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Rick Gates Finalizing Pre-Deal with Mueller; Steve Bannon Questioned 2 Days by Mueller Team; Former Playmate Claims Affair with Trump; Florida School Shooting Renews Calls for Gun Control. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired February 16, 2018 - 11:30   ET



[11:32:08] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Two major new developments in the Russia investigation this morning. The first, a CNN exclusive. Former Trump staffer, Rick Gates, is said to be close to finalizing a pre-deal with the special counsel. But an official says they're not worried about what he could say about President Trump.

Plus, Mueller's team questioning former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, for two days this week.

Let's go to CNN political correspondent, Sara Murray, with more on this.

So, first, let's talk about Gates. What's going on with the plea deal?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: This is former Trump campaign adviser, Rick Gates. He appears to be finalizing a plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He's been in to speak with Mueller's team.

And, you know, plenty of Trump associates have been, this is a little bit of a different situation because he went in for what is known as a queen for a day interview, which is basically where you put your cards on the table, say this is what I know about this case or any other criminal activity I may have witnessed. The prosecutors decide what value is this, is this information accurate based on what we know, and he sort of decides whether you're going to cut a deal. So it does appear he's poised to cooperate.

Now, if you are Paul Manafort, who is the co-defendant in this criminal case, that could be a little bit troubling, a little bit concerning for you. Both of these men pleaded not guilty to these charges. It could also put some more pressure on Paul Manafort to cooperate with Robert Mueller. And that is one of the keys to this. This isn't just about what Rick Gates that to do with Paul Manafort, but the question is, what does this have to do with the president.

And the answer is a little bit murkier. Gates' cooperation could be a building block for Robert Mueller to begin to build a case against President Trump or against other Trump associates. That's what we're going to be looking for. That's why the White House is downplaying things. They say they're not worried about a potential plea deal. They don't believe that Mueller is interested in anything to do with a campaign or the transition when it comes to Gates and Manafort. They think this all has to do with their business dealings before they were ever involved in the campaign.

WHITFIELD: And then what about Steve Bannon? Apparently, very cooperative with Mueller's team.

MURRAY: Right, talk about striking different tones. Steve Bannon went in to speak with the special counsel. He spent two days there, got grilled for hours. We're told there are no subjects that were off limits. And he was expected to be asked about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, as well as the firing of national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

A very different tone and approach in this special counsel interview than what lawmakers got from Steve Bannon when he went in front of the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. He refused to answer questions that had to do with his time in the White House, his time in the transition. He said the White House told him to invoke executive privilege. And as you can imagine, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were not happy about that one.

WHITFIELD: Some even talking about exploring contempt. We'll see if that happens.

Sara Murray, thank you so much.

Let me bring in CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan.

OK, so let's talk about Gates first. Potential plea deal. How significant is that?

[11:35:02] PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think he's more of a side figure than a central figure in a potential case against the president. Remember, he was indicted along with Paul Manafort, who was a campaign manager for a while, but farther back in the Trump campaign. They were both indicted for 12 counts, mostly focusing on money laundering, and failure to register as foreign agents of another country. So my bet is that his information is more relevant, maybe, to the case against Manafort as opposed to the case against the president. But, of course, only time will tell.

WHITFIELD: These are all building blocks.

This queen for a day, explain what is that all about?

CALLAN: This is morbid prosecutorial humor. Let's say you have a criminal client and you want to go to the prosecutor and make a deal. You say to the prosecutor, he's got great information, you can use it in your investigation, but you have to offer me a deal. The prosecutor then says, I'll let him come in, and talk to me, and tell everything, however, I won't use it against him if we don't take the deal.


CALLAN: It is based on -- and the queen for a day reference is based on a show from the 1950s, where believe it or not, the show worked this way, the women contestants competed to be queen for a day. And whoever told the most tragic story, based on audience applause, would be crowned queen for a day. They actually would put a robe on her and crown and she would get something like a washing machine or dishwasher for her home. That was the "Queen for a Day" show. So this is the prosecutor is offering such a prize to a witness who offers good information.


WHITFIELD: If you're going to share everything, and you don't take, you know, the plea, it would seem that's going to be used against you. OK. So --


CALLAN: Queen for a day.

WHITFIELD: OK. All right.


WHITFIELD: Let's talk about Bannon then. He's cooperative with Mueller, but then, apparently, before the House Intel Committee, he invoked executive privilege. Wouldn't answer questions or at least gave a lot of noes. How can you have the two, or is this an issue of, you know, you're safe with revealing as much as you can with Mueller but not necessarily with the House?

CALLAN: First, of course, Bannon is a central figure, unlike Gates, who I say is sort of an early player. He's right in the middle of everything. We know, if Wolff's book can be believed, that he's a man of strong opinions, and some of them weren't too favorable for the president. We also know that the president is worried about what Bannon is likely to say because he's asking him to invoke executive privilege.

WHITFIELD: But only for the House.

CALLAN: Well because --

WHITFIELD: That doesn't work for Mueller.

CALLAN: No, it doesn't. I'm sure the president would love him to exert executive privilege with Mueller as well. I think this is the jackpot witness for Mueller, if there say jackpot to be found in the end. Because he has information, inside information about why Comey was fired, what the president's attitude was about Flynn, all of these things, obstruction of justice, that are important key aspects of the Mueller investigation.

WHITFIELD: In addition to those expressed opinions that were in the book. CALLAN: Yes.

WHITFIELD: All right, Paul Callan, good to see you.

CALLAN: Good to see.

WHITFIELD: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

All right, coming up, a stunning new report detailing President Trump's alleged affair with a playmate. And the great lengths he allegedly went to hide it. That's next.


[11:42:40] WHITFIELD: A new report in the "New Yorker" has stunning new details from a former playmate who claims she had an affair with Donald Trump before he was president. And it also details the alleged great lengths to hide the story.

CNN's Tom Foreman joins me now.

So, Tom, what have you heard?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is a pretty elaborate story here about Karen McDougal, a former playmate of the year. Essentially what the New Yorker is saying from its reporting is that, in June 2006, "The Apprentice" was taping an episode at the Playboy mansion out in Los Angeles. There was a party related to it. At this party, Donald Trump, according to this report, met Karen McDougal. He, at the time, had been married to Melania for two years. And that they then began a nine-month affair.

What is interesting about this is that apparently McDougal, according to this report, wrote at some point an eight-page account of what had happened, which she gave to a friend, a handwritten account, which she allegedly has verified to the "New Yorker" saying, "Yes, I did write that account."

But then, it gets a lot more complicated because the story also talks a great deal about the degree to which her meetings with Donald Trump, while frequent, according to this report, were also kept hidden in many ways. They were arranged in such a way it was always deniable, never a paper trail to show, you know, that travel had been booked for her, that sort of thing.

Beyond that, at some point, right before the election, the company that owns the "National Enquirer," according to this report, made a deal with her to buy her story. But then did not publish the story. The suggestion here being that the publisher, the CEO of the company that owns the "National Enquirer," is a friend of Donald Trump's, who didn't want this story going out, so he bought the rights to it, so nobody could tell it, including Karen McDougal.

That's the nut shell of what we're talking about here. It has a lot of winks to other possible involvement between Donald Trump and other women. None of it is proven. And according to this account, the White House denies it. I would not expect anything else. But we're digging to try to find out if there is any kernel of truth in any of this and, if so, what is true and what may not be.

WHITFIELD: Right. The White House statement is that the president denies it.


WHITFIELD: All right. That's the way it is stated.

Tom Foreman, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

FOREMAN: You're welcome.

[11:44:57] WHITFIELD: We'll be right back.


WHITFIELD: The school shooting in south Florida has renewed calls for the president and Congress to take some kind of action on gun control, from the pleas of students and the parents, to the cover of the "New York Post," and the monologue from Jimmy Kimmel. He had this message for President Trump.


JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE: You've literally done nothing. You've done worse than nothing. You like to say this is a mental health issue, but one of your first acts as president, Mr. Trump, was to actually roll back the regulations that were designed to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. You did that. Your party voted to repeal the mandates on coverage for mental health.


[11:50:05] WHITFIELD: Joining me right now, CNN politics editor-at- large, Chris Cillizza, and Caitlin Huey-Burns, from "Real Clear Politics."

Good to see you both.

Caitlin, you first.

Over and over again, we have these debates over gun control, shootings, regulations, et cetera. But is this the moment in which the parties will come together, perhaps fewer will be, I guess, less -- less adhering to the NRA?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: We don't see any evidence of that happening. And when you compare this shooting to the one in Las Vegas, after the Las Vegas shooting, there was a real rally around the possibility of banning bump stocks because that was kind of the issue that came out of that. We don't really have anything similar on this. And in the issue of gun control debates, the key is momentum, right? The momentum tempered away after the Las Vegas shooting. There hasn't even really been much around this shooting.

The only thing that I possibly see different here is that you're hearing a lot from the students in this case. Remember, these are high school students --

WHITFIELD: Very vocal.

HUEY-BURNS: -- who are very vocal. And so my question is whether the Democratic Party makes a real push for this in the midterm elections. Remember, politics is going to be a real key here. There is really no appetite among Republican base voters for any forms of gun control. We've seen that over the past few years. And also remember, there are a lot of red-state Democrats up for reelection who also don't really have an appetite to go at this issue at this moment.

WHITFIELD: Chris, do you see that this will impact midterm elections?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: No. And I don't want to be that cynical person, but I just -- they vary. There have been so few examples, despite the number of school shootings, workplace shootings, mass-casualty events that we've seen, there's been so few races decided or even really heavily influenced by ads or messaging on guns. The one I can think of is a primary in 2000 when Michael Forbes, a New York congressman, switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party, and he ran and wanted the assault weapons ban. That hurt him in the Democratic primary, but he had been a Republican. Other than that, there is just not a lot of evidence there. It is something, I think, that causes significant outrage. I think everyone wonders why we can't do more, particularly when you look at polling that suggests things like expanded background checks.

There is -- I don't want to say anonymity, but there are 60, 70 percent of people in favor, including lots of Republicans. But Caitlin touches on the politics of it and that's what makes it difficult. You have both parties already, even before this shooting, and after the next shooting and the next one, lined in their partisan camps. Republicans viewing it as a slippery slope to gun collection, Democrats view it as a necessity and no middle ground, unfortunately.

WHITFIELD: And, Caitlin, why should anyone feel more hopeful when just this week there was no movement, if any at all, on DACA, on DREAMers? There was great hope that there might be, and now this is in the forefront. And this is very emotional as well. This hits home for so many.


WHITFIELD: Why should there be new hope in this?

HUEY-BURNS: Right. You bring up a great point, that all other legislation really struggles to get even 60 votes in the Senate. Look at the government funding debate over the past few weeks. That was a real struggle to pass something that is fundamental for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. I covered the post-Newtown shooting and the efforts on Capitol Hill to get something done. After each one of these shootings, there is this palpable sense of

grief on Capitol Hill, but really soon, the political realities set in. And I think they're very engrained at this point that we're kind of moving away from the debate of what will happen next to just kind of the idea that nothing really will happen on this. So it depends on whether this does become an issue for voters and kind of how organized the efforts are.

WHITFIELD: And, Chris, you have said, you know, that this week for the president -- your words -- "have been absolutely disastrous."


WHITFIELD: I don't know if you heard my interview earlier with the vice mayor of Broward County, who says he thinks it's hypocritical for the president to even step foot near Parkland, especially now, and because of the rollbacks that you just mentioned. So is it about to get worse for the president?

CILLIZZA: I don't see how it gets a lot better. You know, I thought the speech he gave yesterday was pretty good, presidential, appropriate. But he had tweeted earlier that day something that I thought was not something particularly presidential. He has the Russia investigation ongoing and closing in on his inner circle. You have, for a variety of controversies regarding the head of the Veterans Administration and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. You had -- in Florida, you had Democrats win another seat in the state legislature that he had carried. So there is just a lot of bad out there for him. And candidly, I think his response to the Parkland shooting is an example of this. He makes it worse for himself.

[11:55:40] WHITFIELD: We'll leave it there, Chris.

CILLIZZA: His inability -- his tweeting, he makes it worse.

WHITFIELD: I gotcha.

Chris, Caitlin, thanks so much to both of you. Appreciate it.

Coming up, 150 shots fired, 17 people killed in a Florida school massacre. Now we're learning the school sent a warning letter about the former student-turned-gunman back in 2016. That's straight ahead.