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DeVos Struggles to Explain Policies in Interview; Daniels' Lawyer "Hopes" Trump Team doesn't Try to Block Interview; GOP Fighting to Keep Pennsylvania Seat; Trump: I'd Love to Run against Oprah. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 12, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- political pressure? Overnight, he released the White House plan for dealing with school shootings. This nearly a month after the Parkland massacre. It did not include any mention of raising the minimum age to buy a gun to 21. This is something the president said he supports. He said it again and again and again after the massacre. But nothing in the new plan on this, the big question is, why?

Well, moments ago, the president released a statement where he says part of the issue is politics. CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House with the very latest. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, John. After the White House unveiled their proposals last night for school safety, behind the cameras and three weeks after that shooting, we have got the president weighing in, publicly, this morning, on Twitter, saying very strong improvement in strengthening background checks will be fully backed by the White House. He goes on to say, legislation moving forward, bump stocks will soon be out. Highly trained -- expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to state law. Armed guard is a deterrent. And then adds, on the 18 to 21 age limits, watching court cases and rulings before acting. States are making this decision and things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support to put it mildly.

Now this is obviously a president, John, who has never slowed up a decision before. But for this, he says he going to wait to see what court actions have to say about raising that age limit to 21. And that comes after there are a lot of criticism from the president who initially raised that idea back at the end of February after that shooting but then seemed to back off of it, did not mention it in his proposals that would put forth by the White House last night. And I also have to point out that it comes after the president was critical of Senators Manchin and Toomey for not including a higher age limit in their bill on potential gun control and school safety measures.

So, we have got that. That's what's not in the proposals that the president put forth last night. But then we've also got what they have put forward and that's a commission on school safety. Something this commission is going to be headed by the education secretary Betsy DeVos, but even she struggled to explain what exactly her commission is going to do just this morning.


BETSY DEVOS, EDUCATION SECRETARY: Everything is on the table. And the commission that is being formed of which I will lead is going to be looking at this issue, along with a number of other issues. There are many things that have driven this issue in the first place. And we have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.


COLLINS: So there she is, John, discussing that commission just after the president on Saturday night was denouncing these kinds of Blue Ribbon Committees saying they don't actually get anything done. But the White House seems to think that's how they're going to get something done on school safety.

BERMAN: Says they're just talk, talk, talk, talk, said it in I think four times there. Kaitlan, also news over the weekend on the Russia investigation. And the president perhaps thinking about adding a lawyer.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. "The New York Times" is reporting the president has been meeting with Emmet Flood lately. Now Flood is a veteran Washington lawyer who actually defended President Bill Clinton during those impeachment proceedings. "The New York Times" is now reporting that the White House is considering adding him to the president's legal team and that if he were to come on, that he would be in charge of dealing with those day to day activities, dealing with the Justice Department as part of the larger White House's response to the special counsel's probe into the Russia investigation.

Now, the president has denied this saying it is not true, that he's not considering doing this and that he's happy with the legal team he has now. But, John what this speaks to is the larger sense that the White House does not feel that this investigation is coming to an end anytime soon, even though they said publicly they think it is.

BERMAN: Yes. And even though the president's lawyers were telling him it would be done by Christmas. You know some --

COLLINS: Now it is March.

BERMAN: Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks very much.

We're going to come back to the issue of Russia and the lawyers in just a moment. Let's take on guns.

Joining me now, CNN political commentators Robby Mook and Doug Heye. Doug to you, I have to say, I find the president's latest statement on the age limits curious to say the least. He says one of the reasons he's not fighting to raise the age limit to buy a gun at 21 in this new tweet he put out, he says, not much political support to put it mildly. Well, you know who could support it, and if he did, it would be a lot of political support is the president of the United States. He has the power here to give it political support.

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure. And I think if you look at polling throughout the country, you'll see that this is something that is largely popular throughout the country, overwhelmingly popular throughout the country. I think one of the things that the president is referring to here, though, is that this hasn't been a large voting issue when we go to the ballot box. People are overwhelmingly supportive of raising the age limit and increasing background checks. But they don't vote on that. So, members of Congress who vote against their constituents on this issue don't suffer at the ballot box.

And as long as that remains the case, I think we'll see the status quo on gun control. Trump is very uniquely positioned to cut the deal and be the great dealmaker he always told us that he is, with Democrats and a lot of Republicans on this issue.

[10:05:04] But there still needs to be more pressure from the American people for Washington when you're talking about guns or anything else.

BERMAN: Yes. I mean, he's punting here, to an extent. He's punting on that single issue saying there is not political support when again he could be the one giving it. He's also sitting up this commission, when just this weekend he was talking about opioids, but to similar idea, he said that commissions really don't get anything done. Listen to what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can't just keep setting up Blue Ribbon Committees with your wife and your wife and your husband and they meet and they have a meal and they talk, talk, talk, talk, two hours later then they write a report. Look, that's what I got in Washington. I got all these Blue Ribbon Committees.


BERMAN: All these Blue Ribbon Committees. And now he's got a new one to talk, talk, talk this time about guns. To be fair, Robby, Democrats have had plenty of trouble you know -- I guess Bill Clinton you know got the assault weapon ban in the crime Bill in the 1990s but President Obama was not able to get anything done here. It is difficult to get things done on guns here. Do you think this is the end of it, that this setting up this commission, they'll talk, and nothing will happen, that's where this is headed?

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think the president wants this to be the end of it. And the difference between the assault weapons ban in the '90s and when President Obama was in was Republican majority. This is just one of those issues on which it matters who controls the Congress and it matters who is in charge.

I think the president is known for being irreverent and going his own way. There are few organizations or people that he just will never cross ways with. And the NRA is one of those. That's what's going on here. I think the president really believes in gun control but isn't willing to be at odds with the NRA. And I actually, you know, I agree with Doug, politicians have not paid a price in the past when they haven't voted the right way on this issue. But I think this election could be different.

And what we're seeing is the messaging for this is now coming through young people. And I can tell you there is no more persuasive messenger to a voter than their children pleading with them to do the right thing and keep them safe. So, I think this could change this year. And I think Republicans who do nothing on this will pay a price.

BERMAN: We'll see. The one Democrat running a special election tomorrow is running away from this issue largely.

You know, Doug Heye, shifting gears, Betsy DeVos, the education secretary will be overseeing this commission on gun safety. She has had an interesting 24 hours, right? She did an interview with Lesley Stahl in "60 Minutes" last night. She was asked a number of questions about education and policy she supported now and has supported in Michigan. She didn't have much of an answer. Listen.


LESLEY STAHL, HOST, "60 MINUTES": Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?

DEVOS: I don't know. Overall, I can't say overall they have all gotten better.

STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.

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

STAHL: 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.

STAHL: Maybe you should.

DEVOS: Maybe I should. Yes.


BERMAN: You know, Doug, there are questions about whether the president's being well served by his cabinet here and that whether some of these officials, you know, have the experience to do the jobs they have been given.

I would say two things. One on the policy, one on the politics. On the policy, right before we went on air, I got a text message from a friend Sean Gaillard who's the principal of Lexington Middle School, in Lexington, North Carolina, near my hometown. There's an underperforming school and he said that not visiting underperforming schools is an insult. I think frankly, if you're a supporter of school choice, like I am. You ought to be visiting as many underperforming schools in your home state and throughout the country as you can. No politician, especially a secretary of education will ever be criticized for spending too much time visiting schools and especially schools that are failing those students and those communities.

On the politics, I also look at this as a staffer. When I was a communications director, press secretary, my job wasn't just to help promote policies and ideas or the politician. It was to protect them. And if you have a major interview request or major interview coming up you have to get that politician ready for those tough questions that are coming, or you don't do the interview. When I saw this happen, my first thought was that this was bad staffing. If she wasn't prepared, she shouldn't have been doing the interview.

BERMAN: You would have slept last night, Doug, if someone you would staff on that interview last night. I have the feeling. Robby, Doug, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about with you. I want to cover some different ground now.

New this morning. The Stormy Daniels interview that had been set to air -- well, no, there is a Stormy Daniels interview we believe that is set to air on "60 minutes" this coming Sunday. An attorney for Daniels tells CNN he has heard rumblings that members of the president's legal team could try to block the airing of that interview sometime this week.

Joining us now with the latest, MJ Lee. MJ, what are you hearing?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, John, we have known for a while that Stormy Daniels badly wants to speak out about her experience with Donald Trump.

[10:10:04] She wants to speak out about this alleged affair that she had with him dating back to 2006. The $130,000 that she says she received from Donald Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, as well as this NDA that she says she signed as part of the so-called hush agreement in order to keep her quiet about this alleged affair.

Well, we know that she sat down with Anderson Cooper for a "60 Minutes" interview. And over the weekend, there's a report that said the lawyers associated with Donald Trump may be considering taking legal action to prevent this interview from airing.

Now, Michael Avenatti, who is Stormy Daniels' lawyer, was on CNN's "New Day" this morning and he says that he certainly hopes that the "60 Minutes" interview will air because he says the American people deserve to hear her story and deserve to know the truth. Here say little more of what he had to say.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, LAWYER REPRESENTING STORMY DANIELS: I don't understand why the president cannot come out and state unequivocally did he know about the agreement, did he know about the payment, and he did have anything to do with the payment being made? Three very simple questions. You don't need 140 characters on Twitter in order to answer those three questions.


LEE: Now Stormy Daniels also telling my colleague on Friday night that she is doing well and that she has been more in demand in terms of dance bookings, but that it is also a double-edged sword and she hasn't had as much time to promote her adult films. John?

BERMAN: All right. MJ Lee for us. MJ, thanks very much.

Joining me now, CNN legal analyst, former New Jersey attorney general, Anne Milgram. Thanks so much for being with us. Any chance that if they wanted to keep this interview from running that Michael Cohen and lawyers close to the president could stop it from running?

ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think there are a couple of points. First of all, it is a big if. There has been no litigation filed. We know that that's been publicly reported as true. At this point there is no litigation. And so I think it is important to remember that this could just be a story, and it could also be possible that we'll see litigation.

Now if we do see litigation, my expectation is that we will see the "60 Minutes" episode. You know there is legal wrangling. The most that might happen is they may hold -- they may ask a -- a court may ask them to hold for the finalization of that legal wrangling. Stormy Daniels' attorney filed to basically nullify this agreement saying it hasn't been signed by the president, but courts want information under the First Amendment. They want the ability of people to speak. They don't like to people -- to not have the opportunity to give their say.

BERMAN: It's incredibly high bar for prior restraint here. The reason I think that you're being cautious here, saying that we don't know if there's legal actions because most lawyers look at this and say it would be a colossal blunder to try to stop this because you would be giving it, you know, the importance of the Pentagon papers essentially and giving it more publicity.

MILGRAM: You're certainly giving it more oxygen as a question of if you are going to litigate this, it is just going to be in the news every day. And so I think that it would not be wise of them to litigate it. We shall see.

BERMAN: The president this weekend, you know, according to Maggie Haberman in "The New York Times" talking about adding a new lawyer to his legal staff. Someone who has experience dealing with impeachment. You know, would that be a good idea?

MILGRAM: So, I think it is very possible he will add more lawyers. I mean, the one thing we know is that this is not ending soon. Also, think about the lawyer he's looking to add, Mr. Flood is one of the few people in the country who has experience defending an impeachment. And so, if they're looking to the future in the next six months, 12 months, it is a good idea for them to think about -- it wouldn't surprise me at all if they were thinking about how do we get this kind of expertise on our team.

BERMAN: And it is odd to me that the president has such a visceral reaction to this story, which we by the way believe to be truth through Maggie's reporting here, you know, add another lawyer, who's going to fault you for adding someone to your legal team there, unless he's worried about upsetting his current legal team.

MILGRAM: Well, it certainly - also I think that from a public standpoint, the president has been saying this is going to end soon. You said it just now, it is supposed to end at Christmas time. And so, I think adding a lawyer does give everyone the impression, which I think candidly is true, that the investigation is going to go on for a lot longer than they would like.

BERMAN: Christmas 2018, Christmas 2019 at this point may be a more realistic expectation. Anne Milgram, great to have you with us. Thank you very, very much.

MILGRAM: Thank you.

BERMAN: Republicans in a battle for a Senate -- for a House seat in Pennsylvania. The thing is, this should not be a battle at all. What is happening in Trump country and what does it mean for Republicans this year? Stay with us.


[10:18:14] BERMAN: Tomorrow, voters head to the polls and a Congressional race in Western Pennsylvania. The Republican candidate struggling in a district that really should not be in play.

Joined again by CNN political commentators Robby Mook and Doug Heye. Robby, I know you're of the school that we always put too much weight in special elections, so in that spirit, let me ask you this, is this a must win for Democrats tomorrow?

MOOK: Well, absolutely not. This is a district that Donald Trump won by double digits, Mitt Romney won by double digits. This district shouldn't even be in play. And the ironic thing of course is this district won't even exist for the next election cycle. So, this is all about setting expectations, and getting wind behind your back. So, we'll spend a lot of time talking about it moving forward and trying to read into the tea leaves.

I think the one thing that is valuable to look at, and it is whether the president is capable of turning out his base. We saw in the Georgia special election last year that turnout was high across the board, between both parties. It will be interesting to see if they can achieve the same thing here. But I think, you know two things are going on for the Republicans. They recruited a bad candidate. Democrats recruited a good candidate and Democratic intensity is there.

BERMAN: So, Doug Heye, I know, because I know you, you've been on the phone no doubt with people who are involved with this election and are watching it closely. What does your gut tell you about where it is headed and why it is this close?

HEYE: I'll be honest, my gut doesn't tell me a whole lot about what is going to happen. And like Robby, I agree that I think we placed too much emphasis on special elections. This does have a unique result or unique situation because of the Trump base and the event that Trump did and to see if his voters will turn out. But ultimately why I think this race is so important and it is not about one vote in Congress, obviously the seat as Robby said is going to disappear.

[10:20:04] But if we lose this seat, if Republicans lose tomorrow night, my big fear is that we'll see a rash, a further rash of Republican incumbent retirements. Republican members are paying very, very close attention not just to their own districts but to what's happening in other districts with the surge of Democratic enthusiasm.

What we've seen already is more than double the number of Republican - incumbent retirements in the House compared to Democrats. If we lose tomorrow night, I think we're going to see more Republican members of Congress basically acting like animals fleeing before the earthquake comes. They know what's happening if we lose this seat.

BERMAN: Robby could barely contain his smile and nodding his head up and down when you were talking right there.

All right. One person not on the ballot tomorrow, Oprah Winfrey. She may not be on the ballot anytime. She says right now, she's not running for president, although she hasn't given a Shermanesque statement. We'll leave that there for a moment. But she was talking to Van Jones over the weekend, and what she said about how Democrats should run was really interesting. Listen to this.


OPRAH WINFREY, MEDIA MOGUL: Do not give your energy to the other side. Do not spend all your time talking about your opponents. Do not give your energy to that which you really don't believe in. Do not spend an ounce of your time on that.


BERMAN: So, I was dying to know what you make of that. Obviously, you have run a campaign against Donald Trump, which was very critical. It made Donald Trump very much an issue down the stretch there. You know it is hard to restrain yourself I think from doing that. Do you think Democrats should listen to Oprah?

MOOK: I do. I think we have an opportunity in our upcoming presidential primary this is a long time away, but we're going to have new candidates out there that voters are probably a lot less familiar with. So, I think there is going to be a lot of interest on the voter's part to hear more about those candidates. One of the challenges we had on the Clinton campaign was that Hillary had been in politics for a long time. And I think a lot of voters thought they knew everything that they needed to know.

But Oprah is right. We're not going to win and by the way, we're not going to do as well in the midterms as we need to. Unless we prove to the voters why we are providing a better deal than President Trump or the Republicans.

Now, this is hard to do in practice. We just look at the news here today. We talk about Trump constantly because he's mixing it up. He's constantly saying things that we need to respond to. So, this is a really hard thing to do. We have not figured out how to do it. But in general, I absolutely agree with her. To win in the midterms of the presidential, Democrats have got to make the case why we can do a better job and we won't be able to do that if the only person we talk about is Donald Trump.

BERMAN: Doug Heye, if I can circle back a little bit having to do with Pennsylvania, again. It has something to do with also for Democrats at least. If Conor Lamb wins, he's run largely against Nancy Pelosi, put an ad up against Nancy Pelosi, do you see that as a model for Democrats going forward?

HEYE: In red leaning districts, it is absolutely a model moving forward for Democrats. Democratic Party is split. Obviously, you know, Robby experienced that in the pretty bruising primaries that the Democrats had in the presidential cycle. But we're seeing this on a state by state level on the Congressional level, the party is split between whether you want to call it moderates or liberals or progressives. There is also the establishment, whatever that means, versus the anti-establishment, whatever that means.

We focus so much on Republican fissures that I've lived through some of and those are certainly true. But the Democrats have the same issues that are playing out in a lot of the same ways. And it is a real problem not just moving forward for Democrats trying to take back the House and hold on to some of the Senate seats that are really at a loss, but if they try to win the House, they're going to need to come together as one party. And if they have their own version of the House Freedom Caucus on the Democratic side, if they take over the House, we're going to see a Democratic majority that is not going to be capable of doing a whole lot.

BERMAN: Doug Heye, Robby Mook, thank you so much for being with us guys.

MOOK: Thanks.

HEYE: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, should lawmakers be involved now in the Stormy Daniels scandal. Should they be looking into this. We're going to ask one key lawmaker next.


[10:28:29] BERMAN: This morning, the attorney for Stormy Daniels tells CNN that he has heard rumblings that lawyers associated with President Trump could try this week to block a "60 Minutes" interview planned for Sunday. Could try to keep it from airing. Joining me now, Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California. Congressman, thank you so much for being with us. You have actually asked the FBI to get involved and investigate this whole Stormy Daniels situation. Why?

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, John, for your question. Kathy Rice and I wrote a letter to the FBI. We're both former prosecutors, because we want them to investigate if any federal laws were violated. In this case, federal election law defines a contribution as anything of value. And when Michael Cohen made a $130,000 payment to silence Stormy Daniels who had negative information on then candidate Donald Trump, that was something of value, only problem is it far exceed campaign contribution limits and that's a felony punishment by up to five years in prison.

BERMAN: It is. There is some precedent here, John Edwards you know escaped conviction in a case that had some similarities. It is unclear where the law would lead here. Let me ask you this, do you think the Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team should be involved in any way in this? Doesn't deal with Russia, but it does deal with things that were going on in the election.

LIEU: I don't think you need Special Counsel Mueller involved in this particular case. But there are other prosecutors at the Department of Justice that could certainly look into this issue. And I'm glad you mentioned the John Edwards case. There were some similarities, but there are also some differences. One difference is there was an actual agreement here to silence Stormy Daniels, and very clear that the payment was directly meant to make her not say any negative during the course of the campaign.