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Gates to Plead Guilty, Testify Against Manafort; Trump Suggests FBI Missed Tip Because of Focus on Russia; Community Leader Counsels Grieving Families; North Korea Ready for Dialogue & War as Tillerson Gives Blunt Assessment. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 19, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: The prosecution, Mueller and his team, they get useful information they could use for bigger fish.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, FORMER SPECIAL COUNSEL: Exactly. And Mueller's indictment, just returned against the Russians, is something under normal circumstances, under which we don't live now, Congress would have the obligation and opportunity to explain to the American public what the Russians did. Now we know, in chapter and verse, in very fine detail what the Russians did to interfere with the election. That's chapter one. What else did they do? There's nothing that speaks to the hacking of the DNC e-mails and the exploitation of that information to be used in the election process, and particularly against Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: So you think this charge, this indictment, is going to lead to that?

BEN-VENISTE: I believe that this is the St. Petersburg, if you could call it that, group of Russians. What's very important about it is that, quite clearly, they were directed at the very top by Putin or his closest aides to do what they did. What else did they do at the direction of Putin? And that remains to be seen. That will be the subject of further inquiry and perhaps indictments, further conspiracies, or in addition to the conspiracy that's already been returned. That conspiracy talks about conspirators known and unknown to the grand jury.

BLITZER: More to come.

Richard Ben-Veniste, thank you for coming in.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Several student survivors calling it's disgusting that the president of the United States suggested the FBI missed a tip on the school shooter because the agency is spending too much time on the Russia investigation. I'll speak live with a former top FBI official. We'll get his reaction.

Also, we'll talk to one community leader who has been counseling grieving families about what they're going through right now five days after the murderous attack.


[13:36:13] BLITZER: President Trump says FBI agents were so busy with the Russia investigation that they missed a tip about the Florida school shooter. The FBI Director Christopher Wray says the bureau is still investigating what went wrong. He expressed the agency's regret for, quote, "The additional pain this causes those affected by this horrific tragedy."

Joining us now for some insight is Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director for the Criminal Investigative Division.

Chris, thanks so much for joining us.

Let me get your reaction to the president's criticism. Is it accurate that the Russian investigation distracted from the FBI agents down in south Florida following up on a tip about the school shooter?

CHRIS SWECKER, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: No, it's nonsense. Those two things are totally unrelated. He knows better than that. It's just another opportunity to flail at the FBI and try to undermine the FBI and their credibility. Having said that, something very bad went wrong at the FBI's tip line.

BLITZER: Clearly, something went wrong, and they should investigate to make sure it doesn't happen again.


BLITZER: And learn from this. But why do you think the president is doing what he's doing right now, saying that the Russia probe is wasting too much time, money, energy, and as a result, these failures, the tip line failure, for example, occur?

SWECKER: This is pure politics. The FBI is in his crosshairs. There is 38,000 men and women in the FBI, and every one of them will tell you that this was a chance for intervention, and it didn't happen. They're taking the responsibility for it. But the president right now is playing politics with this issue. And that's not going to do anything to help solve the problem. Not a bit.

BLITZER: What's your reaction to the failure in this tip line to take the appropriate steps that potentially could have prevented in massacre from occurring?

SWECKER: We know there were a lot of opportunities. You would be hard put to find another case where there were more opportunities to intervene here, and this was just one of a series of them. But I can explain why it happened. I can't justify why it happened. These tips go to a facility in West Virginia where a lot of the FBI's criminal records and fingerprint records are kept and processed. It happened in 2012. They centralized all the tip line calls to one place where they have a cadre of analysts who field those calls. They're supposed to triage them and either action them or send them to the field office or the police department where they need to be actioned. So the process simply broke down here. We don't know where -- we know where, but we don't know why, and that needs to be fixed as soon as possible. BLITZER: It certainly does.

The mistake by the FBI prompted the Florida governor, Rick Scott, to call for the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray's resignation. What's your reaction, first of all, to that?

SWECKER: Again, playing politics with something that we should be getting at trying to fix the problem here. Chris Wray has been the director for six months. He's been drinking from a fire hose ever since he sat down in that chair. This is something that obviously does need to be addressed because it's an important function of the FBI, but Chris Wray doesn't need to resign over this. Now that he's aware that there is an issue here, I guarantee you he'll be in there fixing that. There is an inspection staff camped out in West Virginia right now looking at the process, and hopefully, we'll come up with a much more efficient process.

[13:39:45] BLITZER: I'm sure they will do that exactly.

All right, Chris. Thanks very much, Chris Swecker, joining us to discuss this latest development.

Coming up, as President Trump prepares to meet with survivors of the Florida school shooting, he's facing significant criticism over his inflammatory tweets about the FBI's handling of tips before the shooting. I'll talk to a rabbi who is counseling grieving families in south Florida right now, and ask how the community is reacting to the president's tweets.


BLITZER: Students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are calling for more action on gun control. They're planning a trip to the Florida state legislature later this week, and they have school walkouts and a march planned next month. One student telling lawmakers, quote, "You're either with us or against us."

In Washington, other students held a protest in front of the White House earlier today. Watch this.




BLITZER: Seventeen protestors representing the 17 victims staged a lie-in, in solidarity of the Florida teens who are demanding changes to gun laws.

I want to bring in Rabbi Avraham Friedman into the conversation. He was at the family reunification center following the shootings. He's the rabbi of Chabad of Coral Springs.

Rabbi, first, tell us the families you're dealing with. I understand four of the students who were killed were Jewish, one of the adults was Jewish, five of the 17, and you've been counseling their families. How are they doing?

[13:45:28] AVRAHAM FRIEDMAN, RABBI & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CHABAD OF CORAL SPRINGS: Of course, as can be understood, it's really tough. And as you mentioned, I've been counseling the families as well as my fellow rabbis and all the people here in the community have been just amazing. I know I personally have basically been with families, and more particularly with one individual family nonstop since this horrible tragedy has occurred.

BLITZER: We've heard some of the students criticizing President Trump's tweets where he blames the FBI for missing tips over the shooter. They say those tweets are offensive. Have the grieving families, the folks you've been speaking to, are they reacting to that? What do they say?

FRIEDMAN: Wolf, my position as a clergy, I have to be careful, and my position is to comfort the families, to be there for them, to help them in prayer, and that's really -- and in our community, we have grieving people with a lot of different opinions, passionately so, which is fine. I don't want to alienate any of those families. With all my heart, I am here to support and help the families in their time of grief.

BLITZER: Which is understandable. That's your mission as a rabbi.

You've been in close contact, I understand, Rabbi, with one family in particular over these past several days. Walk us through how this family has reacted. You don't have to mention any names.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, I will not, due to respect for the family. But from Wednesday evening, I got a text message, which I will remember -- I use the example like 9/11, it's something that is etched in your mind. I got a text message saying, Rabbi, I think they murdered my daughter. That was so horrifying. And I just picked up the phone and said, I'm coming right over, which we did, and made sure -- by Jewish law we wanted to make sure the victim was treated with great respect, which was, of course, very comforting and important to the family. Following that, the clergy, rabbis, organized a vigil, which had amazing attendance. I'm standing there and I'm seeing those kids in front of me, those young kids, innocent, pure, and so traumatized and brokenhearted. They came face to face with such horrifying evil and they're looking to us for guidance. I really feel both to honor the deceased, we have a lot of passionate debate going on in this country, and that's very, very healthy and necessary. But please, if we could stop with the hateful discord. That is not an honor for those who have fallen. Let's really -- different people have different responses. They're all fantastic responses. We just met with the governor. As clergymen, my response is, as well as my fellow rabbis is, in terms of dealing with gun safety, which is also very important, let's be proactive with a sense of bringing safety to our children and also bringing more morality. Let's bring a God, let's bring moral value back into the schools in a way that we could all agree upon. In a more specific way, we proposed to the governor to bring a moment of silence and meditation in the morning when you start the day. Everyone could choose how they want to use that moment of silence. But once people start meditating on something greater than them, they'll have questions. They can bring those questions to their clergy members or teachers or parents. Then, if you have a troubled student, you deal with the issue at its early stages. These are some of the things we have proposed to the governor.

We have a wall we put up at the rally in Parkland. We put up a wall, three walls of goodness, you know, posts of goodness that people could post. There are thousands of notes there that people have posted. Everybody, their own choice, but that they could express acts of goodness. There is no way of dealing with darkness than by adding and channeling it to so much great light. I know, Wolf, you know I'm a student of (INAUDIBLE). And we cannot change the past, we cannot change what happened, but we can take the energy of that and turn that grief into -- and definitely honor those who have fallen into positive action that will change society at its core, that we have students that are better human beings. That's what we have imparted to the governor. He was very intuitive. I'm sorry. He was -- he really listened. I think that would be a tremendous positive direction for us to achieve.

[13:50:29] BLITZER: Rabbi Avraham Friedman, thank you so much. Thanks for helping the families, 17 families mourning right now. Our deepest condolences go out to all of those families. Thanks for joining us.

Rabbi Avraham Friedman is the rabbi for Chabad of Coral Springs down there in south Florida.

By the way, join CNN Wednesday night for a special town hall with students and parents affected by the Parkland school shooting. Jake Tapper will moderate the event. It starts at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

As nuclear tensions rise between the U.S. and North Korea, Kim Jong- Un's regime with a brand-new statement emerging and a brand-new warning, as the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives a rather blunt assessment of the North Korean threat. Stand by. We'll be right back.


[13:55:44] BLITZER: North Korea is ready for, quote, "dialogue and war," according to the state-run media. The comments made in a blistering editorial less than a week after the sister of Kim Jong-Un visited and met with South Korea's president. The state media also accused the United States of trying to stifle the warming of relations between the two Koreas.

Meanwhile, in an interview with "60 Minutes," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. may be willing to potentially negotiate with the North Korean leader.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, that's who we'll have to work with to achieve this diplomatically. What we have to determine now is are we even ready to start? Are they ready to start? If they are not, we'll just keep the pressure campaign under way. And we'll increase the pressure. We are doing that every month. There are new sanctions rolled out. The world wants North Korea to change. We are not using the carrot to convince them to talk. We are using large sticks. That's what they need to understand. This pressure campaign is putting, is having its bite on North Korea, its revenue streams. It's having a bite on its military programs.


BLITZER: Let's go to our CNN International correspondent, Will Ripley, joining us from Pyeongchang, South Korea, right now.

Will, what else did North Korea say and what prompted the latest comments?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Interesting messaging coming from the North Koreans, Wolf. On one hand, they say they are ready for dialogue. Now probably that wouldn't mean direct communication or negotiations with the United States. My diplomatic sources close to North Korea say, initially, any message from the U.S. Would be probably passed to the South Koreans and the South Koreans would deliver the message to the North Koreans because the two countries have been talking now. Of course, their relations seem to be improving after Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of Kim Jong-Un, came for the Olympics opening ceremony. We don't know who North Korea will send to the closing ceremonies.

The North Koreans are also say they are ready for war with the United States. They are looking down the horizon after the Olympics and there are troubling things to the North Koreans. One, the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea that are expected to kick off some time in April. North Korea calls that a wild act. They consider those military drills, even though they are perfectly legal under international laws, unlike North Korea's nuclear program, they say the military exercises are a dress rehearsal for invasion. More troubling to the North Koreans are what they view as repeated hints from President Trump and members of his administration that if diplomacy didn't work, the United States would consider the "bloody nose" option, some sort of a preemptive strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities. North Korea making it clear if the United States were to conduct military action, they would, quote, in their words, "inflict resolute and merciless punishment." So the message from the North Koreans is they are willing to talk, but if they feel the United States puts them in a corner or provokes them, they say they'll strike back militarily, threats we have heard before. But we also have a Kim Jong-Un, a North Korean leader, with more nuclear weapons than he's ever had before, and he's displayed those weapons just on the eve of the Olympics.

BLITZER: Yes, he did.

Any indication when a South Korean delegation might be headed to Pyongyang, to North Korea for a continuation of this dialogue? RIPLEY: President Moon accepted Kim Jong-Un's offer of a potential

summit on principle. But of course, he was speaking with reporters in the last couple of days. I met with him, shook his hand. He told a group of reporters in Pyeongchang it was too soon to think about when he might be going. What I'm hearing, Wolf, is what might be more likely is North Korea extends an invitation for a special envoy from South Korea to visit Pyongyang, perhaps some time in April during the time the joint military exercises are due to take place. If that special envoy went during the joint military drills, that could calm the situation or maybe a meeting would happen after the drills. We need to see is will the drills will be large in scale or if the U.S. and South Korea will try to tone them down, reduce the size or at least reduce the image of them to try to make sure the North Koreans don't feel threatened by them.

BLITZER: Will Ripley reporting for us. Thank you very much. We'll stay on top of the story for sure.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back at 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

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