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Obstacles in Gun Control Debate; Congress Weighs Gun Control; Companies End NRA Discounts; Hick Testifies Before House Committee. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 27, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:06] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Erica. And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

One of President Trump's most trusted aides testifying this hour on Capitol Hill. Hope Hicks was the bridge between the president and his son after word leaked of Donald Trump Jr.'s campaign season meeting with Russians.

Plus, stunning testimony today from a top U.S. intelligence official. Admiral Mike Rogers says, get this, the president has not given him the authority to counter Russian election meddling in cyberspace.

And clear, new signals that congressional action on any significant new gun controls is unlikely. Top Republicans in the House, including shooting survivor Steve Scalise, say the problem in Parkland, Florida, was incompetence, not inadequate laws.


REP. STEVE SCALISE (R), MAJORITY WHIP: I think what angered me the most is that there was a sheriff's deputy, trained and armed, at the school, assigned to protect the school, and he hid out instead of protecting those students and confronting the shooter. I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for law enforcement confronting the shooter in my case. And it's really disappointing that ultimately somebody didn't go into that school that was there and armed to protect those kids.


KING: Let's stay right there on that point. Up first this hour, the House Republican leadership making crystal clear this morning the prospects for any major new gun control legislation this year are slim and none. This even as student survivors of the Parkland, Florida, massacre continue up on Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and to make emotional pleas for action. The House speaker, Paul Ryan, applauded the activism of those young students, but he also said the problem in Parkland was accountability, not any major gap in gun laws.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: We do know that there are gaps in the background check system that need to be plugged. We passed a bill to do that. And we think that should get done, clearly.

Let me just say this on -- we shouldn't be banning guns for law- abiding citizens, we should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don't get those guns. And that is why we see a big breakdown in the system here. There was a colossal breakdown in the system locally.

QUESTION: But they're asking you --


KING: Let's get straight up to Capitol Hill and CNN's Phil Mattingly.

Phil, when you listen to the speaker, you list to Whip Scalise, pretty clear they're not in a mood to do much, if anything at all. Is there any clear path forward for anything significant?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, I'd also relay something that I was told by a Republican lawmaker just about an hour ago. He said, people have spent the last week talking about this as some kind of moment on gun control. They were wrong. Now, he didn't say that in a taunting manner, more of a reality manner. When you talk about the House Republican conference and you listen to where they are on the rank and file side and on the leadership side, when you talk to the majority of Senate Republicans, when it comes to gun control, more restrictive gun laws, they control both chambers of Congress, and in large part they are opposed to such measures.

Now, here's where that lawmaker was wrong. The intensity, as we've seen in our own polling, has certainly picked up. The support for gun restrictions has certainly picked up. And you mentioned the students who were on Capitol Hill with very specific requests. They have brought more attention to this than I think we've seen in a long time. But that is not having a direct reflection on Capitol Hill yet.

So what does that mean legislatively? There is a small bore (ph) background check proposal, not something that would expand background checks, but something that would incentivize the existing federal and state and local agencies to actually comply with the national instant background check system. That has the best chance of moving forward. That's what the speaker talked about this morning. That's what the Senate can move forward on. Even that has some problems in terms of procedurally how it would actually go forward. But as it currently stands, Republicans I'm talking to in both chambers, John, that is the one thing they point to.

I will say, and we've been saying this for a couple of weeks now, the wild card is the president. If he comes down, drags Mitch McConnell and Speaker Ryan to the White House and says, you have to put these things on the floor, maybe that changes the dynamic. But I haven't talked to anybody up here who has a clear sense what the president wants and if he'll ever get to the point where even he knows wants he wants Congress to do, John.

KING: A quick follow-up on that last point. When you talk to congressional aides, they're not saying, we're getting calls from the White House, they're going to send us a plan. They're on their own, right?

MATTINGLY: They know the White House cares about this. And I've talked to a number of aides who have been frankly surprised that the president has stuck with this issue as long as he has. There's supposed to be a meeting at the White House tomorrow with lawmakers. But in terms of specific policy proposals, they haven't seen anything yet. They're not sure they're ever going to see anything. Which means, everything is really, a, an open question, and, b, up to the leaders who have made very clear what they have in their legislative priorities in the weeks ahead, John.

KING: Phil Mattingly on The Hill.

Phil, appreciate the reporting.

With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, Sahil Kapur from "Bloomberg," John McCormack from "The Weekly Standard," and "Politico's" Eliana Johnson.

It is striking -- and I want to start the conversation, if you live in San Francisco, if you live in Los Angeles, if you live in New York City, maybe if you live in Parkland, Florida, you're thinking why? Why? You had all this clamoring since the Parkland shooting. We'll put up the national polls. Our new poll, stunning numbers, 70 percent of Americans now favor stricter gun laws. That's up significantly from just in October, 52 percent, after the Vegas massacre.

[12:05:06] However, I want to show another map. This is the map of U.S. House districts. And gun control, like immigration, is one of the red/blue issues in American politics. You look at all of those House districts, that explains what we heard from the speaker this morning, shooting survivor Steve Scalise this morning, what -- forget the national polls. If you're running for re-election in the House of Representatives, you care about those lines, and a lot of them are red.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's so telling. That kind of tells us everything. You're absolutely right.

And it's not so much about the NRA per say, it's about the voters. It's about the constituencies that are electing these Republicans, especially some conservative Democrats, although most of those are gone in the House, especially, and that is -- that's really key.

Look, I think at the end of the day, it is even an open question whether or not that -- what they're calling the fix NICS bill, the most modest bill that's floating around on Capitol Hill, can even get through, the one that Phil was just talking about. Deidre Walsh, our House producer, is reporting this morning that even that has problems because Democrats are pushing for something broader. Republicans, some of them are saying that there are due process issues with the idea of really, really subtle, minor changes to the reporting system that is supposed to allow for people who are selling guns to do a proper background check.

One other thing I just want to say is, listening to Steve Scalise talk about the fact that it's law enforcement that didn't do its job, he's right. There's no question there were major, major failings. But let's be clear, thank God he is alive because law enforcement did a good job. But it's because law enforcement was there because he is a member of the House leadership and happened to have detail with him, which he does at all times, which is the normal process. You are not going to have high school students walking around with security detail. You're just not. It's not realistic.

So I think that there's a big hole in the argument that he's making about law enforcement, never mind what happened in Florida, but vis-a- vis what happened to him.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG POLITICS": And to Dana's point, the fact that primary season is coming up is certainly something that's on the minds of these people, the Republican in the majority in Congress right now. They are much more afraid of a primary challenger from the right than they are of losing to a Democrat. Most of them at least. There's certainly some on the bubble who think otherwise. And any step they take that could be construed, even falsely, even unfairly, as rolling back Second Amendment rights is going to come back and haunt them.

And I think that's why Speaker Ryan was so emphatic today. The problem is not guns. He talked about the breakdowns in law enforcement, which is certainly true on the federal level and the local level. He talked about the culture that leads to mass shooters' mental health, school safety, anything but the issue of guns itself.

The issue -- the bill fix NICS, that Phil was mentioning, that seems to have a pathway to getting through the Senate. It needs 60 votes. They're probably not going to get unanimous consent because Senator Mike Lee of Utah has raised some due process concerns with it. If it gets though the Senate, then Ryan has a very difficult decision to make because he, according to people I've spoken to, has promised a number of his members that he's going to kept that coupled with concealed carry reciprocity --

KING: Right.

KAPUR: A bill to loosen gun laws that has basically no chance of getting 60 votes in the Senate. I spoke to Joe Barton, the congressman from Texas, a couple of hours ago, who said that proposal to fix NICS arrives in the House as a standalone is dead on arrival, his words, because leadership has promised it's going to keep them together. Even a bill that has the support of Chris Murphy, a gun control advocate, John Cornyn, a gun rights advocate, and the NRA has a tough time getting through.

KING: Well, so -- which brings us back to the point Phil made, and has been made at this table throughout the last 10, 12 days is, the president is the key here. Just like on immigration and the dreamers, just like on repeal and replace Obamacare, if you don't have a consistent president putting pressure on his own party and reaching out to the other side, reaching out to the other side, it's not going to happen. The president, yesterday -- last week, I'm sorry, put on the table raising the minimum age to buy firearm to 21, bonuses to arm teachers in schools, some new mental health institutions or some mental health fix, strengthening background checks, banning bump stocks. If you listened to the president, though, in more recent days, he stopped mentioning raising the age limit. He's just backed off that one.

Now, pushback from governors. Some governors on the federalism argument that states -- each state should decide whether to get into the business of arming and training teachers. And then not a lot of specifics when it comes to some of the other stuff. Bump stocks is supported by both parties. The attorney general says maybe we'll do that administratively. Bump stocks, maybe a little tinkering of background checks, that's it.

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": You know, this, to me, John, has so many parallels to the immigration debate where there is some agreement between the two parties on what they want to do. There is agreement between Republicans and Democrats that they want to come up with a DACA fix. But Democrats were pushing for more. Republicans didn't want to do it.

Now, on gun control, agreement between the two parties, that they want to do more on background checks, but Republicans -- or but Democrats pushing for more. Republicans don't want to give it.

What's lacking in both cases is the president landing on a specific action and pushing his own party to move on it. And so on gun control we've sort of seen the president go all over the place. And what we've heard the most -- what we've heard him hammer on most specifically is arming teachers, which is something that really isn't going to go anywhere on the federal level, rather than pushing the fix NICS bill, which is something I do think he could get his party to adopt were he a persistent and consistent messenger on it.

[12:10:23] KING: If he sticks the landing.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

JOHN MCCORMACK, SENIOR WRITER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I mean you could see fix NICS happen. I think you will. You probably won't have more action on background checks. But the problem with background checks is that this shooter, he passed a background check. He needed to be in the system in the first place, and that gets back to the failure of law enforcement, not only to respond, but, I mean, there were reports that he had ingested gasoline, cutting himself. If you're involuntarily committed under existing law, you're never supposed to be able to buy a gun. He was not put in the system. He was not prosecuted for domestic violence.

Now, they're investigating the shooter as we couldn't act on it or they don't know. Maybe that's true and that underscores the need to perhaps bring up this idea of gun violence restraining orders, that if a family member, a roommate, someone who lives -- knows a person well can say, hey, this person is a threat to himself because sometimes these treats don't rise to the level of, you know, someone being adjudicated as mentally (INAUDIBLE) or being involuntarily committed, committing a crime. And that's an interesting idea and I think effective one put forward so far.

KING: And I guess my question -- I wish in this world, a, the speaker and Whip Scalise have a point. There were, to your point, dozens and dozens of missed signals. The deputy did not go inside. And we can litigate that in the months ahead of whether the deputy should have gone inside. That gives him a powerful argument. I wish we had an open system they just would vote on things. Take risky votes. Take controversial votes on any gun control proposal. Let people bring it to the floor. They're not going to do that.

Will this turn out to be where Washington watches maybe what happens in the state of Florida, which is a key swing state, where the government is going to run for Senate. He's a Republican. He's been an NRA ally. And he's going to at least try to push some things?

BASH: Not just Florida. I think a lot of states. You know, the president had the governors -- the nation's governors at the White House yesterday. And my understanding is that even from the reddest of red states, from the most conservative Republican governors, there was a lot of talk about having to deal with issues -- maybe not an assault weapons ban -- but issues such as universal background checks, meaning background checks for person to person sales or Internet sales and things that Congress would never touch in a million years.

Now, then you have the question for gun control advocates saying, well, wait a minute, but if that happens in Utah, then what's to say that that person can't take the gun to another state? Maybe, but the states are the place to look at right now.

KING: We'll watch. In an election year I'm skeptical we'll get a lot in the states as well. But we'll see how it plays out.

Up next, the president and some members of the GOP go to bat for the NRA, and in one case threatening corporations that cut ties with the group.


[12:16:47] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. SCOTT TAYLOR (R), VIRGINIA: The NRA is like the bogeyman right now. And the NRA -- they're -- I mean I'm not sticking up for them. I'm just saying, they're -- they're -- they're people, you know, that make up the NRA that care deeply about their Second Amendment rights.


KING: That's Republican Congressman Scott Taylor there adding his voice to what has become a remarkable subplot of the Parkland Florida school shooting. A branding crisis for the National Rifle Association.

Take a look here at the list of big companies rushing to end discount and other affiliations with the NRA. From car rental companies, insurance companies, banks and the like. You look at that long list there. But now some pushback. Georgia's Republican lieutenant governor is

threatening to wipe out a lucrative state tax break for the Atlanta- based Delta Airlines. Quote, I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @delta unless the company changes and fully reinstates its relationship with the NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.

This is a remarkable development. And to the last part there, that Georgia's lieutenant governor's stripping away any pretense, the NRA is technically a non-partisan operation. But it has, in recent years, affectively become a wing of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. The NRA will not -- he'll appreciate the sentiment from the lieutenant governor. Not that last part.

MCCORMACK: Yes, I think, you know, I think that the -- gun control advocates do have a bit of a problem here where they say they're not against individual gun owners or just against the NRA as an institution, but they're -- in effect they're making someone pay a little bit more for a car rental. I think this sort of -- this does get in the realm of where people feel like they're being bullied or demonized when they need to be persuaded. And not only Republicans here.

I mean when Democrats controlled the Senate, there were ten more Democrats than that were Republicans back in 2013 and the assault weapons ban failed by 20 votes. So, you know, you have to -- you have to see some -- if you want something like the assault weapons ban, you're going to have to see movement among 10 Democrats or so in the Senate and then get some Republicans. I mean you've had movement among people, Florida Republicans like -- a little bit for Marco Rubio, a little bit for Brian Mast, the south Florida congressman, but you need to persuade, you don't need to necessarily bully and demonize.

KING: But that these companies rush so quickly to do this. What does that tell -- is that the age of social media when things move fast? Is it math for them that, yes, there are a lot of NRA members or even gun rights advocates who might not be members of the NRA, who are just believers in the Second Amendment who might take offense at this, but they look at the population of Los Angeles and New York and big cities and think there are more of them than there are them. Is that all this is?

KAPUR: It's all of the above, I think. I mean obviously there's a lot of pressure in this moment for them to do that and the heat is on them, but it could also be a standard corporate decision to stay away from controversy. It's not like they're actively going out of their way to charge NRA members more compared to what other people would be charged. They're just saying, we don't want a relationship with them.

You know, I don't think that's necessarily beyond the pale. I think it's certainly interesting that the lieutenant governor made this move while he is apparently running for governor in a crowded primary. It shows the potency of --

BASH: That's not an accident.

KAPUR: Not an accident. It shows the potency of the Republican --

KING: You mean there's gambling in a casino and there's politics in politics?

KAPUR: And that just -- it shows the power of, you know, of this issue. I think that remains on the right, even in the moment where there's so much pressure coming from the other end to -- John's point (INAUDIBLE), I will say that politics are changing on the left. There are progressives who are beginning to say (ph) strategists and activists who are beginning to say what they really think. They want fewer guns on the streets of the United States, and they realize that measures like background checks and banning high-capacity ammunition, while near-term goals are not really going to solve the problem for them.

KING: But that puts -- that would put a number of their red states, especially people that have to run statewide, in trouble, like your John Testers, like your Heidi Heitkamps.

[12:20:02] Listen to the president at the White House yesterday. Again, if you're just beamed down from Venus and you listened to President Trump yesterday, you would think, this is smart political positioning, stay with your base but open up a little wiggle room.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no bigger fan of the Second Amendment than me and there's no bigger fan of the NRA. Don't worry about the NRA, they're on our side. You guys, half of you are so afraid of the NRA. There's nothing to be afraid of. And, you know what, if they're not with you, we have to fight them every once in a while. That's OK. They're doing what they think is right.

I will tell you, they are doing what they think is right. But sometimes we're going to have to be very tough and we're going to have to fight them.


KING: Is there any evidence, though, that he's going to fight them? The one thing he did put on the table, the NRA vehemently opposes, was raising the purchasing age to 21 from 18 for a firearm, or at least for a long rifle. The president has backed off that. So, it -- smart rhetoric -- smart rhetoric from the president, good political positioning, but is there any evidence he actually means it?

BASH: You know, so far, not yet. But the fact that you have a Republican president, someone who did benefit to the tune of 30 million -- north of $30 million from the NRA, someone who around his 100-day mark promised the NRA at their convention that he was going to do everything he could to help them with the federal government and make sure the federal government doesn't sort of close in on gun owners. The fact that he said it is important and noteworthy. Whether or not he will take that and push members of Congress to do something, it doesn't -- based on what we heard this morning from the House speaker, from the majority whip, who was shot and almost died from a rifle, the answer right now is no.

KAPUR: The one thing that the president has put on the table is -- was swiftly rejected this morning by many House Republicans I spoke to. Mark Meadows doesn't think that has any legs. Tom Cole, not sure we need a national fix on that. Joe Barton, unlikely, I don't think it's got enough support. Dave Schweikert called it theater. The one thing the president put on the table, immediately rejected by his House -- Republican House (ph).

KING: And that's a valid point anyway, but especially, again, in an election year, more and more Republicans are saying, easy, Mr. President.

We'll leave this one (INAUDIBLE).

A quick break.

When we come back, Hope Hicks, she's one of the president's most trusted advisers. And today the House Intelligence Committee is asking what she knows about White House efforts to push back on charges of Russian collusion. The big question is, will she answer?


[12:26:33] KING: Welcome back.

The trusted aide widely viewed as the gatekeeper to President Trump is on Capitol Hill this morning and into the afternoon, testifying for the House Intelligence Committee. Hope Hicks is a rarity in the Trump White House, owning a constant place in the inner circle dating back well before his campaign and White House days. Her status means she knows a lot, including what happened on Air Force One after word of Donald Trump Jr.'s campaign year meeting at Trump Tower with Russian lawyers promising dirt on Hillary Clinton leaked to "The New York Times."

Just hours before her sit-down today, the president, apparently catching up with his DVR, broke a two-day Twitter hiatus to quote Clinton era Special Counsel Ken Starr from a Sunday "Fox and Friends" appearance. Quote, we've seen no evidence of collusion, the president saying. Then he added his own take a few minutes later, quote, witch hunt.

How important is Hope Hicks? It's the House Intelligence Committee. I think she's more important to the special counsel than she is to the House Intelligence Committee. But one of the big questions is that summer 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, and the, if you're trying to allege obstruction or interfering with the investigation of any kind, what was she doing with Donald Trump Jr. on the phone, the president on Air Force One, on the way back from a trip overseas, as they try to spin it. And we all know the initial statement put out by Donald Trump Jr. was not accurate.

BASH: And that's something that she's, according to our team up there, is not answering. She's not answering questions from the time when she was in the White House because they claim executive privilege. Unclear if she's answering questions about the --

KING: And the committee is not making them actually assert that.

BASH: Can't make them.

KING: The Republican leadership of the committee is not actually making them assert it.

BASH: Exactly.

KING: They're just saying they accept the idea.

BASH: Precisely.

KING: Right.

BASH: If they had to make them assert it, then they would have to potentially go a step further, which is really to challenge it.

Having said that, we know from covering past White Houses, it's not unusual for the executive branch to hold close conversations that the president has with unconfirmed aides. So that's typical. Which is why, for someone like Hope Hicks, the focus is and should be on Robert Mueller, where she did go and talk for hours and hours and hours about everything.

JOHNSON: Yes, I think it's somewhat confusing and potentially problematic to have these two investigations, the House Intelligence Committee investigation and the Mueller investigation, running parallel. That being said, there's nobody more critical in Trump world, probably, than Hope Hicks, whose office is located right outside the Oval Office and who really is a trusted confidante, not only of President Trump, but of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. And we know Jared Kushner has become a focal point in Bob Mueller's investigation.

But I think the investigation we really need to be watching, and where Hope Hicks is really going to be forced to open up, even as she can cite executive privilege to the House Intelligence Committee, is Bob Mueller's investigation.

KING: Right. And so we'll continue to track that and see what happens at the committee hearing.

And I'll just offer this up as a thought. No matter what you think about the Russia investigation, no matter -- whether you're on Trump's side and you think no collusion, it's a waste of time and a waste of money, it's pretty widely agreed to that Russia meddled in 2016 and is trying to meddle in 2018.

So listen to this. It's a Democrat asking the question. So maybe you just flush it away with that. But the head of the National Security Agency, Admiral Mike Rogers, asked today, well, they meddled in 2016, they're clearly meddling in 2018, so the president has given you the authority to do everything you can to fight back, right? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A mission teams, particularly at the origin of these attacks, have the authority to do so.

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, NSA DIRECTOR: If granted the authority. And I don't have the day-to-day authority to do that. If granted the authority.

[12:30:01] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you would need basically to be directed by the president through the secretary of defense (INAUDIBLE) --

ROGERS: Yes, sir. As I -- in fact, I mentioned that in my statement.