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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Car Hits Barricade in Front of White House; Trump Doubles Down on Guns in Classrooms; Another Trump Aide Pleads Guilty in Russia Probe; The Gun Debate: Today, Trump Doesn't Mention Raising Age Limit to 21. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 23, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:12]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're beginning with the breaking news. You're seeing on your screen U.S. Secret Service says a car has hit a barricade at one of the security checkpoints near the White House.

The woman driving the car, we're told, is in custody, the Secret Service says. Sources say tell CNN they do not believe, do not believe this was directed toward the president or anyone at the White House.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is at the White House.

Ryan, authorities do say, however, this was intentional?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jake.

And that's probably the most significant bit of information we have been able to pick up from our sources here in the past half-hour or so. That's when we first started to receive word of this vehicle that had rammed into a barricade on 17th and E, which is just on the other side of the old Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is the building in between the White House and 17th Street.

There was a scramble of Secret Service officers over to that location at that time. The woman was quickly taken into custody. And, as you report, Jake, we're being told that this was an intentional move on behalf of this woman and that this was someone who was known by the U.S. Secret Service, someone that they had some sort of prior contact with.

And they also believe that there may be some sort of mental health issue at play in this incident. It has shut down traffic for only about a very short block between -- on 17th Street there by the White House. But they haven't really expanded the security perimeter all that much.

They have been allowing journalists to come in and out of the White House grounds here for the past half-hour or so, so it doesn't appear that the security situation here is at a high level.

We should point out, though, Jake, that at this present moment, the prime minister of Australia who was here for a meeting with the president of the United States and did hold a press conference was still in the West Wing, and there were journalists, Australian journalists covering his visit who were held here at the White House while this incident was being hashed out.

So, just to recap, this woman now in custody, someone known to Secret Service. It is believed that she did ram her vehicle into that barricade on 17th and E Street just outside the White House on purpose.

But at this point, no law enforcement personnel were injured and it is believed, Jake, that this woman was not targeting the president of the United States or anyone inside the White House -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Ryan Nobles at the White House, we're obviously going to continue to monitor the situation at the White House, though we're, of course, grateful that it appears everyone is OK.

Let us turn now, however, to the politics lead and today's developments in Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, revealing how wide the scope and how the reach the probe seems to have.

Today, former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates gave into pressure and just moments ago pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and charges of lying to the FBI. Gates is now the fifth person to plead guilty in Mueller's probe. This one could theoretically be a major turning point if Gates begins to cooperate with Mueller's team.

Also worth noting, today's plea deal came just one day after Mueller levied 32 charges against both Gates and his close business partner, Paul Manafort, who is of course Trump's former campaign chairman.

President Trump, who has called the Russia investigation a witch-hunt in the past, today would not say a word when reporters shouted questions about Gates, today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Any concerns about Gates? Mr. President, any concerns about Rick Gates?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: CNN's Sara Murray has the rest of the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Former Trump campaign adviser telling Rick Gates telling friends and family in a letter that the last several months have been excruciating. He pleaded guilty to two the criminal charges today, conspiracy to

defraud the U.S. and making false statements, according to court filings. Gates is cooperating with the special counsel, which makes him the third Trump associate known to be cooperating with Mueller's investigation.

His decision to flip on his longtime business partner, Paul Manafort, who served as the Trump campaign chairman, also ramps up the pressure on Manafort to cooperate with Mueller, particularly about the campaign.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think these lawyers are putting so much pressure on these guys, with so many high stakes, that the ultimate decision is going to be, I have got to protect myself and my family, and they're going to cooperate.

MURRAY: Both Gates and Manafort pleaded not guilty in October to financial charges unrelated to the campaign. But in the charges Gates has now pleaded to, prosecutors outlined how the two business partners hid millions of dollars from their Ukrainian lobbying work from the federal government and then lied to federal investigators in 2016 about the scheme.

Investigators also caught Gates in a lie during an interview in plea negotiations earlier this month, according to court filings. He lied in saying Ukraine was not discussed during a 2013 meeting in Washington with Manafort.

[16:05:02]

Lobbying disclosure shows California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Russia-friendly members of Congress, also attended.

In a letter to associates, Gates describes his decision to plead guilt as a change of heart. "The reality of how long this legal process will take, the cost and the circus-like atmosphere of an anticipated trial are too much," Gates writes.

On Thursday, Mueller unveiled a set of new charges in Virginia, 18 counts against Manafort and 23 against Gates, in addition to the counts the pair were already facing in D.C. federal court.

The new charges carry the risk of a far longer prison sentence, up to 30 years for each of them if found guilty of bank fraud. The move highlights how Mueller's team is turning up the heat on former Trump campaign officials to press them to cooperate.

Their cooperation building blocks Mueller can potentially use in a case against other Trump associates or even the president. The pressure took its toll on Gates, who lives with his wife and four children in Richmond, Virginia, and allegedly used millions of dollars from offshore accounts for expenses like his mortgage, children's tuition and interior decorating.

In explaining the plea deal to friends, Gates writes, "The consequence is the public humiliation, which at this moment seems like a small price to pay for what our children would have to endure otherwise."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Today, Paul Manafort is maintaining his innocence in a very pointed statement.

Here's what he had to say: "I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have the strength to continue this battle to prove our innocence. For reasons yet to surface, he chose to do otherwise. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled-up charges contained in the indictment against me? -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Let's bring in my political panel and start with CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, how much does the Gates guilty plea from this afternoon put pressure on Manafort? Do you think it is likely that Manafort will strike a plea deal with Mueller?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's going to be almost impossible for Paul Manafort to go to trial if Rick Gates is a witness against him, which he clearly now will be.

If you look at the charging instrument, the document to which Rick Gates pled guilty today, virtually every paragraph has Paul Manafort's name in it. Everything that Gates did, is admitting to, Manafort did and worse.

Now, certainly, he can argue, and he will argue if this case goes to trial, that Gates is just making it up, he's just trying to get a lighter sentence. But this is a very document-heavy case. This is a case about abundant offshore bank accounts. How Paul Manafort could explain those while Gates is saying this whole thing was a corrupt enterprise, I think it is almost impossible.

And I think the odds of Manafort now pleading guilty and cooperating just went way, way up.

TAPPER: And what is interesting also is there's been a lot of talk about how the charges against Gates and Manafort don't have anything to do with collusion with Russia, don't have to anything to do with the campaign.

And yet you look in this document. Court documents show Gates lied this month to the FBI about a meeting in 2013. Gates said Ukraine was not discussed in the meeting, but the FBI and the Justice Department say it was. Also in that meeting, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and former Congressman Vin Weber, who is now a D.C. lobbyist.

Rohrabacher obviously one of the most Russia-friendly lawmakers on Capitol Hill. This does add to the mystique of --

(CROSSTALK) GARRETT GRAFF, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It does.

And one of the things that is very significant in this is that Rick Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy today, conspiracy against the United States, which is significant legally, because now Bob Mueller can take anyone who knew about this, anyone who knew about the scheme that he had been planning with Paul Manafort.

TAPPER: The money laundering scheme.

GRAFF: The money laundering scheme.

Anyone who abetted it, anyone who helped it, anyone who knew about and it didn't report it and can instantly and easily charge them with conspiracy as well. What you see both in this indictment and plea today, as well as the indictment against the Internet Research Agency last Friday, is Bob Mueller is beginning to set down the building blocks of conspiracies that can point toward future indictments.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And you just raised the point that people are saying this has nothing to do with the Trump campaign. But consider what Rick Gates knows.

He had a significant role in the campaign. He was the deputy campaign chairman. And even after Paul Manafort left in August of 2016, he remained on as a liaison between the campaign and the Republican National Committee.

And he stayed traveling with them until the Election Day. He certainly played a big role. He was there during significant policy decisions. He was there during a lot of their outreach on social media and whatnot. He likely knows a lot about the fundamentals of the Trump campaign, so that's what you have to keep in mind is, we don't know everything that Bob Mueller knows about what Rick Gates knows.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I will come to you in one second, but just one other point, Jeffrey, which is, keep in mind also that Paul Manafort was present in that meeting at Trump Tower with the Russian lawyer who had been sold to the Trump campaign and Donald Trump Jr. as having damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

[16:10:07]

TOOBIN: He was at that meeting.

Again, if you look at the charging document to which Gates pleaded guilty, the conspiracy to pleading guilty continued throughout all the time that he was working on the Trump campaign.

Now, it is not a conspiracy to collude, to work with the Russians, directly related to the campaign. But here you have a senior official in the Trump campaign admitting that he was involved in a criminal conspiracy while he was working on the Trump campaign. That's potentially very serious.

And his agreement to cooperate means he has to tell absolutely everything he knows, both about the criminal conspiracy, to which he pleaded guilty, and anything else that he is aware of.

COLLINS: We also have to point out how close he is to Paul Manafort. He is his right-hand man.

(CROSSTALK)

COLLINS: They worked together for decades. They are very close. So maybe Rick Gates was not at that meeting at Trump Tower, but it is highly unlikely that he and Paul Manafort never discussed something as significant as that.

That's what you have to keep in mind. And that's why this could potentially be a big blow to whatever Paul Manafort's defense is, compared to what Rick Gates tells the special counsel.

TAPPER: Something else interesting happened today that may or may not have anything to do with the Russia probe. President Trump was asked if he would grant a special waiver for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is a senior adviser.

And here's what President Trump's response was. Jared Kushner obviously has had some difficulty getting security clearance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Jared has done an outstanding job. I think he's been treated very unfairly. He's a high-quality person. I will let General Kelly make that decision. And he is going to do what's right for the country, and I have no doubt he will make the right decision.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Here's the subtext of all this. Chief of Staff John Kelly set a deadline today to stop interim clearances for aides with pending clearances since June of last year.

And of course there's a lot of tension, Kaitlan, between Chief of Staff Kelly and Jared Kushner.

COLLINS: Tension is putting it lightly.

Even though Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump originally pushed for John Kelly to become the chief of staff, they thought he was going to impose this restraint on the West Wing and they didn't realize how much it would apply to them.

And it's greatly applied to them, because not only has John Kelly tried to limit Jared Kushner's portfolio, he's also been pretty dismissive of Ivanka as well. This move to change the security clearance process, a lot of saw it as a direct affront on Jared Kushner himself, because he was the most known person for having a security clearance issue before the Rob Porter scandal broke out. A lot of people saw this as a direct affront on him. And people even

said people were worried to raise questions about Rob Porter's clearance issues because they knew it would resurrect the scrutiny that surrounded Jared Kushner's as well.

So, it could be a showdown between John Kelly and Jared Kushner here, because Jared Kushner's essentially fate lies in John Kelly's hands.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: The president just put it there.

And, Garrett, one of the other things we know is the Robert Mueller probe, they're looking at Kushner's activities, including financing he tried to get after the election while he was on the presidential transition team and simultaneously was the conduit for foreign governments trying to reach President Trump, president-elect Trump at the time.

GRAFF: Absolutely.

One, we talk about a lot this investigation and the Mueller probe as a Russia probe, but part of what we're beginning to see sort of hints of into this expanding probe into Jared Kushner and his business dealings during the transition is actually a China angle.

That's sort of something that we're beginning to sort of see some reporting. CNN this week breaking some new ground on that that has been previously broken and sort of opened up by "The Wall Street Journal" and "The New Yorker."

It seems entirely possible that Jared might have both a Russia problem and a China problem relating to his security clearance.

COLLINS: And the reason people have raised so many questions about him having an interim security clearance and having all this access to highly classified information is because he not only reads the daily brief that the president gets, that the president doesn't always read, we've found it.

Jared Kushner reads it, gets briefed on it by someone at the CIA, but he's also been one of the top White House officials who has requested more classified information than anyone else. He is going to go from having all this access to having zero access after this to that highly classified info.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Jeff, final thought, yes.

TOOBIN: Yes.

This is why companies have rules against nepotism. You don't have your son-in-law work in the White House, because you can't treat him like everyone else. If he were a normal employee, he would be out on his behind a while

ago, because he doesn't have a security clearance. Now he's in charge of Middle East peace negotiations with no security clearance? It is just a preposterous situation because he's the president's son-in-law.

TAPPER: Thanks, one and all. Appreciate it.

Are President Trump's thoughts on gun laws already changing from just a couple days ago? Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:19:00] TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead.

Throughout the day, President Trump has been trying to make changes to try to prevent another school shooting but one of the proposals he was touting yesterday he is not talking about today.

Let's bring back CNN's Ryan Nobles at the White House.

And, Ryan, the president's allies have told him to simmer down about specific policy proposals to address school shootings. Is he listening?

NOBLES: Well, Jake, judging by how the president spoke about that issue today, that may be the case. And for a moment today, campaign Donald Trump was back in full form but it did not take long for the president to be confront with the realities of his office and the big issues facing his administration, specifically what he's going to do about guns in America.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES (voice-over): The president promising action on guns, depending on the audience, though, his focus seemed to change. With Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a country that has strict gun laws on the books, the president talked about his plan to curb access to guns and strengthen security at schools.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want to be very powerful and strong on background checks, and especially as it pertains to the mentally ill.

[16:20:06] We're going to get rid of the bump stocks and we're going to do certain other things.

NOBLES: But earlier in the day, in front of CPAC, he touted his support for gun rights.

TRUMP: They'll take away your Second Amendment, which we will never allow to happen. They'll take away your Second Amendment.

(CHEERS)

NOBLES: That speech turned out to be the president playing his greatest campaign hits, abandoning his planned script within minutes. TRUMP: By the way, you don't mind if I go off script a little bit

because, you know, it's sort of boring.

NOBLES: Advisers touted this speech ahead of time as an opportunity for Mr. Trump to roll out tougher new sanctions on North Korea. Something he did do but briefly and almost as an addendum to his fiery remarks.

TRUMP: That was just announced and I want to let you know.

NOBLES: Instead, he hammered Hillary Clinton, and took a subtle jab at fellow Republican John McCain's vote on health care albeit not by name.

TRUMP: I don't want to be controversial so I won't use his name. OK? What a mess.

NOBLES: But both at CPAC and at his news conference, he conveniently avoided talk of his new tougher position on guns, raising the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21, a position that breaks with the NRA.

REPORTER: Mr. President, are you concerned that your position on gun control break from the NRA?

NOBLES: And while the White House seems inclined to do something about guns, the president is still sticking close to gun rights supporters, emphasizing his push for arming teachers and blaming the law enforcement response to the shooting in Florida, specifically the deputy on duty at the time of the shooting.

TRUMP: Frankly, you had a gun and he was outside as a guard and he decided not to go in. That was not his finest moment. That I can tell you.

A security guard doesn't know the children. Doesn't love the children. This man standing outside of the school the other day, doesn't love the children. Probably doesn't know the children. The teachers love their children.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: And one other bit of news that came out of that joint press conference today, the president was pressed about the lack of a security clearance for one of his top advisers and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The president said while he appreciates the work that Kushner is doing, he praised him in general, he said he would defer the ultimate decision on Kushner's future to his chief of staff, John Kelly -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Ryan Nobles, thank you so much.

My political panel joins me now for more.

I want to start with those comments from the president this afternoon about any -- he wasn't a security guard. He was a sheriff's deputy assigned to the school, had been there several years, was known and liked by people at the school, Scott Peterson. He has since resigned.

President Trump said, quote, a security doesn't know the children, doesn't love the children. This man standing outside of the school the other day doesn't love the children, probably doesn't know the children. The teachers love their children.

He's using that as a way of talking about how teachers should be trained and armed as opposed to a security guard. Although again, it wasn't a security guard. It was a deputy sheriff.

COLLINS: Yes, it's another way to support his idea. This has been the biggest proposal he's pushed since he first met with those students and teachers at the White House on Wednesday, those that survived the shooting. His idea is now arming teachers with guns and he's gone -- he's been pushing it pretty heavily. He floated other ideas, the background checks, raising the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21.

But arming teachers has been his big thing. He wants to arm about 20 percent of teachers. He wants them to have concealed carry. He wants them to get bonuses for having those, and he used that argument today saying they would care more essentially if there was a shooting and that they would try to protect the students more. But that's obviously proven, but he's using it from this case to make the argument.

TAPPER: Paul, what do you make of -- look, the Broward County Sheriff's Office is getting a lot of criticism and I'm not going to defend him, that's for them to do. And we're going to have some reporting on that later in the show. But what do you make of the president singling out the deputy who didn't run into the building as he should have, as was his job?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right, that was his job and I think everybody who hears about that. I mean, we saw that the sheriff was just heartbroken when he revealed that. And I thought he was candid, very transparent and very angry and heartbroken and I think we all are. And the president reflects that.

I do think as a general matter, president should hold back until they get all the facts. This is what's interesting about our president. Let me praise him, here's the best thing about Donald Trump, he doesn't drink. He is the drunkest sober guy I've ever seen in my life. He's just as crackpot on a bar stool, just popping up, well, teachers will be better shots than cops because school resource officers don't love them. That's like you know, what drunk Uncle Wally says.

I'm so glad he doesn't drink, because Good Lord, if this is what he's like when he has access to all the facts, all the research, all the best experts, ask the cops, ask the teachers, ask the experts. He's got them all right there at his fingertips and yet he just pops off like a drunk at a bar.

TAPPER: It looks like you want to say something. JOSEPH PINION, CHAIR, THE CONSERVATIVE COLOR COALITION: Look, I think that, first and foremost, particularly in communities of color, you're talking about trying to end the school to prison pipeline.

[16:25:06] You know, I think that, you know, when you start talking about the rise of things like Black Lives Matter, you haven't seen civil unrest until you see a student killed by a teacher a school because they were shot in the interests of safety because they felt uncomfortable, because they felt scared.

So, this whole notion that somehow the children will be safer because you're going to arm the teachers because the teachers care more, we have teachers right now that laid down their lives for these students.

TAPPER: That's right.

PINION: These teachers already are going above and beyond the call. And we are clearly not giving them nearly enough support. What we should be talking about is having a new approach in law enforcement, talking about having mental health embedded in our local police departments. You know, you talk about 30 years ago, 20 years ago, there was no such thing as special victims unit. We thought it was unwise, uses some expenditures.

You know, fast forward to today, we recognize it is a best practice for police work and makes it easier to solve the crimes. So, those are the types of innovative things that we should be talking about as a society if our true goal is to actually make people safer. Not this notion of arming teachers who are already doing what's best for the students.

COLLINS: Well, and the White House has been unable to answer specifics of how they would even carry something like that out, because a lot of teachers have trouble getting dry erase markers, for example. How are you going to give them a weapon? Who's going to train them? How do you decide which teachers?

Because the president has floated idea of ex-military, people like the chief of staff, John Kelly, a four star general, it should be people like that in schools that are armed there to protect the children. But there aren't a ton of four-star marine generals that are out looking for teaching jobs.

So, the White House hasn't been able to answer specifics of how this even would be carried out. How would they be regulated, how would they be thought, which teachers will be selected, who's going to pay to our 700,000, maybe a million teachers with guns across the United States. So, even those questions.

BEGALA: And even cop who's are highly trained, cops who qualify on a range, hitting there targets 90 percent in a range, when they're in an officer involved shooting, studies indicate that 70 to 80 percent of the shots that officers take miss. Maybe they had a bystander. Maybe they miss the perpetrator.

So, if the cop who are trained are missing 70 to 80 percent of the shots that they take in the active shooter situation, how many times this English teacher going on miss? It's just unwise.

TAPPER: The president did seem to be -- I don't know if he's backing away from it but he's not discussing today. Maybe we're reading too much into it. Raising the minimum age for purchase for nonmilitary purchasers of guns from 18 to 21. He talked about that a great deal and today he didn't.

Do you think he's backing away from it?

PINION: I don't think he's backing away. I think that, unfortunately, I think what the president struggles with is that fact that people outside of the courtroom hear what you're saying. You're going to CPAC and you're saying things that obviously gets the crowd excited, but it's being broadcast around the world. Even when we start talking about trade tariff and things of that nature, the other countries can also hear you.

So I think that the difficulty is not that the president doesn't intend to do something on guns, but I really do believe that we will get something done this time, because I think this time is different. But I think this notion that somehow you can have a different message for every audience in the interest of trying to keep everybody happy makes it very difficult for us in this public sphere to try to decipher what's actually going to happen.

TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, your reporting indicates that some of the president's allies have been cautioning him, don't get bogged down in the specifics. Just talk about in generalities what you want to do because obviously this is going to have to be done on Capitol Hill.

COLLINS: Well, there's a concern that he will get spun up from these emotional cable appearances, from these survivors, and there are so gun control advocates out there right now making these arguments for gun control measures. So, those close to the president are worried that he could get too into that and getting snared in that and then go a little too far. So, they said, hey, you've done enough with these proposals that you've already floated so far, there's no need to go any further because they're worried that he's going to antagonize his gun rights base that voted him into office.

So, that could certainly be a reason he's not bringing up the minimum gun age because that's something that is roundly reflected by the NRA officials that the president has been speaking to from NRA in recent days. And it's also something that's usually rejected by a lot of Second Amendment endorser advocates. So that's certainly something that could be on the president's mind here.

TAPPER: Paul, you were with Bill Clinton during the Clinton era when that was when the last time that any gun restrictions, or at least serious ones were passed. The Brady Bill, the ban on so-called assault weapons, et cetera, which has since expired. Does this moment feel like that to you? Or do you think that we're all kind of getting swept up in the emotion of what happened in Parkland? But ultimately probably nothing major is going to happen?

BEGALA: I think the politics on guns are even more toxic now that it was then. We had a terrific ally in passing the Brady Bill in Ronald Reagan. And he was retired --

TAPPER: And Gerald Ford also.

BEGALA: And President Ford who had been shot at twice, attempted assassinations twice. They helped -- President Reagan's imprimatur on that helped enormously.