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House Intel Committee Questions Trump's Communications Director; President Again Calls Russia Probe "Witch Hunt"; Trump Taps 2016 Digital Director To Run Re-Election Bid; Ryan: "Colossal Breakdown" Led To Parkland Tragedy; GOP Lawmakers Call For Stronger Background Checks; GOP Vows To Fight Over Companies Dropping NRA. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 27, 2018 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:07]

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Erica Hill in today for Kate Bolduan.

Right now, the House Intelligence Committee is questioning another member of President Trump's inner circle. Questioning as part of the Russia investigation. White House Communications Director Hope Hicks testifying before the panel, behind closed doors. She arrived a short time ago.

Do lawmakers have any hope of getting answers from Hicks? Her scheduled appearance last month was postponed over questions about the scope of her testimony. And other top Trump officials who have faced the committee have refused to answer certain questions.

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. Manu, what are you hearing?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the expectation going into this hearing from both Republicans and Democrats alike that they did expect her to answer questions, or they wanted her to answer questions about any topics that occurred after the campaign season, that includes the transition period and the White House.

Those are two periods in which Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, did not answer questions over those two periods during the transition and his time at the White House when he said that the White House instructed him to invoke executive privilege over those communications, over those -- any questions during those time periods, saying that he would not answer authorized -- unauthorized questions.

What is uncertain today is, whether or not Hope Hicks will do the same thing before this committee. Members were not sure, even Mike Conway, the Republicans running the Russia investigation, said he was not aware of any agreement that the committee had reached with the White House on limiting the scope of her testimony.

The questions behind closed doors right now, whether she's doing that, saying that she will not answer certain key questions, would not answer our questions going into this closed-door session. She's been in there for over an hour. We'll get a sense soon of whether or not she has decided not to answer certain questions.

And as we know, both -- Bannon is not the only person to not answer questions before this committee, Erica. Also, Corey Lewandowski would not answer questions about the period after he left the campaign in June of 2016 and refused to come back to the committee to answer further questions. We'll see if Hope Hicks does the same thing here -- Erica.

HILL: The big question. But remind us too, just put it in context for us, Manu, what is the significance of her testimony at this point?

RAJU: Well, she's perhaps President Trump's closest confidante, she's been with the campaign, with Donald Trump since the beginning of his campaign. But even before that, she's aware of a number of key episodes, all the major controversies, she has some level of awareness or involvement.

Not just during the campaign season, and any Russia context she may be aware of, but also remember during the -- her time in the White House, she was involved with that initial misleading statement that was put out to the press when Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting in Trump Tower with Russians was first revealed, they initially suggested it was a meeting about adoptions.

We understand she was involved in drafting that statement. Those are questions that members want her to answer but, again, will she answer those questions or invoke executive privilege, we just don't know quite yet -- Erica.

HILL: All right. Manu, appreciate it, thank you.

Well, in terms of the Russia probe, it is front and center on the president's mind this morning. Let's go to the White House now with CNN's Abby Phillip -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Erica. It has been an all caps morning for President Trump today as he returns to Twitter from more than two-day hiatus. He last tweeted on Saturday night, just before an appearance on Fox News, about Russia, of course.

And then again, this morning, he returned to social media to tweet some quotes that interestingly enough are old, shows that aired two days ago. Some of these quotes are from Sunday morning, from appearances by guests who repeated talking points that the president has made on Fox News and then he -- and in a final tweet this morning, he sent out a two-word tweet, all caps, exclamation mark, saying witch-hunt.

The president fixated on this Russia probe, possibly because of what you were just discussing with Manu a few minutes ago. Hope Hicks, a top Trump aide, someone close to both the president and his family, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee this morning, the president is clearly still very focused on this Russia issue and upset about it. Just based on the tone of the tweets this morning -- Erica.

HILL: That's for sure. We are also hearing -- or seeing a little insight perhaps into the president's future political plans. Tell us a little bit more about that -- Abby.

PHILLIP: That's right. It is no surprise that President Trump is planning on running for re-election. He has been doing campaign rallies and has been building up campaign stop for months now. But today, as CNN's Dana Bash confirmed, that Brad Parscale, a former digital director for Trump's 2016 campaign, will be named as campaign manager.

Now, Parscale is a long-time associate of the Trump family. He has had not had any political experience before his 2016 campaign experience.

[11:05:07] But he was sort of a lesser seen and lesser known Trump campaign aide who worked on that digital strategy, Facebook and social media, pushing the president's message. Now he's tapped with running the whole thing in 2020, Erica. We're already talking about it.

HILL: All right. Talking about 2020, yes, we are. Abby, thank you. Haven't gotten through the midterms yet.

Just moments ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee asking the head of the National Security Agency if President Trump or Defense Secretary James Mattis had ordered him to, quote, "disrupt Russian cyberthreats where they originate." Here is his answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR JACK REED (D), RANKING MEMBER, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Basically to be directed by the president through the secretary of defense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir, I mentioned that in my --

REED: Have you been directed to do so given the strategic threat that faces the United States and the significant consequences you recognize already?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I have not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Joining me now, CNN national security analyst, Samantha Vinograd, who served as senior adviser to Obama's national security adviser, and CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan. We're also learning more here from Rogers saying that -- telling lawmakers that Russia had, quote, "not paid a price that is sufficient to change their behavior when it comes to cyberattacks."

Based on that, and the comment we just played as well, Samantha, what do you make of all of this in terms of how seriously the White House is taking this? SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think we know they're not taking it very seriously, not only from President Trump's tweets this morning, he's clearly not working very hard if he's spending all of that time tweeting. But also, from testimony that we have heard previously.

We had six out of six intelligence chiefs testify before the Senate a week or two ago saying they have seen no significant decrease in Russian attacks and they have every expectation that Russia is going to attack us again. So, the proof is in the pudding.

Russia is continuing their attack, they are not deterred and whatever we're doing, just isn't working. And this testimony today from Rogers indicates we have not been authorized to conduct offensive cyberattacks against Russia.

Now, we could be doing a lot defensively and it is different intelligence authorizations that are needed. But Russia is offensively targeting us on our soil and we're not doing the same thing back.

HILL: That has a lot of people scratching their heads. I can see it in your face. I want to talk about what else is happening on Capitol Hill as well. It is all part of the same equation, Hope Hicks. There is some question not only about the questions that will be asked, but what they will hear in terms of answers, Paul. Speculation about whether she could pull a Steve Bannon here, whether there will be an executive privilege invoked. What can she do?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, Erica, it is not just a Steve Bannon, it is a Corey Lewandowski also because remember when anybody really close to President Trump gets called, all of a sudden, executive privilege is pulled out of the pockets to try to block testimony.

Now in truth, executive privilege is very rarely upheld by the courts. Occasionally in a criminal investigation, it will be asserted and almost always it is taken away from the president in that specter.

National security matters, yes, you can exert executive privilege, but for the rest, pretty much every president who has ever been confronted in court on this loses. In the end, she will be compelled to testify, but it would cause a battle between Congress and the president and you have a Republican-controlled Congress, so how hard are they going to push.

HILL: And Sam, if you're in that room, there is obviously -- there are a number of questions about as Manu was pointing out about this response that was crafted in terms of Donald Trump Jr. Is that your number one question if you're in that room for Hope Hicks or do you want to know something more?

VINOGRAD: I would have a lot. This actually could be a major counterintelligence opportunity. We know from open source documents that Russia targeted campaign officials. Donald Trump takes that personally. But Russia has actively targeted campaign officials and members of the government for years, Hope Hicks knows who was targeted and how Russia did it.

So, if I was in that room, I with want to know about any other undisclosed or misreported contacts, we know that Wikileaks tried to get to Don Jr., we know Papadopoulos was actively courted. Who else? How did Russia do it? If Hope Hicks is forth coming, it could be an opportunity to get some information on Russian sources and methods.

CALLAN: And you know, she is one of the closest aides to the president. She reaches back into the early days of the Trump Organization, she worked for Ivanka there. At age 26, the president made her head of his campaign press communications office. And then he elevated her to the White House where she is by his side all the time, she's the gatekeeper.

She's got a wealth of information that could be helpful or very harmful to the president. So, she's going to be a key witness with Mueller. I'm not so sure how far Congress will push it, as I said, it is a Republican Congress. But certainly Mueller, she must be somebody he questions very carefully.

[11:10:10] HILL: In terms of this investigation, I want to bring up this with you because it is fascinating. It is impossible to ignore how politicized this investigation has become. A lot of that narrative is being pushed by the president and the White House and the House Intel Committee on both sides and by Russia.

So, if we look at this new CNN polling, the numbers here, is the Russia investigation seen as a serious matter or as an effort to discredit the Trump presidency? Talk about being split along party lines. When we're looking at numbers like this, does the outcome at this point, does it even matter?

VINOGRAD: I think what it shows is that Russia is doing their job really well. We have as you mentioned Republicans think this investigation is a witch-hunt, Republicans, recent polling that showed that they thought that the FBI was actively trying to undercut President Trump. That's no accident.

Russia is trying to sow divisions, create confusion, demoralize us. So, I think the outcome of the investigation matters because it may have legal implications. There is a whole other side of it, are we combatting Russia's attack that sowing these divisions and they should be complementary.

CALLAN: But I think there is a bigger question too. That is, we have never seen a division in American politics like the one we have today. If you -- the poll numbers reflected with Republicans thinking there is nothing there, Democrats thinking there is something there.

There used to be a little place in the middle of the tent where moderates met and people kind of agreed on things that generally worked for the country. Those days are gone now. And I think you're just seeing this divide and it just gets worse and worse as the Trump presidency continues.

HILL: Well, we'll continue to follow it, won't we? Paul, Sam, appreciate it, thank you both.

Up next, Paul Ryan speaks out on the Parkland shooting and the prospects for passing gun control legislation in this Congress. Why the House speaker and other Republicans say the current conversation about guns needs a rethink.

Plus, Ivanka Trump's Olympic expedition causing some drama in the west wing. New details on Chief of Staff John Kelly's growing frustrations with the first daughter.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:16:18]

HILL: President Trump says he would confront a school shooter even if he was unarmed. This morning it appears he already blinked in his stare down with the NRA. Sources telling CNN, the president appears to be backing away from his initial call to raise the minimum age to buy a gun.

Gun reform, the likely elephant in the room, right now, as the president sits down with Senate Republicans. The topic, not formally on the agenda. Casting long shadows, though, on the White House and Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers are under growing pressure to act, nearly two weeks after the Florida school massacre reignited the national debate on gun reform. Even modest proposals have already been watered down.

Let's bring in CNN's Sunlen Serfaty with more joining us live on Capitol Hill -- Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Erica. Yes, certainly, a lot of roadblocks out there on Capitol Hill, and we are talking about roadblocks for the most narrow of the plans out there so far, which underscores essentially the political reality of this moment, now that the conversation is about what Capitol Hill can and will do going forward.

We just heard from the House Republican leadership including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and he essentially said that he's going to take a wait and see approach here, wait and see if the Senate can pass that Cornyn, Senator Murphy fix-nics background bill through. It's a stand-alone measure.

But a reminder, just that bill that does have some bipartisan support, that doesn't expand background checks. That just enforces the existing law. So, that's where the conversation is at this very narrow measure at the moment.

But Speaker of the House Paul Ryan today, choosing instead to really broaden it out and really talk about the culture at hand and how that discussion needs to take place. Here's what he said just moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI), HOUSE SPEAKER: There is bigger questions here than a narrow law. What about law enforcement? What about school resource officers? What about the FBI? What about background checks? Those are all things that we have to get lots of answers to. At end of the day or beginning of the day, we also have to ask ourselves about the kind of culture that's creating these kinds of people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: And we will hear from the Senate Republican leadership later today. Both parties over here in the Senate will be huddling with their caucuses and, of course, many lawmakers will be heading over to the White House tomorrow to talk about a lot of these measures.

Added to this mix, of course, we have the Parkland students from Stoneman Douglas up here on Capitol Hill, met with House Democratic leadership this morning, and they are lobbying lawmakers one on one. So, interesting to see what sort of impact if any that will have up here during this debate -- Erica.

HILL: Sunlen Serfaty with the latest for us, thank you.

Our next guest says background checks are the first line of defense in curbing gun violence. Congressman Leonard Lansing of New Jersey joins us now. We heard the speaker mention background checks and in terms of things that we need to know more about. You and 18 of your fellow House Republicans sent a letter to the speaker asking for a vote on stronger background checks. Has he responded to you?

REPRESENTATIVE LEONARD LANCE (R), NEW JERSEY: The speaker indicated this morning that he will wait to see what the Senate does. I hope, Erica, at the very least, the Senate passes fix-nics because I think that's an important first step. It is not the only step. And that has bipartisan support in the Senate, Senator Cornyn and Senator Murphy. If that can come back to the House, I hope that we will consider it and then we can put that on the president's desk.

HILL: So, that could be one part of the equation, which, of course, that endorses existing law. It doesn't really move the ball forward down the road. We've heard from Chuck Schumer who said, I'm quoting here, "It would be an abject failure and dereliction of duty if the only thing Congress does is fix-nics." Do you agree if that's all that happens, will Congress have failed the American people?

LANCE: I want to do more than fix-nics, but we haven't passed legislation in this regard in quite a few years. And I think that's a good start. But, Erica, I do want to do more and I hope that is possible.

[11:20:13] HILL: In terms of doing more, the president said yesterday that shouldn't be afraid of the NRA. He said sometimes you have to be willing to fight with the NRA. You have an A-rating from the NRA, but you are pushing not only for a discussion about stronger background checks as we know with Speaker Ryan, you are also talking about getting that federal research back, that could be directly tussling with the NRA. Are you willing to take on that fight?

LANCE: Yes. I view this issue by issue. I think we should bring all into the conversation including the NRA. I don't want to demonize anybody, but where I disagree with any group, I will support the views that I think are important for the American people, that includes bump stocks. I think they should be banned. It includes fix-nics. And it certainly includes making sure that the federal government can study this issue and as you know that has not happened for a very long time.

HILL: That research, even if it were to come back today, obviously we would not have those findings for some time. There has been talk about more immediate action, one of them being raising the age limit, which the president brought up and now the White House back tracking a bit on it. Is that something you support, raising the age limit?

LANCE: I would look at that. I point out that young people can serve in the military at age 18, but perhaps it would be appropriate to raise the age, but we have to make sure that we advocate legislation that can pass in both houses and, of course, in the Senate, Erica, there is the 60-vote rule. I don't favor that.

That is the way the Senate works. And so, I want to make sure that legislation can reach the president's desk. Fix-nics seems to be the first part of that. I agree with you that there should be more. But let's get the ball rolling to make sure that legislation can reach the president's desk.

HILL: In terms of getting the ball rolling, as I'm sure you've heard from your constituents and we have seen certainly in our polling here in the last week, the American public wants to see something done in the wake of Florida, 7 in 10 Americans want to see stricter gun laws.

That's a sharp jump after what we saw even just after Las Vegas. So, what is your message to the American people when we're hearing from the speaker of the House that there is no new legislation, that we have to start with simply endorsing -- or enforcing something that is basically already on the books. Is there something stricter that will likely come down the line or is this it again?

LANCE: No, I hope that we will pass legislation and there was a tremendous failure regarding fix-nics in the Texas massacre, a horrific event and if that information had been known about the court- martial, that officer, then I think that that horrific massacre could have been avoided.

And we want to make sure that as much information as possible can move forward to all levels of government and I certainly support other matters as well, research in this issue, background checks, and I hope that Congress can address all of these and let's make sure that we move forward as one nation, bringing everybody into the conversation.

HILL: As we just heard from our Sunlen Serfaty, some students from Parkland, they're in Washington today, they have been very vocal in the nearly two weeks since that massacre happened at their school. How are they changing the conversation both with the American public and within the halls of Congress? LANCE: I commend the young people for being with us and I met with young people in my own district in New Jersey last week in an auditorium filled with young people who were concerned about this issue and other issues. And I think it is important for those of us here on Capitol Hill, in positions of responsibility, to meet with young people, to address their concerns, because after all, Erica, they are the future of our country.

HILL: Congressman Leonard Lance, appreciate the time, sir. Thank you.

LANCE: Thank you.

HILL: Georgia Republicans taking aim at Delta, one of the largest employers in the state, over its decision to cut ties with the NRA. Lawmakers now threatening to kill a tax break that could end up costing the company millions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:28:33]

HILL: Republicans in one state now have a dire warning for companies choosing to break ties with the NRA. It is going to cost you. Georgia Lt. Governor Casey Cagle tweeting that he will kill any tax legislation benefiting Delta unless the company changes its position, fully reinstate its relationship with the powerful gun rights advocacy group.

But the Atlanta-based airline joining more than a dozen brands pulling their support from the NRA after the Parkland school shooting. Cagle and others now threatening to remove part of a jet fuel tax bill that could save delta tens of millions of dollars.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CASEY CAGLE (R), LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR OF GEORGIA: I'm tired of conservatives being kicked around on our values. It's time we stand up and fight and show corporations that conservative values are important.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Joining me now, former county executive for Westchester County in New York, Rob Astorino, and former Clinton White House aid and a board member of Sandy Hook Promise, Matt Bennett. Good to have both of you with us.

Rob, when this came out, Republicans, as we know, typically prefer less government involvement, especially when we are talking about businesses here. In Georgia, they're diving in head first.

ROB ASTORINO, FORMER COUNTY EXECUTIVE, WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NEW YORK: Well, they're reacting to what has been done by corporations and by public pensions and attorneys general and comptrollers who invest, all those kinds of activists have led to companies having to change because government or elected officials have told them to.

So, this is a case where if they want to use that power, they don't have to, they don't need to take -- Delta doesn't need to take that $40 million break if they don't want to, but there is so much precedent for it having to happen.

And you know, quite frankly, I find it disturbing in a way, we are blaming the NRA for everything, OK. Where there clearly is a --