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WH: Trump Supports Improving Gun Background Checks; Press Pool Driver Detained for Personal Firearm in Baggage; CNN Source: Shooter Had Obtained at Least 10 Rifles. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 19, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

Is this a significant development in the discussion over guns in this country? Just a short time ago, we got word from the White House that President Trump is now -- listen to this, supportive of efforts to improve federal background checks for would be gun buyers. He's also squeezing in his first round of golf in a long time. No, he's doing his first round of golf this weekend in Florida, a weekend that was otherwise marked by furious public statements on the Russia investigation.

Our Kaitlan Collins is in West Palm Beach, following the president. It was just a short time ago, Kaitlan. We got this statement from the White House supporting a specific kind, maybe, of gun control legislation.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, John. We actually just heard from the White House of a conversation that the president had on Friday, and the deputy press secretary Raj Shah issued this statement and said that "The president spoke to Senator Cornyn on Friday about the bipartisan bill that he and Senator Murphy introduced to improve federal compliance with criminal background check legislation." Now, Shah went on to say, "While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system."

Now, John, I have to note here that though the president says -- the White House says the president is open to supporting the improvements in the background check system, the president didn't tweet once about that matter over the weekend, though he was on a tear on Twitter talking about Democrats, the FBI, even Oprah Winfrey, to give you an example of how far that span of those tweets were, but he did not tweet about this.

And as the shootings have happened during the Trump presidency, we have seen not only the White House, but also Congress express this support in this, but largely that legislation hasn't gone anywhere in Congress. So the question will be what is different about this time and will we see any tangible changes made in light of that tragic shooting in Parkland. But we do know that the White House is scheduled to hold two listening sessions there in Washington this week, one with high school students and another with teachers and school officials to discuss this.

So we'll be waiting to see what the president has to say about that then. So far we have not heard him talk about these background checks himself. We're only hearing this statement from his press secretary. So it is important to keep that in mind as the White House issues this statement here, John.

BERMAN: And, Kaitlan, it is interesting, a gun almost ended up in the president's motorcade this morning. Explain what happened here.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right, a very interesting morning for the press pool that is traveling with the president here in West Palm Beach. There's a small group of reporters that go with the president wherever he goes and he was going to his golf course here, the Trump international golf course for the first time since he's been here. We know that he wasn't golfing earlier this weekend because aides determined that it would be poor optics in light of the school shooting. But one of the drivers of the press vans, according to the pool reports that are sent to all the reporters, actually had a firearm in his bag that they found when were doing a sweep going through luggage and bags and equipment that reporters have.

And the driver said it was a personal firearm that he forgot to leave in his car. But he certainly was detained. We were told. And then again one of the vans carrying the reporters to the golf course actually hit a secret service vehicle this morning, so quite a route for the reporters this morning that were traveling with the president to his golf course, John.

BERMAN: All right, very interesting. That gun, again, had it not been picked up by the secret service would have been in the motorcade along with the president, theoretically close to the president somewhere it should not have been. Kaitlan Collins for us in Florida. Kaitlan, thank you very, very much.

There is news this morning in the Russia investigation, word perhaps of an imminent plea deal from Rick Gates, a key deputy to Paul Manafort, who was the campaign chair.

Let's get the very latest from CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider. Jessica, what are you learning?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, Rick Gates has been in plea negotiations for the past month and now word that his guilty plea could come within the next few days here. Our team has seen the signs of this for weeks now. In fact, Rick Gates' original attorneys, they moved to withdraw from his case and he has brought on a top notch white collar criminal defense attorney Tom Green who we know is well versed at plea deals.

And now, of course, "The L.A. Times" reports that the deal is in the works and it would include about 18 months in prison, that's a substantial reduction from what Rick Gates might have gotten as well as Gates potentially agreeing to forfeit any cash or valuables that he obtained through this alleged illegal activity. And you know, once this deal is in place, which could be this week, it will be yet another cooperator in the special counsel's sprawling probe. And of course, Rick Gates could be important to the Mueller team because he was a big player in the Trump campaign. He served as Paul Manafort's deputy campaign manager.

[10:05:02] He also stayed on the campaign after Paul Manafort was fired, just a few months before the election. And Rick Gates was also an integral part of the inaugural committee. So he could definitely have a lot of important details about what happened during the campaign. And, of course, any plea deal from Rick Gates could increase the pressure on Paul Manafort to cooperate. Of course, Manafort has pleaded not guilty for financial crimes that he's been charged with, which are unrelated to the campaign. And Mueller, though, he's already secured guilty pleas and cooperation. You can see it here from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, also George Papadopoulos, who worked on the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser and now, of course, word that Rick Gates, a plea deal from him, a guilty plea could be imminent within the next few days here. John?

BERMAN: Yes. Follow the plea deals, follow the cooperators here, they could be leading somewhere, who knows where that is. Jessica Schneider, thanks so much for being with us. Here now, Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Sun-Times," Lynn Sweet, CNN political commentator and former Bernie Sanders press secretary, Symone Sanders and CNN political commentator and Republican strategist, Alice Stewart.

Lynn, if we can, I want to start with the news this morning, word from the White House that the president could be supportive of increasing security and standards on some background checks. This has to do with legislation that was introduced following the Sutherland Springs shooting in Texas right now by John Cornyn. What do you make of it?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": I make of it this. In the wake of Congress failing to act since the Columbine Massacre decades ago by now, what does that mean? What will Trump do? What will he do to actually make this happen? Those words seem a little vague to me. Did that mean, he could have said I support the measure? There is legislation. There are words on paper.

So I don't know if this is a negotiating point that he rejects some of it and embraces some of it. In which case that will help doom the legislation unless it is clear what he is for and says so explicitly. We know that bump stocks were supposedly the device that would get people together, because it was a way to make a gun more powerful and able to repeat shooting. Everybody thought that was kind of something reasonable, had nothing to do with your rights. It had to do with modifying a weapon to make it more dangerous in the wrong hands. That did not fly, so that is my political analysis, John. What is step two?

BERMAN: Well, step one would be a step that they haven't taken in a long, long time. So before you get to step two, you got to get to step one. And, Alice, this legislation, again, isn't controversial. I mean, this is introduced by John Cornyn. It has broad base support is just to make sure that things that are found are reported, specifically having to do with domestic abuse. Now, the military, you know, discharges and alike, and then bump stocks which Lynn brings up, isn't part of this legislation, but this is low hanging fruit. There are things that you can easily, easily get majorities on, Alice, if there is a will. Is there now a will?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There has to be. There has to be a will and they have to find a way to make it happen. We started the conversation about bump stocks after Las Vegas. And it died on the vine. We haven't had any follow-up on that. In this case, we cannot do that. They're not going to get away with just having the conversation without following through.

The president has made it quite clear while I'm encouraged to see that his spokesperson has come out and said that they will have a conversation on background checks. What we've heard from the president himself, is a bigger picture. Many factors go into play, including mental illness and how we go about identifying mental illness and following up with treatment.

What I believe will happen out of this, we'll look at all of the factors that go into a lot of these mass shootings, whether it is background checks, whether it is waiting periods, whether it is mental illness, we need to sit down, look at all of the factors and find out what we can all agree on, one issue at a time, and what we can use and pass not just talk about it, but actually enact legislation that will help to put an end to these. And I think background is part of the conversation, mental illness, as well as other issues, without making angry the Second Amendment right supporters, but there's something has to be done. We're not going to get away with just talk this time.

BERMAN: Symone, the students, from the school, in Parkland, Florida, the students who have been so eloquent and so vocal, who are now sponsoring this march on Washington on March 24th. Have they changed the nature of this discussion? Have they created an imperative now to do something? Have they made it impossible to ignore?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think they have created an imperative that something has to be done. Furthermore, look, John, institutions have never brought us the change that we would like to see in this world on their own. They have always been pushed.

And so, I'm actually not confident that Congress is going to do what they need to do. And you know cahoots with this White House without being pushed and backed into a corner. And that's what these young students from Parkland, Florida, are going to do.

[10:10:02] So they're not just marching on Washington. They are walking out of school. They are organizing, and they will not be silent. And I think these young people are the young folks that are going to finally push Congress over the edge and back them into a corner and cause them to give us some legislative relief when it comes to guns. Nobody is talking about taking away Second Amendment rights. It is a freaking amendment in the -- it is an amendment in the Constitution. No one is talking about changing that.

But what we are talking about doing is making our schools safer, our streets safer and, again, over 90 percent of Americans support comprehensive universal background checks. Semi-automatic weapons are weapons of war. They do not believe in the streets of our cities. These are common sense things that Congress can't get through their heads, so young people are going to be the ones to push this change forward. These are the radical revolutionaries that we need. These are the young folks we have been waiting for.

BERMAN: So, Lynn Sweet, the president, this morning, wrote, he said, have a great but very reflective President's Day. That's his most recent statement on Twitter. Before he got to that point, though, over the last 30 hours or so, he's written a stream of things. You know, airing of grievances against pretty much anyone and anything you can think of following the 13 indictments handed up by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, leaving the impression right now that perhaps he's not happy with how the Russia investigation is being perceived in this country.

SWEET: Well, it strikes me that President Trump is not happy on President's Day. And -- if we look at psychological operations, I would like to point to the Oprah tweet that the president put out, where he accused Oprah Winfrey of being insecure. And that she's not -- and that she's fooling around with the facts, which in itself is, you know, since he has no regards for the facts.

But let me go to my point about psychological operation of Oprah Winfrey. Somebody who is in her orbit told me that one of the reasons she doesn't have an absolutely declarative, you know, slam the door shut statement is that somehow she knows that as long as she's kind of out there, it gets to Trump. She doesn't have to do anything. That tweet showed with all, you know, here it is, pre-President's Day and that's what he's doing. So, you take that into a totality with the tweets about the investigation and the indictments and I think it just shows that you have a president who is consumed with this kind of news and can't move on, can't refocus, can't pivot. That's what's remarkable. He can change the conversation in a tweet and he chooses not to.

BERMAN: You know, instead, Alice, what he chooses to write about is General McMaster, his national security adviser who says there are incontrovertible facts on the Russia investigation. The president decided to write, "General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians." Even though that's not what the indictments says that's not what Rod Rosenstein said about this. But Alice, he's choosing instead to continue to throw shade on the notion that Russia meddled.

STEWART: Yes and - I guess we've made a little bit of progress. He can't deny that Russia was involved in the election anymore based on the 13 indictments we had. But he still views this, through the lens that any type of conversation, any intimation that Russia was not just meddled in our election, but influenced the outcome of the election. He views that as questioning the legitimacy of his victory. I wish he could wrap his head around the fact that he won. He's the president of the United States.

The real issue is not how it reflects on him, but the fact that Russia meddled in our election. And for him to -- another one of his tweets talking about how people back in Russia are laughing their butts off because the turmoil they have caused here, that's a serious problem. It is not a laughing matter. And we need to be serious about the fact that Russia did meddle in our election, whether or not there was any collusion with the Trump campaign, we will find out at the outcome of this investigation, but the serious problem is that they did meddle and we need to make sure it doesn't happen again.

BERMAN: Quickly, Symone, one of the things the indictment says that the Russians were also early on trying to help out Bernie Sanders in the primaries there. You worked in the Sanders camp. I'm not sure you had a chance to reflect to look back on all the time there, anything that jumps out to you now in retrospect?

SANDERS: Well, I didn't talk to any Russians. And I think I can be very confident in saying no one on our campaign talked to any Russians.

I mean, look, Russia's goal was to disrupt our election. Then when they finally picked a horse, the horse that they presumably picked, allegedly they picked Donald Trump. Look, I think Alice is absolutely right here. What we need to be worried about is that there are upcoming midterm elections in this country. Just today, there is reporting I do believe from "Politico" that many states are concerned that the government is not doing what they need to do so they're acting locally. And going back to paper ballots and seeing what they can do to secure our electoral processes. The government is failing us, the Trump White House is in fact failing us.

[10:15:01] So what recourse do we have? What will this White House do when and if our midterm elections are affected? That's that we need to be worried about. I think the Mueller investigation is going to go on. I personally am a little concerned that we indicted 13 folks that we don't have in custody, but you know whatever. I'm not a legal scholar. What I can say is that Russia is coming back if they're not here already. What are we going to do to secure our elections?

BERMAN: The intelligence agrees with you. They said it last week. Russia is coming back in 2018. Symone Sanders, Lynn Sweet, Alice Stewart, thanks so much for being with us, Happy President's Day reflections.

Shocked and betrayed, the family who took in the killer in the Florida school massacre describing their interactions with him.

Plus, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opens up about his working relationship with the president. What he said when asked about whether he called the president a bleeping moron.

And all hail the new box office king, the Black Panther not only breaking records, but also barriers in its debut weekend.


[10:20:08] All right, we have some breaking news concerning the school shooting Parkland, Florida. CNN has learned that the gunman had purchased ten guns apparently in the previous year. Our Evan Perez is reporting that he purchased rifles, 10 rifles, all apparently legally, in the past year or just before. And, again, it should be noted that given his age, purchasing rifles of any kind, legal, while purchasing handguns would not be legal.

New this morning, the White House is signaling that the president is open to improving federal background checks, the question is, how?

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman, member of the House Judiciary Committee, Ted Lieu of Florida. Congressman, Let me get your reaction I guess to two things. Number one, the fact that this gunman had 10 rifles, purchased 10 rifles legally within the last year.

REP. TED LIEU (D), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: It makes no sense that someone could purchase assault rifles legally, but not handguns. It also makes no sense that the shooter could not have purchased a beer legally, but could still have purchased all these assault rifles. And that's why we need to have gun reform. I think we're seeing an inflexion point in American politics with the Parkland students speaking out, with silent majority of Americans now saying enough is enough. We need to have some common sense gun safety measures.

BERMAN: So the White House this morning put out a statement saying the president is supportive of some changes in background checks. Specifically he spoke to Senator John Cornyn of Texas who put forth legislation before the New Year that gets rid of some of loopholes, prosecutes people who don't obey the background check procedure appropriately. This had to do with Sutherland Springs, and the fact that the killer there of course, have been discharged with the military, had a history of domestic abuse, but people did not report it to the background checks. Would you support those efforts? Did you vote for that legislation when it came up in the House?

LIEU: I've supported every gun reform measure that has come before me. The problem is, in the House of Representatives, Speaker Ryan won't let us even have a debate on this issue, let alone a vote on any of the gun measures. And, by the way, I'll believe the White House when I see it. Because they said the same thing about banning bump stocks after the Las Vegas shooting. That has gone nowhere so far.

BERMAN: You would be willing to work with them, if they came back and said, look, bump stocks, we'll give it to you, background checks as far as John Cornyn would go, trying to close some of those loopholes, we'll give it to you. It may not be everything you want but it is something. Is that a starting point?

LIEU: Absolutely. I would start with adding bump stocks, background checks. Those are low hanging fruit I think we can get that done. But keep in mind, the Republicans in the Senate and the House have shut down debate on this issue and not even let us take votes on it. At the very least, let us have a vote and we'll get some stuff done.

BERMAN: We'll see if we're at that inflexion point you were talking about right now, the children march -- those students, I should say, march, March 24th, so we'll see over the next month whether anything happens. Let me ask you about the Russia investigation right now because there have been some pretty significant developments including apparently an imminent guilty plea from Rick Gates, the onetime deputy campaign manager. You have said you believe it is only a matter of time before Paul Manafort flips on President Trump. What is your evidence there?

LIEU: We know that there is a long series of charges against Paul Manafort. He now realizes that Rick Gates, his long-time partner, is going to be a cooperating witness. That puts immense pressure on him to plead guilty because Paul Manafort knows if he goes to trial, he's going to lose. And one way to reduce your sentence is to enter into a pretrial agreement, plead guilty and be a cooperating witness. That's what a rational person would do. I imagine Paul Manafort is going to do that pretty soon. That would be my best guess.

BERMAN: So, Rod Rosenstein in his statement, which was fascinating on a Friday, I'm sure you were watching it closely as we all were. He said, "There is no allegation in the indictment that the Russian meddling affected the course of the election or the outcome of the election." As you sit here and you've been part of this investigation on the House Judiciary Committee. Do you think that the Russian meddling affected the outcome?

LIEU: It is hard to quantify what that affect is. What we know is Russia engaged in a very sophisticated, massive attack on our democracy in 2016. How did that affect voters in the swing states? Hard to quantify. But we know it did have influence, we just don't know how it influenced voters. And we want to make sure that this doesn't happen again. And I have to tell you, that today, more than six months after the bipartisan congressional sanctions law on Russia, President Trump has still refused to implement them.

BERMAN: The indictment says clearly that ultimately that those Russians, the 13 indicted and the three corporations, they wanted to help elect Donald Trump. Do you think they did help elect Donald Trump?

[10:25:00] LIEU: I do. I think they helped elect Donald Trump and they also helped hurt other campaigns. How do you quantify that? That's hard to know. But clearly you can't say there was no effect because they were very sophisticated in how they targeted voters and tried to get people to vote for Donald Trump, show up at rallies, and to spread social media favorable to Donald Trump and unfavorable to other campaigns.

BERMAN: Congressman, you can be quite engaging on Twitter and social media. What do you make of how the president has chosen to engage on social media these last three days from Mar-a-Lago, lashing out at General McMaster, for not saying, you know, talking about the outcome of the election, talking about Adam Schiff, talking about Oprah, talking about Russian meddling saying he always said the Russians meddled.

LIEU: As a former prosecutor, I was trained to recognize conscientious of guilt. Which is basically what would a guilty person do and one of those things is lash out at a lot of other people, mislead, lie. If there was nothing to the Russian collusion story, why does he keep talking about it and keep bringing it up. A person would let the investigation go forward instead of trying to obstruct it at every turn.

BERMAN: Congressman Ted Lieu from California, happy President's Day. Hope you're enjoying the long weekend with your family.

LIEU: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: Coming up, new details about the Florida gunman's past as the family he was living with speaks out for first time. What the killer told them just hours after the massacre.