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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; Students Advocate for Gun Control; Show of Solidarity As Students Press Florida Lawmakers on Guns; New Secret Filing in Mueller's Case Against Manafort, Gates. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired February 21, 2018 - 18:00 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: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're following breaking news. Passionate and very emotional calls for action in the wake of the latest school massacre coming as thousands of people prepare to take part in tonight's CNN town hall featuring the students of Florida's Stoneman Douglas High School.
A representative of the National Rifle Association will also take part, along with lawmakers, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
That follows a remarkable White House listening session on school shootings that just wrapped up. Survivors and families of victims shared their grief and anger with President Trump and offered suggestions for making schools here in the United States safer.
We will get to the White House and CNN's Jeff Zeleny in just a moment.
First, let's go to CNN's Alisyn Camerota in Sunrise, Florida, where tonight's CNN town hall will be taking place.
Alisyn, a very large crowd is expected where you are tonight. Give us a preview.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, one minute ago, the doors here at the BB&T Arena opened, and people are beginning to trickle in. So they have to go through security, of course, but one hour from now, 7,000 people will be filling these seats in this arena that you see behind me.
This arena is the size of a place you would go to hear a concert. It's huge. It will be filled with students, with teachers, with parents, with the survivors of the Parkland massacre, the kids who hid behind a desk and watched as some of their classmates were slaughtered.
There will be lawmakers here, Democrats and Republicans, and, of course, the National Rifle Association. Everyone here for this remarkable conversation all in one room. People can't just retreat to their corners and dig in the way they so often do after tragedies like this. They have to engage with each other tonight.
It has already been a remarkable day here, Wolf. Across the country, we have seen student activism. We have seen kids staging walkouts of their classroom to make a statement and to show solidarity with the kids from Parkland. And we saw 100 of the kids from Douglas High School in Parkland who took buses all 400 miles to Tallahassee, to their state capital.
They slept overnight on cots, in sleeping bags, so that they could confront their lawmakers face to face. They met with the governor. They met with their state lawmakers. And, afterwards, when they came out, they had a lot to say about what they accomplished. So listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LORENZO PRADO SHOOTING SURVIVOR: We lose confidence in our government because we are told that nothing can be done time and time again, and we are tired of hearing that, because we know there can be change in this country. Never again should a tragedy of this caliber happen in this country. Never again.
SARAH CHADWICK, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: Because never again should a child we afraid to go to school. Never again should students have to protest for their lives. Never again should an innocent life be taken while trying to gain an education.
SOFIE WHITNEY, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: Help us. Help us so children don't fear for going to school. Help us so mass shootings aren't inevitable. Help us so our children, our grandchildren and their children after that don't have to march for their lives. Help us for our 17 fallen brothers and sisters. Help us so no one else dies.
ALFONSO CALDERON, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: Although we are just kids, we understand. We know. We are old enough to understand financial responsibilities. We are old enough to understand why a senator cares about reelection or not. We are old enough to understand why someone might want to discredit us for their own political purposes. But we will not be silenced.
RYAN DEITSCH, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: The more they don't act, the more they don't deserve to be in office. The more that I know me and my friends, we are turning 18. I am a senior. I'm 18 myself now. I can vote and I know who I'm not voting for.
These people that I have been meeting with, these people that I have seen, none of them have really put it into words what needs to be done.
And I will say that I am a high school senior. I do not know the exact course of action to take. I do not know exactly what needs to be done. I just know what we're doing now is nowhere near enough, if I have to keep seeing neighbors die, if I have to keep seeing friends die, and I have to keep seeing other people on the news deal with some same tragedy, they do not deserve this. America does not deserve this. Humanity does not deserve this. (END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: OK. So, Wolf, that's just a taste of some of the things you will be hearing tonight, and you will hear lawmakers have to answer these students.
So, again, 7,000 people will be in this arena in less than an hour. The events will already begin. The sheriff of Broward County will begin talking to the students. Their principal from Douglas High School will begin speaking. And a very powerful video will be playing with messages of support from people around the country for these high school students.
So we will be here covering it all for you and bring you all the developments, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Alisyn, we are going to get back to you. The town hall begins 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. Jake Tapper will moderate.
President Trump heard the grief and the calls for change firsthand today over at the White House. Just a little while ago, it wrapped up, an hour-and-a-half or so, what they called a listening session that included survivors and victims' families.
Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny is joining us.
Jeff, some pretty raw emotions we're seeing.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was raw emotions and very personal stories from six Parkland students as well as their families, as well as families of victims from Columbine and Sandy Hook.
Of course, those school shootings etched in our collective memory. But it was the personal stories as the president sat and listened to all of this that raised one question. Will anything be different this time?
ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump convening a White House listening session on gun violence in America.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to listen and then, after I listen, we're going to get things done.
ZELENY: A week after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, students who walked those halls and lived through the shooting sat on each side of the president and told their stories.
SAMUEL ZEIF, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: I don't understand why I can still go in a store and buy a weapon of war, an AR. I was reading today that a person 20 years old walked into a store and bought an AR-15 in five minutes with an expired I.D. How is it that easy to buy this type of weapon? How do we not stop this?
JUSTIN GRUBER, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: Nineteen years ago, the first school shooting, Columbine, at Columbine High School happened. And I was born into a world where I never got to experience safety and peace.
There needs to be significant change in this country, because this has to never happen again. And people should be able to feel that, when they go to school, they can be safe.
ZELENY: Parents from Parkland, Florida, and shootings like Columbine and Sandy Hook also came face to face with the president.
ANDREW POLLACK, FATHER OF SHOOTING VICTIM: I'm here because my daughter has no voice. She was murdered last week, and she was taken from us, shot nine times on the third floor.
ZELENY: Andrew Pollack's daughter, Meadow, was an 18-year-old senior.
POLLACK: We go to the airport, I can't get on a plane with a bottle of water, but we leave it -- some animal could walk into a school and shoot our children. It's just not right. And we need to come together as a country and work on what's important.
All these school shootings, it just -- it doesn't make sense. Fix it. There should have been one school shooting, and we should have fixed it. And I'm pissed, because my daughter, I'm not going to see again. She's not here. She's not here. She's at -- in North Lauderdale, whatever it is, King David Cemetery. That's where I go to see my kid now.
ZELENY: In the wake of the shooting that left 17 dead, the president is suddenly talking about guns, a topic seldom discussed by the White House during his first year in office.
TRUMP: It's not going to be talk, like it has been in the past. It's been going on too long, too many instances. And we're going to get it done.
ZELENY: As protesters gathered outside the White House yet again today and at the Capitol.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to apologize that you are not safe in your own schools.
ZELENY: Students walked out of school in Florida and across the country. The president has offered few specifics for how to confront the American carnage, but tweeted: "Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening background checks."
With a growing sense of national outrage, a new Quinnipiac poll finds two-thirds of Americans support stricter gun laws in the U.S., while 76 percent say it's too easy to buy a gun.
It's an open question whether any of the president's talk will lead to action. Mr. Trump, who supported a ban on assault weapons before running for president, has since become closely aligned with the NRA that invested millions in his candidacy.
TRUMP: To the NRA, I can proudly say I will never, ever let you down.
ZELENY: But the president has told friends and advisers he is deeply troubled by the latest shootings, CNN has learned, and is open to discussing a range of potential reforms on guns.
TRUMP: It would be -- it's called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They'd go for special training. And they would be there. And you would no longer have a gun-free zone.
And I really believe that if these cowards knew that that was -- that the school was, you know, well-guarded from the standpoint of having pretty much professionals with great training, I think they wouldn't to go into the school to start off with. I think it could very well solve your problem.
ZELENY: So even as the president there talked about the idea of arming school officials and teachers more, a mother of a Sandy Hook victim rose and said, Mr. President, she does not believe that is a good idea. She believes prevention, trying to stop a young person or a shooter from getting to that school in the first place is a better idea.
So no clear sign of where this legislation is going to be going. No shortage of stories, no shortage of ideas. Wolf, so striking, these students sitting alongside parents from Sandy Hook and Columbine were not born during that Columbine massacre nearly two decades ago.
Just gives a sense of how long this problem, of course, has been going on, uniquely here in America. The president listening to those stories, he will have state and local officials here tomorrow at the White House. Next week, he will have governors here. Of course, the president was invited to our town hall meeting tonight in Florida. He declined that.
But, Wolf, you wonder if he will be watching -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you. Jeff Zeleny over at the White House.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Joining us now, Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Do you think the president has a good idea that maybe 20 percent or 30 percent of teachers should be trained and armed?
BLUMENTHAL: That idea of concealed carry is absolutely abhorrent. It is an anathema. As a Sandy Hook parent, I believe Nicole Hockley, whom I know well, told him we need to prevent these shootings by getting guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
The president has to do more than listen and more than talk about guns. Now is the time for action. And if anything is inspiring, it ought to be those students marching through the streets in the great tradition of American protests, and hopefully we can take that example of leadership to the ballot boxes and make sure that we break the grip of the NRA on the Congress and on the president.
BLITZER: The president does sound like he's perhaps willing to consider some steps on gun control, including a ban on bump stocks, which take a regular rifle, maybe make it into almost a machine gun, strengthening background checks for purchasers of guns, raising the age limit to buy assault weapons or semi-assault weapons.
What will need to happen for the president to follow through on those initial steps?
BLUMENTHAL: Those initial steps are baby steps, as compared to the strides, significant and giant strides that we need.
We have been listening for, I have, for decades to the victims and survivors. And my thoughts go back to Sandy Hook, when we listened to the brave, courageous, strong parents, and we thought we could get it done then. What has to happen is for the president to break with the NRA and support not only strengthening the existing information that goes into the background check system, but also extending those background checks to all purchases, not just bump stocks and proposing regulations, which could well be struck down by the courts, but backing legislation that will prohibit those bump stocks, and as well banning assault weapons.
They are simply weapons of war that are designed to kill and maim people, as we have seen in all of these mass shootings, enabled to be even more lethal by high-capacity magazines holding 20 or 30 rounds. So these kinds of measures are what the president needs to support, not just with talk, but with real action, and the same of Congress.
You know, there was a sign today in Washington, D.C., "Our blood, your hands," carried by one of these young people. I think that's the message that has to be taken to the ballot box.
BLITZER: Well, do you think that there's a chance some of these steps you're proposing actually could be passed by the House, passed by the Senate, signed into law by the president of the United States?
BLUMENTHAL: I think we're facing a real prospect of a tipping point in this debate.
The images of those students, so strong in moments of pain and grief, and so passionate in demanding of us this responsibility, I think will have an effect, I certainly hope so, on my colleagues. We have an obligation to act now.
But if there is a failure, we should hold accountable my colleagues this November. And it should be pursued as single-mindedly as the NRA and the gun lobby does in demanding that kind of accountability of their supporters.
And so ultimately it may come down to one word, elections. And that's where we need to hold accountability.
BLITZER: Speaking of elections, speaking of politics, is the Democratic leadership, your leadership in the Senate, up for a real fight on gun control, when, as you know, they're trying to protect some vulnerable Democratic candidates in what we call those red states?
BLUMENTHAL: I believe that the leadership on our side is absolutely committed. Senator Schumer is a longtime and fervent advocate of gun violence prevention. He's championed a number of these measures.
And we have been through this fight once, in the wake of Sandy Hook, when we thought we could achieve it, and a number of my colleagues still in the Senate now, up for reelection, put themselves on the line. They took those hard votes and very courageously did it in the right way.
I hope we can have compromise and bipartisanship. The majority of Americans, 90 percent or more, want background checks. And I think that the conversation is changing fundamentally now. And these images and voices of young people who are demanding responsibility of us, I think, have changed fundamentally the way the Congress has to function in the future on this issue.
BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks so much for joining us.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Coming up, a very, very emotional day gives way to what's certain to be an emotional night, as thousands of people get ready to take part in CNN's town hall down in Florida. We're going to have much more ahead.
Also, there's more breaking news, a major announcement about guns on campus by the Broward County sheriff in the wake of the school massacre.
BLITZER: As we count down to CNN's town hall later tonight featuring survivors of the Florida school massacre, there's breaking news just coming in from Broward County in Florida. That's where the school is located.
CNN's Martin Savidge is joining us right now.
Martin, a major new announcement by the sheriff.
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. This is Scott Israel, the Broward County sheriff. It's the first time we have heard from him in a couple of days. And it was major news. He is announcing an order that has gone out to beef up the firepower for all of his deputies who will be on school campuses throughout the county.
Here's how he put it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT ISRAEL, BROWARD COUNTY, FLORIDA, SHERIFF: This morning, I implemented a practice within the Broward Sheriff's Office and spoke to Mr. Runcie, who was fully supportive of my decision, that our deputies who are qualified and trained will be carrying rifles on school grounds from this point forward.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SAVIDGE: Not just any rifle. They will be carrying AR-15s, the same rifle that accused shooter Nikolas Cruz was said to be using in the attack on the high school here.
So, again, those deputies specially trained will now be on campus with AR-15s. And for a second straight day today, Wolf, we also saw thousands of students across South Florida walking out of their classrooms and walking off of school campuses in both solidarity for Stoneman Douglas High School students and also demanding that there be change to the laws and also to improve the security at their own schools.
Many of those students walked miles to come here to Stoneman Douglas High School. They were cheered and greeted as they arrived. This is a place for not only for people to speak out. It's also a place where they come to grieve one week later -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Martin Savidge reporting for us, thank you for that.
For some, deputies with rifles aren't enough. There are also calls for arming teachers with concealed weapons, an idea President Trump supported during the White House listening session that just ended.
Let's go pack to Alisyn Camerota over at the CNN town hall, scene of tonight's town hall.
Alisyn, you're joined by a former Trump campaign senior adviser, Michael Caputo.
I know he was listening to the president earlier as well.
CAMEROTA: He was, Wolf.
And just to let you know, the action is really picking up here. You can see some people who have already filtered in behind me. In the space of two hours, this arena will be filled with 7,000 people.
And you might be able to hear the music. There's a lot of teenagers here. They're playing pop music at the moment. But Michael can still hear me.
Michael, thanks for being with us.
MICHAEL CAPUTO, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Thanks for inviting me.
CAMEROTA: I know you were listening to the listening session the president just had. It was remarkable at the White House. What did you hear happening there?
CAPUTO: Well, I told you before, this is to me the moment that we all knew was going to happen during the Trump presidency.
We first started talking about this, myself and the president and others around him in New York state when we were recruiting him to run for governor of New York in 2013.
CAMEROTA: So, in 2013, you were having conversations about gun violence and gun control.
CAPUTO: We were.
And we had strict Second Amendment advocates leading the charge to recruit him to run for governor, because we had an assault weapons ban passed in New York. It was done late at night. It was forced by Governor Cuomo. You know this guy.
CAMEROTA: I do.
CAPUTO: And even though he had Republicans in league with him, and it was really something that we thought was going to stop Governor Cuomo from winning in the second term, but it didn't happen.
We had five or six million gun owners in New York state, but we can't get them to the polls.
CAMEROTA: But back then, when you were having these conversations with Donald Trump about gun control, which way was he inclined?
CAPUTO: Well, he was listening. And I do believe that his views on this have, you know, matured over time. I think his present position is fairly contemporary.
CAMEROTA: What is his present position? More guns or less guns?
CAPUTO: I believe he's a supporter of the Second Amendment. He believes that guns -- the gun control laws that are in there now need to be enforced. I think he understands listening to him here that the schools themselves have to be protected.
CAMEROTA: But hold on, because there were people from both sides of that argument at the White House.
CAMEROTA: Some saying that is not the answer.
CAMEROTA: You had some of the parents from Newtown saying, Mr. President, that's not the answer. And then you heard some parents saying please protect our schools, fortify them.
So which way do you think that he leans?
I think he leans towards Mr. Pollack, the father who lost his daughter and said the first and most important thing is to protect our children, and focus on that right now.
CAMEROTA: More armed guards?
Here's the thing. This is a congressional issue. If a president solves this with the sweep of his pen, it's going to be undone by the next president.
CAMEROTA: But doesn't it sound like President Trump is going to solve some of this with the sweep of his pen? He's already talked about bump stocks. He's already talked about possibly raising the minimum age of buying a weapon and expanding background checks. And he can do some of those things.
CAPUTO: And we're seeing a listening session that we haven't seen in the last two or three presidents. This is something fairly remarkable.
I think it's important to note that the president knows, and we talked about it in 2013 and 2014, that there was going to be a moment of inflection in his presidency. We talked about it being in his governorship of New York. But there was going to be a moment that only he could rise up.
As someone who is so strongly supportive of the Second Amendment and of the NRA, he can sit people down at the table on both sides of the issue and come to a compromise. I think he is going to step into this.
CAMEROTA: But why do you think he's uniquely positioned?
CAPUTO: Because he's so strongly supportive of the Second Amendment, because he's so close to the leadership of the NRA and because I think the president -- I really believe in his negotiating skills.
I know, in 2013, 2014, that he recognized that he was going to be faced, even then, with an inflection point that only he could take advantage of because he's so supportive of this issue. The Nixon and China argument.
CAMEROTA: OK. But this is not the first mass shooting on his watch.
CAPUTO: No, it's not.
CAMEROTA: Obviously, after Las Vegas, everybody was calling for action and hoping that something would happen. Nothing happened. Sutherland Springs happened on his watch. So why now?
CAPUTO: I think these kids are remarkable. I really do.
CAMEROTA: I do too.
CAPUTO: And I think the president is struck by it. I know him well enough to know that he is absolutely absorbing every emotion that they're leaving on the table there with him. I think the president hears both sides and he's going to shock everybody.
CAMEROTA: But why did it take this? Why wasn't he so moved after what happened in Las Vegas, say?
CAPUTO: I think he was moved by what happened in Las Vegas.
CAMEROTA: Why didn't he take action?
CAPUTO: I think he was in the midst of taking action. I think he was overtaken by events, like every politician was. But in the end he realizes now, like he did then after Vegas, that this is a congressional issue.
And, see, listen, our founders gave us a Second Amendment to protect us, right? But they also gave us the Congress to help us fix us.
CAMEROTA: I understand. But you can't say that this guy was part of a well-regulated militia, the guy that has just killed 17 students and teachers.
CAPUTO: Right. Obviously, the age, the mental condition, you know, and the background checks, they all failed.
CAPUTO: And those need to be changed immediately.
CAMEROTA: But at the time after Las Vegas, the president said something to the effect of now is not the time to talk about this.
CAPUTO: No, I think he's not the only politician that said that.
I think the president has listened to politicians for a bit of time now. And I believe the president understands that now is his time. I think that he understands this is the moment he's been -- we talked about in 2013. We didn't talk about it being with the Second Amendment or with immigration, but he's the only president in -- I think in modern times, in the last couple of decades who's positioned to really do something.
CAMEROTA: But just so I'm clear, after Las Vegas was not the time and after Sutherland Springs was not the time, but this is the time?
CAPUTO: I understand why you're saying that, but I also know that the White House was working on this issue. It's emergent right now because these kids are taking it to the streets. They're taking it to the White House. They're taking it to Capitol Hill and Tallahassee.
CAMEROTA: They're demanding action. They're demanding action. They're demanding that they be heard.
They're going to the White House and demonstrating in front of it. Frankly, they're driving this more than the president.
CAPUTO: Well, but who needs to be driving this is the Congress. This is not the president's job. The president -- what they need to do is they need to put the Senate in the Senate and the House in the House and lock that door and give the key to Donald Trump, because if they don't do anything -- here's the problem, Alisyn.
We have a bought Congress. These guys don't have the stones to actually come up with a compromise situation and a position on this.
CAMEROTA: Well, the NRA has also given them lots of money.
CAPUTO: But if you're intimidated by the NRA, you don't understand the NRA's position, their state of effectiveness today. You just don't.
I don't believe anybody who truly understands the NRA fears the NRA. They respect the NRA. The president respects the NRA. But I think he can take the NRA to the table, just like he takes the pro-gun-control people to the table, and come up with a solution that involves compromise.
CAMEROTA: OK. Well, it starts tonight.
CAPUTO: It does.
CAMEROTA: Obviously, we'll hear all sides of the gun debate tonight. Michael Caputo, thank you for...
CAPUTO: Thank you.
CAMEROTA: ... your insight into the president's thinking.
Back to you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Alisyn, thanks very much. Very good discussion.
Just ahead, more breaking news as survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre demand action. We're counting down to CNN's major town hall with students and parents later tonight. Both of Florida's U.S. senators, other officials, a representative of the National Rifle Association, they will be there along with thousands and thousands of others.
[18:35:43] BLITZER: More now on the breaking news. The emotionally powerful listening session that the president had over at the White House, the president hearing firsthand from school shooting survivors and victims' families.
Let's bring in our analysts and our experts.
David Swerdlick, one comment from President Trump pretty quickly got some feedback, some serious reaction from those in the room. Listen to the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If he had a firearm in his locker when he ran at this guy -- that coach was very brave. Saved a lot of lives, I suspect. But if he had a firearm, he wouldn't have had to run. He would have shot, and that would have been the end of it.
And this would only be, obviously, for people that are very adept at handling a gun. And it would be -- it's called concealed carry where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They'd go for special training. And they would be there, and you would no longer have a gun-free zone.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The president quickly got some negative feedback from those in the room. He then asked everybody, "Do you think it's a good idea or a bad idea?" He got a little bit of a mixed reaction there. But he clearly thinks this is a good idea.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it was a mostly respectful, heartfelt dialogue. It was almost Obama-like in the way he facilitated this dialogue.
He got to the end with that question, Wolf, and put that position out there. He clearly does seem to think that this is a good idea. He's got people in his ear telling him it's a good idea. The challenge for him is, one, teachers, of course, will say, "Well, we didn't train to be cops. We trained to be teachers."
Two, they haven't thought through all the particulars of this. What happens when there's a shootout at the OK Corral in the hallway of a school and something goes wrong?
This is something that they're going to have to tread very carefully on if this is a serious proposal.
BLITZER: You know, David Axelrod, the listening session -- and I'm sure you listened to it -- was incredibly emotional. I want you to listen to one of the fathers who was there, Andrew Pollack. He lost his daughter, Meadow, at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school last week. He was there with his three sons. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDREW POLLACK, DAUGHTER KILLED IN PARKLAND SHOOTING: I'm here because my daughter has no voice. She was murdered last week, and she was taken from us. Shot nine times on the third floor.
We as a country failed our children. This shouldn't happen. We go to the airport, I can't get on a plane with a bottle of water. But we leave it, some animal could walk into a school and shoot our children. It's just not right, and we need to come together as a country and work on what's important.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: David, what did you make of that event at the White House?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, first of all, no one can listen to those kind of testimonials and not just be ripped up by them. It's hard to imagine being that -- that dad.
You know, the cynical political strategist side of me says, well, this was a brilliant bit of counterprogramming, because you knew these students were going to be speaking out in Florida. There's going to be this town hall tonight that the president didn't want to participate in. So he wanted to be sympathetic. He wanted to project empathy and action, and he did it in this controlled environment. That's -- that's the cynical analysis of it.
I do want to give him credit, though. He sat in a room and he listened respectfully and showed empathy for people who have gone through terrible tragedies. And that is important. Listening and empathy haven't been his strong suit. And the fact that he was in that room today was important, and it tells you just how significant this moment is.
Now I think he is in a position where he's going to have to actually do something about it. You can't sit in a room and listen to that gentleman and listen to the others who were in that room and do nothing.
And I don't think arming teachers, which is really sort of the NRA position on this, is going to be -- if that's the only answer that he comes up with, I think he's going to fall short.
He's now painted himself into a position where he has to act. And if he doesn't act, then this is going to just amount to pure theater on his part.
[18:40:05] JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: But, Wolf, he already has acted on guns. On February 17, he signed a bill reversing an Obama administration initiative that would have kept 75,000 people with mental illness from buying guns. So all this nonsense, all this crap we hear about, "Oh, we've got to
concentrate on mental illness," well, he has concentrated on mental illness, and he's made it easier for people with mental illness to get guns.
So the idea that, you know, history started last week when this -- when this terrible event happened is actually not true. The president has a record here, and the record is doing the bidding of the National Rifle Association.
BLITZER: He signed the order a year ago, February 17.
TOOBIN: A year ago.
AXELROD: Jeff, Jeff, can I just -- can I just respond to that? I am totally...
BLITZER: Go ahead.
AXELROD: I'm totally sympathetic to your position. The fact is, this is a moment. And you're right, the president has done destructive things in this regard. The question is, is he in a position now where he has to reverse course in some way?
I don't think we can just -- we can just throw aside this moment and say, "Well, look, he's already made his position clear, so we're not going to try and get anything done." He should be pushed to get something done here, even if what he did before was counterproductive.
TOOBIN: You're an optimistic soul, brother Axelrod.
AXELROD: I am. I am an optimistic soul.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by for a moment. We're getting some statement in from the National Rifle Association on tonight's event, their position. We'll have that for you right of this.
[18:46:19] WOLF BLITER, CNN HOST: Breaking news tonight, students across the country walking out of school in a show of solidarity with survivors of the Florida high school massacre. Some of them were at the state capitol today demanding lawmakers ban assault-style weapons like the one used by the shooter.
We're back with our analysts and experts. We have some breaking news. We just got a statement in from the National Rifle Association rejecting the idea of limiting the age capability of people buying guns here in the United States.
NRA public affairs director Jennifer Baker says this and let me read this specifically: Federal law prohibits adults under the age of 21 from purchasing a handgun from a licensed firearm dealer. Legislative proposals that prevent law-abiding adults aged 18 to 20 years old from acquiring rifles and shotguns effectively prohibits them from purchasing any firearm, thus depriving them of their constitutional right to self protection.
She adds: We need serious proposals to prevent violent criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from acquiring firearms. Passing a law that makes it illegal for a 20-year-old to purchase a shotgun for hunting or an adult single mother from purchasing the most effective self-defense rifle on the market punishes law-abiding citizens for the evil acts of criminals.
That statement, Sabrina, issued in advance of tonight's town hall and the NRA will be joining, will be participating in the town hall later tonight on CNN.
SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICS REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: Well, it's telling that we haven't even yet begun a debate on what sort of policy response we might see after the shooting and the NRA is already drawing a line in the sand, preemptively trying to say not to tweak the age restriction and also going very much within the playbook of focusing on strengthening existing laws or enforcing existing laws rather than passing any new legislation.
This is where it remains to be seen if the president is willing to go up against the NRA and members of his own party. He said he's open to revisiting the age limit. Is he going to throw his political capital behind any proposal that would get 60 votes in the Senate and stand a chance of passing in the House?
You already have House conservatives say they want concessions in return for background checks or tweaking the age limit. So, this is really a moment where you have a test for Trump and whether he's serious about responding to those parents from whom he heard today.
BLITZER: The counterargument, Jeffrey, is that you need to be 21 to legally purchase beer in the state of Florida, for example. But when you're 18, you can buy an AR-15 style rifle.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Wolf, I find that counterargument persuasive. I think most people do, actually. The idea that you can be 18 and buy an ar-15, I mean putting aside the question of whether anybody should be able to buy an AR-15, remember, for ten years in this country from 1994 to 2004, assault weapons were illegal in this country. You know what, the country didn't fall apart. The Second Amendment didn't disappear.
But once the Republicans were in charge, they revoked the Brady Bill and now everybody can get an assault weapon and we see the wonderful paradise we live in.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: What Jeffrey points out the -- not the hypocrisy, but the misleading nature of that statement that you read from the NRA. They talk about rifles and shotguns. They didn't specify AR-15s. They have a strong argument when it comes to handguns or shotguns for home defense or traditional hunting rifles for hunting.
But to your point, why does anyone, let alone an 18-year-old or 21- year-old need an AR-15 with a pistol grip, semi-auto, for regular civilian use.
BLITZER: David Axelrod, at the town hall tonight, there are going to be a variety of views. We already see that.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Well, and this view I guess will be represented as well. You know, to me, this statement was a shot across the bow, as it were, to the president, who has suggested that he would look at these -- at the age of the sale age for the AR-15.
[18:50:14] So I think that's a message from the NRA saying don't drift. Here's the thing, Donald Trump ran for president promising he was going to drain the swamp and take on the special interests. He accepted $30 million from the NRA. He stood before them and said he would never let them down.
And now he has to choose between his patrons and duty as president and the country. And this is a really, really big moment for him. Jeffrey has already predicted what the outcome will be, we shall see. I think there are political consequences to gathering these people in the East Room of the White House, hearing their stories, promising actions and then knuckling under one more time to the NRA on what are sensible steps.
BLITZER: Yes, and I think you are right. Statement just released by the National Rifle Association. A warning to the president who has suggested he's open to new restrictions on the age for purchasing weapons in the United States. It's certainly a message to the president from the NRA.
There is more breaking news we are following as the students of Stoneman Douglas High School demand action. We're counting down to CNN's town hall with victims' classmates and parents. Both of Florida's U.S. senators, by the way, and a representative of the National Rifle Association will be there. Thousands of folks already gathering.
And there's breaking news of the Russia investigation with the new secret filing in the special counsel's case against two former Trump campaign officials.
[18:56:29] BLITZER: There's breaking news in the Russia investigation. Tonight, in a new secret filing special prosecutor Robert Mueller against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and former campaign adviser Rick Gates.
CNN's crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, is working the story for us. We are learning that what Gates was at the federal courthouse today.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, strange moment today. He appeared at the courthouse here in Washington, D.C., on his own, without his lawyers. We don't know why. He was seen carrying filing -- today was deadline for him to file with the court information about whether he was going to who his new attorneys are going to be. So, we don't know. He has not been seen since he appeared at court around 2:00 this afternoon. We really don't know where he was. Did he leave and exactly what he was doing there.
BLITZER: The assumption is since he has new attorneys, he's going to cop a plea and plead guilty and cooperate.
PROKUPECZ: Yes, that's been what our reporting has been, that he's been in talks with special counsel about pleading and about cooperating with the special counsel team. That deal seems to have hit a snag along the way and now he's looking for a new attorney. And we thought we would have some indication today as to who these new attorneys would be that would wind up representing him in this potential plea deal.
BLITZER: And if he does that potentially, bad news for Paul Manafort who was his boss.
PROKUPECZ: Certainly is bad news for Paul Manafort and perhaps others because we don't know what information he would be providing to the special counsel. But it could be a laundry list of things from the campaign, certainly things that have to do with Paul Manafort as well.
BLITZER: The whole notion of would he be willing to offer agreement, cooperate and all of that, is significant step and sends a powerful signal from Robert Mueller?
PROKUPECZ: Absolutely. And he would be the third person or perhaps the fourth person associated with the campaign to cooperate that we know of. It would be a significant step. A significant move from Mueller to have another person with eyes into the campaign that would now be cooperating potentially providing information to a grand jury, and if more people are indicted, trial potentially.
BLITZER: Yes, Robert Mueller moving pretty quickly, and by no means resolving this winding up by any means.
Shimon, thank you very much for that report. Shimon Prokupecz reporting for us.
Tributes are being paid around the world tonight to one of the most influential religious leaders of the 20th century, the Reverend Billy Graham died this morning at the age of 99. He had been a full-time evangelist since World War II. His deep faith in powerful preaching attracted huge crowds and millions of admirers in the United States and around the world including U.S. presidents, among those expressing condolences today, former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as President Donald Trump.
We are just about two hours from CNN's special town hall "Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action". It will be hosted by our own Jake Tapper. That starts at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
The survivors of that shooting will speak out tonight passionately no doubt as well as lawmakers from Florida including Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, and Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch. Also appearing will be a representative from the National Rifle Association and Broward County, Florida sheriff.
Take a look at some live pictures from the event. Thousands of people will be gathered inside. You won't want to miss it.
Our special coverage continues right now with John Berman.