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Ex-Pentagon Chief Slams Obama's Leadership; Interview with John McCain; Pre-K Showdown; Billionaire Brothers Bankroll Conservatives; Is Legalizing Marijuana Inevitable?; Christie Signs New Jersey Dream Act; Senate Moves Ahead on Long-Term Jobless Aid; Interview with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus

Aired January 7, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right, Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, stunning new criticism of the Obama White House and the vice president of the United States and the Obama administration's handling of the war in Afghanistan. We have new details leaking right now from a new memoir written by President Obama's first Defense secretary, Robert Gates.

Did the president actually believe in his own strategy or did he put troops at risk?

John McCain unplugged -- one of the fiercest critics of the president's war strategy joins us live in THE SITUATION ROOM within a matter of minutes. The Republican senator talks about Robert Gates, two U.S. wars and his own view of the president's performance as commander-in-chief.

And extending unemployment benefits -- the president picks his first fight of 2014, telling lawmakers to restore jobless benefits to more than a million Americans.

But will Congress show him the money?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But we begin with some blistering new allegations about President Obama's leadership as commander-in-chief from the man who served as his first Defense secretary. "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" have published reports on a new memoir by Robert Gates.

The sharp criticism over the handling of the Afghan War is remarkable for someone who was known for quiet bipartisanship, while holding top jobs both at the CIA and the Pentagon in three administrations.

Let's get right to all of this with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Pretty remarkable stuff in this book. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question. Well, you remember President Obama spoke from the beginning about building a team of rivals in his cabinet. But this really is unprecedented criticism by a former cabinet secretary of a sitting president. And Gates levels one of the harshest criticisms one can make against the commander-in- chief, that the president sent forces into combat in Afghanistan believing the strategy would fail.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): In his new book, titled, "Duty: Memories of a Secretary At War," the former Defense secretary delivers an unfiltered, sometimes scathing critique of the White House.

On Afghanistan, "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" report Gates writes that by early 2010, he had concluded the president, quote, "doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

The papers report that Gates, who served under both Presidents Bush and Obama, grew concerned about the president changing course, that the president was, quote, "skeptical, if not outright convinced it would fail," though Gates also says he, quote, "never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission."

The book is not set for release until January 14th, but late today, both papers published detailed stories about its content.

Gates is especially hard on Obama's advisers, the papers report, calling Vice President Joe Biden, quote, "a man of integrity," but arguing, quote, "He has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue for over the past four decades." He reportedly describes the president's larger national security team as, quote, "controlling" and "filled primarily by former Hill staffers, academics and political operatives," who pursued, quote, "micromanagement of military matters, a combination that had proven disastrous in the past."


SCIUTTO: Now on President Obama himself, Gates is, at times, more flattering, praising him for making decisions, quote, "opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats."

Wolf, he also went on to call the president's decision to launch the raid that killed Obama's -- Osama bin Laden, rather, one of the most courageous decisions he has ever witnessed in the White House.

BLITZER: Yes. So there's a little mixed there, but pretty critical of a lot of other stuff.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Let's talk with someone right now who's been pretty critical himself of the president's performance as commander-in-chief, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, you got the headlines there. You've seen the articles in "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times."

What's your instinctive, immediate reaction to what you hear from Robert Gates?

MCCAIN: Well, he certainly was one of the most respected men I've ever known in Washington. And he's not just one of these ordinary public servants, as he served, I believe, five presidents. And so I think people -- his words will have a significant impact. And, frankly, I'm a little surprised because a lot of times people are not quite as candid as it appears that his book is.

BLITZER: Well, do you agree with him about the president, when he says, I never doubted Obama's support for the troops in Afghanistan, only his support for their mission?

Do you agree with Gates on that?

A pretty severe criticism.

MCCAIN: Oh, sure. I mean look, did you ever hear the president talk about Afghanistan without talking about that we were leaving?

Look what's happening in Iraq, a place where we lost 95 killed and 600 wounded and Fallujah is now black flags of al Qaeda are flying. And anybody who tells you that it's Maliki's fault we don't have troops there is not telling you the truth.

So and in Afghanistan, obviously, he hasn't spoken to Karzai since last July. Since last July was the last time he had a conversation with Karzai.

And so we are now seeing a replay of Iraq. And that's a complete withdrawal. And you may see the same result in Afghanistan as we are seeing in Iraq.

BLITZER: Well, are you saying you would like to send troops back into Iraq to deal with the al Qaeda threat in Fallujah?

MCCAIN: No. What I would like to see is us give the kind of support that is necessary, with the logistics, intelligence, there's all kinds of ways that we can be of assistance to them with capabilities that they don't have.

But of course not sending -- the American people would never stand for sending troops back into battle. But, also, before we did that, we'd have to have Maliki embark on a reconciliation with the Sunni, because he has alienated the Sunni. And that's been one of the major factors in this whole reopening of Anbar for al Qaeda to take advantage of.

And so you'd have to see a change in behavior on Maliki's part before we extend this kind of assistance.

But none of this would have happened, in my view, if we had left a contingent behind that would have been -- have influenced to counter now the increasing Iranian influence and also been helpful to him in guiding him in a different path than the one that he took.

BLITZER: You know what the president says. He says he wanted to leave a contingent of U.S. Troops in Iraq, 5,000 or 10,000, or whatever, but Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite leader of Iraq, refused to grant those American soldiers and Marines and sailors and airmen immunity from Iraqi prosecution. As a result, the U.S. Had no choice but to pull out.

MCCAIN: You know I might have had some -- given some credence to that if it hadn't been for the fact that Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham and I were in Iraq. We saw Barzani. He was ready to go out. Alawi was ready to go. We met with Maliki. We said to Malik -- Maliki said, OK, I will do it,

How many troops?

And they said -- we turned to the ambassador and General Austin and they said, well, we don't know the number of troops. I came back here and I called Mr. Donilon and I said, how many troops?

He said he couldn't tell us how many troops one left behind or their missions. And General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the number of troops we wanted to leave there, in his words, cascaded down to 3,500. That would have been meaningless.

And so of course Maliki didn't want the deal, because it was meaningless. And anybody who tells you any different from that is not telling you the truth, because I was there.

BLITZER: Let's get back to what Robert Gates is writing in his new book.


BLITZER: A couple of quotes and I'll get your reaction.

He says this about the vice president, Joe Biden. You worked with him in the Senate for many years. "I think Vice President Biden has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."

Are you that harsh on Joe Biden?

MCCAIN: I -- I have the greatest affection for Joe Biden and respect and I've never had a discussion or an argument with him that became personal. He's one of the finest men that I've known.

But he has been wrong on a lot of these issues, there's very little doubt about that, going back to Desert Storm.

BLITZER: Has he been wrong on almost every issue over four decades? (LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: I don't know, Wolf. I don't want -- I can't recount them, but he has been wrong on a number of occasions. And he was one of the factors in the whole removal of all of our troops from Iraq. And I have heard that his people are also not too unhappy if there's a zero option in Afghanistan. I don't know if that's true or not.

BLITZER: He's pretty harsh on the Obama administration, Robert Gates. But you know what, he's pretty harsh on Congress, too. And I'll read you another quote. This from an article he has in "The Wall Street Journal" that he's just released. "Congress is best viewed from a distance, the farther the better, because up close, it is truly ugly. I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities, such as timely appropriations, micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self and reelection before country."

Harsh words about the body you serve in for so many years.

MCCAIN: Well, I think that I -- may I say first, I agree with a lot of what he said. But, also, the job that he had as secretary of Defense was probably the most frustrating that anybody can have. That's where a lot of the parochialism comes in. That's where a lot of the frustration that he feels come in -- comes in. And I certainly don't think that those were -- I think those words are too harsh, but I can understand a lot of the frustration that he felt. He expressed many of those frustrations to me and others when he was secretary of Defense.

Whether he thinks I'm all of those things or not, I still have the highest regard for Secretary Gates.

BLITZER: Let me -- one final note. You were on Jay Leno's show.

And I'll play a little clip about your own future and then I want you to elaborate


JAY LENO, HOST: Now how about the election, will you run for reelection?

MCCAIN: I'm looking at it very seriously.

LENO: A little bit --

MCCAIN: Very seriously. I think --

LENO: Seriously?



LENO: He told me he was going to do it, so. MCCAIN: Really?

LENO: Yes, he told me. He said he was going to do it.

MCCAIN: I think there's a lot going on. I'm at the top of my game and --

LENO: Right.

MCCAIN: -- and so I'm -- and I'm very happy to have the chance.


BLITZER: It sounds like you're going to run for reelection, right?

MCCAIN: Well, I'm certainly thinking seriously about it, Wolf. And I have another year before I have to make the decision. But I'm certainly, you know, despite what Mr. Gates said, I still think I have a lot to contribute and I still think that this institution is a magnificent place to work. And I'm honored to have been able to serve here.

BLITZER: And you obviously feel you're still at the top of your game, so I assume --

MCCAIN: Well, I --

BLITZER: -- you'll be visiting us in THE SITUATION ROOM for a long time to come.

MCCAIN: Absolutely. And I think you'll be in THE SITUATION ROOM for a long time to come, because you're as old as I am.

BLITZER: We'll have a good time together in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Hey, Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

MCCAIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, tax the rich for pre-K education?

New York City's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, gets into his first battle with fellow Democrat, Governor Andrew Cuomo.

And a leading conservative publication says it's time to get sensible on weed.

Is the legalization of marijuana now inevitable?


BLITZER: Battle over early childhood education is pitting New York City's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, against the governor, a fellow Democrat, Andrew Cuomo. They both want to expand pre-K programs, but they're divided over how to pay for it. CNN national correspondent, Deborah Feyerick, is joining us from New York with more. What's going on, Deb?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's always about the money, and apparently, how to make good on individual campaign pledges that seem to at base contradict one another.


FEYERICK (voice-over): They're New York's two dominant political alpha males, both democrats, yet each on opposite sides of a key issue -- to tax or not to tax. New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, who is running for reelection, says no to raising taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every New Yorker pays less taxes than they did three years ago.

FEYERICK: While New York City's progressive new mayor says yes, but only on the rich and only to fund education programs for the very young. The average cost?

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, NEW YORK: $973 a year. That's less than three bucks a day. About the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks. Think about it. A five-year tax on the wealthiest among us with every dollar dedicated to pre-K and afterschool.

FEYERICK: On their first full week after the New Year, both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio held near concurrent press conferences 150 miles apart. Asked straight out whether there's a battle brewing, the mayor was emphatic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is this a beginning of a face-off between you and the governor?

DE BLASIO: He has a vision for state taxes and I respect that vision. We're talking about the ability of the people in New York City to tax ourselves.

FEYERICK: Mayor De Blasio is asking the state for permission to tax rich New Yorkers. He wants five years of dedicated funding to go strictly to pre-K and afterschool programs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The problem is it's an election year. The governor is running for election. The local legislature is running for election. And guess what, no one passes a tax in an even electric year.

FEYERICK: The governor is expected at his state of the state this week to proposed funding pre-K out of the existing state budget rather than through new city taxes. Not good enough says the mayor.

DE BLASIO: I'm talking about the ability of the city of New York City to tax its own citizens for city revenue, so I think it's apples and oranges.

JOHN AVALON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There's a deep, practical, political, and philosophical division between these two Democrats. And if bill De Blasio can't get the state legislature to agree to an income tax hike, he's going to have to look elsewhere for that cash.


FEYERICK: Now, De Blasio was one of Cuomo's top deputies in the late 1990s at Housing and Urban Development. The men consider themselves both friends and allies. So, while the two are expected to have a much more positive working relationship in past mayors and governors. Political insiders say be warned, the rah-rah rhetoric shouldn't obscure the reality that there's a point of deep division between these two men -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see how this relationship unfolds in the years to come. Lots at stake. Deb Feyerick, thank you.

Coming up, a powerful network revealed how the billionaire Koch Brothers are reshaping the political landscape with little accountability even less transparency. Stand by.

And a stunning turnaround on marijuana. We have some new poll numbers showing a rather dramatic change in the way people think about pot.


BLITZER: There've been some stunning revelations this week about the bankrolling of a vast network of conservative groups by a pair of billionaire brothers. CNN's Tom Foreman has been looking into the story for us. Tom, what are you seeing?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is about big money, big political clout and what seems to be an increasingly shadowy political world in the wake of a big Supreme Court decision.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I see you signed up for Obamacare.

FOREMAN (voice-over): $400 million raised and spent in 18 months to oppose the Affordable Care Act, to protect gun rights, to try to stop Barack Obama's re-election and much more.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I promise the change will come.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think I have a right to speak out.

FOREMAN: A new analysis of political spending by the billionaire, Koch brothers, and their allies has been unveiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is really just a maze of connections.


FOREMAN: And Robert Maguire says it paints a picture of a sprawling network of interconnected group pushing a conservative agenda. ROBERT MAGUIRE, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: It's an enormous maze of non-profit organizations using subsidiaries to grant money to each other and shuffle money around. It's very hard to track.

FOREMAN: It's all legal. Four years ago, the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case ruled such spending by corporations, individuals, and groups is free speech and can't be restricted, but this byzantine world makes it almost impossible to tell who is paying for which political fights.

MAGUIRE: We know, for example, that the Koch Brothers, Charles and David Koch sort of supported the creation of this network, but it's not known how much they're funding, how much other people are funding.



FOREMAN: In a written statement, the Koch Brothers told us they and their associates have reasons to be cagey, because they say the Obama administration and its allies have targeted organizations with which they disagree, to stifle free speech and harass and intimidate these individuals and groups.

What's more, their supporters say Democratic-leaning labor unions race and spend hundreds of millions, too, and other billionaires like New York's Michael Bloomberg, better play the same game. He's given Democrats $2.5 million to try to keep control of the U.S. Senate and five million to push for greater gun laws. And conservatives say it all adds up.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And what we've seen over the last few years is see the right seek to counter that, but their own organization put together their own advocacy networks in order to compete on the electoral battlefield.


FOREMAN (on-camera): So, this is just a glimpse into the new political landscape here in Washington, this web of connections and money moving in so many ways that people just can't keep track of it right now, where it's coming from, where it's going to, who's trying to make these political things happen. That's one of the reasons the I.R.S. is now talking about maybe coming up with ways to do a better job tracking this money and keeping track other.

But Wolf, right now, it is an open season on this money flowing into the political system from all sorts of places.

BLITZER: And as they say, money talks, certainly in politics. Tom Foreman, good report. Thank you.

Let's discuss this and a little bit more with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, Ramesh Ponnuru, the senior editor of the "National Review, and Larry Sabato, he's the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He's also the author of the new book, "The Kennedy Half Century."

Guys, thanks very much. Larry, you wrote a provocative piece. The Republicans really could win it all this year. That was the title. An early prediction, meaning not only retain the majority in the House, but also take over the majority in the Senate. How realistic is this?

LARRY SABATO, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Well, it's early January, Wolf. And early bets sometimes don't pan out, so I would encourage anybody using my piece to bet to use small dollar amounts.

Not from the Koch brothers, but on the whole, I think the odds, given history and given current circumstances, the president's popularity, the state of the economy, the actual playing field, you would bet that not only Democrats could not take over the House, but that Republicans would probably add a few seats to their majority in the House.

Currently, I think Republicans are likely to add three or four seats in the Senate. They need six which means that they only need a small wave come September and October to pull that off. And six seats, they need six seeds to take over. Wolf, that's the post-World War II average for the out of power White House party. Now, Republicans are good at blowing things as we've seen in 2010 and 2012, but starting out, these are the odds.

BLITZER: You know, one thing Ramesh, that Larry also writes is that the Republicans who'd win all of this despite themselves. He suggests how worry should Republicans be that another Todd Akins, for example, could get the nomination in the Senate, a Tea Party activist who turns off more general election voters.

RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, Republicans should, of course, be worried that that could happen. And I think they are worried that that could happen. And I think that they should be mindful not only of the danger of people from the Tea Party faction, but people from other factions in the party who have proven to be bad candidate.



BLITZER: For example, in Nevada or Maryland, they had candidates who are not very attractive, even though there were more establishment --

PONNURU: Exactly.

BLITZER: -- Republicans who might have won.

PONNURU: But there were also party -- candidates in places like Wisconsin, Montana, and North Dakota in 2012, and they all lost. So, the problem isn't one faction of the party. The whole party has to reassess how it approaches these races.

BORGER: You know, I think we're sort of seeing that right now. There is a recalculation. You see a lot of Republicans who want to run on a national ticket talking about poverty, talking about helping people to rise through the ranks of the middle class. It's very clear that national Republican candidates understand that something has to change, because the last election, people didn't believe that Republicans cared about them.

They didn't believe that Republicans understood their problems. And if that's going to occur, they have to do some things in Congress this year, maybe get unemployment insurance extended for a few months, and also maybe do a part of immigration reform that would appeal to a broader base.

BLITZER: Let me read to you a quote from Robert Gates' new book --


BLITZER: -- that's causing a big stir at least here in Washington, I assume, around the country as well. This is from a copy that "The Washington Post" obtained, "Hillary told the president that her opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq had been political, because she was facing him in the Iowa primary."

"The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions and in front of me was a surprising as it was dismaying." What does this say to you, Gloria, because you covered this? you watched them closely, all of them.

BORGER: I'm surprised he was surprised. I'm not surprised he was dismayed, but for those of us who cover politics and understood the sort of dynamics of that election, understood that Hillary Clinton had voted for the war in Iraq, she was facing Barack Obama who'd been against the war in Iraq in a primary, appealing to the Democratic base, and so, you know she had to be against the surge.

But I think that, you know, he was dismayed by it as anyone would be when you lift the veil and say, OK, look, these decisions in the heat of a political campaign are political, and he's a military man.

BLITZER: Larry, you're a scholar. You know, you're in a university. Are you surprised that a former defense secretary is so candid, so blunt in a memoir involving a sitting president of the United States?

SABATO: Well, in the old days, this would have been unthinkable, Wolf. But I assume it's in the publishing contract. He had to convince the publisher that he had something important to say. And this is important. Whether it's appropriate or not, I'll leave to others to debate. But I'll tell you one thing, I definitely agree with Gloria.

I was amazed that looking at the quotations, the excerpts from the book, because I just can't imagine that anyone who knows politics would be at all shocked that a couple of presidential candidates let political considerations come into play during the presidential campaign. Who has ever heard of such a thing?

BLITZER: Yes. Shocking, indeed.

All right. Let me move on to marijuana.

Ramesh, the "National Review," your publication has a surprising editorial called "Sensible on Weed." Among other things you guys wrote this. "The marijuana prohibition is a catalogue of unprofitable tradeoffs, billions in enforcement costs, and hundreds of thousands of arrests each year, in a fruitless attempt to control a mostly benign drug."

Walk us through the thinking. You're a conservative publication.


BLITZER: But basically you're saying, you know what? Legalize pot.

PONNURU: "The National Review" has long held that position, and the country seems to have come around to our conservative way of thinking on this issue because we're not really for legalizing marijuana on a kind of "fight for your right to party" ground, but on a conservative ground, on the idea that you're not going to have a successful drug- free country, that that's utopian ambition. And meanwhile we've got this policy that's imposing some pretty significant costs.

BLITZER: Look at the change in polls, Gloria. Look at this. Going back to '73, you support -- you believe marijuana should be legal. Back in '73, 18 percent then in '76 went up to 28 percent. But look at how it's now 55 percent.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Of the American public in this new CNN/ORC poll. Think marijuana use should be legal.

BORGER: Well, you know, clearly it's no longer considered this huge gateway drug. And I believe look, the country has changed. I look at that poll and I think of the way that attitudes towards same-sex marriage have changed.

If you look in the last five years or so, the support for same-sex marriage is almost doubled. You look at this, you see that same kind of an increase.

It's not number one on anybody's political agenda anymore. There seemed to be other issues that people are more concerned about and there seems to be a sense that we've enough problems in this country. We've got enough -- we've got a lot of people in prison. We can't deal with right now that why would we concern ourselves with this.

However, I will say everybody will look -- will be looking at Colorado, won't you?


BORGER: To be seeing how that -- how that experiment worked.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Larry --

PONNURU: State by state.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Put on your -- give us your prediction. When is it going to be legal not just in Colorado or Washington state, but nationally?

SABATO: Well, I'll be dead, but I'm in my 60s, but I think it will happen. I think it's inevitable.

You know, there are great advantages, Wolf, to being a classroom teacher. Ten years ago, I realized from the views of my students that same-sex marriage was inevitable. Including Republican students supporting it. Well, look at your poll breakdown on marijuana. The overwhelming proportion of young people want it illegalized. It's going to happen.

BLITZER: Well, we'll see how long it takes, if it takes.

Thanks, guys, very, very much. Good discussion.

Up next Chris Christie's gamble. Details of what he just did today and how it could impact the potential run for the White House.

Plus CNN's exclusive rollercoaster interview with Dennis Rodman inside North Korea. You'll listen to what he has to say about the country's leader Kim Jong-Un.


DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER NBA PLAYER: So why North Korea? Why? I love my friend. I love my friend. This is my friend.



BLITZER: Backed by Latino leaders and immigration reform advocates, the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, today signed the state's Dream Act, granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants.

Governor Christie said it sends a message.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Unlike what happens in Washington, the government can actually work for you. That things can actually get done. That agreements can be reached and that commitments can be kept.


BLITZER: But does the signing also show that Governor Christie may be able to swing some Hispanics away from Democrats if, if he runs for the White House in 2016? Let's bring in our chief national correspondent John King and our CNN political reporter Peter Hamby.

Peter, you were there at that signing, at that event today. What did it say to you about Governor Christie and a potential run for the Republican presidential nomination?

PETER HAMBY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, talking specifically, Wolf, about the Republican nomination, what it says to me is in this is another example of Chris Christie leaning -- you know, putting both feet firmly on the establishment side of the Republican primary contest.

Look, look at the names of people who might run for president. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry. You know, they cross different ideological lines within the party but a lot of them sort of lean more to the right. And Christie I think is making a bet that he is going to be a candidate who can win in a general election, you know, primary be damned. He'll see what happens within the primary.

He's going to piss off some people, sure, in a primary. But hey, his people say, we don't need to win every single Republican primary voter. To win these primaries, you only need 25 percent, 30 percent, 20 percent in these states. Remember, John McCain, champion of comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, ended up being the Republican nominee for president.

He won the state of South Carolina, a notoriously conservative state. So you can win the Republican nomination even while signing pieces of legislation that may rankle the Republican base -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, John, is this beginning of the Christie stump speech out there?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it's part of the Christie stump speech. It's part of him saying I'm a different kind of Republican like Bill Clinton was a different kind of Democrat. That I'm willing to reach a bit to the middle on some issues. I'm willing to be a pragmatic conservative, not a rigid ideological conservative.

Look, he just got 51 percent of the Latino vote in his reelection bid. That's a great thing for him to carry around the country. Now it's not fair in some ways, he didn't have a strong Democratic opponent. However, it's still better than any other Republican thinking about running for president has done with the Latino vote.

And so here's the thing. It guarantees you if he runs, that as Peter just noted, McCain's support was an issue in 2008, even McCain moved to the right on his own bill during that campaign to a degree. In 2012, we saw this again, Mitt Romney so trying to get to the right of Rick Perry on immigration he used the famous line, well, they'll self- deport, which hurt him in the general election without a doubt.

Here's Christie saying I think we can win this argument and I'm willing to have it as a Republican. It guarantees immigration will again be a dividing line, a flash point in the Republican primaries assuming he's in. And it sure looks like he is.

BLITZER: It certainly does. All right. Thanks very much. John King, Peter Hamby, guys, appreciate it.

This news, by the way, just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

A U.S. Air Force helicopter has crashed in the United Kingdom. Video from the scene just coming in. Local police say four people are believed to be dead. The Pentagon does not yet have the official status of those on board.

We're going to get more information and will provide it to you as it comes in.

Other stories we're monitoring right now in THE SITUATION ROOM, the Russian research ship stranded since Christmas Eve in the Antarctic ice is free and is heading for open waters, according to its captain. Fifty-two scientists, journalists, tourists, crew members were safely rescued from the ship by helicopter last week. Another icebreaker which got stuck during a rescue attempt is also now free.

The government has announced a $1.7 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase over business dealings linked to the convicted Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff. Prosecutors accused the global firm of ignoring warnings about Madoff's crimes and turning a blind eye to his massive fraud. They say they'll use the money to help compensate victims.

JPMorgan says it doesn't believe any employee knowingly assisted in the notorious scheme.

The reigning Olympic and World Cup skiing champion Lindsey Vonn is pulling out of next month's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, recently announcing on her Facebook page recent knee troubles are too much for her to overcome in time.

Vonn, who's dating the golfer Tiger Woods, underwent reconstructive surgery after hurting a right knee nearly a year ago, then aggravated the problem during a crash in November.

Just ahead, will House Republicans follow the Senate's lead, vote to extend unemployment benefits for more than one million Americans? I'll ask the head of the Republican National Committee. There he is, Reince Priebus. He's standing by to join us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, Dennis Rodman talks exclusively to CNN from inside North Korea and -- unleashes a rant.


RODMAN: No, no, no, no, I'm just saying -- no, I don't give (EXPLETIVE DELETED) what you think. I don't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) what the hell you think. I'm sending you -- look at these here. Look at them.



BLITZER: All right. So it's the first big political fight of 2014, the battle over restoring some long-term jobless benefits to more than a million Americans.

President Obama made an emotional pitch for action.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House and congressional Democrats think they have a winning issue here, and today President Obama used the bully pulpit to make his case.


KEILAR (voice-over): President Obama pressured Congress to extend long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is not an abstraction. These are not statistics. These are your neighbors, your friends, your family members. It could at some point be any of us.

KEILAR: From the East Room of the White House with the backdrop of unemployed Americans, Obama rejected the Republican argument that unemployment benefits take away motivation to work.

OBAMA: I can't name a time where I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On this vote the yeas are 60, the nays are 37.

KEILAR: Earlier the Senate voted to take up a bill that would restart the long-term benefits which expired at the new year. Six Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents. In the House, where Republicans are in the majority, they are demanding the $6.4 billion costs be paid for, offset with cuts to other government programs.

Democrats in the White House oppose offsets. And Republicans say it's all about politics in a midterm election year.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: I have to admit I'm a little surprised at the fervor with which the majority is dedicated to reviving the expired emergency unemployment benefits after they ignored the issue all of last year.

KEILAR (on camera): Why not try to find that middle ground on a pay for -- middle ground that has been found before?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: On a relatively rare number of occasions, what I would say is that the ideological fight, if it were to be one, is around horse trading over what are essentially emergency benefits for families in need.


KEILAR (voice-over): Catherine Hackett wrote to the president last month after she was laid off in July from her job as a nursing home administrator.

HACKETT: I was blindsided.

KEILAR: Next month she is scheduled to shift to long-term unemployment and if Congress fails to act, she will lose the weekly check that is keeping her afloat as she searches for a job.

HACKETT: I'm spending $42 a week on food, which isn't a lot, but I'm also keeping my house at 58 degrees and wearing a hat and coat, just because oil is really expensive. I don't buy anything.


KEILAR: And she told a very compelling story here today at the White House, Wolf. We should also mention that for the first time Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, is signaling he may be opened to a cost offset that House Republicans are demanding.

This would be a shift, Wolf. While Reid has said he is personally opposed to such an offset, he said if Republicans have a plan, he will take it to Senate Democrats for a look.

BLITZER: Yes. Chuck Schumer signaled something along those lines as well earlier in the day. I spoke to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and he didn't necessarily rule it out.

Brianna, thanks very much.

Let's get a little bit more now with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, who's joining us.

Reince, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Happy new year to you, too. So what do you say to those 1.3 million Americans who are going to be without these emergency benefits over the next few months if Congress doesn't approve some sort of emergency legislation? What do you say to them?

PRIEBUS: Well, I mean, first of all, I feel for people that are out of work. And obviously I -- it's terrible, and I think this economy hasn't been good enough, and we're very sorry. I mean, I think what you're seeing, though, is an admission by the Obama administration that their policies are making everything worse.

And what's really sad about all of this is the Democrats in your piece, in the house, aren't willing to come up with a way to pay for an extension of these benefits, which, by the way, they go on pretty far, but even if you were in favor of these emergency benefits being further extended, since when did it become wrong to say that in this country we ought to pay for things?

BLITZER: Well, they --


PRIEBUS: I didn't know what happened in Washington, D.C. that said that --

BLITZER: They say -- they point out, they point out that President Bush got these emergency extensions, these unemployment benefits through Congress. He never paid for those extensions.

PRIEBUS: Right. And continuing -- and I'm not defending that, but continuing putting things in place, not addressing the root of the problem which is the fact that we need more people that have good paying jobs so that they can actually get off of these benefits is the root of the problem.

But the fact that you would have to pay for these things first shouldn't be an issue. Now the fact that Bush did it or Clinton did it or anyone before Obama did it isn't an excuse to continue down this road of placing the burden of all of this on to our kids and grandkids.

I mean, that's the issue. And the other issue is, is that president ought to speak and give his speeches in the mirror and talk to the person that put us in this place as president of the United States. More people are on food stamps, more people are poor under this president and he's giving speeches to us asking us why everything is so bad.

He should look in the mirror and find out for himself, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. But there are some positive indicators out there, as well, as far as economic growth, as far as the stock market, for example, going from 7,000 when he took office to more than 16,000 right now.

PRIEBUS: Sure. People on Wall Street are doing better, Wolf.

BLITZER: So what do you --


PRIEBUS: Under this president people on Wall Street are doing better, but the poorer are getting poorer, and now he's jamming Obamacare down their throats.

BLITZER: So let me just --

PRIEBUS: This is the legacy of this president. Sorry. BLITZER: Let me be just clear because I want to get your quick reaction to the Robert Gates book as well. But very clearly on this point, given the hardships that you yourself are describing out there, wouldn't it be wise to simply pass this emergency extension quickly, not get into a big fight over offsets, paying for it, just pass it, help these 1.3 million Americans move on with their lives at least on a temporary basis?

PRIEBUS: What would be wise is for the Democrats to come to the table and once and for all decide that they need to pay for these things, they need to get serious about jobs, and have a president that can lead and walk into a room and bring people together, and maybe they ought to look at the 150 bills -- jobs bills that the Republicans already passed? And maybe Harry Reid ought to take some of them up in the Senate.

BLITZER: Very quickly on the Robert Gates book. I'll read a line from Gates in his new book "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War."

Hillary told the president that her opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary.

When you hear Robert Gates write that -- say that, what do you think?

PRIEBUS: I think there's going to be an avalanche of information on Hillary Clinton and the things that she has done over the years dating back to the governorship in Arkansas and her role and many of the things that happened back then to her poor rollout of health care to her affiliation with Barack Obama, to her gross negligence in Benghazi, political decisions on the war.

This is a very political person who makes decisions based on how the wind blows and this is just the tip of the iceberg, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you think she's going to be the Democratic presidential nominee who will face a Republican?

PRIEBUS: You know, I'm not sure. But with all of the scandal around her I'm not so sure it'd be all that bad for the Republican Party, to tell you the truth.

BLITZER: Well, when you say scandal, what -- be specific.

PRIEBUS: Well, I mean, look, I mean, she wanders and scandal surrounds her. So I mean like you brought up one just today.

BLITZER: Like what? Like what?

PRIEBUS: We talk about Benghazi, we talk about the health care scandal or the health care rollout in the early '90s. So White Water. I mean, you name it. I mean, this is a person that's involved in scandal at one time after the next. And so look, I think this is going to be a lot to talk about when it comes to Hillary Clinton.

But right now my job at the party is to put together a national operation to fix a digital divide, to get our primaries and debate calendar under control and that's what I am doing.

BLITZER: You know, he's very effusive, Robert Gates, in his praise of Hillary Clinton in the book, calling her remarkable, very, very supportive of the job she did as secretary of state.

I assume, based on everything I hear you guys saying, what you're putting out, affiliated Republican Party group, so you're gearing up for Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee.

PRIEBUS: I don't know who's going to be their nominee, Wolf. But what I do know is you have a political person makes political decisions her entire life. And if she does decide to run she's going to answer for every one of them. And I just rattled off a few. But I can guarantee you there's probably 50 that the Comms director is going to show me as soon as I walk off the set.

I mean, it doesn't end with Hillary Clinton. And so, you know, we'll see what happens. But right now we're focusing on the Republican Party and getting our national party in shape.

BLITZER: How are you doing as far as some of those new initiatives you laid out last year in the aftermath of the defeat -- of Romney's defeat, you had a whole group coming up with some new ideas to attract younger people, to attract women, to attract minorities, Hispanics and others.

How is that working out so far?

PRIEBUS: It's working out great, Wolf. I mean, you -- we're selling this plan across the country. And you've seen that we did very well last year in selling our plan. We've got hundreds of people on payroll outside of the RNC. We're in African-American, Asian, Hispanic communities on a full-time basis across the country.

You don't see it all the time because we're working hard on the ground. But, you know, we didn't have a national party that was year- round on the ground in every state across this country. That's what we're building at the RNC. We've got a San Mateo office and software engineers out there. We've hired some of the top talent in the country to fix -- fix our digital and data divide.

You've reported very well on some of the changes we're making on the primary calendar so that we don't have a six-month slice-and-dice festival in our party. And we're not going to have 23 debates. I mean, so these are the things that I most control. These are the things that we have to fix as a national party.

They're not the most exciting things to talk about, but I can assure you that when it comes to a structure and an infrastructure that we need to build in -- in this party we are doing it right here at the Republican National Committee.

BLITZER: Reince Priebus of Wisconsin. So sorry about your Green Bay Packers this weekend. I know it's a painful moment for you.

PRIEBUS: Had to bring it up. (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: All right. Reince, thank you.

PRIEBUS: Still hurting.

BLITZER: Hey, look, I have been a Buffalo Bills fan my whole life so I can feel your pain right now. We went to four Super Bowls in a row.

PRIEBUS: Thank you.

BLITZER: And we lost four Super Bowls in a row. So I can identify.

All right. At least you guys have won Super Bowls in Green Bay.

PRIEBUS: Yes, we've won a few.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

PRIEBUS: We're still -- we're still titled town.

BLITZER: Thank you.

At the top of the hour Dennis Rodman is inside North Korea and speaking exclusively to CNN. It's explosive.


RODMAN: I got it. Let me do this. Let me -- let me -- I'm going to tell you one thing. People around the world, around the world -- I'm going to do one thing. You're the guy behind the mike right now.