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Is President Stumbling or Leading on World Stage?; Can Obama Stop Putin?

Aired May 1, 2014 - 18:28   ET


VAN JONES, CO-HOST: It's good to be back, Wolf.

Now look, if there's one thing the American people want, it's leadership, especially when it comes to keeping our country out of dumb wars.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Unfortunately, Van, that's the one thing we're not getting from this president. Leadership. The debate starts right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, new chaos in Ukraine. Threats from Vladimir Putin. And new concessions from a former president.


On the left, Van Jones. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Representative Karen Bass, a Democratic member of the foreign affairs committee, and Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican on the foreign relations committee.

Is President Obama stumbling or leading on the world stage? Tonight, on CROSSFIRE.


GINGRICH: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

JONES: And I'm Van Jones on the left. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, we've got two opposing views on foreign policy.

Well now, look, folks, we've got a lot of stuff happening in the world. Like, get ready. It looks like all spring and all summer the Republicans are going to take every problem on the world stage and use it as an excuse, not to come together, not to solve America's problems, but just to blame President Obama.

The Ukraine, Benghazi, whatever it is. Same script: "Obama is making America look weak." No, you guys are doing that. That's what you're doing. America looks weak when we jump into these dumb wars we can't pay for or win. America looks weak when we've got an opposition party at home that won't help the president in the war, in peace, overseas, or at home. Now, Newt, I think you guys just need to make it official: The GOP has now become the "Get Obama Party." That's what you guys are.

GINGRICH: I'd have more sympathy for your case, except that Obama makes it so easy. So I think it's going to be an interesting debate tonight.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Democratic Representative Karen Bass of California, and Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Let me turn first, if I might, to the Congresswoman. I can't believe I'm doing this. But I'm going to end up quoting Maureen Dowd of "The New York Times." Now, I have to confess, this for me is a new start (ph).

She said, "Especially now that we have this scary World War III vibe with the Russians, we accept -- expect the president, especially one who ran as Babe Ruth, to hit home runs."

Now, as you know, he was quoted, I think, in Manila as saying, well, he gets occasional singles.


GINGRICH: Don't you think that standing up to Putin requires Babe Ruth more than a guy hitting singles? Isn't this really the big leagues?

BASS: Well, I think it's the big leagues. I think President Obama is used to the big leagues, and I think that his leadership on the Ukraine has been strong. The Europeans now are stepping up to the plate, and clearly it's going to take all of us. It's the sanctions from the United States, but it is also the sanctions...

GINGRICH: I have to ask, if this has been strong...

BASS: Yes.

GINGRICH: ... what would weakness look like?

BASS: I think weakness would look like doing nothing. And I think what the president has done has been strong; and I do think he's showing the leadership, and I think that the Europeans will follow.

GINGRICH: Do you think it's had any impact on Putin?

BASS: I do think it's had impact on Putin, and it's had impact on the Russian economy, OK? Now, whether Putin is willing to sacrifice the Russian economy, that's the question. But I do think it has absolutely had impact on the economy.

JONES: I agree with you, first of all, so good to see somebody here from California.

Listen, I am so tired of this weak versus strong thing. I want to get you into this, Senator. It seems to me, what we hear from Republicans, they want more belligerence, more saber rattling, more United States leaning over into other folks' business. But guess what? The American people don't agree with that. They agree with the president.

Let me show you this. If you look at the actual numbers, only 20 percent say we should be more active even in the face of all this stuff. Forty-seven percent of Americans are saying, "Listen, we can't solve the whole world's problems. We should be doing more stuff at home."

Why are the Republicans out here demagoguing on this stuff when the American people aren't even listening?

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Let me first challenge what you said in your opening comment that we're blaming President Obama. I personally blame Vladimir Putin.

But the fact of the matter is, we have shown weakness. We haven't shown the strength -- no, we have to show strength and resolve. Vladimir Putin is not going to listen to words. The president says all kinds of good things, but he has to back those with action. He'll only respond to action.


JONES: You want...

JOHNSON: No, what we should be doing is we should be honoring the request of the courageous people in Ukraine. We should provide them some defensive weapons to change Vladimir Putin's calculus.

The other thing we should do is we should open up our energy markets. We are wasting so much natural gas. We ought to capture that. We ought to build pipelines and export that to Ukraine and Europe.

BASS: My understanding is that in terms -- especially in terms of the liquefied natural gas, those contracts are under way. It's going to take them about a year before they come online.

JOHNSON: This president can move those a lot quicker, and he's not doing that.

BASS: I don't believe so because the contracts are underway. It does take a while for it to come online.

You know, my Republican colleagues -- and both of us are in the minority -- every time something comes up, all roads lead back to Keystone. And I'll tell you, even if Keystone is being built today, it would take a year for it to be online.

JOHNSON: Listen, right now, right now the roads will be back to allowing those permit applications to move forward. Have you heard the president announce those permit applications to move forward? That would be a powerful signal right then and there. We have to recognize what gives Vladimir Putin strength. It's his oil and gas reserves. Europe's dependence on it. We have to break that dependence. We've got to break that monopoly.

BASS: You know what? Even if Keystone was up and running, it's still a drop in the bucket in terms of...

JOHNSON: I'm talking about the LNG terminals. Signal what we should be doing.

BASS: It is moving forward. It's just going to take a while.

GINGRICH: Let me tell you something. And by the way, I'm for a very aggressive energy policy. I think it would be a factor.

But I think the reason the president's getting in trouble is that you can follow the polling numbers that Van had. Forty-seven percent of the country wants a less active foreign policy 19, 20 percent wants a more activist foreign policy.

The president has been trying to do both. That is, he doesn't want to use military force, but he draws red lines. He ends up getting -- talking about all sorts of places but not doing anything.

Isn't there -- how do you have an activist/non-activist, interventionist/non-interventionist policy? You know, the Pentagon, for example, was even counting Kevlar vests as an offensive weapon. So they wouldn't send anything that was useful to Ukraine. Now you're either going to do things or not do things, but this talk without effectiveness, isn't that a real problem?

BASS: Well, I actually don't think that it is, and I do think that he has been effective, but it is a real pushback. I can tell you, constituents in my district, the last thing in the world they want to hear is us getting into another conflict. That's a real issue.

JOHNSON: You know why that is, though? Because this president...

BASS: They're tired of war.

JOHNSON: No, this president hasn't taken the time to explain why Syria is a national security issue for us.

JONES: Well, hold on a second.

JOHNSON: He has not taken the time to explain why Vladimir Putin's aggressive expansion does threaten our national security and the world order. He has not explained to the American public.

BASS: And he was criticized for explaining too much.

JONES: Exactly. You can't have it both ways.

BASS: "He's deliberating too much."

JOHNSON: He didn't say a word about Syria, all of a sudden draws a red line. And then, obviously, that red line is crossed because he hasn't...

JONES: We can deliberate this forever.

JOHNSON: No, it's an example of how this president has not led by explaining to the American people why these things are in our national interests.

JONES: Senator, let me ask you one question. Let me ask you one question. First of all, people want to go back and act like if he had bombed Syria that we would somehow be in a stronger position. If we were bogged in in Syria right now, we'd be in a weaker position to deal with Putin, No. 1.

And No. 2, if we were bogged down in Syria, you want to have another land war over there? You argue (ph) we'd be stronger?

JOHNSON: You would have already changed Vladimir Putin's calculus. The reason Vladimir Putin is doing this is he can do it with impunity.

JONES: And what about George W. Bush?

JOHNSON: What he got out of his aggression toward Georgia was a reset.

JONES: The aggression under George, that was with George W. Bush, who had just invaded two countries. So obviously -- obviously...


JOHNSON: Who was a lame-duck president. The election was happening. And then President Obama came in and rewarded Vladimir Putin for that aggression with a reset. A reset button was actually awarded. And that hasn't worked too well.

JONES: Let me just say a couple things. First of all, my big disappointment with you and with your party is that there's not...

JOHNSON: I can't imagine...

JONES: ... is that there's -- there's not one thing you guys have put forward that the president is disagreeing with. You don't want military -- direct military involvement against Putin right now, do you?

JOHNSON: I want us to provide defensive weapons.

JONES: Hold on.

JOHNSON: Things like anti-tank weapons to the trained members of the Ukrainian military.

JONES: The only debate between the Republicans and Democrats -- the only debate between Republicans and us right now in this town is how many sanctions, how fast, and -- and what's the truth? Non-military involvement.

JOHNSON: We want to see -- and President Obama announced that he's going to allow those permit -- those applications for those LNG terminals, those permits to proceed forward. That would be a powerful signal.

BASS: The terminals are moving forward. It's just going to take them about a year to come online. I don't know what you mean when you say that.

JOHNSON: It's going back to Keystone. It would be like the Keystone XL pipeline. That permit has taken five years.

BASS: No, but that is...

JOHNSON: We fought and won World War II in a shorter time period.

GINGRICH: I was just going to make the same point. We're now moving at a pace that is so bureaucratic and so cumbersome that, if you're Putin, you're sitting there thinking the president probably doesn't mean whatever he just said. The Congress probably won't back him. The American people don't want to get involved. So, you know, if I end up...

JONES: But if we have the Keystone Pipeline, Putin would fall down and beg for mercy?

JOHNSON: We're using -- no, we're using it as an example of just his lack of leadership and the fact that I don't believe he's going to allow those...

BASS: You know what I think is really important? When we're going to sit here and talk about Ukraine, we do have to continue to talk about Europe. So Europe's role, the E.U.'s role.

GINGRICH: Absolutely.

BASS: This is not all about the United States.

JOHNSON: At least we're trying to -- trying to meet those things.

GINGRICH: First of all, I think Europe will always be weaker than we are. So if we're weak enough, they'll be really weak.

But next, I'll tell you where former President Bush is wrong about Vladimir Putin.

And we want you at home to answer tonight's "CROSSFIRE Quiz." When did Vladimir Putin take power in Russia? Is it "A," 1994; "B," 1999; or "C," 2004? We'll have the answer when we get back.


GINGRICH: Welcome back. Here's the answer to our "CROSSFIRE Quiz." Vladimir Putin has effectively been in control of Russia for 15 years, since 1999.

And here's a frightening thought. Under Russia's constitution, Putin could be in charge until 2024. In other words, he could serve with President George P. Bush or President Chelsea Clinton. But some U.S. presidents, including Republicans, keep underestimating him. Today, President George W. Bush, who once famously said he had looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul, gave a new explanation about him.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Did you misjudge him earlier or were you just trying to open the door?

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think he changed. Of course, presidents should open the door and give people a chance, except for the despicable tyrants. And he is not -- at that time, he was -- it looked like wanted to be, you know, work with the west.


GINGRICH: President Bush reflects our entire foreign policy lead in both parties. They continue to believe bad people can be good people if only we be nice to them.

Putin has been Putin for the entire time he's been around. He was Putin in the KGB. He's been Putin since he started running the country in 1999. If we're going to deal with him, we have to see him for what he really is, in the words of former defense secretary Bill Gates, a stone-cold killer.

Back with us in the CROSSFIRE: Congresswoman Karen Bass and Senator Ron Johnson.

I think you feel like that's a pretty grim but maybe accurate view of Putin.

BASS: I do. I think it's rather scary. And I think some of the photographs of him show he looks pretty thuggish, although we don't call him that.

JOHNSON: I think the only change is he's been emboldened.


BASS: Right.

JOHNSON: He's gotten into that power. His head is expanding. He's more dangerous now.

BASS: I would agree with you, and I do think it's because of the entire world. Not because of President Obama that he's emboldened.

GINGRICH: I'm (INAUDIBLE), because you were commenting during the break, you'd just been in Ukraine.


GINGRICH: And I'd ask both of you, you really believe if he's determined to be aggressive that we can stop him?

JOHNSON: Probably not militarily. From my standpoint, this -- it makes no sense for Russia economically.

BASS: Right.

JOHNSON: Just doesn't. So, you really have a megalomaniac. You have an egomaniac in Vladimir Putin who wants the power and able to move forward. So, I don't know how you stop that --

JONES: Look --

JOHNSON: -- other than to potentially change his calculus --

JONES: Sure.

JOHNSON: -- and hopefully he's rational enough to realize his economy will suffer.

JONES: I love this conversation because now, we're actually trying to figure out something.

But here's my problem -- this is the not the conversation we're hearing today from the Republicans on the Hill.

JOHNSON: You're not listening close enough. You have too much of a filter.


JONES: Actually --

JOHNSON: We're all reasonable.

JONES: Benghazi is reasonable?

Here's what I don't understand. Right now, we've got the entire eyes of the world focused on Ukraine, on what's going on there. It's the most dangerous part of the world. And your party is 1,300 miles off talking about Benghazi on a different continent. Why are you guys so obsessed about that issue on a week like this?

JOHNSON: President Obama's administration shouldn't have lied to the American people for weeks on that.

JONES: Oh my God.

JOHNSON: They should have been transparent, got the story out. Got it behind him --

JONES: You've never made a mistake?

JOHNSON: This was -- this was far more than a mistake.

(CROSSTALK) JONES: This week, more important thing for the Republican Party to be talking about on national television all day about Benghazi, yes or no?

JOHNSON: It's news when you have an e-mail from Ben Rhodes, pretty well being the smoking gun that proves this White House --


JOHNSON: -- a strategy? You're the one who brought it up. I was happy talking about you (INAUDIBLE). You're the one that brought it up.

BASS: But you know what? I do want to point out because I think there's agreement here. The senator and I agree. I do think that Putin can be brought to his knees through economy, so he has to make a choice. Does he want to invade Ukraine or is he going to sacrifice his economy?

So, we kick up sanctions and we increase to a sectoral approach, meaning the banks and the financial sector and then the Europeans join in. Bring his economy to its knees.

JOHNSON: But we need to do more than that because economic pressure requires rationality in his part. He might be rational, but he really would respond to action, I think like you say, you've got to provide defensive weaponry.

GINGRICH: To quote my mentor, Bob Michael, I'm going to be the skunk at the garden party for a second.


GINGRICH: Putin is cutting deals with Japan. He's cutting deals with China. He's about to cut a very unique deal with North Korea that may involve a railroad from South Korea.

He, I think, is in a position where he is anticipating whatever we're going to do. We haven't been able to change Cuba with sanctions that go back to 1960.

BASS: Well, no, Cuba is a whole other discussion.


BASS: Talk about that policy.

GINGRICH: you look at a country that size, and I am very concerned.

JOHNSON: By the way, that's the point. Sanctions work pretty good when it's asymmetric, when you've got a very small economy, like Iran, North Korea. Potentially, Cuba, it hasn't worked.

When you've got an economy as large as Russia, you know, a couple of trillion, there's a lot of interdependencies. We'll never put the type of crippling sanctions because it's a double-edged sword. It hurts the West (INAUDIBLE)


JONES: Make your point about though about --

BASS: Yes, I was just saying that the world has not supported our policy with Cuba. We had a blockade against Cuba for over five decades and it just doesn't have the international support.

GINGRICH: And you think China, Japan, India, Iran are going to support the American sanctions in Russia?

BASS: Well, I don't think they would just support them because they're the American sanctions. But I do think when Europe weighs in a much bigger way, I think that it really increases the pressure.

JONES: Don't you think as this thing develops -- listen, right now, Europe has been timid, have not been that helpful. But you look at the scenes now. These are going to get worse and worse.

Don't you think that at a certain point, the Europeans do come around and the president's patient hand of using sanctions -- you don't start with your last card, you start with your first card. Don't you think the calculation of the Europeans begins to change?

JOHNSON: No, I don't think the Europeans would ever support the kind of sanctions that would change Putin's calculus. No.

JONES: You think if Obama gave a better speech, that they would do something different?



JOHNSON: My point about President Obama is he's shown weakness for five years. The world has seen it. And that's dangerous.

The America -- the world actually does look for American leadership and as they're witnessing this, North Korea is watching. Iran's watching. China's watching. They are all emboldened by our weakness, our lack of resolve and that's after five years of President Obama.

Who respects America more after five years of Barack Obama?

BASS: Let's go back to Bush and talk about how the world respects.


BASS: Yes, right, I bet you would.

GINGRICH: Let me just say, I think what is really sobering and frightening about where we are right now, and you saw this a little bit as they started talking through what is going on in Ukraine today is probably the only thing that would really slow Putin down is genuinely arming the Ukrainians. That is a big decision. We went through the whole Cold War for 50 years. And Russians went into East Germany in '53. They went into Hungary in '56. They went into Prague in '68. We were always very careful.

They have 1,700 nuclear weapons. And I just think this is the most --

BASS: But it wasn't arming those countries that led to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

GINGRICH: That's right. It's eventually a very long-term collapse.

BASS: Right, it was economic.

GINGRICH: We may need to be thinking about a 20-year plan to be dealing with Putin.

BASS: Yes.

GINGRICH: Not a 20-week plan.

JONES: Well, I would tend to agree with you on that. And I don't understand why if this is true, and I think I appreciate your perspective, where are the Republicans who are willing to play this longer game with this president?

You talk about how weak this president. I don't think this president looks week to al Qaeda. I don't think this president looks weak to Moammar Gadhafi. I think America looks weak to a lot of people.

But I think America looks weak when the Republican Party attacks this president when he goes for peace, when he goes for war, when he tries to do overseas, he tries to do stuff at home. You attack.

Where is the one area you are willing to work with this president on?

JOHNSON: First of all, the long game. That was the first thing I said we had to go, look at this strategically and we've got to open up world energy markets. We need to start exporting our natural resources. Break up that monopoly. That's a long term strategy, not going to get immediate results from that.

But you mentioned Moammar Gadhafi -- that was the White House saying that President Obama was leading from behind. That didn't work so well. That's really behind. I think the whole debacle of that strategy and Benghazi was --

JONES: We've got to keep on after the break.

But, first, we want you guys to stay here.

We want you at home to get involved in this. We want you to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Can the United States prevent Putin from taking over eastern Ukraine? I want you to tweet yes or no, using #Crossfire. We're going to give you those results after the break. Also, we're going have the outrages of the day. Mine has to do with sports teams and their owners. But it's probably not what you think, when we get back.


JONES: We are back with Congresswoman Bass and Senator Johnson.

Now, it's time for the outrages of the day.

Now, I am outraged that we're all outraged, but only about this Sterling guy. Who cares about him? What about the deeper racial problem in sports, the one that is staring us in the face every single game.

Now, look, between baseball, basketball, and football, we have nearly 100 American teams, 100 teams. Now, except for one person, Michael Jordan, every single principal owner is white. But the folks who are sweating at the bottom of the pyramid of the game are mostly people of color.

Now, that's not 2014, that's 1814. And to me, that's a real outrage.

Now, what do you think about that, Congresswoman?

BASS: Well, I think it's an excellent point. And you know what? I'm hopeful about the Clippers, because you have Oprah Winfrey. You have Magic Johnson, and Magic Johnson has an interest in the Dodgers. So I'm hoping that they will be able to step in and take advantage.

JOHNSON: And you got Van with his big CNN contract.



GINGRICH: My view is all the shake-up the billionaire owners. Some of the teams ought to watch the Green Bay model. Of course, I own a share of stock. I think having a community-owned team is the center of Wisconsin, I'm for that.


JONES: Community ownership, I'm for that.

GINGRICH: OK. So, on my side, Bill Clinton has always been self- aggrandizing and extremely loose with the truth. So, even though it ought to be an outrage, it's really no surprise that during a speech this week he was self-aggrandizing and dishonest in taking sole credit for the prosperity of the 1990s. Listen to this.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: In all the so-called prosperity of the 1980s, only 77,000 of our fellow Americans move from poverty into the middle class. In the '90s, 100 times as many, 7.7 million people did. That was policy.


GINGRICH: In a way, Clinton is right. If he had not governed so badly in the first two years he was in office, Republicans would not have taken control of the Congress, and none of the necessary work would have gotten done. So if he wants to take sole credit for the getting the Republican Congress elected in 1994, the Congress that forced him to reform welfare and balance the budget, it's just fine with me.

JONES: OK. Well, look, we don't have enough time for me to fight you on that one. So, we got to just let you have that one tonight.

We're going to check in on our "Fireback" results.

Can the United States prevent Putin from taking over Eastern Ukraine? Right now, 17 percent of you say yes, 83 percent of you say no.

My goodness. What's your position? Do you think that we could stop him nor?

JOHNSON: We've got to change his calculus. If he wants to roll, I mean, we certainly can't stop him militarily. That's his choice. But we've got to change his calculus.

JONES: Eighty-three percent of the people agree with you on that.

Look, I want to thank you, Representative Karen Bass and Senator Ron Johnson.

This debate is going to continue on online at, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Van Jones.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.