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Interview with North Carolina's Democratic Governor-Elect Roy Cooper; Whistleblower: Still Problems with Crisis Call Center; Assad Regime Claims to be in Full Control of Aleppo; Assad Regime Claims Full Control of Aleppo; Exploding E-Cigarettes; Trump's Star Power. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 22, 2016 - 16:30   ET



[16:31:35] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: More on the politics lead.

Republican legislators in North Carolina have not exactly been rolling out the welcome wagon for their new Democratic governor. Legislators returned to the capital of Raleigh for a special session to repeal the so-called "bathroom bill". But they failed to offer legislation that would do so cleanly.

The surprise decision sparked outrage from Democrats who claimed Republicans failed to hold up their end of the bargain and slipped in language that would have made this only a partial repeal. The city of Charlotte had agreed to repeal its own LGBT protection ordinance which, of course, had prompted the bathroom bill in the first place, with the understanding that the state general assembly would get rid of the bill requiring individuals to use the bathrooms pertaining to the gender on their birth certificate.

Let's bring in North Carolina's Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper.

First of all, Governor-elect Cooper, congratulations on your victory.

ROY COOPER (D), GOVERNOR-ELECT OF NORTH CAROLINA: Thank you very much. I'm looking forward to it.

TAPPER: So, you brokered the deal between the city of Charlotte and the state legislature. You're obviously not happy about what happened.

COOPER: No. Well, the Republican legislative leadership broke its word. It said that, if the Charlotte City Council would repeal its ordinance, then they would fully repeal House Bill 2. But what happened was is that they refused to put a House Bill 2 repeal bill onto the floor of both the House and Senate. There were enough Republican and Democratic votes to get that done.

People in North Carolina are tired of House Bill 2. They're tired of North Carolina being on the late-night comedy shows. It is a stain on our great state's reputation, and it's got to be wiped out. I'm going to work hard, continue to work.

This was our best chance to do it. It cannot be our last chance. We've got to keep working.

TAPPER: Well, Governor-elect, why did 16 Democratic lawmakers vote against the repeal?

COOPER: Well, no. That's just not true. What they did was added to repeal of House Bill 2 a moratorium on any city or county passing anti-discrimination ordinances. That's essentially what House Bill 2 does.

So, it was a legislative trick. The Democrats saw through it. They knew that, if this moratorium on any local anti-discrimination ordinance passed, that it wouldn't work, that the NBA wouldn't come back, the NCAA wouldn't come back, that businesses would still say no to North Carolina in many cases. They knew this.

So, they were trying to stop something that wasn't full repeal, and it wasn't their agreement. We had enough Republicans and Democrats together to get this done, and this was a failure of the Republican legislative leadership. They went back on their word. What we have to do now is to find another path.

TAPPER: So, let me ask you about the outgoing Governor Pat McCrory. He signed the last-minute legislation which curbs your gubernatorial power, such as limiting your authority to hire staffers. Putting Democrats in charge to the election board in years when elections aren't even being held. Republicans in charge in actual election years.

In response to this, you said, quote, "They'll see me in court." Are you still planning to sue?

COOPER: Yes, sir. And I'll tell you this. They can try to do those kinds of things, but we're still going to move this state forward.

[16:35:01] We still have plenty of authority to help us raise teacher pay, to help us get better-paying jobs in this state.

I am going to fight them on this because it was not just a power grab. It was an attempt by them to be able to change who controls education policy, tax policy, elections. And I am not going to let them do that. We will see them in court.

And what we're going to do also is, on many issues where we can find agreement, we're going to work with them. People want us to work together. And in fact, during this turmoil of this big fight, we were talking -- I was talking to the House speaker and the president pro tem about repealing House Bill 2. And, in fact, we had a sit-down and we had an agreement, even with this turmoil going on.

I think that's what people want. People want us to work together. I'm going to do that, but I also need to keep an eye on the fact that I was not able to trust what they were able to say in this piece of legislation.

But it's time for us to go forward. It's time for us to move North Carolina forward. We are a great state. We just need to show that. TAPPER: Governor-elect Roy Cooper of the great state of North

Carolina -- thank you so much. Good luck to you, sir.

COOPER: Thanks a lot, Jake.

TAPPER: In today's buried lead: the suicide hotline designed to take in crisis calls from veterans. But now, a whistle blower is sounding the alarm on potential problems after some of those calls might have been missed.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The buried lead -- that's what we call stories that we think are not getting enough attention. It's estimated that 20 American veterans kill themselves every day. For many, their only life line is the emergency hotline at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It should be obvious that the bare minimum this country can do to fulfill its commitment to veterans is to pick up the phone.

But despite congressional and presidential action, we found out there are still problems.

[16:40:00] It still may not be happening.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you for calling the veteran crisis hotline. It's Scott. How can I help you?

TAPPER (voice-over): 2016 has been a troubled year for the understaffed veterans crisis line, which was profiled in an Academy Award-winning documentary the year before.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not going to leave you. I'm not going to go anywhere. I'm going to stay right with you.

TAPPER: In February, the V.A. inspector general revealed, quote, "that some calls routed to backup crisis centers were answered by voice mail and callers did not always receive immediate assistance."

In September, Congress learned that the former director of the veterans crisis line had said in an internal e-mail that more than a third of calls are not being answered by front-line staffers. Instead, they are being rolled to backup call centers where staff may have less training.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The veterans crisis line is here for all veterans.

TAPPER: The V.A. has tried to fix this problem. This week, a new 200-person call center in Atlanta was celebrated with much promise from V.A. deputy secretary Sloan Gibson.

SLOAN GIBSON, DEPUTY SECRETARY, VETERANS AFFAIRS: I've got to tell you, getting stuff done inside the federal government is really hard. And the idea that in about 150 days, these guys went from a standing start to answering calls down here and hiring more than 200 additional staff. In the federal government, that's like light speed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I urge the committee --

TAPPER: But two years after testifying before Congress, V.A. whistleblower Scott Davis, who works one floor down from the call center in Atlanta, tells CNN that there remained big problems that may not be easily solved. Problems like this. Highlighted in an October complaint to the V.A. inspector general from a suicidal veteran, claiming the person on the line left the call twice, or in November when a troubled veteran called the Atlanta office and Davis' colleagues could not patch him through.

SCOTT DAVIS, WHISTLEBLOWER: It is so bad that, when our own office tried to call the crisis line, no one answered the phone. Someone actually had to walk up from the fourth floor to go to the fifth floor to get someone to take a veteran's call.

TAPPER: In February, the V.A. inspector general noted not enough is being done to track how effective the call centers are when it comes to, quote, "patient outcomes or other quality indicators."

And Davis says this remains a problem.

DAVIS: Currently, we don't have a standardization for quality assurance. That's something basic that you would have for a call center, for a credit card company, for a cable company.

GIBSON: In the past, it was difficult for us because we didn't have the management information that would allow us to go back. OK. What responder did they speak to? How much can that responder reconstruct the phone call? Now, what we have to do is use the foundation, leverage off of it to deliver better outcomes.

TAPPER: An internal memo shows the number of abandoned or unanswered calls did not decrease from April to September of this year.

GIBSON: We're not going to be perfect, but we are trying to build as much rigor into the system and process as we can so that we operate more like a high reliability organization. We are within days of being at a point where pretty consistently, we are not rolling any calls over.

TAPPER: But with stakes this high, Davis remains concerned about the cost of failure.

DAVIS: If this isn't addressed, you're going to have the number of veterans that commit suicide on a daily basis remain at 20 or more a day, which is simply unacceptable.


TAPPER: One thing everyone agrees on -- we should give the phone number of the hotline for anybody watching right now. It is 1-800- 273-TALK. That is 1-800-273-TALK or 8255. Veterans, choose option one.

Let's turn to breaking news in the world lead. Syrian forces loyal to President Assad now say they are in complete control of Aleppo. All rebel fighters along with tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been evacuated or chased from the city over the last several days. Syrian warplanes and troops on the ground have been relentlessly pounding the opposition enclaves of eastern Aleppo, at one time, Syria's largest city.

CNN's Muhammad Lila joins us now from the border between Turkey and Syria.

Muhammad, what are the conditions on the ground right now in Aleppo?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, you know, whenever one side in this conflict comes out and makes a statement, you've got to treat it with skepticism. But in this case, it's not just the Syrian side that's talking about this. We have confirmation from a leading rebel negotiator told Turkish state media, all saying the same thing, that all of the civilians and the rebel fighters and their families in eastern Aleppo have been evacuated.

Effectively, what that means is that the government and Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, now controls the entire city. You know, for so many years, it was divided between the rebel part of the city and the government forces part of the city, but that divide is no longer in place.

It's a stunning turn, Jake. I mean, remember when this revolution began. We all thought Bashar al Assad would last three, six, or nine months. But this has been a dramatic turn. In fact, it's now looking like Assad will outlast President Obama, something that most of us thought was unthinkable just a few years ago.

[16:44:54] TAPPER: And, Muhammad, obviously, there are still pockets of resistance throughout Syria, but the fact that Aleppo is now in complete control of the government does seem to suggest that he will hold on to power.

LILA: There is no question. You can't underestimate the importance of Eastern Aleppo. For more than four years since the rebels took hold in the eastern part of the city, it was their base of operations.

They directed operations out of there, they had communications. They had activists that were in touch with people across the city and in fact around the world.

What happens when you take that base away?

What happens to the revolution?

We know they're now in the Aleppo countryside in a province called Idlib. The problem with where all of the fighters and anti-Assad activists have gone is that Idlib also has a strong ISIS presence and a strong Al Qaeda presence.

These are groups that have all been fighting each other in this kind of weird mess of Syria's civil war. What happens to the opposition against Assad?

Will they unite or continue to fight amongst themselves?

No one really knows.

TAPPER: All right, Muhammad Lila, thank you so much. Stay safe.

Next, caught on camera, an e-cigarette exploding in a man's pocket. The new video is exposing a troubling problem with the popular device.

Plus: what's shaping up to be a lackluster inauguration celebration. Just 29 days away. Stay with us.




TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. The national lead now.

An explosion caught on camera that's raising concerns over popular e- cigarettes. Watch as one burst into flames on a city bus just --


TAPPER: -- yesterday in Fresno, California, sadly, this is not the first time this has happened which is why the soon-to-be Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, is not only calling for an investigation but a recall.

CNN's Rene Marsh joins me now.

Rene, lithium batteries were the source of laptop and cellphone explosions.

Is that what's going on here as well?

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, batteries appear to be the source of many of these explosions but we don't know for sure because e-cigarettes have fallen outside the scope of federal oversight for many years.

But an increase in explosions is causing concern that federal safety regulators are not doing enough to ensure the more than 3 million people using them are safe.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, you can't vape on the bus, man.

MARSH (voice-over): Seconds after this Fresno, California, bus passenger places his e-cigarette in his pocket, it explodes, severely burning him. The battery was likely the cause. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have a wrap on the outside that needs to stay intact. If that battery gets torn and it touches metal, there is some loose change in your pocket or something like that, it can short out the battery.

MARSH (voice-over): Explosions like these have caused serious injuries before. Surveillance cameras captured the terrifying moment in November when an e-cigarette exploded inside a New York City man's pocket, causing third degree burns.

Earlier this month a 24-year-old was severely burned when a pair of e- cigarette batteries exploded in his pocket. Attorney Sanford Rubenstein (ph) represents both men.

SANFORD RUBENSTEIN (PH), ATTORNEY: It explodes multiple times over and over, like fireworks. There should be a ban on the possession of e-cigarettes and e-cigarette batteries until such time as the manufacturers determine what's causing them to explode.

MARSH (voice-over): Between 2009 and January 2016, there were 134 incidents of overheating, fire or explosion involving e-cigarettes in the United States. More than 50 people were injured. Just days before the latest incident, incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for more federal oversight.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), N.Y.: It's time to take a hard look at requiring a recall of certain brands if they are much more likely to explode than others.

MARSH (voice-over): The concern is, as e-cigarettes become even more popular, the number of people injured will grow, too.


MARSH: Despite the explosions, there have not been any recalls. The FDA just got regulatory authority over e-cigarettes seven months ago. The agency telling me today it's now collecting information about incidents. They will then investigate and take the necessary steps to keep the public safe.

We should note that they are banned in checked luggage. And now some people are saying, besides the aircraft, they want to see it banned on maybe mass transit. You saw what happened on board that bus.

TAPPER: Yes, I don't want to be sitting next to that guy.

Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

In our pop culture lead, it remains doubtful that we'll see musical performances at President-Elect Donald Trump's presidential inauguration festivities of the caliber that the self-described billionaire would consider big league. Elton John, who headlined a Hillary Clinton fundraiser back in March, already said no to the invitation to perform on January 20th.

Let's bring in CNN's Stephanie Elam. Elam, is the Trump team having any luck getting A-listers to perform?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Just today, Jake, they said that the Radio City Rockettes will join the lineup. But as for the big names, still looking for a lot of them.


ELAM (voice-over): Beyonce, James Taylor, Brad Paisley, those are just a few of the A-list entertainers who sang at President Obama's last inauguration. Over the years, presidential inaugurations have become celeb-studded celebrations.

Hollywood heavyweights deeming it an honor to be asked to perform for the new president. But now less than a month away from the president- elect's inauguration and sources tell CNN that Donald Trump's transition team is having a hard time booking talent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was an incredibly divisive campaign. There is a lot of hurt feelings out there. And even if you supported Donald Trump, you may have some hesitation over what kind of a response you're going to get from your fan base that did not vote for him.

ELAM (voice-over): The vice chair for the inaugural committee said in November Elton John was set to perform on the National Mall. John's spokeswoman wrote in an email to CNN, quote, "He will not be performing at Trump's inauguration -- capitalization, hers." It would have been a change for John, who headlined at Hillary Clinton fundraiser during the campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the view among many in the music industry is Donald Trump is not on ordinary Republican in his rhetoric and they're very put off by that and they -- they -- and it follows through with the inauguration that they don't want to touch it, I guess, with a 10-foot pole.


ELAM (voice-over): Entertainment news website, thewrap, reports Garth Brooks will not perform. No doubt, however, Trump will have performances. Just perhaps with a lot less pop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I actually don't doubt that there will be people there at the inauguration. I don't think, though, that they're going to get people who were out there on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton.

I also don't think that they're going to get the level of celebrity star power that you saw for Barack Obama's first inauguration. Hollywood leans Left and Donald Trump has to work against that.


ELAM (voice-over): The Trump team is downplaying any difficulties getting A-listers, confirming to CNN that they booked the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Also, saying yes, Jackie Evancho (ph) of "America's got talent" fame. She'll sing the national anthem at Trump's swearing in.

Other possible inaugural performers, musicians who have stumped for Trump, like Ted Nugent and Kid Rock.


And we've just learned from the Beach Boys that they say they've been asked to participate but haven't made a decision yet whether or not they'll show up for Trump.

As far as whether or not big stars will turn out, the Trump camp is downplaying this, saying it's not a big deal to them because they're not putting on summer jam or Woodstock, that the Trump supporters are a different breed and what they really care and who they really care to see, Donald J. Trump.

TAPPER: Interesting.

But, Stephanie, I have heard that there is an organization trying to put together a counter-performance on Inaugural Day of all these left- leaning performers who oppose Donald Trump. So it could actually become another chapter in these culture wars.

ELAM: Exactly. And who will people tune in to see?

The inauguration or will they look to see the event that's happening in Florida at the same time as the inauguration.

TAPPER: Yikes.

Stephanie Elam, thanks so much, Merry Christmas.

President-elect Donald Trump tweeting about nukes minutes after Vladimir Putin talked about nukes. Now foreign policy experts are starting to worry about a renewed arms race. State Department spokesman John Kirby on that -- right after this.