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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Rep. Ed Royce of California; Obama Administration Considers Sanctions Against Russia; Interview With Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken; Ukraine: Russian Troops Cross Water Border; D.C., Baltimore And Philadelphia Blasted With Snow

Aired March 3, 2014 - 16:30   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we are following breaking news out of Ukraine. Moments ago, Russian's U.N. envoy accused the former president of Ukraine, or didn't accuse, he said that the former president of the Ukraine asked Putin to send troops into Ukraine to keep the peace.

Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to surround key military outposts in the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine.

The international community is scrambling before any blood is spilled and anymore territory is taken. But while the focus is on Vladimir Putin, and Russia's return to Cold War form, some lawmakers back home are asking a different question, is this all a mess that President Obama made?

Joining me now to discuss all of these issues is Congressman Ed Royce. He's chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks for being here.

So, the White House says they are going to use every tool at their disposal to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically. Is that going to be enough?

REP. ED ROYCE (R-CA), FOREIGN AFFAIRS CMTE. CHAIRMAN: Well, let's look at what they mean by economically. As you know, we in the House and in the Senate are usually quite favorably disposed towards the types of crippling economic sanctions, which would really implode an economy, really have an effect. As you know, the administration is usually pushing back on sanctions. So, I've been in consultation with my Senate counterpart, Mr. Menendez on this issue, as well as the meeting with Jack Lew, the treasury secretary, last, night, which I had on this subject.

I think we're going to be very bullish on doing what we need to do to make - to make Putin feel the heat or at least to have the oligarchs (ph) around him, the business community, to feel the kinds of pressure that is going to come if they don't cease and desist on this behavior. The question is, will the White House support something as aggressive as the economic sanctions that we would like to see?

TAPPER: What did Jack Lew say when you and Mendez and he talked about it?

ROYCE: Well, he speaks about what we can do to do loan guarantees. And I agree, bolster -

TAPPER: To help the Ukraine.

ROYCE: (INAUDIBLE) is part of this. But I think we have got to work and lead with Europe in order to really create a united front because if this thing gets further out of hand and in these cities and in the eastern Ukraine, and if by the city hall they start hoisting the Russian flags, you could end up with an civil insurrection across the Ukraine.

TAPPER: Do you think Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations - and you hear the things that Putin is saying -- describing mob scenes that journalists on the ground in Ukraine say do not exist? They are creating a pretext, a reason for Russia to go in there and take control, a reason that nobody who is there says is actually real, do they believe it? Are they being told this by operatives?

ROYCE: They are being told this by propaganda in Russia. As you know, he's closed down every other avenue of information in the country now.

This is why it would be very important, I think -- and Samantha Power did a good job in her speech today at the U.N. But what we should be doing right now is bringing up a Security Council resolution which would not only isolate Russia, make Russia vote against the rest of the international community, but also put observers directly into the east so that they can report back to the international community and sort of adjudicate this issue. Is that persecution going on? You and I know it is not. We hear it from reporters, but we need to get the NGO groups in on the ground. And that should be part of what the Security Council does.

TAPPER: And Samantha (AUDIO GAP) tomorrow, I think she said, there will be observers sent from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE, as many refer to it.

Numerous people in your party, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Mike Rogers, they have called for a more forceful response from President Obama. But I have to say, his predecessor's approach, George W. Bush, he alternated between being tough on Putin and trying to court him. And regardless of the approach, it didn't stop Putin from invading Georgia in 2008. Is there a value in keeping a diplomatic tone?

ROYCE: Here's the lesson. You know, this administration tried with respect to Poland and the Czech Republic, they had exerted a lot of political capital in order to put in an anti-ballistic missile defense system to protect against the Iranian launches, either to Europe or the United States. The president scrapped that as an overture to Putin because Putin didn't want it. It seems like those overtures only make Putin more aggressive. So I think --

TAPPER: He sees it them as weakness?

ROYCE: He sees them as weakness on the part of the U.S. So I think what we have to do is figure out the considerable economic power that the U.S. and Europe have, consider for a minute all of the oligarchs, all money in Western banks. The state-owned banks in Russia, how susceptible they are to economic pressure from the United States. The collapse of the ruble.

This is the kind of thing that we can bring in to play and we should do it, frankly, in negotiations with Russians and give them an exit ramp. Give Putin an exit ramp in terms of the Black Sea fleet. Say yes, we're going to recognize that you operate the fleet out of Sevastopol. That -- the Ukrainian government asked them to respect that agreement, and then try to move on without more aggression out of Russia.

TAPPER: Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

When we come back, he says he's weighing sanctions and diplomatic options. But if that does not work, just how far is President Obama willing to go? We'll ask his deputy national security adviser coming up.

Plus, there's one person saying I told you so. Sarah Palin, as she points out, she predicted a Russian invasion of Ukraine all the way back to 2008.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper with some breaking news. Of course, 90 minutes. That's how long President Obama spoke with Russian president Vladimir Putin on the phone this weekend. Ninety minutes. But 90 minutes was apparently not enough to convince the former KGB colonel to pull his troops out of the Crimean Peninsula. By late Sunday, Russian forces had complete operational control of the critical land mass. Today, Vice President Biden tried his own telephone diplomacy, calling Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev to implore a peaceful withdrawal of Russian troops. Again, the answer was apparently nyet.

So, where does that leave the White House? Tony Blinken, deputy national security adviser, joins me now from the White House briefing room. Tony, good to see you. The last time we had you on the show, about 10 days ago, President Obama had again just gotten off the phone with Putin. This is what you told us about that call ten days ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECUIRTY ADVISER: President Putin said he supported the agreement that was reached in the Ukraine. He said that he wanted to work cooperatively with us, with the Europeans, with the International Monetary Fund, to help develop a support package for Ukraine going forward. It was a very positive conversation. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So Tony, did Putin lie to the president in that earlier phone call?

BLINKEN: Jake, I don't know if he lied or if he changed his mind. But the fact of the matter is, Russia has intervened militarily Ukraine, violating its sovereignty, violating its territorial integrity. And the president is now mobilizing the international community to support Ukraine and to isolate Russia for the actions its taken.

TAPPER: "The New York Times'" Peter Baker writes today that chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin, "she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. In another world, she said." Is this an unstable individual, Mr. Putin?

BLINKEN: Here's what I do know. The facts that Russia is alleging about what is going on in the Ukraine seem to bear no relationship to reality. The allegations of holgrams (ph) against ethnic Russians, the burning of churches, other violence against ethnic Russians, according to all available evidence has no basis in fact.

And the fact of the matter is, there's a clear path before the Russians right now and a real choice. They can continue to pursue the path they are on and face further isolations and real pain, or if they have real concerns about the plight of ethnic Russians, it's very simple. They don't need Russian troops in there to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine; they should engage directly with Ukraine and they should have international observers go in from the United Nations, the OSCE, institutions to which they belong and they are leading members and they can participate in those missions.

We're working with the international community to build those efforts, and Russia now faces a clear choice whether to go with that or to continue down the path it is on.

TAPPER: I want to get your response to some things said on the show before your appearance. The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, Ed Royce, says he fears the accommodations that President Obama and the Obama administration have attempted to make when it comes to Russia, when it comes to Putin, when it comes to missile defense, have been interpreted - misinterpreted perhaps - but interpreted as weakness. Earlier, Garry Kasparov, who I'm sure you know, said that as soon as Obama did not follow through on the threat to use force when it came to Syria, he was worried that something like this might happen with Putin.

What do you say to critics who say that it is President Obama who has projected weakness leading to a moment like this?

BLINKEN: First of all, I heard your interview with Chairman Royce, and virtually everything he suggested, we are actually doing, including looking very hard at sanctions that would impose a real cost on Russia, including getting the international observers and monitors into Ukraine to verify what is going on and to protect people. And the fact of the matter is, when it comes to sanctions, we've led the effort to put pressure on Iran, which has brought them to the negotiating table. I heard him talk about the missile defense system in Europe. The fact of the matter is, the system that we put in place to replace the one that the previous administration suggested actually covers more of Europe more quickly than what had been in place before. And so we actually have a more effective missile defense in place as a result of the decisions the president took.

But the bottom line is this. We're already seeing Russia pay a real cost for its action in Ukraine. The financial markets in Russia were down 13 percent today. The ruble is at an all-time low. And in terms of the isolation that is now starting to kick in, we've pulled out of preparatory meetings for the G-8 in Sochi, of all places, to take place in a couple of months. There's going to be a chilling effect on trade and investment.

All of that is undermining exactly how Putin defines his power, which is trying to expand Russia's global and economic influence. Everything he is doing and everything we're doing is undercutting that influence.

TAPPER: Last question, Tony: a photographer snapped a shot of a document being carried into 10 Downing Street where the prime minister is, saying that the UK should not support for now trade sanctions or close London's financial center to Russians. Do you have the backing of the UK on potential sanctions?

BLINKEN: Jake, it's a good point. First of all, the president and Prime Minister Cameron spoke, and they are exactly in the same place on the matter of Ukraine. But it goes to a larger point that if you're going to pursue sanctions and other tough measures, you have to get the rest of the world and your key partners with you. That's exactly what the president has been working on over the last few days. On the phone all weekend with leading partners around the world. Our entire team has been working on this, from Secretary Jack Lew to Secretary of State Kerry. That's the smart way to go about working on isolating Russia for the course of actions taken in Ukraine. And also building the support for Ukraine that so necessary going forward.

TAPPER: Deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken, thank you so much. We appreciate your answering our questions.

BLINKEN: Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: When we come back, when Mitt Romney called Russia our number one geopolitical threat, President Obama said he was stuck in the '80s. But should the administration have seen this crisis coming?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Now it's time for the politics lead. Do you remember this moment from the 2012 debates?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: A few months ago, when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical threat facing the America, you said Russia. Not al Qaeda, you said Russia. In the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the cold war has been over for 20 years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And then, of course, there's this golden oldie from all the way back in 2008.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN, FORMER GOVERNOR OF ALASKA: And then after the Russian army invaded the nation of Georgia, Senator Obama's reaction was one of indecision and moral equivalence, the kind of response that would only encourage Russia's Putin to invade Ukraine next.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Panned at the time for the prediction, Palin now says, that the crisis in Ukraine, yes, I could see this one from Alaska. The big question, could the White House have seen this coming in Ukraine?

Let's bring in Julia Hoffe, senior editor at "The New Republic," freshly back from Ukraine and Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at "National Journal." Michael, you say this is a bigger test for Obama than either Iran or Syria. How so?

MICHAEL HIRSH, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": Well, first, I think the world and the west are looking to him for leadership in a way that they haven't been necessarily on Syria or some of these other issues. This is clearly something with strong cold war echoes and of course, the leaders of the free world, as he was once called was seen as the person who was going to take the lead against any then Soviet incursion.

Because this has so many echoes of that period, I think that he's being cast in that role and particularly because of some of your previous guests have suggested, there is a question about his decisiveness on some of these international issues. He has portrayed himself for the last five years as a guy who is getting America out of wars.

You know, and there's a perception of pulling back from the international situation. So this is a test for him on several levels. Can he both overcome that image and do something decisive enough to lead a unified response?

TAPPER: Julia, the administration has been very clear about saying they don't view this through the prism of a cold war chess board. This isn't east versus west. This isn't "Rocky 4." That may be fine and good, but is it possible that that attitude has emboldened Putin in some way?

JULIA HOFFE, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": No. I think what's been happening here is Putin has re -- I would say re-submerged himself into this kind of cold war mentality mix with the Russian imperial mentality. Part of the reason he's taking back Crimea and may go further into Eastern Ukraine for the reason of protecting Russian speakers is that he feels that this is part of a larger Russian universe, which includes Belarus and includes Ukraine.

He even said to George -- he said to have said to George W. Bush back in 2008, you said, you know, George, you know that Ukraine is not a real government, right? And this is how a lot of people of his generation feel and it's a very kind of weird on one hand Soviet and on the other hand kind of Russian imperial view that these are false fictitious divisions that were created after 1991, but really this should all be one big Russian space.

TAPPER: And Putin said in 2005, quite publicly that the biggest geo strategic catastrophe of the 20th Century was the fall of the Soviet Union. When you look at the invasion of Georgia in 2008 under George W. Bush's watch, is it possible that no matter who was president, no matter what their attitude towards Russia, this was going to happen?

HIRSH: It's possible. But going back to what Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin said in 2008, I think there has been a consistent theme of naivety, both by Democratic and Republican president. Remember, George W. Bush was the one who famously said, you know, he saw into Putin's soul and liked what he saw when he first met him.

I think there has been a sense that Putin sees himself as part of this global system the same way we do. That the cold war was, you know, the 1980s, it's all over with and it's not. I don't it is in Putin's mind and the one reason why we missed the, you know, the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and missed this this time I think is because everyone down to our intelligence analysts are viewing Putin through rosie- colored lenses that should not really exist.

TAPPER: Julia, you heard Kasparov say that this isn't chess because in chess there is rules and Putin doesn't believe in rules, but you did say that Putin check-mated the west. How did he do that?

HOFFE: Well, he has check mated us before or the west before. He understanding there is very little that we can do to punish him. We can make it hurt financially, even without Europe stepping in and adding their own economic sanctions against Russia. We can create a lot of financial pain for Putin. To him, that's a price worth paying.

So he's taking in some ways a calculated risk. There is just not much we can do and I don't actually agree that it's because of Syria and because of Obama's response on Syria. Look at what happened with Georgia and George W. Bush. I mean, you couldn't have wanted a more belligerent or strong and decisive American president.

No, a strong and decisive American president. And Russia invaded Georgia and what did we do? We couldn't anything. What are you going to do? Go to war with Russia? Probably not a good idea.

TAPPER: Julia Hoffe, Michael Hirsh, thank you so much. When we come back, from mudslides out west to ice and snow in the east. We'll take a look at the massive coast-to-coast storm causing misery across the country that's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In our National Lead, this winter's nasty weather just goes on and on, starting with floods that unleashed rivers of mud in California last week. The storm stretched east over the weekend bringing freezing temperatures across the Midwest. Four deaths in this hour and several inches of snow in D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia today.

Here in Washington, D.C., the federal government shut down and votes in Congress were postponed. CNN's Erin McPike is on the National Mall with more. Hi, Erin. How is it looking out there right now? I've got to drive home.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it's very slippery. It's really icy. I want you to look at some of this down here and that is the reason why Reagan National Airport saw 80 percent of its flights canceled today. It's been a big problem throughout the whole country. There have been 3,700 or so flight delayed across the country and about 2,800 cancellations. The bulk of those have been in Washington and Baltimore and Philadelphia.

But obviously, a lot of eastern traffic in the United States goes through those three airports. So that's why we see such a problem there. Obviously this system has socked the whole country to give you a sense of how bad it is, temperatures in Dallas dropped in 24 hours from 81 degrees to 17 degrees. We've seen temperatures in the plain states go 30 to 40 degrees below.

Obviously closed schools all over the country have been shut down today and we're not seeing an end in sight. Our CNN weather team tells us that we are going to see two more pushes of cold air this week -- Jake.

TAPPER: Brutal. Erin McPike, always with the good news. Thank you so much. That's it for THE LEAD. I am Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Mr. Blitzer, take it away.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN SITUATION ROOM HOST: Jake, thanks very much.