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THE SITUATION ROOM
Florida Officer Defends Actions; Trump Hits New Low in Approval Rating; Interview With Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley; War Games Loom Over Possible Talks with North Korea. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired February 26, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Under investigation. The House Intelligence Committee is meeting for the first time since the release of a Democratic memo containing new revelations about the Russia probe. How many Trump campaign associates were under FBI scrutiny back in 2016, and who were they?
Sinking feeling. The president's approval rating is back down to its lowest point ever in CNN's new poll. What is driving the latest surge of public discontent?
And the officer's story. The armed deputy accused of doing nothing in the Florida shooting defends his actions and denies being a coward. Local law enforcement facing a backlash and tough questions about their performance.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Twelve days after the Florida school massacre, the White House still is refusing to reveal exactly what President Trump will do in the end to help combat gun violence.
The president promising again today to turn grief into action and suggesting he personally would have acted to protect innocent students if he'd been at the scene.
This hour, I will talk with Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley about the president's rhetoric and gun policy. And our correspondents and analysts, they are standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, the president says he thinks he would have acted differently than some officers whose performance he calls disgusting.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
President Trump made this strange claim today that he would have tried to rescue the students at the Parkland school shooting. The White House tried to clean up those comments today, but there was not much clarity on exactly what kind of gun control measures the president would support, besides banning bump stocks, which weren't even used at Parkland.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much.
ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump insists he would have saved the day. If he had been on the scene of the Parkland school shooting, the president says he would have stormed the building.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I really believe I would run in there even if I didn't have a weapon, and I think most of the people in this room would have done that, too.
ACOSTA: Unlike the deputies, the president says, who choked.
D. TRUMP: They weren't exactly Medal of Honor winners, all right? The way they performed was, frankly, disgusting.
ACOSTA (on camera): When the president said earlier today that he would have run into the school, was he suggesting that he could have saved the day?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think he was just stating that as a leader he would have stepped in and hopefully been able to help.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Is he trained in using a handgun or a firearm of some sort?
HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don't think that was the point he was making.
ACOSTA: In a candid change with the nation's governors at the White House, the president revealed he met with leaders from the National Rifle Association over the weekend. It was no surprise when the president defended the gun lobby's intentions.
D. TRUMP: Don't worry about the NRA. They're on our side. You guys, half of you are so afraid of the NRA. There's nothing to be afraid of. And you know what? If they're not with you, we have to fight them every once in a while. That's OK.
ACOSTA: The president also continued to push his goal of ending the days of gun-free zones at schools in order to put more firearms in the hands, he says, of skilled shooters.
D. TRUMP: I don't want teachers to have guns. I want highly trained people that have a natural talent like hitting a baseball or hitting a golf ball or putting -- how come some people always make the four- footer and some people under pressure can't even take their club back?
ACOSTA: One of the Democratic governors in the room, Jay Inslee from Washington State, took issue with that plan, then offered the president some advice.
GOV. JAY INSLEE (D), WASHINGTON: I have listened to the first graders teach that don't want to be pistol packing first grade teachers.
So, would I just suggest we need a little less tweeting here, a little more listening, and let's just take that off the table and move forward.
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump did vow to ban so-called bump stocks, the attachments that allow semiautomatic rifles to fire like machine guns. That was the weapon of choice in the Las Vegas massacre last October, though not the Parkland shooting.
D. TRUMP: Bump stocks, we're writing that out. I'm writing that out myself. I don't care if Congress does it or not. I'm writing it out myself.
ACOSTA: The president need only look at the polls to see the growing support for new gun control laws now at 70 percent, a huge jump from the days after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. And the students who have been demanding action on gun control now have the first lady's seal of approval.
MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: I have been heartened to see children across this country using their voices to speak out and try to create change. They're our future, and they deserve a voice.
ACOSTA: Still, the White House appears to be staying on message. Even daughter Ivanka Trump sounded supportive of the idea of arming teachers in an interview with NBC.
IVANKA TRUMP, ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT D. TRUMP: I think that having a teacher who is armed who cares deeply about her students or his students and who is capable and qualified to bear arms is not a bad idea, but it's an idea that needs to be discussed.
ACOSTA: Now, the White House was asked whether the president is backing away from his support for raising the age for people buying assault rifles to 21 nationwide.
The president tweeted his support for that last week, but today Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, Wolf, would only say he supports that concept. Earlier today, the president said he's willing to fight the NRA on some of these issues. It's not clear if he is going to fight the NRA on that one.
BLITZER: Yes, the NRA opposes raising the age to 21.
Jim Acosta, thank you very much.
And now to the Russia investigation and a potentially tense meeting of the House Intelligence Committee tonight. Members of the panel are engaged in heated partisan clashes over the belated release of a Democratic memo designed to rebut Republican claims of FBI bias and misconduct. Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.
Jim, what more can you tell us about the memo and this meeting tonight?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: These members, they're members of the same committee, the same House Intelligence Committee. They're part of the same investigation into Russian meddling in the election.
But you couldn't have more contradictory opinions on what sparked this investigation. Republicans claiming that it was a dossier funded by Democrats, this Democratic memo released over the weekend by the White House on a quiet Saturday afternoon offering a very different view.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the House Intelligence Committee is meeting for the first time since the release of the Democrats' response to GOP claims of FBI surveillance abuse.
After weeks of debate, the Trump administration approved the memo's release with redactions on Saturday afternoon, leading the committee's ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, to accuse the White House of deliberately burying it.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: I'm not surprised, frankly, that the White House tried to bury this memo response as long as they could, but it's important for the public to see the facts, that the FBI acted appropriately in seeking a warrant on Carter Page.
SCIUTTO: Schiff's memo attempts to knock down Republican claims of wrongdoing by the FBI one by one. Item one, countering the GOP's assertion that the FBI opened its counterintelligence investigation into Trump-Russia ties based principally on the so-called Steele dossier, an opposition research document on Trump and Russia.
The memo notes that, in fact, the probe started in July 2016, seven weeks before the FBI team investigating Russia received the dossier. The memo states -- quote -- "Steele's raw intelligence reporting didn't inform the FBI's decision to initiate its counterintelligence investigation."
Item two, in response to GOP claims the FBI hid the political origin of the dossier, the Democratic memo says that in its first FISA warrant request, the DOJ in fact mentioned that Steele was paid by a political entity.
Those answers, however, did not keep the president from repeating those same GOP allegations, tweeting on Saturday -- quote -- "Dem memo, FBI did not disclose who the clients were, the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Wow."
He also once again accused the bureau of launching an illegal investigation. "The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal bust. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. So illegal."
In addition to responding to the allegations of abuse, the Schiff memo includes previously undisclosed investigation. For instance, by September 2016, the FBI had opened sub-inquiries into Trump campaign associates beyond Carter Page, indicating that Page was not the only person the FBI was looking at. The number and names of associates, however, is redacted in the document.
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes welcomed the release of the memo, claiming it proves his point of FISA abuse and also talking tough on the court system as a whole.
REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: We are not going to have a FISA court in this country any longer if the FBI and DOJ are going to continue to obfuscate like that.
SCIUTTO: Nunes also confirmed that he is moving forward in his own investigation of funding for the dossier.
NUNES: We have to make sure that people are held accountable so that everyone knows that it's never going to be OK to take dirt from a foreign actor.
SCIUTTO: The House Intelligence Committee will have another high- profile witness tomorrow, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.
The question, of course, Wolf, is what questions she answers. Does she answer any questions? Some previous witnesses, including Steve Bannon, have refused to answer most questions, citing a White House claim of executive privilege.
We noted today that Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat, said that they still have to issue a contempt order for Steve Bannon for refusing to answer those questions.
BLITZER: We will see what she does tomorrow.
Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, with that report.
Let's get reaction right now.
Senator Jeff Merkley is joining us. He's a Democrat who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Well, you're welcome. Good to be with you.
BLITZER: So, looking at the number of redactions in this 10-page Democratic memo, could House Democrats actually have revealed sources and methods if their memo had been released unredacted?
MERKLEY: Well, not having been directly in the loop to review it, I can't say specifically, but it went through the appropriate process.
And it makes the points that need to be made, which it completely discredits the Republican effort to sabotage the FBI's work. It's very clear what a political hatchet job the Republicans were up to, and I'm glad we finally got the facts out there.
BLITZER: Do you have any concerns, Senator, about how the Clinton campaign's financing and the Democratic National Committee's financing of the so-called dossier was represented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?
MERKLEY: Well, my understanding is that the way it was presented, saying that, in fact, it was initially funded through a political organization, is the way that it's normally done.
And that is, that it's not appropriate to bias it by saying what specific organization. I will leave it to the experts, but the experts say that this was the appropriate, professional way to conduct themselves.
BLITZER: These memo feuds on the House side, I know you're in the Senate, but they're pretty intense. Do you think they're distracting from the overall effort to safeguard future elections here in the United States?
MERKLEY: Oh, absolutely. The whole assault on the integrity of the FBI and on the integrity of Mueller and the special investigation are all about derailing the effort to get to the facts, facts that are so important to understand how the Russians intervened, who was responsible, who, if anyone, collaborated.
And getting to the bottom of that is the foundation for having a watchdog in America that says to the Russians, this can never happen again, and knowing how to prevent it from happening again. My concern is, we don't have a watchdog in the Oval Office. We have a lapdog for Russia. And that's completely inappropriate.
BLITZER: Let's turn to the issue of gun control. Do you support the Cornyn background check bill that is currently on the table?
MERKLEY: So, I think improving the background checks is absolutely essential. It's also important to get the right information into the system.
Oregon, the citizens have voted by initiative, close the gun show loophole, and the legislature has made other moves to close the Craigslist loophole and to take on the issue of stalking and domestic violence.
I think those sorts of advances are appropriate to consider. There may be some amendments necessary to really get a strong background check bill, but that's an important piece of the puzzle. BLITZER: The Democratic leader in the Senate, the minority leader,
Chuck Schumer, says this -- and I'm quoting him -- "If all Congress does in response to the Parkland shooting is to pass the Fix NICS bill" -- that's the Cornyn bill -- "it would be an abject failure and a dereliction of our duty."
Do you agree?
MERKLEY: Yes. Yes, I do.
I think it's important to look at the question of the age that the president has raised for acquiring weapons, whether in fact semiautomatic rifles should be sold in the United States, assault weapons should be sold.
We should certainly take a look at other provisions to try to ensure that we break this cycle of violence which gets worse and worse. We have had more than 30 multiple shootings occur just since January 1, mass shootings occur.
And so America is just on a track where you're not safe hardly anywhere, and it needs to change.
BLITZER: A political question, Senator.
Will an aggressive push by Democrats, your party, on gun control potentially hurt some vulnerable Senate Democrats in the November elections, especially in those red states?
MERKLEY: I think, on this issue, we just have to take it according to our personal beliefs about what needs to happen, and not all Democrats will agree. I don't think all Republicans will agree.
But, as I look across the country, I see folks saying, why can't we stop this? Why is it that we are having, as the students put it, these moments of silence, instead of moments of action? And that is a cry from the heart to say, come on, folks, let's do something about this. And I hope that that cry from the heart from the students is heard up here on Capitol Hill.
BLITZER: Let me read to you a tweet from the president over the past few days. This is a few days ago.
He said this: "I will be strongly pushing comprehensive background checks with an emphasis on mental health, raise age to 21 and end sale of bump stocks. Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue, I hope."
Are you with the president? Do you think that he can lead the Republicans into working out a significant compromise with the Democrats and pass new gun control legislation?
MERKLEY: Even as I listen to him and I listen to him say he can take the heat from the NRA, I'm reminded how just recently, on DACA, on the dreamers, he said he could take the heat from the Breitbart world.
And then he lasted only two days. So let's see.
I'm also concerned that he's going to take the NRA talking point, which is this is all about -- the way to improve this is arming teachers, which could make actually schools less safe, rather than more safe.
So, with some of those items, I'm with the president. But the president's leadership has not been shown to come forward and really drive productive deals so far.
BLITZER: What's wrong? The president talks about arming some highly qualified teachers to have concealed weapons in the classroom. Why do you think that is a bad idea?
MERKLEY: Well, let me give you some examples.
If you have those guns in the school, it's possible that they get into the hands of students and cause a problem. It's also the case that when one holds up a gun in that situation, they might well be the person shot at by the police, believing they are the one that is committing the atrocity.
So it's not a simple system. And I think that we're going to cause more harm than good with this strategy. And we need to do what Governor Inslee said today, and listen to our teachers.
BLITZER: Do you think anything significant is really going to change right now, despite the outcry that's out there led by these young high schoolers?
MERKLEY: I hope they keep up their cry. I know they're planning on coming here to Washington, D.C. Let's hope that they can really move the hearts of this country to say that this is important.
Back in my home state, guns are very important, and we have a strong tradition of weapons for collecting, for target shooting, for hunting. But all of that Second Amendment roles can be accommodated without having a situation where basically semiautomatic rifles are available in a fashion that enables one person with very large magazine capacity to mow down dozens of people.
BLITZER: The president says he will eliminate those bump stocks even if the House and Senate fails to do so. He will sign it away, he says.
Let's see what happens on all of these fronts.
Senator Merkley, thanks so much for joining us.
MERKLEY: You're very welcome. Good to be with you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, a new push for testimony by one of the president's closest advisers, Hope Hicks. Will she answer questions from the House Intelligence Committee? And the president puts himself in the shoes of the first-responders at the Florida school shooting. Our analysts standing by to weigh in on his statements land and whether he has a viable plan of action.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
D. TRUMP: I really believe -- you don't know until you're tested, but I think I -- I really believe I would run in there even if I didn't have a weapon, and I think most of the people in this room would have done that, too.
But the way they performed was really a disgrace.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, the House Intelligence Committee panel meeting now for the first time since the release of the Democratic memo rebutting Republican allegations of FBI surveillance abuses in the Russia investigation.
Let's bring in our analysts and experts to discuss.
And Kaitlan -- Kaitlan Collins has covered the White House for us.
The communications director, Hope Hicks, now scheduled to appear before the committee tomorrow. I guess they want to hear a lot from her. The question is, what is she going to say? Will she cite executive privilege and not answer the questions? Might be tomorrow, might be later in the week.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right.
And we don't know exactly if she will invoke executive privilege for any of those things, but she certainly was a key witness to many moments of the president's past few years. Not only was she part of the campaign and also the last 13 months in the White House, but before that she worked for doing P.R. for Ivanka Trump.
But certainly one incident that they're going to ask her about is the drafting of that initial statement aboard Air Force One when they were coming back from the president's overseas trip about that Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and the Russians.
And that initial statement said that the meeting was simply about Russian adoptions, but of course we later came to find out and it was widely reported it was actually to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. So certainly that is something that Hope Hicks will be asked about that.
BLITZER: Steve Bannon, when he appeared, he was willing to answer questions about the campaign, not the transition and not while he served in the White House. Will she do the same? And what if anything can the House Intelligence Committee if they do -- if she does that?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I don't know how she is planning on handling that, but there's only one thing they can do if they want the answers, which is vote to hold her in contempt and then to go to court to force her to answer the questions.
The Republicans who lead that committee have shown no inclination to do that regarding any witnesses. So basically they are giving White House witnesses a free pass to refuse to answer any questions they don't want to answer.
BLITZER: Go ahead. You're shaking your head.
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: This is a fraud. We just went through an exercise where one side of the committee says, I have a memo that exonerates the president, and he takes it and runs.
The other side of the committee says, I have got another memo that says everything that is happening is correct. Meanwhile, in the background, the only real investigator here, Robert Mueller, is dropping indictments left and right and flipping witnesses.
And after this charade on the Hill, Hope Hicks goes up and says, well, I may talk to you if I want, but otherwise I will invoke executive privilege.
Why do we take these guys seriously? I don't.
BLITZER: That committee, the House Intelligence Committee, Perry, is so divided already and potentially could even become more divided.
PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: Hard to imagine becoming more divided. It's already a broken committee.
But I think Jeff is right. It's just hard to imagine the House Intelligence Committee Republicans led by Devin Nunes really pressing Hope Hicks to say something negative about the president, because that committee has been very strong so far defending the president whenever possible, the Republicans on the committee at least.
BLITZER: Let me get your thought, Jeffrey.
The guilty plea in the Mueller investigation, now Rick Gates pleading guilty. Sarah Sanders says Manafort, Rick Gates, what they did and what they pleaded to happened "long before they were involved with the president."
What's your reaction to that?
TOOBIN: It's just not true. The indictment itself lists the conspiracy as going through 2017. It is factually not true that the criminal conduct to which he pleaded
guilty was somehow separate in time from his service in the White House.
Now, it's true that the specific conduct has not yet been tied to the White House and to the president or -- but -- and that may never happen, but the idea it took place before he worked for the campaign is just false.
BLITZER: I'm just curious. You have read the 10-page Democratic memo, and there are redactions, presumably some of them very -- maybe all of them totally legitimate to prevent the disclosure of sources and methods. What was your reaction when you went through them?
MUDD: I didn't think it undercut the core of the memo. As you read it, the redactions are a little bit sort of difficult to get through, they break up the memo.
But if you look at the substance of what the Democrats are saying, the redactions don't really undercut what they're trying to persuade the American.
I would say one thing, having been involved in exercises like this. People who redact stuff don't pay a penalty for redactions. You're better safe than sorry. I guarantee you some of that stuff that's blacked out isn't entirely secret. It's just somebody said, it kind of looks secret, it makes me nervous, I'm taking it out. There's no penalty for taking stuff out.
BLITZER: Adam Schiff had to sign off on it, and he did.
BACON: The key thing in this memo overall is the idea the Steele dossier was the whole thing that was used to justify the investigation. The Democrats pushed back strongly against that and I think made some reasonable points and some accurate points that a lot of Republican judges approved the surveillance.
And this is a much deeper investigation than just this one dossier.
COLLINS: And we should also look at how the White House handled the release of these memos.
With the Republican memo, they released it very quickly against what the DOJ and FBI had advised the president to do and the president was on a microphone saying he was 100 percent going to release the memo before he even read it.
Meanwhile, they blocked the release of the Democratic memo for two weeks and only was it released after some haggling over some redactions. So it's important to keep in mind the White House's role in both of these memo.
TOOBIN: On a Saturday afternoon.
COLLINS: On a Saturday.
BLITZER: Explain to our viewers why you think releasing it, let's say, mid-afternoon 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon could have been deliberate?
TOOBIN: Because there are times when the news gets less attention. Saturday is a day when, for example, Wolf Blitzer does not work.
BLITZER: If there's big news, I do.
TOOBIN: But there's not -- it's -- Anderson Cooper off on Saturday.
The main news, the ratings aren't as high over the weekend. That's why when people want to bury news they put it out over the weekend.
MUDD: And I would add, when we're at the FBI and we're sitting around the inspector general, who is really tough that the FBI was coming out with a report, if he was coming out Monday morning, the answer was always, he wants to own the news cycle for the week because you start on Monday mornings, not Saturday afternoons.
The Clinton White House, as you remember, used to release bad news late on Friday afternoon. Similar idea of burying it.
BLITZER: Early evening Friday night.
BACON: It didn't really work, though. The memo was still in the Sunday papers all over the country. It was on -- I know people don't read the news sources they used to. But still the memo was not buried. We're talking about it right now.
It was still able to become a big -- in the news cycle no matter what.
BLITZER: Did the Nunes, the Devin Nunes memo catch fire the way the Republicans had hoped?
COLLINS: It certainly didn't. And I think the White House realized that. That's why the president was trying to gin up some controversy surrounding the release of this Democratic memo, saying it was a bust, calling in to a FOX News show to talk about it.
So certainly it didn't get the reaction they wanted, but the president was certainly hoping this memo would not be as significant as it was.
BLITZER: Some of the tweets on Saturday, the president was on a tweetstorm. One of the tweets Jeffrey: "Dem memo, FBI did not disclose who the clients were. The Clinton campaign and the DNC. Wow." That's what he tweeted.
TOOBIN: He tweeted wow.
No, but they did disclose that Steele was politically motivated. So the idea that they didn't use the word Clinton is irrelevant and would have made absolutely no difference in whether this FISA warrant was approved or not.
MUDD: You know what's really relevant here?
We had a conversation, repeated conversations about Republican attacks on Mueller and the investigation. In the intervening weeks since the Nunes memo, we have had the Republican -- or pardon me -- the Russian indictments, the Gates flip. Nobody's talking about Mueller anymore.
The Nunes effort failed because the compelling nature of the Mueller indictments, I think, has led people to say, wow, this guy is onto something. You can't argue with the detail in those indictments.
TOOBIN: And the fact that the deputy campaign chairman of the Trump campaign just pleaded guilty to a felony.
MUDD: Yes. Yes. Yes.
TOOBIN: That's what's called a fact. That matters.
BLITZER: You know, Perry, the other tweet that sort of jumped out at me from the president on Saturday, "The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST." Bust all caps. "Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL." So illegal also all in caps.
PERRY BACON, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, "FIVETHIRTYEIGHT": I mean, it's playing into this whole idea, he's been blaming the investigation on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the whole time. This is kind of what he's trying to do with this memo.
I think the key thing is the Nunes memo did not undercut the investigation the way that Trump hoped it would, and so you're seeing he's now trying to still do that. But overall, the last few weeks has been the House Intelligence Committee's investigation not really that relevant at this point. The Mueller investigation is going strong, and that's what Trump should be worried about.
BLITZER: Kaitlan, how worried should they be over at the White House?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: About the Mueller investigation?
COLLINS: Well, we've seen so far that it's gotten closer and closer to the president. Rick Gates, he was someone who was involved with the campaign for a significantly longer time than Paul Manafort was. When Paul Manafort left, he stayed on and was a liaison between the campaign and the RNC. And he traveled with him through election day.
And then he was an outside adviser to the White House post-election day. So he certainly knows a lot about what was going non with the president. He was also very close to Paul Manafort so he knows a lot about what Paul Manafort knows.
So those things are worrisome for the White House. I think they tried to down play the roles that a lot of people who have either pled guilty or whatnot have had with the campaign and with the White House. But you really can't downplay the roles of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, even though they certainly have tried.
BLITZER: Yes. And Rick Gates has pleaded guilty, and so that's a significant development. Puts pressure on Paul Manafort down the road, maybe, to do the same thing.
Stick around. There's more news. Local law enforcement under investigation after the Florida school shooting. The officer who's been accused of choking is defending his actions as critics call for the county's high-profile sheriff to be fired.
[18:36:34] BLITZER: More now on the breaking news. The White House says President Trump was talking about leadership when he told a meeting of U.S. governors over at the White House today that he would have run into the Florida school shooting with or without a weapon.
Let's bring in our analysts and our experts. And Jeffrey Toobin, let me play the clip, the president weighing in on the actions of the police who were there, the first responders. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I got to watch some deputy sheriffs performing this weekend, they weren't exactly Medal of Honor winners. All right? The way they performed was frankly disgusting. I really believe -- you don't know until you test it, but I think -- I really believe I'd run in there, even if I didn't have a weapon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. That's generating a lot of buzz out there. What do you think?
TOOBIN: I think in fairness, when you look at his heroism during the Vietnam War, a prisoner of war for five years with -- oh, no, that was John McCain, I'm sorry. It's like -- it's ridiculous. I mean, it's embarrassing. I mean, I don't know, ask Phil Mudd. You know?
BLITZER: Go ahead.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think there's a serious issue. We're dealing -- obviously, we're dealing with a series of school shootings in this country. There are elements of our society who should be pulled into a presidential conversation: police chiefs, students, teachers and mental health professionals. And they've got a couple questions: How do we stop guns from getting in the hands of people who haven't committed a crime? How do we secure schools that don't have fences?
Instead the president is talking about "This is what I would do if I were faced with that situation" less than two weeks after 17 people are dead, including 15 children.
The question is quite simple. To honor those children, what questions should we ask ourselves to make sure it won't happen again? And it's not sure the president is securing the perimeter for a school.
BLITZER: He is, the president, using extremely harsh language on the police who were there, those first responders: a disgrace, disgusting, cowards, you know, words along those lines. And a complete, you know, after-action investigation is just beginning.
BACON: Right. Usually you think of the president as trying to unify, lead the country, speak in a healing way about incidents like this, and this language is so unusual for that.
Also no one's really asking Trump what he would have done when he was there. He's not a police officer. He's the chief policy officer of the country, and we still don't know what his actual policy plan is to fight -- you know, to stop these mass shootings. And that's not what I what to hear from him, it's not it.
And also, if you ask experts on mass shootings, none of them are talking about giving teachers guns. That's an issue that Trump has introduced that's not actually a solution from experts on the field on this.
BLITZER: The White House did, Sarah Sanders at the briefing later in the day, seem to walk back a bit of the president's assertion that he doesn't know what he would have done, but maybe he would have actually run into that school, even if he didn't have any weapons.
COLLINS: Well, yes. She was saying that he would have done it in a courageous act, not necessarily saying he would have gone in there to fire a firearm in that situation.
But it certainly was something -- a situation where the president -- I'm not going to defend the sheriff's deputy here, of course. I don't think anyone is in this situation. But it certainly was a situation where the president could have chosen to highlight someone who actually did show heroism on that day, say the teacher who died defending his students, protecting them, or the other students who rushed to the scene to help their fellow classmates. That could have been a moment to highlight that in front of all those governors at the White House, instead of saying what the president would have done in a situation that he likely is never going to be in. And I do think that's why a lot of people took issue.
BLITZER: And it's worth, you know, waiting for the full report, the full analysis to learn the lessons of what happened, mistakes that were made and try to prevent those mistakes down the road.
Jeffrey, let me play another clip of the president standing by his assertion that at least some school teachers should have concealed weapons in classrooms.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I don't want teachers to have guns. I want highly trained people that have a natural talent, like hitting a baseball or hitting a golf ball or putting. How come some people always make the four- footer and some people under pressure can't even take their club back?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He has suggested there be 10 to 20 percent...
TOOBIN: Why do you ask me all these crazy things he says?
BLITZER: Ten or 20 percent of teachers maybe would be qualified to have a weapon.
TOOBIN: Well, I mean, you know, he's changing, you know, every day what he's saying. You know he used to say 20 -- he said 20 percent the other day. There are 3.5 million teachers. So 20 percent of teachers means 700,000 armed teachers in the United States.
I don't know what he's talking about. I don't know if he means ten teachers, if he means hundreds of thousands of teachers. I mean, it's very much a moving target.
But the one thing that everybody seems clear is that it's an absolutely terrible idea to give teachers guns. None of the teachers organizations want them. None of the governors appear to want this, but that's his big project.
BLITZER: I quickly want to go to CNN's Kaylee Hartung. She's in Parkland, Florida, for us right now. Kaylee, I understand you have more on the investigation that's going on right now.
KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I do, Wolf. In advance of Stoneman Douglas resuming classes on Wednesday, the focus for students and teachers is on the emotional healing process. Of course, students continue to demand change to our gun laws, but otherwise, it is hard to deny the mounting frustration in this community directed towards the Broward County sheriff.
HARTUNG (voice-over): Tonight the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating authorities' response to the shooting at the request of Governor Rick Scott. This amid growing calls for Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel's suspension. More than 70 GOP lawmakers demanding in a letter to Governor Scott that Israel be suspended for incompetence and dereliction of duty.
Lawmakers claim Israel and his deputies had information about gunman Nikolas Cruz but failed to intervene. In the years, months and days leading up to the shootings, the FBI and local authorities received warnings about Cruz before the attack, including one caller who said he could be a, quote, "school shooter in the making."
Israel defended himself in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper.
SHERIFF SCOTT ISRAEL, BROWARD COUNTY: I exercised my due diligence. I've given amazing leadership to this agency.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Amazing leadership?
ISRAEL: I've worked -- yes, Jake. There's a lot of things we've done throughout this -- you don't measure a person's leadership by a deputy not going into a -- these deputies received the training they needed.
Jake, I can only take responsibility for...
SCOT PETERSON, POLICE RESOURCE OFFICER: I'm Scot Peterson. I've been a police officer for 30 years. I've been a school resource officer for 25 years, and go Eagle, anyway. And I also have been an officer at Atlantic Technical School.
HARTUNG: ... on February 14, and uncalled-for attacks upon his character. Peterson says he is confident his actions were appropriate under the circumstances, claiming he initially received a call of firecrackers and not gunfire, that he heard gunshots but believed that those were originating from outside any of the buildings on campus and that he initiated a code red lockdown of the entire school campus.
Sources tell CNN that when Coral Springs police officers arrived on the scene they were shocked to find three other Broward County deputies who had not yet entered the building, and two other deputies are on restricted duty amid an investigation into how they handled multiple tips warning of the killer.
Also tonight, an emotional thank you to doctors and rescue workers from Maddie Williford, who was released from the hospital after being shot in the chest, arm and abdomen.
MADDIE WILLIFORD, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: I'm so grateful to be here. And it wouldn't be possible without those officers and first responders and these amazing doctors and especially all the love that everyone has sent.
HARTUNG: And back at Stoneman Douglas, teachers continue the grueling task of preparing for students to return to school Wednesday.
GREG PITTMAN, STONEMAN DOUGLAS TEACHER: Today it was teachers only. It was a very, very, very down and very upsetting day in a way. Teachers are very stressed about being able to do the right thing for their students. People are stressed because again today, the mood was where some of the teachers had students die in their room.
HARTUNG: Sheriff Israel first said he was sick to his stomach when he saw surveillance owe showing Peterson's action that day. And now that we've received this statement from Peterson through his attorney, a response from the Broward County Sheriff's Department telling us, in accordance with Florida law, they are now prohibited from discussing any details of this investigation until the case is concluded -- Wolf.
[18:45:13] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. Kaylee Hartung with that report, thanks very much.
We'll assess that and a lot more right after this.
BLITZER: Let's get back to our analysts and our experts.
[18:50:01] And, Kaitlan, Ivanka Trump led the U.S. delegation into the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. And she had this -- she was interviewed by Peter Alexander of NBC News. Listen to this exchange.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS REPORTER: Do you believe your father's accusers?
IVANKA TRUMP, FIRST DAUGHTER: I think it's a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he's affirmatively stated that there's no truth to it. I don't think that's a question you would ask many other daughters. I believe my father. I know my father. So, I think I have that right as a daughter to believe my father.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, how's that playing?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, I can certainly see how it's uncomfortable to be asked. There's multiple allegations made against your dad that range from sexual misconduct to paying porn stars to sexual assault. And she answered the question, she essentially said she doesn't believe the women who have credibly accused of father of all of those things.
But Ivanka Trump is not just the daughter of Donald Trump. She's senior advisor in the White House. She has the title of special assistant to the president. She flies around on a plane that is founded by taxpayers. She represents that United States at the Olympics in South Korea, and she's supposed to be the champion of women in the West Wing.
So, I just can't fathom how someone who is a senior advisor to the president thinks that they should be exempt from being question about a credible allegations made against that president just because they're his daughter. She's not just his daughter. He's also a senior advisor.
BLITZER: How did you see it, Perry? PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT.COM: Just watching a regular person, she could have said no, of course not, as opposed to I have the right as daughter not to believe -- it was a very odd answer. It wasn't exactly the most exonerating answer she could have given to talk about the question and to discuss the question as opposed to saying, no, I do not believe the accusations, period.
BLITZER: It comes at a time when Jared Kushner, her husband, the president's son-in-law, also is senior adviser, is either going to be able to continue his work as special Middle East envoy and other issues without full security clearances or not.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think that's a smaller question than what was a hidden story this week not many people talking about it. That phone call from the deputy attorney general to the White House saying we're continuing the investigation. We can't fully clear Jared. Now, in the midst of the Mueller investigation, what do you think the code is that Mueller -- that Rosenstein was trying to pass in the White House.
If you can't complete an accelerated clearance in 13 months for the president's son-in-law, the message from the Department of Justice and the FBI is, it's never going to happen. And we got some nasty dirt on this guy. Otherwise, they would have cleared him.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: And why is he still working there? I mean, why is he working there without a security clearance after 13 months? It's just so completely outrageous. And again, it underlines the problem with nepotism.
Anyone else would be out on their behind and they should be and so should he because he works in an area that's highly classified. Nothing has more national security implications than our relationship with the Middle East, and he doesn't have a security clearance. I mean, like, how is he still working there?
BACON: You analyze the fact that Jared and Ivanka are people that Donald Trump trusts and everybody else he's not sure about, and that's what he wants them there in part.
TOOBIN: But either the rules apply to everybody or they're not rules.
BLITZER: All right, guys. We're going to continue our analysis of that.
But there's other news we're following as well, including a new possible stumbling block as North Korea says it's willing to talk to the United States.
[18:58:12] BLITZER: The Pentagon says the United States and South Korea are now talking about when to reschedule their big spring military war games. That comes as South Korea says North Korea is willing to hold talks with the United States.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.
Barbara, is the U.S. ready to sit down with North Korea?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRRESPONDENT: Well, you have to see how North Korea reacts to this notion the war games are going to start up again. Nobody knows what the reaction will be.
The U.S. position is they'll sit down when the time is right. When will the time be right now? Right now, fresh new sanctions on North Korea and the administration not ruling out the possibility that U.S. Coast Guard or even U.S. Navy ships could board ships that are busting the sanctions trying to move goods in and out of North Korea. Not likely to go over very well.
And there is fresh evidence commercial satellite imagery is showing that North Korea still continuing with its weapons program. There are signs of fresh digging at their underground tunnel where they test nuclear devices. There are signs they are working on their satellite program which is dual use, can be used in weapons, and signs that they are still running an experimental nuclear reactor that could be used in this nuclear weapons program.
Plenty of evidence that North Korea is continuing down the path it's always been on. No evidence yet that they are giving up their weapons. No evidence yet that the U.S. is ready to sit down. We'll see in the coming days if that Olympic glow begins to fade -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And we know the North Koreans hate those U.S.-South Korea military exercises. We'll see what follows that as well.
Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.
That's it for me. Thanks for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.