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Mueller Probes Trump/Russia Dealings Before Campaign; Jared Kushner Stripped of Top-Secret Clearance; Students Return to Douglas High School; Dick's Sporting Goods Makes a Stand; 11 Ill After Suspicious Letter Arrives at Military Base. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 11:30   ET

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


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[11:33:29] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump's former campaign chairman back in court this morning. Paul Manafort pleading not guilty to a rewritten set of charges, including money laundering, conspiracy, and lying about his foreign lobbying work. Manafort's trial is set to begin on September 17th.

Meantime, the Russia investigation now delving into a period before the 2016 presidential campaign. CNN has learned Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team are looking at how Russia might have tried to influence Donald Trump when he was weighing a presidential run.

CNN's Kara Scannell is following that part of the story for us.

What is the special counsel looking at here?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Erica, we've learned that the special counsel has been asking questions about the timing of President Trump -- timing of Trump's decision to run for president and whether anyone heard anything that the Russians may have been that may have been compromising on the president. Other questions were asked about the financing of the Miss Universe Pageant in 2013 in Moscow. And questions were also asked about two failed attempts to have a branded Trump Tower in Moscow. One person told us they were asked whether any Russians were seen at the Trump Tower offices in New York in 2015, the year that Trump began his presidential bid.

HILL: There's also the issue here of what the president said in July telling the "New York Times," probing into his finances or his family's would cross a red line. Is that reviving the idea that perhaps the president might fire Robert Mueller?

[11:34:56] SCANNELL: We haven't seen tweets or reaction from the White House this morning to suggest that is something that is being considered.

We -- former independent counsel, Ken Starr, told CNN earlier today he thought it went beyond the mandate. The special counsel is authorized to look at anyone that may have arisen from the investigation. One of the sources we spoke to for this piece told us there were allegations that these things were out there and that the special counsel may have been checking the boxes to make sure to rundown all of these leads. HILL: Kara, appreciate it. Thank you.

I want to dive deeper with our panel. Seth Waxman is a former criminal defense attorney, former federal prosecutor, CNN political reporter, Rebecca Berg, and CNN political director, David Chalian, also with us.

As we look at this, as Kara just mentioned about what Ken Starr had to say, take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEN STARR, FORMER SPECIAL COUNSEL: I think it's beyond his mandate. The mandate is what happened during the 2016 election in terms of collusion. That's the key idea.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Seth, do you agree with that? Is it, in fact, beyond the mandate?

SETH WAXMAN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: With all due respect, I have to disagree with Mr. Starr on this one. I agree they are looking at the conspiracy between the Russians and Trump campaign to influence that 2016 election. But as a former federal prosecutor, having investigated many complex criminal conspiracies, they do not start and drop out of the sky. There's a relationship between these parties that started years ago.

And as part of that investigation, the prosecutor will want to know what happened, how did they get to know each other, what kind of business transactions were taking place over the months and years leading up to the 2016 election. So to understand the nature of those relationships, especially if there was untoward conduct in the years leading up, I think that entirely arises out of, in legal parlance, we would call it as direct evidence of the conspiracy. It's not inadmissible. It's entirely relevant and I think it fits entirely within Mr. Mueller's scope of his investigation.

HILL: So you see it fitting within the scope.

David, as we look at this, referencing once again what the president said back in July to the "New York Times" about the red line in terms of going back and looking into finances, how much could this be pushing the president perhaps towards looking at Robert Mueller once again a bit more closely?

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Sorry.

I think you have to realize here, Erica, that in this process, the president doesn't actually get to draw red lines. Yes, we should be on lookout for his response to this, and if he lashes out in some way in response to this reporting, but I don't think Bob Mueller is all that concerned with political red lines, if you will, that President Trump is drawing to try to circumscribe this investigation to a place he feels comfortable.

HILL: In terms of lashing out, we did see the president lash out on Twitter against his own attorney general, calling him disgraceful in all caps. In some ways, too, contradicting his own press secretary, who we heard from.

Rebecca, is there a sense of how much more Jeff Sessions is willing to take here?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, we've already seen Jeff Sessions to date take a great deal of abuse from the president, Erica. This is not, by any means, a new phenomenon we're seeing. But Jeff Sessions has shown he's not willing to step down from this job. He offered his resignation or suggested to the president earlier in the term that he would offer his resignation if it would please the president, but President Trump didn't show much of an appetite for actually firing Jeff Sessions. So given that, Jeff Sessions is just in a position where he's having to take this abuse from the president and do his job day to day. We've seen to date that Jeff Sessions is willing to put up with that from the president and do what he thinks is right.

The funny thing is in this situation, that Jeff Sessions is doing fundamentally what the president wants. He's just not going about it in the way the president would prefer.

HILL: Which we saw, definitely in the tweet.

When we look at -- there's so much going on here today, I'm jumping around a little bit, but we have so much to cover on a day when, any other day, we would be looking at Paul Manafort pleading not guilty. And in the scope of things today, we have to move on to things, like Jared Kushner, the downgrade in the status, the ripple effect we're seeing there.

David, when we look at this, is this a win for John Kelly or could it be a nail in his coffin?

CHALIAN: Well, it certainly a loss for Jared Kushner. There's no doubt that this was a rough day, and a day of rough headlines for Jared Kushner. Having the security clearance downgraded will certainly prevent him from doing some of the activities that he had been doing, assuming that the president himself doesn't just wave that and grant his own authority, which he has certainly the ability to do. As you heard the president himself, he was going to leave this in John Kelly's hands.

You know that John Kelly has been on a mission to bring order and discipline inside this West Wing in a way he sees fit and how a White House should run. And there's clearly some tension between Kelly and Kushner over this. While publicly their statements suggest there's not, there clearly is some tension. I would add Ivanka Trump to that mix as well, because John Kelly is trying to run a shop where the relatives of the president don't have some avenue of advice that go around him. And this is now part of that. [11:40:23] HILL: There's also, as part of the development involving

Jared Kushner, there's also a "Washington Post" reporter that officials in four countries are discussing ways that they could seemingly exploit Jared Kushner in some ways.

When we look at this, Seth, what really matters is whether they are successful. In some ways, this is what you would expect, looking to find their own way in. Is there more here than the headline headlines?

WAXMAN: There could be to the extent Jared Kushner has been compromised in some way, shape or form. That's exactly why Sally Yates, the then-acting attorney general, went to the transition team from Trump and told them that Michael Flynn was potentially compromised. And a person that has that kind of access to the president of the United States, of course, his son-in-law being in that kind of position, can be completely troubling.

It begs the question, of course, did something more happen that rises up into the president himself, and does that cause the president to be compromised. That is what Bob Mueller, part of the investigation is looking at, was there a quid pro quo, did the Russians have the goods on the president, and does that somehow compromise him. That's part of what Bob Mueller is looking at.

HILL: We also saw, yesterday, Hope Hicks spent nearly nine hours before the House Intelligence Committee, not talking about anything during her time at the White House. Although we do know that she admitted to sometimes telling white lies to president prior to that time.

Rebecca, is there concern at this point within the White House and even circles in Washington as to what the white lies could constitute or is this is this more case of a headline.

BERG: It's certainty a headline and interesting. We're going to need to get more detail. What was Hope Hicks lying about to the president? What was her motivation for this? Was itself preservation? Was it an attempt to not anger the president unnecessarily? Or was this something more fundamental and more serious? Ideally, this is something that these committees in Congress and potentially Mueller would be looking at, would be probing the questions they would be asking.

But one of the obstacles for the congressional committees in particular, as we saw with Hope Hicks' testimony yesterday, in some cases, these White House officials or former White House officials, in the case of Steve Bannon, for example, are not being forthcoming with what -- with questions pertaining to their time in the White House without invoking executive privilege explicitly.

HILL: Rebecca Berg, David Chalian, Seth Waxman, appreciate it. Thank you.

WAXMAN: Thanks. HILL: Up next, students at Parkland high back in class today two weeks after 17 of the classmates and teachers were killed. As they make emotional return, a major sporting goods company takes a stand.

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[11:47:35] HILL: Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, just wrapping up their first day back, a shortened first day that would take them through the classes they did not have on the day of that shooting. You see them now. These are live pictures of the dismissal.

You won't see any overhead shots right now because the school had asked all news organizations to please keep helicopters out of the way, noting how disturbing that sound can be for some of the students and the staff as they are returning and their families. We are obviously honoring that request. You see them making their way out of school off campus.

Dianne Gallagher is in Parkland, live, as the students wrap up day one.

And what have you been hearing from them and families? Because I know a lot of parents were there to help bring the kids back today.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They were. Some of the parents of the students who passed away came this morning. They wanted to be there with the students and some of their other children who had to come back to the school.

I want you to hear though from a student who went to school today. Demitri Hoth and I rode the bus together to Tallahassee.

And you were a little anxious about starting back at school today. How did it go?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEMITRI HOTH, MARJOY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: It went well. It was really cathartic in my opinion and it was emotional because of the victims I had two classes with, so it was -- you know, as well as I guess it would be.

GALLAGHER: The principal said it's going to be compassion not curriculum. We got texts from you and your classmates as people were doing board games and doing things to help heal. How did you occupy the time today?

HOTH: We just kind of talked and talked about very futile things because our minds are there to talk about math and statistics and science and stuff. We were just trying to ease back in with the curriculum and a lot of our teachers asked us, how do you want us to proceed? Do you want to start going back into the curriculum or do you want your time or how do you want us to do it? I liked it in that respect.

GALLAGHER: How do you want them to proceed?

HOTH: We're still not sure yet. A lot of students have said let's start getting back into it and others said let's ease in it and others say they're not ready yet. It's mixed and I think that it's going to take some time, but I think the rest of the remainder of this week will be really good for all of us to have a little bit of that time with our friends and everything.

GALLAGHER: Thank you so much, Demitri.

HOTH: Thank you.

GALLAGHER: I appreciate you coming and talking to us. And thanks for that.

HOTH: Thanks.

GALLAGHER: Obviously, Erica, you can see these students are going through a lot, but they have been strong for the past two weeks, and a lot of them showing that strength again today.

[11:50:13] HILL: They absolutely are, and setting quite an example for the rest of us.

Dianne Gallagher, thank you.

As the students do make their emotional return, one retail chain says it is now taking a stand. Dick's Sporting Goods announcing it will step selling assault-style weapons, stop selling high-capacity magazines, and is raising the minimum age for all gun sales to 21. The Parkland shooter bought a gun at Dick's. It was not the A.R.-15 style used in the shooting. But the Dick's CEO says this is the time and the right move.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED STACK, CEO, DICK'S SPORTING GOODS: If these kids are brave enough to organize and do what they're doing, we should be brave enough to take this stand. That's what we've done.

We actually sold the shooter a shotgun in November of last year. Now, we looked at that and found out that we did this, we had a pit in our stomach and say, we need to -- we don't want to be a part of this story. We need to have a responsibility to these kids. We decided we are not going to sell these any longer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: CNN Correspondent Alison Kosik is live outside a Dick's Sporting Goods store in New Jersey.

This is a big move by the company. How is it being met?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Dick's Sporting Goods really taking a direct stand, the strongest move by any corporation so far. Really a prime example of corporate America stepping up to try to make change happen in the gun violence debate way before Congress has a chance to act, if Congress will do anything.

In its statement, Dick's saying, "We heard you, the nation has heard you, and now it's time to do something about it."

Dick's CEO saying, look, we're going to stop selling all assault rifles at our stores immediately and will no longer sell those high- capacity magazines that make it easier for a shooter to fire off those weapons without having to reload. Dick's saying also it won't sell any gun to anyone under the age of 21.

Now, interestingly enough, as you heard in that little sound bite that you played, after the shooting, the folks at Dick's went through their purchasing records and found out that Nikolas Cruz, the shooter in Parkland, had actually purchased a shotgun legally at a Dick's store. But it wasn't the gun that was used in the shooting at the high school massacre, and it wasn't even the type of weapon that was used in the shooting. But the CEO, Ed Stack, making a point to say, we are doing this for the kids, and we are doing this because we hear your voices and because we're not seeing any action on gun violence thus far, so we're going to take action into our own hands -- Erica?

HILL: Alison Kosik, live in New Jersey, thank you.

Up next, a suspicious letter opened at a military base, eleven people fall ill. The new details in this bizarre incident, next.

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[11:57:05] HILL: Eleven people falling ill after a suspicious letter was opened at a military base in Arlington, Virginia. Officials say the letter tested negative for harmful substances. It's still been sent, though, to the FBI's lab in Quantico for further analysis.

CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, joins us now. She's on the story.

What more do we know about this, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're still waiting for that final word from federal law enforcement, Erica, as to what, if anything, may have been inside this envelope.

You're right, 11 people experiencing symptom when is it was opened apparently in a Marine Corps office here at this base in the Washington, D.C., area. Three taken to the hospital. They were actually released late last night. People experiencing and reporting symptoms such as burning. One person reporting a bloody nose. So a very, very quick response last night by local and federal law enforcement and emergency response personnel to this base, decontaminating everything, getting people to medical care.

So now the initial tests, by all accounts, is showing it was not a hazardous substance. But certainly, symptoms were reported, so they are conducting additional testing today, trying to figure out exactly what, if anything, was in it. And the letter, which appeared to have some rambling language in it, who may have sent it and what their motivation was -- Erica?

HILL: All right. We'll continue to look for those.

Barbara, thank you.

STARR: Sure.

HILL: And before we let you go this hour, another look at the events at the capitol. Live pictures for you here now. The late Reverend Billy Graham lying in honor at the U.S. capitol, just the fourth private citizen to be given that honor. The public will have an opportunity to pay their respects beginning in just about an hour. Just moments ago, the president laying a wreath.

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HILL: The president and the first lady paying their respects there.

Once again, live pictures for you now of the casket lying there in the capitol. Again, the public will have the opportunity to pay their respects in just about an hour. You see the family gathered there.

Thank you for joining us.

"INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts now.