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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Former White House Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta; Trump Doesn't Mention Guns Once In Remarks In Shooting; Shooting Survivor to Lawmakers: Please Take Action. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 15, 2018 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:30:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back today. For the fourth time in his presidency, President Trump addressed the nation after a mass school -- a mass shooting. Joining me now is former CIA Director Leon Panetta who served as White House Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton, and he was Secretary of Defense under President Obama.

Secretary Panetta, thanks for joining us

LEON PANETTA, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Good to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, what what was your response? What did you think of President Trump's response to the shooting?

PANETTA: Well, you know, I -- I'm glad that the President spoke to this tragic event that has taken place. But, you know, I -- I think all of us feel that hundreds of these mass killings have taken place and we all kind of follow the script now where the President says words of condolence. He expresses his deepest condolences to the family, says that it should never happen again. But somehow nothing ever gets done, nothing gets done. And I fear that we're caught in a cycle where these kinds of killings are going to continue, and little is going to happen as a result.

TAPPER: What do you think can be done assuming that, you know, there isn't going to be a wholesale ban on -- on any sort of semi-automatic weapon? What do you think there is a -- the political will or at least the possibility of the political will to be done? It seems like there's this nexus between people with serious mental illness and their ability to purchase guns, and it would seem there should be some sort of solutions in that overlap, and yet I don't see any action.

PANETTA: Well, I think that's the -- that's the question that is -- should be bothering every American, which is that what we've been through so many of these events and families have been so harmed by what has taken place that something -- something can be done to try to prevent these weapons from getting in the hands of those who have mental problems. Something can be done to try to limit these -- these assault weapons from getting into their hands and causing these kinds of danger.

But the problem is we came out of the Las Vegas shooting, and everybody -- everybody including the NRA, Republicans and Democrats said we ought to do something about bomb stocks, which were used in -- in that instance to create even greater death to take place. And yet nothing happened. Everybody supported something to be done, but nothing happened, so there's a real problem with political courage to do anything. No matter what we say needs to be done unless the courage and leadership of those we elect to office is there to do something about it, nothing is going to happen.

TAPPER: Why are people afraid? Why are politicians -- it can't just be a campaign contribution? Is it that they are just scared of being portrayed by the gun lobby as anti-gun? Is it they just philosophically don't think that anything should be -- should happen, that infringing on anybody who might be possibly mentally ill infringing on their right to get a gun is more important than a child's right to go to school without being killed?

PANETTA: I -- I think it's a -- it's a combination of things that's created this paralysis that we now see. There was a time. I think when I was the Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton that we were able to get gun legislation passed through the Congress that actually provided for an assault weapons ban along with other provisions. It was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, that law, you know, came to an end and was not renewed. As a result, what has happened is that those who are elected to office are increasingly afraid of doing anything on this issue, anything for fear that it will come back to haunt them in a political race. It isn't just about money, it's about the issue itself.

And what is needed here, I've said this a lot, in democracy we govern by leadership or by crisis. And the problem is if leadership is not there and willing to take on this issue and at least try to do some of the things that are required here, then we're going to continue to have crisis. We're going to continue to see these kinds of mass killings. And I don't know how many of these mass killings is going to take before the courage and leadership finally shows up where it should in -- in the Congress of the United States.

[16:35:00] TAPPER: I know a lot of people thought that after Sandy Hook, after the Newtown massacre, where 20 five and six-year-olds were slaughtered by somebody with obvious mental illness and as well as six teachers and school administrators that, with Congress not willing to do anything there and -- and -- and make no mistake, I'm not calling for any specific measure, but just some sort of attempt to keep guns out of the hands of people who have severe mental illness. If Congress wasn't willing to do that, why would they be willing to do it for any other incident?

PANETTA: Well, that's -- that's the question, Jake. You know, at this stage, I would be satisfied if they moved anything dealing with trying to limit weapons going to those who are mentally-retarded, establishing a file, establishing communication. I mean, my God, even the killer that was involved yesterday is somebody who clearly had indicated that he was going to shoot people and to at least have some base of information available to law enforcement so that they could go out and try to prevent these things from happening. Just do something, just, you know, take some kind of action to show that this country understands how terrible it is that these kinds of mass killings continue to take place. We have got to do something, so otherwise, we're going to see this repeated again and again.

TAPPER: I think your mentally disturbed there in the previous sentence, I think you misspoke. But I wanted to ask you, we know that the FBI was alerted to this individual when he posted something about becoming -- wanting to become a professional school shooter back in September 2017. By that time, this individual had been kicked out of school, had already been -- before he was kicked out of that school disciplined for bringing ammunition. Teachers were scared of him. He already purchased AR-15 style rifle. There were all sorts of horrific, and disturbing and violent images that he had posted under his own name on social media.

Do you think the FBI dropped the ball here?

PANETTA: You know what, Jake, this -- this one screamed out for attention, there's no question in terms of what was being said, the record that was involved here. And, you know, I'm I'm not going to lay it all on -- all the blame on the -- on the FBI or, for that matter, other law enforcement or for that matter, school officials. I think everybody bears some responsibility here for what happened.

But the problem is it happened. And the question we have got to ask ourselves is how can we develop laws that will ring the bells that have to be rung here so that when we get this kind of information, action is taken. And we are able to do something to prevent this from happening.

That -- that's what's required. We have got to be able to say to law enforcement at every level, when this kind of information is available, when people understand that there is somebody who has some serious mental problems and could resort to this kind of terrible action, that something is going to be done to deal with that. That is the something, I think, that in the very least the Congress, state legislatures ought to be able to do in order to try to provide some kind of protection here for these children.

TAPPER: And I know you say that as a -- as a hunting enthusiast yourself, sir. Thank you so much, Leon Panetta. Good to see you.

PANETTA: Thanks, Jake.

[16:40:00] TAPPER: I want to bring in my political panel. You know, one thing that -- that a friend of mine said to me earlier today is there is so much on Capitol Hill right now that's being done in the name of protecting us -- from travel bans to the wall, to immigration reform, to keeping out people who would do us harm.

And I don't mean to besmirch any of those attempts. I assume that they are sincere and heartfelt. But when I think of the deadliest and ugliest things that have happened recently, I think of the Parkland, Florida massacre yesterday, the Las Vegas massacre 130 something days ago, and the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And yet there really is just not the same kind of desire to do something to protect us the same way there is from these threats from across the border or from Jihadi terrorists. SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: You may watch the

video of the mother of a girl who was killed yesterday just kind of screaming into the wind about do something. There are certain lots of things you can do, and there are a lot of things that could be done that take -- that help us -- would address this issue in at least some ways. You know, there's not going to be one thing that fixes it, but there are 12 things that would -- that would help.

And so many of these issues do not even require any political courage. Tightening background checks or banning assault style weapons are 80 percent, 90 percent issues -- 80 or 90 percent support in the American public. So I am -- I am mystified why we seem paralyzed on all fronts when it comes to this issue.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR BEGALA: We're paralyzed because our politics have paralyzed us. It's not -- it's 80 percent or 90 in the polling, but not at the polling place. Voters -- well, I -- I worked for President Clinton like Leon did. We passed the Brady Bill Assault Weapon ban. They reward us with a landslide against us.

TAPPER: You lost the House and the Senate.

BEGALA: Lost the House, 54 House seats. By the NRA's count, 19 of those 54 were only because of guns. They're probably right. Actually, Pat Griffin who was our lobbyist thought 40 out of 50, whatever.

After Sandy Hook, President Obama put up a little bitty gun safety bill. Republicans killed it and won the next election in a landslide. So we're in a cul-de-sac. But here's -- this may shock you. Here's the way out -- our President. Our own Trump once said -- I'm the only one who can -- he's the only one who can solve this issue. He has a unique capacity to speak to my fellow gun owners and hunters, and I -- I own guns and I hunting. But most of my friends who own guns and hunt voted for Donald Trump, and they love him.

He could say to them, first off, meet with the cops. Not all the crunchy lefties sit down with the cops, Mr. President. Ask them what they need. We lost a police commander, shot multiple times in the head in Chicago this week. Ask them what they need to protect us, they'll tell you, then go to the country and tell your supporters, "This is not gun control. This is not violating the Second Amendment. This is just a few common sense ways to keep guns out of the hands of people on the terrorist watch list, which are allowed to buy guns if you can believe that, people who are adjudicated mentally ill, people who are domestic abusers.

We could do a lot. He could do it. Mr. President, you could do this, you could change the politics of this and, frankly, nobody else can.

TAPPER: Kevin, I want to get your response, but I have to sneak in a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] TAPPER: We're waiting a press conference any moment from the Broward County Sheriff's Office as well as Florida Governor Rick Scott. We'll bring that to you live as soon as it starts, but I want to go back to my political panel. And, Kevin, we were talking during the break. Paul had said that he thinks President Trump is the key to this. He could change it because he, gun owners believe that he shares their values, and could speak to them about some sort of change in terms of whatever needs to happen to keep guns out of the hands of people with serious mental, and emotional problems who shouldn't own them, but you disagree.

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, I disagree with that. I think it's much bigger than that. It's not as simple as that. And I think, look, even -- I think the legislative and political environment hurdles are very, very real. And I think, proponents of stricter gun control measures have to be wary of that. I mean, if you look at just the way the legislative system we have right now, I mean, just the minimum standard for governing, getting a budget done, passing appropriations bills, like, we can't do that right now. We're running the government -- federal government on a continuing resolution.

If you look at something like DACA, right, this is a bill that we've known about the deadlines for months now, and yet we're still just struggling with it at the very last minute. So the idea that you're going to change or fundamentally alter laws that many people believe, proponents of the second amendment believe is a fundamental right, you're going to do it very easily, those expectations have to be mannered. It's going take more time than people think.

[16:50:19] PAGE: So don't do fundamental reform. Do one thing, and then do the second thing and see how it works.

MADDEN: And in order to get something small done, again, this is not like a licensing law or change like that. This is what people believe is a fundamental constitutional right. Even the little things take a lot of time and are big (INAUDIBLE).

PAGE: Well, as a defender of the First Amendment, I can understand. People who defend the Second Amendment with believing it's very important, even the smallest incursion, encroachment on it is important, but I just -- I just -- I do not believe that we should be in a situation where we see these shootings every few weeks, and there's not even 24 hours of discussion about whether anything will happen. There's an assumption from the hour number two that nothing's going to be --

TAPPER: Can I say something, Susan? I know that you're a strong supporter of the First Amendment, as am I, I bet that you support some restrictions on it.

PAGE: Well, in everything in life, there's balance, right? There are some restrictions on the First Amendment --

TAPPER: You can't libel people.

PAGE: That's right. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater and so --

BEGALA: You can't commit fraud, you can't give the Russians our nuclear secrets.

TAPPER: I don't know about that one.

PAGE: So I don't think -- I don't dismiss the fact that there's supporters of the Second Amendment who think that's very important and that ought to be respected. It's part of our constitution. But we ought to be able to hit a better balance than we are now.

TAPPER: Kevin, you support gun rights. Let me ask you. Is there not some sort of ground where people can hear an argument about we need to take more measures to make sure that people who have serious emotional and mental problems can't get guns as easily as obviously they're able to do so today?

MADDEN: That's a good question and I think there is. I think one of the big problems too is that when people look to the federal government, I think it becomes a bigger challenge because this is a government that's further removed from everybody else. I think there's a great deal of progress that you can make state by state where legislatures and citizen governments are much closer to the people.

And those conversations I believe, they are more substantive, they are more tailored to the individual populations that have different opinions about this than they would if they were in Maine or if they were in you know, in Indiana or somebody's different states with different profiles. So that may be one of the solutions where people look to their -- to their local governments to do a better job.

TAPPER: Is the adjudication standard, in other words, Paul, the idea that someone has to be adjudicated mentally ill by a judge, that that is the only thing to can go into the national instant check system. Is that too high a standard? Is there not now a whole sphere of individuals who don't merit that, but maybe at least there should be information in the national instant check system so a gun store owner can say, well, I don't know, look what this has here, the FBI has -- the FBI put in all these notes about social media postings that this guy has done, and that makes me uneasy, or is constitutional question, he has the right to buy the gun? Does that preclude --

BEGALA: Well, we don't want to limit First Amendment rights either. You were right to post on social media, but that -- this apparently this murder has flagged -- was flagged by the FBI for some other things that he said. I would go -- again, I still think the President is a key to this, but I would go to the experts, the cops, the mental health professionals and ask them, what do you need?

And I just -- I disagree with Kevin about this. We've never seen anybody this beloved and trusted by the folks who own weapons. And I say this as I said it. The gun owner who were raised hunting, I take my kids hunting, I get it and I love it and I understand it. But they're not going to listen to me. They're going to listen to Donald Trump, and he could do this. He could turn this around with simple (INAUDIBLE).

Nobody wants to ban weapons, nobody wants to confiscate weapons, nobody wants to take away my hunting rifles or my shotguns, but he could do this, and I'm just begging, I'm literally praying for him. I didn't support him, I don't even like him, but he's the person who's uniquely positioned. You know, an African-American guy named Hussein was not going to do this, frankly, Hillary was not going to do this. She campaigned hard on it. God bless her. But this guy could do actually this. And he could -- Ronald Reagan supported the Brady Bill. It's one of the reasons Clinton was able to get passed. This guy can join Ronald Reagan under a Republican Rushmore if he did this.

TAPPER: We're going to sneak in another quick break. We're expecting this press conference from the Broward County Sheriff's Office with the latest information on the horrific shooting. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: Any moment now we're expecting a news conference to begin. We're going to hear from the Broward County Sheriff's Office as well as Florida Governor Rick Scott. We'll bring that to you live once it starts. But let's just get some quick final thoughts from our panel here about where this goes, if anywhere, in terms of gun violence in America, mental illness in America.

PAGE: You know, I just said that the politicians may have failed us, but the teachers and coaches, once again, in the school shootings, stepped up and protected their students.

BEGALA: And if the politicians won't say this, the first three words of our Constitution is we, the people. People could have these gun laws immediately if they voted on it. So I'm praying for these victims, I'm praying for our country, but you know, African proverb says, when you pray, move your feet. Move your feet to the polling place and vote.

MADDEN: And another key would be, right now, not to have reflexively poisoned the debate from the very get-go by questioning everybody else's motives. I think that's key as well.

TAPPER: Yes, I think there are a lot of people who, like very sincerely believe in gun rights. They're not doing it because of NRA money, they're not doing because of fear, they actually believe in it. Thank one and all for being here. I appreciate it. That's all for THE LEAD. I'm going to turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He's next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.