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Secret Clinton Papers May Be Released; Will Arizona Governor Veto Religious Rights Bill?; Russian President Vladimir Putin Orders Military Exercises Amid Ukraine Tensions; Political Unrest Grips Venezuela; Another Obamacare Milestone; Christie on the Back Nine Politically; Veterans Benefits & Iran Sanctions; Interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders

Aired February 26, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, there's a mystery surrounding papers from Bill Clinton's presidency. A report says the documents should have been made public a year ago. So, what's behind the delay and what's in those papers?

Also right now, the Vladimir Putin ups the ante, calling for surprise military exercises near the Ukrainian border. What message is he trying to send?

And right now, tying benefits for American military veterans to sanctions on Iran. It's part of the latest maneuvering going on in Congress and it's making some lawmakers, including Bernie Sanders, boiling mad.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We begin with a political paper chase that could cause some problems for Hillary Clinton. More than 30,000 pages of confidential documents from the Bill Clinton presidency should have been made public a year ago but they are still under lock and key. That's according to the Web site, Politico. Some but not all of the papers may soon be released and that could cause some problems for Hillary Clinton if she runs for president in 2016.

Our Senior Political Analyst Ron Brownstein is joining us now from Culver City out in the California. Ron, give us an idea of what kind of documents we're talking about, what this potentially could mean if Hillary Clinton runs for president.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Hi, Wolf. Well, first of all, substantively, I have written books using the presidential libraries and the general trend over time is toward longer delay and more narrow disclosure. FDR library, LBJ library, huge troves of material. You get more closer to the present and what is available has steadily narrowed. So, this is part of, I think, a long-standing trend. We don't know what exactly are in the documents. According to the report by Josh Gerstein, he's a terrific reporter, that many of them are confidential advice within the White House.

I think, politically, this really plays into the broader issue which is that obviously one of the fulcrum points for a Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, if there is one, is whether she can keep it focused on the future and looking forward or whether it is -- she is dragged back into refighting many of those polarizing disputes of the 1990s.

BLITZER: Yes, and that's going to be a big issue. But as you know, by law, the papers can be withheld --


BLITZER: -- from public -- from the public for about 12 years after a president leaves office.


BLITZER: And that means the documents could have been released a year ago. So, what's the delay? Why make --


BLITZER: -- in making them public?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, you know, as I said, I think the general trend has been toward more kind of disputes between the former presidents and the archives, the national archives, which manages these. This is a broad problem for scholars, I think, in terms of access to presidential papers.

But I think there, it's a little -- there's a little bit of a mystery of exactly what has held up the release of these specific papers, you know. And we're going to obviously learn more as it appears that a big chunk of them will be released shortly. Whether they have anything in them that is going to change the way people view Hillary Clinton, view the 1990s, you know, the verdict on that has been extremely thought out to an extreme degree, not only contemporaneously but in the decades since. I'm more dubious of that, but we're going to see when the papers are released.

BLITZER: As you know, Hillary Clinton is giving two speeches in Florida today. The first related to health care. The second at the University of Miami where Bill Clinton's former Health and Human Services secretary, Donna Shalala, has been the president.


BLITZER: So, does Hillary Clinton seem to be setting the stage for a White House run, based on all of her activities right now? What's your sense?

BROWNSTEIN: The short answer is yes. I mean, I think everything points in that direction. The Democratic Party is certainly anticipating that she will be running. And, you know, she is an enormously strong position as the nominee to win the nomination. And, as the nominee, she is in position to benefit from the demographic trends that have been lifting Democrats for the last quarter century.

But the problem -- I mean, clearly, one of the major challenges she will face is what we talked about earlier which is can she keep this forward-looking or is it going to be kind of -- should be (INAUDIBLE) rehash of the controversy of the 1990s. We should point out though, Wolf, that kind of the assessment of the Clinton presidency has improved in comparison to what's come after. We had enormous economic growth, the biggest gains in reducing poverty, 22 million jobs in eight years. All of those numbers that look even better now after a decade in which the median income is lower today than it was when Bill Clinton left office. So, she has -- you know, the story of the 1990s is not one only of challenge for her, it is, in many ways, a more positive backdrop than it was on the day Bill Clinton left office.

BLITZER: Yes, she may want to look backwards to the eight years when Bill Clinton was president, because as you correctly point out, the economy was booming in those years. And the economy, --


BLITZER: -- after all, is issue number one in a presidential race, unless the country happens to be at war. Ron Brownstein, thanks very much for joining us.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We could find out today whether the Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, plans to veto a controversial bill that would allow businesses to refuse services to gays and lesbians. Supporters say the measure protects business owners from doing work that violates their religious convictions. Critics call it a discriminatory bill that targets the LGBT community. They're planning protests all week and including an all-night demonstration tonight in Phoenix. The governor has until Saturday to veto the measure. She hasn't revealed her intentions yet, only saying she will, quote, "do the right thing for this state of Arizona."

Similar religious freedom measures, by the way, limiting gay and lesbian rights have been proposed in about a dozen other states. Bills are pending in about half of them, including Georgia and Missouri, and the remaining half lawmakers have either shelved the bills or rejected them outright. More on this story coming up.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, flexing his military muscles, ordering military exercises in an area bordering Ukraine. The surprise move comes amid high tensions with the west over the former Soviet Republic and the weekend ouster of its president who had recently aligned himself with Moscow.

Phil Black is joining us from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev right now. Phil, what do we know, first of all, about these unscheduled, shall I say, Russian military exercises?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued an order mobilizing units in the central and western military districts of Russia to conduct combat readiness tests. It's not the first time he's done this in other part of the country. He doesn't mention Ukraine specifically but both the timing and the geography which seem to be a little suspicious, certainly. Here in Ukraine, the defense ministry is not commenting on this Russian announcement. U.S. officials suspect there's nothing too offensive about it, at this stage, and this could, in fact, be intended to impress a domestic Russian political audience -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And what do you know about these latest confrontations that seem to be flaring in southern Ukraine right now?

BLACK: Yes, so this is the south of the country and in a region known as the Crimere (ph). There's a very strong Russian influence there not least because the Russian government has a big lease on a huge naval facility there. Its Black Sea fleet is there. A big chunk of the population see themselves as ethnically Russian.

Today, it became very much a flashpoint between thousands of people screaming, Crimere is part of Russia. Another thousand right next to them outside the region's parliamentary building saying, Crimere is part of Ukraine.

It looked, for a while, like it could have been the potentially violent flashpoint between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian groups that people have been fearing. There's a lot of pushing and shoving, very rowdy. One person died at the scene, although it's not clear how. Eventually, some local political leaders told everyone to come out, calm down and go home. And for the moment, things on there -- things there are now calm -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, this -- but that calm is uncertain. It's a very, very delicate calm. What happens in Ukraine is, by far, unclear, at least right now. Phil black in Kiev, thank you.

Turning now to Venezuela, also in the grip of political turmoil. The middle class is joining students to fight the government of the president, Nicolas Maduro. Some protesters have been piling up furniture and whatever else they can find to try to keep government forces out of their protest sites. People have been fed up over the violent crime, the shortages of basic food and the soaring inflation. We're going to have a live report from Caracas later this hour.

Coming up next, Obamacare enrollment reaching another milestone. Will the increase in sign-ups quiet Republican critics? Our own Gloria Borger, she's here. She's standing by to weigh in.

And later, what do Iran's sanctions have to do with increased benefits for U.S. military veterans? One lawmaker says, nothing. That's why he's upset. We'll speak live this hour with Senator Bernie Sanders.


BLITZER: A new poll provides more evidence that the so-call bridgegate scandal maybe taking a toll on the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. In the new CBS News "New York Times" poll, 41 percent of Republicans say Christie should not run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, 31 percent say Christie should launch a bid. At a town hall meeting today, Christy said, don't trust pollsters or meteorologists. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: The only two professions in America where you keep getting paid, even when you're always wrong, affect my life every day. Pollsters and weathermen. Hey, man, they don't ever have to have it right and they come back the next day and they sound just as authoritative as they used to, right? It's crazy. But, hopefully -- we're getting to the end of February this week and hopefully that'll mean that we'll stop this insane winter we've had.


BLITZER: The governor also spoke about his own political future.


CHRISTIE: I'm in my second term now. According to our constitution, you know, that means I can't run for governor again. I could tell you something. That's really good news for you. It's really good news for you and here's why. I'm not worried about politics anymore, everybody. This is it. I'm on the back nine. And when you're on the back nine, and you don't have to worry about playing another front nine, your only obligation is to tell people the truth.


BLITZER: Christie has denied any role in the scandal affecting his administration. A committee is investigating whether traffic gridlock last September was political payback against the Christie opponent. The number of people signing up for Obamacare reaching another milestone. The administration saying 700,000 people have enrolled so far this month. That brings the total to 4 million with just under five weeks to go until the March 31st deadline, the deadline for getting insurance coverage this year.

Let's bring in our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger. Before we talk about that, you know, the comments from Christie seem to be indicating, you know what? He's not only -- can't run for re-election in New Jersey, but maybe he's giving up his hope for running for the Republican presidential nomination.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it was a little ambiguous, Wolf, because he was talking about the fact -- saying to his audience, you're lucky, because I can't run again, I'm on the back nine. Was he referring just to New Jersey or is he becoming a little wistful about another tournament to overuse the metaphor? Was he -- is he talking about the --

BLITZER: He said - he said, it's really good news for you, and here's why. I'm not worried about politics anymore.

BORGER: Right. Now, is he saying that about New Jersey or is he saying that about a future presidential bid?

BLITZER: Yes. BORGER: I think it's -- at this point, highly unlikely that Christie is saying, you know, forget the presidency. That's over. But I do think he's probably taken so many hits that he's given it a lot more thought than he might have thought he would have given at this point.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about Obamacare right now. It looks like some relatively good news for the White House.


BLITZER: Four million people -

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Have now signed up for -

BORGER: Uh-huh.

BLITZER: They -- originally they wanted 7 million by the end of March.

BORGER: Then six. Then five. Right.

BLITZER: Then six. Well, they still have another five weeks to go. We'll see how many sign up.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Maybe another million or two.

BORGER: Uh-huh.

BLITZER: So at least millions of people are signing up.

BORGER: Right. And, you know, look, I spoke with a senior administration official about this and they're now downplaying expectations, of course. And they say, you know, those weren't our numbers, those were the Congressional Budget Office numbers. But they are saying this is good news. They're not jumping up and down, because they're afraid to do that, Wolf. They're saying this is good news.

What's good for them is that younger people are now starting to enroll. In the month of January, younger enrollment grew by 65 percent. So what they first expected, once they got the kinks out of the system, was that older, sicker people would enroll first and then would come the younger people. One of the reasons you see Mrs. Obama out, the president out, Joe Biden out on lots of talk shows is that they're trying to convince younger people that they've got to sign up because you do have this March 31st deadline coming up. So they're guardedly optimistic about this. But, you know, they're under no illusions that this is going to stop the controversy, because it's still not a popular program.

BLITZER: And they have five weeks to get a lot more young -

BORGER: They do.

BLITZER: Whether it's 5 million or 6 million or 7 million, what's real key is that a certain percentage are healthy, young -

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: People who are buying insurance to help pay and offset the older people -

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Who will need that insurance more and it will be more expensive.

BORGER: And the big question is, when you look at that balance, how do the insurance companies rate it for their premiums for next year? So how does this enrollment track with the expectations that the insurance companies actually had? Because what everyone wants to avoid is sticker shock for your next year's insurance. And if it's not the right mix, people could get a lot of sticker shock. So that's the big question that's out there and it still remains unanswered.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger, thanks.


BLITZER: And we're going to do some more checking, get some clarification from Governor Christie.

BORGER: Christie. Absolutely.

BLITZER: He says he's done with politics. Does he mean only in New Jersey or nationally?

BORGER: Or there are 16 more holes (ph) to go, right?

BLITZER: Let's see what else is going to happen. All right, Gloria, thank you.

BORGER: Or 18.

BLITZER: Up next, why the push for new sanctions against Iran could affect a plan to expand U.S. military veterans' benefits. We're going to talk live with a senator who's fighting mad over the efforts to link these two issues. Bernie Sanders, he's standing by live.

And later, no let-up in Venezuela. Political turmoil spreading as these repressive actions by government security forces continue to spread themselves. We'll have a live report. That's coming up.


BLITZER: A bill to expand health education and other benefits for veterans has easily cleared a Senate hurdle, but the fate of the bill remains uncertain right now and one reason is an alternate proposal that includes new sanctions against Iran, in addition to the expanded benefits for U.S. military veterans. Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, is crying foul over this move. He's joining us live from Capitol Hill. Senator, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: All right, so what's going on here? Because Americans are confused. I think almost everyone wants to see military veterans get better health and education benefits. What's the connection between a veteran's benefits bill and increasing sanctions towards Iran?

SANDERS: Well, that is a great question, and I think you're going to have to ask the Republican leadership that question. The fact of the matter is, we have introduced, with strong bipartisan support, Wolf, the most comprehensive veterans legislation introduced in decades. It's going to make sure that veterans who, for example, because of war wounds are unable to have children, we're going to help them do that. We're going to help Vietnam era veterans' families who are taking care of disabled vets get some support. We're going to make education easier for a lot of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. We're going to deal with some situations such that when the government was shut down, we almost -- we're not sending out checks to disabled vets. We're going to deal with that. We're going to provide, for the first time, open up dental care to veterans.

This is a comprehensive bill supported by the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Virtually every veteran's organization in the country understands that the cost of war is real, and we have got to support those people who have put their lives on the line defending this country. And I think there is wide support across the country for this bill. I frankly think there's a lot of support in the Senate for this bill.

And now what is happening, for the same old stupid partisan reasons, the Republican leadership says, well, we want to attach to this bill Iran sanctions. And they know that this is something the president doesn't want. They know it's something that the secretary of state doesn't want at this point. They know that the Democratic leadership doesn't want it. And it's a means to torpedo what is such an important piece of legislation for millions of our veterans. And I really get very upset. I was pleased to see that groups like the American Legion, the largest veterans group in America, just came out, just a little while ago, and they say, let's debate veterans issues. Don't put (ph) the Iranian sanctions on this.

BLITZER: But as you know - as you know, senator, and you and I have been around Washington for a long time, it's one of the reasons outsiders really don't like Washington is because they get a piece of legislation, they throw all sorts of totally unrelated issues into that legislation. This is sort of standard operating procedure that's been going on in Washington for as long as I remember.

SANDERS: The answer is, yes and no. I mean it's certainly true and it is certainly what makes people so disgusted with what goes on in Washington. And the average American says, OK, you want to vote for the veteran's bill, vote for it. You want to vote against it, vote against it. You have amendments improving the bill, bring them forth. What does Iran sanctions have to do with the veterans' bill and it has nothing at all to do with the veterans' bill. That's the simple truth.

Now, what I hope very much is in this extremely partisan environment, the fact that we have a Congress that is virtually dysfunctional. I would hope that on this issue of supporting those people who sacrifice so much for their country, supporting their families, that we could, for this moment at least, rise above this absurd level of partisanship. And I hope that we will. I hope that we can get some Republican support for the bill.

BLITZER: One final question, senator. Assuming the Iran sanctions part is stripped out and it's not part of the bill, there are some oh who are worried about the cost of these expanded benefits for U.S. military veterans, health benefits, education benefits, social service benefits, all sorts of other benefits. And they say the country can't afford that right now, to which your reply is?

SANDERS: If you can't afford to take care of your veterans, then don't go to war. These people are bearing the brunt of what war is about. We have a moral obligation to support them.

BLITZER: Simple answer to the point. Senator, thanks very much for coming in. You'll keep us informed on what's going on up there.

SANDERS: I will. Thank you.

BLITZER: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Up next, deadly protests spreading in Venezuela. Are there any signs of a let-up? We're going to have a live report.

And a new law in Uganda has gay people afraid for their lives right now. We're going to speak to a writer, an author, a scholar, who says the anti-gay bill has actually some ties to folks right here in the United States. What's going on? Stand by.