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CNN NEWSROOM

Christie Denies Sandy Funds Threat; Christie's Team Fires Back; Interview with Frank Pallone; Obama Speaks To "The New Yorker"; President Obama and First Lady Honor Martin Luther King Day; Can Russia Secure the Olympics?; Olympic Evacuations; Olympic Security

Aired January 20, 2014 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, using the words false and illogical, Chris Christie's lieutenant governor fiercely denying new charges of favoritism, among other things. Meantime, Christie tells a reporter what he is going through has been, in his word, awful.

Also, right now, President Obama marks Martin Luther King's birthday in five years in office. He's opening up about how his own skin color both hurts and helps him.

And right now, the Olympic torch gets closer to Sochi. As new terror threats emerge, can Russia keep the world's athletes safe?

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. Completely false and illogical. That's how Chris Christie's lieutenant governor describes the latest allegations dogging the administration. Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno today denied allegations that she threatened to withhold hurricane Sandy relief funds in order to get support from a development -- for a development project. The allegation comes from the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAWN ZIMMER (D), MAYOR, HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY: The bottom line is, she came and she made a direct threat to me. She came -- and when the Lieutenant Governor comes, pulls you aside in a parking lot, and says that these two things are connected. I know it shouldn't be, but they are. And if you tell anyone, I'll deny it. I mean, she felt almost guilty about saying it. She knows it's wrong. But that is exactly what they're trying to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our own Erin McPike is on the scene for us in Trenton, New Jersey. Erin, you heard the Hoboken mayor saying governor Christie was, if you believe this, alleged threat directly involved in that threat. Lieutenant Governor says there was no threat at all. Give us her response.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Lieutenant Governor said three times that Zimmer's claims were false. And listen here to her describe why this bothered her personally.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KIM GUADAGNO (R), LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR, NEW JERSEY: Standing in Union Beach, as we are today, with some of the mayors whose towns were devastated by Sandy and also being a Sandy victim myself, makes the mayor's allegations particularly offensive to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCPIKE: Now, she also gave some details to describe their relationship and why she thinks Zimmer's story is dubious. Now, Zimmer did put out a statement shortly thereafter to say she was standing by her story -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zimmer, the Mayor of Hoboken, says she has now spoken to federal investigators, the U.S. Attorney. She says, what, she spent two hours answering questions yesterday about her allegations and she also submitted to the U.S. Attorney her own diary, which she said was contemporaneous notes of that alleged meeting in the parking lot. What do we know about -- what else do we know about this investigation?

MCPIKE: Well, Wolf, at that point, this is it. I mean, this was -- that was Sunday of a holiday weekend, that two-hour meeting and handing over the diary. We believe that the New Jersey Assembly might also start to launch their own investigation or hold hearings, something of that nature. But so far, this is the very beginning of that investigation. That journal may be the only evidence that we have. But it's really the Hoboken mayor's words against the Christie administration's words -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The governor, Chris Christie, who is down in Florida raising money, he's the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. As you know, some big fat cat Republican donors were -- was there. Was he able, really, to get away, though, from his political trouble and potential legal trouble back home?

MCPIKE: Wolf, no. He was asked about it. And he said that he was disturbed by the bridge-gate controversy. He said he was hurt by it. Of course, there were 750 very wealthy and influential Republican donors there. And they were there to encourage him and say that they wanted him to run for president. He, though, said he has too much on his plate and to come see him next year about this.

But, Wolf, I also want to point you to a Yahoo! interview that he did on Friday. It just posted to the Internet this morning. We want to read part of that to you, because he explained, I don't think anybody knows what it feels like to have the kind of attention that I've had in the last nine days until you go through it. It's awful. Listen, it's awful. I can explain to you as vividly as you like, but you won't get it.

He did, however, say he's ready -- readier to be president. But for a little bit of insight in how he thinks, he says you need to have sharp elbows publicly to make deals privately -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Erin McPike in Trenton, thank you. The mayor of Hoboken certainly not backing down. She issued her own statement reacting to Lieutenant Governor's statement, among other things. She said this, I am genuinely disappointed the Lieutenant Governor Guadagno has lived up to her promise that she would deny linking Hoboken's application for Sandy hazard, the mitigation funding, with expediting a private development project. I stand by my word, remain willing to testify under oath, and I will continue to answer any questions asked of me by the U.S. Attorney's office.

Let's bring in Democratic Congressman, Frank Pallone, of New Jersey. Joining us from Union Beach right now. Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. FRANK PALLONE JR. (D), NEW JERSEY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sir, this is a she said versus a she said. She said, who do you believe? Do you believe the mayor of Hoboken or the lieutenant governor of your state?

PALLONE: Well, Wolf, I wasn't party to the conversations, but I do think the allegations of the mayor of Hoboken are very serious, and the U.S. Attorney needs to look into it. And I have said to you in the past, I mean, there's been so many allegations now about, you know, threats and bullying by the Christie administration. You know, it does seem that that's the culture. And I think that this whole idea of abuse of power, you know, has to be looked into, both by these legislative committees and by -- and by the U.S. Attorney's office.

You know, I believe that what happened with the T.V. commercials, that -- where the governor said, you know -- or his administration said, you know, you put me in the T.V. ads, and I'll take the higher bidder, essentially, which is what the Asbury Park Press investigated, is just another example of this abuse of power. And these are serious allegations that have to be looked into.

BLITER: Do you think that both of these women, the mayor of Hoboken, Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey, should be brought in for questioning and questioned under oath with lie detectors, if you will? Is that necessary?

PALLONE: Well, both of them don't seem to have a problem in testifying or cooperating thoroughly with the authorities. So I think, you know, that is what's going to happen. They're both going to be asked and U.S. Attorney and the legislative committees will have to look into it and determine what happened. And there may be additional facts that come forward, you know, as we proceed.

BLITZER: Do you think it could have been just a simple misunderstanding in that parking lot? Maybe the lieutenant governor said to the mayor, you know, we really want you to go ahead and approve this development project that's going to be taking place in Hoboken and there wasn't a direct linkage to receiving more Superstorm Sandy funds? Do you think there may have simply been a misunderstanding between these two women as far as communicating what was going on? PALLONE: No. I think that the mayor of Hoboken has been very clear about what she said she heard. I saw her on "Up With Steve Kornacki," you know, the morning -- Saturday morning when she -- when she said this. And she was pretty clear that there was a direct link being made by the Christie administration. I don't think there's any doubt of what she said that she heard and what her allegations are.

BLITZER: By the way, what's the status of that project, that huge development project that they were talking about?

PALLONE: Again, I don't know. I just know that -- what the mayor of Hoboken said was that, you know, it was still outstanding. But I don't know any details about it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You were on "NEW DAY" earlier today on CNN. There was a nice interview with you there and you threw out the so-called I word impeachment. Explain precisely where you see this unfolding, this investigation of the governor?

PALLONE: Well, I want to stress that, you know, I don't believe that when you -- if, in fact, it's true that the Christie administration was linking this development project to Sandy aid, that's a serious charge. And something that I think would be illegal. And would result in, you know, impeachment or resignation.

I want to really correct this notion out there that somehow, you know, this is business as usual in New Jersey or, you know, amongst politicians in general. We don't trade, you know, approval of developments for Sandy aid. That's wrong. I mean, I worked very hard to get this money for Sandy relief.

And I'm in Union Beach. And we're here today working to try to rebuild homes that still haven't been rebuilt and a lot of people haven't gotten their checks to rebuild their home or to raise their home. So, you know, this notion that somehow, you know, you're going to link Sandy aid to development or to T.V. ads or whatever, it's just not right. And that's not the way it is and that's not the way it should be.

And, you know, if nothing else comes out of this, it prevents future politicians from making those kinds of links if they occurred.

BLITZER: If they occurred. A spokesman for the governor, Colin Reid, put out a statement saying, I'll put it up on the screen, it's very clear partisan politics are at play here as Democratic mayors with a political axe to grind come out of the woodwork and try to get their faces on television. I want you to react to that accusation that Democrats, and you're a Democrat, are simply piling on against this Republican governor of New Jersey. He was recently re-elected in a significant -- with a significant majority.

PALLONE: Well, remember that the mayor of Hoboken in New Jersey, we have these May nonpartisan elections. She may be a registered Democrat, but she doesn't run as a Democrat. She runs in a nonpartisan election. And, you know, she was not -- I know she didn't endorse the governor. But, you know, she has been -- she has praised him when she thought it was necessary. So, I think it would be wrong, you know, to say that those who are out there and speaking out are just, you know, partisans. And certainly, you know, the case with the mayor of Hoboken, she doesn't even run as a Democrat. So, I think it's very unfair to say that.

BLITZER: Frank Pallone, as Democratic Congressman from New Jersey, and Fort Lee is in your district, right, Congressman?

PALLONE: No, no, I'm in Union Beach. My district is along the Jersey Shore and also in the central part of the state. I don't represent Fort Lee.

BLITZER: All right. And you don't represent Hoboken either, right?

PALLONE: No.

BLITZER: OK. All right. But he does represent a nice district in New Jersey along the Jersey Shore. It's a nice area, by the way, and I recommend it, especially summertime. Hey, Congressman --

PALLONE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: -- thanks very much. Thanks very much.

PALLONE: Thank you.

BLITZER: It was five years ago today that President Obama was sworn in. And to mark that presidential anniversary, the president gave a wide-ranging interview with the "New Yorker" magazine. As Senior White House Correspondent Brianna Keilar explains, the president didn't shy away from some hot-button topics.

BRIANNA KEILAR: Wolf, this interview covered many topics, everything from the president's agenda for this new year to sports to, yes, marijuana. The president calling recent laws in Washington and Colorado important for decriminalizing a commonly used substance. But he also worried about the slippery slope that could lead other drugs to be legalized.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): President Obama getting real in the pages of the "New Yorker" about his battles in the White House and opening up on a personal level, telling editor, David Remnick, that if he had a son, he wouldn't let him play football for fear of concussions. He also revealed new details of his own views on marijuana. Calling pot use a vice but adding, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

KEILAR: Five years ago today, Obama was sworn in vowing change no matter the obstacle.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come.

KEILAR: Come those storms did. Last year alone saw a controversy over NSA spying, a government shutdown, and the botched rollout of health care reform. And now, battered by those struggles, a more realistic Obama, describing himself as swimming upstream, admitting he may end his second term without accomplishing some of his biggest goals. Obama likens himself to a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids. He says at the end of the day, we're part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right, as he talks about reducing income inequality. It's a goal that he's recently made a hallmark of his second term.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that's at the heart of America.

KEILAR: Obama also revealed that like other presidents, he will write a memoir of his time in the Oval Office and that the first lady has already begun working on hers.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(on camera): And giving, perhaps, a preview of his State of the Union address next week, President Obama said, in the end, he will judge his presidency in large part by whether he's able to begin the process of rebuilding the middle class and ladders into the middle class -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar at the White House, thanks very much.

It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as all of us know, the day the nation remembers Dr. King's legacy. There was a wreath laying ceremony at Dr. King's memorial here in Washington earlier this morning. That's the memorial that was dedicated to Dr. King back in 2011.

Later this afternoon, the president and the first lady will also take part in a public service project here in the D.C. area. We're going to bring you tape of that event once we get it.

There are growing security concerns over the upcoming Olympic Games in Russia. Even with thousands of soldiers and police on the streets, we're going to talk about contingency plans to evacuate Americans, potentially, if it does come down to that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Fear of terrorism at the Sochi Olympic games has the United States military planning to evacuate Americans if it does come down to that. CNN has learned the Pentagon will have two warships, several planes on stand-by. An official with direct knowledge of the plan says the State Department will take the lead if -- if any emergency operation is need. Our justice reporter, Evan Perez, is joining us now with more details.

What can you tell us, Evan, about this? EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, as you know, there's a tremendous fear of security issues in this Olympics that starts just in a couple of weeks. And our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has learned from sources that there are two Navy warships that are on their way, probably going to enter the Black Sea in the next few days, and will be there just off the coast of Russia, just in case there's a need for any evacuations. Now, they're also going to put some planes on standby in Germany, which is just about a two-hour flight away, in case there is a need for evacuations.

As you know, Wolf, you know, there's been a lot of concern about whether or not the Russians are able to secure these games with a lot of unrest in nearby regions and also, as you know, there are some threats that have been made against the games. And so this is just a just-in-case contingency plan that they're working on right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: But for any of those U.S. troops or aircraft or warships that get within Russian territorial waters or air space, the Russian government would have to authorize that. You can't just send in U.S. military personnel into Russia without a formal grant of permission from the Russian government.

PEREZ: Right. And that's exactly right, Wolf. I mean this is a region where it's very hard to reach Sochi from land, and so from the U.S. perspective they just want to have some ships nearby with helicopters that in case you need to evacuate people very quickly, you can do that. And so these ships are going to be in the Black Sea in international waters, just north of Turkey and between Turkey and Russia, to be able to reach that region.

BLITZER: Just out of an abundance of caution, and let's all hope it doesn't come down to any of that. Evan Perez, thanks very much.

Faced with this terror threat, though, what can the U.S. do to protect the American athletes, the American visitors, and there will be thousands and thousands of them there. We're going to talk more about that. Our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes, the former assistant director of the FBI, is standing by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Terrorists are openly threatening the Sochi Olympic games. The Russia president, Vladimir Putin, insists they're safe. But one U.S. senator says, quote, "terror is a very serious fear." So serious he wouldn't go there. Earlier today, runners carried the Olympic torch through Volgograd. Terrorists set off two explosions there last month on a bus and over at the rail station. It's a major transit hub for the games.

And this home video supposedly shows terrorist making the actual threat. The two men are believed to be the suicide bombers that carried out the Volgograd attacks. They're promising revenge for the Muslim blood that they say has been spilled. U.S. lawmakers are clearly concerned.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: So what we're finding is, they're not giving us the full story about what are the threat streams, who do we need to worry about. Are those groups, the terrorist groups who have had some success, are they still plotting? You know, there's a missing gap. And you never want that when you go into something I think as important as the Olympic games.

SEN. ANGUS KING JR. (I), MAINE: I would not go. And I don't think I would send my family. I don't know how you put a percentage on it, but it's just such a rich target in an area of the world that has -- you know, they've almost broadcast that they're going to try to do something there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our CNN law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes.

Tom, what do you think? Is this safe for Americans, for American athletes, for American tourists, guests, to show up in Sochi?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Hi, Wolf. Short answer, no, it's not safe. You have a group that's already stated they're going to attack. They've already conducted two serious attacks, killing three dozen people in the last three weeks. This is very close to their home, so they don't have to cross international borders. They're already within the Russian federation. They've been waging terror attacks against the Russian government, going on more than 20 years from Chechnya and Dagestan. I think when you add all this up and their promise to give us a present, if you will, at the Olympic games, I think it's a pretty serious threat and it's unprecedented. We have not had a threat of this nature and this strength in history for the Olympics.

BLITZER: But the Russians say they've created this perimeter around Sochi that in order to get through there, you need a special pass, you need special papers, that it's going to be almost impossible to get to any of the venues of the games without going through enormous amounts of checkpoints, magnetometers, metal detectors and all that kind of stuff. And they say they've got tens of thousands of military and police personnel on the ground to protect their visitors. Isn't that good enough?

FUENTES: No. I mean that's all well and good that they've got that, but, you know, the terrorists have had many years from the announcement that Sochi was going to be the venue for the games. They've had many years to already move all of the explosives and detonators and firearms and equipment, everything that they need, they could have already put in safe houses years ago in Sochi. So in that case, the terrorists that would go down and use that equipment can pretty much -- all they need to bring is a toothbrush and they're ready to go if the planning has been in place for these years.

BLITZER: Is there good enough cooperation, let's say, between the Russian authorities and the United States to help ease some of these concerns? Because lately, as you know, the U.S.-Russian relationship, especially in these kinds of law enforcement related areas, has been strained.

FUENTES: I think the problem is not with how cooperative the Russians are. I know the FBI has dozens of people there and have had them there for a while and been working for years with the Russian authorities, as they work with governments from all over the world, getting ready to host an Olympics. I don't think that's the problem.

The problem is, even if the Russians pledge to give us everything they have, do they have everything they need and we need? That's the problem. They didn't have enough information to stop the train station bombing in Volgograd. They didn't have enough to stop the bus bombing in Volgograd. And now I've heard that they've issued wanted posters for so-called black widows, or women whose husbands were killed by Russian authorities in earlier attacks by the Russians. So I think that they realize that they are really in a difficult situation to identify everybody that may intend to carry out an attack, and not just in Sochi, not just at the athletic events, but also on all of the transportation hubs leading to Sochi.

BLITZER: A very sober assessment from Tom Fuentes. Tom, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. Appreciate it.

FUENTES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Another controversy swirling around the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration. Christie's team is firing back against allegations they actually threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy relief money. Our chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper, is standing by with more. He's been doing some serious reporting on what's going on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)