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Washington Post Reports El Paso Shooting Survivors Being Treated At University Medical Center Would Not Agree To Meet With Trump; Suspect's Mom Raised Concerns To Police Over Her Son's A.K.- Type Firearm Weeks Before Texas Shooting; White House Rebuffed Attempts By DHS To Make Combating Domestic Terrorism A Higher Priority; House Democrats Sue To Force Don McGahn To Testify. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 8, 2019 - 10:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: Yes, the boycott becoming a political tool, a political weapon, even in this highly divisive environment. Cristina Alesci, thanks very much.

ALESCI: Of course.

SCIUTTO: A very good Thursday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Poppy Harlow is off today.

The president's team called his visits to hospitals in Ohio and Texas moving, all while he's accused critics of misrepresenting how he was really received. Now, The Washington Post reports this, and this is truly remarkable. None of the eight survivors of the El Paso shooting still being treated at the University Medical Center agreed to meet with the president of the United States on his visit there.

Let's get right to CNN's Sarah Westwood. She is at the White House this morning.

Sarah, the White House portrayed a very different reception. They even released a sort of propaganda-like video on social media showing a warm reception, but the facts seem to counter the White House messaging here.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Jim. The White House did try to portray the president's visits to Dayton and El Paso as sort of a demonstration of the President's ability to act presidential in these kinds of situations. For example, his Social Media Director, Dan Scavino, claiming that Trump had been received like a rock star at those places.

And President Trump, as you've mentioned, had disputed the characterizations of local officials in Dayton while he was flying from Dayton to El Paso to visit the scene of the other mass shooting, saying that they had mischaracterized his visit, even though Democratic Mayor of Dayton, Nan Whaley, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, both of them had been complimentary at the president's visit itself, although he'd criticize his rhetoric.

But in the last (ph), Washington Post is reporting that those eight surviving victims still being treated at the University Medical Center in Texas did not want to meet with President Trump, for the Washington Post is reporting that one of the reasons was because they didn't want to see the president himself. Other victims, Jim, just didn't want any visitors at all as they were trying to recover.

The White House though is pushing back on this reporting. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham tells CNN in a statement, the president and first lady met with victims of the tragedy while at the hospital. She also pointed us to the video the White House posted which shows the president and first lady being received warmly by not just victims and their families but by the many members of medical staff who lined the hallways to meet them. It was a moving visit for all involved.

Now, we should note that the video the White House posted last night actually shows scenes from both the El Paso hospital visit and the Ohio hospital visit, does not make a distinction between them. And the press was not allowed into these hospital visits. The White House reasoning was because they said they didn't want this to be a photo op, but President Trump, obviously, by attacking his political rivals during the visit sort of brought himself into the political fray. And CNN is not able to confirm whether the president did or did not meet with victims again, Jim, because the press was denied an opportunity to cover these hospital visits that are now the subject of dispute.

SCIUTTO: Sarah, to be clear, did the White House deny The Washington Post report that none of the eight victims still being treated met with the president? The statement doesn't seem to deny that report.

WESTWOOD: Right. We sort of have a non-denial denial there. They are saying that, yes, the president met with victims. They're not specifying which hospital. They're not specifying at what point in his visit that was. So we are getting a non-denial denial from the White House pointing to those propaganda-like photos and videos that they released.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And in experienced, the White House does not shy away from denying things that says are not true. But in this case, it doesn't seem that they did.

Sarah Westwood, thanks very much.

Also this morning, a CNN exclusive, a mother's intuition and a potential warning sign missed. Lawyers for the family of the El Paso shooting suspect say that his mother called police weeks before the deadly shooting, but they told her there was nothing they could do legally, even though she was worried that he owned an A.K.-style firearm. This is a Russian-designed weapon. You often see them in war zones. Would a national red flag law have made the difference and saved lives in this case?

Let's get to CNN's Brian Todd in El Paso. What more have you learned about the mother's call here and why did police tell her there was nothing they could do?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, the details that we're getting from our investigative team, Scott Glover and Miley Dupre camp (ph), they've been speaking with lawyers for the shooter's family. They say that as far as the police are concerned that maybe certain questions may not have been asked of the mother. I'm going to get to that in one second.

First the details of the call. This call happened just weeks before the shooting. Not clear exactly how far before the shooting, but it wasn't that long before the shooting occurred. Weeks before, she called the police department in Allen, Texas to express her concern about a son owning a, quote, A.K.-type firearm. As you explained, it's an A.K.-47, it's an assault rifle designed to kill many people with one burst.

But she was not concerned necessarily about him being a threat to people, according to the lawyers. She was concerned about his age, his maturity level and his lack of experience in dealing with that weapon.


Now, we've talked about the police. The police responded to her by saying that basically given the situation that she described and under law, her son was legally allowed to have that weapon, but the police didn't really ask her any more questions about her son. She did not volunteer her name or her son's name. And it seems, Jim, like they kind of left it at that.

Now, CNN has inquired about this with the Allen, Texas Police Department. They have not handed over documents that we've requested regarding that phone call. They have not really given us any additional comment about that phone call. But, again, you have to ask, you know, could more questions have been asked by police? Could anything have been done here to mitigate these circumstances.

Now, the lawyers for the family say -- they're quick to point out here that this was not a case of alarm bells going off, that this was not a volatile or erratic behaving kid in their phraseology, that, again, no alarm bells were going off.

But, look, the mother did call police about her son owning an A.K.-47, and this was just weeks before the shooting. So, clearly, something was going on in her mind with what she observed there.

SCIUTTO: That sounds like an alarm bell, a mom concerned about her child having an automatic weapon. What's an alarm bell?

Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Let's discuss now with Molly Ball, National Political Correspondent for Time Magazine, and Brittany Shepherd, National Politics Reporter for Yahoo News.

Let's start with The Washington Post reporting here, if we can, Molly Ball. The White House has portrayed this as a warm welcome for the president, The Washington Post reporting, quite a remarkable detail there, none of the eight survivors still being treated would meet with the president. If you look at the White House statement, they don't deny that particular reporting there. What does that say, Molly Ball?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, this is not a particularly popular president, especially in this community. But I think it also reflects, I think, most people, no matter what their partisan leanings, would be grateful to have the president of the United States come to see them unless they felt like they were being, you know, used as some kind of prop or injected into some kind of political fray.

And despite his very nice speech about rising above all of the partisan decisions, we saw the president yesterday very much in the political fray, very much insulting people and going after his political enemies. So if you're someone who has just had something horrible happened to you and what you want is consolation and a safe space to grieve, you might sense that he's not going to be providing that.

SCIUTTO: Brittany Shepherd, we're learning that the president spoke with Wayne LaPierre, the Head of the NRA, that he delivered a warning to the president, saying that a step like background checks, which the president again said yesterday he would consider, would anger the president's base.

We know that the president's strategy for winning re-election in 2020 is a base-centered strategy. Is that where a gun control measure like background checks dies?

BRITTANY SHEPHERD, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, YAHOO NEWS: Well, Jim, it's a good question, and the president can say that he's speaking to Wayne LaPierre all he wants and giving kind of dressing down about red flag laws. But I think we need to talk about what we're actually hearing, what we're not hearing from the president and his allies.

You know, what we're hearing is rhetoric about mental health and video games affecting gun violence, and we know, demonstratively (ph), that's not true. What we're not hearing is a definitive condemnation of gun violence across America.

So while his base might be upset that he's kind of dressing down Wayne LaPierre, I really can't see his base shutting him away when he's not saying, you know, we're going buyback your guns, we're not going to take away your guns. Actually, I'm going to promise you, my base, that you will be able to hold onto your second amendment in full shot.

SCIUTTO: Molly, in CNN's reporting, the White House is considering the possibility of some executive action by the president that he wants to do something, not clear to what extent that something is. What could the president accomplish with executive action? What kind of steps could he take with purely executive action and not congressional action?

BALL: It's really not clear what the White House is contemplating. They haven't given a lot of detail on this and the president hasn't seemed particularly focused on what specifically, you know. And as Brittany is saying, he's been all over the map on the issue of background checks. So I think people who -- advocates who are interested in this issue are going to be waiting for some kind of concrete commitment.

This is a president who can often be unfocused and his party in the Senate is not particularly thrilled about the idea of being pushed into a place that might upset their own base in the Republican Party. So unless we see some real focus and determination on the White House's part, it's not likely that this is going to go anywhere, despite the fact that I think the politics of this issue have changed and it is in a different place than we might have seen ten years ago.


SCIUTTO: Yes, not politically thrilled, well understated, Molly Ball.

So you've got a caravan, Brittany Shepherd, on its way to Louisville, Kentucky to confront publicly the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Tim Ryan, Democratic Presidential Candidate, Ohio Congressman, he's organizing this. But you also have Mothers Against Guns. They're taking part a grass roots effort to move the dial on this. Does this kind of thing move the dial?

SHEPHERD: I think it definitely is. You're seeing national sentiment, as Molly was saying, that there are more and more Americans and more and more voters who are kind of pro some kind of gun reform, whether that'd be comprehensive or not is kind of remains to be seen.

And if you see a very strong optic push against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to come out of recess, and you're hearing it in Washington that there are House Democrats who want Pelosi to convene. And so I do think that there is going to be some pressure on Mitch McConnell.

But we've seen his statement yesterday. He kind of said thank you, but, no, thank you, we're not going to come out of vacation to address this.

SCIUTTO: Goodness. I mean, you wonder what it takes, three shootings in a week.

So, Molly Ball, of course, the president gave a scripted speech talking about changing the dialogue here, healer in chief, that contradicted to some degree by his many attacks on politicians and others in the wake of this. Was that in defiance of his advisers?

BALL: You know, the president's advisers have largely stopped trying to make him stick to a script or stop Tweeting. There were certainly a lot of people around him earlier who did think that they could push him in that direction. I think it's become abundantly clear now that is just not in his repertoire to hold back or to practice restraint in a situation like this.

But this is a political problem for the president. If you look at polls, if you listen to focus groups, one of the biggest things, even some people who support him or like his policies will tell you is that they wish he could not always put himself in the center of things. They wish everything didn't have to be a fight, a battle, an insult, a controversy.

And one of the questions that I think is really going to haunt him particularly next year as he seeks re-election is this question of do you think that the president has the public's interest at heart or is he more focused on his own interest? That's something that, again, polls have shown is a real weakness for him, politically.

SCIUTTO: Molly Ball, Brittany Shepherd, thanks very much.

Still to come this hour, we don't know why the Dayton shooter shot and killed nine people, including his own sister. But we are now learning now details about an apparent violent past.

Plus White House officials rejected efforts by Homeland Security to make combating domestic terrorism a high priority. They rejected it. How long have they sidetracked these threats and what difference does it make? We'll have that full report ahead.

And could a new lawsuit by House Democrats shed light on the possibility of an impeachment inquiry into President Trump?



SCIUTTO: This morning, a CNN exclusive. For more than a year, White House officials rejected efforts by the Department of Homeland Security run, of course, by a Trump appointee, to make combating domestic terrorism a high priority. These included addressing white supremacist threats. One source tells CNN the Trump administration only wanted to focus on the jihadist threat, the threat of international terrorism.

CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider joins me now. I mean, this is truly remarkable, the DHS has data showing this is a growing threat, asked for the resources, DHS run by a Trump appointee and the administration refused.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, and not just DHS but the FBI Director has recognized this and talked about it in congressional testimony as well. But what we're learning here is that, really, for more than a year, DHS officials have been battling with the White House to get administration officials to really recognize this growing domestic terrorism threat. And at the same time DHS officials have tried to surge their resources to combat this threat. But they're really behind the curve because of this lack of support from the White House.

And it's really exhibited in this 20-plus page report that was released by the White House about a year ago. It was last fall. It's the national counterterrorism strategy. And in that report, it only references domestic terrorism twice. And that's despite the fact that, as I mentioned, the FBI Director, Christopher Wray, just a few weeks ago, at the end of July, he talked about the fact that in the first three quarters of this fiscal year, there have been almost as many domestic terrorism arrests as international terrorism arrests, numbering about 100. And he said that the majority of those cases were, in fact, motivated by white supremacist violence.

And you look at the report and white supremacist violence isn't even mentioned in it, because, of course, we know the president is reluctant to recognize this threat and particularly recognize the problem of white supremacy.


SCIUTTO: Or reluctant to call that out publicly.

But by not prioritizing it, does that mean that resources weren't allocated to address the threat?

SCHNEIDER: Well, it's possible. You know, DHS, they did cut back one segment of the department that dealt specifically with these terrorism threats, so it's uncertain exactly how these resources have been divided. But, I mean, the crucial issue is that they don't have the backing of the White House, and that they're trying to surge these resources but they're getting a lack of support from the White House.

SCIUTTO: Well, imagine if you -- if the administration had reduced resources to combat an international terrorism threat and that was followed by a deadly attack on U.S. soil.


SCIUTTO: Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

Let's speak more about this with Atlantic Staff Writer Mike Giglio. He wrote a piece titled The Fight Against White Nationalism is Different. Mike, thanks for joining the broadcast this morning.

You've covered this issue. I just want to ask that question very directly. So CNN has learned the White House rebuffed repeated attempts by the Department of Homeland Security to address this, to make combating domestic terrorism a higher priority. By refusing to do so, in the simplest terms, did the White House make the country less safe from these kinds of attacks?

MIKE GIGLIO, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: You know, I think the ISIS fight shows what's possible for America when it takes a problem seriously, right? Like they mobilized an international coalition, they put a whole of government response into the effort, they poured resources into it. And you haven't seen anything like that from this administration.

SCIUTTO: Whole of government response, I hear that repeatedly across the national security circles about a whole host of threats, whether it'd be election security, responding to the Russia threat, they need leadership from the top to get the resources necessary to address this. You in your piece make a point. You say that Islamist militant terrorism is an easier enemy to confront for the country than a domestic terrorism. Tell us why that is.

GIGLIO: Well, there're two things. First of all, ISIS declared a state, and I used to almost hear U.S. officials declare relief at that because the U.S. knows how to defeat a state. It's much less effective at as Islamist extremism shows at defeating an ideology, and that's why we've had the war on terror for almost two decades now.

When it comes to white nationalistic extremism, it's even tougher, because it raises a whole host of political questions, because Islamist extremism is a foreign ideology and the white nationalist terrorism is very much an American one. And the power centers and the idea centers are that ideology are inside America itself.

SCIUTTO: Now, there are legal repercussions of this as well, because the Patriot Act passed, of course, after 9/11, gave domestic law enforcement an ability to, in advance of attacks, look at the kinds of people groups who might carry out acts of international terrorism on U.S. soil. With domestic terrorism, you don't have those kinds of legal tools at this point. Is that right?

GIGLIO: Right. And that's exactly the discussion we're seeing right now is should we put those type of tools in the hands of law enforcement to deal with white nationalism terrorism. And the issue when it s a domestic ideology is, you know, white nationalist terrorism it has very extreme versions of ideas on the American right. And you're going to see resistance from the right, I think, at this idea because they're going to worry that it's going to be an end- around to targeting their own political beliefs. And I think that makes it very difficult.

SCIUTTO: Tell us about the role of the president's language here, okay, because we know that, oftentimes, white supremacist, if you look at the manifesto, for instance, of the El Paso shooting suspect, echoed the language of the president about an invasion. And we know that he drove hundreds of miles to El Paso specifically to target Mexicans in that community there.

Now, the president, of course, gave a speech earlier this week saying that racism, bigotry, white supremacy, they all have to be confronted, but his campaign still repeats the word invasion in social media posts. What role does that play in fueling this kind of ideology?

GIGLIO: You know, it's not just invasion. Look at the language of infestation. I have to say, from covering civil wars before, that kind of language makes me really nervous. It's the kind of language people have used in the past to justify violence.

And I don't think you can tie Trump's language to any specific attack directly. I think that's always tough. But I think the overall -- the debate that we're having in the country, the fact that this type of language is in the political mainstream coming from the president, for me, is someone coming from overseas who cover these wars where people use that kind of language to justify, dehumanizing their opponents and the violence that came after, it makes me really, really afraid for the country.

SCIUTTO: I echo that. I've been in a lot of the same war zones as you. The language, the attacks, the dehumanization of people who are different, the commonalities, they are concerning.

Mike Giglio, thanks very much for coming on.

GIGLIO: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: House Democrats are now suing to get former White House Lawyer Don McGahn to testify. McGahn's lawyer says, not until a judge orders it so.


What does that mean for possible impeachment proceedings against the president?


SCIUTTO: House Democrats are taking legal action in hopes of getting the former White House Counsel Lawyer, Don McGahn to testify before their committees under oath. The House Judiciary Committee filing a lawsuit on Wednesday claiming that McGahn is essential to the investigation into President Trump, calling McGahn the most important witness.

Former federal prosecutor Shan Wu joins me now.