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Russian Threats; Hicks Before House; Russians Meddling; Interview with Sen. Jack Reed; No Appetite for Gun Legislation; Trump Backs Off Raising Age Limit; Delta's Tax Break Threatened over NRA Decision; Interview with Rep. Tom Reed. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 27, 2018 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 9:00 p.m. in Moscow, 2:30 a.m. Wednesday in Pyongyang. Wherever you're watching around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Dangerous dismissal. America's cyber chief says President Trump has not given him the order to disrupt Russian cyber threats. This despite new warnings the U.S. is already under attack again.

In the hot seat. One of the people closest to the president appearing before the House Intelligence Committee. You're going to hear what's happening.

Trump 2020. The president in an unusually early announcement, revealing who will run his reelection campaign. Someone with very little political experience.

And west wing drama. Why Ivanka Trump is ruffling the feathers of senior White House advisers, including the White House chief of staff.

All that coming up. But let's start over at the White House.

Brazenly ignoring warnings on Russia and failing to give the order to head off further Russian cyber-attacks. That's what we're hearing on Capitol Hill today.



SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND, SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: You would need, basically, to be directed by the president through the secretary of defense.

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: Yes, sir, as I - I mentioned that in my statement.

REED: Have you been directed to do so, given the strategic threat that they see the United States and the significant consequences you recognize already?

ROGERS: No, I have not.


BLITZER: The news came as one of President Trump's closest aides, the White House communications director, Hope Hicks, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee, where she's refusing to answer questions regarding her time in the White House.

Let's go to our Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what else are we hearing about her testimony? I know it's going on behind closed doors.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're in hour three of this closed-door testimony. What we are now learning is that she is not planning on answering question - some key questions about her time in the White House. This is according to Congressman Chris Stewart, a Republican who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, telling reporters earlier that he not expect her to answer a number of these questions.

This is a change because a number of members going into this closed- door hearing, including the Republican leading the investigation, Mike Conway, believed that she would, in fact, or they wanted her at least, to answer those questions about the -- during her time at the White House and the transition period.

We'll see what she says about the transition period, if she answers any questions about that.

But, Wolf, this is keeping in line with other key witnesses who have come before the committee, including Steve Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist. As well as the former White House -- President Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who would not answer some certain questions.

Bannon, himself, said preserving the right for the president to assert executive privilege over topics dealing with the transition. And when Bannon was in the White House, would not answer those questions.

We'll see how far Hope Hick goes today. But so far, at least some questions appear to be off limits.

We'll see if she sheds any light about what a lot of lawmakers were wondering about her role in crafting a misleading statement to the public, once it was revealed last year about that meeting with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower with the Russians.

Uncertain whether she'll answer that because, of course, she was at the White House at that time drafting a statement on Air Force One -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, I know you're working your sources. We'll see what you come up with.

Thanks very much. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill. While gun control certainly is in the center of the debate here in

Washington, as we near the two-week mark since the Florida school massacre, we know what's weighing on the president's mind today, and that would be the Russia investigation.

Our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us from the White House right now.

Jim, we're hearing a pretty familiar message from the president.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It's almost -- instead of the presidential daily briefing, this is, sort of, like the presidential morning briefing. The president receiving information from Fox News and then disseminating it via Twitter.

The president was on a tirade earlier this morning, putting out all sorts of tweets about the Russia investigation. We can throw some of them up on screen. One of them just in all caps, witch hunt, with an exclamation point. So, it shows you where the president's mind is on all of this.

But I think it's no surprise that he is tweeting about the Russian investigation. That this is under his skin this morning with Hope Hicks testifying and talking to investigators up on Capitol Hill.

After all, she is as close to the inner circle, inside the inner circle, with the president, as you can possibly get. Long-time aide to the president and, of course, then candidate Trump during the campaign.

And it'll be interesting to see, as Manu said, what she'll be testifying and talking to investigators about up on Capitol Hill.

Because obviously while she may be asserting executive privilege over her time in the administration, that obviously doesn't cover her time as top aide to candidate Trump during the campaign.

[13:05:00] The other thing we should point out, Wolf, is that on Fox News earlier today, Hogan Gidley, a spokesperson for the White House over here, the Deputy Press Secretary, was saying that executive privilege is, quote, "nothing new."

And so, I don't think it'll be any surprise if Hope Hicks is asserting that during her testimony up on Capitol Hill today, Wolf.

The other thing that, of course, will be coming up at the briefing, which happens at 2:00, scheduled to happen at 2:00, over here at the White House with the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, is the gun control debate.

You heard the House speaker, Paul Ryan, talking about this earlier this morning indicating that they're not going to be going in the direction of banning assault weapons or raising the age for people buying assault weapons.

And, Wolf, we should point out, we were hearing late last night that the president was backing away from statements that he made last week.

Of course, he tweeted about this and talked about this last Thursday here at the White House, that he was in favor of raising the age to 21 for buying assault weapons. But we're hearing from our sources, Wolf, that he appears to be backing away from that.

And, of course, we saw some of that in his CPAC speech last week. And in his remarks yesterday here at the White House, he did not mention raising the age anymore to 21 for purchasing assault weapons. It sounds like that is not really on the table anymore for the president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we know the National Rifle Association, the NRA, opposes raising the age limit to 21 from 18. That may have an impact, certainly, on the president.

All right, Jim Acosta at the White House. Thank you very much.

Joining us now is Senator Jack Reed. He's the - a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, ex officio, as they say. He's also the ranking Democrat of the Armed Services Committee. Thanks so much for joining us, Senator.

REED: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Pretty stunning revelation, once again, today from the nation's cyber chief, Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the national security agency, that he has not received an order from the president of the United States to stop Russian cyber threats. What could explain that?

REED: Well, it's very difficult to explain. Admiral Rogers said very directly that we are currently being attacked by Russia-directed cyber forces.

Their intent is to disrupt the election. They're much more sophisticated than they were in 2016. They have learned a lot. And they're coming in. And it's going to get worse before the election.

And yet, he has not been asked to take action. He has the ability to disrupt these activities at the source. And also, we know that the White House is not going to invoke sanctions that Congress passed on a strong, bipartisan basis to help, we hope, stop the cyber probing.

So, the White House seems to be absolutely paralyzed in the face of ongoing Russian intrusion into our elections and to try to undercut our basic institutions.

BLITZER: Let me play a little more of your questioning of Admiral Rogers earlier in the day. Listen to this.


REED: Essentially, we had not taken on the Russians, yet. We're watching them intrude in our elections, spread misinformation, become more sophisticated to try to achieve chief objectives that you have recognized. And we're, essentially, just sitting back and waiting.

ROGERS: I don't know if I would characterize it as we're sitting back and waiting. But I will say it's probably - and, again, I apologize. I don't want to -

REED: Right.

ROGERS: -- get into classified here. It's probably fair to say that we have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors that we are seeing.


BLITZER: So, Senator Admiral Rogers, is making it clear the U.S. has not made Russia pay a price for meddling in the U.S. Presidential election, getting ready to meddle, they say, the U.S. intelligence community, in the upcoming midterm elections in November and the 2020 presidential elections.

So, how do you explain that? Why not make them pay a price? What are you hearing?

REED: Well, I'm not hearing much, but it seems that the White House is just paralyzed. That they're not taking effective action.

And there's several different ways. One, you could invoke sanctions to make an economic cost to the Russians. Two, you could basically stop these attacks or make them more difficult.

And, as admiral rogers suggested, to the extent we just sit by and do nothing, they get more and more aggressive.

And this could be related to the, you know, fact that the president is so preoccupied with Trump trying to distance himself from the 2016 election and the fact the Intelligent Committee found about Russian involvement.

That he refuses to recognize the fact, as the other day, which is we are being not only probed, we are being attacked by Russian-directive cyber forces.

And we have to do something because it'll get worse before they get better. But this represents an aggregation of his responsibility to at least ask for recommendations from his entire cabinet and present a coordinated effort to deter, stop and defeat these intrusions.

[13:10:00] BLITZER: You know, the president's explanation has always been that this is just an excuse that the Democrats and Hillary Clinton have come up with to belittle his election and the fact that he was elected president of the United States.

And that's why he calls this overall investigation a witch hunt, as you know, a hoax.

When he -- when you hear that, what goes through your mind? REED: It is a complete dismissal of facts and professional judgments

by people who are not political -- politicians. Admiral Rogers is a career naval officer. He's dedicated his whole life to this nation and the United States Navy.

He spoke honestly as a professional saying that we are being attacked by the Russians by cyber operations. This is the opinion of our intelligence community.

I had the same basic dialogue with the FBI director, with Dan Coats, DNI, with Mike Pompeo, CIA. They all basically will tell you we are under assault right now.

And the president dismisses it as some type of, you know, 2016 political dynamic. He is just consciously, deliberately ignoring the facts.

BLITZER: And you raise the point about the U.S. -- under U.S. law, the president signed it into law, could impose sanctions against Russia. But he's delaying. He's refusing to do so.

Last August, the Senate passed new sanctions against Russia because of election meddling. I think the vote was 98 to two.

And the House, I think, was 419 to three. He reluctantly signed it into law. But since then has done nothing. How do you explain that?

REED: Again, I think it's all caught up in this attempt to undercut allegations about the 2016 election.

I think he might be afraid that if he recognizes the fact and imposes punishment on Russia for the current activities, that will totally undercut his version of the 2016 events.

That, you know, there was no Russian involvement. He won the election simply based upon his policies and his promises and his programs. And the reality is different.

But the danger -- not only the danger, the reality, is that while nothing is done, the Russians become more aggressive, threatening our basic institutions.

Nothing's more basic than the free election in the United States or anyplace else. And they're doing it deliberately to undermine our -- the confidence of the American people in our elections, in our politic process.

And we have to take effective action. Whether it's sanctions. Whether it is disrupting their attack. That's an operational judgment. But we have to do something.

BLITZER: Senator Jack Reed, thanks for joining us.

REED: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Several states are now openly welcoming Delta after Republicans in Georgia are threatening to take away a very important tax break, after the airline backed away from the National Rifle Association.

I'll speak live with a Republican lawmaker about that and more.

Plus, the Parkland shooter's neighbor speaking to CNN, saying she had no doubt he would attack a school. You're going to hear what she warned local police.

And the president making a big announcement about 2020 and his reelection bid. Stand by for that.



[13:17:30] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17 students and teachers, lawmakers are feeling the pressure to act on gun control and the clock is ticking. Survivors are on Capitol Hill today and the president is sitting down with Republican leaders. But will this be a turning point in the gun debate here in the United States, or will Congress lose the political momentum?

Let's break it all down with CNN's congressional reporter Lauren Fox.

So what are the options on the table, Lauren?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, lawmakers were back on Capitol Hill last night. And I will say, there's not a whole lot of appetite to do any kind of wide-ranging gun reform. Instead, what we're talking about is narrow proposals, one of them being banning bump stocks. President Donald Trump has talked extensively about this. He may take unilateral action there. And lawmakers are very comfortable with that on Capitol Hill.

We're also talking about background checks. But we should note that this is another narrow proposal. Lawmakers are talking about a bill called fix NICS. Essentially what it does is it incentivizes states and federal authorities to enter more data into the National Criminal Instant Background Check System. It is a far cry from the more bigger and larger background check comprehensive proposals that we saw in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting back in 2013.

We should also note that lawmakers have talked a little bit about raising the age at which you can purchase a rifle from 18 to 21. President Trump, of course, talked about that last week. He seems to be backing off of that proposal. And the National Rifle Association is also opposed to doing that. So not a whole lot of interest, perhaps, from conservatives to move on that.

And two proposals we haven't seen much discussion of on Capitol Hill, limiting the size of high capacity magazines and instituting another assault weapons ban. Lawmakers say that, you know, with Republicans in control of the House, the Senate and now the White House, there's not a whole lot of appetite for that. BLITZER: And the speaker today, he made it clear he's not anxious to

move ahead on some of these very sensitive issues at the same time.

Lauren, thank you very much for that.

The president will have the chance to talk about gun control when he meets with a group of congressional Republicans later this afternoon. His message to a group of governors was that lawmakers shouldn't fear the National Rifle Association.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Don't worry about the NRA, they're on our side. You guys -- half of you are so afraid of the NRA. There's nothing to be afraid of. And, you know what, if they're not with you, we have to fight them every once in a while. That's OK. They're doing what they think is right.


BLITZER: Republican Congressman Tom Reed of New York is heading to the meeting over at the White House with the president shortly. He's joining us now from Capitol Hill.

[13:20:04] Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. TOM REED (R), NEW YORK: Thanks for having me on, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, let's get through some of the specifics.

The president seems -- seems to be backing away from his promise a few days ago to raise the age limit from 18 to 21 to purchase rifles throughout the United States. You think that's -- where do you stand on that? He clearly says he's willing to fight the NRA over some issues, but on that he seems to be moving back towards the NRA position.

REED: Well, I think that is part of the conversation that we're having up here on The Hill, and rightfully so. But I think conversations like the prior reporter just indicated, things like fixing the background check system, making sure the data's up to date and fluent in order to be the best functioning system that we could potentially have. So not only the age issue, but fix the NICS is an opportunity to maybe address some of these issues.

But one other thing that's given me optimism, Wolf, about maybe a bigger picture issue that's arising, a lot of folks are asking, what happened with Nikolas Cruz? What happened with this shooter? How did this shooter exhibit all of these warning signs, and yet mental health wasn't there? He wasn't removed from society to keep our fellow citizens safe. What are the issues that we can do to potentially address that issue that's -- where this individual fall through the cracks?

BLITZER: Well, do you think someone should be 21 to purchase in the United States throughout the country an AR-15 style rifle, or is 18, from your perspective, old enough?

REED: Well, I'm open to that because, I mean, you can buy a six-pack of beer at 21 and not 18. Maybe the same logic obviously can apply to a weapons purchase. So I'm open to that conversation.

But if we think that's the only thing that's going to solve this problem of mass shooters in America, to me, I want to take on the bigger issue and solve the problem for the American people back home. And that's where this mental health component of it. I've never seen a conversation up here about that. And it's starting to happen because you have Nikolas Cruz, which appears to be the poster child for a mentally deranged individual that gave every warning sign that there is something wrong here, yet the system failed and we failed the American people by not making sure the system was working.

BLITZER: Yes, certainly there are a lot of issues that have to be addressed, including, as you pointed out, mental health.

What about reviving the ban on assault weapons in the United States? Are you -- are you -- would you be in favor of that?

REED: No, I don't support that because I do believe once you start going down that path -- when -- when -- I stand with the Second Amendment. I believe that's one of our individually constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. And going down that path to me is a bridge too far. But I'm willing to have the conversation about gun reform, about background check reform, but at the same time we can't lose this opportunity to really moving the needle in regards to removing these mentally deranged threats that exist in our society and make sure that we're reforming the system to address people like Nikolas Cruz. That we make sure that the system doesn't allow the future Nikolas Cruz to be in the same position he was.

BLITZER: You've seen all the polls showing a pretty significant majority of the American public, I assume in your district, in upstate New York as well, congressman, who would support a ban on these assault type weapons, including an AR-15 style rifle, which you really don't need to go hunting. You need it if you're going to kill a bunch of people, if you will. That's the argument that is made by them. So why wouldn't you want to come up with some sort of way to prevent the sale of these kinds of weapons in the United States?

REED: I want to go one step further, Wolf. I want to prevent the next mass shooting from happening and restricting our Second Amendment rights just in order to accomplish something like banning x weapon to me is not really addressing the fundamental issue. And that's where I'm willing to have the conversation on our Second Amendment restriction when it comes to background checks, things of that nature, because that, to me, needs to be looked at and seriously does need to be looked at.

But we cannot lose sight. Nikolas Cruz was allowed to be in the position he was, to purchase the weapon he was, to -- yet he exhibited all the mental illness and disease that showed that he had a violent propensity. And we failed in order to address that situation. To me that is the heart of the issue. BLITZER: And he was the -- and he was able to go out there and

legally, in the state of Florida, you only have to be -- you only have to be 18, legally purchase an AR-15. If there were no AR-15s that you could legally purchase, he might not have killed as many students and faculty over there at that high school.

REED: Now we can have the conversation, Wolf. And I think that is -- that's an appropriate conversation to have and I could be part of that conversation and finding solution along those lines. But also having that question of, how did Nikolas Cruz fall through these cracks to be amongst us in order to commit this heinous crime?

BLITZER: Georgia's Republican lieutenant governor is vowing to punish Delta Airlines or any other business that cuts ties with the NRA, so essentially saying we must either be with the NRA or you're going to be punished with additional taxes in your state. Do you agree with that?

REED: You know, the NRA is not the monster. In my opinion, who the monster is, is Nikolas Cruz. He needs to become the poster child across America to say, this is the type of individual that's a threat to America. To take on an organization to me is not the right place. The place to go is the individual who committed this heinous act. He needs to be held accountable for it and we need to learn from his life to make sure we're keeping American citizens safe.

[13:25:16] BLITZER: So -- so you agree with the Republican lieutenant governor that Delta and other companies based in Georgia should be punished if they split from the NRA?

REED: No, I think -- I'll let all the businesses make their own choices, make them -- make those decisions on their own. My fundamental issue, let's not lose sight of what the root cause of the problem is. Nikolas Cruz and the mentally deranged individuals like him. They need to be attacked and addressed. Those are where we should unite on here.

BLITZER: But isn't the availability -- isn't the availability of assault weapons, like AR-15 style rifles, isn't that part of the problem, the easy availability of getting these killing devices?

REED: And, Wolf, you're absolutely -- that's where making sure we have a background check system that's working, making sure that people that are exhibiting these mental diseases, these violent propensities, are in a situation where they're potentially restricted from accessing those weapons that they commit these heinous acts with. I'm open to that conversation.

BLITZER: One final question, congressman -- Congressman Reed, before I let you go. Are you in favor of ending, closing up the loopholes if you buy these kinds of weapons at a gun show or on the Internet?

REED: I'm open to making sure that the system is working and that we do our best we can in regards to the background system to make sure it's functioning appropriately. And that includes those situations there. BLITZER: At gun -- at gun shows and on the Internet? So you would be

in favor of ending those loopholes?

REED: Any -- well, any type of loopholes in the law, any type of program where the functioning in the system isn't working, I'm open to fixing it. So let's -- let's see how that debate goes. But, fundamentally, Nikolas Cruz and the people that are exhibiting diseases like that need to be addressed and we need -- we have an obligation to the American people to focus on that.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman Reed, thanks so much for joining us.

REED: Thank you.

BLITZER: West Wing drama. Why Ivanka Trump's trip to South Korea is apparently making some senior advisers over at the White House upset, including the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Plus, a CNN reporter goes undercover as a migrant and is told by a smuggler, don't put up a fight if you're raped. Chilling video of a CNN investigation.

Stay with us.