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Congress Under Pressure to Act on Gun Control; Syrian Airstrikes & Artillery Fire Rock Eastern Ghouta; Weinstein Company to Declare Bankruptcy; West Virginia Teachers Strike Over Low Pay, Benefits; Winter Olympics Wrap Up; Stoneman Douglas High Wins Hockey State Championship; Students Return to Stoneman Douglas High 1st Time Since Shooting. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired February 26, 2018 - 07:30   ET


[07:30:00] RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR There's a lot of reasons. I mean, again, the whole idea of the culture and the violent culture I think is somewhat unique to America.

And look, we can't compare America and the diversity we have and the freedom we have versus all the other countries in the world. We are the most-free country in the world when it comes to a whole variety of different rights. Free speech and the likes.

We have a Bill of Rights. Most countries -- almost no other country does. So we are more free and that comes with responsibility and that means we have to do a better job in our culture in shaping values than we're doing right now.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And one of those values is who gets a gun and under what pretenses, so we should be talking about both.

Rick Santorum, appreciate you being on, as always.

SANTORUM: Thank you.

CUOMO: Alisyn --


So, Chris, we've heard the promises before but can Congress make progress this time on gun violence? The Democratic co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus joins us to tell us their suggestions.


CAMEROTA: Congress returns to Washington this week as pressure mounts of changes to America's gun laws.

[07:35:00] A new CNN poll shows that 70 percent of the public supports stricter gun control. That is up 18 percent from our October poll that was taken in the days after the shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people, so something has changed this time.

Will lawmakers take action? Joining us now is Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. He is the co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. Great to have you, Congressman.


CAMEROTA: You're the Problem Solvers Caucus. How do you solve the problem of school -- let's just start -- forget gun violence, OK? That's very ambitious. How about school shootings? Where do you start?

GOTTHEIMER: I think we -- this is one of those areas and I think the father of one of victims said it best in the White House the other day. After 911, we all came together as a country, Democrats and Republicans, and we figured out a way to take on terror, right, and obviously made incredible progress in that goal.

There is no reason why, as Americans, we can't come together and solve this. Every other country has taken massive steps so why can't we? And I think what you're hearing is Democrats and Republicans in the last weeks say it's time.

CAMEROTA: But you've been working the phones even though Congress hasn't been in session and you've been talking to Republicans. So, are they on board? I mean, are there still impediments. What's going to happen in Congress?

GOTTHEIMER: And our caucus was just 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans. What I've heard -- and we've all been talking -- is what can we do, and I think that there's actually a real desire for action.

You saw that 19 Republicans, I think, wrote to the speaker saying let's get something done here. Let's bring up some -- let's bring up some legislation. Let's move along other bills that are there, sitting there and waiting.

I think now is the time and you're going to see us back in session this week and we're meeting as a caucus on Tuesday to actually -- to figure out what are those areas where we can agree and actually do something.

CAMEROTA: Well, you've just hit on it. Therein lies the rub. Leader -- your speaker, Paul Ryan -- is he actually going to bring something to a vote?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, I'm hopeful -- this is where I am hopeful. Keep the voices -- and it's the young people, right? You and I were talking about that. It's those voices that are really, I think -- really pushing everyone along and why this time is different. And I'm very hopeful this time is different.

But you have to find the areas where you -- where you can agree, right, and if we just retreat to our corners like we have in the past, nothing will get done. But if we keep up the pressure and keep up the voices, I think that's how it happens. CAMEROTA: Well, I agree but I was just talking to Jeffrey Toobin about this on the air and he's not optimistic because he thinks that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan -- you guys can do all you want behind the scenes and these teenagers can yell from the rooftops, but if Paul Ryan doesn't bring it to a vote then nothing happens.

GOTTHEIMER: Right, but that's why you have to keep up the pressure and I think present something that we can -- where enough people can accept it. And there are areas like background checks, like --

CAMEROTA: What would you do differently with background checks?

GOTTHEIMER: I think you need deeper background checks -- ones that address mental health -- and I think you need better coordination at all levels of government, right?

You see law enforcement at different levels and there's not -- they're not talking to each other and they -- even though their systems are supposed to be in place, they're not in place, right?

So I think there's steps like that that when I talk to my colleagues -- my Republican colleagues -- they said yes, I can get on board with that. Those are things that we can -- those are things we can fix. There are others that we won't be able to but I think there's an area where we can find common ground.

CAMEROTA: And you don't think that the gun lobby -- that the NRA is powerful enough -- to when your Republican colleagues get back to Washington, that they will suddenly have cold feet about moving forward with this?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, I don't think this is going to be easy, right? We've seen this in the past. I remember Columbine really well, 20 years ago, and we thought definitely we were going to close the gun control loophole after that, right? But this -- but, of course, here we are decades later.

I don't think that -- again, none of this is easy. We've seen this movie in the past.

The question is now, can it be different? Can we keep up with pressure and can we find the areas -- instead of actually always bringing up the areas where we disagree, where are the areas where we can agree? And I think that's going to be what's different here.

CAMEROTA: One of the most gripping interviews that we have done since this happened on Valentine's Day was with the mother of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff. I'll just remind people because her emotion, her grief, her anger was so raw. Here she is.


LORI ALHADEFFR, MOTHER OF FLORIDA SHOOTING VICTIM ALYSSA ALHADEFF: We need security now for all these children that have to go to school. We need action -- action -- action.


CAMEROTA: There she was with her husband and with Alyssa's father.

I bring them up because they were originally your constituents. They were from New Jersey. Four years ago they moved to Florida. They told me that they chose Parkland for the schools, OK? I mean, just the sick irony --

GOTTHEIMER: It's heartbreaking.

CAMEROTA: -- that they chose Parkland, which was considered the safest town in Florida and they loved the school system there.

They were your constituents. I know they have lots of connections to New Jersey.

What's the fallout there?

GOTTHEIMER: Lots of connections and you -- you know, that's not just in the papers everyday but it's actually people calling you up. And again, Democrats and Republicans saying this time is different and we have to do something and listen to the voices of moms and dads and, of course, all these young people who are -- if they don't get you moving I don't know what will.

And, you know, that's why you have to actually -- and I really believe this strongly, as that father said and the mothers have said -- we've got to act -- we've got to come together.

There's no reason why as a country we can't solve this if we work together and I think that's what we're committed to and we're going to get to work today on this and that's what I really believe and I'm hopeful for.

[07:40:05] CAMEROTA: I know, and I like your hopefulness.

But just one last time, do you have any reason to believe that your leaders have changed? That something has changed with them and that they're going to take action?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, in the past, we have -- well, we haven't been able to get things done in the past -- we've said that -- and it doesn't mean we keep -- but we have to keep working and trying, right? And I think the biggest mistake would be to just go to a default position and say forget it, nothing's going to get done. Our job is actually to keep working for it.

Will we get there? I believe we will if we keep working on it and if we keep the voices up. But I'm hopeful the next time we sit down here we'll have gotten it done.

CAMEROTA: Very quickly -- I know that we're out of time but can you just tell me about what you're doing about high taxes in your state because I know that hit so many New Jersians hard?

GOTTHEIMER: Yes, and property -- because of the gutting of the state level tax deduction after the tax hike legislation at the end of the year, many people in New Jersey's taxes are actually up, not down. Property values are already down, according to Moody's.

So we're trying to do when we've got legislation is moving in the state Senate today on this is use a provision that 33 states have been using for decades now which allows towns to create charitable funds in their towns for parks and for law enforcement that people can contribute to, and the town can give you a property tax credit -- a deduction on your property taxes in exchange, and you pick up a federal tax deduction.

This is a way for us, in Jersey, to fight back after they just raised our taxes. And the courts have ruled on this, the IRS has put out a memorandum on saying this is OK. And, 33 states, mostly red states, have been using this provision and now we're going to in New Jersey.

CAMEROTA: Interesting. We've heard about these workarounds. It will be very interesting to watch what New Jersey does.

Congressman Josh Gottheimer, thanks so much --

GOTTHEIMER: Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

CAMEROTA: -- for being here -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right.

Speaking of schools and what can be done, there's a teachers' strike going on right now, shutting down schools across West Virginia. Why did they walk off the job? What will bring them back? That's next.


[07:45:30] CUOMO: Eastern Ghouta -- during its seventh consecutive day of artillery fire and airstrikes all from the Russian-backed Syrian regime.

An opposition-run health organization says some of the injured may have been exposed to chlorine gas. Russia's foreign minister called those allegations hoaxes. There's a familiar word.

The violence coming despite a month-long ceasefire brokered by the United Nations on Saturday. The Syrian regime says it is targeting terrorists in Eastern Ghouta and will continue to attack, even with a ceasefire in place.

CAMEROTA: Back here at home, "The New York Times" and multiple outlets are reporting that the studio cofounded by disgraced film producer, Harvey Weinstein, is filing for bankruptcy. "The Times" reports the board of the Weinstein Company announced the plan last night after last-ditch talks to sell the firm's assets to an investor group for $500 million collapsed.

CUOMO: President Trump reportedly pushing for his personal pilot to become the new head of the FAA. Axios reporting John Dunkin is on the administration's short list. Dunkin piloted Trump's plane during the presidential campaign. A senior official says he has prior managerial and administrative experience and had an impressive interview for the FAA job.

CAMEROTA: Schools across the state of West Virginia will be shut down again today. Striking teachers walked off the job last week to protest low pay and benefit cuts.

Let's get the latest from Polo Sandoval. He is live in Charleston, West Virginia.

What's the situation, Polo?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, today is the third day that schools across the state will be closed, at least public schools. Teachers tell us this is much more about just getting a raise. It is about getting help from the state to help pay for the rising costs of premiums. Sure, you can give them a 3 percent to 4 percent raise as the state did last week, except more is being taken out of their paycheck to pay for their benefits. So as you're about to hear, some teachers have to find other sources of income.


JACOB FERTIG (ph), ART TEACHER: As a professional degreed teacher working two jobs, I qualified working for WIC and food stamps. I collected on the WIC. There are a lot of times where we had to choose between groceries and, you know, health coverage for my family. So this isn't just an issue of a bunch of people squabbling over a little bit of insurance benefits and a little bit of pay. We are really in a bad place here.


SANDOVAL: OK. One potential solution, according to the teacher you just heard from, is perhaps establishing a dedicated tax that would help teachers shoulder the cost of these benefits.

What does the state say about this? Jim Justice has not only signed that 3 percent to 4 percent raise, but he admitted, yes, teachers are underpaid, and this is a step in the right direction, but the state does not have enough room in the budget to pay for this.

Finally, what about the 270,000 students across the state that will be home again today for the third school day? Teachers recognizing they do also struggle economically, at least many families. They actually sent homework and food with them on Wednesday before this strike began on Thursday -- Guys?

CUOMO: Polo, interesting facets to that situation. And also interesting because West Virginia is not unique in terms of these budget crunches. It's a poor state. But we could see --


CAMEROTA: That is a wonderful context that Polo gave us, that the teachers are basically at poverty level. They need food stamps even with a full-time job. That's got to be fixed.

CUOMO: That's right.

So, the Winter Olympics wrapping up yesterday. Saw the closing ceremony. TEAM USA didn't do that well. It just didn't. There were much higher aspirations.

Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report."

We all support the flag, support our athletes out there giving their best. But it was a tough round this time.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: It certainly was, Chris. Despite having the largest contingent of athletes ever at the Winter Games, the U.S. finishing fourth in the medal count. TEAM USA ended up with just 23 medals, the worst showing in the Winter Games since 1998 when we won just 13 medals.

But there were plenty of good moments to celebrate. First daughter, Ivanka Trump, she was on hand for the closing ceremony yesterday. Jessie Diggins, your flag bearer for TEAM USA, Diggins and her partner, Keith Randall (ph), they won the first ever cross-country skiing medal for the U.S., taking gold with that thrilling finish.

The Stoneman Douglas hockey team giving the school something to cheer about, winning the state tournament yesterday. The team upsetting the top seed in the tournament early on Sunday before beating Tampa, 7-4, to win the state title. The players then dedicated the championship to the 17 people who lost their lives in the shooting.


[07:50:06] MATTHEW HOROWITZ, HOCKEY PLAYER & STUDENT: I love the way our team came together this weekend. It's been a rough week for all of us. Hockey for us is more of a stress reliever. We come out on the ice and we were just release everything.

UNIDENTIFIED HOCKEY PLAYER & STUDENT: We were playing for the 17 that passed away out here.

HOROWITZ: It's been a tough week. We came here to win and came here to go nationals. We all just came together and got the win.


SCHOLES: Marjory Stoneman Douglas will now compete in the high school hockey national championships which take place next month in Minnesota. Now the team that originally, considering the circumstances, they didn't know if they were going to go compete, but they said they sure glad they did.

CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. Everybody's so glad they did. What a great outcome for them this week.

Andy, thank you very much. So classes do resume Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High

School. How do the kids feel about going back? One of them is here with us, next.


CAMEROTA: For the first time since the mass shooting, Stoneman Douglas High School opened its doors to students and faculty for an orientation late yesterday.

Shooting survivor and Stoneman Douglas senior, Brandon Abzug, was there and joins me now.

Brandon, thanks for taking time to talk to us this morning.


CAMEROTA: What was it like to go back yesterday?

ABZUG: It was a very surreal moment. On one hand it was nice to see my friends again who I haven't seen most of them in about two weeks and seeing some of my teachers, but on the other hand walking past the freshman building and seeing the memorials for the first time was very hard sight to see and this shouldn't have to happen at any other high school or any school in the country or world for that matter.

CAMEROTA: The freshman wing where this happened has been sealed off, the windows taped over. I mean, it must look very haunting. What's it going to be like on Wednesday when you all have to go back to school full time?

ABZUG: I think it will be an extremely emotional day. I believe that we're going to all eight periods instead of four each day that we typically have, and it'll be a half day of course. I think it'll be a day to adjust, a day to spend time with friends and teachers, people that we've spent the whole year with and prior years before, so it's going to be hard, but it'll be nice to be back home.

CAMEROTA: So much has come out this week in terms of all the missed signs that could perhaps have stopped this gunman. All the times that the sheriff's office as called to his House, all the different warnings that didn't get to the right ears or didn't cause any action or trigger any action. The sheriff there was on CNN this weekend trying to explain some of this with Chris Cuomo. Let me just play a portion for you.


SCOTT ISRAEL, SHERIFF, BROWARD COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: I can only take responsibility for what I knew about. I exercised my due diligence. I've given amazing leadership to this agency --


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR & CNN HOST, THE LEAD: Amazing leadership? ISRAEL: I brought -- yes, Jake. There's a lot of things we've done

throughout. This is a -- you don't measure a person's leadership by a deputy not going in to -- these deputies received the training they needed.


CAMEROTA: So, Brandon, a lot of state lawmakers are calling for that sheriff to lose his job. Do you think that he bears responsibility?

ABZUG: I think he should definitely keep his job. We know about this one time are where they dropped the ball, but we don't know about the 999 other times where they did do things to save us. In this instance, there are two specific times he said where deputies should have acted using the baker act and taken away the killer's guns, but it didn't. I'm confident that he will go through in this investigation and hold those accountable and overall, I've watched him on TV. I saw him at the town hall. I like what he's saying. And I believe that he will keep us safe in the future.

CAMEROTA: That's awfully generous of you. That's really kindhearted after what you've lived through.


CAMEROTA: You put out a tweet --


CAMEROTA: Go ahead, Brandon.

ABZUG: Right. And I've known in this one instance, it's very hard to keep one person accountable. It's a whole bunch of people. And we need to move forward and, you know, make sure that this doesn't happen again.

CAMEROTA: You put out this tweet that I think captures some of your, you know, generosity of spirit. You say, "As we continue to learn new information, my school realizes that the FBI, our SRO" -- meaning the officer who was at your school - "three sheriffs' deputies and politicians themselves failed to keep us safe, but as Yoda once said, the greatest teacher failure is. Now is our opportunity to make things right, #neveragain."

What do you want to see happen now?

ABZUG: I think the most important thing starts with banning semi- automatic rifles. The governor's plan, which he released earlier this week, it's a good plan and a good step in the right direction, but in no way is that fully what we need to do. Other countries have problems with mental health and things like that, so when we do not take care of the major problem which is these types of guns then we're not completely solving the problem, and this could happen again. And another thing is, it doesn't necessarily have to happen at schools. It can happen anywhere. At a park or concert. We've seen these things happen at Orlando, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, and we can't have security everywhere. So by getting rid of the semi-automatic rifles, it would be the best step in the right direction.

CAMEROTA: OK. Brandon Abzug, thank you for talking to us. We appreciate talking to you in this entire tragedy, and we'll be watching on Wednesday. Thank you very much.

ABZUG: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: We're following a lot of news. Let's get right to it.


ISRAEL: One person didn't do what he should have done. It makes me sick to my stomach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whoever didn't do their job has to be held accountable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we don't fix --