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THE SITUATION ROOM
Did Christie Aides Plot to Snarl Traffic?; Interview With Mayor Mark Sokolich; Christie: "I Am Outraged -- I Was Misled;" Republicans Challenge War on Poverty; Interview with Elijah Cummings; Interview with Rep. Elijah Cummings; Crackdown on Weight-Loss Scams
Aired January 8, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Jake, thanks very much. Happening now, breaking news -- shocking new developments forcing Chris Christie to react to a growing scandal. E-mails from the governor's aide suggesting because of a political vendetta, a New Jersey town was deliberately brought to a standstill. You're going to hear Christie's statement. I'll speak live to the mayor who was apparently targeted as a political opponent.
As the White House pushes back at the stunning criticism from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will future presidents no longer bring members of the opposite party into their cabinets?
And 50 years after Democrats declared a war on poverty, Republicans take aim at that big government battle plan. The Democratic strategist, James Carville, is here live.
I'm Wolf Blitzer you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: And there is breaking news right now.
Could Chris Christie's 2016 hopes suddenly be in serious jeopardy?
The New Jersey governor is scrambling to react this hour after stunning new indications that his close aides deliberately and gleefully plotted to snarl traffic in a New Jersey town and made life miserable for ordinary citizens in a rather crude act of vengeance against a political opponent. In a written statement just released, the governor says this -- and I'm quoting -- "What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear, this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it. People will be held responsible for their actions."
We're going to hear in just a few moments from the mayor of that affected town. There he is, the mayor of the affected town, Fort Lee in New Jersey.
But first, let's get to CNN's chief Washington correspondent, the anchor of "THE LEAD," Jake Tapper, who's got more on this developing story. And you've been studying it, working on it now for a long time.
JAKE TAPPER, HOST, "THE LEAD": Well, it started out as suspicions that this town had been targeted as way of getting back at the mayor for not endorsing Chris Christie. A Democrat not endorsing a Republican not so odd, but Christie was popular governor cruising to re-election and he wanted to have as many Democrats as possible.
Democrats made the charge, but there was initially no evidence. And Christie and his aides said there was a traffic study.
But then e-mails and text messages that came out today obtained by CNN made it clear that there really was a lot more to the charge of a political vendetta.
TAPPER (voice-over): Traffic in New Jersey is rough on any given day, but it's a local story. Today, however, Garden State gridlock is meriting national attention.
CNN has obtained seemingly damning e-mails and text messages from top aides to New Jersey governor, Crist Christie, ones that seem to undermine his and his administration's previous explanations that there was nothing political in the closure of lanes on a major bridge in September 2013, closures that wreaked traffic havoc, hurting one particular town with a Democratic mayor, a mayor who had refused to endorse Christie, a Republican, for re-election.
JOHN WISNIEWSKI (D), DEPUTY SPEAKER, NEW JERSEY ASSEMBLY: What we've seen today is a sad day for New Jersey. The documents that have been published are both shocking and outrageous.
TAPPER: New Jersey Democrats came out swinging this afternoon over what is now being called Bridge Gate. From September 9th through 14th, 2013, the George Washington Bridge, connecting New York to New Jersey, had three lanes closed without warning, causing major delays in fort Lee. Democrats cried vendetta, but there was no evidence to back up that charge and Christie scoffed at the notion of traffic as political retribution.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: But I actually was the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question.
TAPPER: Instead, New Jersey officials claimed it had been a traffic study commissioned by the Port Authority.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why do you think they did it?
PATRICK J. FOYE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PORT AUTHORITY: I'm not aware of any traffic study. I don't know why it was done.
TAPPER: But that story unraveled when Port Authority officials were subpoenaed by the state assembly last month.
FOYE: And it directly violated our agency's primary responsibility to protect our customers and personnel.
TAPPER: CNN today obtained texts and e-mails that seemed to suggest the logjam may have, indeed, been caused by political retribution. Nearly a month before the bridge lane closures, Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, e-mailed David Wildstein, one of Christie's top appointees at the Port Authority.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," she wrote
Got it," he said.
After Fort Lee was brought to a halt by the bridge lane closures, Fort Lee mayor, Mark Sokolich, called the Port Authority, to no avail. Kelly e-mailed Wildstein to ask the if anyone had called the mayor back. The response was this -- "Radio silence. His name comes right after Mayor Fulop."
That's Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop, a Democrat who also didn't endorse Christie and who has since suggested that refusal came with a price -- meetings canceled, legislation scrubbed.
In a text message obtained by CNN, Sokolich again reached out, writing to Wildstein, "Presently, we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one tollbooth. The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help, please. It's maddening."
Wildstein forwarded the plea to someone whose name has been redacted.
"Is it wrong that I'm smiling?," the person asked.
"No," Wildstein responds. "I feel badly about the kids," the unknown person writes, "I guess."
Responds Wildstein, "They are the children of Buono voters."
That's a reference to Barbara Buono, Christie's then Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial election that the governor won handily in November.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
TAPPER: Now, we still have many unanswered questions even with the governor's comments and his statement earlier today, just a few minutes ago, rather.
Now, first of all, what we don't know is when Governor Christie says he was misled by a member of his staff, is he referring to Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly?
Was she the one to blame?
Because the statement does not say that he has sought her resignation or anyone's resignation. It does not say that that person is no longer working for the State of New Jersey. There's still much we do not know about this situation, even though, according to Governor Christie, he did not know about it and he is outraged, as well. BLITZER: And he says he wants those who were responsible, this is his words, "to be held responsible for their actions."
Does that mean criminally responsible, politically responsible?
And we don't know what he means by that.
TAPPER: No, we still don't know. And we don't know, for instance, who was the person in those redacted documents who was expressing wonder about whether or not they should be gleeful that all these kids were stuck in hours of traffic on their way to school, to which the appointee -- the political appointee, David Wildstein, says, don't worry about it, they're, you know, children of some people who support the Democrat, which is really, when you think about it, an outrageous thing to say --
BLITZER: Yes, not just kids, emergency vehicles.
BLITZER: And this could be a life and death issue if it's handled like this.
There's a lot to discuss.
Jake, thanks very, very much.
His town of Fort Lee, New Jersey was actually brought to its knees for hours, by what now looks like a deliberate plan to snarl traffic. And the Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, is furious at the Christie aides who were apparently involved.
And the mayor is joining us now live.
Mayor, thanks very much for coming in.
MAYOR MARK SOKOLICH (D), FORT LEE, NEW JERSEY: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the Christie statement, among other things. You heard it. "This completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."
Do you believe him?
SOKOLICH: Yes, you know, as this story continues and as things begin to unravel with e-mails, the actions of counterparts, resignations, engagement of defense counsel, that position becomes more and more difficult to understand, more and more difficult to comprehend and, quite frankly, more and more difficult to believe.
I'm actually rooting that the highest elected official in the State of New Jersey isn't involved in this. But I will tell you, I'm beginning to question my judgment.
BLITZER: Why? SOKOLICH: Well, you know, when we started off with this -- with the chaos here in Fort Lee on that Monday in September and we got no response and right from the beginning, people were saying it was about me and about failure to endorse, I never thought that -- you know, I always dismissed it as not being important enough.
I mean who would possibly reduce themselves to closing lanes to the busiest bridge in the world, putting my town in harm's way?
By the way, a town that services 40 or 50 other towns every morning.
But as the story goes and as folks resign and as counsels engage and as subpoenas are issued and as statements are provided, and now with this -- these recent e-mails, it certainly doesn't lend credibility to the statement that he knew nothing about it. I'm not suggesting that he did. It does, however, bring into question whether he did.
BLITZER: Have you heard from the governor?
Has he called to apologize, for example?
SOKOLICH: No. No. Remain mindful, I'm not on his radar, so I'm certainly not in his Rolodex, either.
BLITZER: But you would expect him. He's obviously, according to this statement, he's angry. He should probably call you and say you know what, I know your citizens and your community and a lot of other nearby communities were affected by this.
Wouldn't you expect him to start making some phone calls to at least apologize, even if he had nothing to do with it, but his senior aides did?
SOKOLICH: Wolf, don't call me. Do me a favor, don't call me. But call the families who were waiting three or four times longer for emergency service agencies when their loved ones were having heart palpitations or then their loved ones had extreme chest pains and were waiting for our ambulance corps to arrive.
Do me a favor, call and apologize to thousands of families whose kids were late for the first day of school and the three or four days that ensued thereafter.
Call our police department and call our administrators in the school system that had to deal with this. Call the folks that had to deal with traffic Armageddon here that week.
Don't call me. It's not -- you don't have to call me. I give you a pass. Don't call me. But call those families, call those kids and call everybody else, because Fort Lee didn't deserve it.
BLITZER: What should --
SOKOLICH: We didn't deserve it.
What should be done to those who were responsible, when all the dust clears, when we know everything about this?
SOKOLICH: Well, for those that are responsible -- are responsible for this most heinous act, they can no longer be in positions of power in government.
Wolf, if you know me for 30 seconds, you know I don't have an ounce of venom in me. As a matter of fact, I stayed in the background of this story. I didn't decide to join the fray of this until today, when these e-mails surfaced. I'm not a retribution kind of a guy.
But the folks that are responsible for this can no longer be in positions that they can actually cause this type of damage to other unsuspecting communities. It's not acceptable.
But I have a prediction. You'll have a resignation or two. And you'll hear, of course, that this was part of their career path and they were resigning anyway.
It's not -- it's not even remotely acceptable to do what you did. It is the lowest, most venomous form of political retaliation. And this in a time when New Jersey needs this like we need a hole in the head. We've now ensured that we're going to remain the butt of every political joke for the next 20 years on political misconduct. It's such a sad, sad state of events.
And, I tell you -- and I only joined now, after reading the e-mails. I never viewed it to be a benefit for Fort Lee to enter this political fray. I've been saying no to interviews all along I've been remaining in the background. And I did because the fact finders were conducting their investigations. There was no benefit for my community, because every decision that I make is based on whether or not it's in Fort Lee's benefit, the bottom line, the bottom line. But now, not to speak is an abdication of my responsibility to the folks that put me in office. I'm actually ashamed.
BLITZER: You're ashamed for -- for your entire, what?
Ashamed about what?
SOKOLICH: I'm ashamed to be in the position of an elected official in the State of New Jersey and now to be painted with broad strokes and have to deal with business as usual here in the State of New Jersey. It's not fair. It's not fair to the folks that follow the rules. It's not fair to the folks that are in these positions for the right reasons.
BLITZER: You know, there was one e-mail -- and I want to put it up on the screen. This is from the campaign -- Christie's campaign manager, obtained by "The Record," September 18th, Bill Stepien. Here's the quote. "The mayor," referring to you, "of Fort Lee is an idiot."
So take us into this feud that was going.
Did they really expect you, a Democrat, to endorse the Republican candidate's re-election, Chris Christie? SOKOLICH: I guess. You know, I've said this many times. I don't recall a specific request to endorse, but, you know, the events that led up to all of this, I guess you can interpret to be somehow attracting me to endorse. I didn't want to endorse for several reasons, not the least of, which is I'm a Democrat. I was supportive of Miss. Buono. I wasn't prepared to do that.
But I'm grateful to my instincts, because they certainly have proven me to be correct, because nobody should have to do anything like that or provide any support under threat of retribution.
As far as Mr. Driniac (ph), I don't know the guy nor do I want to know the guy. He is what he is. And I just worry about Fort Lee, not people like that. They don't interest me. They don't concern me, except when they act recklessly and they put my family, put my my residents and citizens in harm's way.
BLITZER: I've got to tell you, I've been covering politics --
SOKOLICH: Shame on -- shame on you.
BLITZER: -- I've been covering politics for a long time, but if all of these allegations are true, this kind of political vendetta, to take it out on your community, nearby communities, snarl traffic going across the George Washington Bridge into New York, I don't remember a time when something specific like that has happened.
But from your perspective, Mayor, for viewers who are watching all over the country right now, tell us why you believe this is an important issue that has to be reported on and assessed.
SOKOLICH: Let me tell you, I've always said from that Monday, when traffic -- when the traffic was stopped -- and now we know it to have been stopped intentionally -- a little bit, I remained in the background, because I was always scared about what would happen to Fort Lee when you stop reporting on this, Wolf, and all the other media channels stop reporting on it, three months, six months, a year from now.
Who's to say what they're going to do to my borough, to my residents, to my citizens and to me? We're concerned about that. Who's to say that in six months they're not going to find some guy that's going to actually do a study and suggest that we shouldn't have lanes or we should only get one lane. They can wreak havoc on our community, they can wreak havoc on the safety and well-being of our residents. That's my concern.
When the story doesn't garner any more attention, we're nervous about further retribution now knowing what we know. And I said that from day one. That's my biggest, biggest concern. In Fort Lee, we're in the middle of a billion-dollar redevelopment. We're in the middle of a renaissance. We've been called one of the more progressive communities in the state of New Jersey. We're proud of that.
We're the gateway to the entire state with the host community to the busiest bridge in the world. And now to be subjected to potentially more retribution in the future, that, as Fort Lee's highest elected official, you may rest assured that has been, will be, and will remain my biggest concern. What happens tomorrow when we're not talking about this anymore?
BLITZER: Beyond political shenanigans or vendetta or whatever, do you believe any criminal laws may have been violated?
SOKOLICH: You cannot close down the busiest bridge in the world for political retribution. It's not something that's possible. You have intentionally put people in harm's way. You knew that before you did it. You knew that when Fort Lee called 20, 30, 40 times. You knew that when I kept sending text after text and calling cell phone after cell phone. You always knew that because we were telling you that that was happening.
To now -- to shut that bridge down and to put my folks in absolute danger, I think it's more than civil. Let me answer the question that way. It's more than civil.
BLITZER: As far as you know, is there a criminal investigation under way by any local or state or federal authority?
SOKOLICH: I know that the independent investigator for the Port authority is conducting an investigation. I know that the assembly is conducting an investigation. And I have to believe that now in light of what's transpired over the last 24 hours and now seeing these revelations in these e-mails, now that it's unconditionally confirmed that there's a level of intentionality that's involved, I've got to believe that there's going to be investigations to determine whether this rises to the level of criminality.
And I tell you, I'm not rooting for it. I'm not looking for people to suffer a demise by way of a criminal indictment. I want Fort Lee left alone. I want to guarantee this doesn't happen. You go do whatever you got to go do. And I got to tell you, perform has to be put into place to make sure that this doesn't happen to any other host community.
This is absolutely the lowest level of political venom you that could possibly even make up. It's a surreal experience at this point. I really got to tell you, I can't believe it. I still can't believe it. Continue to read the e-mails. And --
SOKOLICH: -- by the way, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. Interstate commerce was affected between New Jersey and New York across the George Washington Bridge. Do you believe the federal government should investigate?
SOKOLICH: I do. Absolutely. Absolutely. It's -- there are millions of cars that traverse that bridge. There has to be an investigation. It is that important. It is that important. There's actually a letter over my right shoulder from the governor's office congratulating us on doing a great job bag host community for the George Washington Bridge. Interesting. Interesting. I guess, we didn't do that good enough of a job.
BLITZER: As you know and you're a politician, one of the reasons there's so much interest nationally in Chris Christie, the popular governor of your home state of New Jersey, just re-elected in a landslide, he's considered a likely presidential candidate, someone who might run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
What from your perspective, and we know you're a democrat, from your perspective, what is the impact of what is just coming out now have on his potential run for the White House?
SOKOLICH: Well, I think it can't be positive. It's got to be negative. You know, there are different dimensions here is are you -- if you didn't know, you allowed folks to be put into positions that are -- who are completely reckless and venomous and put a lot of people in harm's way, so you'd have to question the judgment of those decisions, number one. Number two, what impact it would have, I don't think I'm smart enough to reach that conclusion and I don't want to speculate about it.
It can't be good. It certainly can't be good, but I think that it's something that I'm sure the governor wants to go away more than I even wanted to go away. My problem is when it goes away, what happens to my community. That's my problem. And I said it since day one, because I am very, very fearful of ramifications in the future, quite frankly.
BLITZER: What can he do to fix this?
SOKOLICH: Well, I'll tell you -- what can he do? Again, you got to reach out to the folks that were impacted. Don't reach out to me. Don't reach out to me. If you haven't reached out over the last four months don't reach out now. But I think he has to publicly address the folks that are specifically impacted by this. I think apologies need to be doled out and I think reforms have to be put in to place to make sure that this never ever happens again, number one.
And number two, there's got to be a commitment that the people that you put in these positions that have immense authority, immense authority over multibillion-dollar budgets and the control of hundreds of thousands and millions of people's daily lives, they have to have the requisite education, they have to have the requisite experience, the requisite training because the job is that important.
The job is that important. You want to repay a favor and put some political appointee somewhere? Do it. There's a million other positions to put them. But not in these positions. So, you know, I think just the judgment of doing that is of great concern to me. And I'll tell you, I've been supportive of the governor on some of the fronts and some of the programs he's implemented. That's why this is even than much more mind boggling to me.
BLITZER: Mayor, thanks very much for joining us. I know this has been a difficult period for you, for your community, all the neighboring communities in New Jersey as well. We appreciate you joining us, and we'll continue this conversation. SOKOLICH: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: We're going to have much more on the breaking news that we've been following. More reaction coming in. James Carville is standing by. Gloria Borger is standing by as well. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Let's continue to follow the breaking news involving the popular Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, his hopes for 2016. Let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. You know, the statement that he released, you know, going after his aide or aides who may have been involved in this, he was distancing himself completely from any knowledge of this scandal.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He Was, wolf. And I just got off the phone with the former Republican governor of the state of New Jersey, Tom Kean, and he heard this statement and he said, look, Chris Christie is not accepting responsibility. He doesn't answer all the questions. And he said, look, I think we need to learn a whole lot more about this.
He pointed out, of course, that the investigation in the assembly is being done by a partisan Democrat, and he believes that there should be a special bipartisan committee set up in the state to look at this. And he said, quote, "this deserves a better look. The people of New Jersey deserve a better look at this than they're getting." And, you know, Tom Kean's son has had his own political clashes with Governor Christie.
But the former governor Tom Kean told me, look, I have no problems with Chris Christie. I just think that this is a serious issue and the people of New Jersey deserve a bipartisan look at this to get -- to get to the bottom of it, and he believes that Christie's statement does not do that.
BLITZER: You heard the mayor of Fort Lee tell us that this is not going to help Christie in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination if he wants to run for the White House. He does have this image of being a little bit of a bully, a tough guy.
BLITZER: This sort of plays into that, but this is really a disgusting allegation that they would actually endanger the safety and the lives of citizens of New Jersey in order to do some political, you know, payback to a mayor, if you will, who didn't endorse him.
BORGER: Look, it plays into that narrative, Wolf, and people who see Chris Christie as a bully will see him as more of a bully right now. I think the next question that people will be asking politically on a national level is, is this the approach of the Christie administration generally on other things? You know, because staffers generally don't do things that they believe their boss will disapprove of. These were people, if you look at those e-mails that Jake was talking about earlier, these are people who were looking for the approval of the governor. The governor's office is not a huge sprawling office. It's pretty limited. And, the governor said he was misled, he wants to get to the bottom of this.
People in the state of New Jersey are going to want to get to the bottom of this. But the political question is, is this the way people believe Christie operates and do his own staffers believe this is something that would please him, this kind of behavior? And that's the problem.
BLITZER: Is there an atmosphere that was created that resulted in this kind of shenanigan?
BLITZER: All right. Gloria, thanks very much.
Let's continue the conversation with James Carville right now, the Democratic strategist. He and his wife, Mary Matalin, have authored a new book. I'll put it up on the screen because I know this is a great book, James. You and Mary worked hard on it. "Love and War: 20 years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters, and One Louisiana Home." We'll talk a little bit about that later.
But give us your analysis. You've been involved in dealing with political scandals over the years yourself. What do you make of what's going on in New Jersey?
JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes. First of all, the reason this is so compelling is everybody can understand it. This is not like the Libor scandal or something like that. I mean, it's pretty easy. And it's also got some kind of ordinary people who are the victims, the people that live in Fort Lee. And, I think I would agree with Gloria and everybody else before and Governor Kean, the response so far has been woefully inadequate. There's only one thing for Governor Christie to do, and I mean this, is get to Fort Lee, pronto. Pronto.
Go up there, have your press conference, walk around, apologize to people, and do it as quickly as you can. Don't hide behind a statement, not legalisms, not anything. You've got to do that. He's got to get in front of this. This is a potentially very damaging story to his brand, and he's got to be very up front, very contrite, and very human in this.
BLITZER: So, this three or four-sentence statement that he released, this paper statement, a written statement, you think is totally unacceptable.
CARVILLE: Look, politically, it looks like he's hiding behind a piece of paper. I mean, this is Chris Christie. He's a former prosecutor. He's an aggressive guy. He calls people down. He's, you know, very out front. And obviously, this is not going to stand for very long. My point is, I think if I were advising the governor, I would say not in Trenton, not anywhere else, not in port authority headquarters. Go to Fort Lee.
And I think the mayor made a good point. Don't apologize to mayor, apologize directly to the people who live in that community and then talk about how he's going to get to the bottom of this, whatever investigation it is, he's fully cooperating, anybody who doesn't cooperate in his administration, if you want to take the Fifth Amendment or something, that's fine, but you can't work for the state of New Jersey if you do that. I think this thing has the potential of be very damaging to his brand.
BLITZER: So, if you were advising him, and he's obviously not going to call you, you're a Democratic strategist, for advice, but let's say he called your wife, Mary --
BLITZER: -- and said Mary -- and Mary has been involved in scandals over the years, helping politicians deal with these kinds of crises, if you will, channel Mary Matalin, a woman you've been married to a long time --
BLITZER: -- a Republican, channel her in for us.
What would she say to Governor Christie if it was a closed door, private meeting?
CARVILLE: I kind of think she'd say kind of close to what I did. I don't know. Look, I can't speak for her and what she would think, you know.
But I think it's clear to anybody that's had to deal with this kind of thing, in -- like I say, the thing that makes this so compelling to CNN and to everybody else is the simplicity of it. It's easy for people to understand. And it's also just so petty on its face.
And I think that he's got to get out in front of this and got to get out in front of it with these people in Fort Lee. I think Mary would have the same advice, but I'm very reluctant to speak for her, because sometimes when I do, I get into a lot of trouble, as you can understand. Wives and spouses, let's just say, like to speak for themselves.
BLITZER: We got a statement from the DNC. I'll read it to you. I'll read it to our viewers, as well, James. Listen to this.
"Chris Christie's statement tonight neither takes responsibility nor answers many of the central questions that were raised with this morning's revelations. The governor, his administration and his allies broke the public trust and New Jerseyans deserve more than his customary bluster and deflection. It's time that the so-called straight-talking governor take some of his own advice. And he can do that by cooperating with all investigations surrounding the politically motivated lane closures and ensuring his staff and associates do the same." I suspect, and I think you'll agree, a lot of Democrats, they're worried about Chris Christie, because he's a very popular governor. If he were to get the Republican presidential nomination, presumably, he'd be a strong presidential candidate in 2016.
How should the Democrats, right now, react to what is going on?
CARVILLE: Well, first of all I have been one that has never thought that he had a great chance to be the Republican nominee. You know, I could have been wrong or he may still get it.
I think the big winner today right now is Jeb Bush. I think this really clears that side of the Republican Party wide open for him, because had he and Christie run, I think they would have been in competition for some of the same donors and some of the same voters, some of the same kind of support.
So if I were to be looking at a winner from the Republican side right now, I'd go right out in front and say that it's governor, the former Florida governor, Jeb Bush.
Christie was never that popular with the Republicans. If you look at the Iowa polls and things like that, his embrace of President Obama, while I think it was the right thing to do after Sandy, it just really, really frosted a lot of these people. And they've really kind of trusted him as one of them.
But his sort of appeal was that he could really get things done and going. And he could. It's conceivable. But it's going to take a lot of political skill and dexterity and, to some extent, courage to get out in front of this.
But my advice to him is the same I gave earlier in your program, get up to Fort Lee. And I'm talking about by the weekend, not -- don't tarry. Get out in front of this thing. It's -- it's damning.
BLITZER: James Carville is a very smart guy. He know what he's talking about.
We're going to have you back, hopefully with Mary. We'll talk about your excellent new book.
BLITZER: And let me show the viewers. There's the cover right there. The title, "Love and War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters, One Louisiana Home."
Mary, unfortunately, not feeling that great. We were hoping both of you would join us today, but we'll take a rain check, if that's OK -- Jim.
CARVILLE: Well, absolutely. Anytime, Wolf. You know how much we think of you and how much we respect you and your program.
Thank you very much. BLITZER: And I will see you in New Orleans --
CARVILLE: And we'll see you in New Orleans (INAUDIBLE) --
BLITZER: -- at the NBA All Star Weekend --
BLITZER: -- in mid-February. I'm looking forward to that.
BLITZER: James Carville, as usual, thank you.
BLITZER: Up next, Republicans seize on what's usually a Democratic issue, details of what they're doing on this, the 50th anniversary of the war on the poverty.
BLITZER: Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are marking an historic anniversary today. Fifty years ago, today President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. He also sparked a political war that's raged ever since over social spending. And today, some Republicans launched a new skirmish.
CNN's chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, reports.
DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): All day across the Capitol, you heard this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The War on Poverty --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- of the War on Poverty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- vicious cycle of poverty.
BASH: Lawmakers marking the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's famous declaration.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY LBJLIBRARY.ORG)
LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BASH: LBJ, of course, was a Democrat. These are Republicans, using the milestone to argue LBJ's big government battle plan, which created Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, has not fully worked.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: We have to focus on policies that help our economy create those jobs and policies that help people overcome the obstacles between them and those jobs. The War on Poverty accomplished neither of these two things.
BASH: Senator Marco Rubio chose a room named for LBJ to criticize him. The potential 2016 GOP candidate unveiled his own initiative, which he called the most fundamental change in 50 years, one steeped in conservative credo.
RUBIO: I am proposing that we turn over Washington's anti-poverty programs and the trillions that are spent on them to the states.
BASH: A new White House report concedes a staggering 49.7 million Americans still live below the poverty line, but also notes the poverty rate during LBJ's time five decades ago was 26 percent, and dropped to 16 percent in 2012.
REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), MAJORITY LEADER: For many families living in poverty, that poverty spans generations.
BASH: Republicans argue there should be a government safety net, but it must be reformed.
GOP Congressman Steve Sutherland has led a fight to add work requirements to food stamps benefits, one which stalled extending the program last year.
REP. STEVE SOUTHERLAND (R), FLORIDA: Work is not a penalty. I believe that work is a blessing. And I think that so many times, we have individuals who are second, third and fourth generation in poverty, or government recipients of monies, and, therefore, they've never seen it.
BASH: Republicans have good reason to seize on this. A recent poll showed 80 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with how the federal government handles poverty.
Still, it's tricky business for a GOP trying to get past any perception they're a party of the rich. This House GOP memo suggests using terms like "personal crisis" to discuss unemployment.
SOUTHERLAND: Everything we do, whether word and in deed, be done with fairness and compassion.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
BASH: Now, Republicans clearly understand the need to address income inequality. There is no clear consensus on how to do that. The battle for those ideas will help shape the GOP fight for the White House in 2016. And another potential contender, Wolf, Paul Ryan, is going to gave speech on this issue. And his ideas will come out tomorrow.
BLITZER: So the war will continue in a different context, of course.
BASH: Yes, it will.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
Dana Bash reporting.
Will have much more on these floating scandals swirling around the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. The Democratic congressman, Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, is standing by. We'll talk about that and more when we come back.
BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news. The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, saying he's outraged over the apparent plot by some of his aides to snarl traffic in a part of a political vendetta against the Democratic mayor. That mayor telling us that the people were seriously inconvenienced and potentially put at risk.
Let's discuss with Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
He's the ranking Democrat on the Governor Oversight -- on the Oversight and Government Affairs Committee.
Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: He's disavowing himself. He says he didn't know anything about it, this behavior is not representative of me or my administration in my way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.
CUMMINGS: I've read his statement. Christie is a guy who appears to be a hands-on governor. I was kind of surprised by the statement. I'm surprised somebody -- obviously I am --
BLITZER: Why were you surprised?
CUMMINGS: I'm surprised others haven't been fired already. He said people misled him. If somebody on my staff misleads me and -- into this kind of controversy, they've got a problem.
BLITZER: Is it realistic that someone, a senior official or a couple of senior officials, would undertake this kind of plot, alleged plot, disrupt traffic on lanes between New York and New Jersey over the George Washington Bridge, Fort Lee, and endanger people who need these kinds of emergency services?
CUMMINGS: It is simply astounding. And I think that Christie, as Carville said a few minutes ago, he needs to come clean, lay out exactly what's going on, do it as fast as possible so that we know what kind of guy is probably going to run for president.
BLITZER: We did -- I did interview the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, he's a Democrat, and I asked him, is there a role for the federal government to investigate what happened in New Jersey because of the interstate commerce between New York and New Jersey going over that George Washington Bridge? And he said yes. He wants you, you're part of the federal government -- is there a role for your committee, for example, to look at this?
CUMMINGS: I think we need to -- I think we need to hear just a little bit more. It's hard to say. But, again, I mean, when you look at our committee, we investigate all kinds of things. And of course I'm also on the Transportation Committee.
I think, you know, I really want to hear what Christie has to say. I want to see what comes out of his conversations in the next few days. And I think then we can look at that.
BLITZER: Because he's a popular guy. He won in an overwhelming landslide.
CUMMINGS: He's a very popular guy and he's a hands on governor. He's not one of these guys who sits back and lets things happen. So I -- like I said, I was surprised by a statement. I thought it was a little shallow. I'm hoping to hear more soon.
BLITZER: But weren't you surprised by the allegations as well?
CUMMINGS: The allegations --
BLITZER: That something like this could take place?
CUMMINGS: And so sad. So sad. We're better than that. We do not send people to our state capitols to throw the public under the bus.
BLITZER: And so if you had your way, what would -- if you found out who was responsible, what would -- is there a criminal violation or just simply --
CUMMINGS: I don't -- I don't know enough, Wolf. But what I'm saying to you is that if somebody does that -- and he said -- he implied in his statement that he has been misled by high-ranking people around him, then they would be in trouble.
CUMMINGS: A lot of problems.
BLITZER: I think they would.
Let's talk a little bit about the war on poverty.
BLITZER: You heard Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, and other Republicans today say this 50-year war on poverty that LBJ put in place really has not worked out.
CUMMINGS: Yes. Absolutely wrong. And it's upsetting to me that they would even say that. The fact is all the research shows, Wolf, that we would have more people in poverty if it were not for some of the things that LBJ has done.
BLITZER: We've got a lot of people on food stamps, almost 50 million Americans on food stamps.
CUMMINGS: Well, keep in mind --
BLITZER: There's a lot of poverty out there.
CUMMINGS: But there'd be a lot more if it were not for programs like that.
BLITZER: Why is that? Why -- in 50 years we have not really been able to make a huge dent. Obviously, I think you're right, there probably would be a lot more people.
CUMMINGS: Well, all the research is showing that a large part of that is income inequality. I mean, look at -- I mean, there have been efforts, the rich are making more, the middle class is dwindling, and the poor can barely survive. And so at the same time, I think the Republicans are using some of these arguments to justify slashing even more from people who are already trying to make it from day to day.
You know, my mother and father had less than a sixth-grade education, but because of a lot of the policies they've got a son who sits in the Congress of the United States. I mean, I want every child to have that opportunity to be able to rise up, and most parents want that for their kids. But right now they don't have that kind of hope because, again, in making -- in working harder, making less, the rich are getting richer, and they don't -- they're losing hope.
BLITZER: So what do we need to do?
CUMMINGS: We've got -- one of the things we've got do is deal with these unemployment benefits. We have to do that right now.
BLITZER: Is that -- but that's not going to pass. It looks like that's -- it might not even pass the Senate.
CUMMINGS: Well, we've got to push -- we've got to push hard because there are too many people depending on it. We've got to make sure we deal with the minimum wage. That would raise a lot of people -- bring a lot of people out of poverty. We've got to look at our tax code and come up with policies --
BLITZER: Let me ask you this question. Would you be open to $6 billion, three-month extension of those emergency unemployment benefits to offset that by cutting spending elsewhere?
CUMMINGS: Not out of the pension --
BLITZER: Because you know there are a lot of waste in the federal government.
CUMMINGS: Yes, there's a lot of waste, and I think that we can find ways -- yes, we need to deal with that. I mean, I could -- that would be acceptable. But I've got to know the details of that.
BLITZER: You know the U.S. spends almost $2 billion a week maintaining tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. You take two or -- they're going to be out by the end of this year, but if you accelerate that withdrawal you could pay for those unemployment benefits right away. Would you support that?
CUMMINGS: I probably would, but I've got something better. Tomorrow we'll be having a hearing in my committee about money that's being spent -- sent to people who shouldn't be getting various checks from various agencies. That would yield a whole lot more money than what -- we're talking about here.
BLITZER: So in principle --
CUMMINGS: Yes. Sure.
BLITZER: To pay for the unemployment benefits and not increase the deficit, you'd be open to that.
CUMMINGS: Be open to that.
BLITZER: I think the Republicans would go along.
BLITZER: If you can agree on where that spending should --
CUMMINGS: Yes, where the spending comes from.
BLITZER: Easier said than done.
CUMMINGS: Much easier.
Congressman, as usual.
CUMMINGS: Always, Wolf. My pleasure.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland.
Just ahead, a crackdown on weight loss fraud. We have details of which companies are now being charged with false advertising and they're paying huge fines.
BLITZER: Some of those so-called miracle weight loss products millions of Americans see on TV and invest in to slim down may not be living up to all the hype. Now the federal government is stepping in and cracking down.
Let's bring in Brian Todd. He's got the details. What do you know?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Federal Trade Commission says four companies sold weight loss powders, creams and other products that just don't work. The FTC says those companies were shameless and deceptive in their ad campaigns.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's called Sensa.
TODD (voice-over): And it seems enticing for that new year's resolution you might have made to lose weight, but as they say, if it sounds too good to be true --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without dieting, simply sprinkle Sensa on, eat all the foods you love and watch the pounds come off.
TODD: Sensa markets a powder to enhance the smell and taste of food which the company says make you feel full faster. 59 bucks for a month's supply.
SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: I may not have gone to a fancy Ivy League school, but I sure understand that that is good old- fashioned horse manure.
TODD: Senator Claire McCaskill is launching an investigation into those ads asking people to help by flagging potential scams.
Sensa is one of four diet supplement makers the FTC has charged with deceptive advertising saying there's no proof those products work. Other targets, HCG Diet Direct, distributors of hormone drugs. Place them under your tongue, the company says, and you'll lose weight fast.
Lean Spa, a company the FTC shut down, were using fake Web sites to market colon cleansing and diet products. And the popular beauty product company L'Occitane for almond scented skin creams which the company claimed could trim more than an inch of fat in just a month.
MCCASKILL: They're honing in on the fact that people want to lose weight and they don't want to have to work at it.
TODD: The FTC is making these companies pay $34 million in settlements, the money refunded to customers.
Nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge worries about who these companies are targeting.
KATHERINE TALLMADGE, NUTRITIONIST: A teenage client recently asked me for advice about these drugs that her friends were taking. I was alarmed thinking that teenagers and even children were taking these potentially dangerous supplements.
TODD: And with the weight loss industry exploding in America, Senator McCaskill warns going after those four companies is like playing the game Whack-a-Mole.
MCCASKILL: There are many companies that are doing this and with every one that is found, another one will pop up.
(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: The FTC says those companies are going to have to each conduct at least two legitimate clinical tests for their products to prove they work.
Contacted by CNN, L'Occitane said it would make its testing even more rigorous to comply with the FTC. Sensa said its product is solid but its ads will be changed. Lean Spa said its product was great but a marketer was to blame. HCG Diet Direct which marketed those hormone drops didn't respond to our calls -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Brian, thanks very much. Good information for our viewers to know.
Coming up at the top of the hour, two enormous political stories breaking this hour that could shake up the 2016 presidential race even before it's actually started.
Chris Christie under fire, accused of retaliating against political some rivals and President Obama's former secretary of defense saying in a new book Hillary Clinton played politics with U.S. troops.
All that coming up.