: So how did a Tea Party challenger topple the number two Republican in the House of Representatives? We're going to take a closer look at Dave Brat's huge defeat of Eric Cantor. Tom Foreman's over at the magic wall with a closer look at this election, how it was won and how it was lost.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, if you look at this district that Eric Cantor has here, this is a hugely Republican conservative area. There seems no reason that he should be beaten on the right, but he was. And it really could come down to three things, if you want to look at it.

First of all, way too much D.C., not enough Virginia. Gloria made reference to this a little while ago. One of the chief complains of people down there is that they felt that Eric Cantor was too focused on becoming the next speaker of the House, too focused on great big Washington issues, too focused on being part of the Washington elite and that he wasn't paying enough attention to the people back home. Case in point, he spent primary day in Washington largely, not in Virginia. That sent a message and people did not like it. Beyond that, what else was in play here? Well, there may have been

overconfidence. There were indications weeks ago that Cantor might be in trouble. There were pundits saying out there the conservative base is furious with him. They want some answers on all sorts of things, including the immigration issue. But the camp did not substantially respond. They spent a ton of money on this race compared to Brat. In all, when you look at the votes, Cantor spent about $100 per vote yesterday. Brat spent about $5 per vote. But all of that seems to have lea the Cantor camp into believing that he could not be beaten. He'd always won before. He's in the seventh term, but they paid the price for that as well.

And the third thing you have to look at here really is the influence of the Tea Party. All sorts of pundits have been trying to saying the Tea Party is dead across the country or dying in different ways. But in the right conservative district, this really does play into the Tea Party's strength. They did not come in with a lot of national support or not - or a lot of national money for Brat. What they do have, though, is this thing that has united Tea Party people and their sympathizers all over, which is a grass-roots movement that says, we're standing up against Washington insiders. And they successfully said, Cantor is as inside as they come and Brat came out the winner.

Those three things, Wolf, are one of the reasons that Eric Cantor today is reassessing everything in his political life.

BLITZER: Good points, Tom. Thanks very much. Tom Foreman reporting.

Let's bring back our panel, Gloria Borger, Dana Bash, Ana Navarro.

Gloria, so what does Cantor's loss signify, if anything, about the state of the overall Republican Party right now?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, look, I think the Republican Party has been quite successful as a congressional party because districts have been so gerrymandered that this worked to their advantage in a way. If you can siphon off a certain amount of issues and you can win in a Republican district, that works for them. As a national presidential party, I think it's much more of a problem because when you're a presidential party, you have to appeal to independent voters. If you want to appeal to independent voters, you have to find some way to come together on issues like immigration reform, which would attract Hispanic voters, for example, younger voters. And I think that the Republican Party has a problem that way.

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're right.

You know, Dana, you just reported the news, Cantor will step down as the majority leader, the number two Republican in the House of Representatives, July 31st. And so there's going to be, I assume, an election among the Republicans in the House, who's going to be the majority leader. And so what are you hearing? Who's going to be the majority leader?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're pretty certain that Kevin McCarthy, who is now the number three, the House majority whip, is going to throw his hat in the ring. Another Republican who is now the chairman of the rules committee, Pete Sessions, strongly suggests that he might be in. Another Republican, who's conservative, Jeb Hensarling, said that - put out a statement saying that he knows that people are talking about the fact that they want him to put his hat in the ring. And that just gives you a sense of what's going on here, which is that there's going to be a race. There is going to be a race for that post. The hope, at least as you can imagine inside the Republican leadership, particularly for Kevin McCarthy, is that he will get it.

Stand by one second. There he is.

Mr. McCarthy, can you come and talk to us? OK.

Speaking of the devil, that was Kevin McCarthy walking by. And I was actually going to tell you before we started talking that there were going to be lots of House members walking by me now because I'm in the corridor between the suite of leadership offices, including Eric Cantor's office, and the House floor. So people are going to be going by to vote. And we're hoping to actually see Eric Cantor. We haven't seen him yet all day today. He went in a door that he doesn't usually go in to avoid us, probably. I don't blame him. But we're waiting for him now. So that answers your question.

And then if Kevin McCarthy does get that job, that means that his job is going to be open. So we're going to have a lot of the toing and froing that you see inside leadership races and the feeling leading up to this, I was getting the vibe from lots of Republican sources that this might be the tack that Eric Cantor was going to take because the feeling was that he was worried that if he, in fact, doesn't step down, that maybe there would be a revolt in the Republican conference and that would cause leadership elections across the board and that would mean John Boehner would potentially have to be re-elected, never mind House majority leader and so forth. So that's why I think he decided to do this so it happened in an ordinarily way.

BLITZER: It shows you how much politics can change literally overnight because some people were speculating Eric Cantor could be the next speaker of the House. Very few, if anyone, really thought that he didn't have a chance of getting himself re-elected this time around, a pretty conservative Republican district. Everyone seemed to think he was going to get that nomination. Didn't exactly work out well for him.

Ana, why did this Tea Party challenger win this election, especially given the fact that I don't think he got any real support from national Tea Party groups, certainly no financial support, did he?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And, you know, Wolf, I just think it's funny, and I think we're misreading it again, that we keep calling him a Tea Party candidate when he himself doesn't call himself a Tea Party candidate. He was speaking with Sean Hannity last night and got asked that question. He said, yes, I got a lot of Tea Party support, but I don't see this as a left and right issue. I also got a lot of Republican support. And I stand on Republican principals. And as you mentioned, he got no money from national Tea Party groups. What this guy did was he walked, he talked with people, he knocked on

doors, he did a grass-roots campaign while Eric Cantor was in Washington not lining up the votes in his district but lining up the votes to be speaker. So that was the problem. You had in Eric Cantor, a guy who was out of touch, who was more interested in the leadership race, who was, frankly, running a campaign that should be called professional negligence. They were 45 points off on their poles. Their internal polls had them 34 points up. They ended up losing by 11. I mean that tells you they were living in a parallel universe, drinking Washington-laced Kool-Aid.

BLITZER: Ana Navarro helping us appreciate what is going on --

BORGER: Wolf - Wolf, now you know why they call it "House of Cards," right?

BLITZER: Yes, that's what - that's what it is. A quick question, and maybe, Dana, you know the answer to this because you spent some time in that district. There's some speculation that Democrats in that district could have voted -- this is an open contest -- in that congressional primary -

BASH: Right.

BLITZER: And they could have - they don't like Eric Cantor at all - just to play some mischievous role. A lot of Democrats went and voted against Eric Cantor. What are you hearing about that notion, because I keep hearing people speculate that that may have played a significant role.

BASH: The answer is we don't know, but it is a possibility because, as you said, it is an open primary system in Virginia. If you walk up and you say you want to vote, they say which - which party, which party's primary and you tell them the answer and that's the end of it. And so that means that it's a little bit hard to track. It is entirely possible - and I can tell you just in talking to some Cantor sources throughout the day today, they said that, you know, it is something that they're going to look into. I saw a report that perhaps Mr. Cantor's strategists have been pushing that because it maybe helps explain why their numbers are so off. But it's entirely possible but will take a long time of forensic, you know, going through it to figure out if that's actually true.

BLITZER: I suspect that there are going to be some forensic political experts going to be looking into this part of the story as well.

Ladies, thanks very much.

So, what role did talk radio play in Eric Cantor's stunning defeat and Dave Brat's victory? Our political commentator, the CNN host, Michael Smerconish standing by to join us. We'll discuss that. And we'll also find out what his radio listeners have been saying today.