Return to Transcripts main page


Another Guilty Plea in Russia Probe; Gun Control Debate; White House Press Briefing. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 20, 2018 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: If we have them, these new polls coming in from Quinnipiac on guns.


BALDWIN: And it -- two numbers I want to highlight; 66 percent of those polled support stricter gun laws in this country. That's actually, I'm told, the highest number for this particular poll.

And here is the next number. And this is a big one; 97 percent -- look at that -- 97 percent support universal background checks.

How much of a -- what do we want to call it, predicament, an interesting spot does this put Republicans?

GANGEL: I think that it speaks to exactly what we have been saying.

The number, 97 percent...

BALDWIN: It's huge.

GANGEL: Huge. Where are those other 3 percent?

It's common sense. And yet we have seen this time and time again. You and I were talking the other day about Columbine and Sandy Hook, and these numbers rise. And then you go to Capitol Hill and you can't...

BALDWIN: Get anything done.

GANGEL: Get anything done.

I think -- we were talking earlier about being skeptical about whether something will happen. But I do think we're at a different moment here.

And I am blown away by those high school kids. I think it's just been remarkable to see them. It's a different playbook than we have seen in the past.

BALDWIN: Standing there in Parkland a couple of days ago, I have covered a lot of these. And I think when so many people kept saying, my gosh, if first-graders, 6- and 7-year-olds, if something isn't done as a result of that, then nothing could ever be done.

But those 6- and 7-year-olds were too young, obviously, to speak up for themselves. And to hear these 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds speak up in a way I just don't I had ever actually truly seen something like that before. And here they are, en route to talk to these lawmakers and ask for specifics.

And at least these lawmakers are giving them the time of day to listen to them.

Stand by, because, guys, do we have Jeff Zeleny? I want to go to the White House if we do.

There he is, Jeff Zeleny at the White House ahead of this huge briefing, again, the first time we're hearing from Sarah Sanders after so many things have happened right in the course of the last couple of days.

What are your biggest questions?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, so many questions, without a doubt, of course, Russia and everything that falls from that indictment on Friday and certainly since the Russia investigation.

Also, though, most importantly, as you and Jamie were just talking about, about guns. There's one different person, one different player in this equation here in Washington, in a debate we have seen time and time again. That new player is President Trump.

Will he take a leadership position and role with his party? He has sort of the history of being on both sides of this. Before he joined politics, before he ran for office, he was in favor of some type of a ban on assault weapons.

Now, of course, he changed his position during the campaign. Of course, guns a topic. But, again, so much else is out there. We know what is on the president's mind. He has been tweeting fast and furiously.

I was in Palm Beach with him over the weekend when he was supposed to be sort of getting a break at Mar-a-Lago over Presidents Day. Boy, tweeting up a storm, as we've been talking about for the last couple days.


ZELENY: But the tweet this morning I think in particular saying that he has done more than the Obama administration, that needs to be unpacked a little bit there and fact-checked with the White House press secretary.

And then, of course, the president commenting on "The Washington Post" story. Why did he decide to seize on that? What was it about that that got his attention? We know he likes to read the hard copy newspapers. For an old newspaper reporter like myself, I like the fact that he's reading newspapers, but certainly interesting that he seized on that story of Rachel Crooks in "The Washington Post" this morning.

So, so many things to ask Sarah Sanders about. Unfortunately, because this briefing has been put off again and again, not much time, because the president is set to speak in about half-an-hour or so at a law enforcement event in the East Room of the White House.

So, it's one of my suspicions, Brooke, that they're delaying this a little bit to shorten the length of this news conference -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: That's unfortunate, Jeff Zeleny, because there is a lot to get to.

Thank you so much.

ZELENY: So much. Sure.

BALDWIN: I have still got Jamie with me.

But, Gloria Borger, let me bring you in, and just on the most -- what seems to be most on the president's mind, because this has been what's so all over, right, his Twitter page, is Russia.

And one of the biggest questions to me, again, I ask, why does the president refuse to condemn Russia, even after these indictments that came down on Friday for election meddling?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think, at first, he was told by people close to him that this was good for him, because these indictments against these Russians, in these indictments, Bob Mueller stated that there were some -- quote -- "unwitting" participants.


And the president could then say, aha, there was no conclusion. I think, however, the more this played out and people said, look, this is just the first layer of the onion here, the more upset the president got with the coverage.

And to answer your question, I don't know the answer to your question. I don't know why. I don't know why the president can never get from A to B when it comes to Russia. I don't know why the president is not going out there and saying to the nation, look at what the special counsel has uncovered. This is a country that has effectively declared war on our democracy, and we as a nation...


BALDWIN: Are going to do something about it.

BORGER: ... something about it, instead of acting like he is being backed up against a wall and that he doesn't want this to continue.

And then he had to defend himself and say, I never said it was a hoax, when, of course, he did say it was a hoax. So, he just is having a very difficult time processing what Mueller is actually going to do.

And I think that's why we're seeing this series of tweets that we saw over the weekend, that and the fact that he didn't go play golf.

BALDWIN: Well...

BORGER: Enough.

BALDWIN: Until Monday morning, when young people were being buried miles away from him, but I digress.



BALDWIN: Let me bring in Tony Blinken. He is our CNN global affairs analyst who served as deputy secretary of state, deputy national security adviser for former President Obama, who President Trump seems to tweet a whole heck of a lot about in the last couple of days.

So, Tony Blinken, nice to see you, sir.

I mean, what is your response to the president's claim that he is tougher than his predecessor on Russia?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, if by tough, you mean repeatedly praising Mr Putin, refusing to implement sanctions the Congress has imposed, and repeatedly denying that Russia had anything to do with meddling in the elections, well, I guess that's tough, but that's not my definition.

But, Brooke, we have a real -- a fundamental problem here. Why the president continues to try to get around this, it's hard to know. It could be that Mr. Putin has something on him. It could be that he simply fears that any acknowledgement delegitimizes his election or it could be genuinely believes Russia didn't have anything to do with the election, even though virtually everyone in the country, including all of our intelligence agencies, have made it clear that they did.

But here's the problem. It's not just the fact that he won't talk about it and denies it. It's that he's abdicating any leadership in doing something about it, and even worse, every single day, he's colluding with Mr. Putin's objectives.

Putin who is trying to sow division the United States and undermine confidence in our institutions. Every time the president attacks the FBI, the Justice Department, the intelligence community, the media, the courts, you name it, he is doing Putin's bidding for him.

BALDWIN: Thomas Friedman -- I don't have you seen this -- Thomas Friedman has said this is a full on code red alert, that whatever Trump is hiding is hurting every single one of us.

Why do you personally think the president refuses to condemn the Russians, especially after indictments came down Friday?

BLINKEN: You know, Brooke, I honestly don't know.

Again, it may be that he really has something to hide that Mr. Putin has something on him. That could be. And Mr. Mueller will find out if it's the case. But it's also entirely possible that he genuinely fears that any acknowledgement of Russian involvement in the elections somehow undermines his own legitimacy.

But the point is, he is now commander in chief. And we're not talking about 2016 we're talking about 2020.


BALDWIN: We're talking about right now, right?

BLINKEN: And right now. And he is abdicating his responsibility to lead on what is a critical issue to our national security and maybe more fundamentally to our democracy.

BALDWIN: Straight up, Tony Blinken, why can't Trump quit Obama?


BLINKEN: Look, it's all part of our distracting and pointing the finger at someone else.

But remember this, Brooke. President Obama did take on the Russians on this issue. He confronted Putin personally and directly in China during the G20 meeting his. His own director of homeland security and national intelligence gave an unprecedented statement. Unfortunately, it was the same day that the "Access Hollywood" tapes broke.

Meanwhile, what was Mr. Trump doing? Despite being told by the intelligence community in July before the election that Russia was trying to interfere, he was calling on Russia to spread more of the information it had pilfered about Mrs. Clinton.

He was asking people hundreds of times to look at WikiLeaks. He was asking for Russian help in getting dirt on Mrs. Clinton. Witness the meeting at Trump Tower.

So, President Obama did take a tough line on Russia. President Trump was adding fuel to the fire.

BALDWIN: Now, Obama did famously criticize his own predecessor, but not quite like this.

Obviously, I don't have President Obama on speed dial, like maybe you do, sir. I mean, what is the former president's thinking?


Do you think that there is a time when he will just say, enough is enough and speak out?

BLINKEN: Look, I can't speak for former President Obama. I think, as you know, he and certainly Mrs. Obama have said repeatedly, when they go, we go high. And I think he very much respects the general principle that presidents try -- former presidents try not to engage in politics or speak ill of their successors.

BALDWIN: You think he can keep sitting on his fingers?

BLINKEN: Look, knowing President Obama, I suspect the answer is yes.

But on the other hand, he's being impugned on a regular basis with outright lies. But, of course, this is nothing new. After all, President Trump is the one who led the birther conspiracy about President Obama for years.


Tony Blinken, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate you.

And just a reminder. We're watching and waiting for this White House briefing to begin. Again, it is late. And they're up against this huge Medal of Valor ceremony in the East Room in about 20 minutes from now.

How will they squeeze it in? We're waiting. We will be right back.



BALDWIN: Memo to the White House. You cannot avoid us. Stop trying to dodge us. This briefing needs to begin. It was supposed to begin an hour and 15 minutes ago, and then it was supposed to begin 25 minutes ago. There is a lot to talk about.

And we need to see Sarah Sanders behind that podium.

Jeff Zeleny and Gloria Borger are with me.

And I think it's entirely fair, Jeff Zeleny, to be tough on this White House, because there are so many things they need to answer for before this ceremony at the half-hour.

ZELENY: Well, Brooke, so many questions that it would be impossible to really fit them all into one briefing, certainly in the amount of time that will be allotted this afternoon.

It has been exactly a week since there was a White House briefing, of course, the intervening events in Florida, the Parkland shooting. That was understandable, but not having a briefing on time today, it really has become something that this White House has done again and again.

Now, one thing that could be happening, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders often brings out a member of the administration, or the Cabinet or an official to answer questions on a variety -- or on a subject that's not on the top of the news.

She did that last bring. She brought out the transportation, Elaine Chao, out. I do not know if she will bring out an official with her to take questions on a different matter here. That certainly is always a possibility.

One other thing to keep in mind. Last Wednesday, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, was scheduled to do the White House briefing, to answer some of these questions about the ongoing scandal with the staff secretary and security clearances.

In the wake of the shooting, of course, they did not have that briefing. But some of those questions remain, but, Brooke, so many questions. Again, impossible to answer and ask all of them in one single afternoon, let alone an abbreviated version of this briefing.

BALDWIN: Gloria, what's this all about?

BORGER: Look, it's hard to know.

There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. It's clear they don't want to answer them. Maybe there's a possibility that they are actually going to say something about guns, for example. Maybe the president, having spoken with people like Senator Cornyn, et cetera, over the weekend, they maybe actually the White House is going to say, look, this is where we want to go on background checks or bump stocks.

And so it may be -- that would be one thing you could consider.

But, honestly, Brooke, we don't know the answer to this.

The truth is, there's so many questions that we still have, going back to John Kelly and the whole Rob Porter issue, and going through the Mueller incitements. And I think that that it behooves the White House to stand there and answer these questions, and not have an abbreviated 10-minute -- 10-minute session.

BALDWIN: Which is looking like what it will be. My eyes are on the clock.

BORGER: Unless it gets postponed again.

BALDWIN: Unless it does.

Stand by, guys. Thank you so much.

I want to get to some breaking news as we wait for Sarah Sanders here. This lawyer connected to former Trump campaign Rick Gates is in court right now, expected to plead guilty to lying to investigators in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

His name is Alex van der Zwaan. He's this attorney, the son of a Russian billionaire, who is one of the prominent businessmen in all of Russia. He was recently named in the Treasury Department's list of Russian oligarchs. He worked for Gates, the right-hand man that Trump's former campaign

chairman, Paul Manafort. And now this expected guilty plea is crucial, because it adds to mounting evidence about book Trump campaign officials' work and with Russian allies.

So, CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz has is in D.C. on this.

What's the story behind the guilty plea? What does it mean big picture for this whole Russia investigation?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're hoping to find some of that out.

There is -- as you said, there's the plea hearing that's under way now, we're told, limited communications, because it is happening in federal court. So, we're waiting for our reporters and producers to get back to.

We don't know how really right now how it plays into the larger investigation. As you said, what he's accused of, what he's expected to plead guilty to is lying to the special counsel team about communications, about interactions he had with Rick Gates during the campaign.

Exactly why he lied to investigators about those communications, what those communications were about, we don't know.

The other interesting thing here is, we're waiting to find out if he's cooperating with the special counsel investigation. All of that hopefully will come out in this plea hearing that understand is now under way, and hopefully within the next half-hour or so we should have some answers.


BALDWIN: We will wait for that, but this is also is after this potential plea deal between Gates and Mueller's team.

What new details can you tell me about that?


That plea agreement, we have been told, is supposed to happen sometime soon. It seems to have hit a snag. We don't know what the issue is there.

We're waiting to find out. But, you know, as we've been reporting for now over a week, Rick Gates has been in communication with -- in talks with the special counsel about cooperating. In fact, he's been in to see the special counsel team, has proffered what they call a proffer, has told them everything he knows about crimes that were committed or his and certainly his involvement in some of the crimes that he's charged with.

That occurred within the last month or so. That's what we're told by sources. And we were told that his plea should happen in the coming days or so. But for some reason, also again, as with everything with this story, with this case, with this investigation, you just never know.

And little pieces always seem to come out at unexpected times.

BALDWIN: Shimon, thank you very much.

Also, just a quick note to you watching. Want to tell you about this really special event we're having here on CNN tomorrow. The students of Stoneman Douglas High School will speak out to demand action tomorrow night.

Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson have agreed to come and hear them out, "Stand Up," a live CNN town hall hosted by Jake Tapper, starts at 9:00 tomorrow night.

And the White House briefing moments away, we think.



BALDWIN: All right, we were just talking about this just in.

A lawyer a linked to a former top Trump campaign adviser pleading guilty moments ago on charges that he lied about his interactions with said adviser.

Special counsel Robert Mueller, of course, issued this charge.

So let's go first to Jessica Schneider, who just left that court there in the D.C. Shimon is still back with me here.

But, Jessica, first to you. What happened?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, the attorney there, Alex van der Zwaan, pleading guilty to this charge of making false statements to the special prosecutor's investigators, as it relates to his communications with Rick Gates just a few months before the election, in 2016.

We know that Alex van der Zwaan, with this guilty plea, he faces up to five years in prison. But the real question is here, has he been cooperating with Mueller's team? Will he cooperate with Mueller's team?

And if he does cooperate, what information will he give them? And what will that mean for any potential sentence? As I mentioned, the maximum here for this guilty plea for providing these false statements to investigators is five years.

Of course, Alex van der Zwaan, he is associated, connected with Paul Manafort, as well as Rick Gates. In particular, we know that Alex van der Zwaan worked as an attorney for the prominent law firm Skadden, Arps. And it was back in 2012 that van der Zwaan worked with this team of

attorneys to draft this report that was actually used by allies of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in justifying their jailing of a political opponent.

Of course, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, it was some of their lobbying work that led to their indictments at the end of October, their lobbying work for Ukrainian government. Of course, money laundering charges as well.

The question is, what exactly does this attorney know about the campaign itself? We know that he was communicating with Rick Gates during the campaign, just a few months before the election. And that is what he lied about to investigators.

He pled guilty to it today. So, Brooke, a lot of questions here. And now, interestingly as well, this will be the fourth person who has pled guilty in this probe. We've seen Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos. There was also another side player that pled guilty in association with that indictment of those 13 Russian nationals.

But now we have this fourth person. So, will this further put the pressure on Paul Manafort? He has pled not guilty in this case and he could be the biggest fish so far. What happens from here with this guilty plea, that is the question -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Shimon, on the big fish being Paul Manafort, do you think the pressure, especially with this latest guilty plea, will that be effective?

PROKUPECZ: It all depends on what information this attorney could provide. We don't exactly know yet.

We have a producer in court. We're waiting to find out. Once we have that, hopefully we will be able to dive into it.

BALDWIN: Oh, Shimon, here we go.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Last week, while many around the country celebrated Valentine's Day, a deranged killer murderer killed 17 people and injured at least 15 more at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

As you all saw, the president visited the hospital and sheriff's department in Broward County last week. He and the first lady spent time with some of the victims who were recovering, thanked the doctors for their work and praised the bravery of law enforcement and first- responders.

Here at the White House, the victims and families have constantly been in our thoughts and prayers. We've prayed for the recovery of those injured and for peace and comfort for the families of those who were lost. Our broken hearts are filled with gratitude as we heard the stories of incredible heroism. Fifteen-year-old Anthony Borges was shot five times while he used his body as a human shield for his classmates. He remains in the hospital in recovery.

Anthony, thank you for your courage. We're all rooting for you.

Assistant football coach Aaron Feis shielded students from a hail of gunfire, selflessly giving his own life to save others.

Teacher Scott Beigel was barricaded in his classroom, but chose to open his door to let students run into safety. That decision cost Scott his life, but saved the lives of so many others.

Numerous other teachers sheltered students in their classrooms.

Tomorrow, we will be hosting parents, teachers and students here at the White House to discuss efforts to ensure safety at our schools.