Return to Transcripts main page


British P.M.: Russia Likely Responsible for Nerve Agent Attack; New Blast Reported in Austin After 2 Other Package Bombs; House Intel Panel to Announce End of Russia Probe Interviews; White House Dismayed as DeVos Struggles to Answer Questions. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 12, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't know that point, but we do know they're discussing it. Unless they get a full accounting of how that military grade nerve agent -- and that's the word Theresa May used, calling it Novichok. We'll go into that in a moment -- unless they get a full accounting of how that program's elements came to be here in the United Kingdom, then they will meet on Wednesday to discuss what she referred to as "unlawful use of force" by the Russian state against the United Kingdom. That term itself carries some international and judicial weight, I'm sure.

But let's recap exactly what she said. A military grade nerve agent was deployed. It was from the Novichok family. And that was developed by the Soviets in the '70s to get around various chemical weapons treaties that were in place. And it's also designed to be hard to detect. They say only Russia is capable of making this particular murder weapon. And they say there are two options here. Either Russia did this deliberately, and they have a form for that, murdering with a radioactive substance. Alexander Litvinenko, also a defected Russian spy in 2006. Either Russia did this deliberately or they're a rogue part of the Russian states that got hold of this and, therefore, Russia doesn't have control of its most-sensitive, its most-lethal nerve agent program. So they've given Russia until the end of tomorrow, end of Tuesday to explain exactly which of those two alternatives it is and provide to international U.N. weapons inspectors what exactly has happened, evidence of what has happened with this Novichok nerve agent program. A lot to digest there.

But remember, too, Russia was seminal in getting Syria to hand over its chemical weapons using a similar mechanism. And so the British are trying to lean on that here. If they're not satisfied by that response by Wednesday, then Britain will work out what full range of measures it can take, extreme measures that she referred to against what she said is an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against Britain.

I have to say a lot of detail there from Theresa May. A potential for this to really become a staggering moment in Russia's relations with the United Kingdom and possibly the West, too, because they are part of NATO here and have a close relationship, even under the Trump administration that has been criticized for being too soft on Russia. So a clock certainly ticking here. Just to recap, this all began a week ago, back last Sunday, when Sergei Skripal, a former spy for Russia, who was jailed for spying for Britain for MI-6, when he and his daughter, Yulia, went out for pizza, went out for a drink. They were found losing consciousness on a bench. It took about a week really for the fully scale of the troubles to come to light because it was only yesterday that the people who visited those two establishments told to wash all their clothes. That's about 500 people possibly affected. There is a lot of questions as to what was known when.

But Theresa May here, her first real public statement on this, stepping forward, naming the agent, saying it's very likely, it's highly likely it points towards Russia as the source. But really leaving it to Moscow now in the next 24 hours to say, yes, part of our weapons program is not under our control -- that's one option -- and allow the U.N. to render it safe. You have to suggest as a logical extension of that. Or to say, yes, this is actually something we potentially knew about. Unclear who Moscow will respond. They've denied any involvement so far -- Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We'll see how they respond tomorrow.

Nick Paton Walsh, in London for us, thanks very much.

Let's get some analysis from CNN global affairs analyst, Tony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration.

You heard Theresa May, highly unlikely that Russia was responsible, either that, or someone stole this very, very sensitive military grade nerve agent. Which is it?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYSWT: Wolf, this is very striking that Theresa May pointed the finger directly at Moscow, either doing it itself or having these nerve agents stolen and used in Britain is a very big deal. If it is Russia, if it is Moscow under the orders of Putin, as long as he's able to act with impunity, he will continue to act with impunity. So Theresa May calling him out is a very important first step in calling him for account. And if somehow these nerve agents got out and he lost control of them, that, too, we need to get to the bottom of. Russia has been in the nerve agent business. We got out of it. There is a very good reason to get out of it. And one of them is the stuff should never be used, but there is also the danger that it could wind up in the wrong hands. Either way, this is bad for Russia and it's good that Theresa May is putting the heat on Moscow.

BLITZER: If Putin was responsible for this, why would he risk the enormous consequences of getting caught? Presumably, as the British did, they determined what was used.

BLINKEN: In the past, he's gotten away with it. This is the thing about Putin. Whenever he can get away with something, unless you stand up to him, he'll continue to do it. So your reporter referred to the fact that, previously, as we know, in the U.K., a Russian who was there, a dissident, was assassinated using a nerve agent. Well, nothing much happened. This time, something needs to happen. BLITZER: Because the assumption, at least among some intelligent

sources that I've spoken to, is that the Russians deliberately wanted to send a message to some of their spies out there: You fool around like this, you may be swapped, but we're going to get you.

[13:35:06] BLINKEN: Yes. That's probably true. In fact, if you were listening to Russian television over the last few days, commentators on TV were pretty blatant about it. They weren't trying to hide the fact that Russia was behind this. They were sending a strong message to anyone that is an opponent to Putin, you're not safe anywhere.

BLITZER: Let's say the British government, Theresa May goes ahead and imposes sanctions, does something diplomatically if they're not satisfied with the Russian ambassador's answers, what does the U.S. do?

BLINKEN: Well, we've have 13 people who have been indicted by the special prosecutor, Mr. Mueller, for interfering in our elections.

BLITZER: Thirteen Russians.

BLINKEN: Thirteen Russians. We should be pressuring the Russians to extradite them. That's not going to happen. But at the very least, keeping the pressure on then getting INTERPOL to put them under red notice so they can't travel, to make life more difficult for them and make it tougher for them to enjoy the spoils that they've accumulated in Russia. Keep the pressure on.

BLITZER: Do you think the Trump administration will do that?

BLINKEN: Look, the fact that Mr. Putin just the other day not only declaimed any knowledge or involvement with these 13 Russians but even made vile accusations about who they were and who was responsible, he is basically laughing at us and mocking us. There is good reason for that. Just as he's had impunity to assassinate people around the world, he's had impunity to meddle in our elections. The administration has done nothing to push back and protect us, not just to deal with the past but to protect us next year.


BLITZER: Let me play the clip. This is what he said in this interview with Megyn Kelly on NBC.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translation): I don't care. I couldn't care less, because they don't represent --


PUTIN: They do not represent the government. I could not care less. They do not represent the interests of the Russian state. Maybe they're not even Russians. Maybe they're Ukrainians, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. Even that needs to be checked. Maybe they have dual citizenship or maybe a green card. Maybe it was the Americans who paid them for this work. How do you know? I don't know.


BLITZER: What do you think of that answer?

BLINKEN: Look, it's a very vile diversion. And Mr. Putin is a master at spreading disinformation, misinformation, lying just to create confusion. But at the same time, Wolf, honestly, he's mocking us by saying this. And he's mocking us because the administration has done nothing to stop the meddling in our elections. There hasn't been a single cabinet-level meeting held by Mr. Trump. No instructions. Of course, as we heard a week ago, the intelligence chiefs are waving a red flag in front of Congress saying, we need help, we're not getting the support and push we need from the president.

BLITZER: Yes. We'll see if that changes.


BLITZER: All right, Tony, thank you very much.

Breaking news. Police in Austin, Texas, are now responding to what could be the third possible package bomb. Why investigators now say they may be linked.


[13:42:10] BLITZER: Breaking news out of Austin, Texas, where police are responding to reports of an explosion. If confirmed, it would be the third reported bombing in the city over the past 10 days.

Let's go to CNN's Nick Valencia. He is following the story for us.

Nick, what can you tell us about this latest incident?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely terrifying situation in Austin right now. Police issuing a public safety alert telling citizens to be on guard. They are investigating at least three incidents. Earlier this morning, Wolf, they were investigating two incidents. Now within the last 42 minutes, we hear of a third.

They believe they're all connected because they're too similar. The victims in each case are going to the front steps, finding a package that has been hand-delivered, according to authorities, and when they open it up, that's when the package explodes.

We know at least one person has died as a result of today's explosion, a 17-year-old. And an adult female is also in the hospital with non- life-threatening injuries.

We're still waiting to get information on the third blast, but they are all in very close proximity. The first incident happened on March 2nd. That individual also went to their front step, opened a package and it exploded. They believe right now this could possibly be hate-crime related.

They're not ruling out any motives. But because of the victims in the first two cases, the victims were all African-American, so they believe that might have had something to do with it. We're still waiting to get the identities of the two victims that have been hospitalized as a result of the blast.

We also know, we should mention that South by Southwest is going on in the city right now. I check in with some sources that I have there. They have yet to make an announcement to the vendors or people visiting that festival.

But it goes without saying, very eerie, eerie moments in Austin in the last 10n days. At least three different explosions, three different residences. The suspect or suspects in this case or these cases remain at large.

We also got a tweet earlier from the chief of the Austin Police Department telling people to be watchful, be mindful, if they see something suspicious, a package not addressed to them, to call 911 immediately. But there is currently a public safety alert right now from the police, FBI, ATF, local police department all investigating these three explosions that have happened in the course of the last 10 days -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Very disturbing indeed.

Nick, I know you'll stay on top of it --

VALENCIA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: -- and update us as we get more information.

VALENCIA: You bet.

[13:44:38] BLITZER: Thank you very much.

Cabinet chaos. This time, the Secretary of Education under fire after failing to answer some basic questions about America's schools. One of her predecessors standing by to join us, live.


BLITZER: All right. There is more breaking news. The House Intelligence Committee's investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia is nearing an end. It's a move that's sure to infuriate the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee who say there is a lot more work to be done.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, who has the details for us.

A significant moment. Update our viewers, Manu, on what you've learned?

[13:49:40] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we expect Republicans later today to announce they are done with interviewing witnesses as part of the Russia investigation that's gone on for more than a year. The House Intelligence Committee is riddled with partisan strife almost from the beginning, over the role of the chairman, Devin Nunes, over the memos that came out this year, as well as the witness interviews that have taken place.

Democrats have contended that not enough interviews have been conducted, not enough witnesses have produced documents, and there have not been enough subpoenas issued for a range of documents from the Democratic perspective. But Republicans say it's gone on long enough. They believe they have come to consensus that there was no collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials as part of the 2016 elections.

So expect, Wolf, that now we get into the writing phase of the investigation now. Two competing reports. Republicans making their conclusions, Democrats making their conclusions, and no consensus between the sides about whether or not the Trump campaign worked with the Russians. This, as the Senate Intelligence Committee continues its investigation for some time. But a significant move from the House Intelligence Committee, one we expected but now is coming to its conclusion, at least from interviewing those key witnesses going forward -- Wolf?

BLITZER: There could be an announcement by the Republican leadership as early as today, is that what you are hearing?

RAJU: We expect the Mike Conaway, the Republican leading the Russia investigation, to make the announcement today. We expected this to happen Cory Lewandowski was interviewed last week. But just a sign of attention. Democrats say he did not answer enough questions about his conversations with the president. He should have been subpoenaed, according to the Democrats. Republicans don't agree with their strategy going forward. Expect this partisan announcement today. Republicans say the end of the witness interviews happening today -- Wolf?

BLITZER: It underscores the serious split, the partisan split in the House Intelligence Committee, unlike in the Senate Intelligence Committee where there is greater bipartisan cooperation.

Manu, thank you very much. I know you'll stay on top of the story as well.

Other news we are following, including alarm at the White House over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her interview answers over the weekend and today. Among them, an interview on "60 Minutes." Betsy DeVos was asked about the state of education in Michigan -- that's her home state -- and whether her policies on school of choice are having the promised effect of helping students and schools get better.


LESLEY STAHL, TELEVISION JOURNALIST, 60 MINUTES: The whole state is not doing well.

BETSY DEVOS, EDUCATION SECRETARY: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where the students are doing well and --

STAHL: No, but your argument that if you take funds away, that the schools will get better is not working in Michigan, where have you a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.

DEVOS: I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.

STAHL: The public schools here --


STAHL: -- are doing worse than they did.

DEVOS: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.

STAHL: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe tried to figure out what they're doing?

DEVOS: I have not -- I have not -- I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

STAHL: Maybe you should.

DEVOS: Maybe I should. Yes.



Joining us now is John B. King, Jr. Not our John King, out John King, a different one.

Thanks very much, Mr. Secretary, for joining us.

You were the Education secretary during the Obama administration. What do you think of that last answer?

JOHN B. KING, JR., FORMER EDUCATION SECRETARY: It certainly was hard to watch. But more concerning are the policies of this administration. Their unwillingness to protect student civil rights, their unwillingness to invest in public education, their unwillingness to do what's necessary to make our schools safer from gun violence.

BLITZER: What does she need to do now right now. She's the Education secretary? You are clearly concerned about the level of education in private schools.

KING: Well, if you look at Michigan, where the secretary is from, Michigan has been declining in performance relative to other states for the last few years, in no small part because of policies she supported, policies that --

BLITZER: Like what? KING: Policies that turned schools over to for-profit charter

companies more focused on profits than on students, an unwillingness to invest in public education. There are more opportunities for affluent students, not enough opportunities for low-income students. Those are places where she could be leading but isn't.

BLITZER: Some of the charter schools are pretty good.

KING: As you look nationally, there are places where you have high performing charters, but the problem in Michigan is there is no accountability for charter performance. You have a proliferation of very low-performing schools, examples of corruption, and you don't have the commitment in Michigan that you have in other states to ensure quality in the charter sector.

BLITZER: Has she reached out to her predecessors, including you, to come in, sit, talk, get some advice?

KING: No. We had conversations before she took office, but not since. And I worry that it doesn't seem like there is a lot of listening to teachers, students, and the things they are concerned about.

BLITZER: How concerned are you that funds for public schools around the country are going down in exchange for some of that money going to alternative, other school of choice options?

KING: I'm very worried about it. If you look at a state like Indiana, you see huge dollars going from public schools now being shifted to private schools through voucher programs that, again, don't have real accountability for performance, don't ensure students are doing well getting what they need.

[13:55:07] BLITZER: The argument is parents should have a choice. Public versus parochial school or charter school/private school.

KING: The question, though, underlying that issue is, where should public dollars go. I believe dollars should go to public schools that are publicly accountable. If a parent chooses something different, that's their choice, but we ought to invest in public education. It's the foundation of our democracy and our economy.

BLITZER: It's a huge issue. There is nothing more important than education, as we all know.

Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for coming in.

KING: Thank you.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.

Once again, only moments away from the White House briefing. Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, expected to face a whole range of questions on everything from Stormy Daniels's new offer to President Trump and the president's reversal on guns. Some sensitive issues coming up. Stay with CNN. We'll be right back.


[14:00:09] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching --