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Trump Blames Obama; Mueller Charges Lawyer; Florida Students to Meet Lawmakers; Trump Wont' Condemn Russia. Trump Dresses Down National Security Adviser. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 20, 2018 - 13:00   ET


Trump Blames Obama; Mueller Charges Lawyer; Student Survivors Meet Lawmakers>


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

They attacked America's election and by all accounts are doing it again right now.

But despite all the proof that's been put out there, the president of the United States still refusing to condemn the Russians. Instead he's attacking many others, including his predecessor.

On the move. Students, many who survived the Florida school shooting, are leading the charge for tougher gun laws. The question now is, will Congress and the president act?

And breaking news in the Russia investigation. The special counsel charging a lawyer linked to a former Trump campaign adviser with lying. What this signals for the rest of the president's campaign team. All that coming up.

But up first, President Trump attacks former President Barack Obama over Russia election meddling, while the president has yet to confront Russia or condemn Vladimir Putin.

The president pointed fingers at the Obama administration, tweeting this. I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama. Just look at the facts.

In an earlier post he tweeted, quote, "Obama was president up to and beyond the 2016 election, so why didn't he do something about Russian meddling?" Close quote.

In fact, President Obama personally warned Putin against interfering with the election, imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and entities, expelled 35 Russian diplomats, and closed two Russian diplomatic compounds here in the United States. On the other hand, Trump refuses to condemn Russian interference and has not imposed sanctions overwhelmingly approved by the House and the Senate, signed into law by the president himself.

Let's bring in our White House Reporter Kaitlan Collins. She's over at the White House.

Kaitlan, so what's behind the president's latest refusal to call out Russia and instead condemn his predecessor, President Obama?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, the president says he's been much tougher on Russia than Obama ever was.

But that's just simply not the case here. Because for well over a year here that Trump has been in office, he has repeatedly dogged the subject of Russian interference in the election, calling it phony, a witch hunt, fake news and a hoax. So, those are those things.

But then, he's also given weight to these denials by Vladimir Putin that Russia meddled in the election as well.

Now, two of the White House press secretaries were on television today, saying they're not going to telegraph what the president's moves are going to be to punish Russia.

But the question is, why won't he at least condemn what they did and what we saw in that stunning indictment by the special counsel on Friday?

And the bottom line, to answer your question there, Wolf, the president believes that any admission that Russia did interfere in the 2016 president election is essentially undermining his win, his legitimacy in the fact that he is president now.

BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins over at the White House. Thanks very much.

We're also following another important development on the Russia investigation here in Washington. The special counsel, Robert Mueller, is charging a lawyer named Alex Vanderzwaan with lying to investigators about his contacts with former Trump campaign official, Rick Gates, back in September of 2016.

He's expected, by the way, to enter a guilty plea in court later this afternoon.

Our Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider is outside the courthouse here in Washington.

Jessica, what specifically is this lawyer now accused of doing?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, quite simply, Wolf, Alex Vanderzwaan is charged with providing false statements to the special counsel's office, as it pertains to his communications with Rick Gates, who, of course, was the former deputy campaign chairman for the Trump campaign. But rather than the charges, themselves, it might actually be who Alex

Vanderzwaan is and what he knows that might be of most value to the special counsel.

So, Alex Vanderzwaan, up until very recently, was a lawyer at the prominent law firm, Skadden Arps. He was terminated in September 2017. Skadden says that they've been cooperating with authorities.

But, interestingly, around that same time that he was terminated from his law firm, he actually married into a prominent Russian family. He married the daughter of German Khan. German Khan is a very prominent businessman in Russia. He was recently named to the top oligarch list.

And he's also -- he's a billionaire in Russia. And he's also the co- founder of Alfa Group, so that's significant as well.

In addition, back in 2012, Alex Vanderzwaan actually authored a report that was commissioned by Paul Manafort. This report was used by allies of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to actually justify jailing one of their political rivals.

So, we know that Vanderzwaan does have this connection to Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Of course, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, in their indictment that was issued back in late October, that all relates to their lobbying work for this pro-Russian-Ukrainian government as well as some money laundering charges as well.

[13:05:00] So, the interesting thing here, could this -- could these charges against Alex Vanderzwaan -- and his appearance in just about an hour and a half right here in district court. Could that further play into the special counsel's probe? And could this put additional pressure on Paul Manafort since this might be yet another person in his orbit who might potentially be willing to work with the special counsel?

Of course, our team has reported that when it comes to Rick Gates, he's been in talks, plea negotiations with the special counsel's office for at least a month now. He could as well be close to a plea deal.

So, Wolf, the name, Alex Vanderzwaan, seems to have come out of nowhere. He may be a big player in this, but the significance of it is that he could potentially offer some crucial information, perhaps, to the special counsel.

We will see him in court today at 2:30. He is expected to plead guilty -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll follow that together with you, Jessica. Thank you. Jessica Schneider is at the federal courthouse here in Washington.

CNN has also learned that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, his interest in President Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is expanding beyond just his Russian contacts. Sources tell CNN Mueller's investigation now includes Kushner's efforts to secure financing for his company from various foreign investors during the presidential transition.

Mueller's investigators have been asking questions about Kushner's attempts to find financing for a huge New York City real estate property that was having serious financial troubles.

Kushner was a lead contact to foreign governments during the Trump transition and now he's a senior adviser to the president.

Let's get some perspective on all these late-breaking Russian developments. Joining us, we have our CNN Political Commentator Amanda Carpenter is with us, CNN Political Analyst April Ryan, and our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

First, Gloria, on Mueller, the special counsel. He's charging this lawyer, Alex Vanderzwaan, a major Washington law firm, Skadden Arps, with lying to investigators. He's expected to plead guilty later this afternoon. That's sending a very powerful signal

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. Mueller is sending a very strong signal, don't lie to him. And don't try and defraud the government of the United States. Period.

It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter what law firm you might have worked for, and he no longer is with Skadden Arps, Skadden Arps has told us.

BLITZER: They let him go last year.

BORGER: Yes. But Mueller -- you know, Mueller is making it very clear to everybody that if you lie to -- if you lie to me, I'm going to call you out on it.

And that seems to be exactly what he is doing here. And, as Jessica said, yes, this can also aid him in his investigation into Rick Gates and to Paul Manafort, obviously.

But, first and foremost, I think this sends a very strong signal to anybody who's going before the special counsel.

BLITZER: April, it does send a very strong signal, especially to Paul Manafort who's pleading not guilty.


BLITZER: So far, Rick Gates is expected to plead guilty, cop a plea, flip, cooperate with the investigators. Manafort not yet.

But The pressure is building on him to do the same. And their hope -- Mueller's hope in the team is that if he does cooperate, others could be implicated.

RYAN: Yes, other -- when you flip and when you plead guilty or when you do a plea bargain, it's to get someone higher. And who's higher, you know, beyond -- and the question is, you know, what's Manafort seeing when he sees this? What is he thinking?

Because this is now getting -- the tentacles of this are spreading out more so. You're seeing people who are allegedly lying and being indicted or charged, what have you.

This is something very serious that Manafort is looking at. But also, for those who are now in the broader scope, and we know who they are, they could actually flip and say something against Manafort or someone even higher to keep themselves out of trouble.

This investigation is continuing. It's not stopping. Even as the president has made it clear he doesn't like it and he wants there to be change. Manafort has got to really question what's going on and what he's doing and what he has done in the midst of all of this.

BLITZER: You know, Amanda, let me switch gears because I want to show our viewers some live pictures we're getting in from Florida. There's a whole bunch of students getting ready to board that bus headed over to Tallahassee.

They're protesting right now what happened last week in Florida, the school shooting, 17 people killed, 14 students, three adults. They want action.

They want action and the question is this. How far is the president? He's going to be meeting with some students tomorrow. How far is the president willing to go on tightening gun laws here in the United States?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would say, at this point, he hasn't expressed any willingness to do so. And it's on the people to persuade the president.

It is my hope that we don't get trapped in this debate between doing nothing at all and then, you know, sort of, painting anybody that does want change as a gun grabber or someone to who hates the second amendment.

Republicans really have an opportunity now to do some out-of-the-box thinking in a way that doesn't take gun rights from law-abiding citizens, particularly when it deals with social media and giving the law enforcement the tools to act on threatening social media postings.

[13:10:07] This is why I think there is some potential for common ground. But I am worried. Right now, there is a push for many conservatives' personalities to say, dismiss the cries of these students. They've going through a trauma. They don't know what they're saying. They shouldn't be listened to.

I disagree with that in the strongest terms. We need to listen to the raw fear and anger to truly understand the problem that confronts us today.

BLITZER: Hold on one second because Dianne Gallagher, our Correspondent, is there right in the middle of those students. Those are survivors of that massacre last week down in Florida.

Dianne, set the scene for us.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And, right now, Wolf, you guys are looking at Jacqueline Corwin. She is a junior. And she's 16-year-old who has helped organize this trip.

They're, kind of, giving the instructions right now, explaining to the students what buses they're going to be on. They're also bringing with them four survivors from the Pulse Nightclub massacre.

And so, they are trying to, kind of, get this together. This is a lot more attention, they've admitted, than they were expecting to get in such a short amount of time. But they are determined. They are ready.

You can't see him with me, but I want you to hear from another student who's standing with me, 16-year-old Kai Koerber. He is going to, kind of, explain what their goal is when they get there, Wolf. Why they think this is going to affect some kind of change.

KAI KOERBER, STUDENT, STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL: We think it's going to start a conversation. People are going to begin to talk about why school shootings are what they are. And why it is that they need to stop. You know, --

GALLAGHER: Do you think that -- do you think that a bunch of teenagers on a bus is going to actually affect this change? Or do you think that it's going to be, kind of, like it unfortunately has been after a lot of other shootings? What makes this one different?

KOERBER: I think this one is different because we're all united together, past, present and future. You know, we're here to secure the futures of our sons, daughters and everything else that's yet to come. You know, the promises of yesterday mean nothing because we're here today.

You know, and we're all here because we need to -- we need to strive for change and the legislation needs to change, because we've fallen victim to lazy legislation for far too long.

GALLAGHER: I was talking to Kai, Wolf, just a little bit earlier. And he said that before this happened, politics wasn't even really on your radar.

KOERBER: Absolutely not, no. You know, I was -- as a matter of fact, I was gearing my studies toward becoming an aerospace engineer. You know, but now, you know, I'm very active in my community and I feel like that's the most important thing to me right now.

GALLAGHER: Thank you so much, Kai. I appreciate it.

We're going to be, Wolf, on this bus seven hours driving to Tallahassee with all of these students as they try and affect some change.

BLITZER: We'll see what they can do on the state level. We'll see what happens, if anything, on the federal level.

Dianne, we'll stay in close touch with you.

Gloria, so, you know, we've heard this so many times before in the aftermath of shooting massacres here in the United States. Things are about to change. They don't change. Are things about to change this time?

BORGER: I -- you know, I can't answer that question, Wolf. I mean, we heard after the Vegas shooting that Congress was going to do something about bump stock. That never happened. We'll see if that -- we'll see if that now happens.

You know, I think we have a president who has said, well, maybe he wants to look into this. His son, clearly, Don Junior, is a large proponent on the NRA. And so, I think he's got influence on that level with his -- with his father.

You have John Cornyn in the -- in the Senate, a Republican who wants to -- who wants to change the background check laws.

So, we're going to have to see what happens. I hesitate to predict anything here because nothing happened after Newtown. I mean nothing. So, how can you possibly say for sure it's going to happen this time?

BLITZER: I agree with you, Gloria, that on the federal level, if anything, it'll be very modest.


BLITZER: But on a state level, in Florida, it's possible they could make some significant changes.

For example, in Florida, if you're 18 years old, you can go buy an AR- 15 style assault weapon. But you can't buy, legally, a can of beer. Now, there's a -- that's a problem in Florida.

RYAN: Right.

BLITZER: Now, that's a problem in Florida.

RYAN: And see, Wolf, and this is a piece that I wanted to talk about. The fact that, you know, what we heard from this young man. You know, he was saying he wanted to be an aerospace person. But the problem is that people don't realize -- and we know this, politics is personal. It's now personal for them.

These young people are concerned. They feel threatened. They feel like, if I go to school, I could be in harm's way. And we've seen what happened at Pulse. Florida has been hit.

And not only that, you know, we were working together at the White House when Columbine happened. We watched, you know, when those kids looked like rag dolls trying to fall out -- after being shot, falling out windows trying to escape. This has been going on over and over and over. And, yes, Newtown. If there wasn't a change in Newtown federally, you know, we wonder if something's happened.

But you have to remember, the major movements that happened in this nation and globally, happens -- change happens with kids, our young kids, our young people. So, let's see.

[13:15:00] They've got the energy. When we are older and cynical, like, yes, well. But, you know, our major movements from civil rights to what's happened over -- over -- around the world, across the seas, when they were threatening to take FaceBook away, who was it, the young people.

BORGER: The Arab Spring.

RYAN: Yes.


BLITZER: You know, Amanda, the -- some Floridians have suggested to me they're deeply concerned right now, potentially, as far as tourism to Florida is concerned. So much of the economy in Florida, tourists coming in, relaxing, whether in south Florida, at other parts of the Florida. And given the gun laws that currently exist in Florida, people are wondering, is it worth it to go to Florida right now from New York or California or other states up in the northern part of the country if they don't -- unless they go ahead and tighten up some of these gun restrictions?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I've got to tell you, last week when you interviewed the Florida governor, you pressed him repeatedly about why someone can purchase a rifle at the age of 18, and have to wait until they're 21 for a handgun. He couldn't articulate the reason for that. The reason is, because you can conceal a handgun. You shouldn't be able to concealed a rifle. But that's no longer true. This young man concealed the rifle and then came into the school and unloaded it.

And so for people to have a constructive debate about gun policy, they have to know the detail. These details matter and they're important. And so you need to be able to explain why that exists and why it might be time to change it.

And along with that, you have to take a look at the AR-15. This is a highly customizable weapon. Do we want to allow people to be able to customize them, to make them more lethal, in a way that circumvents federal law? We need to drill down on these specifics.


BORGER: And you have children who are afraid to go to school.

RYAN: Exactly. That is the thing.

BORGER: I mean that's kind of the bottom line.

CARPENTER: And parents are afraid to send them to school, which includes me right now.

RYAN: Yes. And me as well as. Yes.

BORGER: That's it. And that's -- and that's the bottom line here, it's that children are afraid to go and the parents who are afraid to send them. And these are articulate young people --

RYAN: Yes, they are.

BORGER: Who can describe their fear and what -- you know, and I think that the politicians have to kind of listen to that at a certain point.

RYAN: But you're right, but we are a reactionary society. And it's not the adults that's reacting, it's these kids getting on a bus, saying, we're not going to take this anymore. And you're absolutely right.

BLITZER: Yes, these kids are amazing.

RYAN: Yes.

BLITZER: And if something happens, you give these kids the credit --

RYAN: Yes.

BLITZER: Because they really are really doing an amazing job.

Everybody stand with us -- stand by, April, Amanda and Gloria.

A program reminder to all of our viewers here in the United States and around the world. As the students in Parkland, Florida, demand action on gun violence, don't miss our CNN live town hall. It's called "Stand Up." It will be hosted by our own Jake Tapper tomorrow night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern. You're going to want to see this town hall.

President Obama's former national security adviser, he's standing by to join us live. He'll respond to President Trump's claim that he's tougher on Russia than Obama was.

Also, Donald Trump Jr. now visiting India to sell luxury apartments, but critics say he's dangerously close to violating ethics rules. We'll discuss that.

And a dramatic rescue of a toddler all caught on video as the Syria regime escalates attacks against civilians, including hundreds of children. CNN takes you inside. We'll be right back.


[13:22:21] BLITZER: President Trump, once again, reacting to the Russia investigation today and blaming his predecessor, former President Obama, for not doing enough to stop Russia from interfering in the 2016 president election here in the United States. He tweeted out this, quote, I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. President Trump himself has refused to condemn Russia over its

interference, even after the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, indictments last week of 13 Russians. Trump argues that the indictments actually show a lack of collusion on the part of his campaign.

Joining us now to discuss this and more, Tom Donilon. He's a former national security adviser to President Obama.

Tom, thanks very much for coming in.

So when you hear the current president attack the former president, his predecessor, for -- and insisting that he has done more to go after Russia than President Obama did, your reaction?

THOMAS DONILON, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: My reaction is that it's the most inexplicable aspect of President Trump's foreign policy is his refusal to acknowledge the actions of Russians taken against the United States, to criticize Putin, to enforce sanctions. And then, by contract, of course, just to get the facts straight, is that President Obama did initiate in the intelligence community, and the law enforcement community initiated intensive investigations during 2016 into what Russian was up to. They confronted the Russians.

On October 7th of 2016, senior officials issued an extraordinary statement in the middle of the campaign that the Russian federation was responsible for hacking e-mails and releasing them strategically.

We then had, in December of 2016, sanctions put on Russia by the Obama administration. On January 6th, you had another extraordinary statement, a high confidence (ph) statement in the intelligence community --

BLITZER: But the Trump people, they make the point -- the president himself has made the point this was all very late. It started in 2014, according to Mueller's latest indictments of these Russian citizens, yet he waited until midway -- at least midway through 2016 and near the end of his presidency to take these very strong measures against the Russians.

DONILON: What the indictment says -- and, by the way, the indictment's an extraordinary document. It's a speaking (ph) indictment. Essentially --

BLITZER: Thirty-five-pages.

DONILON: Yes. And essentially what Mr. Mueller has done, Director Mueller has done, is done what the U.S. government should be doing, right, which is to basically lay out the facts here for the American people.

What the indictment says is the discussions within the Russian government began in 2014 and 2015 and the actions took place in the 2016 election cycle. BLITZER: Yes, but even -- even Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says President Obama could have done more. But I have to tell you, in the 13 months that President Trump has been in office, he really hasn't done anything. He signed into law this legislation overwhelmingly passed by the House and Senate to increase sanctions on Russia because of its meddling. It's now the law of the land, but he really hasn't implemented it.

[13:25:09] DONILON: Well, two things happened. In the summer, the -- Congress put in place legislation to restrict President Trump from relieving Russia the sanctions because there wasn't any trust in the executive branch on this because of his statements and the -- and the oddity of it, not criticizing the Russian federation. And it did put in place the power for the administration to put additional sanctions on Russia if it were needed to deter them. The administration bizarrely said they were deterred and no additional sanctions were need.

And, of course, we now know last week, the entire Senate intelligence chiefs of the United States government went forward and said, in fact, they haven't been deterred. It's continuing. And the scary thing is --

BLITZER: And it will continue they say.

DONILON: It's going to continue in this election.

And I wanted to add one thing on this. It is part of a broader strategic problem. We are in an actively hostile posture with the Russian across the board at this point and it needs to be confronted, whether it's in Crimea, in Ukraine, Europe generally, Syria, Afghanistan, where they're supporting the Taliban, Libya, interference in Europe. Across the board we have a very serious problem with the Russians.

BLITZER: Yes. And I think the president's national security advisers understand that. The president's reluctant to speak out about that or didn't even mention that fear in his State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress.

Your --

DONILON: We don't know why.

BLITZER: You were the national security adviser to President Obama. The current national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, he's an active duty three-star general. He spoke at a conference in Munich the other day and he basically said what the Russians did and what they're doing is beyond a doubt.

The president went after him publicly in a statement on Twitter. President Trump wrote this, 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, Hillary, the DNC and the Dems.

When the president, you know, slaps his own national security adviser, a serving three-star general, an lieutenant general, like that publicly, as a former national security adviser, what goes through your mind?

DONILON: Well, it's extraordinary, right, to really to kind of pull the rug out from under your national security adviser, who was at a prominent security conference in Europe.

BLITZER: In Munich.

DONILON: In Munich. And said really things that are obvious, right? I mean what General McMaster said is that they -- now the facts were incontrovertible given what Director Mueller had laid out. It was not really a controversial statement. And it needed to be said. And it was really uncalled for, I think, extraordinary, and irresponsible for him, really, to undercut his own national security adviser like that.

BLITZER: So you think he's going to be gone pretty soon?

DONILON: I don't have any idea about that. You know, he's a very, very solid officer and national servant. (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: But if President Obama would have done that to you, if you had gone to Munich and made a statement of fact, which General McMaster did do, and then the president were to tweet or to issue a statement saying, you know, Tom Donilon should have said x, y and z, what would you have done?

DONILON: Well, and that wouldn't have happened, right? I mean you would have had coordinated statements, right? And this is the big problem in this administration. But there's a distance between what responsible national security officials say and what the president says. And so it gives a -- it gives a lot of uncertainty to the world because you don't know where -- what to make of it. At the end of the day, you don't know who speaks for -- who really speaks for him.

This is -- and one last thing I wanted to say about this is also I think an important challenge here. As I said, I think we have a serious challenge to our system to the west by the Russians, and others in the world. And the president's failure to confront this is really a serious problem. And a big part of the problem is that he, as president, has the platform to speak about this.


DONILON: To talk about the challenges. To do things that could really make us a lot more resilient in terms of digital literacy, in terms, I think, of civic education, but more generally in terms of reminding us what the values are that we're trying to protect.

BLITZER: And the interesting thing --

DONILON: You know, that's the -- that's the bully pulpit.

BLITZER: His aides, his national security team, all of them are anxious to do that. He's the only one who's reluctant to do it for whatever reason. DONILON: He's -- again, the intelligence chiefs went in front of the

Senate Intelligence Committee last week.


DONILON: An extraordinary set of statements, right, and were asked if the president had directed them to address this. And Director Wray and others said that he hadn't. I don't -- and "The Washington Post" has now (ph) report there hasn't even been a national security council meeting on this. This is really not the way that the United States government should be acting here and I think it's dangerous for our society.

BLITZER: Tom Donilon, thanks so much for coming in.

DONILON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Very soon the White House is set to be drilled on multiple fronts in the first briefing since the school massacre down in Florida and the Russian indictments. You're going to hear that news conference coming up live. Stand by for that. We'll see what the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, has to say today.