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President Trump Holds Meeting on Gun Policy; White House Communications Director Hope Hicks Resigns; Interview With New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler; In Shocking Move, Trump Backs Obama Gun- Control Ideas; Walmart Raising Age to Buy Guns, Ammunition to 21. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired February 28, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Stunning shift. The president accuses a fellow Republican of being afraid of the NRA as he meets with lawmakers on gun violence and seems to side with Democrats on some key issues. Will he follow through or revert to the GOP script?
Battle Sessions. The attorney general of the United States refuses to stay silent as the president escalates his public smear of his own Cabinet member. Tonight, Jeff Sessions is defending his launch of an independent investigation that Mr. Trump calls disgraceful.
And expanding Russia probe. CNN has learned that the special counsel is looking into the president's business dealings in Russia before the 2016 campaign. Is he looking for links between the Kremlin and Mr. Trump's decision to run?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking tonight, one of the president's most loyal allies that allies in his chaotic White House is calling it quits. Hope Hicks is stepping down as communications director.
The announcement coming about 24 hours after she testified before Congress in the Russia investigation. And it caps a very busy day that included a dramatic escalation in the president's feud with his Attorney General Jeff Sessions. There's a lot of talk about with former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, who has been on the receiving end of the president's anger, and the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, is joining us as well.
And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, first of all, what do we know about Hope Hicks' reason for resigning? JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you said,
President Trump has lost Hope, as in Hope Hicks, his communications director here at the White House and longtime trusted aide.
She announced earlier today through the White House that she's stepping down over the next several weeks. The president put out a very glowing statement about his longtime and trusted aide here at White House.
He said -- quote -- "Hope is outstanding and has done great work for the last three years. She is as smart and thoughtful as they come. A truly great person. I will miss having her by my side. But when she approached me about pursuing other opportunities, I totally understood. I am sure we will work together in the future."
Now, I'm told by a White House official over here, Wolf, that there is -- quote -- "nothing nefarious" about Hicks leaving at this time. The official denied that this had anything to do with the Rob Porter scandal that broke over the last several weeks and that it was not about her testimony up on Capitol Hill in front of the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors during which she told that panel that she had to from time to time tell little white lies on behalf of the president.
Wolf, they don't have a plan yet for naming her replacement over here at the White House as communications director. As you know, that is a very big job at any White House. And that her departure is expected over the next several weeks, but no firm date for her final departure here, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim, there were also some stunning statements from the president today about guns and his own attorney general today. Update us on that.
ACOSTA: That's right. We thought this would be the most remarkable thing to happen over here at the White House today. The president at one point telling a group of lawmakers in the White House here in front of the cameras, at least one of them, that they're afraid of the NRA, but some of these lawmakers who were gathered here in the room with the president, they fired right back and told the president that unless he stands up to the NRA, nothing will be done on the issue of gun control.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have to act.
ACOSTA (voice-over): This time, President Trump promised new gun control measures are on the way. But first he professed his love to the lawmakers from both parties gathered at the White House.
TRUMP: I see some folks that don't say nice things about me. And that's OK, because if you turn that into this energy, I will love you. I don't care.
ACOSTA: The president then vowed action is coming, first on the use of bump stocks, attachments that effectively turn semiautomatic rifles into machine guns.
TRUMP: I'm going to write that out. You will have that done pretty quickly.
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump then reaffirmed his interest in raising the age limit to 21 for purchasing some firearms after some waffling from the White House on the issue.
TRUMP: I think it's something you have to think about. So, I will tell you what. I'm going to give it a lot of consideration.
ACOSTA: Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein showed the president data that shows how the assault weapons ban passed in the '90s cut down on gun deaths.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: When it ended, you see it going up.
ACOSTA: Also on the table was the influence of the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby closely tied to the president.
TRUMP: I'm the biggest fan of the Second Amendment. Many of you are. I'm a big fan of the NRA. But I had lunch with them, with Wayne and Chris and David, on Sunday and said it's time. We have got to stop this nonsense. It's time.
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: The reason that nothing has gotten done here is because the gun lobby has had a veto power over any legislation that comes before Congress.
ACOSTA: On the proposal to expand background checks sponsored by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, the president criticized the measure's GOP sponsor, Toomey, as fearful of the NRA.
TRUMP: You know what? Because you're afraid of the NRA, right?
ACOSTA: The president also made the stunning comment that people with mental health issues should have their firearms confiscated.
TRUMP: A lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures. I like taking the guns early. Take the guns first. Go through due process second.
ACOSTA: The president staged the gun discussion as the West Wing is still trying to get a handle on why so many of its top aides lack top- secret security clearances.
Mr. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, recently had his clearance status downgraded from top-secret to secret. But CNN has learned other White House staffers have been notified their clearances were bumped down as well. That's despite promises from the president during the campaign to properly handle classified material.
TRUMP: This was not just extreme carelessness with classified material, which is still totally disqualifying. This is calculated, deliberate, premeditated misconduct.
If elected, Hillary Clinton would become the first president of the United States who wouldn't be able to pass a background check.
ACOSTA: Another headache for the president appears to be Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his handling of alleged abuses in the Russia investigation. The president tweeted: "Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the inspector general to investigate? Will take forever. Why not use Justice Department lawyers? Disgraceful."
Sessions announced he's letting the Justice Department's inspector general inspector to look into it.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We believe the Department of Justice must adhere to the high standards in the FISA court. And, yes, it will be investigated. And I think that's just the appropriate thing. The inspector general will take that as one of the matters he will deal with.
ACOSTA: Today, Sessions fired back at the president's tweet with a blunt statement. "As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor. And this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner, according to the law and Constitution."
ACOSTA: Now, the president is already getting some blowback from conservatives for that meeting on gun control over here at the White House. Take a look at these headlines from Breitbart. They pretty much sum it up, Wolf, at this hour. This is stunning stuff.
"Trump, the gun grabber. Cedes Dems' wish lists, bump stocks, buying age, assault weapons, background checks." That's on the front page of Breitbart right now. He also is being criticized by Breitbart for essentially telling Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, that they will not be bringing up the concealed carry bill that he would like to see passed in Congress and be made a part of a comprehensive gun control bill.
The president saying at one point during that session that he supports Scalise on that piece of legislation, but he doesn't want it to be a part of a big comprehensive bill. Wolf, we should point out we have seen this movie before. It was a different subject, though, in early January.
You will recall on the issue of immigration, the president had this big meeting over at the White House. He brought all these lawmakers here from both sides. And it sounded like they were going to reach some sort of compromise. Of course, nothing came out of that meeting as a result of that.
And ever since then, the president has blamed Democrats for the failure to pass any kind of measure on that issue -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thanks very much for that report. Another White House official is heading for the exit as the Russia
investigation weighs in on many current and former allies of the president.
Let's go to our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, for us.
Jessica, Hope Hicks is resigning, but she remains a key witness in the Russia probe, right?
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: She does, Wolf.
Hope Hicks was interviewed by the special counsel's team in mid- December, and it was just yesterday she spent nine hours behind closed doors in an interview with the House Intelligence Committee. What she said in the testimony raised eyebrows.
A source tells us that Hicks admitted to telling -- quote -- "white lies" for the president, but she said that those were minor and she never spread falsehoods about anything substantial, including the Russia investigation. When it does come to Mueller's investigation, Paul Manafort was back in court today, where a September 17 trial date has now been set.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is maintaining his innocence, pleading not guilty to money laundering and false statements as part of a new indictment, this time without his former co-defendant Rick Gates, who pleaded guilty Friday to two charges of false statements and conspiracy to assist Manafort in criminal schemes and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel.
Manafort also faces 18 additional charges of bank fraud and alleged tax crimes in federal court in Virginia. The special counsel's team also appears to be following the money when it comes to the president.
CNN has learned investigators have questioned witnesses about Donald Trump's business activities in Russia prior to the 2016 campaign as he considered a presidential run. The president has repeatedly dismissed questions about any financial ties to Russia.
TRUMP: I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals in Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia because we have stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia.
SCHNEIDER: But prosecutors have asked wide-ranging questions about Trump's financial ties to Russia in interviews, according to sources, including why efforts to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow fell through, and whether or not the Russians may have any compromising information about the president.
All of this indicates Mueller may be reaching beyond the campaign to explore how the Russians may have sought to influence Donald Trump when he was discussing deals in Moscow, and whether Trump was contemplating a presidential run at the same time.
The president has previously said any investigation into his family finances would cross a red line.
QUESTION: If Mueller was looking at your finances, your family's finances unrelated to Russia, is that a red line?
QUESTION: Would that be a breach of what his...
TRUMP: I would say yes. I would say yes.
SCHNEIDER: Sources say Mueller's team has also asked about the financing behind the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, where Trump partnered with billionaire Russian real estate developer Aras Agalarov and his son Emin.
These sources tell CNN they don't know if the Mueller team has concrete evidence to indicate wrongdoing, but pointed out: "You ask everything, even if you don't think it's credible. The allegations are out there, and it was checking the box."
SCHNEIDER: And new tonight, we have learned the banking regulator in New York is digging into more financial details from Jared Kushner. The head of the Financial Services Department in New York has asked Deutsche Bank and two other small lenders about their financial relationship with Kushner, his family members, and his family's real estate business, according to a source.
This request follows an updated financial disclosure from Jared Kushner which revealed now debt and uncertainty over the future of his heavily indebted Manhattan office tower 666 Fifth Avenue.
And, of course, we previously reported that Mueller's team had been asking questions about Kushner's efforts to try to shore up financing for the building and his discussions with foreign investors during the transition -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, supposedly about a $1 billion debt as far as that property, 666 Fifth Avenue, is concerned. Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.
Let's get a little bit more on all of this.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler is joining us. He's the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.
REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: You're welcome, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to the breaking news you just heard from Jessica, that your state, New York state's banking regulator is investigating Jared Kushner's financial relationship with Deutsche Bank and two other smaller lenders.
NADLER: Well, I'm glad they're investigating it.
The whole question of Trump and Jared Kushner and all their financial relationships with Russia, with Deutsche Bank, which is an agent of Russia in many cases...
BLITZER: Why do you say it's an agent of Russia?
NADLER: Because there have been a lot of deposits from Russia in it, I gather from news. And a lot of its capital came from Russia.
BLITZER: But is that just from news reports, or do you have other information?
NADLER: No, no, no. No, I do not have other information. It's from news reports.
BLITZER: Just to be precise. Because that's a serious allegation, that Deutsche Bank is an agent of Russia.
NADLER: It's just from news reports.
NADLER: In any event, there are a lot of questions, obviously.
I mean, we know that Trump Jr. said back in 2008 lots of our money, a disproportionate part of our money comes from Russia.
We know the Russians tried to help the -- did help the Trump campaign. Whether he colluded on it is another question. But there are all sorts of relationships and motives that have to be examined.
BLITZER: Do you believe the Russia investigation played a significant role in the decision by Hope Hicks, the communications director at the White House, a longtime aide to the president, to resign?
NADLER: I don't know. I have no facts on that.
All I do know is that when the communications people for the president admits she lied to the American people, that's a terrible betrayal. And it's a terrible thing that the representative of the president lies to the American people.
BLITZER: She says she was engaging in what she called just little white lies, nothing substantive.
NADLER: So she says, and maybe they weren't too substantive. But when you're the spokesman for the president, you should not be lying to the American people.
BLITZER: Let's get to another sensitive issue. And you're on the Judiciary Committee, which looks at the Justice Department. The president tweeted this today about the attorney general of the United States.
"Why is Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking the inspector general to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse," Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuse? "Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power, and already late with the reports on Comey, et cetera. Isn't the I.G., the inspector general, an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL."
What do you think the president's goal was in this extraordinary tweet?
NADLER: The president's goal was to undermine Sessions for some reason, and to take more attention away from the investigation.
This whole question of the FISA warrant, first of all, it's based on lies in the Nunes memo, which have definitively shown to be lies by direct quotes from the underlying documents in the Democratic memo.
They showed quite clearly that the court was told that some of the allegations came, formed the basis of the warrant came from politically motivated sources. They were told that. And any allegation to the contrary was not true.
It also showed that the entire investigation was not even based on that. So the whole question of the FISA court and that particular warrant is a distraction, a deliberate distraction from the Mueller investigation, which, as far as we can tell, there have been no leaks from it, has been a very substantive investigation, which has gained a number of guilty pleas, a number of indictments.
And the president apparently believes that the walls are closing in on him and he is trying anything to divert attention.
BLITZER: Is this public humiliation by the president of his attorney general, the attorney general of the United States, designed to get Sessions to resign?
NADLER: It may very well be, because if Sessions were to resign -- remember, he's recused from the Russia investigation. The president could appoint someone else who was not recused who might then be able to fire Rosenstein or Mueller and sabotage the investigation.
And that clearly would be very much to the detriment. We must get to the bottom of the Russian interference in our election. And we must get to the bottom of why the president refuses now to authorize our intelligence agencies to protect us against the Russian interference in our next election, which Admiral Rogers, the head of the NSA, said yesterday in -- I think it was the Senate.
That, to me, is one of the biggest questions now. The president is tasked, his oath of office is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. And he seems to be refusing to do that, because we know that the Russians attacked our election. We know that they're going to do it again. And he is refusing to give the NSA and the other intelligence agencies the directive and the authority to properly protect us.
BLITZER: Yes. Admiral Mike Rogers, he did testify before the Senate, the head of the National Security Agency, also the chief of the U.S. Cyber Command. He said he hasn't received any orders to do so. And as a result, he can't go ahead simply on his own.
NADLER: And the question is why the president won't do anything to offend Putin. And maybe it has something to do with financial entanglements in Russia. That ought to be investigated.
BLITZER: They're investigating, I suspect, as well.
Congressman Nadler, thanks so much for joining us.
NADLER: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on Hope Hicks' surprise resignation and her role in the special counsel's Russia investigation.
I'll talk to former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara about that and more.
Also, the president's newest attack on the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. We will get Preet's analysis of that. Is the president crossing a constitutional line?
BLITZER: We're back with breaking news.
One of the president's closest advisers, Communications Director Hope Hicks, is resigning from the Trump White House. She's been a prominent figure in the president's inner circle and in the Russia investigation.
We're joined now by CNN senior legal analyst Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney in New York who was fired by President Trump.
Preet, how important is Hope Hicks to the special counsel's Russia investigation?
PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It's hard to know exactly how important she is, but she could be extraordinarily significant.
Obviously, when you're investigating someone or something or some institution, you want to talk to everybody who has had, you know, involvement in the group. And obviously somebody -- anyone who is a close confidant of the president, who is a close assistant to the president, is somebody who may have information other people might not have.
In fact, you know, given the reports of how close Hope Hicks has been to this president, it's possible that she was the only witness privy to meetings and conversations between the president and other people, and she also might be the kind of person that the president would confide in, talking about what was in his state of mind, talking about why he did things like fire Jim Comey, talking about why he had certain meetings, talking about why he was upset about the Russia investigation.
You know, there are just so many things that Hope Hicks might have heard from the president that other people might not have.
BLITZER: Yesterday, she admitted before the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors of telling what she described as white lies for President Trump, but not anything substantive, she reportedly said. What do you make of that?
BHARARA: I think it's fairly extraordinary for someone to admit that they told lies of any nature, white or otherwise.
I think it's particularly extraordinary going into the 13th or 14th month of this administration, where I think, by any reasonable standard, there has been lie after lie, misleading statement after misleading statement coming out from various people in the White House and certainly from the president himself, that there is actually one person, even though they're cabining it as a white lie or a series of white lies.
There's at least somebody in the White House who, when being questioned by investigators, thought it important to concede that lies are being told.
And whether or not they're, in fact, minor white lies or something more significant and material is generally not something that's left up to the person. And my understanding from the reporting -- again, I don't know how thorough and complete it is -- that she gave a couple of examples, but didn't give other examples.
And so, you know, sometimes you worry that somebody who you're speaking to is trying to get -- you know, hedge and have it both ways, and try to give the appearance of candor, so that they're not caught in even more important material lies later.
So if you had in your mind that you would been telling things that are untrue, either to other people or to the public, you might want to give yourself some cover by characterizing them as white lies. But that remains to be seen.
BLITZER: Let me read to you that extraordinary tweet, the president slamming the attorney general of the United States. Listen to this.
"Why is Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking the inspector general to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse? Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power, and already late with the reports on Comey, et cetera. Isn't the I.G., the inspector general, an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL."
What red flags does that presidential statement, that tweet raise? BHARARA: That's an extraordinary tweet as well.
I think we will say extraordinary a few times, because it's been a fairly extraordinary day. The first thing is, Michael Horowitz, who is the inspector general for the Department of Justice, is, in fact, a Justice Department lawyer. And the lawyers who work for him are, in fact, Justice Department lawyers.
And, you know, this is just another step in a series of steps the president has taken publicly to, A, discredit his attorney general who he picked and who he had worked with him on his campaign, and also to sort of try to direct who is involved in what investigations and what the results should be.
He's a very result-oriented person. The interesting thing is, people should understand the Department of Justice itself is supposed to be an independent agency more so than other agencies because the rule of law is important, and justice has to be blind.
But within a fairly independent agency like the Department of Justice is another even more independent subdivision of it, which is the inspector general's office. And once again, as we saw when Jeff Sessions decided to recuse himself, which is the professional way of handling a matter when you have had direct involvement in a campaign on the part of somebody, the correct way to handle some self-policing within the Justice Department is not to have other regular line attorneys looking at what other line attorneys are doing.
You have to go to some independent division within the Department of Justice Department. And the same way that police departments have an internal affairs bureau and companies have internal watchdogs as well, that's how it's done.
You know, whether or not this should even be an I.G. investigation of -- quote, unquote -- "potentially massive" FISA malfeasance is a separate question altogether. I have not seen any evidence, based on the competing memos that came out from both Nunes and then from Adam Schiff out of the Intel Committee in the House, that there has been any malfeasance at all.
And it strikes me that it's the kind of thing that Jeff Sessions has said he would do to appease the president who keeps getting angry at Jeff Sessions not looking at the people who annoy Donald Trump.
But if you're going to do it -- and I'm not sure that you should be doing it or need to be doing it -- if you are going to do it, it should be done by the I.G.'s office.
BLITZER: The special counsel, Robert Mueller, Preet, is looking into President Trump's finances in Russia from before he announced his presidential run.
Explain why this falls within the scope of his Russia investigation.
BHARARA: Well, here's the problem with answering questions about what kind of things Bob Mueller is looking at. We don't know the whole -- you know, the whole bucket of things that he's inquiring about.
And it may be, if this is true, if the report is true -- I don't know if it is -- that there's a course of conduct people have with companies or with other countries that both predates the campaign and continued into the campaign, and so if you're getting word from various sources that there's some effort to look at things that happened before the campaign, it could be because there's a course of conduct that extends into the campaign.
There's just no way of knowing what the deal is with that.
BLITZER: Yes, our reporting here at CNN has been, based on individuals who have answered questions from Mueller and his team, they have asked several questions, lots of questions about Trump's Russia business dealings before he announced his campaign for president. That's why it's raising all sorts of questions, what he's looking at right now.
But let me get into another sensitive issue with you. Trial date has now been set for the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Do you believe this is really going to go to trial later this year?
BHARARA: Well, the case against Paul Manafort, as I have said multiple times, seems very strong. It's a straightforward case. It's a document-based case. You either had bank accounts in other countries and lied about it or you didn't. You either had income and paid taxes on it or you didn't.
And it seems like that's pretty straightforward and easy to prove. And on top of that, as we learned last week, you know, Gates, his co- defendant in the indictment, the original indictment, has decided to plead guilty and cooperate. And you would expect him to testify at the trial.
So, it's a very, very strong case. Typically speaking, in a very, very strong case, if there's a deal to be made to plead guilty, that's how the vast majority of criminal cases get decided. So far, Paul Manafort, through his lawyer, has said he's not intending to plead guilty. If he goes to trial, and I think there's a decent likelihood he will, because he seems to be pretty stubborn about wanting to go to trial, which is his constitutional right -- and everyone has that right in this country because you're presumed independent until proven guilty -- I think he's going to have a very hard time of it at a trial, based on what we've seen in the indictment.
BLITZER: Before I let you go, Preet, I want you to listen to what the president said just a little while ago speaking about the Parkland, Florida, gunman and the killing there. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Take the firearms first and then go to court, because that's another system. Because a lot of times by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures. Take the guns first, go through due process second. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you make of that?
BHARARA: This is the third time I'm going to say extraordinary. That's a very extraordinary statement. But it's a little bit of a piece with lots of other things that this president says. He either doesn't know about, doesn't like, or can't abide process. He likes to see results.
So whether you're talking about how to handle the Nunes memo or you talk about how to handle the Russia investigation or even whether you talk about how he has praised how other people in other countries like Duterte in the Philippines has engaged in extrajudicial killings in connection with the war on drugs in that country, he likes to show that you're taking strong action.
The problem is we do have a Constitution, we have a process for doing things and investigating cases, and even doing something like that, some people, I think, on the other side of the gun debate might not necessarily disagree with. But you have to follow due process. That's how the country works. That's what the Constitution says. And the president should be advocating in favor of due process, not against it.
BLITZER: Preet Bharara, thanks as usual for joining us.
BHARARA: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, what will it mean for the president as he loses one of his most loyal allies in the White House with the Russia investigation intensifying by the day?
And we'll have more on the president's unscripted meeting with lawmakers on guns. Was the live televised session an attempt to distract from his latest troubles? Stay with us.
[18:36:51] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. The surprise resignation of one of the president's closest aides, the White House communications director Hope Hicks.
Let's bring in our analysts and experts. And Gloria, how significant is Hope Hicks' departure?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think she leaves a big hole in the White House. You know, this is somebody who's been very close to the president and the president's family. Don't forget she started out working for Ivanka's company before she went to work for Donald Trump.
I talked to a source today who's close to the president who said to me that Hope Hicks is the president's emotional support inside the White House. And I think that's -- I think that's true. I think he depends on her in a lot of ways. People say she knows how to kind of calm him down when he needs -- when he needs calming. People thought she was professional. And she was devoted to this president and well-liked inside the White House. So I think it's going to be a great loss there.
BLITZER: You know, Rebecca, she apparently started thinking about resigning in the aftermath of the Rob Porter domestic abuse scandal. But she's also been pretty much exposed in the Russia investigation, as well.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. So an emotional toll in more than one way that has been taken on Hope during her time in the White House.
Of course, she spoke yesterday to the House Intelligence Committee. A source tells our Brian Stelter that that was not a pleasant experience for Hope. It was obviously a grueling nine-hour process for her. But she's also spoken to the Senate Intelligence Committee. She's spoken to Robert Mueller.
She has been with the president since the beginning. That's why she is such an important person in these investigations. She's been in the room for key moments. Of course, she was in the room or on the plane, rather, when the team, including her, were drafting a statement explaining Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian attorney. That's obviously a focus now of Mueller's.
And so clearly some scrutiny on Hope Hicks. Certainly, there must be some relief that she doesn't have to deal with this now on a daily basis. But the legal scrutiny will continue.
BLITZER: Do we know if John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, played a role in any of this leading up to her departure?
BERG: We don't know about John Kelly's role. He gave a glowing statement to "The New York Times" praising her, praising her work. But clearly, there's some tension now between John Kelly and the Trump family with Jared Kushner's security clearance issue. And Hope Hicks is part of the Trump family. She's very much a loyal -- a loyalist when it comes to this team.
BLITZER: The special counsel, Phil, as you know, is looking into Donald Trump's business dealings with Russia long before he announced he was running for president of the United States. What does that tell you?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, before I get too excited, let me give you a technical answer. Why did Don Jr. pick up the phone? When you're looking at the meeting going back to last summer, you have questions about what was the pre-existing relationship with Russians? Does somebody pick up a phone because there was a relationship, a business relationship...
BLITZER: You're talking about the Trump Tower meeting?
MUDD: That's correct, the Trump Tower meeting. A business relationship where somebody called somebody and said, "You know, you've got to take this call."
Let me be more blunt. When I got my first security clearance, age 24 -- I've heard all these people whine and moan about why clearance investigations go back before the Trump campaign. Three years, five years, ten years.
[18:40:06] They asked me about college. They asked me about high school. I have no sympathy for people who are saying, "Why are they asking Donald Trump campaign members about what happened five or ten years ago?"
Those of us who are everyday Americans who were asked, "Did you smoke dope in high school, did you steal in college," when you get a security clearance, they're going to ask about what happened in your life and are you vulnerable because you did something wrong five or ten years ago? That's what all of us dealt with. That's what they're dealing with.
BLITZER: And you got those security clearances...
MUDD: Yes, barely.
BLITZER: ... at age 24. I'm not going to ask you about the smoking dope and all that kind of stuff.
Let's talk about the president's tweet today. Very controversial tweet slamming his attorney general. I won't read the whole thing again. Why is the attorney general just asking the inspector general to investigate? He ends it by saying "DISGRACEFUL," all in caps.
This is extraordinary. It's not the first time. We took a look. He's said awful things about Jeff Sessions, going back a long time. "Idiot," "beleaguered," "VERY weak," "very disappointed" with him, he did a "terrible thing," "DISGRACEFUL." Look at -- look at all those comments, and Sessions is still there. He hasn't quit.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sessions is taking a pounding from the president. This presents a narrow problem and a wider problem, Wolf. The narrow problem: that the president continues to either not understand or not acknowledge that he understands that the role of the attorney general is not being the president's personal attack dog, not to be his Roy Cohn, as the president has been quoted as saying. He's to administrate justice across the board.
There are logical reasons why Jeff Sessions has been recused from a lot of this Russia discussion.
The wider problem for the president here is that he's sending a message to all his close advisors, "If you get crosswise with me, you're -- I'm going to be merciless, and it will never end."
BLITZER: How much public humiliation can the attorney general take?
BORGER: He's taken a lot. But he fought back today.
BLITZER: Yes. BORGER: I mean, I would argue, you know, he put out a press release, and he basically said, "Sorry, the I.G.'s going to handle this."
And by the way, the president may not know this, but the I.G., the inspector general, routinely refers cases for prosecution. That is his job to do that. So it is not disgraceful. It is actually procedure. And I think that Sessions felt, at long last, that he had to defend the department. And he did.
MUDD: And there's one more piece. Let me take you inside this game, just quickly. If -- when I was at the Bureau, if you had said...
BLITZER: The FBI.
MUDD: The FBI. If an investigation conducted by the I.G. versus and investigation conducted by the Department of Justice lawyers, let me be careful about language. We despised the I.G.
MUDD: The inspector general. They were a hammer. So the president doesn't understand, if you want somebody to go after the FBI, get the I.G. to do it, because they're going to bring a hammer down. Don't worry about the Department of Justice lawyers.
BORGER: And by the way, this I.G. worked for Democrats and Republicans. And even Trey Gowdy, a Republican, came out today and said, "I respect Horowitz. Let him do his job."
BLITZER: Yes. Yes, good point. Everybody, stick around. There's more news we're following. President Trump's rather surprising remarks on gun control. How Republicans are now reacting to his stunning shift.
[18:47:53] BLITZER: There's more breaking news tonight.
President Trump appearing to back some significant gun-control measures during a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers over at the White House. The president voiced support for banning bump stocks and raising the minimum age for some firearm purchases to 21. At one point he told a Republican senator, you're afraid of the NRA.
You know, Rebecca Berg, he's getting some negative feedback from a lot of conservatives. "Breitbart", take a look at "Breitbart's" main page. Trump the gun grabber, cede Dems' wish list. Bump stocks, buying age, assault weapons, background checks, tells the majority leader to take a hike after surviving assassination attempt, bashes NRA.
He's getting some grief for taking the positions during that hour-plus meeting with bipartisan lawmakers.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: And it's hard to blame Republicans and conservatives, Wolf, for being a little shocked at what the president had to say today, because he ran as a Second Amendment conservative, even though previously before his presidential campaign he wasn't that at all. He was actually pro for the gun restrictions before that. But he ran as a pro-Second Amendment conservative. The NRA endorsed his campaign and has supported him as president. And they spent millions of dollars trying to get him elected.
So, it would have made sense for Donald Trump to listen to the NRA, to listen to what Republicans want on this issue. Instead, he flipped completely.
Now, we've seen him do that before with immigration, with other issues, in meetings like this. But you could see the body language from Republicans in that room. Like John Cornyn sitting to the president's right. His face just fell as the president was expressing his support for some of these measures. And Dianne Feinstein sitting to the president's left was absolutely giddy hearing him say this.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It was so shocking when, you know, people were talking about background checks. And then the notion of concealed carry was raised because --
BLITZER: By Steve Scalise.
BORGER: By Steve Scalise. People have always thought, OK, you can do enhanced background checks if you give the Republicans concealed carry on weapons, and the --
BORGER: And the president -- nationwide.
[18:50:00] And the president said, nah, that's got to be in a separate bill. We're not going to do that. It will slow it down.
And you could just see the Republicans in the room saying, oh, my god, what's next? Well, what was next was assault weapons and Dianne Feinstein's joy. Now, the issue here is, of course, we went through this when they had the -- the reality show on DACA, and so, we -- and nothing has come of that. So, today, we had the reality show on gun control where the president kept pushing for comprehensive reform. We now all have to take all of this with a grain of salt.
BLITZER: And he also said, go ahead, confiscate the guns and worry about due process later if someone is mentally ill.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The president identifies and problem like this. You have conservatives on one side pushing a solution, like gun violence restraining orders. Democrats want to solve it upstream with something like, let's make it harder for people to get guns in the first place. The president doesn't realize that he's sitting in there in the middle. His debate has been going on long before he was in office. And he thinks, oh, let's have a common sense solution. That's like -- no, when a problem gets to the level of the president
of the United States, sitting around a conference table with senators, it means it's something that can't be solved with a quick equip off the top of his head. That's what he doesn't seem --
BLITZER: And he was telling these Republican lawmakers, don't worry so much about the NRA. We can handle the NRA.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Why the heck do they listen to what he says? And why are we talking about this?
Look, Barack Obama had false birth certificate. Oh, sorry, that's not true. I'm going to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, sorry that's not true. I'm looking at issues like Chinese currency manipulation, we won't do anything about that.
And my favorite, dumping on the secretary of state for talking about conversations with the North Koreans, and the vice president goes to the South Korean Olympics and says, I'm happy to talk to the North Koreas.
The point is he didn't do anything. He talked at a meeting today and I don't understand why Republicans and "Breitbart" take it seriously. He doesn't know what he says that. And I suspect he's not going to do anything.
BERG: He takes it seriously because he's the president of the United States.
MUDD: I suppose, but what he's going to do?
BORGER: Well, what was so amazing about watching all of this is that I think members of Congress have finally found a way to flatter the president enough so he will listen to them, because everybody started their little piece by saying, you know, Mr. President, I know you can exert the greatest leadership on this. And with your leadership, we can do X, Y and Z. And the president sat there and nodded and listened.
And I think they all understand, after previous meetings that this is the way to get it through.
BLITZER: And the president actually was walking and telling these lawmakers, you know what, you've got to combine this legislation, you can't just have separate pieces of legislation. He was going through the legislative process to the delight of the Democrats there, the irritation of a few of those Republicans.
An emotional return to the class of survivors over the Florida high school shooting, as another major gun seller now changes its policies because of the attack.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:57:42] BLITZER: We have breaking news just coming in, another major retailer is now changing his gun policies as a result of the Florida high school shooting.
CNN's Kaylee Hartung is joining us from Parkland, Florida.
Tell us more about that, Kaylee.
KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are just learning Walmart now deciding they won't be selling firearms or ammunition to anyone under the age of 21. A statement we just received saying, quote: In light of recent events, we've taken an opportunity to review our policy on firearm sales. Going forward, we are raising the age restriction for purchase of firearms and ammunition to 21 years of age.
This more welcome news to the people of Stoneman Douglas, students, teachers and parents of victims who have been advocating for changes to our gun laws, and this news coming tonight after the announcement this morning by Dick's Sporting Goods, the largest sporting goods retailer in the country, that they too were going to raise the age limit to buy firearms in their store to 21. And they're going to stop selling assault style rifles like the one the killer used at this high school.
They're also saying they won't be selling high capacity magazines anymore or any accessories for weapon similar to the AR-15.
The CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods saying that he knows they will take criticism from gun rights activists and this will be a hit to their bottom line, but he said he and the leadership of his company, they were moved by the efforts and passion they have seen from the survivors here in Parkland, Wolf.
BLITZER: Kaylee, the Stoneman Douglas High School reopened today exactly two weeks after the shooting. What was it like?
HARTUNG: It was an emotional roller coaster of a day, Wolf, as described to me by students and teachers here. The school day began with a moment of silence, 17 seconds, one for each of the victims. Students and teachers experienced this moment as they gathered with the class they were in when the gunman attacked. And this day, as the principal said, the focus was going to be on comfort, not curriculum, that's the case for many days moving forward.
Students weren't even allowed to bring backpacks onto campus. And as one student told me, he realized today he had been so wrapped up in fighting for changes to gun laws over the past two weeks that today, it was as if reality slapped him in the face when he saw an empty desk in one of his classrooms next to him.
BLITZER: All right. Kaylee, thank you very much. Kaylee Hartung reporting.
That's it for me.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.