Return to Transcripts main page

INSIDE POLITICS

FedEx Package Explosion; Gunman Killed in Maryland Shooting; Additions to Trump's Legal Team; Mueller Questions over Comey Firing; GOP Cautions of Mueller Firing; Intel Committee Briefs on Russian Meddling; Trump Meeting in Oval Office. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 20, 2018 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: In the hour ahead.

The president about to welcome the crowned prince of Saudi Arabia to the White House and into the Oval Office. When reporters get in there, expect questions about new attacks on the Russia meddling special counsel.

Plus, new ideas about how to counter Russia meddling this year. The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee are speaking live in just a few moments. We'll take you there.

Before politics, though, we want to update you on two breaking news stories we're following today, a school shooting in Maryland and another package explosion near Austin, Texas. The latest blast happened at a FedEx facility outside of San Antonio. Police just gave an update on the situation there.

Let's get live to CNN's Ed Lavandera. He's in Austin.

Ed, what are police saying? What do we know?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John.

Well, investigators across central Texas, a flurry of activity that they're dealing with here this morning. Let me try to break it down as clearly as possible.

We are at a FedEx delivery location in southeast Austin, near the airport. This is a little bit different from one of the other locations. But there was a suspicious package reported at the facility just down the road. And that is where investigators are looking, examining that package. We're waiting on an update on that.

There has also been another location in the suburb of San Antonio called Schertz, Texas, which is about an hour's drive from where we are. And that is where one package exploded in the overnight hours injuring the worker at the delivery center there. It's minor injuries, we are told.

We've also being told at that same location, there was a second package that was discovered that did not detonate, which could also provide a great deal of information and clues for investigators as they continue to look through that scene as well.

Still very early on in both of these -- in both of these situations. So, John, this is, obviously, a great deal of concern here across the central Texas region, in Austin in particular, where the authorities say that that explosion at that -- at that facility at the -- in Schertz, Texas, is -- they suspect is going to end up being connected to the four explosions that we've seen here in Austin so far. So that would -- if that is indeed the case, that is five explosions.

And what is more troubling for investigators, John, is that the method by which these packages are being delivered, moved around, and in the situations that they are exploding is also changing. Remember the one from Sunday evening in Austin was triggered by a trip wire which level -- raised the level of concern for investigators who said that whoever is making this has a higher level of sophistication in being able to make these explosive devices. And obviously being delivered and ending up in delivery facilities like we've seen here on this -- on this -- on this day is also troubling as well.

So we're awaiting a -- the latest press conference here from Austin police at this situation here in southeast Austin near the airport, John.

KING: Ed Lavandera, a lot of questions, as you note, about the methods, about the motive, about the likely but not proven connection. Ed, we'll come back to you as developments warrant. Appreciate it.

Now to the other breaking news story we're following this hour. Today's shooting at a high school in Great Mills, Maryland.

CNN's Joe Johns is there on the scene.

Joe, a briefing not that long ago from the sheriff. What do we know about just what happened?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: We've got very sketchy details and a lot of this information, John, is soon to change. But according to the sheriff's department here at Great Mills High School, southern Maryland, around 7:45 this morning Eastern Time, a student apparently produced a firearm, shot a female student. It's our understanding that a male student was also struck apparently -- I say apparently -- by the same round from the gun. The female student in critical condition at the hospital.

What we also know is that shortly after that, a security officer here approached the gunman, engaged him, fired a shot and the gunman was shot. We're also told by authorities that the gunman is now dead. So that's confirmation on the death of the gunman here.

We also know the school was put under lockdown for a period. A number of students taken, obviously, from the scene while the investigation continues. We're also told that authorities are interviewing the school resource officer who fired the weapon and killed the suspect.

Back to you, John. KING: Joe Johns on the scene for us. Joe, appreciate your reporting

and braving the elements to do so. Police promise another briefing on that shooting in Maryland at the top of the hour. We'll bring you that at the -- when we get there.

To politics now and a blunt warning delivered today by a Republican senator to a president who we know is mad as hell at the special counsel and a president who we know is adding more aggressive voices to his legal team. Senator Lindsey Graham warning the president his anger must not cross the line.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUGH HEWITT, "THE HUGH HEWITT SHOW": If the president fired Robert Mueller, do you think that would be an impeachable offense?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Probably so, if he did it without cause, yes. I can't think of a more upsetting moment in the rule of law, to have an investigator looking at a president's campaign as to whether or not they colluded with a foreign government, what kind of crimes may have been committed. I've seen no evidence of collusion, but to stop the investigation without cause I think would be a constitutional crisis.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[12:05:20] KING: Now, you heard the senator there. The assumption among Republicans is that the president is just venting and wouldn't dare fire Mueller. But the fact that they feel compelled to call the White House to check is proof they're more than a little worried.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: The special counsel should be free to follow through his investigation to its completion without interference, absolutely. I am confident that he'll be able to do that. I received assurances that his firing is not even under consideration. We have a system based upon the rule of law in this country. We have a justice system and no one is above that justice system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now we now know from our sources just why the president is even more angry, and why that angry extends to a legal team that told the president this would all be over by now. At a face-to-face meeting last week, Mueller deputies told the president's lawyers, the special counsel want to ask the president, among other things, about the firing of the FBI director, James Comey, about the role of the attorney general in that process, and what the president knew about former National Secretly Adviser Michael Flynn's contacts with Russia during the campaign and the president transition. Questions, if you boil all that down, about possible obstruction and about whether the president knew his people were in touch with the Russians, even though he repeatedly said they were not. With me to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, Olivier Knox with "Yahoo! News," Michael Warren of "The Weekly Standard," and CNN's Abby Phillip.

And as this plays out, now we have a much better sense of why the president was so mad at Bob Mueller, but also at his lawyers. Yesterday they tell us that Joe diGenova, a veteran prosecutor here, a veteran Republican, legal presence in Washington, D.C., will be joining the president's legal team. He has said on Fox News he believes this is all an FBI conspiracy to trap the president.

"The Washington Post" reporting now that they're also reaching out to a veteran Washington hand, Ted Olson (ph), to see if he will come on to the Trump legal team. The president is said to be supportive, according to "The Washington Post." Our Pam Brown checking in with other members of the president's legal team say they're not going to comment on any -- any of this as they go through the personnel.

What does this tell us about the president's mindset? And if there are these additions, are there going to be subtractions for the president's team?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: There could be. Look, if you kind of go back in time to the end of last year, end of 2017, we talked many, many times about the fact that the president's legal team, their strategy was to promise the president, not just in public, but in private, that this is going to end soon. The investigation is almost over. Don't worry. And their strategy was to try to keep him calm. To try to keep him off Twitter going after Bob Mueller.

Well, there's only so long you can stall when it's clearly not ending. And at some point the client, the president, is going to wake up and say, is my legal team not telling me the truth? Or are they misleading me on purpose? And that clearly happened because of so many things that we have seen. The Trump Organization subpoena from Bob Mueller and now, according to our colleagues there reporting about the kinds of questions that Bob Mueller and his team want to ask him, if and when they actually get an interview done.

So, yes, I mean he's -- he's fed up.

One thing I will say is, the legal team that the president has is largely based on the legal team that he could get. There are a couple of reasons. First of all, they're just lawyers who don't want to go near it. But also a lot of lawyers have conflicts in this town because they work for big firms that already have clients who are involved in it.

KING: Right. And so now we know -- again, they sat down. This has been a months' long process. Will the president sit down with the special counsel? His lawyers, smartly, have been trying to get the special counsel to restrict the focus of that questioning and to lay out in advance, only the president gets to do this and a normal witness wouldn't, lay out in advance, what are the topics, so that we can prepare the president? Maybe we can answer some of your questions in writing. We now know one of the questions is, and this is not a surprise, why

did the president fire James Comey? How did that come about? What was his thinking? Who did he talk to it about, including his attorney general, did he talk to him? He was supposed to be recused from all matters relating to the Russia investigation. So a little back in time here. The special counsel wants to ask the president some questions essentially to find out if what we have heard from the president and what others have said at the White House is the truth. Here's the president and the attorney general.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia ting with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm really comfortable that that -- I did not violate what I told this committee are proper rules in not recusing myself on the decision of Mr. Comey, because it was not based on the merits of the investigation. It was based on his performance publically and in regard to announcing a decision. That was a decision he was not entitled to announce.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[12:10:10] KING: But the special counsel wants to put the president in the chair and go through every meeting, go through every conversation to get at, was this done for cause? Was this done even in anger, which would be OK. The president has that authority. Or was this done as a deliberate effort, calculated by the president, and maybe with others, to shut down the investigation?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It seems very much that the mindset question is the one that no matter how much legwork the president's lawyers try to do, how many questions they try to answer in writing, only President Trump can tell the special counsel what he was thinking, why he did the things that he did. And you can tell from that interview, that Lester Holt interview, that when he is in a chair and he is asked, why did you do this, he sometimes answers truthfully and sometimes says things that could very well incriminate himself. Like this is -- this is the risk here. And there's no amount of legwork that can prevent that from being a problem for Trump.

And you can also see that that's why this whole let the special counsel work strategy is not one that has ever worked for Trump. It's not in his personality to do that. And certainly I think he understands that -- that there is a sense in which the special counsel could very well entrap him by simply asking him questions like, what were you thinking when you did x, y and z?

KING: Right. Or what did you tell x, and what did you tell y --

PHILLIP: Yes. KING: Because we do know from other witnesses that when you go in for these conversations with the special counsel's teams, they have recreated the day. They essentially know what you had for breakfast and whether you got stuck in traffic on the way to work that day. And so we know he's -- the president, you know, the special counsel has a lot of e-mails, has talked to people in the White House Counsel's office, has talked to other people who were involved. So if the president goes in and says something that the paperwork and other witnesses don't back up, that's where he's in trouble.

How serious is it that Lindsey Graham feels compelled to say on a radio show, not say, oh, Hugh, come on, that's a foolish question, but to say, yes, that actually might be grounds for impeachment. That the speaker of the House says, stop worrying about this. I checked in with the White House. They've assured me -- he won't say who assured him -- but they've assured me the president's not going to do this. What does that tell you about the level of worry among Republicans that the president might be on that edge?

MICHAEL WARREN, SENIOR WRITER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, I think it tells you that -- what -- the assurances that Paul Ryan is getting from the White House aren't worth that much because a lot of people in the White House don't really know what the president's going to do, what he's thinking about this.

I was struck watching that video, the Lester Holt interview, really how consistent the president has been in recognizing the problem of the special counsel investigation and the broader sort of Russia meddling investigation for his own administration. It's really hamstrung his administration. The change over the weekend, the tweet about Mueller. Really the only difference with that is that he named Mueller by name. But he's actually been, I think, very consistent in recognizing the threat, the cloud of the investigation to his own administration's ability to, you know, get its agenda through. Perhaps this change, this desire to change his legal team is an effort to get the -- get lawyers to do what -- you know, get his legal team to do what he's always wanted to do, which was be aggressive and not simply let the special counsel do what it wants to.

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "YAHOO! NEWS": The other thing to think about is that these assurances, these comments from Republicans are part of a dialogue about, why won't Republicans move forward with legislation to protect the special counsel.

WARREN: Right. Right.

KNOX: And so what they're saying essentially is, well, that's not needed because he's not in any real peril. But that's also part of the political dynamic, where the Republican Party is Trump's party now. It's his base. And his base is skeptical of this investigation. And I think there might be political blowback if they moved ahead with that kind of legislation.

KING: Right. And to that point, we'll continue the conversation in a moment. Republicans issuing those stern warnings to the president, do not fire the special counsel, but why aren't they willing to back that up with votes, Olivia just noted, some action?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:17:53] KING: Welcome back.

Yes, there is some bipartisanship in your nation's capital. Really. In minutes, the Democratic and Republican chiefs of the Senate Intelligence Committee will issue this warning, Russia is coming back in November and steps need to be taken to combat midterm election meddling.

Now, if you judge politicians by what they say, there's also a bipartisan agreement, as we just discussed a little bit, that President Trump would trigger a crisis if he fires the Russia Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: And I think the president ought to cool it a little bit because it would be the stupidest thing the president could do is fire him. Yes, he could do that, but he's not going to do that. And he shouldn't do that.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: How would Republicans react if indeed he fired Mueller?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I think there would be a total upheaval in the Senate.

RAJU: You think there would be a total upheaval in the Senate?

CORKER: Yes, no question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Strong words, but, so far, just words. Republicans are not willing to pass legislation protecting Mueller. And, in a bipartisan rush to whack FaceBook for allowing millions of user profiles to be harvested, there are crickets when Republicans are asked if they will put new questions to the Trump campaign operation that used that FaceBook data to target and sway voters.

And so I guess my question is for Republican leadership, why not? What's the harm in protecting Robert Mueller, and, on the separate issue, yes, FaceBook is rightly so, and Mark Zuckerberg should be forced to come up himself, not send the lawyers, to answer questions about what happened, why did you let an academic get access to all this information? Why weren't there safeguards to get this information being passed on. But why not also bring back in the Cambridge Analytical and the Steve Bannons and the Trump campaign people and say, didn't you know when you got this information you got it through dirty means and then you used it?

BASH: Well, I would just say that the Trump campaign insists that they didn't use -- sorry.

KNOX: That they didn't use Cambridge Analytica.

BASH: Thank you for saying that.

KING: Right. And that they didn't use it in the general election when it mattered most. They say they were using RNC data.

BASH: Perfect. They used -- exactly. They used their team but not their data.

KING: Right.

KNOX: Yes, I just want to say like, when FaceBook asks you for your full legal name and your address and your phone number and what bands you like and what movies you watch, like, yes, it's a giant data harvesting operation. I mean this is not -- this not a new concept.

[12:20:04] WARREN: And it's -- and it's not the first election either.

KING: Right.

WARREN: I mean this was -- this is what the Obama campaign was hailed for having done in the 2012, which is actually literally finding everybody that voted for them in 2008 and trying to reach them, or get friends of those people on FaceBook to reach them.

But I -- to your question about the question of, why don't Republican leaders want to do this, we found that when Republicans do cross the president in some ways, whether it's the Russia sanctions bill last year, that they get the wrath of the president. And this is a president who has --

KING: So they're afraid.

WARREN: Who has very -- who has very high approval ratings within the Republican Party. That has to matter. And this is all -- you know, Congress is very good, I think, at sort of sloughing off its own responsibilities here of oversight.

KING: Yes, I agree. To that point, I agree it matters. He's the leader of your party. You're in an election year. You don't want to stir -- I get the political imperative, you don't want to stir up your base and divide your party and have internal family feuds when you see all the evidence the Democrats are motivated and coming out. You're already in a deep ditch. Why keep digging.

However, does the title majority leader and speaker of the House, isn't that more important than the 2018 midterm elections? Sort of the bigger thing about lifting your head and looking at your roll?

PHILLIP: The other element of this perhaps is at some point the Republicans cannot protect Trump from himself. And they recognize that if Trump want to fire the special counsel, they've laid out that there will be consequences.

The real question will be, are they actually going to follow through on these consequences? I think in the past a lot of times when they've drawn these lines for Trump, they move the line when Trump gets close to it, which he often does.

So, to me, that's the other question. They can't protect Trump from himself. If he wants to fire Mueller, they're saying it would trigger impeachment or something to that effect. It might not be within their power or they might not believe it is within their power to stop Trump from putting the dominoes in motion to remove Mueller. But it is within their power to do what they are supposed to do as a branch of government and react to that, if it -- if it actually ends up happening.

KING: All right. I want to just interrupt with a little bit of breaking news.

The president's meeting with -- at the White House with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. And he just said he plans -- he has already talked to Vladimir Putin about Putin's election victory.

Let's go up to Capitol Hill -- I'm sorry.

The president says he'll meet with Vladimir Putin soon. That's one piece of news.

Now let's go to Capitol Hill. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee speaking on Russia's meddling.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We're now at a point that we have wrapped up one piece of our investigation, which deals with election security. And I think it's safe to say that our team has done an unbelievably thorough job. They've spoken to nearly all the effected states. They have interviewed numerous current, former, high-level administration officials from the White House, the NSC, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and other intelligence community agencies. They've secured and analyzed countless intelligence products, both raw and finished assessments.

Let me say this with a great deal of confidence. It is clear the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election system highlighted -- and highlighted some of the key gaps. There's no evidence that any vote was changed. Russia attempted to penetrate 21 states. We know they were successful in penetrating at least one voter database.

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI alerted states to the threats. The warnings did not provide enough information or go to the right person in every case. Alerts were actionable. They provided malicious Internet protocol IP address to IT professionals but no clear reason for states to take this threat more seriously were given.

Russia was trying to undermine the confidence of our election system. We're here to express concerns but also confidence in our state and local governments.

Now, I think what's important to understand is that tomorrow we will have an open hearing specifically on election security. And I'll be -- Mark and I will be joining by four our members who are taking the lead on the recommendations that we will post. I think they have, maybe in the last five minutes, gone out, but they will officially be public today.

And let me distinguish, we very much support state control of the election process. We think there are ways that the federal government can support those states, but clearly we've got to get some standards in place that assure every state that at the end of the day, they can certify their vote totals.

So I think what members will share with you today is the recommendations that we will come with. They're not recommendations that you should expect legislation action from our committee. We have no jurisdiction. It just happens to be part of the investigation. Jurisdiction within the Congress is probably the rules committee in the United States Senate, and we will work very closely on them, sharing all the information that we possibly can so that they can process our recommendations, add to it, delete from it. But also with the agencies that are most appropriate, to make sure that they bring the resources and the partnerships to the states and localities and the individuals that are single most important to the election process.

[12:25:43] Let me just draw a few conclusions.

We need to be more effective at deterring our adversaries. The federal government should partner with the states to truly secure their systems. That will also be in possible grant funding.

DHS and FBI have made great strides, but they must do more. DHS offers a suite of cyber security assistance, but we've heard that they do not have the resources to fulfill all the requests. We will work with appropriators and authorizers to see if, in fact, we can't fill that gap. We need to take a hard look at the equipment that actually records and reports votes. We need to -- we all agree that all votes should have an audible paper trail. And in 2016, five states used only electronic machines with no paper trails. Nine used at least some of these machines.

We realize all of this security costs money. And we want to make sure that the federal government not only says we're a partner, that we are a partner. And I hope that will be expressed maybe as early as the (INAUDIBLE) spending bill.

With that, let me turn to the vice chairman for any comments he might have.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VICE CHAIR., INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, thank you, Richard.

I also think it's an indication of who's got better eyesight that you can read this and I have to read off of this, but it's a -- let me thank all of the members for being here, and the way this committee has performed to date, and I think will continue to perform.

We are going to hear from four members who have worked actively on this issue of election security. But I want to point out, as well, that Senator Rubio has some very important legislation with Senator Van Hollen that I think bears consideration as well. And I want to acknowledge Senator Klobuchar, who's been active in the piece of legislation that we're working on.

KING: (INAUDIBLE) some time here.

WARNER: You know, I think one of the consensus that we all came up with was we were all disappointed that states, the federal government, and the Department of Homeland Security was not more on their game in advance of the 2016 elections. As the chairman has indicated, there were 21 states that were -- attempted to be an intervention in. At least one state that was full hacking that got through the protections. And one of the most frustrating things were that in the aftermath of this information coming out, that it actually took the Department of Homeland Security nearly nine months to know --

KING: We're going to drop out of this session, Senate intelligence leaders on Capitol Hill talking about election meddling, and what to do to help in 2018.

Let's go to the Oval Office. The president and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

(CROSS TALK)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's terrible. The bombings in Austin are terrible. Local, state and federal are working hand in hand to get to the bottom of it.

This is obviously a very, very sick individual or maybe individuals. These are sick people, and we will get to the bottom of it. We will be very strong. We have all sorts of federal agencies over there right now. We're searching what's going on in Austin. A great place. A tremendous place. It is absolutely disgraceful.

So we have a lot of power over there. We're looking. It' snot easy to find. But these are sick people and we have to find them as soon as possible. We have to find them really immediately.

I will say, working with Texas, working with the local governments has been great, but we have to produce, we have to find this very sick person or people.

Thank you very much.

(CROSS TALK)

TRUMP: Thank you.

(CROSS TALK)

TRUMP: I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory. The call had to do also with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race. As you know, he made a statement that being in an arms race is not a great thing, and that was right after the election, one of the first statements he made. [12:30:03] And we are spending $700 billion this year on our military,

and a lot of it is that we are going to remain stronger than any other nation in the world by far.