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Another Guilty Plea in Russia Probe; Gun Control Debate; Lawyer Linked to Ex-Trump Aide Pleads Guilty to Lying; Trump Blames Obama on Meddling, Won't Condemn Russia. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 20, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, the president has suggested Russia's election interference didn't happen, but also that it is Obama's fault. All right.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news in the Russia investigation. A lawyer with ties to a former Trump campaign official pleading guilty to lying to the feds today. Did this move Mueller closer to a bigger fish?

Students who came face to face with death just six days ago loading up buses and heading to the state capital in Florida to demand that lawmakers address gun violence. Is this the moment that something finally happens?

Plus, money, power, politics and the Trump brand name. Don Jr.'s trip to India becomes a conflict of interest watch.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Good afternoon, everyone. Breaking news.

Just moments ago, the president at an event just announced he directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to propose a regulation to ban the sale of any device that helps convert a semiautomatic gun into an automatic firearm.

This comes as just minutes ago the White House faced a barrage of questions, as the Trump administration held its first press briefing in a week. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders claiming President Trump has been tougher on Russia in one year than President Obama was in eight years of his presidency.

Sanders also arguing that the president has long acknowledged that Russia was behind the election interference in 2016.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president hasn't said that Russia didn't meddle. What he's saying is it didn't have an impact and it certainly wasn't with help from the Trump campaign. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Actually, Donald Trump has said that he doesn't think Russia meddled.

In December 2016, President Trump told "TIME" magazine -- quote -- "I don't believe they interfered."

Let's begin with CNN's Jeff Zeleny. He's live at the White House for us.

Jeff, Sanders also tried to walk back a rather questionable tweet from the president which seemed to link the FBI's missed tips before the Parkland shooting, blaming that on the fact, in his view, they were too busy investigating Russia.


She tried walking it back. That's what she spent most of this abbreviated briefing doing, walking back, explaining things the president has said. But on this FBI matter, specifically, of course, Saturday evening, he tweeted that -- you know, essentially calling out the FBI for missing those signals and reports in the Florida shooting. Blaming on it the fact that they were working on the Russia investigation.

Well, Sarah Sanders said today in the press briefing that it was clearly the work of a deranged individual. She said the president has confidence in his FBI director and does not plan to get rid of him, but also went on to say the FBI, in her words, is spending too much time working on a hoax of connecting the Trump campaign with meddling.

Never mind the fact that the bulk of the FBI investigation, as what we saw in the indictment on Friday, is the actual underlying cause of interference here, meddling here. But she tried to ease the language of the president there and said there was no correlation necessarily with the shooting and the investigation.

But, Jake, in an extraordinary briefing of not answering questions, surely, I think it is clear to point out she said more succinctly that Russia meddled in the election than we have ever heard the president say out of his own mouth.

TAPPER: And, Jeff, the president just announced at this event that he was going to take a step to try to ban the sale of bump stocks. That's these devices that turn semiautomatic weapons into automatic weapons.

We don't know of that being used in the horrific Parkland shooting a week ago. But, apparently, that was used during Las Vegas shooting several months ago. What more can you tell us about it?

ZELENY: Jake, this is something, an example of how the White House is trying to respond to the dramatic public pressure here on guns in the wake of yet another shooting. That was October 1 of last fall, the Las Vegas shooting. In the days

after that, the White House said they were supportive of some type of conversation limiting bump stocks. That's the last we heard about it until today. In fact, just a few moments ago in the East Room, the president said this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I signed a memorandum directing the attorney general to propose regulations to ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns.


ZELENY: So, again, Jake, the first time the president and the White House have talked about this since October, nearly four months or so.

But it is a sign that this pressure that's building on some type of gun reform is reaching the White House. The bigger question is, what else will they do? What does this do specifically? We don't yet know, because, again, the president talked about it there, but that is the first we have heard about it here today -- Jake.


TAPPER: As far as we know no, connection between bump stocks and what happened in Florida.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks so much.

My political panel is here with me.

Abby, what is your reaction to this? Is this the White House just trying to grab at something to show that they understand that people want answers here?


I think we have been asking for the last couple of days, what would be the impact of having these teenagers, 17-year-olds, 16-year-olds, of an age where they can speak for themselves, speak up and say something? And I think we're seeing it here.

We're seeing that the reaction is that the White House feels like they need to get in front of it. The victims are being vocal. They want change and they understand this is a bad political situation to be in. I think it remains to be seen what this announcement is about bump stocks and what effect it actually has.

I think often with this White House and guns, they look to administrative actions as a way of saying they're addressing something. But in reality, what happens is it is a sort of slow- walking of a process of dealing with some of these problems.

But I think the fact Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the president came out today and said, hey, look, we're doing something, it's important. And I think it shows that what these kids are doing and saying is working.

TAPPER: What happened in October, Karine, is that it was put forward that these bump stocks allowed people to skirt the law, convert a semiautomatic weapon, which is you have to pull the trigger every time you want to fire, instead of an automatic weapon, which is just you hold down the trigger and it fires on its own.

The NRA opposed legislative action. They said they wanted it to be done through regulation and apparently nothing was done.


Once again, a mass shooting in October, and nothing was none. I think, to Abby's point, this shows that these young kids are having such an impact. They're putting the pressure on this administration and we have heard from them directly, talking about Trump, calling out Trump.

Tomorrow he will be in Florida doing this foreign secretly. We don't know much about it. So I think this is probably connected to that as well. But I will say that the bump stock ban, that's just the beginning. There's so much more that needs to be done.

And I hope this doesn't fall through the cracks, like other kind of proposals they have put forth just looking at dreamers and DACA and trying to save those young people. We will see. But we still need to do so much more. And we will see.


TAPPER: I want to read something to you, Amanda.

This is a quote from "The Washington Post" attributed to a White House official speaking about the massacre in Parkland, Florida -- quote -- "For everyone, it was a distraction or a reprieve. A lot of people here felt like it was a reprieve from seven or eight days of just getting pummeled."

I can understand why a White House official wouldn't want to put his or her name on that, because it is a horrific thing to say about 17 people being massacred. But what does it say to you?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: President Trump has said something along these lines previously when he talked favorably about how the country rallied behind a president in a time of war, particularly after 9/11.

These are jaded politicos talking. This should never reach the public. If I were running that com shop, I would track down that person and fire them for even uttering that thought into the ether.

TAPPER: One of the things that is interesting, a brand-new Quinnipiac poll out just this afternoon, Abby, showing U.S. support, public support for stricter gun laws the highest ever recorded by the poll, 66 percent supporting, 67 percent say it is too easy to buy a gun in the U.S. Are these numbers that you think are just where they are because of

the immediacy of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, which happened before this poll was taken?

PHILLIP: I don't think necessarily.

I think there is broad public support for reforming gun laws. The question is, what does that mean exactly? I think people have different views about what it means just to tighten gun laws and gun regulations that are out there.

And I also think that it is less important. This proves that it is less important where the majority of Americans are. What is more important is where each party is, where the Republican Party in particular is.

And I think the Republican Party's base is so far to the right on the gun issue that it makes it very, very difficult for them to move to the center, even on things that a lot of Americans would characterize as common sense or characterize as a kind of moderate position.

I think the base of the Republican Party is driving this issue on the right. And until that changes, it is hard to see how polls like this or any other poll which often shows more than 50 percent of Americans in favor of changes to gun laws, I don't see how that changes a whole lot.

CARPENTER: And she's right.

In this debate, we do need to drill down on specifics. The banning of the bump stocks should be low-hanging fruit. Quite frankly, it's sad that Congress didn't do it, because bump stocks are used to turn semiautomatic rifles and weapons automatic weapons which are largely prohibited by federal law.


Who is not on board with that? But I think where this discussion is going, we do need to talk about the AR-15. The reason why this keeps turning up in mass shootings is because it is a highly customizable weapon.

You can take this weapon legally obtained and turn it into something else. We need to talk about those customizations that are being made, the way that people obtain them, how they are used and why. These are the kind of specifics that deserve to be aired out. But people are just running and saying, oh, do you support an assault weapons ban, without ever having a specific proposal.

TAPPER: There should be more details, absolutely.

Everyone, stick around.

Bigger and broader. What special counsel Robert Mueller did say today to show once again that he means business when it comes the to Russia investigation. That story is next. Stay with us.


TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead and the ever-expanding reach of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

[16:15:05] Moments ago, a lawyer with known ties to both the top Russian billionaire and Rick Gates from the Trump campaign pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators. Over nine months, Mueller has charged at least 19 people and three companies as President Trump continues his relentless attack on the probe.

CNN's Jessica Schneider joins me now live from outside federal court.

Jessica, what more do we know about this lawyer and how he is involved in this?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, this lawyer is 33-year-old Alex van der Zwaan. He's a Dutch citizen and he did just about an hour ago plead guilty to making false sometimes to investigators as it related to his communications with Rick Gates.

Now, this is significant because this is the fourth guilty plea in what has now become a wide-ranging probe by the special counsel.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Robert Mueller now has another guilty plea in his Russia probe. A London-based attorney with ties to Paul Manafort and Rick Gates has pleaded guilty to giving false statements to the special counsel's investigators about his communications with Rick Gates just two months before the election.

It is unclear what the two discussed or why Alex van der Zwaan lied. Van der Zwaan's plea may prove helpful to Mueller's team.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Now, in this particular case, Manafort had a relationship with the Ukrainian government and this lawyer was doing work for the Ukrainian government. So, that's the link and he will try to turn this witness against Gates, against Manafort, and possibly against others.

SCHNEIDER: Van der Zwaan was part of a team of attorneys at the prominent law firm Skadden Arps that drafted a report commissioned by Paul Manafort in 2012. The report was used by allies of the then pro- Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to justify jailing a political opponent.

Paul Manafort was indicted in October in connection with his lobbying work for the Ukrainian government and alleged money laundering. Manafort has pleaded not guilty. Van der Zwaan is also the son-in-law of prominent Russian billionaire German Khan. Khan co-founded the investment group that owns Alfa Bank. CNN reported last year that the FBI investigated whether that bank had a computer server connection to the Trump Organization during the 2016 campaign. But the White House today is pointing to van der Zwaan's false

statement charges as further evidence that the Mueller team does not have any evidence of Trump campaign collusion with the Russians.

RAJ SHAH, PRINCIPAL WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: We do know this indictment, just like the one on Friday, only reinforces our overarching point which is that the president has long stated, there is no evidence of collusion because none existed, and that there's going to be no findings of wrongdoing.

SCHNEIDER: Much like the 13 indictments of Russian nationals announced by the Justice Department on Friday, this latest charge against van der Zwaan actually does not address the issue of collusion. But the charges do show the progress of special counsel's investigation and its steady pressure on people surrounding the president, past and present.

In just about nine months, Mueller has brought charges against 22 people and entities, four of whom are former Trump associates. Beyond Paul Manafort, there's Manafort's deputy Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. Four of the cases have resulted in guilty pleas, including today's plea from van der Zwaan.

Rick Gates has been negotiating a plea deal that could include testifying against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.


SCHNEIDER: So, with all this activity happening in court today, that question does loom, will Rick Gates become the fifth person, excuse me, to plead guilty in this wide-ranging special counsel probe? And could that potential plea, combined with the guilty today from Alex van der Zwaan, could that further influence and put pressure on Paul Manafort?

Right now, we're taking a look at Alex van der Zwaan leaving the courthouse here. Of course, he did plead guilty just a little while ago. And we do know that the FBI has now seized his passport. He will not be able to leave the United States at all, even though he lives in London. His wife is now in London.

And we understand that despite the fact that she's pregnant with their child, she is due in August and having a difficult pregnancy, he will not be able to journey there back to see her. He will be sentenced at the beginning of April. And, of course, it's significant as well that his wife is the daughter of a very prominent Russian oligarch, a top businessman in Russia -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jessica Schneider, thank you so much.

The White House just claimed that President Trump has been much tougher on Russia than President Obama was. Well, You're never going to believe what we found bout that claim.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


[16:23:52] SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined. He's opposed sanctions. He's taken away properties. He's rebuilt our military. He's done a number of things to put pressure on Russia and to be tough on Russia.


TAPPER: That was White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders moments ago, attempting to back up President Trump's tweet claim that he's been tougher on Russia compared to his predecessor.

Joining me now to help separate fact from fiction is the former director of the CIA and NSA, retired four-star General Michael Hayden.

General Hayden, thanks for being here.

So, let's go through facts here. The Obama administration called out Russia in September and October 2016 for cyber hacks. After the election, they seized two Russian compounds, expelled more than 30 diplomats. They implemented additional sanctions against Russia for election interference and also previously they had one it for the invasion of Crimea.

The Trump has refused to implement the new sanctions against Russia that Congress passed overwhelmingly last year, for the interference. They did agree to sell weapons to Ukrainians to fight for Russian separatists, unlike Obama. The Trump administration toyed with the idea of returning those seized Russian compounds but eventually decided against it.

[16:25:00] That might be what Sarah Sanders meant when she said that they seized property, because that's the only thing I can think of. It's also worth noting that President Trump never says a bad word about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Is it fair -- is it accurate for Trump to say he's been tougher on Russia than Obama?


TAPPER: In your opinion, yes.

HAYDEN: Yes, in my opinion, based on my knowledge of the facts, no.

Now, you're right. Did he sell offensive arms to the Ukrainians., javelin missiles, anti-tank weapons, which I think was long decision that should have been made under the Obama administration.

And, Jake, I think you and I both agree, the Obama administration did not do enough overall with regard to the Russians, allowing them to go relatively cost-free, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, step on to the stage in Syria and so on. All of that caused I think by a sense of American absence.

But as we went on, the arc of the Obama administration was to get tougher. I have not seen that arc continued in the Trump administration but with the one exception --

TAPPER: With the one exception, arming Ukrainians.


TAPPER: President Trump suggested in a tweet today that the reason President Obama didn't confront Moscow more directly way because he thought crooked Hillary would win and he didn't want to rock the boat. When I easily won the Electoral College, the whole game changed and the Russian excuse became the narrative of the Dems.

Now, it is worth noting that it's not just you, or me off camera, it is also top Democrats in the House and Senate who have criticized President Obama --

HAYDEN: Right.

TAPPER: -- for not being more critical. But a lot of people will point out that President Obama went to the leaders of demonstrating the fall of 2016 and say, we need to present a united front and announced that this is happening, and be bipartisan about it. And Republican leader, Senate leader Mitch McConnell said no.

HAYDEN: That's correct. That's a matter of historical fact.

And, you know, yes, we should have been tougher. Yes, we should have been more active. Yes, we should have been more public.

Trust me. In my old profession, things look lot clearer in the rearview mirror --


HAYDEN: -- than they ever look in the windscreen. So, I can understand the criticism, well-deserved. That said, this is absolutely uncharted territory and I think there was a hesitancy on the part of the Obama administration which they should regret now that there was a hesitancy, because there would have been the appearance of them, particularly with Senator McConnell backing out of any partnership on this, an appearance that they're putting their thumb on the electoral scale, so they let it ride.

TAPPER: I want to ask you because it's unusual. President Trump went after his national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, for saying that there was incontrovertible evidence that the Russians interfered in the election. He tweeted, quote, General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians.

First, there's the issue of undercutting your own national security adviser. Second of all, is there any evidence that -- we don't know if the election was affected at all.

HAYDEN: Of course not. Unfortunately, the vice president said exactly that about a week ago before this weekend's mayhem that it was a unanimous judgment of the American intelligence community, that there was no impact on the elections and that's just simply wrong because it's beyond the intelligence community's ability to make that judgment in the first place.

So, a couple of things on the tweet with regard to H.R. Number one, this is important to point out, I think, Jake. We owe men like H.R. McMaster a tremendous debt of gratitude for staying at their post, when frankly I think they're being abused by the man they're trying to serve and trying to help. So, let's make that very clear.

Now, with regard to what does this mean for American governance? I've been in the Oval a lot, not really (ph) with just one president. But there is a deep personal relationship that the director of the CIA has with the president, that the national security adviser has with the president. It's personal. It's based on honesty. It's based on trust. It should be based on shared values that move you in the direction of a shared world view.

And what we saw evidence of this past weekend is that frankly, that doesn't exist between the president and the national security adviser. That's damaging for American decision making, and then to do this, to play this out in front of literally thousands of Europeans at the Munich Security Conference, plays to their worst fears about the conduct of American foreign policy.

TAPPER: Sarah Sanders said today that President Trump has never denied that the Russians meddled in the election. I want to play SOT 6. Take a listen to some of the comments that President Trump has made specifically about election interference by Russia.

SOT number six. Let's play that.


SANDERS: The president hasn't said that Russia didn't meddle. What he's saying is it didn't have an impact, and it certainly wasn't with help from the Trump campaign.


TAPPER: I'm looking for the one that's a montage, guys. But in any case, let's talk about --

HAYDEN: Right, I get it.

TAPPER: You understand what's going on here, which is the fact the President Trump has said so many times, I don't think anyone knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC.