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Interview With Washington Congressman Denny Heck; Florida Shooting Investigation Continues; Special Counsel Indicts 13 Russians for Election Interference. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 16, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: You cannot just call it a hoax anymore.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The special counsel indicts more than a dozen Russians for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, as the DOJ lays out a blueprint for how they wormed their way into social media feeds to help Donald Trump.

A stunning development in the investigation of the Florida high school massacre, the FBI now admitting it did not act on a tip about the accused shooter's desire to kill. Florida's governor even calling for the FBI director to resign, as the president heads south to embrace survivors and possibly face their rage.

Plus, Melania skips a ride with the president after a new report details another alleged Donald Trump affairs having with a Playmate and the systematic way in which a magazine bought her story so no one would ever hear it.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake today.

And we begin with the breaking news.

Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies indicted today by the special counsel for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the first charges by Robert Mueller specifically for that interference. We're talking about information warfare against the United States with the stated goal of spreading distrust toward presidential candidates and the entire U.S. political system, and specifically -- quote -- "supporting the presidential campaign of then candidate President Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton."

That according to the indictment. Moments ago, President Trump tweeted in response -- quote -- "Russia started their anti-U.S. campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for president. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong. No collusion!"

According to the indictment, the Russians created grassroots political groups and social media accounts. They purchased political ads, organized political protests, even stole Social Security numbers to pose as ordinary Americans and fooled unwitting Americans, including some people associated with the Trump campaign, fooled them into coordinating their political activities.


ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: The indictment alleges the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed.


SCIUTTO: Let's get right to CNN's Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz. They've been following this, reading this indictment word for word.

Evan, we heard immediately from the president today saying that this concludes, in effect, or indicates no collusion, rather, and no impact on the election. But did the indictments in fact make a judgment on that?


And, look, this is not over. We know that Robert Mueller has a lot more information and we don't know whether or not there are additional cases that are yet to come. But, as you mentioned, this is an incredibly detailed indictment that describes a very specific warfare operation against the United States.

And it was designed to exploit political divisions in the United States and in the end was designed to help Donald Trump get elected. It was called Operation Lokta (ph), which is apparently an area in St. Petersburg, Russia, which is where the Internet Research Agency was operating.

These are people who were showing up to work every day in Russia and they were simply operating behind the scenes, Twitter accounts, social media accounts, trying to drive the political conversation in the United States.

And by all accounts, they succeeded beyond their dreams. One of the big names among those 13 Russians that you mentioned is Yevgeny Prigozhin. He known as Putin's chef. He operates a big catering company that is tied to the government there.

And, apparently, according to this indictment, he was running this operation. They had a budget as $1.25 million a month. And it was sophisticated enough that sent people to the United States, sent them to purple states, Colorado, Virginia, Florida. Apparently, they knew enough about states that were in play in the 2016 election and again extraordinarily successful in this operation, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Remarkably politically savvy there.

There's a lot of tradecraft, is there not, Shimon, including the extraordinary length these Russians went to pose as Americans, even stealing their identities, traveling around the U.S. with escape plans?


There was mention in the indictment of this, that they went through this. They went through extraordinary -- what you would see almost in spy novels the kind of tradecraft that existed here.

They posed as Americans. They opened bank accounts, according to the indictment. They opened PayPal accounts. They stole Social Security numbers, fake dates of birth. All of that was used to try and open bank accounts so they could fund some of the ads they were buying on Facebook. Also to finance some of the rallies, some of the travel that at least two people, the indictment says, traveled in the U.S., made contact with people in the U.S.


All of this was funded by this person that Evan mentioned, and they were really sophisticated here. They were able to come here. They were able to make contact with Americans who believed that they were here in support of candidates, whether it is Donald Trump or whoever.

But they fooled many. But the government -- it is clear the FBI has been on to this all along.

SCIUTTO: And, Evan, when we look at this, to be clear, there were Americans contacted, apparently fooled by these Russians, including some members of the Trump campaign, but the A.G. Rosenstein made clear that was unwitting, that not wittingly that they were cooperating with these Russians, as far as the indictment is concerned.

PEREZ: Right. Exactly.

In this indictment, there's no allegation that anyone was wittingly cooperating, knowingly cooperating with the Russians. But they created Twitter accounts. For instance, one tied to the -- what pretended to be the Tennessee GOP, the Tennessee Republican Party.

And it was so successful that Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump Jr. were among the people who retweeted tweets, postings that were made by that Twitter account. It goes to show that you they were able to insinuate themselves into very powerful parts of our political system, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz, thanks very much.

Just moments ago, the White House released a statement reading -- quote -- "President Donald J. Trump has been fully briefed this matter and is glad to see the special counsel's investigation further indicates that there was NO COLLUSION between the campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected."

The statement attributed to the president himself says -- quote -- "It is time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations and farfetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors like Russia and do nothing to protect our principles and our institutions." I want to go now to Democratic Congressman Denny Heck. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which of course has been doing its own investigation into this.

Congressman, I just want to get at a point both the president and the White House made there. They say that these indictments indicate there was no collusion, no impact on the election. You have read the indictment. You have done your own investigation. Does it in fact make a conclusion on that?

REP. DENNY HECK (D), WASHINGTON: Well, Jim, I have read the indictment in full.

A, what the president asserts is not true. B, if he actually believed it, two weeks ago, he would have levied the sanctions that Congress passed by a vote of 517-5. And, see, the president's tweet utterances on the Russian investigation have long ago ceased to be relevant to anybody's serious consideration.

The required reading I recommend to Americans over the weekend is to actually go to the Department of Justice Web site themselves and read this 37-page indictment. It is a page-turner. It reads like a spy novel, as your reporter suggests, the depth and complexity and sophistication of the efforts on the part of the Russians to alter the impact of the 2016 election.

SCIUTTO: You noted, in that indictment, as you see there, it shows enormous savviness on the part of Russians here, for instance, targeting swing states, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, with these efforts, in addition to the tradecraft that they had as well.

Your committee has been doing its own investigation. Have you found similar evidence of these kind of activities?

HECK: Well, Jim, as you well know, we're fairly pledged not to reveal anything it is that we've learned within the confines of these interviews and this investigation, until such time as we reached the very end of it.

But, look, I would like to make sure that everybody understands that on page one of this indictment is the following sentence. And I want to read from it briefly.

"From in and around 2014 to the present, defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other" -- and here's the relevant language -- "and with persons known and unknown to the grand jury to defraud the United States," et cetera, et cetera.

This indictment of these 13 individuals is not the end of it, just like the indictments of Mr. Manafort, Mr. Gates, Mr. Flynn, and Mr. Papadopoulos weren't the end of it at all. To be continued.

SCIUTTO: Members of your committee have said to me, Republican and Democrat -- we heard the CIA director say the same thing last week -- that Russia continues activities like these. Is your committee aware of activities like we're seeing in this

indictment here, outreach trips to the U.S., attempts to interfere again?

HECK: So, there's some indication of that, as indicated in open sources.

In fact, it was no less than National Security Adviser McMaster who pointed to our allies to the immediate south, Mexico, that the Russians are currently, as you and I speak, interfering in their pending national election.


Look, until such time as the Russians are held accountable and they're made to pay a price for their interference, they are going to continue it. They have, they are, and they will.

SCIUTTO: Democratic Congressman Denny Heck, thanks very much for joining us.

HECK: You're welcome, sir.

SCIUTTO: What this indictment might tell us about the direction Mueller is headed. I'm going to talk with someone who knows him very well.

And that's next.


SCIUTTO: Well, if you can believe it, there is more breaking news on the Russian indictments just into CNN now.

An American, a California man, has pleaded guilty to identity fraud in relation to that special counsel investigation.

CNN's Evan Perez has been looking into this.

What are you learning?

PEREZ: Well, Jim, the man's name is Richard Pinedo.

And he pleaded guilty, apparently, earlier this year. This was just unsealed this afternoon after the other indictment against the 13 Russians was in that was released.

[16:15:00] But it really goes to an operation that had, apparently, which was to help people set up dummy accounts to circumvent the security features of companies like PayPal, which is one of the services that the Russians were using, according to that separate indictment.

And according to this, when in court, before this judge, the special counsel said -- a lawyer for the special counsel office said that this is the first criminal conviction arising from a particular facet of the special counsel's investigation, namely a Russian-backed operation to use social media platforms.

In other words, this is an operation that was aided and abetted by Paneto's (ph) system, which was to circumvent the security features of PayPal and other companies, Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Evan Perez, thanks very much. I want to bring you now Lisa Monaco. She was the former assistant to the president, President Obama for homeland security and counter-terrorism. Also, former chief of staff to Robert Mueller, knows how he does his investigations.

Lisa, really remarkable news from the investigation here.


SCIUTTO: Explain, if you can, to our viewers the difference between this and the intel community's assessment, which more than a year ago said Russia interfered. This one has got a lot more detail.

MONACO: Well this -- this really does. Look, in December of 2016, the intelligence community gave a unanimous assessment, an unclassified assessment saying that the Russians attempted to interfere in our election. That was, of course, backed up by a classified assessment which the public did not see. Today, we have 37 pages in black and white, an extremely detailed lay down of a covert operation information operation and warfare, as is described here, by the Russian government.

And importantly, this document has to adhere to a beyond a reasonable doubt standard. That's what prosecutors have to meet when they return an indictment or ask a grand jury to return an indictment. So they're saying that what they have meets a beyond a reasonable doubt standard, and that really adds and buttresses the intelligence community's assessment.

SCIUTTO: Do you -- it was interesting, noted, that A.G. Rosenstein, who himself has been in the crosshairs of the president, frankly, as -- as has Robert Mueller and the entire investigation. Him coming out today, attaching his name and face to these very detailed indictments, do you think he was looking for or perhaps earning himself a little job security today by that?

MONACO: Well, I think what he was doing was doing his job. He is, as you note, the attorney general for this matter, because Jeff Sessions is recused. And he oversees the work of the special counsel Robert Mueller and his team. So it's quite appropriate for him to announce such -- an indictment of such significance.

I also want to add to something that Evan Perez said, this new information about the guilty plea of this individual. It does tend to indicate, perhaps, where some of the detail in this indictment might be coming from if this individual is cooperating with the investigation. And that -- there's tremendous detail in this indictment and he may well be a source for part of it. SCIUTTO: So repeatedly -- and -- and to be clear, from Democrats and

Republicans on the relevant committees -- and we heard from the president's own CIA director last week, Russia continues to interfere. What, are you aware, is being done? And if you still had your position advising the president on homeland security -- and this is a homeland security issue -- what steps do you believe need to be taken to prevent ongoing Russian attacks that are not being taken right now?

MONACO: We should be doing at least three things, Jim. First is calling out and making very clear that the Russians are attempting and continuing to try to interfere in our election process. That's what the intelligence community did the other day in the hearing and this indictment adds to that. Second, we need to be imposing costs for the Russians' malicious activity and attempt to undermine our democracy.

That means sanctions, which the Congress passed a bill that the White House was not active on. And it means trying to hold accountable those individuals who are trying to undermine our democracy. This indictment goes a way towards that as well. And then thirdly, helping the states secure their election systems. We've got some 3,000 counties across this country who administer the elections.

We need to help them, provide them financing and resources to be able to secure their election systems.

SCIUTTO: If those steps don't happen -- and there really isn't a lot of evidence that many of those steps are happening right now, should folks at home be concerned that the 2018 and 2020 elections are vulnerable to Russian attacks?

MONACO: Well what we know is -- from the intelligence community, is the Russians are continuing their efforts and we know that there are cyber vulnerabilities across our infrastructure because we are so connected. We also have a very diffuse election system, as -- as I just indicated. So there is not that much time left before the 2018 elections and certainly before the -- the midterms here.

We need to be taking all these steps now. And I think we're behind the eight ball as we stand here today.

SCIUTTO: Lisa Monaco, thanks very much.

MONACO: Thank you.

[16:20:00] SCIUTTO: There is yet another big story breaking this afternoon. A staggering admission from the FBI, the explicit warning it received weeks ago about the now confessed Florida school gunman. But that warning was never acted on. Why? We go live to Parkland, Florida. That's next



ROBERT LASKY, FBI SPECIAL AGENT: This information should have been provided to the Miami field office. There, appropriate investigative steps would have been taken. The FBI has determined that protocol was not followed. The information was not provided to the Miami field office on and no further investigation was conducted at that time. The FBI is still investigating the facts of the situation. We will conduct an in-depth review of our internal procedures for responding to information that is provided by the public.



SCIUTTO: That was the FBI's top agent in Miami, admitting that his agency failed here. The FBI had a tip. It could have stopped the deadly rampage killing those 14 students and three teachers. Just six weeks ago, the FBI specifically alerted to the suspect's violent threats and actions.

A person close to Nicolas Cruz contacted the FBI to report concern about, quote, "Cruz's gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts," and listen to this, "as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting." Just remarkable.

Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions says the consequences of that failure by the FBI are, quote, "tragic." He is now ordering an immediate review of how the FBI responds to indications warnings like this about potential violence. CNN's Kyung Lah, live in Parkland, Florida, with more on this.

Kyung, this wasn't the first time the FBI was apparently tipped off about the suspect. I imagine the community there is very upset to hear this.

KYUNG LAH, CNN REPORTER: It's extremely upsetting, especially when you their words, that -- what they learned and what could have been done. That's why you're hearing so much regret from the FBI just now, saying, we live here, this is our community, we worship here, we send our kids to public school, this is our home.

But we are also hearing very strong condemnations from politicians, we're hearing from Florida Governor Rick Scott who says that this must lead to the resignation of the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray -- saying here, that apologies simply won't cut it.


As police comb through crime scene where 17 innocent victims were gunned down Wednesday, the FBI admits they did not act on a warning about might have prevented the massacre.

JOSH CAMPBELL, FORMER SFBI SPECIAL AGENT: This is the nightmare where you look back and identify that there was perhaps information in your holdings that could have saved lives.

LAH: On January 5, a person close to Nicholas Cruz reported specific details about his guns and his intent to carry out a school shooting to the FBI. Information the bureau says should have handled as a potential threat to life, but wasn't.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My heart was broken.

LAH: The FBI says protocols were not followed.

CAMPBELL: This is an organization of human beings. Even with some of the most advanced training in the world, there is absolutely no way to eliminate human error.

LAH: In a statement FBI Director Christopher Wray writes, we have spoken with victims and families and deeply regret the additional pain this causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy. The January tip is just the latest in a long line of red flags raised by neighbors, classmates and social media users; warnings that if acted upon, may have saved children.

FRED GUTTENBERG, FATHER OF VICTIM: My job is to protect my children and I sent my kid to school.

LAH: Fred Guttenberg's 14-year-old daughter, Jamie was among the youngest victims in Wednesday's massacre.

GUTTENBERG: Jamie took a bullet and is dead. I -- I don't know what I do next.

LAH: According to the county school superintendent, Cruz was expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School last year. Disciplinary records show he was involved in an assault last January. Afterwards, the school recommended a threat assessment but it is unclear what came of it. Tyler Salamone (ph) went to the elementary school with Cruz.

What could have led him to do this?

TYLER SALAMONE, FORMER CLASSMATE OF NIKOLAS CRUZ: I don't know what could have led him to do this but I know no one has been there for him.

LAH: The two attended smaller classes for students with developmental issues.

SALAMONE: Every time that I would see him, he would, like, start to get angry, but kind of, like, just close up, I guess. Like I said, when the kids would walk in, like, the people that would bully him or outcasts, he would close up and go into his shell. He was autistic and had anxiety so he had to learn differently.

LAH: More recently, concerned neighbors took this video of Cruz in his back yard, wearing, what looks like a red Trump campaign hat and boxer shorts, shooting what appears to be a bb gun.

Since 2010, police have been called to his home 39 times for domestic disturbances, abuse, and one report of a mentally ill person. Cruz's involvement is unclear. The news conference is still going on where the FBI is getting peppered by questions from reporters asking about what happened about the tip in January. The FBI promising, again, a thorough review and they will come out stronger on the other side. Meanwhile, we're getting another call from U.S. Senator Marco Rubio,

who based here if Florida. He is Florida's senator, saying the House and the Senate must conduct an investigation. He wants to know how public tips are reviewed and he wants those investigations to focus on that. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Just a heart breaking story at every turn. Kyung Lah, there on the scene for us. Thanks very much. Please stay with us. We're getting more news about this every hour. We'll be right back.