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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Student Rallying Cry; Russia Probe Plea; VP Pence Agreed to Secret Meeting with North Koreans During Olympics But They Canceled At the Last Minute; Memorials for School Shooting Victims as Students Head to Florida Capitol to Demand Gun Control. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired February 20, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: Russia probe plea. A lawyer formally admits to lying to the special counsel's team, as Robert Mueller turns up the heat on former Trump campaign officials now under indictment. Does Mueller have a new cooperating witness to help him make his case?
The White House declaring again tonight that the Russia probe is a hoax and claiming Mr. Trump has been tougher on Moscow than President Obama. This hour, the false claims vs. the facts.
Downward spiral? After a stunning holiday weekend rant on Twitter, the president is at it again, taking on the Russia probe, his predecessor and a woman who accused him of sexual misconduct. What's driving his latest outbursts online?
And rallying cry. Students who survived the Florida school shooting are confronting lawmakers, demanding action to prevent another massacre. The president just signaled his support for one potential gun control measure, but will he follow through?
We want to welcome our viewers in United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking tonight, a new guilty plea in the Russia investigation by a lawyer linked to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates and to a wealthy Russian power couple.
Special counsel Robert Mueller cutting another deal, racking up more charges and possibly signaling that another big shoe could drop at any time.
This hour, I will talk with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the Russia probe, President Trump and much more. And our correspondents and specialists, they are also standing by.
First, let's go to our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.
Jessica, what do we know about the guilty plea and how does it figure into Robert Mueller's broader investigation?
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that 33-year-old Dutch lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, he has confessed to lying to investigators about his contacts with former Trump campaign official Rick Gates.
And after that confession in December, he told prosecutors what he knew. Well, today, van der Zwaan pleaded guilty. Van der Zwaan had done work for Paul Manafort, and he had multiple contacts with Rick Gates. So the question now is, what exactly did he reveal to the special counsel and will it pit further pressure on both Manafort and Gates?
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Robert Mueller now has another guilty plea in his Russia probe. Alex van der Zwaan, a London-based attorney with ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and top campaign official Rick Gates, has pleaded guilty to giving false statements to the special counsel's investigators about his communications with Gates just two months before the election.
Though it's unclear with what the two discussed or van der Zwaan lied, his plea may prove helpful to Mueller's team.
PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: 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 international 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 a prominent Russian billionaire German Khan. Khan co-founded the investment group that owns Alpha-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, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: We do know that this indictment, just like the one on Friday, only reinforces our overarching point when it comes to the special counsel's investigation, which is that, as the president has long stated, there's 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 Friday, this latest charge against van der Zwaan actually does not address the issue of collusion, but the charges do show the progress of the 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.
And according to people familiar with the inquiry, Mueller's interest in the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has moved beyond his Russia contacts and now includes Kushner's company's financing efforts from foreign entities during the presidential transition.
SCHNEIDER: So, now the question is, will Rick Gates become the fifth person to plead guilty? And if so, how soon?
Now, when it comes to van der Zwaan, the FBI has seized his passport. He's not allowed to travel back to London, where his lawyers say his wife is having a difficult pregnancy. And his sentencing will be in early April.
He does face up to five years in prison, though he will likely get zero to six months and, Wolf, likely have to pay a fine.
BLITZER: Because he's had that proffer cooperation agreement with the prosecutors, so he's pled guilty, no trial, get a reduced sentence as a result.
SCHNEIDER: That's right.
BLITZER: Jessica, thank you very much.
Tonight, the White House -- the Trump White House is defending the president's latest attempts to discredit the Russia investigation and shift the blame away from him and his campaign.
The White House press secretary, Sara Sidner, repeating Mr. Trump's easily refuted claim that he's been tougher on the Kremlin than President Obama.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown. Pamela, this was the first briefing since the president launched his
newest Twitter tirade.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
There was certainly a lot of ground to cover here today, since this was the first briefing here at the White House in a week. And Press Secretary Sara Sidner fiercely defended the president's claim that he's been tougher on Russia than his predecessor, despite evidence to the contrary, including the fact the White House hasn't imposed sanctions on Russia, despite it being widely approved by Congress, though Sanders cryptically hinted that the administration has recently taken action against Russia, something she said we will learn more about in the coming days.
BROWN (voice-over): President Trump back in the White House today and still tweeting about Russia, writing -- quote -- "I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama. Just look at the facts. Total fake news."
But the president has yet to condemn Russian interference in the wake of the evidence laid out in last week's special counsel indictments of 13 Russian nationals, instead claiming it demonstrates a lack of collusion between his campaign and Russia, the White House responding to the criticism.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He actually called out Russia by name in his official statement that went out shortly after those indictments came out. He called them bad actors and specifically called out Russia as the only individual in that statement.
That was the first reaction of the president. So I would disagree with the premise of your question. He's also, again, been extremely tough on Russia in a number of different ways and we're going to continue to do that.
BROWN: Trump's argument against former President Obama centers around these remarks made prior to the 2016 election.
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even -- you could even rig America's elections, in part because they're so decentralized and the numbers of votes involved. There's no evidence that that has happened in the past or that there are instances in which that will happen this time.
And so I would advise Mr. Trump to stop whining and go try to make his case to get votes.
BROWN: Those comments were a response to candidate Trump's claims the election was rigged, not about Russian meddling. And Obama did directly confront Russian President Putin about meddling and impose sanctions, something Trump has yet to do. OBAMA: And so, in early September, when I saw President Putin in
China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn't happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn't. And, in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process.
BROWN: But Trump is still blaming Democrats for the Russia investigation, tweeting -- quote -- "When I easily won the Electoral College, the whole game changed and the Russian excuse became the narrative of the Dems."
Trump's press secretary echoing the president's argument today.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined. He's imposed 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. Just last week, there was an incident that will be reported in the coming days.
BROWN: Meanwhile, in the aftermath of last week's shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the president today announcing he is directing his attorney general to take steps to ban bump stocks.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And just a few moments ago, I signed a memorandum directing the attorney general to propose regulations to ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns.
BROWN: Bump stock devices were found on the firearms in the hotel room of the gunman in the Las Vegas shooting last October, where 58 people were killed at a music festival.
TRUMP: We cannot merely take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make a difference.
BROWN: And when I asked Sarah Sanders whether the president would be open to raising the federal age limit to legally purchase a semiautomatic weapon to prevent shootings like the one that we saw in Florida with the gunman purchasing the weapon used in the shooting at the age of 18, she did say that the president would be open to discussing that.
It was very clear the White House is leaving the door open for ideas. And here tomorrow the president will be meeting with teachers, students, high school teachers and students, to figure out other ideas, other solutions. The president vowing today to come up with a solution to prevent another mass shooting at a school -- back to you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. As we have mentioned, Pamela, several times, in Florida, you can buy an AR-15 semi-assault weapon, if you want, a semiautomatic weapon, at the age of 18, but you have to be 21 to legally buy a can of beer. It says something about the state of Florida right now. Let's see if they change that as a result of what happened, that massacre at that high school.
Pamela Brown, thank you very much.
Let's get some reaction to these breaking stories.
Leon Panetta is joining us. He served as defense secretary and CIA director doing the Obama administration.
Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.
LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, so there's a lot I want to get to.
Let's first of all, talk about the breaking news. How significant is this latest guilty plea in the special counsel's investigation?
PANETTA: Well, any time the prosecution is able to get a guilty plea, I think that it's significant.
And in this case, although it's somebody who is a little bit lower on the chain, the fact is that if he's guilty, clearly, the pressure will grow on others as a result of that guilty plea. So there's no question that the special prosecutor is building slowly, carefully and very efficiently a case here with regards to the individuals that he's been investigating.
BLITZER: How do you respond, Mr. Secretary, to President Trump's tweet today, his accusation that the Obama administration didn't do enough to counter Russia and its meddling in the U.S. presidential elections?
PANETTA: Wolf, I think this president and the administration have a bad habit that, every time they're in a difficult position, they have to blame somebody else, blame President Obama, blame the Democrats, blame the FBI, blame our intelligence forces.
They're always reaching out to blame somebody else. And, obviously, I think anybody who looks at the facts knows that that's a ridiculous charge.
But, more importantly, last time I looked at the Oval Office, I saw President Trump. He is the president of the United States, and he's the one who ought to be dealing with this situation that has been revealed time and time again, that the Russians deliberately have attacked this country in information warfare, that he, as president, ought to condemn the Russians for doing that, ought to hold Vladimir Putin responsible, and ought to make clear that we're going to implement a strategy to make sure it never happens again.
That's what I would like to hear from this president. BLITZER: Yes, he's been president now for 13 months. He certainly,
on this issue, Russian meddling in the U.S. democratic process, he certainly has not taken a leadership position, rarely speaks about it, other than calling the Russia investigation a hoax or a witch-hunt.
Still, the former president has been criticized, former President Obama. You worked for him in this situation. One former Obama administration official in a widely noted quote told "The Washington Post" he felt like they, referring to the Obama administration, sort of choked in responding to Russia during that period.
Michael McFaul, a man you know, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, said -- and I'm quoting him now -- "The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack."
So, knowing that, what advice would you give President Trump right now to learn from those earlier Obama administration mistakes?
PANETTA: Look, Vladimir Putin is a bully who looks at other leaders, and, if he senses weakness, he will take advantage of that weakness.
That's the way he operates. And, right now, when Vladimir Putin looks at the United States and sees a president who will not condemn Russia for what they did, will not condemn him, and will not take steps to make clear that it won't happen again, what Vladimir Putin is going to read is weakness.
And it's virtually an invitation to Putin and to the Russians to continue to do to the United States what they did in 2016. And they are. They will do it in 2018, they will do it in 2020, as long as this president doesn't draw a line on them and make very clear that we will stop Russia from interfering with our election process.
BLITZER: The president publicly rebuked his national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster. He was in a conference in Munich last week. And he said there's no doubt that Russia was doing it, is doing it. The president then in a tweet said he should have said this.
What was your reaction when you heard the president of the United States publicly go after, humiliate General McMaster in a situation like this? He's a three-star general, as you know. He's still on active duty.
PANETTA: I thought that was a really cheap shot, frankly, to have the president do that.
General McMaster is a general in the United States Army. His responsibility is to deal with the national security of this country as national security adviser. What he said at the Munich conference was that what we have determined is that it is incontrovertible that the Russians conducted this attack on the United States.
He's not there to make political comments or to try to get engaged in the political dispute about collusion or no collusion. That's not his job. He's a United States military officer, a general, whose responsibility is to deal with national security issues. The president ought to recognize that.
BLITZER: Yes, I was pretty surprised that he slapped him down like that.
As you know, the president has also been tweeting fervently on this whole issue of the Russia investigation since Mueller's indictments against these 13 Russians came down on Friday.
How do you think foreign governments are looking at all of this and viewing all those presidential tweets?
PANETTA: Again, as I said, I think there's no question that Russia reads weakness into how the United States is responding to this issue.
And, very frankly, I think our allies across the world are reading the same kind of weakness into our response. We have very clear evidence -- as a matter of fact, it started pretty clearly last Monday with the testimony with all of our intelligence officials, appointed by President Trump, who made a clear finding with regards to the Russian attacks on our election system and the fact that they're doing it again now, in 2018.
That was followed by the indictments that were rendered by the special prosecutor, 13 indictments against Russians involved in that kind of attack. And it was also followed by our national security adviser saying that it was incontrovertible.
And then at the same time, when you tune into the president of the United States, he's tweeting about President Obama. He's tweeting about the FBI. He's tweeting about all the other things, rather than stepping up, condemning the Russians for what they did, making clear that we will hold them responsible and making very clear to the American people and the world that the United States will not stand for Russia doing this again.
That's the message that the world wants to hear, and they're not hearing it.
BLITZER: It wasn't just, as you correctly point out, General McMaster, the national security adviser. It was the head of -- the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, the CIA director, Mike Pompeo. It was the FBI director, Christopher Wray, all of whom named, appointed by President Trump himself.
He's the only one who doesn't say what his top national security advisers, the intelligence community, they are all saying, and it's raising a lot of questions.
But let me get into another sensitive issue with you, Mr. Secretary. CNN is now reporting that Robert Mueller's investigation into Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, has expanded into Kushner's efforts into getting Chinese and Qatari funding for his indebted businesses during the presidential transition.
Do you believe this is someone who should have access to classified information? He doesn't have permanent security clearances. Should have access, for example, to the presidential daily brief?
The White House today, Sarah Sanders, said he's going to continue his job, and it's not going to change, even though he doesn't have full- time permanent security clearances.
PANETTA: I think if John Kelly as chief of staff is serious about trying to rectify what has happened here with regards to these security clearances and the fact that there have been so many interim security clearances granted and are hanging on, the bottom line is that someone with that kind of interim clearance, who has not gotten a full security clearance, should not have access to highly classified top-secret information.
That's a fact. And that goes for Mr. Kushner and it goes for anybody else that has simply an interim clearance. And until the White House acts to clear this matter up and to stop people with interim clearances from having that kind of access, I think they are, in effect, creating a national security problem.
BLITZER: You have been around, Mr. Secretary, for quite a while. You first came to Washington back in the '60s. I want you to take a step back right now for a moment.
When you read all of these tweets that the president has been sending, attacking President Obama, going after Oprah, and on and on and on, what does it tell you about his mental state right now, his ability to do the job?
PANETTA: Well, you know, in my 50 years of public life, I have seen nine presidents, all of whom had tremendous respect for the office of the presidency, and all of whom had a very high regard for the oath that they took, protecting, preserving and defending this country against our adversaries, both foreign and domestic.
I look at this president. And what I worry about is the danger that the oath that he took to protect, preserve, and defend our Constitution against all adversaries, that he comes very close to the line of not abiding by that very oath, because the fact that he will not condemn an adversary who deliberately attacked this country, and the facts are very clear that they did attack this country, I think it raises concerns that this country and this president are not taking all of the steps necessary to make sure that we protect our national security.
This is something that ought to concern Republicans, it ought to concern Democrats, but, most importantly, it ought to concern the American people, who know that, when they elect a president, his primary responsibility as commander in chief is to protect our national security.
BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.
PANETTA: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have much more on the new guilty plea in the Russia investigation and a lawyer's ties to Moscow, Ukraine, and the Trump campaign. We are going to have a live report. That's coming up from the Russian capital.
We're also standing by for busloads of students to arrive at the state capitol in Florida. They're survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, and they're demanding action. They're demanding action right now.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the guilty plea by a lawyer who admits to lying to investigators in the special counsel's Russia probe.
Lawyer Alex van der Zwaan has ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates involving their work for Ukraine. He's also the son-in-law of a Russian billionaire and oligarch.
Let's go to Moscow right now.
Our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is on the scene for us.
Fred, how does the van der Zwaan guilty plea play into the overall Russia investigation? Why is it important?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think there's some very significant points also for the Russians as well.
If you look at some of the work that van der Zwaan was apparently doing for what was then, of course, the pro-Russian government in Kiev, there was that report that essentially justified the arrest and the jailing of the former pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
And back then, that was something that was really important to Moscow as well. They, of course, were trying to bolster Viktor Yanukovych, who was in power in Kiev at the time. And then you have those ties to Rick Gates and Paul Manafort.
And I think that's something that's probably even more important as far as the Russia investigation is concerned. Of course, Paul Manafort with some close ties to some very important Russian oligarchs, including Oleg Deripaska, who himself is very powerful and very close to Vladimir Putin.
So, there will be certainly be many, many things that the investigators are going to want to learn from van der Zwaan. And then, of course, you mentioned the other thing, Wolf, the fact that he is also the son-in-law of a very powerful oligarch himself. That's something that I think the investigators are going to be looking at, but it's also something that I think will make the Russians a little bit nervous, as well also, because they see the investigation by the special counsel is really gaining steam over the past couple of days with those indictments we saw at the end of last week and now this, Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, Fred, Russian media now reporting that someone allegedly working at a Russian troll factory was arrested after talking to a member of the foreign media. What do you know about that?
PLEITGEN: Yes. This is -- this is coming up on several Russian media outlets that we've been looking at. It's a former employee, someone who says he's a former employee of this troll factory.
Now, he apparently was talking to several western media outlets and then claimed to these -- to these Russian media outlets that he had been detained on Sunday evening and that authorities had said that he allegedly made a phone call with a bomb threat, which is something that he denies.
Now what we're currently getting from the Russian media is that, apparently, he has been released, and he does say that he wants to keep speaking out. But I think this also certainly shows how nervous the Russian authorities are. And that's something that we also saw on Friday when we had those very angry reactions, very shortly after those indictments were handed down, Wolf.
BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen in Moscow for us. Fred, thank you very much.
Just ahead, what message is the special counsel sending by accepting a new plea deal in the Russia probe? Our experts are standing by.
And we're also hearing more from the couple who took in the Florida school shooter. Why didn't they see the red flags?
[18:36:26] BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, a new plea bargain in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. The attorney Alex Van Der Zwaan has pleaded guilty about lying to federal investigators about his discussions with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates about Ukraine.
Let's bring in our analysts and our experts. And Jeffrey Toobin, what message is Mueller sending with this move?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: "Don't lie to me. Don't lie to me under any circumstances."
You know, federal prosecutors have a lot of discretion, particularly when it comes to crimes like this. When people come in to see assistant U.S. Attorneys, they often dissemble at first, and some prosecutors, you know, they have a little more tolerance for that, and they don't immediately go to charging a false statement.
What happened here is that Mueller threw the book at this guy. And he's a lawyer. He obviously comes from a very fancy law firm. So, I mean, this is not your typical criminal defendant. And I think what Mueller is trying to tell people is that "We just have no tolerance for lying in this office."
Plus, the fact that he did what appears to be a serious forensic examination, going through deleted e-mails and identifying them and showing that Van Der Zwaan was lying, just shows that he is willing to do a very extensive investigation even on a peripheral figure. So it's certainly a warning shot to every person who either has spoken to Mueller or will in the future.
BLITZER: Certainly, a warning shot to, maybe, the president of the United States himself.
TOOBIN: Him, too.
BLITZER: I'm sure his lawyers are probably telling him, "You know what? This is not a good idea to go answer questions from Robert Mueller's team."
Phil Mudd, when you look at the details of this latest plea, what does it tell you about how Mueller is actually working?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think Jeff nailed one of the key parts of this, and that's the forensic examination you see revealed in this. I would put that side by side with the intimate details of Russian operations we saw in the indictments of 13 individuals on Friday.
When you're dealing with a 73-year-old prosecutor who's spent dozens -- decades prosecuting, a dozen years as FBI director, decorated veteran from Vietnam, this guy is a human scalpel. When he walks in the room, he's saying, "I don't care how long the operation takes. I don't feel pressure to produce results in 30 days. But when I walk into the room, I'm going to look at every single crumb and leave no crumb on the table. So that when most people walk into the room, Russian cases aside, they're going to look at the document and say, 'This guy did everything. I have no choice but to plead guilty.'"
The guilty pleas are an indicator of what Jeff was talking about earlier. This guy does his homework, and he does not feel rushed, based on his experience, to run in before he's got the case. It's a remarkable sort of operation for a guy who's under pressure to produce results every day. No rush, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. Fair point.
You know, David Swerdlick, Alex Van Der Zwaan, the attorney, the 33- year-old lawyer, worked for a very prestigious international law firm; also is the son-in-law of a Russian billionaire and oligarch named German Khan who co-founded what's called the Alfa Group. That's the same company that is involved with the Alfa Bank, which drew the attention of the FBI for some sort of odd computer server connection with Trump Tower in New York City.
German Khan, by the way, was also recently named by the U.S. Treasury Department as one of the Russian oligarchs. So what do you make of all of that?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And Van Der Zwaan was working for Skadden Arps on this report, apparently, that helped to justify some of the political actions of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government in Ukraine, which also Manafort -- Paul Manafort worked for.
[18:40:07] Look, whether you're talking about Alfa Bank, Manafort, Van Der Zwaan, nothing that we learned today is proof positive that there was some bigger collusion or conspiracy with President Trump at the top. We're not at that stage yet.
But boy, there are a lot of dots that are starting to be laid out here and that are being connected by Special Prosecutor Mueller that seem to be leading in the direction of Paul Manafort.
BLITZER: You know, it's very interesting, Kaitlan, because the president tweeted once again today this: "I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama. Just look at the facts. Total fake news." What does the White House point to as evidence of that?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they were asked about this several times at the press briefing today, and Sarah Sanders referred to the president building up the military and exporting things to Eastern Europe, and those -- that lethal arms sale to Ukraine and whatnot. She pointed to all those things, but she couldn't point to anything that was tangible that he really did that was more than what the Obama administration did.
And that's because over this last year that this president has been in office, for 13 months now, he's dodged the subject of interference by Russia in the election and whatnot. And that was the thing. The bar is so low here for the president to condemn Russia for what they did, and yet we have not seen that, even in light of what we learned on Friday about this incredibly savvy scheme on behalf of the Russians to interfere in the election.
But the statement put out by the White House, the first graph of it dealt with the fact that the president felt that it showed there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians. And then if you looked at what the president tweeted all weekend, which is just a window into what he really thinks, he was much more critical of Democrats and the FBI and his own national security adviser than he was Vladimir Putin and the Russians.
BLITZER: Yes, people are wondering. Very quickly.
SWERDLICK: Yes. I just wanted to add the other thing that the Trump administration is glossing over is that in March of 2014 President Obama signed four different executive orders related to sanctioning Russia. And they're trying to sort of put that off to the side and say President Obama did nothing; and it's just a misleading presentation of the facts.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's more breaking news. We'll stay on top of all of it right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[18:46:53] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We have breaking news. We've just learned that Vice President Mike Pence and the North Koreans almost had a secret meeting at the Olympics.
Let's go to Brian Todd.
Brian, what are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf, just getting confirmation now from Nick Ayers, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. Nick Ayers telling CNN tonight that North Korea's delegation to the Olympics dangled a meeting in the hopes of -- that the vice president would meet with them and according to the vice president's office in the hopes that Vice President Pence would soften his message at the Olympics.
Of course, we know that Vice President Pence was there to promote the idea that North Korea was a human rights violator, to call attention to their record. Now, according to the chief of staff to the Vice President Nick Ayers that the North Koreans dangled this meeting but that the North Koreans then walked away from it, apparently having seen Vice President Pence's messages and his meetings with defectors and his other, you know, his other missives while he was there about North Korea's human rights record. They walked away from this apparently at the last minute.
"The Washington Post" which first reported the story said that the North Koreans have proposed this meeting, a secret meeting at the Olympics with Vice President Pence but that about maybe a couple of hours before the meeting was to take place on Saturday, February 10th, that the delegation led by Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un's sister, pulled out of that meeting, Wolf.
And this coming tonight as we get confirmation from the vice president's office that there was a meeting at least proposed by the North Koreans. They hoped to meet with the vice president, again, according to Nick Ayers, the chief of staff for the vice president, hoping that the vice president would soften his message against the North Koreans but that the North Koreans according to Mr. Ayers pulled out of that meeting.
BLITZER: Good point. All right. Thanks very much, Brian.
Let's get some reaction from our panel.
And, Kaitlan, you've been doing some reporting on this. What else are you hearing?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. So, we're seeing really, you have to think of the context of Pence's trip to South Korea for the Olympics because not only did he meet with defectors from North Korea but he also announced those sanctions against North Korea, so those are clearly two things that angered them while they were setting up this secret meeting before they pulled out of it. So, that is something you have to keep in mind for what the vice president was doing while he was overseas.
BLITZER: Yes, it's very interesting, Phil, that the vice president and the Trump administration, they were ready to go ahead and go into a meeting like this with Kim Jong-un's sister and other representatives of North Korea.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, you nailed it. And this is why we're going to need in the coming weeks, coming months on this, mature leadership. I think the easy read on this is frustration. Look, there was almost a meeting and there's going to be a conversation about what didn't happen. I believe that's 180 degrees wrong.
The hardest thing with either governments, especially governments that don't speak and don't understand each other, is an understanding not of what a government does, but of what they think, what their intent is. We learned two people's intentions. We learned, as you indicated, that despite tough rhetoric from the president, the United States is willing to talk maybe directly to the North Koreans.
And maybe even more significantly, despite the fact that the North Koreans walked away from the table, we learned that they, too, despite missile launches and nuclear tests, might be willing to talk face to face to the Americans in the face of economic sanctions against North Korea that have got to be crippling.
[18:50:11] That understanding of mindset is really critical. I think what happened here is prospect of a meeting is a lot more important than the fact that the meeting didn't happen.
BLITZER: Yes, the fact that the North Koreans are the ones that canceled it, Jeffrey. The statement from Nick Ayers, the chief of staff to the vice president, concluded by saying: the president made a decision if they wanted to talk, we would deliver our uncompromising message. If they asked for a meeting, we would meet.
Interesting that it would have been in secret but I'm sure it would have leaked.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. But it would -- I mean, you know, I have to say via good deal of sympathy for the Trump administration on this one. You know, you are dealing with extremely irrational government that at one level talks about, you know, going to the Olympics and making signs of peace, but has not renounced any of aggressive intentions, has not talked about limiting missile tests in any way.
This is a very difficult negotiations which has stymied President Obama, the second President Bush, President Clinton. It is not easy to negotiate with the North Koreans. I certainly don't blame the Trump administration for seeking out a meeting, but I'm not surprised that it didn't happen either. BLITZER: Yes. But let's remember, this is potentially could have been a huge development. These aren't just some diplomats meeting at the U.N. or someplace else, this is the vice president of the United States effectively, potentially meeting with the second most powerful person in North Korea, the sister of Kim Jong-un, effectively the vice president of North Korea. That would have been a huge, huge moment.
TOOBIN: It would have been a huge movement moment. And I don't blame the Trump administration for trying to make that moment happen. I think, you know, it is better, I mean, this is just my own view, it is better for these countries to be talking to each other rather to be talking about nuclear war, which is what President Trump has been doing, and certainly what Kim Jong-un has been doing.
So, I don't see how you can fault the Trump administration for seeking out this meeting. It would have been a very big deal. But it is also not a surprise that it didn't happen.
BLITZER: Yes. And it was the North Koreans who cancelled, not the U.S.
All right. Guys, there's more breaking news we are following.
Just ahead, survivors of the Florida school massacre -- they take their demand to gun control for lawmakers in the state capital.
[18:57:10] BLITZER: Breaking news in Parkland, Florida, tonight. Memorials for the high school shooting that left 17 people dead.
CNN's Kaylee Hartung is there on the scene for us.
Kaylee, these memorials come as students are heading to state capital to demand action on gun control.
KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And in this park tonight, not far from the high school, the Run for Beigel is just wrapping up, an event to honor the beloved compassionate, witty and kind geography teacher Scott Beigel. The evening organized by cross country team that he coached.
About a thousand people showed up to run a couple of laps around this park in his honor and pay stayed to pay their respects at the memorial in this park to the 17 victims. But about 100 students were absent, that's because they have taken the emotion and passion so many here feel to the Florida state capital.
HARTUNG (voice-over): Tonight, busloads of students and staffer of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School heading to the Florida capital. They're representing a new movement with a message never again.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're representing the past and the future. And they are the past and we are the future. HARTUNG: The group hopes to pressure lawmakers to act on school safety and stricter gun laws, something that hasn't been done after previous school shootings.
CHRIS GRADY, MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: Our message is that at this point for the politicians if you aren't with us, you are against us. We are trying to save the lives of innocent children. So if you are not for that, then we are going to vote you out.
HARTUNG: This as new details about the shooter Nikolas Cruz continue to emerge. The Florida couple who took in Cruz following the death of his mother knew the teen owned multiple guns but tell CNN they felt safe knowing the weapons were under lock and key.
KIMBERLY SNEAD, HOUSED HOUSE SHOOTER: We had the gun cabinet. You know, they could e -- everything would be locked up. It really didn't concern me.
HARTUNG: Kimberly Snead says the mix of depression and weapons were not a worry, but that they were considering counseling for Cruz.
K. SNEAD: To me, the depression more stemmed from losing his mother, not from all the things they said about him being bullied or by things that happened in school.
HARTUNG: They say they were unaware of shocking posts online which included racist rants and images of animal torture.
Meanwhile, five shooting victims were honored today. Cara Loughran was an accomplished Irish dancer, Carmen Schentrup, a National Merit Scholar, Peter Wang, a member of the junior ROTC program, athletic director Chris Hixon who tried to disarm the shooter, and football coach Aaron Feis who threw himself in front of students to protect them.
HARTUNG: Today, the Florida House of Representatives voted against considering an assault weapons ban. Wolf, you better believe those students from Stoneman Douglas will be asking politicians why at the state capital tomorrow.
BLITZER: Kaylee, thank you very much.
Tomorrow, CNN hosts special town hall with students of Stoneman Douglas High School demanding action. Parents and both Florida senators will be there. Jake Tapper will moderate. "Stand Up", tomorrow night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
Thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.