Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Spoils of Power: Controversial Military Cuts; Big Apple Blunders

Aired February 24, 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: controversial cuts to the United States military. The Pentagon reveals its downsizing plan, including the smallest Army in more than 70 years -- this hour, new details and new backlash.

Plus, the spoils of power. CNN takes you inside the very lavish retreat of Ukraine's ousted president, who is now a fugitive and wanted on charges of mass murder.

And some Big Apple blunders. The mayor of New York City under fire for embarrassing missteps gets hammered in the news media in New York and realizes his honeymoon is over.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The pushback already is beginning against the dramatic new Pentagon budget cuts proposed today. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled a blueprint for a leaner, more modern military that reflects the ending of America's longest war. Taxpayers would save billions of dollars.

But opponents are already raising red flags about the potential cost to troops, national security and the overall economy.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has got the details -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what are we really talking about here? The Pentagon had planned to get by this year on $541 billion. Now they're going to try and do it with 496.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made one thing clear. Nearly 13 years of war footing is over.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: After Iraq and Afghanistan, we are no longer sizing the military to conduct long and large stability operations.

STARR: The Pentagon will now focus more on special operations, cyber-war and high-tech weapons.

HAGEL: The military must be ready and capable to respond quickly to all contingencies and decisively defeat any opponent should deterrents fail.

STARR: But Hagel knows it's a tough sell. Some will object on national security grounds.

HAGEL: You have fewer ship, fewer troops, fewer planes. Readiness is not the same standard. Of course there's going to be risk.

STARR: Governors are already reacting to proposed cuts in their National Guard forces. Many of those troops are combat veterans from war.

GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD (R), IOWA: We think they're very important to the national defense of this country as well as to helping us in times of emergencies in our individual state.

STARR: Among the key proposed cuts, downsizing the Army from 520,000 soldiers to around 440,000, the smallest since 1940. Key programs like the Air Force U-2 spy plane will be replaced by drones, the A-10 Warthog by a new fighter jet.

But perhaps the most controversial will be slowing the rate of pay increases, trimming housing allowances and cutting subsidies to commissaries. Congress is likely to object to all of that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And then there's the $52 billion-a-year military health care system. Hagel is proposing some new ideas to try and get people to take advantage of more low-cost health providers in the military, and also to ask retirees to pay just a little bit more for their health care. Neither of those ideas is likely to go down very well with Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's going to be a huge, huge political fight over all of this, there's no doubt about that. Barbara, thanks very much.

Let's discuss with retired Army U.S. General Wesley Clark. He's the former NATO supreme allied commander. He's also a former Democratic presidential candidate.

General Clark, thanks very much for coming in.

WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Do you think these proposals from Chuck Hagel make sense?

CLARK: I do.

I think that given the budget priorities for the country, the fact that you can't raise taxes, the fact that where we are right now is that we're coming out of Afghanistan, I think these proposals make sense. We do have to pivot our forces. We have significant increase in risks in the Western Pacific. We need to function with our Navy, our space forces, our cyber forces. We have got to have those forces sharp, and my heart goes out to the Army. I love the Army. I served in it for 38 years. We have been through this before, the Army goes up, it goes down.

People say, we will never do this again. Well, we probably will do this again, but the Army is very adaptable. We have got great leadership in the Army and we have got to make due with what the country wants us to do.

BLITZER: Because there's no doubt, if you take a look at all the wars the U.S. has been, after World War II, the U.S. cut the number of troops after the Korean War, cut the number of troops after Vietnam, cut the number of troops.

Now after, what, the longest war, Afghanistan, at one point there were what, 150,000, 160,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, at one point, there were nearly 200,000 troops in Iraq. You bring home 300,000, 400,000 troops, you don't need, if you don't have a ground war, two ground wars which the U.S. was engaged in for more than a decade, you don't need all those troops right now. I think that's a fair assessment.

CLARK: Well, I think it's true that you don't need them right now, but the thing is that it takes a long time to get troops the ready to go to war and do the job without taking the casualties.

One of the things we did after the Vietnam War is we really built the Army's training establishment. We learned how to train, we learned the right technologies, we used simulations and we really focused on technology for the individual soldier in the 1990s and then in 2000.

We can't afford to lose that. You cannot go back to a pre-World War II Army with a bunch of people marching around with broomsticks on their shoulders doing right face, and right shoulder arms. That's not what this is about.

I know General Odierno and the Army leadership is concerned about this. When they shrink the Army, they will do it the best they possibly can -- 450,000, yes, achievable. When you get below 450,000, it starts to really bind because you start taking out the logistics support that the other services will need when they go in, like medevac helicopters.

BLITZER: Here's a point that I think is a fair point and I'm anxious to get your input on this. The U.S. does most of the heavy lifting for the NATO allies and the other allies.

If you take a look at this chart -- and I will put it up on the screen. This is 2012 dollars from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Take a look at what the U.S. was spending on defense, $682 billion, and then you add up the next 10 countries combined, China, Russia, U.K., Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, Brazil, the U.S. is spending more than the next 10 countries combined on defense, including some close U.S. allies.

Why can't the allies pick up some of this responsibility? Why does the United States always need to do it?

CLARK: Well, I think the allies will pick up, but the chart you showed with Russia and China and so forth, those aren't comparable figures. Those countries conceal their defense budgets, they don't pay their people from the same account, they don't have the same personnel costs that we do.

China has a 10 percent year-over-year increase in its defense budget for the last 10 years. And so China is really doing well...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You're saying the Peter G. Peterson Foundation is making up these numbers?

CLARK: No, I say just be very, very careful. Those may be published number, but they're not real numbers.

And so what we need is we need to listen to the people who are our experts on national security. You put the forces in and the structures and the technologies that we say we need. This country's pivoting its forces. We're taking away the ground forces to some degree in the Middle East.

We will probably keep some in Afghanistan, still got troops in the Gulf and we have Syria to worry about. But we also recognize the risk of something going wrong in the Western Pacific is going up. You can hear the rhetoric heating up. You can see the buildup of forces there by our allies, also by China, and you have to ask yourself, where is this going to lead?

We hope it leads nowhere. We hope it's just the admirals will have their toys the out there, but it may be much more serious.

(CROSSTALK)

CLARK: And the Chinese phrase to me was the admirals will have their toys, by the way, but it's a very serious situation.

BLITZER: But I think the big problem right now is a lot of the money goes for some sophisticated hardware that the U.S. probably doesn't need anymore, but because of political pressure especially from Congress shutting down a plant in a state or two out there, it's going to cause huge problems, ship building, fighter aircraft with drones, new technology. You don't need all these really expensive defense systems, right?

CLARK: Actually, you need the ability to produce aircraft carriers and submarines. And we're down at the bottom end of that. You need those drones. We're the world's leader in...

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: You need drones, but do you need as many fighter aircraft with drones doing so much of the surveillance, for example, so much of the attacking that you can do within an unarmed aircraft? Why do you need so many of those new-generation fighter aircraft?

CLARK: Because you still need pilot's eyes on the battlefield and in the airspace. There's still things that can be done by a man in a cockpit that cannot be done by an unmanned vehicle.

But, Wolf, we haven't talked about space at all. And space is the real arena of competition. We know the recent technology shows that the Chinese have developed a hypersonic missile capacity. We know the Russians have already fielded missiles that -- they're non- ballistic missiles and so our defenses have difficulty dealing with these potentially.

So there's a lot of new technology out there that we have to be very careful about. We have been really focused on casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been focused on Hamid Karzai. We have been focused on al Qaeda. And we have done it for a decade or more. We have tried to move forward with other technologies, but there's another world out there and they're serious about matching you us.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: All right, General, this debate is only starting now on these new proposals. We will see what happens. Always good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

CLARK: Thank you.

BLITZER: Still ahead: The Chicago mayor comes to the defense of his former boss, President Obama. Stand by for CNN's interview with Rahm Emanuel on concerns of another midterm shellacking and what he knows about Hillary Clinton's presidential plans. And we're also on the trail of New York City's new mayor as he tries to regain some footing after some embarrassing missteps.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The mayor of Chicago's coming to the defense of his former boss, the president of the United States. It's vintage Rahm Emanuel, outspoken, colorful and political.

He spoke with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Don't look now, but Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is back in Washington.

(on camera): And you don't wish you were back in there advising the president?

RAHM EMANUEL (D), MAYOR OF CHICAGO: Are you out of your mind? I could not be happier. ACOSTA (voice-over): The former White House chief of staff will be at the president's side Tuesday for an event awarding Chicago as well as Detroit new multimillion-dollar manufacturing projects, or hubs, as the administration calls them.

(on camera): That this is going to change people's lives.

EMANUEL: This is the Olympic gold. It brings brains and brawn together.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president is creating Chicago's digital manufacturing hub filled with virtual apps like this one through another one of his executive actions.

OBAMA: This has to be a year of action.

ACOSTA: Part of his 2014 strategy to go around Congress when necessary to get things done, an approach Emanuel backs.

(on camera): Right approach?

EMANUEL: One thousand percent. He can't allow America's future to be held hostage by a Congress that won't do anything.

ACOSTA: Republicans have been saying all of these executive actions are creating an imperial presidency.

EMANUEL: I don't know. You know, the Emancipation -- these are not equal, but the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive action. Integrating the armed forces was an executive action. There are times which, if Congress would step up, the president would work with them. But he has a responsibility to not let the future slip from our hands.

ACOSTA: I would be remiss if I didn't ask you some political questions.

(CROSSTALK)

EMANUEL: I thought the last five questions were political questions. I thought had tapped out your political questions.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Emanuel left the White House just before the 2010 midterms when the president took what he called a shellacking and lost the House to the GOP.

(on camera): Are you concerned that the president is heading towards another shellacking in this midterm cycle?

EMANUEL: The one thing I know about politics is that anybody that tells you they know what's going to happen 10 months from now doesn't know what they're talking about.

ACOSTA (voice-over): 2016 is even further away, but Emanuel, a veteran of Bill Clinton's administration, made no secret he will support Hillary Clinton if she runs.

(on camera): Do you think she's going to run?

EMANUEL: You need to ask her. Good luck getting the interview. She'd be very competitive. I already said publicly, if she runs, I'm going to support her.

ACOSTA: Even if the vice president runs?

EMANUEL: Look, Hillary Clinton is a great secretary of state, great United States senator. She has a lot to offer the country. I have already said, if she runs, that's a decision, a personal decision she will make -- if she asks my advice, I will give it. If she runs, I'm 100 percent in.

ACOSTA: You miss Washington, those guys?

EMANUEL: No. I like coming here when I can take money back home.

ACOSTA: And this is one of those opportunities?

EMANUEL: This is one of those opportunities.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: As for those manufacturing hubs, the president would like dozens more of them around the country, but he will need Congress to make that happen. That's because there's just not enough money available to the president to do it on his own by executive action, but Rahm Emanuel will get his for the city of Chicago tomorrow here at the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure he will, as he usually does. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, for that.

Now to another big city mayor whose early honeymoon has turned into a series of some nasty headaches. That would be New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Our national correspondent, Deborah Feyerick, has our report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The honeymoon ended quickly for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city's relentless press corps, which follows him day in, day out.

(on camera): Do you feel you're being treated unfairly?

BILL DE BLASIO (D), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: I think too much of the time, the debate veers away into sideshows. But I'm not shocked by that.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Since being sworn in January 1, the rookie mayor has taken fire on everything, from keeping schools open during a snowstorm and taxing the rich to seemingly please constituents to perceived favoritism of a political supporter and a "do what I say not, what I do" approach, the mayor asking New Yorkers to drive better while his own caravan disregarded basic traffic laws.

DE BLASIO: We're holding ourselves to this standard.

FEYERICK: When asked about the double standard, the mayor, visibly annoyed, refused to answer questions.

KENNETH SHERRILL, HUNTER COLLEGE: A mayor communicates to the voters, to the people through the press. And when you lose credibility with the press, you have a very hard time having credibility with the voters. And credibility, once lost, is hard to regain.

FEYERICK: Previous mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani also took heat during their first months in office, Bloomberg for traveling out of town on weekends on his private jet and refusing to talk about it.

SHERRILL: Compared to his predecessors, the criticism is fair. The difference is his predecessors told the press to drop dead, essentially, and do what they wanted. It's a very different kind of mayoralty.

FEYERICK: Mayor de Blasio's grand vision for the city includes universal pre-K and better housing for low-income families, yet with the media emphasis on what he's doing wrong, it may be hard for some 8.5 million New Yorkers to focus on what he's doing right.

DE BLASIO: I think the notion that there's going to be scrutiny again is baked into this whole reality. And if you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen, as Harry Truman used to say. And I chose to take the heat.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK: Bill de Blasio frequently reminds people that he has a mandate, having won a majority. However, that mandate comes from just 16 percent of all registered voters who actually bothered to show up at the polls on Election Day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick in New York City, thank you.

Just ahead, Ukraine after the bloodshed, the hunt for the ousted president and the damage and the spoils he left behind, the cars, the boat and even the personalized vodka. CNN takes you inside his lavish presidential retreat.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The hunt is now on for Ukraine's most wanted man. The ousted president is a fugitive from an arrest warrant issued by the acting government today.

Russia is questioning the validity of those interim leaders, adding to all the uncertainty in Ukraine only days after mass protests and violence.

CNN's senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh has the latest from Kiev.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): The ousted president is wanted for mass murder and on the run in the south, probably Crimea, seen leaving a private house there.

Ukraine is still on the streets watching a new government form, mourning the dead and enjoying a strange period when the people are the only real power around. Moscow has been pretty silent about losing its main ally here, the ex-president and the United States hopes it stays out militarily.

SUSAN RICE, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: That would be a grave mistake.

WALSH (voice-over): Ukrainians still digesting the rapid collapse of their past and the immense wealth of Yanukovych here at his personal retreat. A day out can see what money can buy if you really don't have anything sensible to do with it.

Soon it may be Yanukovych, former owner, who is behind the bars. He didn't even drive these '50s Bentley, whatever this is, and an American army jeep. In the end he fled, of course, in the presidential helicopter. And not in this, a massive riverboat for partying.

Outside, fascination at the life he led and they could only look in on while their country stagnated. Inside, gifts from guests.

When months ahead, when Ukraine comes to terms with a troubled economy and asks where did all the money go, here is part of the answer. The president's own vodka, even the presidential waste gets gilt.

We later got inside his house, a bizarre, enormous empty mansion. It was gaudy but vacant. Everything laid on, even a tunnel linking the houses across miles and miles of grounds. The luxury literally never seemed to end.

In his bedroom, one bell for sex, one for alcohol. It was presumably a joke, but how he lived to the people whose money this was isn't.

Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Kiev.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: What a story, and the uncertainty of what's going on in Ukraine continues, lots at stake for all of us right now.

Tomorrow, a special interview I will have with Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida. He will join me in THE SITUATION ROOM. We will talk about, among other things, what's going on in Venezuela, and we will also talk about his future political aspirations. Does he want to run for president in 2016? I know he's been asked that question many times. I will ask him again tomorrow.

The interview with Marco Rubio here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

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

Remember, you can always follow what's going on behind the scenes here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Follow me @WolfBlitzer.