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Ex-Trump Aide Flips, Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy; Florida Governor Calls for Change; Armed Officer Didn't Follow Protocol; Trump Wants Armed Teachers; Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 23, 2018 - 13:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We begin with breaking news. Former Donald Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, expected to plead guilty to criminal charges in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Our Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is outside the federal courthouse here in Washington.

Evan, what are the details? Will Gates fully cooperate in the investigation right now? And, clearly, this has major implications for Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: You're right, Wolf, it has implications not only for Paul Manafort, but also for this investigation. Which, as we know, is looking more deeply into the Trump campaign and any contacts with Russian -- with alleged Russian operatives.

In the next hour, we expect that Rick Gates will be here at the federal courthouse here in Washington to plead guilty.

He's going to plead guilty to two criminal charges. One of them is conspiracy to defraud the United States, and the second one is making false statements.

We were told, according to these documents today, that were filed in court today, Wolf, that as recently as earlier this month, Rick Gates met with the special counsel and with the FBI. And, according to the special counsel, lied about a particular meeting that he was being asked about. A meeting that goes back to 2013.

So, it appears that, as recently as earlier this month, at least according to the government, Rick Gates was lying in order to protect other parts of this investigation, perhaps Paul Manafort.

As you mentioned, Paul Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty in the 12 counts here in Washington and 32 counts that he's now facing in Alexandria, Virginia which were filed yesterday, Wolf. He says he's innocent of those charges as well.

The pressure is now on him, because Rick Gates is going to be a key witness. We expect that, as part of this agreement, this plea deal with the government, Rick Gates is going to have to provide some information to the government. And that would, obviously, be very bad news for Paul Manafort.

Until this point, Wolf, one of the things about this case is the government hasn't had, really, any witnesses, any big witnesses, to use against Paul Manafort.

That changes today at 2:00 p.m. when Rick Gates walks into this courthouse and he pleads guilty to at least these two charges.

Now, we don't know all the details of what he is going to cooperate with the special counsel. But, usually, typically, in these -- in these agreements, you have to essentially say everything you know, and that has implications beyond Paul Manafort.

We know, of course, that this special counsel investigation is looking at others inside the Trump campaign. And so, the question is, what happens to Paul Manafort? Does he flip?

And then, does he provide information about others that are under investigation in this special counsel probe -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It, clearly, is designed, at least in part, Evan, to put that kind of enormous pressure on Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, to go ahead and cop a plea himself. To plead guilty, to cooperate and hope for some sort of reduced sentence.

I assume that's part of the strategy here.

PEREZ: Right. Right, that has -- that has been the strategy from day one. We have seen very, very aggressive moves by the special counsel, Wolf.

Not only the 12 counts that were filed here in October, but, yesterday, they filed 32 counts across the river in Alexandria. These were tax charges. These were -- these were filing false income tax returns, failing to disclose foreign bank accounts.

Again, this is a man who is about to turn 69 years old. If he's found guilty of these charges, we're talking decades in prison. He's going to die in prison if he is found guilty of these charges.

We have heard a lot of bravado from Manafort's camp. They say that they are ready to go to trial. They are -- not only have they -- are they suing in civil court against the special counsel saying that he doesn't have the jurisdiction to these charges, but they say they're going to go to trial.

So, obviously, that a -- what we've also been hearing from Rick Gates. We've just learned in the last hour that he sent a letter to some of his friends and family members saying that he had always intended to fight. But he has changed his mind.

Wolf, this has been a very odd situation here because we've seen Rick Gates come to court here in the last couple of days, filing paperwork for himself. We know that he had some lawyers and that he had switched to another lawyer to try to help negotiate this plea agreement.

There was some question as to whether or not he would actually go through with that. And so, in the last couple of days, there's been a bit of a guessing game as to exactly how this would go.

And so today, we know that he's going to come in here and plead guilty at 2:00 p.m. -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the guessing is over, as far as Rick Gates is concerned.

Evan Perez over at the federal courthouse. Thanks very much.

Let's talk about this, get some analysis. Joining us, our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger and our CNN Legal Analyst Michael Zeldin. He's a former federal prosecutor. He worked very closely with Robert Mueller over at the Justice Department.

Gloria, you've obtained this very personal, very serious letter that Rick Gates has written to family members and friends.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And, you know, it is -- it gives you a little bit of insight into his thinking. And the stress and the pressure that he has felt before doing what he's going to do today at 2:00 in the afternoon.

And the portion of the letter that we've received is addressed to our friends and family. And it says, given the news reports of last week, I wanted to give everyone an update about some events that will occur today.

Since the indictment has been handed down last October, there has been great pressure on our family, and these last several months have been excruciating.

Last weekend, there were several news outlets that wrote false and misleading statements concerning my situation.

Despite my initial desire to vigorously defend myself, I have had a change of heart. And that reflect reflects Evan's reporting.

The reality of how long this legal process will likely take, the cost, and the circus-like atmosphere of an anticipated trial are too much. I will better serve my family moving forward by exiting this process.

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. I want to protect our family from further anguish and believe that ensuring their well-being is first and foremost.

This is one of the most difficult decisions that I have ever had to make. Please continue to pray for us.

And then the letter goes on.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a very emotional letter from him, explaining why he has decided to flip now and to cooperate, to plead guilty.

And it sets the stage, Michael, for, potentially, a lot of pressure on his boss, the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to do the same thing.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Exactly. You now have a very large amount of paper and electronic evidence against Paul Manafort. Now, you have a witness who can guide the jury, if you will, through all of that evidence to say, I was there. I was on the inside. This is what we were doing. This is what this document means. This is what this computer file means.

It makes it very difficult to overcome the prosecutor in a case like this. And, therefore, Manafort has to make the same, sort of, decision that Gates outlined in the letter that Gloria just read. Which is, am I going to go to trial twice?

Because there's a Virginia case and a D.C. case, in the hopes of winning which are almost nonexistent in the -- you know, in the tax cases and the failure to report foreign income cases. Or am I going to flip and plead and cooperate?

And I think the government really wants Manafort. I think what this is about is Manafort being able to explain evidence that the government has obtained, maybe through FISAs or otherwise, that they couldn't otherwise get into evidence without Manafort.

I think Manafort is the key to unlocking a lot of what the government's case may be on the collusion, if there is collusion, and on the counter-intelligence side of things.

BLITZER: And just some context, Gloria. Paul Manafort was the campaign chairman --


BLITZER: -- leading up to the Republican presidential convention. He was dumped afterwards. But, for months, he was directly involved.

BORGER: He was with the campaign for five or six months. I should also add that he was in the now infamous Trump Tower meeting that Don Junior set up.

BLITZER: With the Russians.

BORGER: With the Russians.

And that Rick Gates is important, also, because Rick Gates was in the campaign and then served. And so, I think he bridges a lot of time periods that they are -- that they are interested in. And you'll notice in the indictments, and you know this better than I. Rick Gates has always been described as, kind of, an accomplice, if you will. As the sidekick to Manafort. He was clearly directed by Paul Manafort in things that he did.

And so, it very clear that he was involved at every level but has intricate knowledge of what occurred.

ZELDIN: Absolutely. And you're right to say that Manafort was laundering 10s of millions of dollars and Gates was laundering single figures, single millions of dollars in money.

So, there's a difference between the two, but they were both together in what is, clearly, a conspiracy to defraud the United States government. That has been charged. That's count one. And he can walk everybody through that, if Manafort goes to trial.

BLITZER: And the second count -- the second charge is perjury.

ZELDIN: The second count is a false statement, correct. Interestingly, back at a 2013 meeting between a lobbyist and a Congressional member and Manafort.

[13:10:00] So, when I read this, I think to myself, oh, if I were company A, who is named in this thing, and that's one of the lobbying firms, this is not a good sign for me either. Because they've got that in the focus because that's the lie that they picked.

BLITZER: This -- and just to give it some further context right now. Manafort and Gates, they were serving as lobbyists. And they didn't necessarily register with the Justice Department on the Foreign Agents' Registration Act which is a crime.

But They were serving as lobbyists, as representatives for the Ukrainian president at the time, who was closely aligned with the Russians and Vladimir Putin. And that's how it's been brought into this whole Russia investigation.

BORGER: That's right. And don't forget, that's where the large portion of Manafort's income came was from that work for Ukraine for the Russian-backed president. And that was where all this money came from.

And when -- and when that spigot was turned off, that's when they tried to avoid taxes and hide their other income, right? I mean, that's how the scheme worked.

ZELDIN: That's how the scheme worked in part two. In part one, they were just flat out laundering the fruits of their successful lobbying campaign.

One has always asked, Wolf, the question, why did Trump bring Manafort onto the campaign? Some say it was because of delicate counts.

Others now are saying, well, it's because of what Gloria said. He has this connection to Ukraine which has this connection to Russia which creates the basis for the relationship that is alleged to be the heart of the collusion counter-intelligence part.


ZELDIN: But there's a lot to be sorted out which is why they need Manafort.

BORGER: -- you could ask the question the other way. Why did Manafort want to join the campaign?

ZELDIN: That's a very good question. In light of the indictment.

BORGER: It could be either -- you know, that question can be asked both ways.

BLITZER: Yes, he worked for the then-Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who has since left Ukraine and is living in Russia right now. And very, very clearly pro-Russian.

Now, there's a lot more. Both of you stand by. We're going to continue to follow the breaking news.

But there's other news we're following, including the president calling the former deputy, who stayed outside the Parkland, Florida rampage, a coward. We have new details in that investigation.

Also, the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, announcing some dramatic new proposals after the shooting, including age limit in Florida on buying any kind of firearm.



[13:16:27] BLITZER: An armed officer in every school, that's the demand right now from Florida's Governor Rick Scott, who today unveiled a long list of changes he wants made to Florida's gun laws. Listen.


GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: Today, I'm calling for a mandatory law enforcement officer in every public school. These law enforcement officers must either be sworn sheriff's deputies or police officers and be present during all hours students are on campus.

I disagree with arming the teachers. My focus is on bringing in law enforcement. I think you need to have individuals that are trained.

Banning specific weapons and punishing law-abiding citizens is not going to fix this. What we have to do is we have to -- we have to really focus on the problem. We've got to take all weapons away from people with mental illness.


BLITZER: Another big part of the governor's proposal is banning the sale of all guns to anyone under the age of 21. Right now in Florida you can purchase an AR-15 style rifle, for example, at the age of 18.

Our Kaylee Hartung is joining us from Parkland, Florida, right now at the Stoneman Douglas High School.

Kaylee, so what else is the governor calling for and how soon does he want all of these new steps implement?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Governor Scott wants half a billion dollars spent on protecting schools in this state. He introduced this three part plan, to address gun laws, school safety and mental health. This after spending a week talking with the students of Stoneman Douglas, the teachers, law enforcement, as well as leadership from state agencies and mental health experts.

The bottom line is, he wants to make it virtually impossible for anyone with a mental health issue or anyone who could be a threat to them or others to be unable to purchase or use a gun.

Let's roll through some of these points on his action plan. As you mentioned, he doesn't want anyone under 21 to have the ability to buy a gun. He wants there to be tougher background checks and longer waiting periods. And by the start of the 2018 school year, Wolf, he wants one law enforcement officers per every 1,000 students on a campus. That means Stoneman Douglas, last Wednesday, would have had three law enforcement officers for their 3,300 students on campus, as opposed to the one that they did.

He also wants metal detectors, steel doors and bullet-proof glass put in on campuses and he wants more dedicated mental health counselors on hand to help student through their problems.

He also mentioned a ban on bump stocks and said he may abandon tax cuts to help pay for school safety. And students among those who made the trip to Tallahassee to speak with Governor Scott earlier this week, Wolf, telling me they find this plan encouraging, but right now it's just words. They continue to demand action from the Florida state capital. The governor has two weeks left in this legislative session to, as he said, work aggressively with lawmakers to make this more than worlds, Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you point out, Kaylee, the governor wants an armed officer in every school.

But there was, as you know, an armed deputy at the Stoneman Douglas High School, where you are. And that armed deputy not being hailed as a hero. Quite the opposite right now. Tell us about that.

HARTUNG: Well, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel says he was devastated and sick to his stomach when he saw video surveillance of showed that one armed deputy on the school's campus get into position at one of the buildings on campus that day and stand there for upwards of four minutes as students and teachers inside the building were being slaughtered. He says Scott Peterson did not do his job that day.

[13:20:10] Per protocol, he should have entered that building. He should have approached the killer and he should have killed the killer. Well, now, Peterson is out of a job after more than 30 years on the police force. He's retiring after being suspended without pay.

Governor Scott among those calling for answers. He says the students and the families who lost loved ones that day deserve to know exactly what happened.

BLITZER: Kaylee Hartung on the scene for us.

Kaylee, thanks very much.

President Trump used the word "coward" today when talking about that armed school resource officer at the Stoneman Douglas High School. Here's more of what President Trump said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But when it came time to get in there and do something, he didn't have the courage or something happened. But he certainly did a poor job. There's no question about that. He was there for five minutes. For five minutes. That was during the entire shooting. He heard it right at the beginning. So he certainly did a poor job. But that's a case where somebody was outside, they're trained, they didn't react properly under pressure or they were a coward. It was a real shock to the police department.


KING: And joining us now from Parkland, Florida, is Alfonso Calderon. He's a junior at the Stoneman Douglas High School, a survivor of that shooting last week.

First of all, how are you doing, Alfonso?

ALFONSO CALDERON, FLORIDA SHOOTING SURVIVOR AND CO-FOUNDER, NEVER AGAIN MOVEMENT: Frankly, I'm tired. And not only mentally and physically from the hours of work, but because even though Governor Scott and the president are talking about change, there's still no laws being written. And I want that to be one of the principal issues because, of course, people want change now after students or survivors had to speak out on it. But when is it actually going to be written? That's my question.

BLITZER: Did you know this deputy, Scott Peterson, the armed deputy who was at your high school?

CALDERON: I did not. I only saw him sometimes in the front parking garage. But apart from that, I had never seen the deputy on campus.

BLITZER: What runs through your mind, Alfonso, when you hear that that armed officer stayed outside the school building and didn't go inside to actually confront the shooter, even though a lot of shots were being heard?

CALDERON: Frankly, it's heartbreaking, because when you're an officer, you say that you are going to dedicate yourself to serve and protect the public or whoever you're entrusted to protect. This officer did not do that. He failed the oath he swore by. Not only that, he ruined his career, he ruined his reputation, and now

there are 17 kids who are dead. Seventeen kids -- well, three adults, pardon me, but still, people died because of his cowardice.

And I just want to say, people are going to try to push now more law officers, just like Rick Scott said, one per 1,000 students. That's not going to help. What we need to do is stop the shooter from being able to acquire the gun, not put more guns into the school, give more money to the NRA and forward their agenda of a pro-gun America.

BLITZER: At this Conservative Political Action Conference that's going on here in the Washington, D.C., area, Alfonso, the president once again spoke about his plan to arm specially trained teachers. Listen to what President Trump said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You would have a lot. And you would tell people that they're inside. And the beauty is it's concealed. Nobody would ever see it. Unless they needed it. It's concealed! So this crazy man who walked in wouldn't even know who it is that has it. That's good. That's not bad, that's good. And a teacher would have shot the hell out of him before he knew what happened.


BLITZER: What do you think of the president's plan to arm specially trained teachers?

CALDERON: In principle, I'm glad that he's speaking about change. But, still, I think that's a terrible idea because, frankly, teachers are meant to teach and educate students. Teachers are not meant to be military grade soldiers. Teachers are meant to shape my future, help me throughout life and educate me. Even if they are undercover, that is still just funneling more money to the NRA, who is clearly not supporting our right to live. They're putting their right to bear arms over the pursuit of life and happiness. And I think it's fairly tragic.

BLITZER: As you know, the teachers and a lot of the staff, they are able to go back into the school as early as today. Students are going back, I understand, next, what -- next week, maybe Tuesday. What are your plans? Will you be able to go back into that high school?

[13:25:03] CALDERON: I hope that I'll be able physically and emotionally. But I already know that sincerely I -- I don't think that it's the right thing to do. I think this tragedy happened way too soon. They're trying to push to open the school soon enough so that kids have to go back to school and will stop speaking out about wanting commonsense gun laws. And that, to me, is disgusting, because I'm trying so hard. I am pushing day and night because I want this country to still have the Second Amendment and still be able to bear arms, semi or fully automatic guns, just -- there needs to be some common sense. How can an 18-year-old, who can't even buy a beer, buy an AR-15? How

can background checks be so loose? You can go to a gun show and walk out with a gun. There's no waiting period. There's no actual background check done. How can somebody, who had the police reported to his house 39 times in 2010, who was autistic, and got expelled from school for disciplinary reasons, be able to buy an AR-15 completely legally?

I think that this is a poly and they're just trying to force the kids and silence us. But I want to remind you all again, we will not be silenced because we are dedicated and we will continue with this movement and with the march on March 24, and all the other marches and rallies and committees and petition, and we will be there at every single one, at every turn, because this is what's most important to us, saving kids' lives, and honoring the ones who have sadly fallen due to terrible laws.

BLITZER: Alfonso Calderon, thanks so much for joining us.

CALDERON: It's a pleasure.

BLITZER: Good luck to you. Alfonso Calderon, a survivor.

Just in, we're getting past -- we're getting past calls the shooter made to 911 talking about his very emotional state. We'll (INAUDIBLE) assess.

Also, there's more breaking news. (INAUDIBLE) from now, a former Trump campaign adviser expected to flip in Robert Mueller's special investigation, which escalates the pressure on Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman.