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Florida Killer In Court; Trump Tweet Storm; Trump Lashes Out over Russia Probe; Trump Goes After Everyone except Russia; Trump on Russia Meddling; Trump Tweets about McMaster; Gates to Plead Guilty. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired February 19, 2018 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.
And let's begin with the breaking news. The Parkland, Florida shooter is back in court. He's making an appearance in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom at a procedural hearing right now. You're seeing live pictures coming in.
We're also learning today that the shooter was able to obtain at least 10, 10 rifles. Because of his age, he was unable to acquire any -- he was unable to acquire any handguns. You have to be 21 years old to get a handgun. But an AR-15 style weapon you can get in Florida at the age of 18.
Investigators are still trying to track all of the firearm purchases he made.
Our Rosa Flores is in Parkland for us right now.
Rosa, first of all, tell us about this hearing. What do we anticipate?
ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, if what I'm about to say sounds as clear as mud, it's because the situation in the courtroom right now is as clear as mud.
Let me give you the play by play. The defense ordered a hearing, made a motion on Friday, and that was added to the docket. Since then, it's been on and off. So much so that it made the judge very upset at the defense earlier today --
BLITZER: All right, Rosa, hold on for a moment. Hold on for a moment. The hearing is about to begin. I want to hear the judge. Judge Elizabeth Scherer is speaking.
JUDGE ELIZABETH SCHERER, BROWARD COUNTY, FLORIDA (live): We're here on the case of the state of Florida versus against Nikolas Cruz. Are all of the attendants present?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, your honor. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
SHARI TATE: Shari Tate on behalf of the state, your honor.
SCHERER: (INAUDIBLE.) I'm sorry (INAUDIBLE.)
TATE: Shari Tate on behalf of the state.
SCHERER: And the defendant is present, correct?
TATE: Mr. Cruz is present. I'll be (INAUDIBLE) on his behalf.
Let me start off by saying that although I didn't consider any of these matters to be confidential, an order has been entered on Friday by Judge Amuldo (ph).
I have reviewed these materials thoroughly, and they deal solely with the public defender's office having access to their own client's person (INAUDIBLE.)
I don't believe the state has suffered any prejudice by these matters being kept confidential. And I am going to leave everything the way it is with the caveat that in the future of going forward, all the matters in this case are going to be heard by this court.
And if there is a motion to keep something confidential, the motion, at the very least, is going to be heard by this court in the presence of all of the lawyers and the defendant.
Does anybody have any questions?
SCHERER: An order has already been entered. Again, I believe I made it clear on Friday that I didn't feel it should be confidential and set it for today. But what's done is done.
Again, it deals solely with the public defender's access -- the defenders access to their own client person which (INAUDIBLE3) state's been noted, I don't think the state would have any objection or any standing to object to the (INAUDIBLE) own client.
Because the issue is still very limited, as far as I can tell, I'm going to leave it the way it is.
And just, again, I have a copy of the administrative order from each of you so that you know in the future, the matters are going to be heard by this court (INAUDIBLE.)
TATE: Judge, the only issue is that the state, pursuant to the case laws (INAUDIBLE) whatever urgents (ph) were filed by the defendant should be responsible so that the state and to all parties as part of the court proceeding. I have found some case law that's directly on point that we (INAUDIBLE) not entitled to conduct any type of discovery. They did make a request, which was granted in magistrate court, to have access to their client for purposes of photographing him.
The magistrate judge had no problem. But it is the state's position that whatever the court is in possession of, in the way of motions, should be unsealed.
Now, if you want the state to file a written motion unsealing it, we can certainly do that. But we are prepared today to argue why it should not be unsealed.
SCHERER: I don't disagree with you. However, I just feel that because an order has already been -- already been issued by this court, meaning a judge in the Seventeenth Circuit that -- and because, like I said, it deals -- it's a very limited issue.
[13:05:00] I believe the defense was entitled to what they were asking for. And a court -- this court has already ordered that the motions and the order be sealed and we're going to just leave it the way it is.
TATE: OK. (INAUDIBLE.)
SCHERER: All right, thank you.
SHERER: All right, thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here, have a seat.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your honor, would you be able to prepare the order for (INAUDIBLE)?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.
BLITZER: All right. So, there you see it. A brief procedural hearing before the Broward County District Court.
You saw the judge, Elizabeth Scherer, ruling on the request by the defense for the unsealing of certain documents. Pretty technical hearing.
Richard Ben-Veniste, our Legal Analyst, is standing by.
Richard, we saw the 19-year-old shooter there. He's represented, I want to point out, by Broward County, assistant public defender, Melissa McNeal; and Broward County public defender, Howard Finkelstein. The prosecutor is Shari Tate.
So, this is going to -- this is just the beginning. But, clearly, 17 counts of murder await this young man. RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. And, clearly, the judge
indicated that she's going to keep control over this case and, very clearly, meant to send a message to both sides to say how she wants to proceed and that they will proceed in accordance with her wishes.
And that's quite appropriate. I mean, we have seen cases which have a televised aspect to them, such as the O.J. Simpson case, rock out of orbit.
This will not, in my view, be such a case. The state's attorney, Michael Satz, is a very accomplished and experienced man. And I'm sure this judge will also maintain control of the courtroom.
BLITZER: The state attorney, Michael Sachs, did say, in a statement on Saturday -- Richard, let me read it -- part of it to you.
This is certainly the type of case the death penalty was designed for. This was a highly calculated and premeditated murder of 17 people and the attempted murder of everyone in that school.
Our office will announce our formal position at the appropriate time.
But, clearly, they're going -- they're going for the whole -- the whole thing, murder and the death penalty.
BEN-VENISTE: Well, it would seem as such. But we will await, of course, medical evaluations of Mr. Cruz. And that will inform both sides in the positions that they will take.
BLITZER: All right, stand by. We're going to get back to you. There are other legal issues we need to discuss.
I want to quickly go back to Rosa Flores. She's down there in Florida for us.
Rosa, there's some new information about the firearms that he purchased. What are you learning?
FLORES: Well, authorities tell my colleague, Evan Perez, that the suspect purchased 10 firearms, all rifles.
Now, it's unclear, Wolf, and this is the policework that's happening right now, is where he purchased all those weapons. Where are all those weapons, at the moment, now?
And we know, of course, that the ATF is conducting a trace. And, from interviews, both with GMA and with "Florida Sun Sentinel," we've learned from his host parents that he did, indeed, have that AR-15 style rifle in his home.
The parents thought that they had the only key to the lock. Now, we know, of course, that that did not happen.
The big question, Wolf, is where are all of those weapons? And that, of course, is something that police, authorities, investigators here are trying to track down -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Rosa, thank you very much.
And we're going to get back to that in a moment.
But there are other developments unfolding right now. President Trump is urging Americans to be reflective, on this Presidents Day, after unleashing an angry Twitter tirade.
His weekend tweets took direct aim at everyone, from the Democrats and Hillary Clinton to his own national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, and even Oprah.
But the tweet that generated the most backlash involved the FBI and the Florida school massacre. The president tweeted this, quote, "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." Close quote.
[13:10:02] That tweet drew outrage from survivors of the school shooting, with some calling it disgusting. And now, it seems their demand for action on gun control could be having an impact.
Let's go to our White House Correspondent Boris Sanchez. He's joining us from West Palm Beach where the president is over in Palm Beach at Mar-a-Lago, his resort, for this long weekend.
Bores, what's the possible change in the president's position on guns right now?
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Wolf. Yes, apparently the president is considering a bipartisan bill that was introduced in the Senate last November, by Senators John Cornyn and Chris Murphy, that would expand background checks.
The White House putting out this statement saying that the president spoke to Senator John Cornyn on Friday about the bipartisan bill he and Senator Murphy introduced to improve federal compliance with criminal background legislation.
While discussions are on-going and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system.
We should note, Wolf, that the White House didn't exactly back this measure in November when it was first introduced. But this, really, wouldn't be the first time that the president has shifted on the issue of gun control.
You might recall that, back in 2000, in a book titled "The America We Deserve," the president wrote that he supported banning assault weapons and expanded background checks. That position clearly changed before he became the Republican candidate for president in 2016. We can also tell you that he spent, at least part of his weekend, meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan here in Mar-a-Lago. We know that the two of them spoke about the shooting in Parkland, calling it a tragedy.
The White House would not clarify if any gun control legislation came up as part of a potential addition to the agenda moving forward though -- Wolf.
BLITZER: In his tweet storm over the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, maybe 15 or 16 tweets, Boris, the president did not criticize Russia at all. Criticized many others. Didn't criticize Russia, following the indictments on election meddling.
Are officials, White House officials, explaining why he is silent what Russia did?
SANCHEZ: Not exactly, Wolf. Really, what we've heard from White House officials this weekend is the defense of the president's position. You had deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, saying that the Democrats and the mainstream media have caused more chaos than the Russians in the United States.
You have not seen the president, really, have any kind of condemnation of Vladimir Putin or his cronies for carrying election meddling. Instead, you see him go after, as you noted, the FBI, his national security advisor, a slew of Democrats, former President Obama, Adam Schiff, Hillary Clinton, and the media as well.
But he, really, hasn't gone any further than saying that Russia is a bad actor in that statement. Something that even Republicans are calling for him to do. You might recall that, early this weekend, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, actually tweeted to the president, asking him to confront Vladimir Putin. We'll see if that ever does happen, though -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, the Russian activities clearly continuing right not. But the president remains silent on what the Russians are doing.
Boris, thank you very much. Boris Sanchez in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Critics say the president was making the Florida tragedy about him when he linked the FBI's mistake in the case with the Russia investigation.
Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona was especially blunt. He tweeted this. Quote, "You are such a psychopath that you have to make even the death of 17 children about you. America will regret the day you were ever born." Closed quote.
Joining us now to talk about that and more, CNN Political Analyst Karoun Demirjian, Politico Congressional Reporter, Rachael Bade, and CNN Political Director David Chalian.
David, the president's tweeting about all of this, yes, the FBI made a mistake. But now, he's saying, you know what? They made a mistake because they were spending way too much time investigating alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. So, we should make clear, that's just factually untrue. There's no -- nobody is suggesting that the FBI can't handle both following up on leads and have a team task, of Bob Mueller, of investigators for the Russian investigation. That just makes no sense.
What it does show is, A, the president is pretty self-obsessed and definitely did take this opportunity of this tragedy to still press his personal political case against the Russia probe. So, that is -- that is true.
But also, what we're seeing here, Wolf, is a president who is unable to separate out anything out of the Russia probe from a question of the legitimacy of his election.
And so, in this case, he even lets the death of these children play into this, in some horrifically twisted way in his mind, that he would use this moment.
[13:15:00] But when those indictments came down on Friday, this was not the only tweet about the Russian probe.
As you know, he went on a huge tweet storm about it, because he sees any news on that front, any developments on that front that Bob Mueller is making, is a total attack, in his mind, on the legitimacy of him being rightly elected president of the United States.
RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": There have actually been some reports too over the past, you know, 48 hours or so that when he first heard about these indictments, he was heartened a little bit because he said, oh, there's no evidence of collusion. The DOJ was coming out specifically saying that these -- the interference from the Russians did not affect the election, which he saw as, you know, sort of, OK, legitimacy in my victory. But, over the past 48 hours, a number of people -- he's been watching the news, obviously in Florida. Didn't go out and play golf because of the tragedy. And he's seeing that a lot of people are saying, wait a second, this is just the beginning of this.
Even Chris Christie, a supporter of his said, you know, he cautioned the White House from taking this out of bounds and taking it to far, saying there's more to come. Obviously there is going to be questions about collusion, but also questions about, you know, obstruction of justice. And this investigation continues. And so now he's lashing out. His people are not viewing Friday's news the way he viewed it initially.
KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I mean, look, the Mueller indictment on Friday was significant in explaining -- the filling in, basically, of what the Russian meddling operation really looked like. It's probably not going to result in Russians getting, you know, extradited to the United States to stand trial for this thing, and it is not been divorced from a lot of reports looking at the -- what may be happening with Gates and whether -- and that's much more in line with this, could potentially pose a problem for the president if he ends up testifying about Manafort.
What we know is that the president cares a lot about optics. The president cares a lot about how people perceived the Russian probe development. The president also apparently cares a lot about how people perceive what his reaction has been after that tweet, the likening of the Florida shooting, putting that in the same -- same pot, I guess, as the Russia probe. The backlash has been terrible for him across the board from these kids. Some of his political allies saying, this is not OK. And now he's -- you know, now we have these reports that he may be discussing actually looking at some gun control measures.
I think it's also just worth noting, though, that as we discuss whether the president is going to back the Cornyn-Murphy proposal, it's important to know that that's basically just to be able to fix the system as it exists, to improve the actual reporting requirements, make sure people follow those. It's not really an expansion of background checks. It's not the Manchin (INAUDIBLE) stuff we were talking about a few years ago.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Clearly the FBI can do a lot. There's 35,000 people who work at the FBI. And let's say 100, if that, are working on the Russia investigation.
Down in south Florida, as far as what happened at the school, the field office down there, they probably have their own. So there's no overlap. This whole notion that they can't do both is clearly not true.
I want to read to you, David, the tweet that generated so much buzz over the weekend and controversy.
I never said Russia did not meddle in the election. I said maybe Russia or China or another country or group or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer. The Russian hoax was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. It never did.
All right, we put together a few clips of what he actually said during the course of the campaign and since.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's been no collusion. There's been no crime.
The entire thing has been a witch hunt and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. But I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero.
I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election.
How many times to I have to answer this question?
QUESTION: Can you just say yes or no on it?
TRUMP: Russia is a rouse. Yes, I know you have to get up and ask a question, so important. Russia is a rouse. I have nothing to do with Russia.
I can only say this, there was absolutely no collusion. Everybody knows it.
The Russia story is a total fabrication.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: I don't know how many times he said, it's not just a total fabrication, it's a witch hunt, a hoax, a rouse. He had a lot of -- a lot of words to describe this Russia investigation and he has really never said anything about what the U.S. needs to do to stop it from happening again.
CHALIAN: Well, that's the most astonishing part of this. This goes back to another saying about being just incapable, it seems, total lack of interest, in separating out whether or not he was legitimately elected versus protecting the country from this happening. His own intelligence community is saying, this is happening in 2018 again, Wolf. And the president, just an indictment of exactly -- as you were saying, the details of exactly how this happens, where is the outrage to make sure that he's protecting the very core of -- the fundamentals of United States democracy, free and fair elections. Where is the outrage from the president of the United States to prevent it from happening again? And, yes, he has always said that there is no collusion. But as you just noted by playing those clips, he often also said the entire Russia thing is a witch hunt.
BLITZER: He says it's a waste of taxpayer money.
CHALIAN: Which it's clearly not. It goes to the very core of protecting our most fundamental, Democratic principles.
[13:20:02] BLITZER: And, you know, it's really amazing when you think about it. His national security adviser, three star active duty general, H.R. McMaster, he's at an international conference in Munich and he speaks out about this and then the -- and he says it's, you know, it's -- there's no doubt that the Russians were doing it. They're still doing it. The U.S. needs to deal with this. He was very forceful. And the president didn't like that.
He tweeted, 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. Remember the dirty dossier, uranium, speeches, e-mails and the Podesta company.
It's pretty unusual that the president of the United States humiliates his own national security adviser at an international forum like this.
BADE: He is attacking everyone but the person Republicans want him to go after, which is Vladimir Putin. I mean his own advisers, McMaster, he was -- he's apparently angry again at Rosenstein because Rosenstein, he said, didn't make clear enough that, you know, this didn't impact the election. He's lashing out at the FBI saying that they're, you know, too distracted, you know, by the Russia investigation to do anything about preventing shooters. I mean Democrats, the media, Oprah. I mean anybody -- he's attacking anybody except what Republicans want him to (INAUDIBLE) Russia.
BLITZER: So can General McMaster, Karoun, you know, survive this? Maybe -- there have been reports he wants to leave, he wants to get out of there to begin with. He's an active duty three-star general. But if you're insulted the way you are by the president of the United States publically like that, you've got to -- you've got to -- if you're a military officer, you've got to draw some conclusions.
DEMIRJIAN: Yes, although it's a different target every week it seems about who in the national security apparatus around President Trump is going to be a target about, is he going to stay or is he going to go? I mean we've talked about Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, John Kelly. Now it's H.R. McMaster. It's his turn. He's the one who's actually on that podium. He's talking about a number of different things where the team has had to kind of restrain Trump. It's not all about Russia. And Trump lashes out. He doesn't really feel any loyalty to those he expects to be loyal to him. When it comes to things where he's got opinions he wants to share and he doesn't feel like everybody's absolutely falling in line.
And just to kind of reinforce the point that David was making a minute ago, I mean, look, Trump has really never gotten to the point where he said, yes, Russia did actually do this. Yes, I blame Vladimir Putin for it. He has tried to correct the record.
DEMIRJIAN: No, but even -- even though the last two days, in this whole, I never said that, it's just about trying to correct the record of what he said, not actually ruling out the 400-pound genius on the bed, and saying like, if it was the goal of Russia to do these things, that they were very successful. We have not yet heard a -- because he can't let go the part that is about himself and he's upset with anybody who doesn't also see it though the same lens.
BLITZER: If you're a -- if you're a lieutenant general, a three star general, and the commander in chief ridicules, embarrasses you like that publically, you've got to draw some conclusions and decide whether it's time to move on.
DEMIRJIAN: But the question for a lot of these generals is one of, you know, am I doing any good here? Can I get any further? Or is it duty to country? I mean like it's -- a lot of these people that are around president Trump and his national security circle see the danger of leaving and having somebody who comes in as a yes man, right? And so the question is, what's the balancing act there? Their own efficacy or what else might be there, which may not be, you know, as much of a --
BLITZER: That's -- that's one of the reasons a lot of these people are staying, because they think they've got to do it for the country, to protect the country from the commander in chief, from the president of the United States. And that's a pretty extraordinary statement in and of itself.
All right, guys, everybody stand by.
There's more news we're following. A former FBI official is standing by to join us as well on the president's suggesting that the agency missed the tip on the killer because of the Russia investigation.
Plus, one of the president's former campaign advisers reportedly set to plead guilty and testify against the campaign's former -- the campaign's former chairman. What will Rick Gates give to Robert Mueller? Stand by.
[13:28:04] BLITZER: A reported plea deal by a former Trump presidential campaign aide is upping the ante right now in the Russia investigation. "The Los Angeles Times" is reporting that Rick Gates has agreed to testify against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and will plead guilty to fraud-related charges. This would be a flip for Gates back in October. He and Manafort pleaded not guilty to the charges. We're told the decision comes down to family, the high price of legal costs, among other issues.
Mueller's investigation, by the way, has already secured guilty pleas and cooperation from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, who worked on the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser.
Let's discuss this with my next guest. Richard Ben-Veniste is back with us, a former prosecutor himself during Watergate.
So let's talk about this flip, this plea deal. How significant is that?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, FORMER WATERGATE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: Very significant. And it shows that Mr. Trump's celebratory tweets about the indictment just handed down were premature. I mean this investigation continues. And quite clearly Gates will testify against Paul Manafort and that will put increasing pressure on Manafort, who was a campaign chair. All of this will go to the question of the annexation in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia and all of the efforts by the Russians to nullify the sanctions and to keep the United States from exercising appropriate actions to curb Russian intentions.
BLITZER: Usually when there's a flip like this, when there's a plea deal, the defendant in this particular case gets a reduced sentence --
BEN-VENISTE: Of course.
BLITZER: In exchange for full cooperation. The prosecution, Mueller and his team, they get useful information they could use for bigger fish. [13:30:01] BEN-VENISTE: Exactly. And Mueller's indictment just
returned against the Russians is something under normal circumstances under which we don't live now.