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Students and Supporters Demand Gun Law Reform; McMaster: Russia Meddling "Incontrovertible"; Tracking Putin's Shadow Army; U.S. Skier Responds to Online Haters. Aired 12mn-12:30a ET

Aired February 18, 2018 - 00:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Emotional pleas for gun control from Florida students, whose classmates were gunned down in their classrooms.

The U.S. president's national security adviser says that Russia definitely meddled but it's still unclear whether his boss is convinced, as he once again lashes out at the media. We'll tell you about that.

And Lindsey Vonn finished off the podium at the Olympics on Saturday but she is striking gold, striking back at vicious online trolls.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm George Howell. CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


HOWELL: Around the world, good day to you. We begin in the U.S. state of Florida. There is outrage with a groundswell of people demanding change, following a deadly school shooting. Survivors of that shooting came together on Saturday, calling for tougher gun laws in the United States.

Keeping In mind 17 people were killed on Wednesday, this when a gunman opened fire with a military style rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Now many students there and supporters say enough is enough.


EMMA GONZALES, STONEMAN DOUGLAS STUDENT: If you don't do anything to prevent this from continuing to occur, that number of gunshot victims will go up and the numbers that they're worth will go down. And we will be worthless to you.

To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you. We know that they are claiming that there are mental health issues and I am not a psychologist but we need to pay attention to the fact that this isn't just a mental health issue. He wouldn't have hurt that many students with a knife



DELANEY TARR (PH), STUDENT: I'm a high school senior, who, three days ago, was worried about which of my friends were going to receive flowers for Valentine's Day. I was focused on what I was going to be wearing to prom one week ago. My main concerns were my grades, college acceptance and my social life.

Now I'm a high school senior who is worried about which memorials I need to place flowers at. Now I'm focused on what clothes I can wear so that I can run away from gunfire. My main concerns are funerals, gun control and whether or not I'm going to be shot wherever I go. My innocence, our innocence, has been taken from us.


HOWELL: Those are just some of the very sobering statements from some of these students from Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School.

One of those students speaking there was Emma Gonzales. CNN's Martin Savidge spoke with her.


GONZALES: The way that I deal with my grief is by working toward a way that I can fix what caused it. 3and that's what I'm doing today. I know that there's a lot of people who can't do that right now and I am proud to know them, even if they can't get their voice out there. I know that they're behind us and that they're with us all the way.

And that we're not going to stop until this doesn't happen again, even if it takes -- and it's not going to take 20 years -- it will stop

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You want this to be the last massacre, as you said?

GONZALES: Yes, yes. And even if that realistically can't happen, one of the last.


HOWELL: Fair to say many of the people within that high school community remain in shock after what happened. The principal of the school, Ty Thompson, posted this emotional message on Saturday. He vowed to students that he will be there to support them. Listen.


TY THOMPSON, PRINCIPAL, STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL: Eagles, I promise you, I will hug each and every one of you, as many times as you need and I will hold you as long as you need me to, for all 3,300 of you and your families. And we will get through this together.

Our community is strong, our students are strong, we will persevere in these trying times.


HOWELL: Before Wednesday's school massacre, there were several warning signs concerning confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz. CNN's Drew Griffin spoke with my colleague, Bianca Nobilo. Listen.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SR. INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Although police say they are going through Nikolas Cruz's electronic devices and his phones to find anything new, most of this stuff, Bianca, was right online, posting on social media about his hatred for various groups, how he liked and wanted to shoot people.

He was blaring warnings. Also, he was involved with the police, we have been reporting that, about 30 times over the past several years, police have been called to his home. Many calls involved calls about mental illness, about disturbances, openly talking to police about the fact that this kid was in therapy, needing mental help.

And this afternoon I talked to one of his neighbors, who knew Nikolas Cruz pretty well, and said if there --


GRIFFIN: -- was ever, ever one person who should not own a gun, it was this person. Take a listen to this.


PAUL GOLD, NIKOLAS CRUZ'S NEIGHBOR: Why was he ever allowed to buy a gun?

That is crazy. I mean, if I would have known that he had a gun, I would have taken it. I would have personally taken action. I would have, you know, I would have taken the gun from him. He had too much of a temper. He would break things. He'd be the last person who should ever have a weapon.


GRIFFIN: Paul Gold said it was well known by just everybody who was involved with this kid, he got a call out of the blue last November, Bianca, from Nikolas Cruz. Nikolas Cruz's mom had died. He needed a ride to his mom's funeral.

Paul Gold gave him that ride, attended a very, very sad funeral. We have pictures from that. This is Nikolas Cruz in front of a Christmas tree outside of the funeral home area and also holding the urn of his mother with his other adoptive brother.

They, the two of them and two other people were the only people who showed up for this funeral, just four people total. And according to Paul Gold, Nikolas Cruz really took that very, very hard. So as the investigation continues to look into how and the warning

signs missed, we're also learning a little bit more about this dysfunctional live that Nikolas Cruz had grown up in.


HOWELL: Drew Griffin there in Parkland, Florida.

The U.S. president Donald Trump is slamming the FBI over what happened. Just a short time ago he tweeted this, "Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. There is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud," says the president.

Last week several sources told CNN Mr. Trump remains skeptical of Russian meddling but his national security adviser, he is convinced. Just listen here to what H.R. McMaster said about the federal charges brought against 13 Russian operatives.


LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain.

Now that this is in the arena of a law enforcement investigation it's going to be very apparent to everyone. But the second reason where I think Russia may re-evaluate what it's been doing is because it's just not working.


HOWELL: H.R McMaster there at the Munich Security Conference. Though Mr. Trump, though, it seems he doesn't think that his national security adviser got the whole picture so he just tweeted this late Saturday night.

"General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only collusion was between Russia and Crooked H., the DNC and the Dems."

Let's talk about that tweet because all of the assertions there without evidence have not been proven.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about the U.S. charges on Saturday. His answer was simple. Listen.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIA'S MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (through translator): I have no response. Until we see the facts, everything else is just blather.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOWELL: We get more now from CNN's Boris Sanchez, traveling with the

president in Florida.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: In a series of tweets sent out by President Trump and an official statement from the White House in response to the news that some 13 Russians were being indicted for election meddling in the 2016 election, the president didn't exactly condemn Russia or Vladimir Putin for their role in that election interference.

The president tweeting that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia going as far as to say that no one on the Trump campaign acted inappropriately. In fact, some in the White House are taking aim at Democrats and the media saying that they've done more to create chaos within the United States than Russia has.

I'm going to listen to deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, who was on FOX News on Saturday. Listen to what he said.


HOGAN GIDLEY, DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: There are two groups that have created chaos more than the Russians and that's the Democrats and the mainstream media who continue to push this lie on the American people for more than a year and quite frankly Americans should be outraged by that.


SANCHEZ: That line of thinking not exactly aligning with some prominent Republicans, including Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who on Saturday night tweeted out to President Trump, encouraging him to confront Putin.

Read this tweet he writes, quote, "The next time, President Trump, that you talk to Putin, tell him to butt out of our elections, quit the cyber warfare interference in our democracy."

That tweet, of course, noteworthy because one of the last times that President Trump actually met Vladimir Putin --


SANCHEZ: -- he told the press that he asked Putin whether Russia meddled in the election and that he believed Vladimir Putin when he denied that Russia had any involvement in the 2016 election.

We'll see if the next time Donald Trump meets Vladimir Putin there's any change in the interaction.

As far as the president's schedule, we can tell you that he did not golf on Saturday, which he typically does when he spends weekends here in Palm Beach. A White House officials telling CNN that that was, in part, to show

respect to the victims and families and friends of those affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which is only about 40 miles from where the president is staying at Mar-a-lago.

We were able to confirm on Saturday evening that the president would be meeting on Sunday with House Speaker Paul Ryan to discuss the future of the legislative agenda. We'll keep you posted on what comes of that -- Boris Sanchez, CNN, traveling with the president in West Palm Beach, Florida.


HOWELL: A lot to talk about here and to do so, let's bring in CNN political commentator and democratic strategist Dave Jacobson and with the conservative point of view, KABC talk radio host, John Phillips.

It's good to have you both with us to talk about what we have here. Fair to say the facts are in, this 37-page indictment lists in detail this story of how Russia interfered with the U.S. election. At least part of what investigators say went down. The president's own national security advisor says the evidence is now incontrovertible that Russia meddled.

The president, though, through the White House, blames the Democrats and the media.

So, John, the question to you, is this about the Democrats and the media or is this about Russians?

JOHN PHILLIPS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think the indictments are certainly about the Russians and I think it's mostly good news for the president. It showed that it didn't affect the outcome of the election, it showed that no one on his team knew that they were talking to Russians, at least concerning these specific people.

So I think the president right now should be doing a victory lap. And by the way, this would be consistent with everything that I knew and learned during the campaign. I was never formally a part of the Trump campaign but I was an early-on supporter and in contact with many of them.

And a lot of these guys like to tattle on one another because there were a lot of factions certainly fighting within the campaign the whole way through and they would talk about various indiscretions, various things that went on that they didn't like about the other group, but this was something that never came up.

Russian collusion was a topic that was never brought up, never was directed at any of their enemies. So I am not surprised to hear any of these details at all.

HOWELL: All right, John. You say a victory lap. Dave, the question to you, keeping in mind, this only part of it.

This doesn't deal with the DNC hack. There are other parts and aspects of this investigation that we have yet to learn more about, but, Dave, the question to you, is it too early, too soon for a victory lap?

DAVE JACOBSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it is. George, you're absolutely right. This doesn't include the Podesta emails, the Trump Tower meeting with Trump Jr., the DNC hacking. This is a slice of the investigation.

I think what this tells more than anything is that we know nothing. The scope and the depth and breadth of the Mueller investigation is quite expansive, more far reaching than we had originally anticipated.

This is the first indictment as it relates to election meddling. And the other thing that struck me, George, I was fascinated by is Donald Trump, back on November 11th, when he was on his Asia trip, reported by Axios, said that he met with President Putin and President Putin told him that there was no election meddling and he believed him.

We've heard numerous Trump officials now say that there was -- this is evidence that there was election meddling. But we still haven't heard the President of the United States of America, the commander in chief, openly admit that there was election meddling. And he needs to at this point.

HOWELL: This is only part of a much bigger picture. And let talk about the investigation itself. There has been constant speculation over many months that the president might fire Robert Mueller or the deputy attorney general, which would, of course, impact the investigation.

But with this round of indictments, do you have see this as a game changer, John?

PHILLIPS: I don't think he's going to Mueller, I don't think he's going to fire Rod Rosenstein. I think he certainly has reason to do so with hyperpartisan investigators, who are certainly part of this and part of the FBI going after him.

So I understand his frustrations but it's exactly what I assumed it would be. They would find that people lied on their declaration forms. They would find that people may have not paid the taxes that they owed over unrelated issues.

But one thing they haven't found is Russian collusion. They've spent a lot of money they have spent a lot of time and they've got bupkis when it comes to that.

HOWELL: OK, I have a question for the both of you. It's a very important question because, again, this is the information in black- and-white it lays out in granular specificity --


HOWELL: -- this, the investigation, what people believe happened, how Russia meddled in the U.S. election.

It comes down to that old adage, united we stand, divided we fall.

Given what we now know from this document, John, first to you then, Dave, secondly, and we go from here?

Can we come together on this very important information?

PHILLIPS: Well, I mean, I think there are certain things that we shouldn't do. One of them is voting on the Internet. There was a big push before this to vote on the Internet. I think we go back to the future. Paper ballots are certainly something we should absolutely stick to because it's much harder for foreign agents to attack.

But in terms of the hyper partisanship that we have in this country, I don't think that we're moving away from that and I don't think the Russians created that. Since Watergate, we've really had what political scientists call critical realignment, which is where conservative moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party and liberals moving from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.

I think it was something that was started long before the Russians decided to meddle and it will be something we'll have to deal with for a long time to come.

HOWELL: And, Dave, briefly to you?

JACOBSON: George, I think this underscores the fact that what we once thought was Teflon tough, our democracy, our electoral process, it's not. And frankly, the American people want tougher regulations in place to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

That's why a recent NBC poll that came out a week ago showed that 55 percent, the majority of the country, 55 percent of Americans believe that the government is not doing enough to prevent this from happening in the 2018 election and moving forward.

And the Russian attempt, obviously in the 2016 election, sought to sow discord in our country, undermine the most fundamental, basic thing that makes us a beacon for democracy and that is our electoral system, where we empower representatives to represent us and govern on our behalf.

And so at the end of the day, this should be a bipartisan issue, Republicans and Democrats ought to work together to figure out ways to put up borders against hacking in the future, to protect our democracy so that we can have full faith and confidence in our electoral process moving forward.

HOWELL: All right, Dave Jacobson and John Phillips, thank you so much for being with us.

JACOBSON: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Thank you.

HOWELL: The news continues here on CNN NEWSROOM. Ahead, U.S. airstrikes apparently killed dozens of Russian fighters in Syria.

So why isn't the Kremlin saying anything even as the dead's grieving families demand answers?

Plus she's one of the best skiers of all time but Lindsey Vonn has been getting hate tweets after losing an Olympic race. Her response, still ahead




HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

The Kremlin is staying mysteriously silent on reports that dozens of Russians --


HOWELL: -- were killed in U.S. airstrikes in Northern Syria just last week. CNN's Fred Pleitgen reports the dead and injured apparently worked for a military contractor controlled by an ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Images you won't find on Russian state media, a grieving mother, her son, Ruslan Gavrilov, killed in Syria, working for a private security company during an ill-fated attack on American-backed forces. Online network Current Time visited her at her home.

FAINA GAVRILOVA, MOTHER OF KILLED CONTRACTOR (through translator): Are they not people?

They obviously went to fight to help, even if it's for the money, it's because of poverty, it's because there are no jobs.

PLEITGEN: CNN has identified several of the Russians killed on the night of February 7th. They were employed by a Russian security company called Wagner and were part of a force trying to take a gas field held by U.S. backed fighters and American troops in Eastern Syria.

U.S. warplanes, helicopters, and artillery killed more than 100 of the attackers before the rest fled.

Sources we've been speaking to, say many Russians, probably a dozen were either killed or badly wounded. One source who visited a military hospitals, says many of the Wagner contractors who survived had what he called horrendous wounds, and he called all of it a massacre.

But just why the attack took place at all comes down to oil and money. According to the U.S. Treasury, Wagner is led by Dmitry Utkin, seen here meeting President Vladimir Putin. Utkin is under U.S. sanctions because of Wagner's activities in Ukraine. He has a long association with the Russian Oligarch called Yevgeny Prigozhin, which close to the Kremlin.

U.S. investigators believe, Prigozhin's corporation also financed the so- called troll factory that was involved in meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Another of Prigozhin's many companies is called Evro Polis. It has an office in Damascus and a deal with the Assad regime.

According to a contract, examined by CNN, Evro Polis gets a quarter of revenues from oil and gas fields that are recaptured on behalf of the Syrian government. Wagner does the fighting, Evro Polis, it's the oil.

Ruslan Leviev, an activist whose group monitors the Russian role in Syria, says the Prigozhin's empire is extensive.

RUSLAN LEVIEV, CONFLICT INTELLIGENCE TEAM (through translator): The group of companies controlled by Prigozhin, includes many known to U.S. structures. One of the most famous projects is the troll factory that specialized in propaganda and informational war.

It's the Wagner private military company which was initially formed by his personal security guards. Dmitry Utkin, the head of Wagner group used to work in Yevgeny Prigozhin's security service.

PLEITGEN: Last year, Prigozhin denied being linked to Wagner, his company saying, quote, "We do not have any information about this organization."

CNN's efforts to reach Prigozhin and Wagner were unsuccessful. For its part, the Russian government is also reluctant to talk about last week's incident, which is of no comfort to the families of these and other men --


PLEITGEN (voice-over): -- killed in the Syrian desert -- Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.


HOWELL: Fred, thanks for the report.

When we asked for comment, the Kremlin responded, quote, "We have no new information about this and we said everything we want to say on this matter."

Still ahead here on NEWSROOM, an Olympic skier isn't letting online haters bother her after failing to medal in a race. We're live in PyeongChang still ahead.



HOWELL: One of the most successful female skiers of all time is responding to haters on Twitter. Lindsey Vonn tied for sixth at the women's Super G race at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and found herself on the receiving end of some really negative comments.

Let's bring in CNN --


HOWELL: -- sports analyst Christine Brennan, live this hour from PyeongChang, South Korea.

So first of all, tell us about what she had to say to this Twitter hate that she got.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: George, obviously she had a disappointing finish, sixth place. She said she tried her hardest and she's going to come back for the downhill. So at that point, you had this barrage of Trump fans, who don't like her.

Amazing, Americans cheering for a fellow American to fail. And in all my years I don't remember seeing that at the Olympic Games. And it was extensive. And so actually Julie Foudy, one of the great soccer stars of all time from the United States, of course gold medal Olympian, World Cup winner in '99, Julie Foudy tweeted out her support for Lindsey Vonn and said she couldn't believe the attacks on her.

And then Lindsey went back and said -- thanked Julie but said it's OK, I'm loved by my family and my friends and everything's fine and I'm OK, taking the high road when all those other people seemed to want to go so low.

HOWELL: Hmm. And the thing about it is, her response, she really was very measured, wouldn't you say?

BRENNAN: Oh, without a doubt. Lindsey Vonn is a class act. Lindsey Vonn is one of the greatest U.S. Olympians, George, ever. She's a great role model for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people around the world, certainly Americans, especially American girls.

She's one of the most courageous and heroic athletes in terms of falling and breaking bones and blowing out her knee and coming back. I mean, we think a lot of athletes do heroic things. Lindsey Vonn is that person.

Doesn't surprise me at all that she's handling it this way. She was critical of Donald Trump, saying she's wants to represent the country, not Donald Trump. She is not alone in that.

There are millions of Americans who are critical of Donald Trump, obviously. She said she won't go the White House. She's not alone in that, either. So why these people are picking on her, as I said, in all my years of covering the Olympics, George, I've never seen anything quite like this.

And it really is truly amazing because of course these people won. They won the election. So I don't know -- I'm not sure why they're picking on Lindsey Vonn but certainly they're picking on the wrong person because she knows how to handle herself.

HOWELL: Yes, picking up where you've pointed out, all my years of coverage sports along with you, politics, news, I've never seen anything like this, either. So we are in uncharted waters for sure. Christine, thank you so much for your time today.

And thank you for being with us for CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta. "WORLD SPORT" is up next but, first, your world headlines right after the break.