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Obama Won't Go to Border While in Texas; White House Struggling with Immigration Crisis, Senate Committee Wants Answers; Culture of Retaliation for V.A. Whistleblowers; Tahmooressi Heads to Court in Mexico; Interview with Cecilia Munoz

Aired July 9, 2014 - 13:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. I'll Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

President Obama is heading to Texas for a fundraising trip. The state is at the heart of a huge immigration debate. The trip comes one day after the president asked Congress for almost $4 billion in emergency spending to help deal with the flood of immigrants crossing the border illegally right now, many of those unaccompanied children. While the president will meet with Texas Governor Rick Perry today to discuss the situation, the Obama administration says there are no plans to visit the border right now, where there has been this influx of unaccompanied minors. A lot of kids coming across.

Let's bring in our CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein, the editorial director of "The National Journal."

Ron, this trip under a lot of criticism. He's got three fundraisers in Texas over the next day. No time to go to the border right now. How much of a political liability has this visit to Texas become?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think the visit is uncomfortable for all the reasons you suggest. There's really a much deeper problem and that is this border crisis, I think, has thrown a big curveball into their overall strategy on immigration. Wolf, from the beginning, Obama approached immigration reform, he has laid out with unusual candor, probably most explicitly in a May 20th speech in El Paso, in which he said look, the Republicans have said we have not controlled the border. We're going to put a lot of sources into doing that and we're going to take away that argument from them. He's accepted a lot of heat from the left throughout his presidency, as you know, for intensifying enforcement at the border. The argument would be that would be the backdrop to say, OK, now we can deal with the 11 million or so who are here, who are undocumented, which he says he wants to address through executive order later this year. The problem is this crisis at the border creates the sense once again that the border is in chaos and it's not secure. And it creates a much tougher political backdrop to move forward in a unilateral matter on the undocumented themselves.

BLITZER: Let me play that clip from the speech on immigration in May of 2011 in El Paso. Listen to this. BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Here's the point. I want everybody to listen carefully to this. We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we've done. But even though we've answered these concerns, I've got to say, I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You correctly point out, he's been criticized by the left, by the base of his Democratic party, for all the deportations he's authorized over the past, what, nearly six years. Some have called the president deportation. He's getting heat from both sides. Is there any possibility there could still be comprehensive immigration reform this year?

BROWNSTEIN: I don't think so. I mean, look, the fight we're having now is the miniature version of the fight we've had for the entire six years. In fact, until this crisis with unaccompanied children, they have made crisis with securing the border. The net number of people here illegally, by the best estimates, is essentially unchanged, has not increased under his presidency, after rising by about three million during the eight years of George W. Bush. He could say, look, I was making some progress. It turned out, that was not enough to move House Republicans, 80 percent of which represent districts that are more white than the national average, to act. And now he's back in the same box where he's proposing tougher enforcement so he can say, I've got a handle on this. He's getting pushback from the left. For example, a lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, civil libertarian groups, saying these kids all deserve a lawyer. And he's pushing back to say, look, I'm enforcing, I'm going to be tough on enforcement, to leave himself room to come forward with some kind of executive order on dealing with those here illegally. It is the same conundrum he's faced the whole time. Tougher enforcement alienates the left but it doesn't bring over the right.

BLITZER: A lot of officials at the White House are upset that they didn't push for comprehensive immigration reform during the first four years of the Obama administration when there was a Democratic majority in the House. Do you hear a lot of that griping, they should have pushed at that time when they had those majorities?

BROWNSTEIN: Look, they did health care reform, and --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Why can't you do more than one -- why can't you do more than one controversial thing? BROWNSTEIN: I think basically the -- at that point, there were a lot

more red state and red district Democrats, and they threw up their hands and said, we have taken enough tough votes. Health care is important to Hispanics, too. They're one-third of all the uninsured in the country. So it is not an easy choice. There's no question I think they thought they would have more leverage on House Republicans, particularly after the 2012 election. Mitt Romney won a higher share of the white vote in 2012 in Ronald Reagan did in 1980. He lost by five million. The initial impulse in the Republican Party was, we have to deal with this before 2016. That's still probably true. The fact that Republicans are not dealing with this in a comprehensive way could still be a huge problem for them in 2016, even as it is an enormous headache for Obama now and heading into a midterm election that will focus mostly on red states.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, thanks very much. Good analysis.

Coming up, the White House responds to all the criticism surrounding the president's trip to Texas today. A White House official standing by to speak with us, live.

Then, the U.S. Marine jailed for bringing firearms into Mexico tells his side of the story to a Mexican judge. We'll have a live report from outside the Tijuana courthouse.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Senate Homeland Security Committee wants answers on the border crisis. At the hearing today, a top Obama official admitted the administration is struggle keep up with the surge of immigrants at the southern border. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG FUGATE, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: We've added, in cooperation with all the partners, about 3,000 additional beds for children and families. Numbers have come down, but we still faced a problem of too many children that are in detention for more than 24 hours, too many children that are still within the custody of CBP for more than 72 hours before they're placed. Although we have made progress, that progress is oftentimes disrupted when we see sudden influxes of kids coming in faster than we can discharge them, and we back up. The last week, we've seen numbers drop, but we've not been, what I would say, successful yet in ensuring that no child is in the detention facility for more than 24 hours.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All this comes the same day as the president is visiting Texas.

I'm joined now by Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Cecilia, thanks very much for joining us.

CECILIA MUNOZ, DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE DOMESTIC POLICY COUNCIL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Any last-minute change in plans? Will the president go down to the border with Mexico?

MUNOZ: The president is, among the things he's doing, is meeting in Dallas with faith-based leaders, people trying to be part of the solution here, trying to find shelter space for children, being supportive of the federal government's efforts to make sure we provide proper care for the kids, while also getting in front of this as a law enforcement situation.

BLITZER: So, as of right now, no plan to visit the border, is that right?

MUNOZ: That's correct. Look, the president has been focused from the very beginning, from the moment it was clear in May we were going to see much larger numbers this year compared to previous years. He's been focused on making sure we throw the whole government at this effort. You saw Mr. Fugate, from FEMA. There are multiple agencies involved in this effort. And yesterday, he asked Congress for supplemental appropriation to make sure we have resources to care for the kids but also to surge the immigration judges and other enforcement tools we need to send back those who aren't going to qualify for humanitarian reasons and make sure they're settled in their home countries.

BLITZER: What do you take to someone like Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, from Texas, he was on the program, he said this could essentially be called a Katrina moment for the president, where he looked detached, he's there, he's going to be in Dallas, and he doesn't make the effort to see this humanitarian crisis? What do you say to him?

MUNOZ: I hope Congressman Cuellar is focusing, as we are, on what's going to be most impactful. The efforts of the president and all across the federal government are completely focused on making sure we provide proper care for the kids, provide an effective deterrent so people in central America aren't following the misinformation that smugglers are giving them and putting their children into the hands of trafficker, because they're being told once they get to the United States, they can expect to remain in the United States. That's not true. And that's contributing to what has become an urgent humanitarian situation. We want to make sure people know not to put their kids in that situation in the first place, which is why the vice president was in Central America in June 20th, which is why Secretary Johnson was in Guatemala just yesterday, which is why Secretary Kerry met with leaders from the region in Panama last week. We are dealing with this -- with the real sense of urgency on both sides of the border.

BLITZER: And so the criticism that Henry Cuellar and others are making, he has time for three political fundraisers in Texas, doesn't have time to go down to the border, you say?

MUNOZ: That the president is meeting with community leaders in Texas who are trying to be part of the solution here, who are engaged in this situation, who are supporting the efforts to take good care of these kids. And while the president was in Denver yesterday and Texas today, his team here is working with Congress to address the supplemental appropriations that we need, hopefully, in a bipartisan manner, to make sure we have the resources to surge immigration judges, surge enforcement resources, so they can properly repatriate people we send back. The whole federal government is all over this situation.

BLITZER: Do you have a Plan B if Congress doesn't appropriate the $3.7 billion in emergency funding you're seeking to deal with this immigration crisis?

MUNOZ: Indeed, we do. We're already surging the resources that we've got. You've heard the president announce in the Rose Garden more than a week ago when he addressed the situation that we're moving resources, enforcement resources, from the interior to the border. Our priority is going to be addressing and removing those people who are recent entrants, first and foremost. We're making the best use of the resources we've got. But it would be helpful for Congress, and we've heard both sides of the aisle say they agree this is an urgent situation. We need the support to make sure we have the resources to do everything possible to deter more from coming and properly address those who have come.

BLITZER: Another subject, generating a lot of buzz out there. You're the top domestic policy adviser to the president. When he was in Denver last night, he was at a bar and someone offered him a hit of marijuana, which as you know, is legal in Colorado and Washington State. What does the Obama administration think about the legalization of marijuana for recreational use? The president, by the way, smiled, but didn't react to that offer.

MUNOZ: He smiled and didn't react. This is a law enforcement issue as well. Obviously, states are making their own decisions and the federal government will apply the law as appropriate.

BLITZER: What do you think, should those laws in Colorado and in Washington State be approved elsewhere? Would it be appropriate for the federal government to authorize recreational use of marijuana?

MUNOZ: It would not be appropriate for the federal government to do that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Why?

MUNOZ: Look, we have federal laws on the books with respect to these substances. And the states are making their own decisions but we're not going to address what --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: From the White House perspective, it's OK if the states legalize marijuana for recreational use but the federal is not going to get involved?

MUNOZ: I work with the Office of National Drug Control Policy. I don't think they would say that it's OK the states have done it but the federal government is not going to address this issue in the way states like Colorado have.

BLITZER: You're not going to challenge it though legally, right?

MUNOZ: I'll leave that decision to the Department of Justice, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Cecilia Munoz, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck to you there. Appreciate you joining us.

MUNOZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: Retaliation, harassment, missing paychecks -- that's what whistleblowers claim they face after reporting on wrongdoing in the V.A. The latest on the scandal-plagued agency when we come back.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, (D), WEST VIRGINIA: We would not have authorized that war with 75 votes if we knew what we know now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That was Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, of West Virginia, 10 years ago today, speaking after the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released a scathing report accusing the CIA, the entire U.S. intelligence community, of overestimating Iraq's pre- war stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Rockefeller called the war a mistake that would haunt the U.S. for generations to come.

Turning now it to the ongoing scandal at the Department of Veterans affairs, much of what we know is because of a V.A. -- some V.A. employees who spoke out about understaffing, inadequate care and phony bookkeeping. Many of those whistleblowers find their jobs could be in jeopardy because of, quote, "a culture of retaliation inside the V.A."

Listen to what one physician told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. KATHERINE MITCHELL, PHOENIX V.A. HEALTH CARE SYSTEMS: The veterans needing care that presented to the E.R. have survived campaigns like D-Day, Iwo Jima, Tet offensive, counter offenses, Croatia, Desert Storm, the battle of Fallujah, and dismal years in Helmand Province. It is a bitter irony to me that I, as a physician, could not guarantee their health and safety within a V.A. facility in the middle of cosmopolitan Phoenix.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our senior investigative correspondent, Drew Griffin, broke this story months ago.

Drew, what happened at last night's hearing?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the House was looking at these whistleblower investigations. There are 76 retaliation cases being taken up by the government that handles those cases and tries to protect the whistleblowers. But as we have seen, time and time again, at the V.A., the whistleblowers are scared to come forward, because they have seen others whose careers have been ruined by vindictive management at many V.A. hospitals. Several of those whistleblowers testified in that hearing last night, including a doctor named Christian Head, a top head-and-neck surgeon who spoke out about fraud at the V.A. of greater Los Angeles, and he claims, instead of investigating the fraud charges, he was investigated and targeted.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. CHRISTIAN HEAD, DIRECTOR, LOS ANGELES V.A. HEALTH CARE SYSTEM: You notice that every time there is a whistleblower, there is usually an e-mail that follows. Well, this person is not getting a bonus and so they're upset or this person didn't get the raise they wanted so, you know, they can be suspect. Or this person didn't do this. They always defame. They defame. They isolate. Usually, transfer to another position. Why? Because they're slowly build a case, if they don't have one already, to say that you're crazy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: Wolf, this is something we hear constantly from V.A. whistleblowers, that they are ostracized, management tries to begin spreading the idea that whistleblowers are crazy, and the V.A. takes its time with retaliation. In fact, I talked with a whistleblower yesterday who told me she fears right now, once the media takes its eye off the issue, V.A. management will revert to its old ways and destroy her career and others who have spoken out.

BLITZER: A lot -- Drew, a lot of this could be fixed with leadership from Washington, as you have reported, so thoroughly. Right now, the V.A. only has an interim secretary, Bob McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, the person he wants as the next Veterans affairs secretary. Any word on when McDonald's nomination will actually be taken up by the Senate?

GRIFFIN: Here's what we know. Bob McDonald met with Senator Bernie Sanders yesterday. Senator Sanders heads the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. That will eventually hold hearings on the nomination. Sanders' staff told us they hope to hold those hearings soon. But as of yet, Wolf, no dates to announce. And as you know, the Senate is really running out of time before its summer break. So we'll see what happens next week, and in the couple weeks ahead. But that's where it stands right now.

BLITZER: I know you're going to stay on top of this story for our viewers.

Drew, thanks very much.

Still ahead, a wrong turn into Mexico heads right into a world of trouble. After three months of imprisonment, a U.S. Marine now goes before a Mexican judge who could decide his fate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A U.S. Marine who has been jailed for the past three months for illegally crossing into Mexico with firearms arrived at court today in Tijuana, handcuffed to other prisoners. It will be Sergeant Andrew Tahmooressi's first opportunity to tell a judge what happened on March 31st.

Here's what he told our affiliate, KGTV.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SGT. ANDREW TAHMOORESSI, U.S. MARINE IN PRISON IN MEXICO (voice-over): Basically, what's going to happen is I'm going to give my statement to the judge, and then two of the border patrol officers that were supposedly there that night with me are going to give their statement as well. And hopefully, the judge will see that my story is probably, you know, maybe like 99 percent accurate or 100 percent accurate and their stories are maybe like 15 or 20 percent accurate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Tahmooressi's mother has waged a campaign to free her son. Her frustration with Washington is evident in the piece she wrote for CNN.com. She writes, "I feel like our executive branch has abandoned him and it feels totally inhumane. The White House has not responded to us, despite our petition on whitehouse.gov, which has nearly 130,000 signatures."

CNN's Nick Parker is joining us from Tijuana right now.

Nick, a lot of speculation that the sergeant could be released soon. How likely is that?

NICK PARKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right, Wolf. There certainly has been a lot of speculation. And certainly, Andrew's mother, Jill, is expected to arrive in the federal courthouse just behind me any minute now, she is hoping she will be able to travel back to the United States with her son this afternoon.

We spoke to his defense lawyer last night, his legal team, and they think it is unlikely he will be released at this stage. And here's why. In about an hour's time, as you said, Andrew Tahmooressi will have the first opportunity in three months to present his side of the story. It's a slow process here and, at the same time, he fired his original legal team. So nothing is in the court's record at this stage. And as a result, this is being described as an evidentiary hearing. And his defense team thinks that, for that very reason, it will be premature to ask the judge for a ruling.

As you said, he's going to be getting this initial address. His defense team will be asking questions, as will the prosecution. But he is expected to plead the Fifth Amendment and not answer those questions. In terms of the overarching strategy of his defense team, they tell us

that they are trying to prove he did not intend to bring these weapons into the country. And also, they're looking at another option, which is the idea of a botched arrest and a breach of protocol.

Here's what his legal defense lawyer told us last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY FOR ANDREW TAHMOORESSI: How will you justify keeping somebody there for seven-plus hours for what purpose? If he was under arrest, he should have been delivered to the federal prosecutor's office immediately under Article 16 of the Mexican Constitution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PARKER: Now, Wolf, Mexican authorities do maintain the crossing point between Tijuana was clearly posted and there were warnings. They also point out that ignorance of the law does not excuse responsibility -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Nick Parker on the scene for us outside the courthouse in Tijuana, Mexico.

Nick, as soon as you get any information, you'll let our viewers, here in the United States and around the world, know what is going on. High interest in the fate of this U.S. Marine sergeant now being held in Mexico.

Nick Parker, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM." I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Wolf, thank you so much.