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Trump Attacks AG again: "Disgraceful!"; Manafort Pleads not Guilty Trial Starts September 17; Students Return to School Two Weeks after Shooting; Dick's Sporting Goods to Stop Selling Assault-Style Rifles. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone, John Berman here.

The breaking news, the president of the United States just called the attorney general disgraceful. The man he nominated, the man who endorsed him before any other senator, disgraceful he said. Let me read this to you.

"Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn't the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? Disgraceful!" All caps, exclamation point.

This comes as the president's former campaign chair pleaded not guilty to -- new slated federal charges, that was Paul Manafort leaving the courthouse just moments ago. Again, pleading not guilty to these new charges. Trial date set for September.

The president's son-in-law in the meantime has lost access to the nation's most sensitive secrets, countries now reportedly thinking that they could play him for information.

Our correspondents following this head spinning array of developments. Let's begin at the White House and the president's comments about the attorney general, Kaitlan Collins is with me. Kaitlan, what's going on here?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, John. We see this attack on Jeff Sessions coming yet again from the president on Twitter, something we've seen before but to give a little context to what the president is saying here, this comes after Jeff Sessions did say that they are going to look into whether this application for foreign surveillance were properly carried out.

But clearly, a lot of frustration from the president on this today after the Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about it yesterday. She said she hadn't determined what his feelings were but she thought she would - that he would be glad the Justice Department was looking into this because it was something he had certainly been frustrated by. With this today, the president going after Michael Horowitz, which I should note he's calling him an Obama guy here.

It is true that he was appointed to his current position by President Barack Obama in 2012. He sworn into in April of 2012 but he's been -- in top positions at the Justice Department under Republican presidents as well and prior to his current role was nominated by President George W. Bush to be the commissioner on U.S. sentencing rights. And as the inspector general his job is to inspect these things. So, this is clearly part of a larger attack from the president on his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, someone he's very frustrated with ever since he first recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation last March.

We've continued to see him attack him time and time again and for context this comes as all of these headlines about Russia are in the news. You just said that Paul Manafort is being arraigned today with Jared Kushner as well losing his top secret interim security clearance. So a lot going on at the White House but instead, the president is choosing to take out his frustrations yet again on his attorney general here, John.

BERMAN: Yes, an awkward angry executive time and Jeff Sessions apparently paying the price.

Kaitlan Collins at the White House, we'll come back to this issue.

I want to go, though, to the D.C. federal courthouse. CNN's Jessica Schneider is there. Paul Manafort, the one-time campaign chair for Donald Trump, has just emerged. He pleaded not guilty. What have we learned?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, you know, Paul Manafort maintaining his innocence in court before judge, appearing alone before the judge. Of course, in previous appearances, he'd appeared side by side with his then co-defendant Rick Gates, but of course, Rick Gates pleading guilty on Friday, removing him from this indictment. So, Paul Manafort back in court today, pleading not guilty before this new superseding indictment.

These were some new streamlined charges that the special prosecutor filed after Rick Gates pleaded guilty. So these are streamlined charges but they are still just as serious. They include money laundering as well as false statements. Of course, Paul Manafort has come under increasing pressure just over the past week. It started with the guilty plea of that Skadden - former Skadden attorney, Alex van der Zwan. He worked for Paul Manafort. He pleaded guilty last week.

And then of course on Friday, Rick Gates, his deputy during the Trump campaign finally pleaded guilty to two counts as well, so this upping the pressure on Paul Manafort. Well, Paul Manafort said it on Friday after Rick Gates' guilty plea, saying that he would maintain his innocence. And then today, just a few minutes ago before that judge, once again, pleading not guilty.

Of course, we saw him initially plead not guilty at the end of October when the first indictment was filed by the special counsel. Now this new superseding indictment, Paul Manafort had to go back before a judge and plead again. John, we will see Paul Manafort again in court. But that will be on Friday. And that will be in Alexandria, Virginia, because Paul Manafort faces additional charges in Virginia, these ones, potentially a lot more severe. He faces 18 counts of bank fraud and tax crime, so Paul Manafort now fighting this on two fronts in two different jurisdictions. John?

[10:05:14] BERMAN: All right. Jessica Schneider, the D.C. federal courthouse a major development in the special counsel investigation, another major development, CNN learning overnight that the special counsel Robert Mueller and his team asking questions about business ties, financial interests that Donald Trump had from before the time he announced his candidacy for president.

CNN's Kara Scannell, one of the reporters who broke this story. Kara, what have you learned?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, John, we've learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller in recent weeks has been asking witnesses about the timing of Trump's decision to run for president. They've also asked whether it appeared that the Russians had any compromising information on him. And they asked about these two failed attempts to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow as well as the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which was held there.

Now, President Trump has told the "New York Times" that it would be a red line to look into his finances and those of his family, but the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's mandate in his authorization is to look at anything that arose or may arise from the investigation. We've seen from the indictments and guilty pleas that the special counsel's team is doing a very deliberate and a very thorough investigation.

Now, we also have from one of our sources tell us that it wasn't clear from the questioning if Mueller had any evidence of wrong doing. And our source told us, quote, "You can ask everything even if you don't think it's credible. The allegations are out there and it was checking the box."


BERMAN: Kara Scannell thank you so much for being with us and your reporting. Appreciate it.

Again, but wait, there's more, the White House communications director Hope Hicks admits to the House Intelligence Committee that she told white lies for President Trump. Now she says they weren't about anything substantial and after talking with her lawyers, she said she never lied about anything connected to the Russia investigation. Hicks did not try to use executive privilege, not to testify but the White House told her not to answer certain questions. She did answer some questions about the presidential transition.

All right, joining me now, Democratic Congressman member of the House Intelligence Committee that oversaw that testimony from Hope Hicks yesterday, Eric Swalwell from California. Congressman, thank you very much for being with us. I've got a lot to ask you. Let's start with some of the issues directly for your committee then we'll expand from there. Hope Hicks saying that she told white lies on behalf of the president. What is the context there? What exactly did she mean?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, John, I can't go into the context of that. You know we don't report out what witnesses say. I will just tell you that she refused to answer a number of questions as it related to the credibility of relevant witnesses in our investigation, which was quite frustrating for the questions that we had and the answers that we needed. And this is on top of efforts that we were pursuing around work that she has done in the White House as well throughout the transition where again, we saw brick by brick, put up in the wall to keep us away from what was going on with the Trump team.

BERMAN: OK. The "Washington Post" and CNN and others reporting that she did say she has told white lies for her boss. You don't want to get into the testimony but you're not denying that that happened are you?

SWALWELL: I'm not denying it, John, but I'm not going to go into it just to kind of stay consistent on characterizing witness testimony. But again, I will say there were straight forward questions about the credibility of relevant witnesses in our investigation that she refused to answer.

BERMAN: OK. Moments ago, the president of the United States put out this statement where he attacked the attorney general among other things, called him disgraceful, critical of the attorney general for launching an investigation into alleged FISA abuse in the Russia investigation. Your reaction to this?

SWALWELL: I agree with him that it's disgraceful but it's disgraceful because there's no evidence of any FISA abuse. So we have different problems with Jeff Sessions. But this is what it looks like when the walls start to close in. The president's son-in-law lost his security clearance yesterday. Paul Manafort was indicted for additional counts today and I think you saw yesterday that the strategy with Hope Hicks has back fired. And so the president as he does is acting out.

BERMAN: So you don't think there should be an investigation at all, right? I mean, look, insofar as it's anyone's responsibility to look into alleged abuses, wouldn't it be the inspector general of the Justice Department? Isn't that the right place to have these questions asked and answered?

SWALWELL: Absolutely, but once the investigation is closed, what I don't like about this, this investigation is ongoing and so to try and have a you know, live review of it as it is taking place, I think it only an effort to disrupt and obstruct it. So once the investigation is over, it's always fair game for Congress and the inspector general but right now I think to try and horn your way into that investigation, only serves one purpose, which is to affect where it could go.

[10:10:02] BERMAN: CNN reporting overnight that the special counsel has been asking questions about the president's finances and business dealings from the time before he was president. Has this been a focus of your investigation in the House Intelligence Committee?

SWALWELL: Yes, John, I'll tell you why. As you saw with Bob Mueller's indictments a few weeks back, the Russians began around 2014 their meddling in our election with the Internet Research Agency. We know that Donald Trump in 2013 in the winter went over to Moscow for the Miss Universe contest and we knew at the time he was considering running for president. And so, what business transactions he had over there at the time and what investments he sought to make in Russia in 2015. We know that there was an effort to put a Trump Tower in Moscow, certainly relevant to any influence that they may have had -

BERMAN: Our reporting has been from Manu Raju and others though that these Republican like committees have actually stopped short of asking too many questions about business dealings.

SWALWELL: Well, I can tell you that the Democratic side is not stopping short. But where we are coming up short but where we are coming up short is that we don't have subpoena power. We want to subpoena Deutsch Bank. We know that that is a lender of the president. It's a lender who has been fined before for laundering Russian money. We think that we should at least, you know, be able to look there.

So the only record - the only records that have been subpoenaed in this case have been the bank records of Fusion GPS, which is just an effort I think to undermine the financial backing of that Steele dossier. We think we should, you know, look everywhere, use our subpoena power aggressively and be as dogged and understanding what the Russians did as the Russians were in trying to meddle in our elections.

BERMAN: So, Congressman, not only are you on the House Intelligence Committee but you are a California Democrat and the California Democratic Party, over the weekend, declined to endorse longtime incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein in her re-election bid. Do you support the vote of the delegates?

SWALWELL: I disagree with the delegates and John, if I remember correctly it was standing right here in this spot where I endorsed Senator Feinstein when you asked me if I would. So, I'm still behind Senator Feinstein. I think you're seeing who she is in the way that she's standing up to the Trump administration and standing up for Dreamers and doing all she can to reduce gun violence. She was the person who got the assault weapons ban passed -

BERMAN: What does it tell you though that California Democrats have different concerns than you, apparently?

SWALWELL: I think as she - you know, tells the voters, you know, about her record - you know this is a state that is growing and it's a state of immigrants. We have new voters that you know may not over the past you know decade been familiar with her but I'm confident that once they know who she is, particularly millennial voters that she'll be you know quite popular with her and they'll know that she's going to protect them in their schools.

BERMAN: Eric Swalwell thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it. SWALWELL: My pleasure.

BERMAN: All right. An emotional return for students at the Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Florida, two weeks after the shooting that claimed 17 lives, classes have now resumed. We are live there.

Also this morning, Dick's Sporting Goods, one of the nation's largest sporting retailers says it will stop selling assault-style weapons.

Plus the president who has had a heck of a busy morning during executive times, set to leave the White House in just moments for a ceremony on Capitol Hill honoring Evangelist Billy Graham. Stay with us.


[10:17:53] BERMAN: All right. As we speak this morning, students, teachers back in class at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, two weeks after the massacre that left 17 people dead there. This is the first time they are back in school.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher is there. Dianne, an emotional morning, any sense of how it's going so far?

DIANE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, John, a lot of the kids inside have been sending us text messages letting us know how it's going for them, how they feel. I just got one a few minutes ago from a sophomore, Tanzil Phillip (ph). He said, "It's really weird, I think it's hitting us all hard because we've all been so involved with the movement and now we just have to be students."

That was so poignant to me because these kids have been all over our area. They've been all over international news as these beacons of change, trying to change politically things after what happened at their school. But today they are all just high school students again. They started the day with a 17 second moment of silence, one second for each of the lives lost and there's a desk in the AP English room that one of the students sent us a photo of that has a red maroon style table cloth on it, gold type flowers on it, stuffed animals there and tissue box that says love and be kind on it, John. These children this morning before they started school told us just what kind of apprehension they were feeling before walking through these doors again.


SAMANTHA GRADY, INJURED STUDENT RETURNING TO SCHOOL: I'm hesitant to walk into the building but I know I have to, to like start -- I have to face it head on at least that's my approach.

CARLY NOVELL, STUDENT RETURNING TO SCHOOL: I'm nervous. I feel the same as her. I just I'm really scared to go in.

STEPHANIE HOROWITZ, STUDENT RETURNING TO SCHOOL: I'm still in shock from everything that has happened and going back into school, I just -- I'm just worried that it's going to happen again. SAMANTHA FUENTES, INJURED STUDENT NOT RETURNING TO STONEMAN DOUGLAS: I mean I want to be a part of Stoneman Douglas and I want to you know live out the rest of my high school career normally but there's no such thing as normal anymore.


GALLAGHER: And they don't know what normal is going to be, John. Today is an abbreviated day. They get out in about an hour and a half, two hours. The kids told me they are really happy they didn't have to go to lunch today. So they wouldn't have to go sit with friend groups that had missing friends.

[10:20:02] BERMAN: No such thing as normal anymore, what a heartbreaking thing for a high school student to have to say. Dianne Gallagher in Parkland, Florida, thanks so much for being with us.

Dick's Sporting Goods, one of the country's largest sporting goods retailers is going to stop selling assault-style rifles like the one used in the Parkland shooting. They will also no longer sell guns to anyone under 21 years old or sell high capacity magazines. The CEO of Dick's spoke with CNN and said he felt like he needed to take a stand.


EDWARD STACK, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, DICK'S SPORTING GOODS: When you look at those kids and their parents and the grief that everyone is going through. We don't want to be a part of this story any longer. We actually sold the shooter a shotgun in November of last year. And we looked at that and found out we did this. We had a pit in our stomach and said -- we don't want to be a part of this story and we need a responsibility to these kids and we decided we are not going to sell these any longer.


BERMAN: The company had already removed the assault-style rifles from all Dick's stores proper after the Sandy Hook massacre 5 years ago. But now they are going to remove from other affiliates, these 35 field and stream stores as well. No one associated with Dick's will sell these weapons anymore.

All right, a lot of news breaking all over the place this morning. Right now joining me CNN political analyst Jackie Kucinich, CNN political commentators, Scott Jennings and Robby Mook. Scott, I want to start with you. You know you worked in the Senate when Jeff Sessions was there. He is now the attorney general of the United States. Moments ago, the president called him disgraceful. He's already called him beleaguered, very weak and said he's very disappointed with his performance. How can Jeff Sessions stay on the job? I mean, how can he live with himself and show up to work every day with the president attacking him like that?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's rough existence. It's been some time since the president has come after Jeff Sessions in this way. These are harsh words this morning. All I can really say is that Jeff Sessions as far as I'm concerned is a man of high integrity. I think he served our nation well. He served the state of Alabama well. I'm glad he's in the cabinet. I think he's done amazing work at the Department of Justice and it strikes me that what Jeff Sessions has decided is that his work on behalf of the American people as attorney general is more important than being upset about a president who likes to communicate -

BERMAN: It's not being upset though.

JENNINGS: President Trump does. That's all I can say about it.

BERMAN: But again, it crosses the line from upset to humiliated here. You would think at the certain point, you know, he should defend himself and justify the actions he's taking, saying this is the right way. And Robby Mook, on that point, you know Eric Swalwell, Congressman Democrat from California. He's actually opposed to an inspector general investigation into alleged FISA abuses all together. He thinks the attorney general is going too far while the president is saying he's not going far enough.

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And I'm not an expert on IG investigations and so it's hard for me to weigh in either way but I think the point that the Congressman made was important, which is, we need to let this investigation play out and unfortunately, you can't trust anybody anymore.

And so if the president or anybody else in the administration is calling for an IG investigation, it's either to placate the president and make him feel better what's going on or for the purpose of disrupting or blocking the investigation. And the other thing I just have to say, there's no evidence that anything was done wrong. If you look at the memo that came out from the Democrats, it's unfortunate that these memos have become partisan in the first place. Nothing -- there's no impropriety whatsoever. So you know, people can make allegations but there's no there, there. Again, it's so unfortunate that that's partisan. It shouldn't be.

BERMAN: You know, Jackie, as we watch this develop this morning, I wonder if I'm -- we are all missing the forest for the trees here. You know if you look at what's happened over the last 12 hours, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law lost the top level security clearance. CNN reporting overnight that the special counsel is now investigating the finances and business dealings of the president which at one point, he said was a red line and Hope Hicks tells the House Intelligence Committee that she sometimes tells white lies on behalf of the president. So is this just the president lashing out, reacting to all of it and the only person he can find to you know, sort of slap is the attorney general, taking it out on poor Jeff Sessions?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, I guess because he already went after McMaster maybe it was last week, maybe Jeff Sessions is just up this week. But you know, certainly this is just another example of the president instead of in a normal White House, the president would take this person to task who they are unhappy with behind closed doors, perhaps -- but instead this president likes to put this all on Twitter, which - it creates - it continues the chaos that on the front -- facing outward that this White House continues to put out. You know they like to beat that back and say everything is fine.

Well, when you have the top of the government doing this, continues to put out.

[10:25:03] You know they like to be back and say everything's fine. Well, when you have the top of the government, doing this over and over and over again. It doesn't really create a lot of calm, frankly. And particularly, as we're getting to -- as Mueller apparently or reportedly is looking into Jared Kushner, this is why nepotism laws exist. Because right now you have someone who could be closed in on and you're close to the president that he might not remove him. I'm not familiar with the security clearance being downgraded and someone still sticking around. Perhaps it's happened. But this certainly seems like a very -- a continually unusual situation in the West Wing.

BERMAN: Scott Jennings, you worked inside a White House, Jackie used the phrase in a normal White House. You worked in the George W. Bush White House, which I suppose we you could put that in the category of every other administration, a normal White House. How would this be perceived? Jared Kushner you know being downgraded in terms of security clearance. What impact would that have had in the Bush administration?

JENNINGS: I don't recall it happening to anybody in our White House. It's an unusual situation, although I do recall it happening to one of President Obama's advisers, Ben Rhodes. I believe was denied a security clearance at the beginning of the Obama administration. He ultimately got a clearance under some circumstances that are less than clear. So it's not historically unprecedented for this to occur. The president can still show any adviser he wants any kind of intelligence material that he feels like. I guess he has the right to declassify by showing it.

They are standing by Kushner today and saying that he's going to be able to continue to do his job. Ultimately, what matters here most is, do you have the confidence of the president and Kushner retains that as of today. I think over time, they'll have to make a decision about whether his inability to look at some information if it's not declassified by the president is prohibiting from doing the big portfolio that he has correctly. But as of right now the confidence of the president is what you need to perform in this job and that's what he has.

BERMAN: You know, Robby, I want to ask you a question about guns, someone who has worked for Democrats in campaigns before. You know it can be a difficult issue, a challenging issue over time. You know you have these Democratic senators up for re-election in red states right now. You have Democrats running in primaries now where they are moving to the left on this issue a little bit and trying to prove I think more consciousness about the gun control measures that they might advocate for. You know, what do you think the specific challenges are facing Democrats now on this issue? MOOK: Well, I think there's a tug of war going on right now. There's a practical matter which is that there are loopholes in the existing legal framework that allow people who shouldn't have guns to buy guns. The evidence on this keeps on mounting and when you look at public opinion surveys out there, people overwhelmingly support background checks. People overwhelmingly support restrictions on these assault style weapons. People can use to kill other people, banning bump stocks that sort of thing.

Where the Republican Party and -- but especially the NRA likes to take this is to a cultural place, by supporting what I would argue are common sense reforms that the vast majority of Americans support that you're somehow seeking to alienate or question people's cultural heritage, cultural identity, and that's simply not the case.

That's - that is going to be the tug of war in these campaigns. I would also just say there's a moral undertone to this. I don't think Democrats should hedge and make compromises on this because they want to win some votes. People are dying so we have to do something. But we should keep the voters focused on the practical legal loopholes that need to be closed.

BERMAN: Jackie -- go ahead.

KUCINICH: If I could add, I think one of the nervousness I've heard over the past 48 hours about getting the NRA involved gun issues are an animating issue on the right. People go out and vote because of gun rights. The left hasn't shown to an extent -- it has been from some races to some races but the gun control movement hasn't gotten out voters and hasn't had the passion to get people to the polls the same way the other side has. That's going to be a real challenge if we're still talking about this, the closer we get to November 2018. If the Democrats can get their people out the same way that Republicans can, on the gun issue.

BERMAN: Jackie Kucinich, Scott Jennings, Robby Mook, thanks so much for being with us, guys. A lot of news today.

So now that Jared Kushner has had his top secret security clearance yanked apparently, one former diplomat is asking why it didn't happen sooner. And the president is set to arrive at the Capitol where he'll honor the late reverend Billy Graham. This is going to be an extraordinary ceremony. We're watching it live.