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President Obama Has a Beer with Governor Hickenlooper; Israel Ramping Up for Possible War; Cornyn Says Obama Should Visit the Border; Obama Grapples with Immigration Crisis, Pushes for Immigration Reform; Interview with Henry Cuellar; Obama's Katrina Moment; Crisis in Israel; Interview with Israeli President Shimon Peres

Aired July 9, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, President Obama is getting ready for a trip to Texas. On his agenda, fund-raising events and the meeting with the Texas Governor, Rick Perry, to talk about the immigration crisis. But will the president add a last-minute pit stop to see some of those unaccompanied children along the U.S.-Mexico border?

Also right now, Israel ramping up for a possible all-out war. The president of Israel, Shimon Peres, says a ground offensive on Gaza could happen, in his words, quite soon.

And right now, a U.S. Marine is being held in a Mexican prison for crossing the border with firearms. Is that Marine -- he's waiting to find out his fate, why he's now hopeful he'll be released.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. President Obama confronts a humanitarian and political crisis when he arrives in Texas in just a few hours. The president will focus on the surge of undocumented and unaccompanied kids crossing the border into the United States. He'll meet with the Republican Governor, Rick Perry, and faith leaders. But he will not travel to the border, at least not now. That, according to White House officials, to see the situation firsthand. That decision, though, is generating lots of political backlash.

Here's what Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said on CNN's "NEW DAY."


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: This is a real crisis and the president needs to treat it as such and I think traveling from Dallas to the border, it's a 500-mile trip, it's not far to go on Air Force One, would help him understand. You know, presidents sometimes live in a bubble and I think, right now, the president's looking at this through more of a political lens rather than a policy lens. He knows what to do. And he should go to the border and show his commitment to solving the problem.


BLITZER: Let's begin our coverage this hour with our White House Correspondent Michelle Kosinski who's standing by. Michelle, just moments ago, the president spoke in Denver. I know he had a brief comment about this current immigration crisis.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we didn't think this was going to come up. He was talking about trying to help the middle class. But then, he started slamming Republicans for what he characterized as their failure to act and he brought up the border crisis. Here's what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Congress just said no to fixing our broken immigration system in a way that strengthens our borders and our businesses. Despite the fact that everybody from law enforcement to corporations to evangelicals. There's a coalition around immigration reform that's unprecedented. These guys still can't get their act together.


KOSINSKI: Yes, so it's become this real back and forth. I mean, the White House is blaming House Republicans for holding up comprehensive immigration reform which would include a big piece on border security. But Republicans and other critics of the president are saying, really, it's this administration's fault that the problem was able to get to this level in the first place. Why aren't they enforcing the laws that already exist -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The president also getting ready for a meeting once he gets to Texas with Governor Rick Perry. That's got a lot of back and forth going on right now. What does the president hope to come out of this meeting?

KOSINSKI: Oh, my gosh. Yes, the politics of this. I mean, it first came up that the governor wasn't going to greet the president when he arrived in Texas around 5:00 Eastern time tonight. And then, he sent a letter saying, well, a handshake isn't going to do anything. Let's you and I sit down and talk this out. That's what Perry wrote to the president. Well, then, the White House said, OK, now the president is inviting Governor Perry to a meeting. So, it's almost like it's clear that the White House does not want to bend to all this political pressure.

So, what the president did was invite Perry to a meeting already scheduled with community leaders in Dallas, Texas. So, Perry's going to go to that. What Perry sort of more wanted was either a trip to the border or some kind of one in one -- one on one. It's unclear if that one on one, in any form, is going to happen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the president still -- as of right now, the White House has not announced the last-minute decision, a change in his plans to go down to the border. Is that right?

KOSINSKI: Right. I mean, the White House has been careful to say, well, we'll let you know if plans change. There's nothing on the schedule right now. Last week, they were saying, oh, that could change. So, it seemed like they were leaving some room open to do something. But with all this pressure, I mean, senators openly saying, go to the border, the White House obviously doesn't want to react to that, certainly, they want to do something on their own terms. But what that will be is just unclear right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because he is coming under a lot of criticism. Scheduled three political fund-raisers in Texas, --


BLITZER: -- but no time to go to the border. How are they dealing with that criticism? It's not just coming from Republicans either.

KOSINSKI: Right. That's all become wrapped up within that harsh, now, criticism. So, they're not addressing the fund-raisers, but they're saying there's no need for the president to visit the border. Other top administration officials already have and they say the president is well briefed on the situation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see if that changes over the next few hours. Michelle, thanks very much.

The U.S. southern border is the epicenter, right, now, of this huge immigration crisis. Authorities say between 60,000 and 80,000 unaccompanied children are expected to cross over into the United States this year.

Our Correspondent Alina Machado has the view from Mission, Texas. That's just across the border from Mexico.


ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are right in the middle of the immigration crisis. Right on the Rio Grande, on one side, you have the Mexican border, on the other side of the river, where we are, you have the U.S. Tens of thousands of undocumented children are expected to cross alone into the U.S. this year. And many of them, when they end up in the U.S., end up in the care of faith-based organizations. There is growing concern about how long these organizations are going to be able to sustain this level of help. Take a listen.


MAYOR RAUL SALINAS (D), LAREDO, TEXAS: What's going to happen when the faith organizations run out of money, when the donations no longer come, when you no longer have volunteers? The burden will be on cities. We're not going to raise taxes. I mean, if we use some tax money, and we're tight for money now, how are we going to get reimbursed? And that's the challenge that we face.


MACHADO: And that's a challenge that likely isn't going to go away any time soon. Meanwhile, here on the border, there is a very strong presence by the border patrol. We've seen border patrol boats going up and down the river all morning long. And also, even helicopters searching for people who may be crossing the border. Alina Machado, CNN, Mission, Texas.


BLITZER: So, will this immigration crisis turn into president's so- called Hurricane Katrina moment? A Democratic Congressman, yes, a Democratic Congressman says he's afraid it could. Up next, we're going to hear live from Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas.

And later, a possible prelude to war. Israel's president now hinting Israeli ground troops could be moving into Gaza very soon. We're going live to Jerusalem.


BLITZER: Some lawmakers are actually comparing President Bush's initial mishandling of Hurricane Katrina with President Obama's decision not to visit the border in response to this major immigration crisis that's ongoing right now. Even one Democratic Congressman says he hopes the border crisis doesn't become the president's so-called Katrina moment. That Congressman, Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, is now joining us live from Capitol Hill. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. HENRY CUELLAR (D), TEXAS: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: We're going to get to that Katrina comparison in a moment. But let me start with the search for solution to this crisis. It's a real humanitarian nightmare that's going on. Listen to what Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said today at a hearing on border security. Listen to this.


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I can't think a more humane thing to do, even though it maybe sounds a little cruel, but then -- than to deter parents from sending their children to the United States. And I can't think of a better way to deter parents from doing that is to literally take these minors, identify where they came from. You know, I've gone online. It costs $207 on a one-way trip in terms of plane flight. Put them into a hotel, feed them, and return them to the country of origin.


BLITZER: All right. So, what's your reaction, Congressman, to that proposal from the senator?

CUELLAR: Well, you know, this is what I've been asking for for a long time. If you look at the law, the law says that -- border patrol will say if they catch somebody from Mexico, for example, they will return children, families, adults, back to Mexico. If you're from a noncontiguous country, let's say in this case Central America, then border patrol has to hand them over to HSS and there's a very complicated process that starts after that.

So, what I've been calling for is let's change the law, tweak it, where border patrol has the ability to determine everybody -- or determine folks at the border. We're doing that with Mexicans. We've been doing that for a long time. Nobody's complained. So, I'm just saying, let's treat everybody the same. If we do get the children, we got to take care of those young kids, without a doubt. Because I've seen young girls, young boys, I mean, just -- as a father, it's just a very, very difficult situation to see the young kids in that situation. And keep in mind, HSS has told us, the officials have told us about one-third of those young girls that come across are abused on the way up there. They're just innocent little babes and it's just very heartbreaking.

BLITZER: And you've been -- that's your district down there right along the border with Mexico. You believe that the president, while he's in Texas, he's about to arrive, he's got time for three political fund-raisers, he should make some time, maybe skip one of those fund- raisers and go down and see what's going on. You really want him to do that, right?

CUELLAR: I really do. Look, he's going to be in Austin. That's 242 miles away from the border. He's going to be in Dallas. That's 500 miles away from the border. And, again, if he had time, with all due respect, to have a beer, play pool, like he did in Colorado last night, then I think after the fund-raisers, then I think he should make time to go down there.

And, again, I've always said this, that a leader will be judged on how he handles a crisis. Either he can roll up his sleeves and go down there to the border, or he can look detached and say that everything's under control and surrogates have gone down to the border. But I think he has to see what I have seen through my own eyes. And when you see young innocent kids have been put in that situation, then I think he needs to do that.

And, plus, let me say this, the flow hasn't stopped. There's still about 48,000 individuals that are coming through the Texas border every month. Nine thousand seven hundred of them are kids with no parents. So, the flow has not stopped. There's not enough immigration judges down there. I don't see the results. And, therefore, until we see some results, I think the president should be down there at the border.

BLITZER: And you've suggested this could be his so-called Katrina moment where he looks detached, sort like the way former President Bush did in the initial aftermath of Katrina when he flew over what was going on, didn't stop to see what was going on. I know you're coming under a lot of pressure from officials at the White House. You're a Democrat. What are they saying to you? Are they basically saying to you, Congressman, don't talk like this? What are they telling you?

CUELLAR: Well, I'm sorry, I don't want to go into discussions. But I will say this is that I can understand that there's a few folks who might be upset by my -- by my request for him to go down to the border. But, again, I'm more concerned -- I want to put political party after what's in the best interest of the country. And I think the best interest of the country is to have a leader go down to the border, see exactly what's happening because it is a humanitarian crisis.

As a parent, when you see young girls and young boys without parents there that have gone through very difficult situations, then I think people need to see exactly. Put a face to the humanitarian crisis and not look aloof, with all due respect, and not look detached, and still put out pictures playing pool, drinking a beer, and I think he ought to make the time. And if he has dug in and say, I'm not going to do it on this trip, the critics are not going to get me to do this, then I think immediately sometime he should go down to the border. I think the border crisis, the border humanitarian crisis, calls for this visit.

BLITZER: Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas, the Democrat, not caving in to pressure from the White House. Clearly, as we just saw, Congressman, it's a heartbreaking situation in your district, elsewhere. We're going to stay on top of this story. We'll also get White House reaction later this hour. Thanks very much for joining us.

CUELLAR: Thank you so much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Congressman Cuellar harkening (ph) in on that, the border could potentially be the president's so-called Katrina moment. And speaking of Katrina, Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina episode, was handed some very bad news today. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. Nagin was found guilty in February of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and other favors. Prosecutors say Nagin and his administration took gifts in exchange for city contracts worth more than $5 million. He'll report to prison on September 8th.

Coming up, we're going to get the White House's reaction to the crisis at the border. What we just heard from Congressman Cuellar, that's coming up.

Also, a wedding interrupted by rocket fire. Palestinians and Israelis living in fear of attack, and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight. We're going live to Jerusalem. We're going live to Gaza right after a quick break.


BLITZER: Let's go to the Middle East right now, where the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is vowing to intensify attacks against militants in Gaza. Israel's president, Shimon Peres, says a ground offensive could start soon. In just the past day, Israel's military says it targeted around 160 suspected terror sites in Gaza, while 130 rockets were fired into Israel by militants inside Gaza.

Take a look at this.



(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: This video shows an Israeli wedding being interrupted by

sirens and a rocket being intercepted overhead by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. Let's bring in our Bed Wedeman, he is joining us from Gaza right now. We'll go to Jerusalem in a few moments. Ben, I know that only within the past few moments, you've seen some air strikes going on behind you. What's going on?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, for the past about half hour, Wolf, we've seen air strikes coming in. Then a rocket being fired not far from where we're standing. And afterwards, while we were live for CNN International, more rockets coming -- rather, incoming rockets coming in behind me. So it does seem to have -- the pace has picked up quite dramatically so far this evening.

It was relatively quiet this afternoon, but in other parts of Gaza, for instance, in the northern part of Gaza, near the Israeli border where we were this afternoon, quite a lot of outgoing and incoming as well. According to Palestinian medical sources, 17 people killed so far today, apparently seven of them children. So sort of tit-for-tat, back and forth continues.

What we're seeing on the streets of Gaza, many less people out and about than yesterday. Many less cars. Most of the shops are closed. The banks are closed. It appears that people in Gaza are bracing for much worse to come. Wolf.

BLITZER: That could be a ground invasion. Is there any indication at all that Hamas, the leadership there in Gaza, where you are, Ben, might stop launching rockets into Israel?

WEDEMAN: Well, we heard Khaled Mashal, who's not in Gaza, he's actually in Doha, Qatar, at the moment, in a speech today saying they would, sort of quoting the same sort of expression that Benjamin Netanyahu uses. He says, we will meet quiet with quiet. But Hamas has conditions as well. They want all those who have been rounded up by Israeli forces in the West Bank since the June 12th kidnapping of those three Israeli teenagers who were subsequently found murdered, they want those people released. They want an end to the operations in the West Bank. They want an end to the Israeli operation in Gaza. So some conditions there. But he said, quiet for quiet. Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens on that front. Ben Wedeman, stay safe over there in Gaza.

Israel's president, Shimon Peres, says there's no room for compromise when Israel, as he says, is constantly under fire with these rockets and missiles. Let's bring in CNN International's Becky Anderson, she is now reporting from Jerusalem. I know, Becky, you had a chance to sit down with President Shimon Peres a little while ago. What did he say about the prospects of this getting even worse?

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, let's be clear here, he doesn't speak on the behalf of the executive office here. This is a ceremonial title, but his opinion is clearly important. What he told me was that this is not Israel's fault. Israel blames Hamas for the abduction and murder of those three teenagers last year, and the ratcheting up of what is this crisis now.

I wanted to find out from him just how close he thought we were at this point to this really getting very, very bad. This is what he told me.


ANDERSON: Under what circumstances do you believe a ground offensive or do you know a ground offensive will begin?

SHIMON PERES, PRESIDENT OF ISRAEL: If they won't stop the missiles, then we're going to attack. I'm not going to tell you when and where, but that's the logical conclusion.

ANDERSON: The world should expect to see a ground offensive at any time from the Israelis? You've called up reservists.

PERES: Whatever we can do. Without ground forces, we (ph) shall (ph) do (ph). So we waited. We didn't start the war today. They started it already several days ago. And they continue. And they spread the fire on more areas in Israel.

ANDERSON: How long will Israel wait?

PERES: Until we shall reach, or the moment we shall reach a conclusion that this should be the next step. We shall not talk (ph) dates. (inaudible). It may happen quite soon.


ANDERSON: And, Wolf, we contacted the prime minister's office here for complete transparency. They had nothing to add to the remarks by President Shimon Peres. So he is certainly not ruling out what could be an imminent ground offensive by Israeli forces.

You heard me alluding there to the fact that in the past 48 hours, Israel has called up 40,000 reservists. They say that only 1,000 of them will be commissioned any time soon, but certainly that gives them the opportunity to ratchet this up if they believe that that is needed. Wolf.

BLITZER: Are you hearing, Becky, of any behind the scenes cease-fire negotiations under way, whether through the Egyptians, whether through Qatar, whether through some other third party? Is anything at all happening to bring about a cease-fire?

ANDERSON: You make a very good point. I was in Cairo just in the last 48 hours. In fact, I flew in here today. I was speaking to the Egyptian foreign minister. Now, we need to remind ourselves that it was Egypt in the past who has played a very big role in mediating any sort of progress in these peace talks. Morsi back in 2012, the deposed president of Egypt, who was able to broker a cease-fire with Hamas -- of course, he is a Muslim Brotherhood member and a party to that. And in the past, of course, Mubarak has played a significant role. But absolutely no suggestion at this stage that the new al Sisi

government in Egypt is looking to do that any time soon. Certainly Hamas now looking to the international community and blaming the U.S. for not getting involved in things earlier here, and really quite specific about that. They want to see action from their side from the international community and now. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Becky Anderson reporting from Jerusalem for us. Becky, thanks very much. Earlier, our own Michael Holmes had the chance to get the reaction from Hamas. Found its leaders are not yet ready to call off the rocket attacks. Listen to this.


OSAMA HAMDAN, HAMAS SPOKESMAN: If the Israelis continue their attacks, the Palestinian people will defend themselves. Not only Hamas, all the Palestinians. If the Israelis stopped and there was a clear cease-fire, the Palestinians would deal with that. Without this, there is no chances for the Palestinians to live under the Israeli attack without reacting against that attack.


BLITZER: Osama Hamdan, the spokesman for Hamas, blaming Israel for breaking a 2012 cease-fire agreement. That cease-fire agreement brokered by the then Egyptian government. The United States was also involved behind the scenes. It ended eight days of fighting that killed around 150 people during that fighting, most of those people who were killed were Palestinians.

Still ahead, the president will visit Texas today, but he also has some major fund-raising visits on his itinerary. Our senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein, standing by to weigh in. We'll also get the White House reaction.