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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Trump Attacks Clinton; Record Flooding; Trump: I Will "Spend Big" in Early States; Evacuations Underway, Town Flooding "Imminent"; CNN Poll: Americans Divided Over Obama Legacy. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired December 29, 2015 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: The Mississippi River on the brink of swallowing entire towns.
THE LEAD starts now.
And breaking news, a potentially historic flood emergency, cars floating away, more than a dozen killed, as towns in the Midwest brace for water higher than they have seen in maybe forever.
So much for that Trump being a Clinton plant conspiracy theory, the two sides now seemingly at war after Donald Trump goes after Bill Clinton's past again. Is the affair fair game?
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guys, if we make it out of this alive, I love you guys.
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SCIUTTO: The chilling 911 calls as Boy Scouts rush to save their Scout master from a bear mauling.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
SCIUTTO: And we begin the lead with breaking news, a state of emergency, evacuations under way and deadly flooding across the Midwest.
Massive floods sweeping across the Missouri have claimed the lives of at least 13 people, including four international soldiers. And the worst may still be coming.
The Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Meramec rivers all rising after days of drenching rains. In fact, forecasters warn the Mississippi could rise to near or even above record levels.
Let's go to CNN's Alina Machado. She's in West Alton, Missouri, right near the center of this.
Alina, people there now bracing for a worst-case scenario?
ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They really are, Jim.
The mayor here of West Alton has asked residents to leave, and many of them are heeding his warnings and they have left their homes here. And this is why. Many of the main roads that go in and out of town, roads like this one, are blocked off because of high water. Even the volunteer fire department here has evacuated. They have moved their trucks to higher ground.
Now, this town is positioned right between the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, so they have seen flooding before. But the mayor tells me that they haven't seen the water rise just quite as quickly as they have this time around. Just 70 miles from where we are, the town of Union, Missouri, has already seen severe flooding, several homes and businesses there already underwater.
The sheriff says they had to rescue a couple today that got caught up in these rising floodwaters. Thankfully, they are OK. But as you mentioned, already, at least 13 people have died in these floodwaters, many after trying to drive through them. Listen to what the governor had to say about that.
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GOV. JAY NIXON (D), MISSOURI: The vast majority of deaths, I can't stress this enough, is people driving into water, and especially driving into water at night. So, all of you, when you're out there talking to folks, especially with the water still rising here, continue to express to your friends, and neighbors, and everything else, just please don't do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MACHADO: Now, that was Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. He has activated, by the way, the National Guard today to help provide security in some of the evacuated areas, as well as to help direct traffic around blocked roads like this one, Jim.
SCIUTTO: Alina Machado, thanks very much for being on the scene there for us.
I want to bring in meteorologist Tom Sater in the CNN Severe Weather Center.
Tom, I know you're a local boy. You know Saint Louis well. Give us the layout here, because we're not just talking about one river. It's several rivers coming together and all of the rain has to go somewhere.
TOM SATER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Right. Absolutely.
And, typically, Jim, when we talk about river flooding along the Mississippi, it's in the spring, after the snow is melting, not, of course, just heading into winter. But, again, to know Saint Louis, you have to understand, as tornadoes were raking across the South, the stage was set for day in and day out of heavy rainfall, six, seven, eight inches of rain. I was there all week. It rained tremendously all week long.
The watches actually from Illinois back into areas of Oklahoma, the Arkansas River is going to have major problems north and south of the capital of Little Rock. But to explain what's happening in Saint Louis, it is all about breaking down the major rivers and how they flow. The Mississippi River, the benchmark here for flooding, where thousands of homes and businesses were flooded, was 1993.
They're not going to see that level in the downtown area of Saint Louis, but they're going to come just below that, in fact, about five feet, the second highest level in history. But you have up to the north, you have got the Missouri River coming through St. Charles. In between the Missouri and Mississippi, where they meet, is the town of West Alton.
It's a flood-prone area. Evacuations already taking place. The town is submerged. Alton City across the river in Illinois is going to be fine. But not only the Missouri and the Mississippi. You have got the Meramec River. This is to the south of Saint Louis, to the southwest, where you saw pictures in Union.
Well, the Meramec River is going to experience levels never before recorded, surpassing 1993. The problems in 1993 were the Missouri and the Mississippi. But 1982, that's the status numbers that we're watching that will be surpassed with the floodgates.
Now, from Union, it goes to Pacific, high populated areas, to Fenton, to Arnold, and then that makes its way into the Mississippi River. The problem is the Mississippi River is so high right now, it's keeping the flow of water from making its way in and draining southward. The communities along the Meramec, along the Missouri, and those in the Mississippi are going to be inundated as levels continue to rise.
On the Mississippi River, south of Saint Louis, the town of Chester could see historic levels possibly getting very close, if not surpassing that of 1993, getting to around 50 feet. This is just beginning. We will continue to watch this in the days ahead.
It not just about the watches in parts of the Midwest. But you can see amounts of rainfall? If I show you river gauges, Jim, look at this. Across areas to the South, from Texas over to Northern Florida, the Carolinas, up to the Great Lakes, we have over 443 river gauges experiencing major flooding.
So, again, the worst right now, parts of Saint Louis to the west, will be making its way southward as those rivers continue to flow upward. The good news is the dry conditions will continue in parts of Saint Louis and Missouri through the weekend.
SCIUTTO: Really well explained, Tom. Thanks as lot. As you're looking there and on that map, you see how many populated areas are all along those river basins.
SCIUTTO: It seems like really the only thing you can do is evacuate those people, particularly if there's more rain coming.
SATER: Yes. And in 1993, Jim, the benchmark year, when thousands were flooded, they did amazing work mainly west of the metro area. Interstate 70, a major throughway from Saint Louis that runs north and east, was closed down this weekend on eastbound flow and even west.
Now major Interstate 44 out of Saint Louis heading to the southwest may be closed as well. It's going to cause tremendous headaches not just for the communities and the homes, but just getting around town. Things are going to be shut down for quite a few days.
SCIUTTO: Tom Sater, thanks very much, very well explained, something we are clearly going to have to be watching closely these next few days, particularly with more rain on the way.
Joining me on the telephone is Russell Ross. He's the emergency management director for the city of Union Missouri. That's one of those cities right along the river there we have been talking about.
Mr. Rost, thank you for joining us. I know you have got a lot on your hands.
Tell us, if you can, how are residents in the area holding up and how quickly are you evacuating people?
RUSSELL ROST, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT DIRECTOR, UNION, MISSOURI: Well, the evacuations are done. At this point, we're basically cut in two, our city is, by the Bourbeuse River.
It's about a 30-minute drive to go on routes around the river to get from our west portion of town to our eastern portion of town.
SCIUTTO: So, as you -- that just gets to how difficult it is to get out of there. You say the evacuations are done. How far away from the river have you evacuated? Is it a few blocks? Is it a couple of miles? How far out do you have to do it to have a margin of safety?
ROST: Well, we have probably about a mile square in our center of our town that portions of it had to be evacuated, and it seems that the people are eagerly standing along the edges, trying to get into their properties and start the recovery, but we still have -- we expect our city to be cut in half by the floodwaters at least through tomorrow.
SCIUTTO: That's often a problem in situations like this, is that people want to get back into their homes. Are you having difficulty getting some people to actually leave, to evacuate?
ROST: No. We had -- we -- actually, because of some historical data, we were able to give the people about a 14-hour heads-up on what was going -- expected to occur, which was beyond what the National Weather Service predicted, and those people had an additional period of time that they were able to react and they know what this river will do.
SCIUTTO: What's the toughest thing for you right now? And what are you most in need of at this point?
ROST: Well, the toughest thing right now is to get our sewer plant that has been inundated, the lift station to it that pumps the sewage to the plant, getting that back and operational.
We have to pump out 40 feet of water from it in order to get into it to even begin the repairs. And we're expecting about a two-week period after the waters recede about another 15 feet before we can actually begin the repairs.
SCIUTTO: Thank you, Russell Rost, speaking to us from a town literally cut off by the flooding. We hope to get back to you.
Moving ahead,in the politics lead, Donald Trump pushing Hillary Clinton into a war of words. Now he's bringing the name Monica Lewinsky into that fight, as he looks past his primary competition and directs his attention at the other 2016 front-runner.
SCIUTTO: Welcome back.
And now to our politics lead.
With the first votes less than five weeks now, Donald Trump is trying to take his lead in the polls and translate that lead into wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. And, as always, with Trump, that means more insults and more tough talk.
CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny me now from Council Bluffs, Iowa, where Donald Trump will hold an event tonight.
Jeff, so Trump's latest target, he's not even running, although he has run a couple of times before. He's a former president.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are few things that excite Republicans or unify Republicans more than going after the Clintons. And that's exactly why Donald Trump is doing this. He's trying to fire up that Republican base.
But the question is, when Bill Clinton hits the campaign trail next week, will he take the bait?
ZELENY (voice-over): Trump is opening up a new front in his war with the Clintons, reviving political scandals from two decades ago.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There was certainly a lot of abuse of women. And you look at whether it's Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones or many of them, and that certainly will be fair game.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you all so much!
ZELENY: With Bill Clinton ready to hit the campaign trail, Trump says everything is fair game in his outreach to women voters, even this:
TRUMP: Certainly, if they play the woman's card with respect to me, that will be fair game.
ZELENY: In New Hampshire today, Hillary Clinton ignored Trump's latest taunt.
QUESTION: Do you have a response to Donald Trump's comments about your husband?
CLINTON: Great to see you.
ZELENY: Her campaign issued a statement saying: "Hillary Clinton won't be bullied or distracted by attacks he throws at her and former President Clinton."
The Clintons, the picture of a big, happy family, seen here on a Sunday stroll in New York, a stark reminder of how much time has passed since this tense moment at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, raising the question of whether these old controversies still carry any weight.
Trump, once a golfing buddy with the former president, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in 2008 Clinton's impeachment was nonsense.
TRUMP: Look at the trouble Bill Clinton got into with something that was totally unimportant, and they tried to impeach him, which was nonsense.
ZELENY: But now Trump is butting heads. The new feud has Trump's primary fight written all over it. Few things rally Republicans more than taking on the Clintons.
Overnight, he tweeted: "Remember that Bill Clinton was brought in to help Hillary against Obama in 2008. He was terrible, failed badly, and was called a racist."
From name-calling to nose-picking, the Trump campaign once again took the low road, retweeting a Photoshopped picture of Jeb Bush picking his nose.
[16:15:04] A Bush campaign spokeswoman fired back, "Out on Twitter, there arose a clatter, late night Twitter drunk Donald is back at it."
All candidates feeling the pressure. Marco Rubio and Chris Christie also in Iowa, squeezing in the final round of handshakes and speeches of 2015.
In the New Year, Trump said he's going to open his checkbook in the final month before the Iowa caucuses. He gloated in a tweet today that he spent less than any candidate saying, "Now, I will spend big in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina," he's fighting to stay out front.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I demand the election be today.
ZELENY: But the election is not today. And, of course, that is one of the challenges facing Donald Trump. The Iowa caucuses which launched this 2016 road to the White House actually are in five weeks.
So, with Ted Cruz rising here in Iowa, Donald Trump is trying to maintain his lead, stay on top. That's why he's spending so much money. That's why he is coming to Council Bluffs, Iowa, tonight trying to squeeze in just a little more support between the holidays -- Jim.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: It will be wise raising the volume as well. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.
Joining me now, Trump campaign national spokesperson Katrina Pierson, joining us from Dallas.
Katrina, thanks for taking the time again today.
KATRINA PIERSON, TRUMP CAMPAIGN NATIONAL SPOKESPERSON: Thank you, Jim.
SCIUTTO: So, Mr. Trump attacking President Clinton this morning for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, also mentioned Paula Jones. President Clinton, though, not running for office, his wife is. Why is that attack, why is that affair, fair game?
PIERSON: Well, I don't necessarily call it an attack. It's more of a response to Hillary Clinton bringing up sexism, which is what she plans to do on any Republican that's running against her next year. And I think it is fair game.
We're talking about a previous president, a president that has many issues with women. So, if Hillary Clinton wants to run with this war on women tactic and calling Mr. Trump a sexist, he's going to defend himself.
SCIUTTO: Well, explain to me exactly how Hillary Clinton is playing the woman's card. We hear that from Mr. Trump all the time. Explain to me what exactly he means by that.
PIERSON: Well, she called him a sexist outright, number one. Number two, she did it to Bernie Sanders, when he talked about people yelling loudly, she says, well, when a woman speaks they call it yelling loudly.
She's been playing the game since the very beginning, Jim.
SCIUTTO: Why is that playing the women's card? He has made comments, as you know that many women have taken as offensive, whether talking about the comments about Carly Fiorina's face and others. Why is that a politically motivated response? A lot of women who aren't politicians said the same thing.
PIERSON: Well, for two reasons. The first reason is, Hillary Clinton knows Mr. Trump, and knows that he's not a sexist or a racist or a bigot, but yet she still launches those attacks against him.
But secondly, he hadn't been sexist in trying to silence women. He speaks his mind and speaks the truth. If she wants to call that sexism, she's going to have to defend her own reasons for helping her husband hide blatant sexism.
SCIUTTO: You say Clinton knows Trump well, and this is well- documented. They've had a lot of interactions, including at least one wedding attended together. "BuzzFeed News" found this blog post from Donald Trump in 2008, we'll put that up on the screen, writing on his Trump University site. Trump said, quote, "I know Hillary and I think she'd make a great president or vice president."
So, what's changed since 2008?
PIERSON: Well, I think a lot's changed since 2008. Look at all of the Obama supporters that are running away from the Democrat Party. Time changes everything, Jim. And that's why we're in this position today. We see people looking for alternatives on both sides of the aisle.
SCIUTTO: Well, what specifically changed in Donald Trump's appraisal of Hillary Clinton if he says in 2008 she'd make a great president and now, of course, he saying something very different?
PIERSON: Well, if you look at what he's been saying about her now, she's been an absolute disaster. She's proven that she can't handle her job as secretary of state. That was -- that was a failure on a number of issues.
But she just doesn't have anything that she can run on as an accomplishment. She wants to run on old policy, she didn't want to talk about anything new or anything that she personally had to deal with. On top of the fact she's under investigation by the FBI for sharing national secrets. I mean, this is absurd. A lot of things have changed since 2008.
SCIUTTO: Let's talk about where Donald Trump has been directing his attention in the last week or so. We here have noticed a change where Hillary Clinton has popped up more and more often. In fact, I'll show you this.
We did a word cloud of his tweets just in the last week. Bigger words are the ones he's used most commonly. What do you see right in the middle there? Certainly Hillary but also Jeb Bush, not to mention thank and poll and great and so on, and make America great again.
PIERSON: And CNN.
SCIUTTO: And CNN, there you go. We get our plug.
Two biggest, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, why the focus on them right now?
PIERSON: Well, I think both -- for the last few years, we've all been told this is going to be a Clinton/Bush matchup all over again.
[16:20:01] It turns out that's not going to be the case. You know, Jeb Bush was the one out there to beat at the beginning. Donald Trump came in and smacked him down and now it's going to be up against Hillary Clinton. We feel very confident Mr. Trump is going to be the nominee and he wants to focus on the future.
SCIUTTO: So, why focus on Jeb Bush if he's not a player?
PIERSON: Well, most of it is responding to Jeb Bush at this point. But beforehand, when Mr. Trump entered the race, it was all about Jeb Bush. They're talking about -- people in the party telling him he needs to get out of the race, telling him he's not a Republican. He's the one that's been bullied this whole time, not Hillary Clinton.
SCIUTTO: Let's talk about spending now. We heard Donald Trump moments ago saying he's going to spend big in Iowa, New Hampshire, his own money, something that he hasn't done much of so far in this campaign.
Can you tell us anything specific about his spending plans? For instance, has he bought -- has the campaign bought air time?
PIERSON: I don't know if they've done it yet but they're definitely planning to spend money in Iowa. This is normal. We're going into the caucus. Mr. Trump really wants to get, you know, his vision out there.
But more importantly, Mr. Trump's support is solid. This is more to talk to those people who are still undecided. A lot of people in Iowa don't make that decision until they get to that caucus. And so, that's really a play for the people that haven't commit the yet.
SCIUTTO: You know the perception out there, and this is the last one we'll have time for, the reason he's spending now is he's worried, that Ted Cruz's numbers are rising in Iowa, he wants to maintain the lead. How do you respond to that?
PIERSON: No, absolutely not. Mr. Trump is not worried at all in Iowa. We do have significant support in Iowa and a great team in Iowa. Mr. Trump is only going to spend money there to get last-minute voters because Iowa is notoriously known for people not voting until they get to that caucus. So, this is a play to all those people who are undecided because his support is solid.
SCIUTTO: Katrina Pierson of Trump campaign -- thanks again.
PIERSON: Good to see you, Jim.
SCIUTTO: Despite his bold approach, Donald Trump speaks to anger and dissatisfaction many Americans have right now with Washington. The nation, mostly Republicans, fed up with government leadership. But could their disapproval help Democrats going forward?
And the confrontation outside a Chicago courthouse as a police officer faces murder charges for shooting a black teen 16 times.
[16:25:45] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.
Back to our national lead, the breaking news, severe flooding on three rivers in the Midwest -- the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Meramec, threatening several populated areas along the rivers there. Evacuations under way, there are buildings and homes inundated.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon spoke moments ago about the devastating flooding in the region. Let's have a listen to what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. JAY NIXON (D), MISSOURI: It's very clear that the Missouri is in the midst of a very historic and dangerous flooding event. The amount of rain we've received at some places in excess of a foot has caused river levels not only to rise rapidly but to go to places they've never been before.
Over the weekend, Missouri experienced widespread and deadly flash flooding. And just this morning, we were informed of additional three flood-related deaths. This brings the total number of fatalities to the storm to 13, 12 of which were caused by vehicles being swept from flooded roadways.
Now that the rain has moved out, the threat has changed. But it is not by any means over, especially for communities along the rising Mississippi River and its tributaries here in the St. Louis region. Water levels in some locations are predicted to exceed the historic crest during the great flood of 1993, which caused significant and widespread devastation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: We spoke earlier with CNN meteorologist Tom Sater who said the trouble here is there may be more rain on the way, a story we're following closely in the coming days. Stay with CNN throughout the evening for the latest on flooding from the Midwest.
Now, back to our politics lead. Heading into the New Year, pretty much anyway you slice it, people in this country are mad as hell at Washington.
According to a new CNN/ORC poll, 75 percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way our leaders are running our government. Most or at least somewhat angry with the way things are going in the U.S. Republicans, most likely to feel that way, especially, and almost unanimously, at 97 percent if they support Donald Trump.
CNN's senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta, he's traveling with the president in Hawaii.
Jim, the public is divided over whether President Obama has delivered on his promise for change, either positive or negative change. How is the White House responding?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Clearly, looking at this poll, Jim, not feeling the aloha spirit about what is taking place in Washington, Jim.
You know, President Obama is heading into his final year in office, facing an angry public that is divided as ever. According to our CNN/ORC poll, as you might expect, given some of the heated campaign rhetoric interest the campaign trail this past year, and that's what the White House thinks this is about, Americans are outraged with the way America is being run back in Washington.
You mentioned the dissatisfaction with Washington, look at this -- 69 percent say they are either very angry or somewhat angry with the direction of the country and despite the president's hope, as a candidate back in 2008 to heal the bitter political divide in Washington, our poll finds Americans are pretty much split on what Mr. Obama has achieved in the oval office. Most Republicans believe he has brought significant change in the country but, look at this -- 37 percent say that change has been for the better while the exact same number, 37 percent, say that change has been for the worst.
Now, our poll did find one area where the public is optimistic, feeling good about the president's handling of his job, and that is on the economy, 52 percent say they like the way the president has handled the economy, 47 percent say they disapprove.
So, all in all, Jim, heading into his final year in office, the president has potential to be remembered for his handling of the economy more than anything else. And as we all know Americans vote with their wallet. So, this is a potential boost for Democrats heading into 2016 despite all of the anger out there, which is palpable and very much present in our new poll.
SCIUTTO: Now, I don't know if this qualifies as silver lining, but there is someone who Americans are more disapproving of or many people, the Americans are more disapproving of, and that's Congress.
ACOSTA: That's right. The White House can always count on Congress being more unpopular than President Obama. That's been the case throughout his seven, now eight years in the Oval Office.
Look at these numbers. The approval rating for Congress, satisfaction with Congress is just barely into the double digits. That is way below where the president is right now.