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U.K. Blames Russia for Poisoning; President Trump Backing Off Raising Age Limit on Guns?; May: "Highly Likely" Russia to Blame for Ex-Spy Poisoning; Interview with Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 12, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We start with breaking news in Austin, Texas.

Police announcing there have been three explosions by some sort of devices and packages. Two people have been killed over the last 10 days, the latest happening today.

Let's go back to the press conference happening now.

BRIAN MANLEY, AUSTIN, TEXAS, POLICE CHIEF: This is of interest to all of law enforcement, because this is someone that everyone wants to see put to an end and stop this -- stop these bombs.

QUESTION: How powerful are threat explosives? What is the circumference of the grounds these explosives are covering? Like, are these very powerful explosives? Is that surprising to you?


These explosions are obviously powerful enough. You all saw what happened at the initial incident 10 days ago, that it caused significant damage to that front porch area, and there was significant damage done this morning as well.

So, these are very powerful devices. And that's why, again, it's so imperative that no one attempt to touch, move or handle one of these packages if you come across it.


QUESTION: ... person that is making these bombs? If they are this powerful, what kind of expertise does someone have to have to engineer something like this, pull it off, be able to deliver it without detonating it?

MANLEY: Again, as I said earlier, that's what the bomb technicians and the ATF are working on right now.

However, there is a certain level of school that is required to put a device like this together successfully and then to have it detonate in the manner in which these are and to cause the significant injuries and death that they have.

QUESTION: Are they ringing the doorbells?

MANLEY: No. They're ringing the doorbell. The residents are coming out and finding these packages on their door steps. Thank very much.

TAPPER: All right, so that was an update from Austin police about some package bombs that have been delivered.

If I understand correctly, two individuals have been killed. And earlier today, a 75-year-old Hispanic female was injured by these package bombs.

Nick Valencia has the latest for us -- Nick.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we can say now with certainty that all of these three cases are related.

There was some question marks earlier this afternoon, police saying there at a press conference that they are just too similar not too all put into one pile here.

They are imploring the community to stay vigilant. They believe it's not time to panic, they say, though it is time to report anything suspicious. They talked to us about these devices being left in the morning for people to find -- or at night, I should say, for people to find in the morning.

They explode either by being moved or by being opened. In the first case on March 2, a man was killed after bringing that device into his home. And then this morning we saw a second incident happened at about 6:44 a.m. local time. A 17-year-old teenager killed as a result of opening a package, an adult female taken to a hospital with non- life-threatening injuries.

And, Jake, in the middle of the press conference, about an hour after that press conference wrapped up, I should say, a third incident happened just around the corner from where police were already investigating.

Now, part of what they're investigating is the victimology here, how all of these victims are related, if they're related at all. Initially, it was not being ruled out that it could potentially be a hate crime, though, because in the first two cases they were African- American. In this third case, however, it's a 75-year-old Hispanic female.

They are, however, saying everything is on the table, everything right now part of the investigation. Very eerie scenes right now in Austin -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Nick Valencia, thank you so much.

We're going to continue to monitor the story and bring you the latest information as it develops.

Right now, I want to turn to the politics lead.

Tough questions for the White House today after President Trump finally unveiled his initial proposal to prevent mass shootings at schools today, which bears little resemblance to the tone and substance we heard from President Trump at the end of February.

You might recall, at a meeting with lawmakers shortly after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the president promised he alone could fix this problem and he was on the case.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have a different president now.

You went through a lot of presidents and you didn't get it done. You have a different president and I think maybe you have a different attitude, too. I think people want to get it done.


TAPPER: The president talked then about significantly expanding background checks, aggressively taking guns away from the mentally ill, even without due process.

And he talked a lot about raising the minimum age to buy semiautomatic weapons to 21.

He also mocked politicians as afraid to buck the National Rifle Association, which opposed his proposal to raise the age for the purchase of semiautomatics to 21.


TRUMP: It doesn't make sense that I have to wait on 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18. I don't know. So I was just curious as to what you did in your bill.

You don't address.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn't address it, Mr. President.

TRUMP: You know why? Because you're afraid of the NRA, right?


TAPPER: "You know why? You're afraid of the NRA."

But President Trump's proposal today fell way short of not only his stated goals, but his stated bravado, offering scarcely anything of substance to which the NRA would even remotely object.


We should not that this latest fold comes after a string of examples of President Trump following through with his intent to disrupt the usual way things are done in Washington, whether agreeing to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.


CHUNG EUI-YONG, SOUTH KOREA NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.


TAPPER: Or implement tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which came at the cost of his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and amidst the protests of Republicans in Congress.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: There is a lot of concern among Republican senators that this could sort of metastasize into a larger trade war.


TAPPER: But as the president told "The Wall Street Journal" last year -- quote -- "I do my own policy. I'm my own strategist. I have people that I respect. I have people that I listen to. I have many people and then I make the decision."

And so it was with tariffs.


TRUMP: We will have a 25 percent tariff on foreign steel and a 10 percent tariff on foreign aluminum.


TAPPER: But for some reason, one month after 17 people, 14 of them children, in a Florida high school were slaughtered, part of the president's big decision on how to keep America's children safe was the formation of a commission, an announcement that came hours after Mr. Trump at a rally belittled the very notion of that type of cop- out.


TRUMP: We can't just keep setting up blue-ribbon committees. They meet, and they a meal, and they talk, talk, talk, talk. Two hours later, than they write a report.


TAPPER: But such a committee, a blue-ribbon commission, is now part of the White House solution to school shootings, along with support for the tamest of background check bills, training and arming willing teachers, and banning bump stocks. The White House today rejected the notion that the very modest proposals the president put out suggests that they are backing off his other aggressive ideas.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is pushing forward on things that we know have broad-based support and that we can immediately get done, while, at the same time, we're looking at the best way forward to push these other things through, whether it is on a state level, whether it's on a federal level.

We're looking at the best process forward because the president does have to work within the Constitution. We can't just write things down and make them law.


TAPPER: That's one way to look at it.

The other way is that the president is willing to buck convention on the issue of tariffs or the issue of North Korea or the issue of basic decorum, but not when it comes to guns.

After all, on his suggestion to raise that age limit for the purchase of semiautomatic weapons, the president tweeted today -- quote -- "On 18-21 limits, watching court cases and rulings before acting. States are making this decision, things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support, to put it mildly."

That is a rather passive analysis that seems quite different from the tone we heard two weeks ago about how the president was going to take on this issue and solve the problem.


TRUMP: I think it's time. It's time that a president stepped up. We haven't them -- and I'm talking Democrat and Republican presidents -- they have not stepped up.


TAPPER: Hmm. Maybe we should appoint a blue-ribbon commission to figure out why that is.

My political panel is here with me.

Kaitlan, what's the deal? Why the total back-away from what he said he was going to do?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you can't ignore the fact that the president has had multiple conversations with several NRA officials, including at the White House in the Oval Office.

The NRA obviously rejects the idea of raising the age limit from 18 to 21. So it raises the question of why is it not in here if it's something that the president still stands behind?

As Sarah Sanders said today, she said it's not something that the president is backing away from. But why didn't he include it in that proposal? Because she said there wasn't widespread support for it in Congress.

There's also not widespread support in Congress for arming teachers at all. But the president still is proposing that idea. And it's actually been the idea he's most consistently proposed.

So it raises that question. If he's not raising this, then why is he doing this? There's not a single thing in everything the White House proposed that the NRA is against. The president has said time and time again don't be scared of the NRA, we might have to fight the NRA.

But he's not fighting the NRA on anything, even though he was giving those senators, Manchin and Toomey, grief for not including raising the age limit in their bill.

TAPPER: And not only that. But the background check bill the president is supporting is not even the Manchin-Toomey bill that was proposed at that table. It's the much milder Cornyn-Murphy bill.

How do you see this? What happened?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, the president is all over the place.

And I think we're trapped in this sort of stupid debate about arming teachers because that's where the president wants us to be. There seems to be up a thirst to do something on a red flag system, gun violence restraining orders.

And while everyone is screwing around with commissions and having the fights that aren't going to go anywhere, three women were taken hostage, shot and killed at a veterans facility in California. And yet no one talked about that.


And that is just crying out for a red flag system, where people who can identify that someone is going to be a threat can give them the help they need.

Listen, we have social media. We talk about why social media is bad, but, my goodness, people are crying out for help on that. And it can be followed up.

And so maybe -- I don't love the idea of a commission, but that's something that could deserve a commission. The president should go on a listening tour and say, how can we get the people the help that they need or at least have a system to flag that they are a threat and alert people.

I mean, the stuff that you did in Florida with the school shooting happened there, there were programs in place that prevented teachers from taking action to help that individual. We should be talking about that, instead of how well the NRA lobbies the president, which they did.


And, Kirsten, one of the things that's interesting, they said the president said that there wasn't political support, political will for raising the age or the purchase of semiautomatics.

As Kaitlan pointed, he defines that is there's no congressional will, as opposed to will among American people. Overwhelming majorities of the American people support that.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: There's will among Democrats.

He just doesn't want to do it with Democrats and he would have to win over some Republicans. So I think what it means is there is no will with the Republican Party. And he's correct. I mean, he has done this time and time again, where he comes out and says something that's at odds with sort of Republican orthodoxy and then he runs into the buzz saw of Republican orthodoxy.

And he finds out actually this isn't going to happen. But I just think, to your point of what you were saying, just to kind of play that out of, if they had done something different in Florida -- and we always say this -- the problem is, there really would have been no way to take those guns away from that kid. You know what I mean?


POWERS: And that's what we're facing, is that you saying that you think he's troubled or something is not actually going to be grounds to take the gun away.


CARPENTER: ... said that they're a threat.

Someone actually could have -- states do have gun violence protection orders where those weapons can be taken away. And the question there is how much due process does that individual get? How fast can they get them?

Some police officers want the ability essentially to seize a weapon right away, which has problems. But I think this is sort of the sweet spot where we need to go when people are making very obvious threats, having fantasies about carrying out mass killings.

There needs to be a way to intervene.

TAPPER: Yes. And you're talking about fantasies about mass killings.

That was in the "Miami Herald" report this weekend about our people -- mental health professionals at the school knowing about this.

But let me change the subject one second to -- while we're on the subject of education, the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who had a bit of a rough interview on "60 Minutes" last night. I wanted to see what you guys think. Take a look.


QUESTION: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?


Overall, I can't say overall that they have all gotten better.

QUESTION: The whole state is not doing well.

DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where the students are doing well.

QUESTION: No, but your argument that if you take funds away, that the schools will get better is not working in Michigan.

Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they're doing?

DEVOS: I have not. I have not. I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

QUESTION: Maybe you should.

DEVOS: Maybe I should, yes.


TAPPER: Boy, that was awful.

And it just reminded me of her confirmation hearings.

COLLINS: Yes, it was truly stunning to see the education secretary, who I should note is not a month or two months on the job. She's been on that job.

She was sworn in last February, so she's got 13 months under her belt here and she struggled to answer very basic questions for an interview with "60 Minutes" where she knew she was going to be asked questions.

It's not like she was surprised with something that was on Russia or something out of her league. This is about exactly her purview here, and she couldn't answer those basic questions. And she also contradicted herself repeatedly.

And it did give you flashbacks to that confirmation hearing. I should note that she is the first Cabinet secretary to ever have to be confirmed by a tie-breaking vote by the vice president. But it was just stunning.

Even people inside the White House watched in horror as those interviews were playing out, because it wasn't just that interview last night. It was also her two interviews this morning, where she could not even defend the administration's proposals on school safety, another thing that is also in her purview.

And it was just a stunning lack of experience.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We have a lot more talk about.

We also heard the White House weigh in on that poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. Sarah Sanders taking the side of our ally, the U.K., which is pointing the blame at Russia for the poisoning.

We are going to go live to London, where this mysterious case is heating up, next. Stay with us.


[16:18:30] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: In our world lead, the Brits are now pointing fingers blaming Russia for poisoning a former spy with a nerve agent. But the White House is not calling out Russia yet, at least not by name, even though they are standing by Great Britain.

Take a listen to Prime Minister Theresa May.


THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Mr. Speaker, they are only two possible explanations. Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent.


TAPPER: That spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are still in critical condition. The police officer who is first to scene, Nick Bailey, is in serious but stable condition.

I want to bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, how did Russia respond to this direct accusation by Prime Minister May?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Almost within minutes, frankly, they stepped forward, their foreign minister, and said their parliament was guilty of a circus show. Very dismissive, as we've heard, frankly, from the start.

But Theresa May startling, I must tell you, in the level of detail she provided and quite how forthright she was in calling Russia around, saying that a military grade nerve agent called Novichok was to blame. That's something that in the past, the Soviets have been accused of creating in the '70s, to get around various chemical weapons treaties they created. It's pretty hard to detect.

But she went on to basically give them a choice. Either you accept that you've lost control of the most dangerous part of your chemical weapons stockpile and let U.N. inspectors effectively in to secure that, or you're basically admitting that you ordered this, you carried this out.

[16:20:06] And in the event of the second choice, and on Wednesday, the U.K. will work out what measures it will take, and she said they're pretty severe for what she called the unlawful use of force of a state against the United Kingdom. That's probably a legal term chosen specifically and that might suggest they're heading towards NATO, Article Five, the collective security part of that alliance, or maybe the United Nations for further responses. But it was startling, frankly, to see the choice they gave Russia and the detail they're willing to provide about how this attack was carried out, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Jake, is there any update on how officials are trying to protect the public from more exposure to this nerve agent?

WALSH: You know, it's baffling really. It was Wednesday last week. They said what specific nerve agent was used but it took until yesterday for health authorities to tell the people who had been in the restaurant where we both -- we've seen contamination from this nerve agent to tell them to launder all of their clothes and clean themselves down with baby wipes. That has left many people deeply perturbed, whether or not the British government fully understood the scale of the risk there or quite what else is going on in this odd time line of advice.

A full five days after the event to clean up the items left behind. That's got some concerns. It also serves to elevate the level of threat many Brits feel from what's now being considered to be a Russian attack, either by designed or errors of carelessness. So, a stark moment really here for Russian's relationship with the West and a broader question, too, of why would Moscow if it was behind it, to do something so quite internationally outrageous just days before a presidential election. Are they looking to further isolate themselves or is some rogue element in the Russian state or enemy of the Kremlin trying to harden Russian position and create even greater distance with the West at this delicate stage -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much.

As the U.K. investigates this poisoning, there was surprise today in the Russia investigation here at home. That's after the break.

Plus, Stormy Daniels making a shocking offer to buy back her story about her alleged affair with President Trump. Will she be able to speak?

Stay with us.


[16:26:20] TAPPER: Welcome back.

Amid Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation into Russia meddling which continues aggressively with no sign of abating, and the bipartisan approach by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which also continues, the House Intelligence Committee appears about to hang it up. The committee's probe has been marked for months by intense partisanship, dysfunctions and downright ugliness at times. Today, we learned that the committee chaired by Congressman Devin Nunes is done interviewing witnesses.

Joining me now to talk about this and much more is Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is conducting its own investigation into Russian interference and possible collusion.

Well, what's your reaction to the House Intelligence Committee saying that they're pretty much, the Republicans on the committee saying that they're done with interviewing people and the expectation is there are going to be two partisan reports. One from the Democrats, one from the Republicans.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, Jake, I think like many members, I'm frustrated and disappointed that the House Intelligence Committee did not succeed in completing its investigation in an increasingly divided and partisan committee with Chairman Devin Nunes I think not distinguishing himself, has ultimately ground to a halt.

On the Senate Judiciary Committee, we have also recently struggled. The majority has refused to allow subpoenas for some of the key witnesses that we wanted to have in front of the committee. We haven't yet had public hearings, and Chairman Grassley and Ranking Member Feinstein, it's more that their staff have failed to come to agreement about who we're going to have in front of us, what direction we're going to take.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, as you just recognized, continues to make solid progress. And the special counsel Robert Mueller continues to make significant progress. I find those both encouraging. But the Senate Judiciary Committee has the jurisdiction over the firing of the FBI director, over obstruction of justice.

So, we should be farther along than we are and it is truly disappointing that the House Intelligence Committee is hanging up its cleats having not really run the race.

TAPPER: So, you heard the report that Nick Paton Walsh just did about the Prime Minister of the U.K. accusing the Russian of poisoning of this former Russian spy who had defected to the U.K., and his daughter. The statement from the White House today was along the lines of we stand with the U.K. There wasn't any condemnation of Russia.

What's your take on that?

COONS: You can't really stand with the U.K. when the prime minister makes such a forceful and clear statement if you don't also condemn this lethal attack on British soil by the Russians. This is another troubling incident the administration of failing to be clear eyed about the threats to our democracy, to our Western allies presented by Vladimir Putin's Russia. We don't yet have a clear statement from President Trump that says,

they interfered in our 2016 election and here's what we're doing to secure the mechanisms of our own democracy eight months from now.

TAPPER: Why do you think that is?

COONS: It is really puzzling. And it suggests either a refusal by President Trump to take that step because he has too much of an affection for Vladimir Putin, which is striking, given the differences in our systems and his aggression towards the United States, or there's some compromising interest or concern that the president has.

TAPPER: President Trump on that the subject. He pushed back today on a "New York Times" report that he is considering making changes to his legal team. He tweeted, quote: They're doing a great job, meaning his legal team, and have shown conclusively that there was no collusion with Russia, just an excuse for losing.

You serve on the Judiciary Committee. You've been privy to a lot of information. Do you think the president's lawyers have proven there's no collusion?

COONS: I don't think that has been conclusively proven one way or the other. That's exactly why I've introduced a bipartisan bill to make it harder to fire the special counsel. I think Robert Mueller in his investigation is farthest along in that. I don't think the public knows and I don't think -- I'll tell you that I as a member of the Judiciary Committee have not seen conclusive proof one way or the other.