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Trump Supportive of Background Checks; Lawmakers on Gun Laws; DC-Area Students Hold Lie-In; Funerals for Florida Victims; Gates Deal with Mueller. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 19, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:20] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John Berman, in for John King.

President Trump holed up and fired up during a weekend at Mar-a-Lago after Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians with a plot to interfere in the U.S. election. And students beg lawmakers to act after that deadly school massacre in Florida. Now the White House says the president supports approving federal background checks.

Plus, heartbroken and blindsided. The family who opened their home and their hearts to the shooter before the rampage speaks out.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) everybody seems to know we didn't know. We had rules and he followed every rule to a t.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And before he moved into your home, how well did you know him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had met him a couple times before. He had spent the night at the house. And he was very polite. He didn't -- he seemed normal.


BERMAN: CNN has learned that the Parkland, Florida, school shooter had obtained at least 10 firearms, all of them rifles, according to law enforcement officials, in the year prior to the shooting.

Meanwhile, President Trump may have found an opening to take action after last week's massacre. Today, the White House is signaling a willingness to talk, saying in a statement, while discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system. It's possible the president is reacting to the strong language from the students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where a 19- year-old gunman who had faced questions of mental illness killed 17 people. Many students who survived are grabbing every microphone they can reach to demand action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ALEX WIND, FLORIDA SHOOTING SURVIVOR: If Donald Trump wants us to -- wants to listen to us, he should have taken the first invitation. We are not going to come to him. He needs to come to us.

EMMA GONZALEZ, FLORIDA SHOOTING SURVIVOR: I'm going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association.

DAVID HOGG, FLORIDA SHOOTING SURVIVOR: President Trump, you control the House of Representatives, you control the Senate and you control the executive. You haven't taken a single bill for mental health care or gun control and passed it. And that's pathetic.

CAMERON KASKY, FLORIDA SHOOTING SURVIVOR: My message for the people in office is, you're either with us or against us. We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.


BERMAN: Many of those same students also reacted when the president chose to connect the tragedy in Florida to the Russia investigation, suggesting the FBI was spending, quote, too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. There is no collusion, the president said.

Here to share with me their reporting and their insights, Bloomberg's Toluse Olorunnipa, Caitlin Huey-Burns from RealClearPolitics, "The New York Times'" Jonathan Martin and Mary Katharine Ham from "The Federalist."

Toluse, I want to start with you, because we're seen the pressure that these students from Parkland, Florida, are putting on lawmakers, putting on adults around the country right now. Has it changed the parameter of this discussion? This morning we saw the president come out and say, you know, I could support perhaps federal background checks and tweaks there.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": Yes, I think it's very clear that the words from these young people is sort of something that's differentiating this particular tragedy from previous tragedies that we've seen in the past where we've heard about thoughts and prayers and then not very much action happens afterwards. Now these young people are actually calling out lawmakers, calling out the president by name. You know the president spent a lot of time watching TV this weekend in Mar-a-Lago. He tweeted as much. And it's clear that he's hearing the voices of these young people.

And I think that's part of the reason you're seeing the White House say, we're open to some type of gun legislation, which is something that, you know, the president, who has supported very wholeheartedly by the NRA, had previously been against. He did not think that there should be any new laws that would maybe restrict the rights of gun owners. Now they're looking for some kind of common ground, maybe fixing the background check system. A bipartisan bill by Senator Cornyn and Senator -- and the senator from Connecticut, Chris Murphy, because they realize that something needs to be done. We've seen these tragedies happen over and over and not much action in Congress. BERMAN: So the question is, do they and are they, right, because this

legislation that the White House seems to be open to from John Cornyn, the Texas senator, this was introduced in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, Mary Katharine. This deals with background checks. This deals with reporting domestic abuse. It deals with the military reporting discharges and the like.

Is there room for common ground here? Can this get past?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, "THE FEDERALIST": Look, I think -- don't know if the underlying big issues of this debate have changed, because, frankly, you always have the two sides who are pretty dug in. I do think that there's always been some opening for some of these tweaks. The issue, of course, is that in 2007 we actually did an NCIS improvement amendments act post Virginia Tech's shooting which allowed for connecting databases and making sure that mental health stuff was reported. It has not gone that well. And so I think the quickest path, I think, is to go for some of these tweaks that improve what already exists on the books and allows for things to be more openly shared.

[12:05:13] But, as always, in the United States of America, liberty and security are going to butt up against each other and you are going to have some issues, as the ACLU did, with Obama's actions on the mentally -- the mental health part of this and gun checks.

BERMAN: Sure. The Cornyn bill, not controversial. Wide support. You know, bump stocks, changing that, wide support.

HAM: Right.

BERMAN: Not particularly controversial at this point. You would think if there is a will, they could get that done quickly.

Jonathan Martin, the president, down at Mar-a-Lago all weekend, asking the people staying there, apparently, what he should do on this.


BERMAN: Affected, we are told, by his meetings with people on Friday.


BERMAN: And only this morning, before he goes golfing, we see this on the background checks. What do you make of it?

MARTIN: This is a sort of non-ideological president who basically is driven by media coverage and the last people that he talked -- given this is not new, we've been living this for two and a half years now, but he -- he was, I think, wise enough to go into the primary in 2016 to realize he had to make some accommodations to secure the Republican nomination, right? Guns, the issue of abortion, I think, he sort of made clear where he was to accommodate the Republican base, and he's not really wavered on those issues.

This is the first time that you're seeing some signs of wavering. And I -- really a core issue for elements of the part because, again, he sees the media coverage, that's what drives it. He sees kids on TV and I think it bothers him. And so now he's looking for, well, what can we do? Again, it's more, what can we do, rather than, what's going to be effective to stop future shootings. It's, how can we stop the media coverage of these kids and change the tenor of the coverage? And I think if that is this Cornyn background check, he'll be supportive of it, as long as, I think, the NRA is OK with it and many senators.

But what's real fast, John, because you mentioned bump stocks, if a week from now or a month from now this has faded and we're on to ten new things and there's not any kind of urgency in the Congress, that he's not going to be for it because, again, the coverage will have moved on.

BERMAN: The kids -- I keep calling them kids and, you know, I shouldn't after what we've seen over the last week.


BERMAN: The students are organizing this march on March 24th.

MARTIN: Right.

BERMAN: So there's a month here, at least. So you have a month-long window, I think, at a minimum for this to happen.

And, Caitlin, you know, it's interesting, we've seen lawmakers speaking on this. Just this morning right here on CNN, Ted Deutch and Carlos Curbelo, both from Florida, one Republican, one Democrat, talking about where they might be able to meet on this. Let's listen.


REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: We should be done talking about this and these should be passed and signed into law next week when we're back in Washington.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA: And Ted can put me down on his legislation right now. I will add my name to it as soon as he is ready to file it. I think that Republican leadership is starting to realize that Americans aren't going to accept that this is the new normal. Americans aren't going to accept that we may drop off our kids at school one day and that they may not come home because someone slaughtered them.


BERMAN: You know, one of the words they used there, Caitlin, was leadership. You know, Paul Ryan, what's he going to do next week, you know, when they're back there? Is this something that will be a priority, do you think?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Right. I think what you bring up about the issue of momentum, especially on gun control issues, is so critically important. We've seen that over and over and over again. Yet there is bipartisan support for background checks broadly. But, again, it depends on what the details are.

And any time -- you know, we've already seen big issues with big bipartisan support in the public go down and fail, really. I mean DACA was the recent example.

And also you also have this kind of new bogeyman of sorts in the FBI, right? People are pointing to the FBI mistakes as, OK, let's focus on that. And so it's a lot more complicated than just support. And also it depends on what the president's endorsement is actually, right? Is it an endorsement for this bill? Will he be kind of whipping votes if they do decide to bring it to the floor? There's so many question marks left.

BERMAN: The real question is, is there an acceptance to agree on the things that are already agreed on? I know that sounds counterintuitive there, but it's true. I mean there is some area, if they wanted to, they could get something done very, very quickly. Are they going to keep the debate in that area where there is agreement, or are you going to see both sides try to shift it.

I want to play Rush Limbaugh, who was talking about this over the weekend. Let's listen.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, CONSERVATIVE RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: The solution is, we need concealed carry in these schools. If we are really serious about protecting the kids, we need a mechanism to be defensive when this kind of thing -- if we're not going to take action to stop it, we better have mechanisms in these schools to stop it when it breaks out. If we don't do that, then all the rest of this is nothing more than political posturing for the 2018 midterms or the 2020 election.


BERMAN: You know, so he says it's no more than political posturing for 2018, 2020. I'm not sure that people like the political posturing on this for the elections. It's a tough issue for candidates sometimes.

OLORUNNIPA: Yes, it is a tough issue for not only Republicans but also a lot of red state and conservative area Democrats who have seen, in the past when they've voted for gun control type bills, they've been voted out of office. So this is something that in some ways they want to keep in a very narrow section. They want there to be areas where there's both bipartisan support for things like fixing background checks, but when you talk about putting more guns in schools or arming teachers, then you enter into a more thorny political environment and you -- and it's going to be more difficult to get a bill passed.

[12:10:26] HAM: I would also say that like at the FBI, something like a missed protocol, or places like ATF, where they do -- where they have had issues with several shootings, having missed some of these red flags.

BERMAN: Yes. HAM: A working group or study of some kind that deals with that and tries to figure out how that can be improved actually would be helpful, too.

BERMAN: How many people saw something and said something in this case.

HAM: It doesn't have to be a solution, right.

BERMAN: They were told January 5th, and there was no action taken.


BERMAN: That clearly has to be addressed here. And that may be a separate issue completely --

HAM: Right.

BERMAN: You know, from the gun issue.

Just to circle around and end on the kids, where we began this discussion -- and I did it again, I keep on calling them kids -- these students, these young -- these young people who are, in fact, you know, bringing up this discussion, how can you counter that if you are the White House or if you are, you know, guns rights advocates? How do you need to address that, Caitlin? What's the difficulty?

HUEY-BURNS: It is difficult. And, again, I bring up this question of the attention that this is getting, right? We have seen -- you know, I am really curious to see how Democrats try to kind of harness this -- the momentum and energy among young folks, thinking about a lot of these students who are seniors in high school potentially eligible to vote at some point. Whether that is kind of the goal instead of right now -- legislation right now, kind of whether elections are the goal.

BERMAN: All right, guys, stand by for one minute.

Next, it is a painful day in Florida as more victims killed in the Parkland school shooting are laid to rest.


[12:15:54] BERMAN: All right, this is happening now outside the White House in Washington, D.C. These are live pictures of students protesting gun violence. They're laying on the ground, I think, for three minutes at a time, again, to protest the government inaction over the last several years on the issue of gun violence and the call for action now.

Let's go to Ryan Nobles, who's standing by at this protest.

Ryan, what are we seeing right here?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, what you're seeing is a group of high school students from the Washington, D.C., area, who saw what happened in Florida last week and decided to take action. This group, basically through social media organizing and telling their friends and neighbors to come here to the White House North Lawn. And they're staging what they're calling a die-in here.

So just a few minutes ago before we came to you live, they read off the list of victims of gun violence in schools over the past decade, and then this group of young people, these are all students in high schools in the area, laid down on the ground in front of the White House, a White House that I should point out is still displaying a flag at half-staff in honor of those victims of the Parkland shooting. And they're -- they're -- what they're attempting to do here is represent the number of young people that have been killed as a result of gun violence in schools across the country.

And their message is pretty clear, John. They want members of Congress to take action. And specifically they want them to take action to write and pass into law stricter controls for firearms across the country. They believe that is the big problem here. And that they're sick of members of Congress talking about this and not doing anything. We've seen some shirts that have said, enough of your thoughts and prayers, it is time for action.

And as you can see here, John, this is a pretty dramatic moment of symbolism for these young people trying to send a message to their members of Congress.


KING: Ryan, I don't know if you had a chance to speak with any of the people out there right now, but is this something they intend to keep up for a period of time, this -- with a march coming in Washington on March 24th?

NOBLES: Absolutely, John. I think that what these young people have expressed here today is that different than some other kind of flashpoint moments in the debate over gun control, they don't want this one to just fade away. That they are not going to just give up on their calls for new laws as it relates to gun control. That they're going to continue the fight and that they're going to be in the face of these members of Congress and the president of the United States, who they feel at this point are not doing enough.

And it's worth pointing out, John, that many of these young people who are lying down on the ground, many of them probably not even old enough to vote yet, as were many of the victims of that shooting in Florida, but they want to make it clear to these members of Congress that in not too far distant future, they will be among those voters who will be casting votes in some of these crucial election. And, in particular, the 2020 race for president.

So they're going to make those voices heard. They're going to put the pressure on. They're going to lobby their members of Congress. As you mentioned, a big rally being planned here in Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks. These young people do not plan on going away. And this symbolic move, although it be symbolic at this point, they hope turns into real action.

And I should point out, there's a member of Congress here, Don Byer (ph), who's a Democratic congressman from northern Virginia. He's here. He's listening to them. They are specifically pointing their message to Republican members of Congress, though, John. They think now is the time for action to take place.

BERMAN: All right, Ryan Nobles outside the White House right now.

Again, as we look at the live pictures of this protest, high school students from the Washington, D.C., area with a lie-in outside the White House gates right now.

As that's going on, two more families in Parkland, Florida, are saying goodbye to their teenage children. Fourteen-year-old Alaina Petty and 15-year-old Luke Hoyer are being laid to rest this hour. They were both freshmen at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher in Coral Springs, Florida, near where one of those funerals is being held.

[12:20:05] Dianne.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, two freshmen in high school today, those funerals. This service for Alaina Petty is happening at the church behind me right now. Her family described her as quick to smile. She was kind to others. They say that she dedicated her very short life to service for others. That she was in JROTC. She was active in her LDS church family. And after Hurricane Irma, she went to those areas most impacted in Florida and helped rebuild.

Now, another one of the member of the congregation of this church, Madi Wilford (ph), was injured in this shooting. She is still in the hospital recovering. But we're told by the church that her parents are going to leave the hospital for a little bit to come pay their respects to Alaina Petty's family and to that 14-year-old girl.

A few miles from where I am Luke Hoyer, just 15-year-old, his services are going on in Coral Springs. His family described him as just a good guy. His aunt told "People" magazine that, you know, he was -- he didn't know what he wanted to do. He was a 15-year-old kid. He was just excited about being in high school. He liked LeBron James. He liked basketball. He liked hanging out with his friends.

And, really, I think, John, that's what resonates with so many people. These were such young, short lives that the potential that was there and that's what they're trying to reflect on in Alaina's memorial service today, her life, what she was able to accomplish in just those 14 years.

BERMAN: And, Dianne, I understand there's a petition now to bury one of the other students with full military honors.

GALLAGHER: Yes. Peter Wang. He was in JROTC with Alaina. Several of those members are here at that funeral today. Peter Wang is being heralded as a hero. That his last moments were sacrificing himself for others. He held the door open while wearing that JROTC uniform so people could escape when the shooter was in the school. They have a White House petition up and they're hoping they'll at least get some recognition. John, his funeral is tomorrow. BERMAN: All right, Dianne Gallagher for us in Parkland, Florida, or

near Parkland, Florida.

Thanks so much, Diane. We'll be right back.


[12:26:23] BERMAN: All right, welcome back.

Now this may change any second, but look at the president's Twitter feed and so far no mention of this, a pending plea agreement for a former top Trump campaign aide. CNN was the first to report last week that Rick Gates is finalizing a deal with the special counsel. It could happen as early as this week. The tradeoff, as reported this weekend by "The Los Angeles Times," a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony against Paul Manafort.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz live in Washington with the very latest on this.

Shimon, tell us what we know and what we can expect in this deal.

SIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, John, it certainly appears that things are moving rather quickly in this case. We reported last week that Gates and his attorneys have been negotiating with the special counsel for about a month, work to reach a deal where he would flip and cooperate with Robert Mueller. In fact, sources have told us that Gates has already done a wide-ranging interview with Mueller's team and essentially told them everything he knows about his co-defendant, Paul Manafort, and likely other information he has pertaining to the special counsel investigation.

Now, this would make him the third person connected to the president to flip and team up with prosecutors and investigators. And it means Gates essentially would have to agree to testify against Manafort and anyone else who is eventually charged.

BERMAN: So is it, though, Shimon, really just about the Manafort piece of this investigation, or will it drift in, you know, to the White House and perhaps the president himself?

PROKUPECZ: It could. John, you know, when defendants sign these kinds of deals, they have to come in to speak to investigators and they essentially have to tell them everything they know about any crimes that have been committed. So essentially anything that he knows that the special counsel would be investigating would have to be something Rick Gates would have to tell them. So, yes, it could. It could spread into anything else that is within the purview of the special counsel and that the special counsel is investigating.

BERMAN: All right, Shimon Prokupecz for us in Washington. Thanks so much.

While the president may not have talked about the Gates deal, he spent most of his weekend shuttered inside in what "The New York Times" called an unusually angry Twitter rant. This is just a sampling. This is actually one of the more tepid ones.

If it was the goal of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S., then with all of the committee hearings, investigations and party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart, America.

All right, I suppose that did have profanity there and the other ones did not. Still, you know, he didn't crash on anyone in his own cabinet. He didn't, you know, criticize the Democrats or Oprah. So tepid in that sense.

MARTIN: No porn stars there at all.

BERMAN: No porn stars in there at all. Our bar is quite high.

Jonathan Martin, so we saw the president writing extensively this weekend. It was a statement made by a deputy press secretary, though, that really put this all in perspective. Listen to Morgan Gidley.


MORGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: There are two groups that have created chaos more than the Russians, and that's the Democrats and the mainstream media who continue to push this lie on the American people for more than a year, and, quite frankly, Americans should be outraged by that.


BERMAN: So to me that said everything. That even after 13 indictments from the special counsel, Jonathan Martin, the deputy press secretary saying, you know what, it's still not the Russians. It's still the Democrats and the media.

MARTIN: Well, it's an outrageous statement that under any other presidency of either party would be wildly condemned by folks on Capitol Hill. There would be calls for the staffers' head. But we're not in a traditional presidency now and so we all kind of move on. And obviously you're playing it here now.

[12:29:59] But, look, how many members of Congress do you think even notice that? How many of them would even know who that is? I mean it's just -- there's so much every day in this gusher of news that sometimes we overlook these statements that are quite remarkable.