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A.G. Sessions Fires Back at Trump over I.G. FISA Abuse Investigation; Students Return to Douglas High School; Dick's Sporting Goods Makes a Stand; Republican State Rep. Matt Caldwell Reacts to Calls for Stricter Gun Measures. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:30:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Attorney General Jeff Sessions is now firing back at President Trump. Earlier, the president tweeted this: "Why is Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking the inspector general to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse? Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power, and already late with reports on Comey, et cetera. Isn't the I.G." -- the attorney general -- "an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL," close quote.

Let's go to our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett, at the Justice Department for us.

I take it you're now getting some response from officials there, including a statement from the attorney general himself.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, Wolf, a rare statement from the attorney general. After months of tweets and public humiliations and dressing downs, the attorney general is now breaking his silence and firing back against the president.

I want to read you the statement that we just received from him in full. He says, "We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary."

What he means there, of course, is the referral to the inspector general's office here at the Justice Department on the so-called FISA abuse situation from the Nunes memo.

Then he goes on, Wolf, and this is really important. He says, "As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution."

So Wolf, I can't convey enough to you how rare this is. After months -- you remember the tweet storm back in July when the president was going off every minute on the attorney general. He never said a word. And today is the first time he has broken his silence, Wolf.

And when asked -- I talked to a close source to the attorney general about what was the difference today, why today would he break his silence. I was told it was because the president went after DOJ attorneys. And for him, that was something of a red line. He felt like the president was just too in the weeds, weighing in on how DOJ attorneys, according to the president, should be prosecuted for FISA abuses, and for the attorney general enough was enough -- Wolf?

BLITZER: He went after the inspector general at the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz, who was named attorney general by President Obama, but earlier, to other senior positions, was named to those positions by President Bush. He's a career specialist in this area.


BLITZER: Laura, thanks very much.

There's a lot of anger, Gloria, at the Department of Justice. This public humiliation by the president of the attorney general of the United States, not the first time, but by name. Then ending that tweet in all caps, "DISGRACEFUL." It's extraordinary.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's not only against the attorney general. It's against the Department of Justice. You know, I can only imagine, what Laura's saying, is something that made Sessions finally decide that he had to respond.

And by the way, the inspector general who was approved unanimously by the United States Senate, who worked for both Republicans and Democrats, is also someone who routinely makes criminal referrals. So if he finds criminal misconduct, wrongdoing, then he can refer it. So, you know, let him do his work.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's exactly what his job is, Gloria.

BLITZER: The inspector general.


ZELDIN: The inspector general, he receives these sorts of complaints and he undertakes an exhaustive examination and makes a finding. As Gloria says, if it requires criminal involvement, it's referred to the Criminal Division for prosecution. If it involves ethical, it goes to the Office of Professional Responsibility, and they take care of it. That's what he's there for.

I think this is what put Sessions over the edge. The tipping point was to attack a career prosecutor, who's doing his job earnestly. To say it was a disgrace that this is the way it was being handled was just too much for Jeff Sessions. And good for him for protecting the people of the Justice Department. I think he's got to get a lot of hand clapping in the Justice Department from people at their desk.

BLITZER: A lot of folks, Gloria, as you know, they think the president would like Sessions to resign --

BORGER: Yes, he would. BLITZER: -- to quit so he could bring in someone else who would be

more acceptable. He hated the fact that Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe and as a result was unable to protect the president.

BORGER: Right. Look, you know, we've been talking about this since the summer. When will Sessions leave? The president doesn't like him. His anger is still there about Sessions recusing himself and not telling him in advance that he intended to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

I think there are a lot of people internally who are advising the president that he shouldn't fire anybody right now, that right now is an important point in the Mueller investigation and the president should not be doing anything with his attorney general. But we'll have to see where this plays out, because the attorney general is responding to the president saying, no, you don't, no, you don't, I'm sorry, you don't get to do this to my Justice Department. And we'll have to see what happens next. I think the ball is in the president's court right now.

[13:35:32] BLITZER: It is a pretty serious humiliation by the president of the attorney general of the United States and others at the Department of Justice. The president's making these statements. These tweets, these are official presidential statements, calling all of this disgraceful. It's pretty --


ZELDIN: We saw him do the same thing with McCabe, sort of creating hostile work environment so that McCabe retires early. Maybe that's what he's hoping for.

BLITZER: Former FBI director.

ZELDIN: Former FBI director.

BLITZER: Deputy FBI director.

ZELDIN: Yes, exactly. And maybe this is what he's trying to do. If he can't fire him, maybe he can humiliate him out of his job. Jeff Sessions has said today, I work for the Department of Justice, I have to protect the integrity of the Department of Justice. There are clear rules about communications between the White House and the Justice Department. You've overstepped that boundary again, and enough is enough.

BLITZER: Thanks, guys, very much.

Coming up, the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting make an emotional return to school today. I'll talk to one of the students about his first day back and how he's keeping the memories of his classmates so close.

Plus, taking a stand. The nation's largest sporting goods retailer announcing it will stop selling assault-style rifles.


[13:40:52] BLITZER: Truly emotional day today in Parkland, Florida, where students returned to the Stoneman Douglas High School for the first time since the horrific massacre there exactly two weeks ago. Seventeen people died on that day, 14 students and three adults. The building where the shooting took place remains closed and will likely be torn down.

Joining us now, Alfonso Calderon. He's a junior at the high school.

When I spoke to you last week, alfonzo, you said it was going to be really physically, emotionally difficult to return to school, but you thought you would. I assumed you were in school today. How did it go?

ALFONSO CALDERON, MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: I just want to start with it's difficult. A lot of people sometimes take for granted how hard it is to go back to a place that remind you of something so tragic. At the same time, it was actually very uplifting, because it was amazing to see how the community and all the students and the school got together. There were so many hugs and so much time just bonding with people and teachers and, you know, rebuilding those bridges that were once burnt. It was amazing. But at times very emotional for me.

BLITZER: Did most of the students go back today? Some decided apparently not to, right?

CALDERON: Absolutely. I would say most of the student body was there. As I said before, it was just an amazing spectacle to see because I saw teachers and students who used to get into arguments on a daily basis hug and cry in each other's arms. I saw people who wouldn't dare speak to each other just open up. It's really heartwarming.

BLITZER: And now it's going to be regular days as of tomorrow, all of next week. Everybody's going to be going back to school. What was it like going in? There was a lot of armed presence there, a lot of police, right?

CALDERON: Yes, I think some students might find it comforting, but personally I felt like I was choking, like if I was having an asthma attack. It was very difficult to grapple with everything, you know, especially with the freshmen building, which is where the tragedy happened. There's a fence built around it. There's armed officers at all times, including through the night now. Walking through there to get to some of my classes, it was tough.

BLITZER: Is that going to stay like that as far as you know? Are you going to have to endure that kind of police presence for the rest of the semester?

CALDERON: Absolutely. I'm sure that most of the police officers that were here today will be gone by next week, and the ones in school as well, but the ones around the building where it happened, those aren't going anywhere. That's still an active crime scene until the case has been settled. I think it'll forever be locked down.

BLITZER: Yes, it's an awful situation all around. I know it's painful and difficult for you and all of your friends at school.

Let me get your reaction to what's happened with Dick's Sporting Goods, a major retailer business that actually sold the Florida shooter a shotgun last year at the age of only 18. They say they will stop selling A.R.-15-style rifles. The CEO of the store, of the company, also says a decision was made for the kids of Stoneman Douglas.

You're going to have to be 21 from now on to purchase any kind of weapon there. What's your reaction?

CALDERON: I know I just talked about some very depressing issues, but I want to say that is the most uplifting news I have heard in a while. It's been very tough going to my state capitol in Tallahassee and being told that I won't be able to do anything or the Hill in Washington, D.C., and facing some trouble. But I'm glad to see that companies are finally hearing not only the children's outcry but everybody in this country who is sick and tired of the dysfunctional laws and system we have set in place. I'm glad that Dick's Sporting Goods supports common sense gun laws, such an as 18-year-old should not be able to buy a shotgun or A.R.-15. That's just not sensible. And I'm glad that companies, which are what will stop the NRA from doing what they're doing, basically killing kids, the companies are going to be the ones that are going to stop this. And I'm calling out every single company right now who is not in favor of cutting their ties with the NRA. The NRA has shown themselves to be toxic, vile, and to not support the right to live, which is in the preamble of the Constitution. I want them to remember they always talk about the Second Amendment, but that preamble is before it. Because of its importance and its necessity for America to be the way it is.

[13:45:38] BLITZER: Alfonso Calderon is a junior at Stoneman Douglas High School. Today was the first day back at school.

Alfonzo, we'll continue these conversations down the road. Good luck to you.

CALDERON: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Good luck to all your friends at school, your families. Thank you very much for joining us.

CALDERON: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Coming up, as the Parkland community continues to mourn, a Republican Florida lawmaker reacts to those calls for stricter gun restrictions, and whether he thinks there is any real change on the horizon. That interview coming up.


[13:50:32] BLITZER: Agents of change. While students are going back to Stoneman Douglas High School, the Florida legislator is debating gun control at the state capital in Tallahassee. An amendment to start the debate on assault weapons was defeated while a measure to arm teachers was approved by committee.

Joining us now from the state capitol of Tallahassee is Matt Caldwell, a Republican member of the Florida State House of Representative.

Thanks so much for joining us.

STATE REP. MATT CALDWELL, (R), FLORIDA: Absolutely, Wolf. Appreciate the opportunity.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to what we just heard from that student at that high school, a junior, Alfonso Calderon. He's very angry at the State legislature, at the U.S. Congress, and at the National Rifle Association. He says they're not doing anything substantive. What's your reaction?

CALDWELL: I don't think that's true. We're seriously considering new measures for school safety, programs that will involve the sheriff and local communities being directly involved in protecting these schools. We're looking at additional resources on mental health funding. I frankly, thinks it's way past time. We shouldn't have had to wait this long on mental health issues. I've supported things back in my district for years now. But this is an appropriate response in that regard.

Now, in terms of the other proposals, they violate the Second Amendment. At the end of the day, you won't have legislators, at least legislators like myself, who willing to cross that line. That's totally inappropriate. I no more going to violate the Second Amendment than I am going to violate someone's First Amendment rights. They're equally valuable and they're the bedrock of our country, Wolf. Absolutely.

BLITZER: You know that even the First Amendment, freedom of speech, there are restrictions, there are problems, that you can't cry, you know -- go into a crowded theater and you can't scream out "fire." That would be a violation of the First Amendment because it endangers people. So, there are restraints. And even the Supreme Court have said there are restraints on the Second Amendment, which gives the right to bear arms in the United States. Are you willing to accept any restraints?

CALDWELL: Listen, absolutely, Wolf. There's restraints. Children don't have the same access to civil rights as adults do. That's why child pornography is illegal, but the Supreme Court has said adults are free to use that as their First Amendment expression. That's a big part of actually what we're talking about right now, the discussion of whether or not 18, 19, 20-year-olds ought to be able to purchase a firearm. That's a contentious part of the bill. It's something I'm certainly pondering on and trying to figure out if that's really appropriate. I mean, the honest truth is, you have 20 million Floridians, so if we raise the age to buy a firearm, even a hunting shotgun or rifle, you're talking about 600,000 Floridians who will have fewer civil rights the next day. And that really gives me pause and I'm struggling with in terms of how we move forward on those proposals.

BLITZER: Your Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, says one common-sense change is, in fact, to raise the age to 21 to purchase any firearm. Are you with the governor on that?

CALDWELL: Again, that's really going to be difficult for me to get there. I need to see how that's going to make a difference. When you look at the different types of school shootings we have across this nation -- and each one of them is a tragedy. It really was spectacular to have the students come up here and visit and share their personal experiences one on one with me last week. And I do appreciate that. Some of the ideas they brought us are things you'll see us move forward on.

On this one, again, what is it really going to change? How will that affect the outcome? You look at the tragedy that happened in Sandy Hook, it didn't matter what the age restriction would have been in that instance. That maniac killed his mother and stole all her weapons.

We need to focus on mental health. We to focus on making the schools more secure. And we need to treat these individuals like they are. They're long-wolf terrorists. They're people that sit and plot and plan. They take six months, a year, to lay out a strategy, to look at the building, to evaluate how they're going to attack their peers and people they know. Their inspiration may not be religious but it's definitely terrorism in terms of how they go out and conduct these activities.


CALDWELL: And that's where I think our focus has to be.

BLITZER: There are a lot of steps under consideration, including raising the age limit.

But very quickly, Dick's Sporting Goods, major retailer, now announcing they're going to ban the sale of all firearms to anyone under the age of 21. They also will no longer sell these assault- style weapons like A.R.-15-style weapon.

Here is what the company's CEO told Chris Cuomo on "NEW DAY" earlier today on CNN.


[13:55:00] ED STACK, CEO, DICK'S SPORTING GOODS: When you look at those kids and their parents and the grief that everyone is going through, and we don't want to be part of this story any longer. We actually sold the shooter a shotgun in November of last year. We looked at that, found out that we did this, we had a pit in our stomach and said we need to -- we don't want to be part of this story. We need a responsibility to these kids.


BLITZER: Do you support the freedom that this chain, this Dick's Sporting Goods store, has to make a decision like that?

CALDWELL: Yes. Look, Wolf, I totally agree with the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case. Corporations have the opportunity for free speech. If they don't want to sell a gun, if they want to take a position in the public space that is a strongly held belief of theirs, they have every right to do that. By the way, I think that should extend to everybody. You'll see me disagreeing in cases where we force people to participate in activities they don't agree with. Those First Amendment rights extend not just to citizens but corporations that are made up of our citizens. That's for Dick's Sporting Goods to decide, and I certainly respect their decision in that regard.


BLITZER: Representative Matt Caldwell, thank you so much for joining us.

CALDWELL: Absolutely. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just in, a White House insider telling CNN that President Trump is growing more and more frustrated with his White House chief of staff and the enemies that John Kelly is apparently making, both inside and outside the West Wing. Stand by for new details.