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PA Nail-Biter in Trump Country Triggers GOP Panic; Trump Approval Mirrors GOP Performance in Special Elections; U.K. To Expel Russian Diplomats After Nerve Agent Attack; No Action From Congress One Month After Florida Massacre; FBI Exec Confirms Tip on Cruz Threat Was Explicit; Students Demand Gun Reform in Nationwide Walkouts. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 14, 2018 - 12:30   ET



[12:32:26] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: This is the source of Republican embarrassment and Republican panic today.

A Democrat in the lead, it's not official yet, 627 votes. It's narrow, but still a Democrat in the lead. Most people think the likely winner in this Pennsylvania 18th congressional district that just 16 months ago the president of the United States carried over Hillary Clinton by 20 points.

It's embarrassing as the Republicans look at it now. The point they're trying to make today is, OK, two candidates, one race, Western Pennsylvania, no national implications.

But, we took a quick look at this. We want to show you how they're wrong. First, let's just go back and look at this map here. Let's bring up this national map here. We'll bring this out for you.

These are the House districts across the United States of America. Let me stretch it out for you a little bit. You see a lot of red there. Republicans are in the majority. That's why you see so many.

How many districts look a lot like Pennsylvania 18? The population, the demographics, the economics, the other characteristics that we study when we're trying to figure it out what looks like alike. Let's take a look.

It's 20 more of them. And if you see the red, yes, a few Democratic ones up here in New England. The rest of them are Republican. Most of them are Republican.

So there are a lot of Republican congressmen today asking their campaign advisers, asking their pollsters, asking themselves, what happened here? And will it happen to me come November?

The speaker of the house, Paul Ryan, trying to calm these jitters, saying the Democrats ran a unique candidate. Of course it won't happen again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I think the candidate that's going to win this race is the candidate that ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative. That's the candidate that's going to win this race.

So this is something that you're not going to see repeated because they didn't have a primary. They were able to pick a candidate who could run as a conservative, who ran against the minority leader, who ran on a conservative agenda.

You will have primaries in all these other races, and the primaries bring them to the left. So I just don't think that this is something they're going to be able to see a repeat of.


KING: We touched on this a bit earlier, but did Democrats get the lesson the speaker laid out? Because there's a lot of spin there. There's a lot of spin there.

That's his job, to spin and to try to get his members to calm down. But he does have a point that in districts like that, including the ones I just showed you up there, it matters the difference.

Now, before everybody have their thoughts, we go to Capitol Hill first. Somebody who's talking to these members today saying, stay or go is our Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju.

What's the mood among those Republicans?

MANU RAJY, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting because Paul Ryan also delivered a bit of a warning in a closed-door briefing earlier this morning. I'm told that he said to his members that look, Democratic enthusiasm is up. You need to be prepared to run aggressive campaigns.

Some of that we did not -- they did not actually see Rick Saccone do in the Pennsylvania 18 race.

[12:35:04] That's also a message at Steve Stivers, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, also delivered behind closed doors.

I talked to other Republican leaders including John Cornyn in the Senate side, the majority said that last night was, quote, wake-up call. So John they are trying to send their message pretty loud and clear that their members that this election really shows how bad of an environment it is for their party.

They don't think it's over yet. They think they can still sell their tax law, but they also know that the major challenges ahead if their candidates and campaigns are not prepared to do battle, John.

KING: Keep count, Manu. Do me a favor. Keep count as you walk the halls over the next few days. And those who at least whisper they might think about retirement. I bet you find a few more in the next 72 to 100 hours ahead as people study this. That's Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill. Thank you, Manu.

Let's bring it in the room. Now to that point, this is a fire alarm for Republicans. The question is do they get it.

The next question is, you know, if you're a Republican, the climate is bad for incumbents still. The same climate that gave us Donald Trump is still out there. That's evidence.

I think Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, newcomer, I'm against Nancy Pelosi too. I'm against Washington. I'm not the Washington person.

The other guy is a state representative who says I'm more Trump than Trump. So the climate is still out there.

But if you're a Republican, you still want your incumbents to run right because they can raise more money and their battle tested in the district. And if you had to replace them now, the mayors and state legislators would say, no way, I'm not getting in, in this clan.

My question is what exactly Republicans can do in this situation. And I'm not sure it's all that much.

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: I mean, what could Democrats do after Obama had passed the Affordable Care Act. It was not getting good head lines. It didn't have great approval ratings in the country.

I think Republicans face the same sort of situation. And apart from trying to fend off retirements and encourage his members to fund raise aggressively, I'm not sure Republicans can really do all that much. There is some extraneous factors that are not in their control here, such as the president's behavior.

KING: To that point, let me just jump in. To that point, you're exactly right and we overthink this sometimes. We overthink why Donald Trump is president sometimes. We overthink what happened last night sometimes.

In midterm elections, last year defied all the rules. This year in 2017, they've pretty much stuck to the rules. You have a president in office. His party suffers and his approval rating is what matters most.

I just want to say, the always smart Amy Walter. Look at this tweet last night. "Anyone see a pattern here?"


KING: "Pennsylvania '18, Trump job approval, 49, Saccone, 49. Georgia '06, this is the special House election last year. Trump approval, 50, the Republican candidate, 52.

The Montana special election last year, Trump job approval, 50, the Republican candidate, 50." DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I saw that tweet too, and I thought, that's exactly dead on. Because it is, as you said, in keeping with what we have seen historically.

The most recent sort of analogy, of course, is, as we've been saying, President Obama in 2010 with the Republican wave. And Republicans who I've been talking to who were on the good side of the wave, on the winning side of that wave, were looking aggressively at President Obama's approval rating. And where that stood in all of these key districts really ended up determinative of how much they were able to win in those days.

KING: And to that point, as we finish this up, the Tea Party caused a lot of dust in 2010 and 2014. A lot of Democrats said, oh, that's going to be our salvation because the Tea Party is causing all this dust. Guess what?

If there's a wave out there, sometimes you can have a bad candidate. Sometimes you can have a bad primary. If there's a wave, you can get carried.

HENDERSON: Yes, that's right. And you know, I think the Republicans have to figure out what their message is, right.

I mean, there's been so much focus on the Democrats don't really have a message. They can't be Anti-trump. Republicans have some work to do in terms of the tax bill.

Like, is this actually going to work? Whatever they ran against Conor Lamb just didn't work, didn't stick.

JONATHAN MARTIN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Ten seconds here. Democrats in red states seem to be more tolerant of their candidates coming out against Pelosi than the Republicans in blue districts are about coming out against Trump. So Democrats are basically, you know, accepting the fact that, hey, in some of these districts and races, our candidates have to say that they're against Pelosi because that's what gets you elected.

HENDERSON: And maybe pro-guns or whatever else.

MARTIN: I don't see that same kind of tolerance on the Republican side of, OK, you're against Trump here.

KING: A lot of consultants are now saying, you got to convince your candidate you're running for mayor. Make it a local race, and make it about the tax cuts in the district, the jobs in the district. Try and maybe pretend you're not going to Washington at the end.

I'm not sure how that works.


KING: As we head to break, I want to bring you this news. The British prime minister is blaming the Kremlin for the poisoning of an ex-Russian on British soil. She says, the United States and other allies are standing by her.


[12:43:59] KING: Topping our political radar today.

A new chapter in a story that could be ripped straight from the pages of a spy thriller. The United Kingdom now formally sanctioning Moscow after it failed to explain how a Russian-made nerve agent was used on a former Russian spy outside London.

As part of the sanctions, 23 Russian diplomats being expelled. Invitation to Russia's foreign minister has been revoked. No member of the cabinet or the royal family will attend the World Cup in Russia.

Prime Minister Theresa May, earlier today addressing Britain's House of Commons.


THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It was right to offer Russia the opportunity to provide an explanation, but their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events. The United Kingdom does not stand alone in confronting Russian aggression.

In the last 24 hours, I have spoken to President Trump, Chancellor Merkel, and President Macron. We have agreed to cooperate closely in responding to this barbaric act and coordinate our efforts to stand up for the rules based international order which Russia seeks to undermine.


[12:45:00] KING: It's a fascinating story. CNN Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen live in Moscow.

Fred, how is Moscow -- how are the Russian Government responding to this?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. Well, there's some angry reactions coming out here from Moscow. The Russians are saying they're going to retaliate and that the Brits are going to be sorry for doing this.

It's quite interesting situation actually where the Russians -- or where the Brits are saying that a military grade nerve agent was used in one of their cities. That was only manufactured in Russia. But the Russians are saying the Brits are at fault for making relations worse.

The Russians are saying they are going to retaliate, they're not saying how exactly they're going to retaliate. All of this is going to be debated in the U.N. later. Of course, all sides are waiting to hear what Washington has to say about this as well, John.

KING: Fred Pleitgen. We'll wait to see what Washington says. But it's remarkable, it's a spy drama, international outrage. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thanks so much.

Up next for us, senators grill a top law enforcement official on why the Parkland shooter wasn't stopped. The victims' parents, meanwhile, also weighing in.


RYAN PETTY, DAUGHTER ALAINA KILLED IN PARKLAND SHOOTING: The failure to warn the parents of the students by this action or inaction, we were rendered powerless to fulfill our most sacred trust as parents. To protect our children.


[12:50:26] KING: While students across the country, including right here in Washington, D.C., protest inaction on new gun laws, over in the Senate, a hearing today on the FBI and other police failures in the Parkland, Florida shooting.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Another caller described the shooter as someone who wants to kill people. And yet, in that instance, the FBI did not even open an investigation on it. Why not?

DAVID BOWDICH, ACTING FBI DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Senator, I share your frustration. I share your anger. And I share your concern that this doesn't happen again.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Nobody followed up and called the local cops, do you know this guy?

BOWDICH: No, sir.


KING: CNN Justice Reporter Laura Jarrett has been tracking this hearing. She joins us now with more. What other news have we heard today, Laura?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, John, as you saw there, the acting deputy director of the FBI, David Bowdich was questioned at length, specifically on the missed tips on the Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and exactly how did things go wrong.

He admitted, as he has done in the past, that the FBI could have and should have done more to investigate and follow up in this case. And he detailed a timeline on two particular tips, one from last September where Cruz left a disturbing message on a YouTube posting. And then one in January where someone close to Cruz called an FBI tipline to warn about his arsenal of guns and that he was ready to explode.

And on that one, Bowdich admitted to lawmakers that it was, quote, explicit, the warning from that tipster. He admitted that the person who received the tip at the FBI call center did not pass it along to local law enforcement, but she did raise it to a supervisor about it. Now, what exactly happened after that appears to be in some dispute between she and the supervisor. They have different stories. Neither one of them has been fired in this case. But Bowdich said that they are adding more FBI supervisors to review tips like this in the past to make sure it doesn't happen again, John.

KING: Laura Jarrett with the reporting on that hearing. Laura, thank you very much.

Let's bring it back in the room. You see -- you hear about this, the failures. There's no other word for it. Horrible failures.

You see the students protesting today. They want more than what the president's proposed or what it looks like Republicans are prepared to do. Is there any chance?

It is remarkable, again, whatever your views. Peaceful protest is a good thing in our country. Is there any chance the students going to get what they want?

MARTIN: This is a big moment, I think, in the history of gun politics in this country. Because this issue, like every other shooting that we've seen in recent years, guess what, it's fading. And why is it fading? Because other stories have taken over.

Firing Rex Tillerson, a special election in Pennsylvania. That's what we're talking about here. That's what's on the front page of my paper today.

The question, John, now is can these kids today, by walking out of school, bring it back on the front burner and force Congress to act.

BASH: Well, they're certainly trying. And this is a walkout today. There'll be a big march later this month. And there's absolutely no indication that these students are going to give up at all.

And the thing that all of these politicians have to remember and have to keep in mind is maybe most of them aren't voting age now, but they will be soon. And that is the way we have seen change in the history of this country. Exactly what you're seeing right now, people out on the streets, marching peacefully to get politicians' attention.

KING: And we saw Nancy Pelosi show up to the student rally on Capitol Hill today. House Democrats would like to do more. A political question, is part of -- what about Senate Democrats?

HENDERSON: Yes. I mean --

KING: Did they really in this election year (INAUDIBLE).

HENDERSON: Probably no. And we saw this before with those red state Democrats who didn't want to go along with gun control measures when they were up for re-election and Barack Obama was president. So that is the case here.

If you are Joe Manchin, if you are Heidi Heitkamp, if you are John Tester, it's not clear that you really want to kind of do anything on gun control because it could put you in a difficult place when you're asking voters in those red states to vote for you.

KING: And Florida did pass a law. Governor Rick Scott who's running for Senate making the calculation that he would defy the NRA. He's a Republican we expect to run for Senate now. It's A fascinating election laboratory.

The governor of North Carolina who's a Democrat, tweeting this out today. "Brave students are making their voices heard, and it's clear they want action. I do too."

If not in Washington, if we get modest improvements in Washington, are we going to see Florida and North Carolina, two of, a, gun right states, b, two of the most evenly divided competitive states in American politics.

[12:55:07] BASH: Yes. I mean, we're already seeing that. And even before Parkland we started to see more modest gun control legislation passed in some local communities and some states and so forth.

The issue that people who are fighting for more gun control argue about is that if it's sort of patchwork, if it's this date, this date, and this date, there's nothing to stop somebody who buys a gun in the state where it's still legal from driving to Florida where the laws have changed, and to do whatever he or she needs to do, which is why they're arguing you need it on the federal level. But given where today's politics are, that might -- they just might need to take it where they can get it on the state level.

KING: Even the president seemed to concede that when he had originally talked about raising the age. Now he says he's watching Florida, he's watching the elections, watching the court challenges.

If Republicans who voted for these things survive these things maybe -- in the states, maybe that will change the mood in Washington. Who knows? Let's see. We'll talk about this for months.

Thanks for joining us today in the INSIDE POLITICS. See you back here this time tomorrow. Wolf starts right after a quick break. Have a good day.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Wherever you're watching --