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President Obama Visits New Jersey; More Cruise Ship Troubles; Millions Protest Genetically Modified Food; "Crackstarter" Campaign Reaches Goal

Aired May 28, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama and Governor Christie hit the Jersey Shore today. No sign of Snooki, but it was a definite situation. I'm Jake Tapper, and this is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey. As the Garden State starts to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, President Obama was welcomed with open arms by Republican Governor Christie. He also brought a stuffed animal.

Also leading nationally, eat your greens with an extra helping of genes. Millions protest a super corporation that is pumping up your food. Are genetically modified crops good for big business, but bad for the rest of us?

And the money lead. Another cruise ship is cut short after a ship catches fire. At least the toilets worked this time. Do these floating cities answer to anyone or is it anything goes in international waters?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Today's national lead, ode to the Jersey Shore, the surf, the sand, the E Street Band, cheap full-serve gas, and hair sprayed to last. It is the unofficial start of summer on the Jersey Shore now seven months after Hurricane Sandy. The sounds of the tide and the seagulls are accompanied by the roar of bulldozers and the echoes of hammers.

And President Obama was there today to see the results of reconstruction and check in with an old pal, New Jersey Republican governor Chris Christie.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You are stronger than the storm. After all you have dealt with, after all you have been through, the Jersey Shore is back and it is open for business.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I am not going to let anything or anyone get in between me and completion of the mission to restore and recover our great state.



TAPPER: And it looks as though the long-distance bromance is still going. The president did everything but feed cotton candy to Christie as they toured the historic boardwalk in Point Pleasant. Christie even won a stuffed bear for President Obama, Chicago bear, of course.

In the days after the hurricane, right before the 2012 election, conservative pundits chastised Christie for praising President Obama for his response to the storm. He said he was doing what was best for the people in his state, a state that overwhelmingly voted to reelect President Obama, it should be noted. For some in the Garden State, the political sniping seemed rather petty given the realities for tens of thousands of people who just watched their homes wash away, not to mention the 12 New Jerseyans who were killed in the storm.

Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin joins us now from the boardwalk.

Jessica, it may be hard to be a saint in the city, as Springsteen sang, but it's not that hard for a Republican governor to be nice to the president in a blue state, huh?


And "Live in Asbury Park" launched Bruce Springsteen's career. It is not going to launch Chris Christie's, but it certainly isn't hurting him in this state to be seen with President Obama. Since the two of them started their so-called bromance, as you put it, back after superstorm Sandy hit here, Chris Christie has helped bring more than $3 billion with a B. in federal funds to the state for recovery efforts and he has seen his own poll numbers go up in this state by 15 points. The latest polling has him at 69 percent approval, not bad for a governor facing reelection, as you point out, in a blue state.

There are advantages for President Obama to come to town here, too, given all the controversies he is facing in Washington, D.C., that especially focus on some of the ways government isn't working lately. This is a good chance for him to highlight the ways how government has worked in helping New Jersey recover after the storm, FEMA a bright spot for the president in his record for overhauling the emergency management systems there, Jake.

TAPPER: That's right. And you made that point in the coverage of the president's trip to Oklahoma over the weekend.

One other question, though, Jessica, is, everyone of course has been talking about Governor Christie's weight since he had that weight loss surgery, the lap band. It's been three months.

Does he -- I know you are not a licensed physician, but does he look any different to you?

YELLIN: OK. I'm going to be honest with you. I don't see the change, but people that I trust and respect have looked at side-by- side photos and they do say it appears that he has lost weight.

We are for positive reinforcement and they say that these lap band surgeries, they take some time, and so we're all for Governor Christie and the progress he has made so far. So, we will give it a yes, based on reports.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Yellin, thanks so much. We will see you soon.

Also in national news, a dramatic scene outside Baltimore right now after a cargo train collided with a tractor trailer, causing a huge explosion and massive plumes of black smoke. Amazingly, no one has died, but the truck driver is badly injured. Hazardous material teams are also on the scene because crews are unsure exactly what kind of chemicals were on board. We will bring you more on this developing situation as we get it.

Also from Baltimore, our money lead today. Every few weeks, we hear about these cruise disasters, power outages, overflowing toilets, a fire on deck. What happened to the good old days when a bad cruise meant spending five days clinging to a bottle of Dramamine?

The latest saga at sea involves a Royal Caribbean ship that had to be evacuated after a fire broke out in the mooring area. The ship never lost power. But all 2,200 guests on board spent an uneasy few hours on deck in life jackets, some wondering if the ship was going down. All the passengers are safe. They have been flown back to Baltimore, where the ship originally departed from.

Let's go live to THE LEAD's Erin McPike's outside Baltimore- Washington International Airport.

Erin, how happy are these folks that this ordeal is over?

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, so far from what we have heard from the passengers who have gotten back -- and not all of them have -- is that they are happy to be back and they were terrified for just a little bit that Monday morning when the fire broke out. Lifeboats were beginning to be lowered.

But so far, Jake, what we have heard from all of these passengers is they said that the crew did a really good job and that many of them would cruise again. And lest anyone complain, Royal Caribbean has already issued full refunds for this particular cruise to all of the passengers and they have given them a voucher for another cruise.

Now, I can also tell you that that ship is being dry-docked in the Bahamas so that it can have repairs. They don't know what caused the fire yet so there is an investigation and they're going to repair the ship. But while it is out of service, there is another cruise scheduled to leave here on that same ship on May 31, and that cruise has also been canceled and the passengers who were scheduled to go on that cruise also getting a full refund and a voucher for half off their next cruise after that.

TAPPER: All right, Erin McPike, thank you so much. While no one was hurt in this latest cruise ship P.R. debacle, it once again raises the question, just how safe are you when you set sail on a Titanic-sized ship and why do these problems keep happening over and over again, year after year after year?

Joining me now from Pensacola, Florida, is John Arthur Eaves. He's a maritime lawyer and has represented passengers from both the Costa Concordia and the Carnival Triumph. He has a trial for Costa Concordia in July.

Thanks so much for joining us. Do you think Royal Caribbean handled things better than Carnival? Are we seeing some progress when it comes to these debacles at sea?

JOHN ARTHUR EAVES, MARITIME LAWYER: Well, there is no question that they handled the situation after the fire better than Carnival, but the real problem is, what caused the fire to begin in the first place?

And we know that that is because that, basically just like you have a tuneup of your car, this industry is not regulated, it is not controlled, and it is not responding to the insurance industry, so that it is a race to the bottom so that they just basically take these vessels, they bring them into port, they unload them with passengers, they refuel, and restock the pantry, but then they turn them right around without giving the service to these engines that they need.

TAPPER: Let's talk about these regulations. Why are there not stricter regulations when it comes to these cruises, like we see with airlines? So, they both travel internationally, but my impression is that these cruise ships do not have to adhere to safety standards for the United States.

EAVES: Well, the problem here is that it is governed by international treaty.

And there's a lot of gaps in those treaties because nations have really resisted not passing laws because they move in between these states. So, the problem is, is that the U.S. has tried to control it, but these vessels are really a subject of the individual states that flies the flag. In other words, this vessel here was a Bahama vessel with a Bahama flag. It is our hope that there will be legislation in the U.S. Congress upcoming that would require these vessels to be U.S.-flagged vessels, which would allow more government oversight and allow our investigative teams with the FBI and police forces in the U.S. to actually make sure these vessels are safe.

TAPPER: Obviously, you are a trial attorney. You have said filing lawsuits will raise the standards of cruise safety so they don't have to spend all this money giving it to passengers who sue. Is your theory bearing out? Are we seeing that result?

EAVES: Well, I think we will see the result.

Our first trial for the Costa Concordia tragedy is July 23, and we're asking for American values, for the value of life of those passengers. I think once we see that, those values come in, then you will see the insurance industry respond and require this industry to enact, invest into safer regulations, just like the airline industry is now.

TAPPER: It's amazing to me. You see these incidents happen. And every two or three weeks, there is another horrible incident and somebody is really going to have -- there is going to have to be some horrible disaster before somebody actually does anything about this. Hopefully, I'm wrong.

John Arthur Eaves...

EAVES: Thank you.

TAPPER: Thank you so much for your time.

Coming up, if you're worried about eating genetically altered food, you are not alone. But what can you do to make sure you don't eat it? Well, it turns out nothing. And you can thank Congress for that. Our national lead continues next.

Plus, what is a little scandal involving allegations of smoking crack when the voters love you? Why one mayor is refusing to step down even as the scandal grows around him.


TAPPER: Welcome back THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Also leading nationally, food for thought. Two million people in more than 50 countries marched over the weekend in protest against a company called Monsanto. Now, you may not know exactly what Monsanto is, but you probably eat what they produce every day.

Monsanto is a giant $58 billion multinational corporation with field offices in 60 countries. It was founded more than 100 years ago and may have previously been best known for being one of the contributors of the chemicals contributing to Agent Orange, which was used by the Pentagon to defoliate dense forests in Vietnam and is believed to have caused disastrous health effects on those who came in contact with it.

Now Monsanto not only produces pesticides designed to deliver a death blow to living things, pests. It also produces seeds designed to resist those lethal chemicals. And now that company is under fire for these seeds which have been genetically modified and for their legislative muscle.

In the past few days, Monsanto and biotech firms have defeated efforts to allow labeling for genetically modified products and to strip away special protections for that industry.

And, over the weekend, millions marched against Monsanto.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TAPPER (voice-over): Two million people in 436 cities in 52 countries, their protests 100 percent focused on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Those are plants, bacteria, and animals whose genetic makeup has been scientifically altered.

That is how organizers labeled the march against Monsanto protests that took place this weekend. Some opponents of these GMOs want them banned. Others say foods whose DNA has been changed need at least to be labeled. Monsanto is a leading producer of genetically modified seeds and herbicides. In the last quarter alone, Monsanto sold seed -- much of it modified -- worth more than $4 billion. It's a business the company says that is helping to feed the planet.

AD NARRATOR: It's a vision that strives to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population.

TAPPER: But the protesters want to know just how their food is being reengineered. Some of the outrage was sparked by these shocking photos showing massive tumors that developed on these rats after they ate genetically modified corn over their lifetimes.

But that study by researchers at the University of Cannes in France has been criticized by many in the scientific community and by the European Food Safety Authority who say it is simply not up to scientific standards. Even so, the disturbing tumor photos did lead many to question their own standards about what exactly we're all eating.

One question, how can you know if you're eating genetically modified foods and feeding them to your family? Well, you can't. And that's the issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I received over 2,200 letters on this topic.

TAPPER: Last week, senators debated whether states could require food labeling for products with genetically engineered ingredients.

SEN. BERNARD SANDERS (I), VERMONT: The concept we are talking about today is a fairly common sense and non-radical idea.

TAPPER: The legislation introduced by independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders failed.

SANDERS: When you take on very powerful biotech companies like Monsanto and large food corporations, who in many ways would prefer that people not know what is in the food that they produce, they are very powerful.

TAPPER: This comes on the heels of what critics call the Monsanto Protection Act. That's legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president earlier this year, a bill that allows genetically modified crops approved by the Agriculture Department to be grown even if there is action in the courts declaring them to be dangerous.

SANDERS: You have deregulated the GMO industry from court oversight, which is really not what America is about. You should not be putting riders that people aren't familiar with in a major piece of legislation.

TAPPER: On its Web site, Monsanto states, quote, "Plant biotechnology has been in use for over 15 years without documented evidence of adverse effects on human or animal health or the environment."

Legislators who sided with Monsanto say the company is improving on nature.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it would be more accurately called a modern science to feed a very troubled and hungry world.

TAPPER: But law or no law, grocery giant Whole Foods says they will start labeling all genetically modified food by 2018.


TAPPER: And here's the big question for you and for me. Is this stuff safe to eat?

"New York Times" investigative reporter Michael Moss, who wrote the book, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us", joins me now to talk about it.

So, Michael, right off the bat -- should we be eating this stuff? Is it OK?

MICHAEL MOSS, AUHTOR, "SALT SUGAR FAT: HOW THE FOOD GIANTS HOOKED US": You know, Jake, I was really stunned by the number of people who took to the streets marching, but there's a lot of people who are scared and also, look. Europeans have been saying no to GMO for years and years, and I wish I could sit here now and say to you they're right or they're wrong. But the fact is there are no studies as yet linking GMO to health problems.

The flip side is that nobody is really looking hard at that and doing that kind of research, and the agency in charge of GMOs is another three-letter acronym, the FDA, which has a real spotty record on food safety, which concerns people.

TAPPER: Do you eat foods that have been genetically enhanced? Are you concerned about it?

MOSS: Well, you can even -- I mean, as of now, it's really hard to know what is -- what does have ingredients with genetically modified organisms in it. Look, corn, soya, canola are some of the three biggest ones, but those are additives in so many processed foods in the markets.

I think to some extent, this issue is evolving into a matter of disclosure. People care about what they're putting in their bodies and they want to know what's in the products that they are eating so they can make that decision even if it's on a gut level, even if it's them saying, look, I know the science isn't there, but I am concerned and I want to hold off until there is solid science saying, yes, or no.

TAPPER: And that's the final question really here. If there is nothing wrong with it as the food, the biotech industry states, why are they trying to block states from being able to label it? If there is nothing wrong with the product, why push legislation preventing action if a court hypothetically were finding something wrong with their seeds?

MOSS: Well, because it does mean money. It does mean profits. But, look, I think they're also concerned about increasingly, especially the food manufacturers are increasingly concerned about public attitude. They think they're the ones who are going to make some move here. They have on their staff these genius scientists who formulate their foods and they can figure out how to remove GMO ingredients without sacrificing convenience, cost, and taste. If they can do that, the food manufacturers will move that direction.

TAPPER: Michael Moss, thank you so much.

MOSS: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up in our "Buried Lead", asking price for one video allegedly showing a mayor of a major city smoking crack? Two hundred thousand dollars. But now that the money has been raised, where's the video?

Plus, President Obama almost daring Republicans to challenge him. His latest move is called aggressive. So, how will the other side of the aisle respond?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Today's "Buried Lead". "Buried Lead" is a story that we think is not getting enough attention.

This one might never receive an actual pay off. Gawker has now raised $200,000 to buy a video allegedly showing the mayor of Toronto smoking crack cocaine.

The Rob Ford "Crackstarter" campaign, a play on the name of the popular Kickstarter fund raising site, met its goal today with contributions from more than 8,300 donors less than two weeks after it was launched. Gawker's editors and reporters from "The Toronto Star" claim to have seen the video in which Ford is allegedly getting high with drug dealers but we may never get to see it since the dealers have supposedly vanished. And voters may be standing with the mayor.

Tom Foreman has the story.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mayor Ford is on the ropes but still punching as Toronto's city hall reeled from blow after blow. It started when two reporters from "The Toronto Star" and an editor from the Web site Gawker said they were approached by men trying to sell a video purportedly showing the mayor smoking crack with drug dealers. One of those reporters, Kevin Donovan (ph).

KEVIN DONOVAN, REPORTER: He was rambling and he seemed to be high. I mean, there is no other real way to describe it than to say the mayor was high.

FOREMAN: But "The Toronto Star" reporters did not buy the video, which is allegedly still offered for around $200,000, and the mayor is attacking.

MAYOR ROB FORD, TORONTO, CANADA: There has been a serious accusation from "The Toronto Star" that I used crack cocaine. I do not use crack cocaine nor am I an addict of crack cocaine. As for a video, I cannot comment on a video that I have never seen or does not exist.

FOREMAN: Wait. It gets better.

REPORTER: Did there come as a shock to you?


FOREMAN: Since the scandal broke, the mayor has fired his chief of staff and two top press aides quit after he went on the radio and called the media --

FORD: A bunch of maggots.

FOREMAN: Yes. Maggots.

FORD: I'm sure you understand this has been very stressful for myself. This doesn't testify using the terminology I did.

FOREMAN: But wait. It gets better still. "The Star" now reports police are looking into possibilities that someone else from the mayor's office tried to hunt down that video and the deputy mayor who also at first said the video did not exist now tells "The Star" --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think if we could just get the video then we could analyze it and see if it's doctored or if it's real and go from there. That would clear up a lot of things.

FOREMAN (on camera): Mayor Ford has been in trouble before, accused of conflicts of interest. But he has remained popular with voters who like his policies and his common man approach.

(voice-over): In Washington, D.C., that formula led Mayor Marion Barry back to power after he was caught on tape with drugs. So amid the uproar, Ford tweeted a picture of his birthday cake with the message, "Thanks for all the support", and passed out pieces to reporters many of whom clearly wonder if he will wind up being served.

Tom Foreman, CNN.


Make sure to follow me on Twitter @JakeTapper. That's all one word. Also @TheLeadCNN, and check out our show page at, for video, blogs, and extras.

Now, coming up next, political history is full of prodigal sons, but after just two years in the wilderness, just two, are voters in New York City really ready to welcome Anthony Weiner back into the fold as their mayor? Anthony Weiner thinks he has a decent chance. Let's check in with our political panel in the green room.

Jennifer Millerwise, your thoughts, two years?

JENNIFER MILLERWISE: Two years. It is hard to know. Do I go with a hot dog joke? But it seems like New Yorkers are more accepting than the rest of us sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'll have to see.

TAPPER: I don't even want to know what those jokes are in reference to. But we will discuss it all on the round table coming up. Thanks so much.