Return to Transcripts main page

New Day

U.S. Troops Arrive in Iraq's Anbar Province; Obama Meets with Xi and Putin in China; Interview with Sen. John McCain; V.A. Announces Massive Shakeup; Interview with VA Secretary Robert McDonald

Aired November 11, 2014 - 07:00   ET


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome back to NEW DAY. I'm Alisyn Camerota, alongside Chris Cuomo. Happy Veterans Day.

On this day when America honors its war heroes, ISIS has released a chilling video with a message for the West, as the first 50 U.S. soldiers set foot in one of the world's most dangerous places, the Anbar Province in Iraq.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The represent the first wave of up to 1,500 American troops being deployed to the region to, quote, "advise and assist" Iraqi forces in the bloody struggle against ISIS.

Now this comes as the Pentagon still can't confirm whether or not the commander of ISIS was wounded or even hit at this strike over the weekend.

So let's see if we can get the latest information. Let's go to the Pentagon and bring in CNN's Barbara Starr. First, let's deal with this video. What do we know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The video perhaps needs to be seen as yet again another ISIS propaganda video, something they are so good at. A number of videos strung together and about a 20-minute narrative, talking about the fighting in Kobani, of course, showing a lot of violence. A lot of things we can't show you. They're way too graphic on the battlefield.

It really underscores that ISIS, you know, goes into this battle with its cameras. They film everything. They video everything, and they put it up. They use it as a recruiting tool. They use it to try and intimidate. That's I think probably how it needs to be seen.

But still, the U.S., as you say, Chris, going on with its strategy, sending the first troops back into Anbar province to help get ready for even more U.S. trainers to arrive there.

CUOMO: Well, and hopefully, it also works as a symbol to people about why ISIS has to be removed as quickly as possible. Now let's talk about the U.S. troops. Obviously, there's great concern about what happens then. They're going into Anbar province.

Barbara, tell people about just, you know, how much urgency there will be. That's a real war zone there.

STARR: Anbar, of course, is to the west of Baghdad. It's the western approach to Baghdad. All the way back nearly to the Syria border. This is a Sunni-dominated area. So it is where ISIS has really found a stronghold in alliance with many of the Sunni tribes there.

The U.S. troops have arrived at a place called al-Asad Air Base. This is an Iraqi air base that has struggled to stay under Iraqi control. Fifty U.S. troops there to do a site survey, if you will, to get ready for more U.S. trainers to go in.

The goal here is to have a number of U.S. troops in Anbar province, very dangerous. Not supposed to be in combat. But they will work as trainers to get those Iraqi forces up and running, so they can go on the offense, push ISIS back.

Extraordinary, on this Veterans Day, we are talking about this. Anbar province, of course, during the war there, is a place where so many U.S. troops lost their lives.

CUOMO: Couldn't be -- couldn't be a more dangerous place. Barbara Starr, thank you very much for the reporting. We'll be back with you.

CAMEROTA: All right, Chris. This morning, President Obama is in Beijing for the APEC summit. He's meeting China's president one-on- one. And he's also spent time with Russian President Vladimir Putin, discussing, we're told, Iran, Syria and Ukraine.

The U.S., China and Russia all jockeying for economic power and influence at the summit.

Senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is following it all for us from Beijing.

Hi, Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Morning, Alisyn. It's breakfast where are you, but here in China, President Obama and Chinese President Xi will be meeting over dinner for the next couple of hours here in Beijing. The two leaders have been cutting business deals on areas where they agree and talking through issues where they disagree.

The big development of the day so far is the president, as you said, did come face to face three times today with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They spoke about Iran, Syria and the crisis in Ukraine.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes called Russia's recent military moves in Eastern Ukraine a recipe for isolation. But he conceded the sanctions imposed so far have not changed Putin's behavior.

Now, the president has one more day here in China. And the big remaining question is just how far the president is willing to go in criticizing Beijing over its record on human rights and hijacking -- or hacking, I should say. So far that criticism has been more polite than pointed. And just as the president is raising U.S. concerns about cybersecurity, there are reports about Chinese hackers breaching the U.S. Postal Service.

Those are also reports in the Chinese media right now that the Chinese have been offended by the president's gum chewing here in Beijing. Alisyn, the president was seeing chewing Nicorette gum entering an APEC event earlier in the day. The Chinese may not be aware, though, the president chews that Nicorette so he doesn't have to smoke. It's something we reporters at the White House do see him doing it from time to time, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: It is a stress-reliever, we believe. Jim Acosta, thanks so much.

ACOSTA: It is.

CAMEROTA: We'll watch all of those developments. Thank you.

All right. Let's get over to Chris.

CUOMO: Gum-chewing is the least of our concerns.

Let's talk more about everything that's going on with someone who knows. Senator John McCain, Republican, who represents the state of Arizona, of course. Also a veteran, as we know, and the author of "13 Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War." First of all, Senator, thank you for joining us.


CUOMO: And thank you for your service.

MCCAIN: Good to be back.

CUOMO: To you and your family.

MCCAIN: Thank you. Thank all our veterans today. And by the way, it's wonderful the way Americans honor our veterans all over America today. And it's really heartwarming, and it means a lot to our veterans. Now we need to fix our healthcare system.

CUOMO: That's right. Got to fix the veterans' healthcare system, and we have to make sure we're not putting them in harm's way unnecessarily, which takes us to the war. We're going to talk about the book. I have two copies of it. I want them signed. I will sell at least one on eBay.


CUOMO: I'm sure you're comfortable with that.

MCCAIN: Absolutely.

CUOMO: Depending on the interview, we'll raise the price, so let's all do our best. MCCAIN: I'm sure that the success or failure will depend on the next

few minutes.

CUOMO: I don't need any more pressure on me than I have right now, sir.

When we look at the war situation, we're hearing about the new phase, and we'll talk about what that means in terms of congressional approval. But when you're looking at what's going on over there, is this going in a direction early on, in your opinion, that it needs to be?

MCCAIN: I don't think so. In fact, I know so. This sort of gradual increase and involvement that we're going through reminds me of another war a long time ago, in the Vietnam, when we just gradually increased our involvement. The object of warfare is defeat -- is to defeat the enemy. And the president said our goal is to degrade and defeat ISIS. I don't see right now a strategy that would achieve the goal that the president said.

And so we need more trainers. We need more forward air controllers. We need more Special Forces. And we have to understand that ISIS covers both Syria and Iraq. And have one war in one part of that caliphate that they've established and another kind of strategy in the other one -- it just doesn't work.

And of course, we see on the front page of the "New York Times" this morning the radical elements in Egypt have now aligned themselves with ISIS. ISIS is winning, at least in the eyes of the young radicals all over the Middle East.

CUOMO: Well, look, there's no question that the solution extends far beyond the military, right?


CUOMO: You need these regimes to be able to do what they need for their own people to suppress ideals of extremism. We have to deal with the political situation, the coalition, what's going on in Iraq. But this is a military phase right now.


CUOMO: And it is clear that what's going on on the ground is inadequate in terms of overtaking the enemy. And now we have these U.S. troops. They're being put, you know Anbar province very well. You know it's one of the last places you want to be on earth. What is your concern about what the U.S. involvement will ultimately be, no matter what we say the mission is?

MCCAIN: I think if we develop a strategy that is aimed at achieving that goal, and that may mean additional American troops; not the 82nd Airborne, not the kind before, but trainers and forward air controllers and other kinds of capabilities that can turn this tide. And there's a number of other things. For example, let's give military assistance direct to the Kurds,

rather than have it go through Baghdad, which is obviously not good. Let's insist that the Iraqi government, this new government, really be responsive to the people. To be a legitimate government that the Iraqi people, all of them -- Kurds, Shiite and Sunni -- can support. So there's a political element.

But most of all, let's develop a strategy. What is needed in order to defeat these people militarily along with the rest of the other aspects of victory? And frankly, we just see this announcement after announcement, including the fact that the president for a long time was -- the first thing he would say is we won't do.

CUOMO: We won't do. I know. You've criticized that roundly, that you don't say what you're not going to do. You say what you do, and it's not just a semantical difference.

MCCAIN: He said we're going to do bombing, and we waited a week.

CUOMO: Right.

MCCAIN: We waited a week. And now many of those shots you saw on CNN of buildings being hit, those buildings were empty.

CUOMO: Because of the lag time.

MCCAIN: We warned them ahead of time. Now they're like cockroaches when the light goes on. They go into the -- into the population.

CUOMO: One other thing I want to address in that situation; then I want to get to the book. Is one of the things the president did do is he reached out to Iran through its holy leader. You are well outspoken in your feelings about Iran and that they are not our friend. And even though they may be the enemy of the enemy right now, they're still not our friend.

But you know they're fighting against ISIS already. You know that Iran's influence on Iraq is undeniable. Do you hurt the goal by excluding them?

MCCAIN: I think, Chris, it's immoral to tell 5,000 young Syrians that we're going to train them in Saudi Arabia and send them back into Syria to fight, and their enemy is Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, and we're going to allow Bashar al-Assad to barrel bomb them. Why not give them a no-fly zone if you're really serious? Is it really moral to say, "We're going to send you back in, but we're not going to protect you"?

And now when ISIS is, when the United States strikes ISIS, Bashar al- Assad increases his attacks on the Free Syrian Army, which is being decimated. That's not moral. You can't do that to people.

CUOMO: Right. But isn't that just one more reason to have as big a tent as possible? And can't that include bringing Iran in?

MCCAIN: The Iranians -- the Iranians support Hamas. The Iranians have -- are the ones that sent in the Hezbollah. They're the ones that have sent in arms and equipment and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They're the ones who are -- destabilized Yemen. The Iranians have ambitions which cannot coincide with ours.

CUOMO: Correct.

MCCAIN: So it's -- it's an alliance that just won't work, Chris. It won't work.

CUOMO: Understood. But we're going to have to find some different solutions, and that's why we'll keep the conversation going.


CUOMO: Veterans Day, obviously, the timing very appropriate for "13 Soldiers." Thirteen refers to 13 different conflicts, wars that you pointed out -- obviously, there are more, but you thought these were instructive.

And a lot of time in who you chose to talk about and why. Not all amazing acts of valor in here. What do you want people to get from the book, Senator. You're not in here, by the way. You may have written it, but you're not in here. You're not one of the 13.

MCCAIN: I'm not in the category. It doesn't take a lot of talent to get shot down, you know.

The -- I have, we -- Mark Salter and I, who are very close friends for many, many years and worked together, picked out 13 individuals, some of them that are scoundrels, a couple of brave American women. A couple of African-Americans that fought and, frankly, were not rewarded by their country when they should have been for their service, so that each individual -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a Brahmin and fought in the Civil War and forever changed. So we've tried to put the context of the war and then find one individual who really epitomized that conflict in many aspects.

And I think we were able to put a personal stamp on many of these conflicts. And hopefully, we can appreciate the fact that ordinary Americans, from our first young men, joined at age 15 in the Revolutionary Army, literally almost starved to death. And then, of course, we had a medic, a woman medic who ran right into the fight after an IED. By the way, I hope putting to rest this issue of whether women can serve in combat or not.

And so we tried to describe these people in a way that helped in the context of the conflict. But also appreciate what really -- only in America could you find 13 people like that.

CUOMO: I had my life basically saved by a woman in combat. So you don't have to sell me on that proposition.

Very interesting profiles of people in here that do wind up representing what it takes to fight in different situations over time. Mark Salter, his dad is in here. My one problem with the book: no John McCain reference after so much honorable duty. But I'll leave that to those who read the book for themselves. I'm not going to jaundice.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Chris.

CUOMO: Senator John McCain...


MCCAIN: ... young man. Thank you.

CUOMO: ... always a pleasure to get your perspective on NEW DAY. Appreciate it.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right. Michaela, over to you.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Great conversation there, Chris. Let's give you a look at your headlines right now.

There is not a single known case of Ebola in the United States this morning. New York City doctor Craig Spencer is being discharged from Bellevue Hospital today. Health officials say Spencer is infection- free. He is no longer a threat to public safety.

Dr. Spencer contracted the virus while treating Ebola victims in Guinea.

Concerns of another major Palestinian uprising are growing, following another rash of deadly attacks against Israelis. The latest victim: an Israeli woman. She was stabbed to death at a West Bank bus stop Monday. The scene of that attack is near where three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed by Palestinians back in June. Earlier Monday, an Israeli soldier was stabbed and killed in Tel Aviv.

Violent crime nationwide has hit a 36-year low. Now, that's according to statistics -- statistics, rather, just released by the FBI. Violent crime plunged 4.4 percent in 2013, putting it at the lowest level since 1978. There were an estimated 1.5 -- 1.15 million violent crimes reported last year, compared to 1.2 million the year before. One possible reason cited for the decline: increased use of security cameras and cell phones capturing such incidents.

The big chill is about to send our temperatures plunging along the East Coast. The same weather system dumped a foot or more of snow in the upper Midwest and Rockies. They are fairly used to snow in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota. Not this much, though, and not this soon. Remember: look at your calendars. Winter is still more than a month away. So maybe I'm thinking we're just getting all this cold weather and winter out of the way now, so we'll have a mild winter?

CAMEROTA: I'm sure that's the truth.

CUOMO: That's certainly how it...

PEREIRA: I'll (ph) be a meteorologist. How about that? CUOMO: That's how it works scientifically. No question.

PEREIRA: No question.

CAMEROTA: Optimism plays a big role in that.

Thanks so much, Michaela.

Well, the new Veterans Affairs chief is unveiling plans for a sweeping overhaul of the scandal-ridden agency. Will his plan make the V.A. more responsive to the needs of our vets? V.A. Secretary Robert McDonald will join us next.

CUOMO: And immigration, Ebola, the next attorney general. Battle lines are being drawn all over our nation's capital right now. We're going to bring in John King, and he'll explain the state of play on "Inside Politics."


CAMEROTA: Today we honor our veterans as officials try to turn around the agency that is supposed to care for vets when they return from the battlefield.

The V.A. was rocked by a scandal that exposed egregious weight times for health care. The new head of the V.A. says he is shaking up the department and demanding accountability.

Joining us now is the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald.

Mr. McDonald, nice to see you.

ROBERT MCDONALD, SECRETARY, VETERANS AFFAIRS: Good morning, Alisyn. Happy Veterans Day.

CAMEROTA: And to you, as well. And it seems particularly relevant to be speaking to you today on this Veterans Day about how you plan to radically improve the health care of our returning veterans. So where do you begin?

MCDONALD: Well, we're already making progress. In the last four months we've had a million more plus veterans get appointments in our system. We've had -- we've reached out to 300,000-plus of our veterans to get them into our system. We've driven down disability claims by 60 percent. Driven down homelessness by 33 percent.

This reorganization is really meant to set the long-term course for the department. It's the biggest reorganization our history. And it's going to be focused on focusing on the veteran, being veteran- centric.


MCDONALD: We're going to stand up a customer service organization to really help navigate veterans through our complex department while simplifying the department. CAMEROTA: And that sounds wonderful, and that, of course, will be

music to the ears of any veteran. But of course, we're also talking about accountability for all the problems that went wrong with the V.A.. On "60 Minutes" this weekend, you said that you had a list of 35 senior leaders that you wanted to fire immediately. Has that process begun?

MCDONALD: Yes, it has. In fact we've worked very hard. Listen, we can't change this department unless we change the culture. And primary to changing the culture is holding people accountable when they violate our values.

Our values are represented in the acronym, "I care." It's the pin I'm wearing now. And "I" stands for integrity. If somebody has violated our value of integrity, we're going to go after and seek their dismissal and separation.

As I -- as you pointed out, we've got a list of about 40 names, 40- plus names that we report to Congress. Each week. We've got another list over 5,000 names of people who are seeking disciplinary action either against or have done over the last year. Over the last year, about over 5,000.

CAMEROTA: OK. Let me read to you what Congressman Jeff Miller has said about your plan. He, by the way, is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

He says, "I'm disappointed that instead of fully embracing the new firing authorities Congress and President Obama gave the V.A., the department has shied away from them and even added more bureaucratic red tape, such as additional appeals and interminable stints on paid leave." Have you actually fired any of those 40 people?

MCDONALD: Of course we have. Does that statement make sense to you? Very simply, the new law that chairman Miller is talking about, the only change it creates is to shorten the appeal time by half.

So we're following the law. We're holding people accountable as expeditiously and aggressively as possible. And if members of Congress would like to us do something different, they need to write a new law. Because we are following the law.

CAMEROTA: So Congressman Miller is wrong when he says that instead of people being fired, they're actually just on interminable paid leave?

MCDONALD: We are following the law. And we are taking disciplinary action against people. There are people on leave right now.

The way the system works for senior executive service employees of government is you have to propose a disciplinary action. This is the law. And while we're proposing the disciplinary action and before the adjudicating judge makes a decision, we put the people on administrative leave. Because we don't want any harm created to our veterans.

So administrative leave is the first step while the process goes on. We file the disciplinary procedure. And then the judge decides.

The most important thing to us in this process, Alisyn, is we've got to make sure these things stick on appeal. Because undoubtedly, many of them are going to be appealed. So we've got to follow the law rigorously, and that's what we're doing. That makes sense, thank you so much for explaining all of those distinctions to us.

Very quickly, Mr. McDonald, what do you have to say to veterans who are returning from the battlefield, about how you will insure that they'll get the health care they need?

MCDONALD: Well listen, Alisyn, I'm a veteran. I went to West Point. I served in the 82nd Airborne Division. Over 30 percent of the people in the Veterans Affairs department are veterans. We care about each other. If you ask veterans who they care most about, it's other veterans. We served together; our lives depended upon each other. That's why I took this job. There's no higher calling than caring for the veterans of our country.

So what I'm telling our veterans is we're going to improve the system. We're going to make sure every veteran gets their needs met. At the same time, we're also going to represent the taxpayer. We're going to follow the law in distributing, for example, disability payments. And we're going to make sure we are good stewards of the taxpayers' money.

CAMEROTA: Mr. McDonald, thanks so much for joining us. Best of luck to you in your new endeavor.

MCDONALD: Thank you, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Pleasure. Let's go over to Chris.

CUOMO: So Ted Cruz has been a thorn in the side of the president. But now it may be fellow Republicans feeling the prick of the thorn from the far right. John King will explain the politics going on, on "Inside Politics."

And then this story for you: the idea of losing your family to a killer is too hard for most of to us even imagine. Well, Patrick McStay has had to live that horror. And now, in a CNN exclusive, he tells us the person to blame may not have been a stranger. The unbelievable twist ahead.


PEREIRA: Almost half past the hour, here's a look at your headlines.

The first wave of U.S. troops has arrived in Iraq's Anbar province, adding to the 1,400 that are already in that country. The White House says the 50 soldiers are there in a noncombat role to assist and advise Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is trying to confirm whether a weekend airstrike killed or wounded the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Stunning new details in a report on the death of Joan Rivers. Investigators say a New York City clinic failed -- failed to notice the comedienne's vital signs deteriorating before she went into cardiac arrest, contributing to her death a week later. The report also found the director of Yorkville Endoscopy took cell-phone pictures while the 81-year-old comedienne was sedated.

A surprising revelation by the Mormon church. It now admits that founder Joseph Smith had as many as 40 wives, including some who were already married. One as young as 14. The church had previously taken great pains to describe that Smith was married to one woman. The church, founded in 1830, disavowed multiple marriages in 1890, under pressure from the U.S. government, which imprisoned polygamists and seized their assets.

We've been watching this lava from Hawaii's Kilauea volcano; has now claimed its first home. The house in Pahoa village went up in flames and burned to the ground once the lava hit. So hard to watch that. Fortunately, the residents had already evacuated. They were out of harm's way, and they'd already cleared out their belongings. That lava has been inching toward the town since June. Fortunately, according to the USGS, there are no other homes in immediate danger.

Again, this has been an active volcano since 1983, but it's really startling when we've been sort of watching it progress, getting closer and closer to those homes.

CUOMO: One of the guys there supervising the safety said there's only one thing that will put out lava: time. So they just have to live with it.

CAMEROTA: Nothing to do about it.

CUOMO: Nothing.

PEREIRA: Just get out of the way.

CAMEROTA: Thanks for the update.

CUOMO: All right, let's get to "Inside Politics" on NEW DAY with Mr. John King. How are you this morning?