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El Paso Suspect's Mom Raised Concerns to Police; White House Rebuffed Attempts by DHS to Combat Domestic Terrorism; Trump Considering Executive Action on Background Checks; ICE Arrests 680 Undocumented Immigrants Across Mississippi; Children and Families Cry for Help as ICE Conducts Raids; House Democrats Tell Senate Majority Leader to Bring Up Background Check Bills. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 8, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:32] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A good Thursday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Poppy Harlow is off today.

We begin this morning with a CNN exclusive. Did authorities miss warning signs on another mass shooter? Lawyers for the family of the El Paso shooting suspect say that his mother called weeks before the shooting rampage that killed 22 people. She was concerned about her 21-year-old son owning a so-called AK-style semiautomatic weapon. The police told her it was legal and that was that.

The big question, would a national red flag law have made a difference? Could that have saved innocent lives?

Let's get to CNN's Brian Todd in El Paso.

What more are you learning about this mother's call? She clearly was concerned but the police told her there was no recourse.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. A potential red flag missed here. This information coming from our investigative team Scott Glover and Majlie de Puy Kamp who spoke to lawyers for the family of the alleged shooter. These lawyers are saying that in the weeks before the shooting here at this Walmart the mother did call the police department in their hometown of Allen, Texas, and expressed concern that her son had a, quote, "AK-style firearm," of course a reference to an AK-47, the assault rifle, and that she was concerned about his age, his maturity level and his lack of experience in dealing with that kind of a weapon. But according to the lawyers she did not express concern that he might have been a threat to anyone.

Now how did the police respond? That's a key question. According to the lawyers for the family when she was transferred over on the phone to a public safety officer from the city of Allen, that public safety officer, you know, listened to her concerns and said that based on her description of the situation that her son was legally entitled to have that weapon.

Now, according to the lawyers the police did not ask her anymore information other than just telling her that. She did not give her name. She did not give her son's name. The police department in Allen has not really responded at all to CNN's request for additional comment or CNN's request for documentation of that phone call, Jim. So if there were any other nuances to that conversation between police and the mother we don't have that right now, but according to the lawyers, and this is an important point that they make, there were no red flags regarding this young man.

One of the lawyers said it's not like he was a volatile or explosive or erratic behaving kid. There were no red flags here. But again, what made the mother call and express concern that her son might be buying or might have already bought an AK-47.

SCIUTTO: Well, that sounds like a red flag to me, and probably everyone else watching this broadcast.

Brian Todd, thanks very much.

By the way, an AK is a Russian designed weapon. I've seen them in Iraq and Afghanistan, all over the world. It's a weapon of war, ended up in a Walmart. Also by the way the same weapon used by the Gilroy, California, shooter.

And now another CNN exclusive this morning. For more than a year, White House officials rejected, that's right, they rejected efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to make combating domestic terrorism including threats from white supremacists a high priority. One source tells CNN that the Trump administration wanted to focus solely on the jihadist threat.

CNN's justice correspondent Jessica Schneider joins me now.

What's amazing about this, first of all, of course it's Department of Homeland Security run by a Trump appointee here, and it's based on numbers because they saw this being a growing problem and yet the Trump administration said we don't want to focus on it.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: They did. And we heard just a few weeks ago from the FBI director Chris Wray that it is a growing problem. And really what we've learned, Jim, is that over the past year DHS officials have battled with the White House to really recognize this growing threat of domestic terrorism. This is coming from several former and current senior administration officials.

This is what they're telling Jake Tapper. And while DHS officials wanted to surge these resources to combat this threat, they really had a lack of support from the White House, and it's really evidenced in this 20-plus page report, the National Counter Terrorism Strategy. It was released by the White House just about a year ago last fall.

In that 20 plus page report it really focuses on the threat from Islamist terrorists. It doesn't in fact mention white supremacy at all. It does mention domestic terrorism just twice, but it doesn't really go into detail here, and some of the senior officials that Jake had been talking to said that, you know, the president of course is reluctant to recognize the threat from white supremacists and they put it this way of saying you know it will trigger the boss if it's something that was included in this broad report.

[09:05:03] So, right, the concern is there from DHS officials, however it's not being truly recognized or prioritized by the White House.


SCHNEIDER: You know, a senior administration official, though, pushing back, telling Jake Tapper yesterday that -- they put it this way. They said it was the first ever report to include domestic terrorism and they continued saying that, "This issue continues to be a priority for the administration and the National Security Council has launched an interagency process focused on combating domestic terrorism in support of the president's counterterrorism strategy."

That's that report that I mentioned that came out last fall. But again these former and current administration officials are really raising the alarm here, saying that we are trying to surge resources, DHS is trying to surge resources but they're getting this lack of support for the White House and really not listening to the fact that this is a growing threat as acknowledged by the FBI director saying, you know, one more thing, last month he said that the number of arrests in the first three quarters of the fiscal year for domestic terrorism were the same as international terrorism. And a majority of these issues came from white supremacist violence or threats.

SCIUTTO: Right. That was in his testimony, so most of them white supremacists.


SCIUTTO: And you heard the president, the thing is, this is consistent with the president's public comments calling this a small problem, not a major problem. And of course that influences policy.


SCIUTTO: Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

Well, the NRA is getting President Trump's ear amid renewed talk for expanded background checks and in the wake of these two horrible -- three horrible in fact -- mass shootings. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre spoke with Trump on Tuesday. A day later notably the president said this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I'm looking to do background checks. I think background checks are important. I don't want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people or people with range or hate, sick people. I don't want to -- I'm all in favor of it.


SCIUTTO: According to "The Washington Post" LaPierre told Trump that a background check bill would not be popular with the president's base. A source tells CNN that tightened background checks could however come by executive action.

CNN's senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns, he is outside the White House here.

Listen, Joe, this informs our sense of whether the president is going to get behind this, because, right, in the past after Parkland he raised the possibility, spoke with the NRA, he backed off. We know that the president's political strategy for 2020 is a base strategy. With what Wayne LaPierre telling the president this will damage his base, his support among his base, are you hearing from White House the president will back off this again?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Not much. What we do know, Jim, is that the president has said there's a real appetite for background checks. There's also been that question raised as to whether there's a bit of chaos going on in the National Rifle Association right now, which would create a time for people here in Washington to push something through.

But, look, we've heard of variety of things around the White House over the last 24 hours including the idea that the White House might consider sort of a nascent idea that the White House might consider some type of an executive action on gun control. And this is something that people have told us on both sides may be a good idea, maybe not. We've talked also to people in the gun lobby who've suggested that virtually any of the idea that had been floated around on Capitol Hill including that very simple idea of a red flag is a nonstarter as far as they're concerned. Because they're concerned about due process for individuals who might get red flagged, how are they going to get noticed in a hearing?

So all of this suggests that as Washington continues this debate, it's something that nobody knows where it's going right now. Back to you.

SCIUTTO: Well, Joe, executive action to do what specifically?

JOHNS: Executive action of some sort. Now what that means, we don't know. We've asked Kellyanne Conway just yesterday. In fact, I talked to her right out here on the driveway. I asked, is the president talking about sweeping new measures in an executive action or is he talking about something like red flagging? And she picked up on the red flagging idea without going too far on the idea of broader movement by the president.

SCIUTTO: Joe Johns at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's discuss now with Seung Min Kim, she's White House reporter for the "Washington Post," Daniel Strauss, politics reporter for Politico.

Seung Min, you are on the byline of the "Washington Post" piece talking about LaPierre calling the president, delivering him this message. Does this put us back to where we've been before, the president raises it publicly, speaks with the NRA, they tell him it's going to damage his support, and therefore the effort disappears?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it depends on how strong the voice of the opposition are. We know Wayne LaPierre is already in his ear talking to the president about or advocating against these background checks. " [09:10:02] But I will tell you we have talked to, you know, Senator Manchin, Senator Toomey, who are the chief authors of this expanded background check legislation that they told the "Post" that the president has not explicitly endorsed that bill in their conversations with him, but Manchin has talked to him at least twice this week. Toomey has talked to the president at least three times, and they said the conversations are very encouraging. The president wants to do something. But even Pat Toomey has acknowledged that there -- this vote would not pass if it were to come up in the Senate right now. It failed in advance in 2013 when Democrats controlled the Senate and --

SCIUTTO: Wait, why would it not pass if you have Republicans and Manchin who often is kind of a swing vote there? Are you saying there's not a majority in the Senate for a background checks bill?

KIM: Clearly. I think there were only four Senate Republicans that supported this particular expanded background checks bill in the Senate in 2013. Two of those senators are gone.


KIM: So that's actually two Republicans that only supported that bill. And any sort of measure seen as restricting gun access there's going to be an outcry from Capitol Hill. I've actually already heard a lot of crumbling about the so-called red flag legislation which seems to be kind of the most (INAUDIBLE) legislation you could take up.


KIM: But even that is causing some consternation among conservatives.

SCIUTTO: Particularly when a mom calls in and says I'm worried about my son having automatic weapon, the cops telling her there's no legal recourse. I mean, it's just amazing. She did the right thing.

Daniel, Politico reported earlier this week that Republican lawmakers on the Hill privately -- of course all this kind of commentary comes privately, say they could get behind some of this gun legislation, including background checks, if the president were to publicly support it. Is that consistent with what you're hearing?

DANIEL STRAUSS, POLITICS REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes. I mean, look, it really depends on the feeling of the president of the day. In different times over the past few months he's expressed support for background checks, and then pulled back. And right now, he's saying that there's a great appetite for it. I am still skeptical as Seung Min is that we're going to see something immediate despite calls from Democrats. There's just a lot of pressure and a lot of voices in President Trump's ear right now saying different things. And there's a divide between Republicans and Democrats on this.

SCIUTTO: Well, there's also, Seung Min, though, isn't there, there's a divide within the Republican caucus on this that is being exposed here? I mean Mike Turner granted he had a personal experience of this Dayton shootings. His daughter was across the street. He had 100 percent rating from the NRA, and now he's come out, you know, of what is a distant possibility at this point which would be an assault weapons or a military-style weapons ban.

You have had some Republicans, the Republican governor of Ohio introduced steps. Is that a real division within the Republican Party or is that the kind of thing likely to disappear by the time they're back from recess?

KIM: I think it's a division that's starting to emerge and it's not only just whether you've had a personal experience in your backyard but it's also the split among Republicans between GOP lawmakers who represent rural areas where gun rights are so important plus -- or compared to Republicans who represent suburban areas, swing voters where this has become such a hot issue.

Particularly we saw a lot of Democratic candidates run on very aggressive gun safety platforms in the last midterms and subsequently won, so subsequently won Republican districts. And a lot of political -- smart political strategists and a Republican donor told us in our story today that Republicans really do need to start considering their political weakness in the suburbs because of their stamp on guns which I think is a really fascinating development.

You know, Pat Toomey, when I spoke with him yesterday didn't talk too extensively about the policy of this. He's a policy guy focused on that. Remember he won Pennsylvania in 2016, he outran Trump and a lot of that was his forward-leaning stance on gun control.

SCIUTTO: Shannon Watts of course leads a group of moms for guns action, who we're going to speak later in this broadcast, she makes a point that in the midterms as Seung Min was saying that in the statehouses and in some of those key congressional races that gun control advocates won Republican seats.

STRAUSS: Yes, and look this is the -- this is a discussion that's happening in the deciding area of electoral politics right now, the suburbs. This is where Democrats or Republicans will really gain a majority. So if gun control is the dominating issue as it seems to have been in the last midterms, then that's going to be something that is going to swing the pendulum one way or another either to Democrats or Republicans. And if Republicans can get onboard and figure out a way to pass some kind of gun bill, they'll probably gain some seats.

SCIUTTO: Politics on this, they move incrementally. I think some people expect some massive change, but if it's seat by seat, statehouse by statehouse by statehouse, maybe that makes a difference over time. We will see.

Daniel, Seung Min, thanks very much.

Still to come this hour, growing pressure on Congress to act, but will Mitch McConnell even allow anything to reach the floor in terms of meaningful gun reform? '

We are live in the Senate majority leader's home state of Kentucky. And 2020 candidates headed to the all-important Iowa State Fair today.

Joe Biden set to give his soapbox speech. Will we see more of his blistering attacks on President Trump? Particularly in the wake of these shootings.

[09:15:00] Plus, a massive immigration raid in Mississippi leaves children crying for their parents.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please, can I just see my mother? Please.



SCIUTTO: It's believed to be the largest raid of its kind in the nation's history, nearly 700 arrests, we're going to be live there.


SCIUTTO: The Senate Majority leader has an enormous amount of power. One man can decide even whether the Senate considers gun control measures in the wake of these shootings, and of course, the majority leader Mitch McConnell. Is there enough pressure for him now to move on this, to allow consideration of any gun control measures, many of which have a great deal of support among even Republican voters?

Well, there's a caravan moving now down to his hometown in Louisville, Kentucky. CNN's Lauren Fox is there right now, we have a number of people taking part in this, Lauren. Do we expect this to move the Senate Majority leader based on the politics of this issue?

[09:20:00] LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Democrats are going to try, right, Jim? I mean, Democratic presidential contender Tim Ryan is leading this caravan to Louisville tonight to hold a rally to try to pressure McConnell. But he's not just getting this pressure from Democrats.

We know that the president has publicly and privately been pushing for background checks. That's something that could be difficult for Republicans to swallow and GOP aides that I'm talking to are saying, you know, that could be a difficult thing for conservatives to get behind.

We know that the president has been talking to Republican Senator Pat Toomey about his proposal on background checks. There may be other changes that they have to make to it for it to get enough votes. But you know, I've been hearing from aides that it's more likely they move forward with incentivizing states to pass more so-called red flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous individuals.

But even that has some due process issues, and there's some concerns from conservatives on that issue. So, I think that there's a lot of work to do, I've been told that members are doing their homework. But aides also say there's a perception right now that the NRA is a little bit weak, right? They've had a leadership reshuffling and if there was ever a moment to do something on guns, that this would be it.

Of course, there's a month-long recess, Jim, it's very hard to see whether or not the momentum will stay persistent in the next couple of weeks. Jim?

SCIUTTO: It's a good question. The pattern has been set after past shootings like this, we'll see if it's different with a lot of the forces aligning as we've seen so often after shootings. Lauren Fox in Louisville, we know you're going to stay on top of it, thanks very much.

There are new details this morning about a huge ICE raid across Mississippi. Nearly 700 undocumented immigrants taken into custody in a short period of time. Their families standing outside as they were led away. And we're moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, stocks should start relatively flat this after some very volatile sessions over the past few days, deep concerns about the growing trade war between the U.S. and China.

Oil prices, they're down 20 percent from the April highs, that usually happens when there are concerns about economic growth. We're going to stay on top of those.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back. After a month-long investigation, ICE officials arrested close to 700 people during huge raids over the span of a few hours across Mississippi. They used confidential informants employed at several food processing plants to gather intelligence, round up undocumented workers.

Some have already been released according to officials, but those separations as they happen, the arrests causing emotional responses from families including children. CNN's Dianne Gallagher, she is in Morton, Mississippi, where one of these raids took place. And Dianne, the president telegraphed this last month that these were going to happen on a particular weekend. They didn't happen then, they appear to be happening now.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is according to the U.S. attorney, the largest single -- the largest single state operation in the nation's history. And I can tell you, it is just reverberating through this community this morning. There are actually people parked in cars in a parking lot just beyond this plant here, waiting for what they hope are going to be buses dropping off their loved ones who were detained yesterday.

Late last night, they say that two buses returned to this site and dropped off several of the people who were detained. But, look, we have got all sorts of family members who are still waiting to find out what's going on. The scenes around these situations, seven different sites in six different cities.

And here's the thing, it was the first day of school in this area, so there were children who didn't have mom or dad to pick them up. They were left at day care, so people in the community stepped in. One man opened up his gym and allowed children to stay there through the night and in the afternoon until they could find guardians or until their parents may have been released.

Outside here where I am in Morton, there was a young girl whose godmother came and got her from school so she could try and see her mother as they were loading her onto the bus. I want you to take a listen to that scene and what that little girl told that ICE officer.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Government, please, put your heart -- let my parents be free and with anybody else, please. Don't leave the children with quietness and everything. I need my dad, mommy --


My dad didn't do nothing. He's not a criminal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The children I am with right now, their mom has been here for 15 years. She has no record, no nothing. A lot of people here have no records, they have been 12 years, 10 years, 15 years.


GALLAGHER: Now, look, the people here in Mississippi right now are kind of grappling with what this means. Six hundred and eighty people who work in these plants who are part of this community here. And look, there's also the fact that many consider this just simply tone- deaf in general because of what's been going on.

These raids happened just before the president touched down in El Paso to allegedly go and comfort individuals who are grieving because a white.