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THE SITUATION ROOM

Chris Christie Under Major Fire; Tell-All Fallout

Aired January 8, 2014 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Christie's outrage. The New Jersey governor says he was misled by aides linked to an exploding scandal. We're following the breaking news and the impact on Governor Christie's presidential hopes.

Plus, tell-all fallout, the White House responding to harsh criticism of the president by his former secretary of defense. Did Robert Gates betray his commander in chief?

And retired General and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark, he's standing by live. He's ready to weigh in.

And parting gift -- former NBA star Dennis Rodman's bizarre North Korea trip ends with a song for Kim Jong-un

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're going to have much more on the emerging scandal involving the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's office, which is accused of slowing down America's busiest bridge. Was it political payback? How much did the governor know?

All that coming up, but, first, it's as though the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched a political missile right into the heart of Washington. The reaction to his often scathing memoir is powerful, even in a town that's used to some shocking tell-alls.

We're learning more about what's in Gates' upcoming book and we're getting hints about why, why he publicly vented his anger at the president of the United States right now.

Our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is covering the damage control at the White House.

But let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, for some reaction from there first.

Barbara, you covered have Gates for a long time.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, up and down the Pentagon hallways here, indeed all the talk is about the book, and top generals are already bugging their aides to get them copies of it. But the key question people are asking, why is the man who promised to keep all the secrets spilling all?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Bob Gates was always emotional about the troops.

ROBERT GATES, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I'm -- I would tell you that you all keep me up at night. I think a lot about the people out here.

STARR: Their were some frustrations.

GATES: I spent a great deal of time venting frustrations with the Pentagon bureaucracy.

STARR: But few realized how angry a man he had become in his struggles to control his temper. Greg Jaffe covered Gates for "The Washington Post" and has read Gates' new book.

GREG JAFFE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": He talks about having emotional outbursts more and more often. He says initially they were mostly with his staff, but he felt like that they were creeping out in public in some of his congressional testimony.

STARR: Gates writes, "So many times, I wanted to come right out of my chair at the witness table and scream, you guys have been in business for over 200 years and can't pass routine legislation?"

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And I think what he tried to do in this book was to be very candid about what's going on in Washington.

STARR: Even as Gates sent troops to war, he felt the White House didn't trust the military and he was emotionally conflicted about the president's handling of the Afghan war.

JAFFE: He does seem to feel that the president just wasn't emotionally invested enough. He wasn't passionate enough. He didn't care enough.

STARR: Gates turns his pen on Obama, saying, he "doesn't believe in his own strategy and he doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

But he also writes the president is "thoughtful and balanced, sensible in his comments and questions and not driven by politics in war strategy briefings."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: So a president that -- a book that is perhaps confused at times. You know, Wolf, wartime memoirs are usually written long after the fact. One of the questions may be here, years from now, will Bob Gates still feel so upset and so conflicted, Wolf?

BLITZER: We will hear a lot more from him in the coming days as he goes out on a book tour as well.

Thanks very much for that, Barbara Starr. The Obama administration is going to new lengths to try to defend Vice President Joe Biden after Gates slammed his judgment on national security issues. In a rare move, the White House let photographers in to take some pictures the of the president's weekly lunch with the vice president.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

The White House, Brianna, clearly pushing back on Gates' criticism of not only the president, but the vice president.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And today, Wolf, I asked Jay Carney about what is perhaps the most serious charge that Secretary Gates levels against President Obama, that he sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan during what was called the surge for a mission that Gates says the president didn't believe in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: President Obama was -- quote -- "skeptical, if not outright convinced it would fail" about sending 30,000 more troops in. Are you saying that he's wrong?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm saying that the president devised the mission and has great faith in the troops who carry out the mission and in the mission itself, that it's the right mission to pursue in Afghanistan, it has been. I think that's been borne out. That doesn't mean it's not a challenge. Of course it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Now, notice, Wolf, that Jay Carney did not outright slam Secretary Gates.

This is something that the White House has been wary of doing, afraid that it would backfire. Instead, they're enlisting allies outside of the White House to push back more aggressively on some of Gates' claims. When it comes to that rare chance that photographers had today to see Vice President Biden having lunch with President Obama, White House officials say this had nothing to do with the Gates' book.

They say this is a response to recent complaints from photographers that they're often cut out of covering events.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar over at the White House, thank you.

Let's bring in retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO supreme allied commander and a former Democratic presidential candidate. He's joining us from Little Rock. Also with us, our chief national correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

General, are you surprised that the defense secretary, the former defense secretary would write a book about the president and the vice president and other officials so quickly after leaving office while these guys are still in office? WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, I think he probably felt he had a lot he wanted to get off his chest, and he probably felt it was his duty to write as well.

The thing is when you come out of a high-pressure job like this, it takes literally -- I think it takes years to really unwind from it, put it in perspective and understand it. Writing the book is probably part of that for Secretary Gates.

And from the perspective of people in uniform and those of us who are retired, he was an outstanding secretary of defense. We're all looking forward to reading the book. Obviously, it's going to be quite controversial.

BLITZER: There are some who say this is a betrayal, a betrayal, not only of the president and the vice president, but of U.S. troops. There are still, what, 50,000 or 60,000 American troops in Afghanistan in very much harm's way right now. You don't believe that, I take it?

CLARK: I think it's OK to write a memoir like this. I do think that it has to be taken with a certain grain of salt, in the sense that when he makes comments about the president, for example, and doesn't know what the president's attitude really is, I mean, he may see it that way, but that may not have been what the president was thinking.

Just put yourself in the position of, you're the president of the United States, you have made a decision to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan. This is not a high school football team. You're not the coach. You're not out there giving him a pep talk. You have made a really tough call.

It may have been the best among a lot of bad alternatives. You're thinking about it. I don't think that's -- assuming that Secretary Gates saw it the right way, I don't think that's a bad view of a president, to think that he's really thinking about it and he's critiquing himself and second-guessing himself at every step in something like this. I think you want a leader who can be reflective of these very, very consequential decisions.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto is here, General. He's got a question. He's been going through the book himself.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: General, I have been able to get a copy. And reading this, it's a very complicated memoir. It's nuanced, it's emotional.

It's also contradictory at times, because you have Gates praising the president's decision-making, saying he makes decisions even contradicting some of his own political advisers, but also criticizing him for a split with the military. He said this, for instance: "The gap between the White House and senior defense leaders had become a chasm. Neither side was really listening."

I wonder. That struck me. How severe is a problem like that, that split between a commander in chief and his senior defense leaders at a time of, well, really, two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan? CLARK: I think that from the perspective of people in uniform, of course, you always want your recommendation to be accepted, you want to be trusted, and you want credit for the many years of service that you put in.

But, from the other side looking at it as a top leader in the country, you're looking at every angle when you make a decision. You have to. It's not only about whether you trust the military or not. It's the broader picture.

And even when you're dealing with the military, if you're a leader, you understand people have a lot of different ideas in their head, motivations. So you're asking some tough questions. And I think that's what you want.

The military's a complicated organization. And people that get to the top, they're good, they're well-meaning, they're well-intentioned, they're informed, they're capable, but that doesn't mean that they have the best overall interests of the country always in mind, because they don't know those overall interests. They're focused on their job and the mission the president and the secretary of defense gave them to look at.

So the president has to have the big picture in mind.

BLITZER: One final question, General, before we let you go, totally unrelated, maybe not so much unrelated.

You just wrote a letter, a mass letter out there basically endorsing Hillary Clinton for president of the United States in 2016. Walk us through. What's going on? Do you believe she's going to run?

CLARK: Well, I don't think she's made the decision to run, but I do think that if you look at the long record of candidates for public office, at least in my lifetime, I haven't seen anybody better qualified than Hillary Clinton.

She's been at state government level. She's been in private practice as a lawyer. She's been the first lady in the White House, has two terms as a senator and secretary of state. And she's had enormous time to grow. She's been in the public eye and scrutinized for years and years and years.

I think she's extraordinarily qualified and would be a great president. That's why I'm backing her. I hope she runs.

BLITZER: All right, Wesley Clark.

You're not alone. A lot of people hope she runs. We will see if she does. Presumably, by the end of this year, we will know.

Appreciate it, General. Thanks much.

CLARK: Thank you.

BLITZER: And Jim Sciutto is standing by. He's got some other reporting later this hour.

Still ahead, what should the Governor Chris Christie now do to protect his presidential dreams, after casting blame on his own aides for an exploding scandal?

And after Dennis Rodman's shocking rant on CNN, what could he now do for an encore? Just ahead, the strange finale to his controversial visit to North Korea.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie responding to a scandal that potentially could politically scar his own presidential prospects.

He says he's seeing incriminating e-mails sent by his top aides for the first time and he's suggesting heads will roll. The e-mails bolster claims that access lanes to a busy bridge were closed to get political revenge against a Christie opponent by snarling traffic in his own town.

Governor Christie issued a statement saying: "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled bay member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."

A little while ago, I spoke to the target of this alleged vendetta, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, Mark Sokolich, and I asked him if he believes Governor Christie.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK SOKOLICH (D), MAYOR OF FORT LEE, NEW JERSEY: As this story continues and as things begin to unravel with e-mail, the actions of counterparts, resignations, engagement of defense counsel, that position becomes more and more difficult to understand, more and more difficult to comprehend, and, quite frankly, more and more difficult to believe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're joined now by CNN political commentator the Republican strategist Ana Navarro, and Josh Marshall is joining us as well. He's the editor and publisher of the politically more liberal Web site Talking Points Memo.

Guys, very much -- Josh, I will ask you first, do you believe Christie when he says he knew nothing at all about this?

JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL, FOUNDER AND EDITOR, TALKING POINTS MEMO: I don't know. You know, I think it seems implausible that he wouldn't have been aware of it.

Certainly not impossible. I think it's really -- you know, we're going to -- clearly there's going to be several layers of investigation right now. I think the problem is, IS that from a commonsense point of view, it seems a little implausible that he didn't know about it. And in the realm of politics, that's really what counts.

So I think he's in a pretty tough position right now. And part of it is because he's handled it today in a very, very aggressive, sort of indifferent kind of way. And what surprises me is, you know, his administration had these e-mails, and they have known for a while now that, you know, hostile Democrats in the state legislature who subpoenaed them had them, too.

So it's a little odd to me why they were caught so off-guard by this. And I would have to imagine that if you're a Christie supporter, you have got to be asking that right now, too.

BLITZER: It's obviously a bizarre story, a very politically explosive story.

Ana, I want you to listen to another clip, my interview with the mayor of Fort Lee just a little while ago. And I asked him what Christie needs to do. Does he need to apologize, for example, to him and some other mayors of nearby communities? Listen to his response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SOKOLICH: Don't call me, but call the families who were waiting three, four times longer for emergency service agencies when their loved ones were having heart palpitations or when their loved ones had extreme chest pains and were waiting for our ambulance car to arrive.

Do me a favor. Call and apologize to thousands of families whose kids were late for first day of school and the three or four days that ensued thereafter. Call our police department and call our administrators in the school system that had to deal with this. Call the folks that had to deal with traffic Armageddon here that week. Don't call me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Ana, what does he need to do right now, the governor, to fix this?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think the mayor's absolutely right.

And, Wolf, as I think you know, I like Chris Christie a lot. There's so many of his positions that I like. He's somebody that I could see myself supporting as a candidate for the nomination. But this is very troubling. It's very disturbing.

I think it opens up many questions about his leadership style. And I think Chris Christie has got some explaining to do. First thing he needs to do is take responsibility. He needs to acknowledge that this happened under his watch and his administration by his political appointees and the buck stops with him.

And, number two, he needs to apologize. I think the mayor is right. I think he should go to ground zero, face it. It's what Chris Christie has done traditionally, face the problems right head-on. Go apologize. Show some remorse, explain that he's going to get to the bottom of it. He's got to get in front of it. He should be the one calling for the investigations.

I want to see the Chris Christie that I know confront this in a very aggressive manner and get to the bottom of it.

BLITZER: All right, Josh, it may not just be a political scandal. There could be something even more serious involved. Listen to this exchange I had with the Fort Lee mayor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you believe any criminal laws may have been violated?

SOKOLICH: You cannot close down the busiest bridge in the world for political retribution. It's not something that's possible. You have intentionally put people in harm's way.

You knew that before you did it. You knew that when Fort Lee called 20, 30, 40 times. You knew that when I kept sending text after text and calling cell phone after cell phone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Josh, how far could this go?

MARSHALL: You know, the criminal side of this -- most of us are focused on the politics, because Chris Christie wants to run for president.

I think the criminal liability could actually get pretty serious. Let's assume for a moment that Chris Christie did not know anything about his office's involvement in this until today. We know three people who seem to have been pretty directly involved.

I don't think there's any question that laws could have been broken. The key is, it's not just there are specific statutes in New Jersey, but, remember, this is a bridge that literally goes interstate. It goes from New Jersey to New York. So I would assume that would bring federal laws potentially into play as well.

I think the key is for Christie. Again, if he ordered this and there's proof, then he's in deep, deep trouble, and if that's proven. I think the key for him, assuming it never gets to that point, politically, though, is like all scandals that are very damaging, it's damaging to him because people can readily understand this.

BLITZER: Josh --

MARSHALL: And it's not that different from what people normally think of as bad sort of Christie, that he's a bully.

BLITZER: We will continue this conversation, this story clearly not going way.

Josh Marshall, Ana Navarro, guys, thanks very much.

I will have more on this scandal, other news when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news on the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie,and the scandal that's exploding and escalating right now.

In fact, we're getting new details.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here.

And you're learning, Gloria, of some very disturbing information.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: We are, Wolf. This is a story, I should say, that was just reported by "The Bergen Record." It's a story about four known EMS responses that were delayed during the times of the lane closures.

BLITZER: These are emergency medical responses.

BORGER: These are emergency medical responses.

We have obtained a letter that was written by the EMS coordinator to the mayor that you just interviewed earlier in the show, the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey --

BLITZER: Mark Sokolich.

BORGER: -- in which this EMS coordinator talks about these emergency responses that were delayed on September 9 and 10, four instances of those, one of which was for a 91-year-old woman who was -- who did die. We do not know, Wolf, whether she died as a result of the delay or whether she would have expired anyway.

But this is the kind of story -- and, again, the mayor referred to it in his interview with you -- delayed EMS responses, that turn this story into a nightmare.

BLITZER: I'm just looking at this letter myself for the first time.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: And we don't know if this delay actually caused this woman to die, although there could be some lingering suspicion there.

BORGER: That's right.

BLITZER: And that would certainly escalate the stakes involved --

BORGER: Sure.

BLITZER: -- in what may have been some political vendetta, but lives were potentially at stake.

BORGER: At stake.

And, you know, this EMS coordinator said that there was gridlock through the entire center of town, and that they had to ask a Port Authority police officer about what all the traffic was about.

And this EMS coordinator, Paul Favia -- I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing it correctly -- just detailed instances on September 9 and 10 when response time was very difficult to get down because of all these problems.

BLITZER: How much could all this hurt Christie?

BORGER: Well, look, I think it's a real problem for Chris Christie, as we were talking about earlier, Wolf.

He said that he did not know about it, that he'd been misled by his staff. But, quite frankly -- and I spoke with former Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey, also a Republican, who said, look, there are a lot of unanswered questions here as to the details of this, as to what actually occurred, so there are unanswered questions that people in Fort Lee want to know a lot about. And then there are also unanswered political questions, which is, what would drive members of your staff to do something like this out of a political vendetta, and what kind of environment is there in the governor's office if, in fact, these people did do what these e-mails seemed to point to earlier today?

So there are a lot of details that are yet to be known, but I think that this issue of emergency medical services being delayed is a real problem.

BLITZER: Yes, there's going to be local, state and I suspect even federal investigations looking at all this --

BORGER: Well, that's what the mayor seemed to be indicating.

BLITZER: -- and see if it's not just political, potentially could be political.

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: Gloria, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

Remember, you can always follow what's going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. You can tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.