Full Episode: Where does the gun debate go from here?

Feb. 23, 2018 AT 8:38 p.m. EST

After the recent school shooting in Florida , students, parents and survivors unite to demand lawmakers take action. Is this a national pivot point? The country’s ongoing debate over guns continues. Plus, a former Trump campaign aide pleads guilty in the Russia probe.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Where does the gun debate go from here? President Trump is open to changes, but the NRA balks at restrictions and lashes out at the media and Democrats. I’m Robert Costa. The president’s next steps on mass shootings and new developments in the Russia probe, tonight on Washington Week .

BROWARD COUNTY, FLORIDA SHERIFF SCOTT ISRAEL: (From video.) There are no words. I mean, these families lost their children. We lost coaches.

MR. COSTA: President Trump says schools should do more to protect students and throws his support behind the NRA’s longstanding proposal to arm teachers.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s time to make our schools a much harder target for attackers.

MR. COSTA: The NRA accuses gun control advocates, especially Democrats, of exploiting the Florida tragedy for political gain.

NRA EVP AND CEO WAYNE LAPIERRE: (From video.) The elites don’t care, not one whit, about America’s school system. Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment so they can eradicate all individual freedom.

MR. COSTA: And students, parents, and survivors of last week’s rampage unite to demand lawmakers take action.

FRED GUTTENBERG (father of shooting victim): (From video.) My daughter, running down the hallway at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was shot in the back with an assault weapon. A weapon of war.

RYAN DEITSCH (Marjory Stoneman Douglas student): (From video.) Why do we have to march on Washington just to save innocent lives?

MR. COSTA: The uniquely American problem of school shootings, and how the national dialogue about gun violence could be shifting. Plus, Special Counsel Robert Mueller files new charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and secures two new guilty pleas in the widening probe into Russian election meddling.

We discuss it all with Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times , Michael Scherer of The Washington Post , Alexis Simendinger of The Hill , and Jim VandeHei of Axios.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week . Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. The debate over guns has been charged – emotionally, socially, and politically. The players are both old and new: the National Rifle Association and gun-control activists, lawmakers and law enforcement. This time, students and survivors in particular have been at the fore. During a White House meeting with family and friends of victims and students, President Trump announced this week that he supports raising the legal age to purchase certain guns and stricter background checks.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) For many years where people sitting in my position did not take action – they didn’t take proper action, they took no action at all – we’re going to take action.

MR. COSTA: The president also endorsed the NRA’s position that there should be more guns in schools. Julie wrote today on the front page of The New York Times about the president calling for training and arming of teachers, and paying them a bonus for carrying a weapon. My question is, how much of this is talk and how much of it could actually lead to action on Capitol Hill?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, it’s really going to be up to the president whether he’s willing to really lead on the issue, whether he can get it past the point of what he called today all talk and no actual substantive moving ahead. He has introduced this idea, which he seems very enamored of, of arming certain teachers who are trained to use firearms to protect their students, essentially to turn schools into, instead of gun-free zones, basically fortresses protected by educators who are trained to do that. It’s a very controversial idea, not just with Democrats but with a lot of Republicans who support gun rights and want to see safer schools but think that this is a problematic issue.

So one of the big questions I think is going to be will the president insist that concealed carry permits for teachers be a part of any broader solution, because there is broad support for expanding background checks. I think there is broad support, probably getting broader, for raising the age for purchasing a semiautomatic weapon. But if he’s going to try to pair that with expanding concealed carry throughout the nation, I think that’s going to be very controversial.

MR. COSTA: You were down in Florida, Michael, in Tallahassee. The arming of teachers, that’s maybe more of a local issue, a state issue?

MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, in Florida they actually introduced a bill today – the House and the Senate Republican leaders – that would allow sheriffs to actually deputize teachers after they get sufficient training to have a gun on campus. There are other states like Texas and South Dakota that already are doing this. There are places where teachers have guns in schools. You know, the real story in Florida though is that there’s just been a sea change in how Republicans are dealing with this issue. This is a state that sort of has led the country in gun rights legislation for decades. After the Pulse nightclub shooting, after the Fort Lauderdale Airport shooting, nothing happened there.

And what we’ve seen in the last two weeks is basically the entire Republican leadership – the House and Senate, it’s a Republican state, and the governor – now coming out and saying they want to do things that the NRA is actively opposing. It’s not what the students want. They want a ban on assault weapons to be put in back in place. But it is a huge shift in the conversation. And I think it shows what could happen on the federal level. Florida’s going to move quicker than the federal debate because they only have three weeks left in their legislative session, but it – but it does sort of chart away.

MR. COSTA: So there’s a shift in Florida. And you wonder, Jim, is there a shift nationally? Is this a national pivot point? There was big gun bills in 1968, the Gun Control Act, after all the assassinations that year, in the early ’90s with assault weapons. Didn’t happen after Sandy Hook. Is it happening now? Student protests, action even in Florida where you have a governor with an A-plus NRA rating?

JIM VANDEHEI: It could be different. It could. But it most likely isn’t that different legislatively. Listen, if you go back to the 1994 elections, every year since then the NRA has won every debate that’s come before Congress, and often won it decisively. What’s different is you do have a president who does have a superpower. He has been able to take a Republican Party that seemed to believe one thing and get it to believe something else. You’ve seen it happen with the view of the FBI. You’ve seen it with how they think about deficits. You have a trillion-dollar deficit now to pay for a tax bill. So could he? He certainly has the credibility to do a very aggressive gun control bill. And in private, he talks about: I want to help the kids. I want to help the kids.

But always look at what the president talks about in public, because he often mimics what he muses in private. And if you look at the totality of his words, almost all of them have been allocated to arming teachers. He’s talked about the other topics, but the one that’s front and center is that. So even if he does the other things – raise the age limit to 21, have tougher background checks – maybe he would do those. But let’s be honest, even if you did all of those, that is a drop in the bucket in terms of what it would take to keep somebody who decides that they want to massacre people from getting a weapon that could easily massacre. So we’re still a long ways from getting to where you would need to get to really have a meaningful effect.

MR. COSTA: On Capitol Hill how close are we to any kind of action? Because when you look at the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, they seem uneasy about any kind of background check bill. There is action in the Senate with Senator John Cornyn of Texas trying to bolster the background check system. Same with Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Spoke to him this week. He said he’s going to try to revive the bill he did with Senator Manchin of West Virginia. But this – we’re just a few months ahead of the midterm elections. Republicans know they have to get their base voters out this year.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that you hear a lot – and I think we’ll know a lot more when Congress gets back to town. Remember, they have been out of town during this – is that the political leverage may be more about where they feel they’ll be injured, more than where they think that they’re going to be helped. And President Trump, however eager he is to be the action man on this issue, is not going to be on the ballot. In the House, as you point out, many of the conservatives feel that the pain that they would suffer for going against the National Rifle Association on anything would be greater than the idea of the pressuring for action.

But we’ve seen the migration that Jim was just talking about, the migration in discussion, even in the White House. Remember, president – this isn’t the first time that the president has been dealing with this crisis. His first reaction, though, earlier in his presidency, was to say it’s too early to talk about that. Now the pace of this, the pressure is much more intense. And that’s the change that we’ve seen in the last six years after Sandy Hook, is that there are many more mobilized and well-funded organizations that are moving fast. That was the criticism of what happened six years ago, they weren’t fast enough.

MR. SCHERER: Until this shooting happened, Republicans were really excited, especially in a number of these Senate elections where you have Democrats in red states up for reelection, to get a concealed carry reciprocity bill later this summer that would allow – basically say that any state that has a concealed carry law, other states would have to honor it. And so it would be sort of an imposition. They thought it would be a winning issue going into the fall for the NRA and for Republicans. The question, I think, here is whether this anger and this frustration and concern stays on voters’ minds in a news cycle that spins incredibly fast a month from now, two months from now, six months from now, and whether the gun issue could actually swing the other way and help Democrats now.

MR. VANDEHEI: For your viewers that want it to be a hinge moment, there’s a simple recipe for that. If young people who are now being vocal and being quite eloquent on it vote or get their parents to vote. Or if some of these indicators where you see a surge in Democratic voting in some of these off-year elections carries into the midterm elections and Republicans lose a lot of seats and it’s attributed to this, that’s how you have a dramatic break. That’s what happened in 1994. The politics of guns were different until people felt like, no, you pay a fatal electoral consequence for being on this side of the issue. That’s the only way you flip it. Members of Congress respond to incentives. And the incentive is victory. If they think it will cost victory, they’ll change.

MR. COSTA: That’s a smart point, because when we talk to political analysts out there and nonpartisan analysts, they say if you want to ban an AR-15 in this country, you’re going to have to have some kind of wave election because Republicans in Congress aren’t going to move to that.

But, Julie, the president’s talking about bump stocks, which was part of the Las Vegas shooting, that tragedy. He’s talking about some of these more modest things. Could they maybe wait for the big stuff to see what happens in the midterms, but do a few modest things in the next few months?

MS. DAVIS: I think it’s possible, but I do think that Jim is right. One of the key things here is whether there is going to be a real generational movement on this. You see a lot of young people, a lot of very organic activism happening after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. If Republicans feel that they are going to be held to account by young voters and people who are influenced by young voters, and that this is going to be – that this issue is going to really be harmful to them, then we might get to a place where they’re willing to accept some of these measures.

But as Alexis said, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm for even some of the modest things in the House. And so I think it’s going to take maybe an election even to get folks to the point where they’re willing to accept some of what you’ve laid out as a more modest set of moves, much less a much bigger, you know, solution that could include age limits and potentially banning certain weapons or even the ammunition issue, which has also come up.

MS. SIMENDINGER: One other thing that I think is interesting about the messaging – and I’m listening to the president use this – which is we’ve gone from nothing will solve this problem, none of these things will cure this problem, to we have to do something. And if that momentum continues, and you see the economic pressure on the NRA – you can see that from companies today that are trying to sever their relationships because they understand their customers don’t want to see that, their consumers don’t want to see that. If you see that continuing, that becomes part of a narrative that can be politically quite potent.

MR. SCHERER: I think we’re going to find out in the next few weeks whether this youth movement, this high school movement continues to grow. And if it does, it’ll matter. When I was down in Florida, there were thousands of high school kids, traveled from around the state to Tallahassee for a rally. And it was interesting, in the crowd they were actually circulating voter registration. And from the podium, the kids were talking about: You have to register to vote. You have to get out to vote. These kids are going to be coming to Washington in a few weeks. There’s going to be a massive rally. There are walkouts continuing to be planned around the country over the next several weeks. You know, I’m getting emails, you know: Come to my high school in Massachusetts. We’re going to be walking out on such-and-such a date. That kind of momentum, if it continues, could matter.

MR. COSTA: So the activists, the students, are out there in force. And to watch them this week, these powerful images and the CNN forum inside of the White House, they are in the middle of this political debate, Jim. But the NRA remains defiant. Wayne LaPierre, the group’s president, was at CPAC, the conservative gathering in the Washington area on Friday. Full-throated message about where the NRA stands, not backing down in this moment, even as he sees the president move a bit.

MR. VANDEHEI: Yeah, I mean, you have to pause for a moment. Like, there’s some beautiful things that happened this week, I think both what we saw onstage with CNN and what we saw in the White House, where you’re bringing together politicians who have much different views with victims of these horrendous massacres at least to have a dialogue. So that, to me, was – that was a moment. And for someone like Marco Rubio to go onstage with 7,000 people who want to boo you and at least talk about your views and show some openness, a hint of openness – some openness on gun control was interesting.

The NRA is really powerful, and I would – I would caution anyone. There’s several cautionary tales in how reactive Republicans might be to public pressure. We saw this on global warming. We saw this on immigration. There’s these areas where you have all of these protests, whether it’s from business leaders or from different groups, and you say, oh, Republicans will buckle under this. No, they won’t. They’re responding to a very small segment of voters who actually turn out and vote in off-year elections, which tend to be rural, old, white voters, and they’re pretty good at voting.

MR. COSTA: All true. And when we were covering the Manchin-Toomey effort in 2013 we saw these same forces happen again in this country, but I think there are glimmers of action that are notable. And I want to come back to Governor Rick Scott, because on Friday the Florida governor, Republican Rick Scott, rolled out this $450 million proposal. And it’s interesting because it would raise the minimum age for buying any kind of gun in Florida from 18 to 21, require a law enforcement officer in every public school, and mandatory active shooter training. It would also restrict anyone who has mental issues – mental problems from buying a gun, and ban the sale and purchase of bump stocks. Michael, when you were there in Tallahassee, we were talking about this this week, Rick Scott seemed like the last person who would budge. He budged.

MR. SCHERER: He budged. And I think the reason he budged – and it was hinted at in his press conference today – is that he’s going to be running for reelection, most likely, later this year – or for election later this year for the –

MR. COSTA: For Senate.

MR. SCHERER: For the U.S. Senate against Bill Nelson. It’s going to be a difficult race, and what he did today was establish that, yes, he can distance himself from the NRA on this age issue, and yes, he can distance himself from President Trump on the question of whether teachers should have guns in the classroom or in the school, and that he’s willing to get something done. So he was building a sort of protective wall around himself against the charges coming this year, and still it’s going to be difficult. Those kids are going to stay on his tail, pushing for an assault rifle ban all through the coming campaign season. And it’s clear that the Democrats in that state are very hopeful at this point that guns can be a big issue for them going into November, where it’s going to be a very close race.

MR. COSTA: I was wondering, Julie, today, watching the president at CPAC, this long hour-plus speech, very much to the base, full of red meat; then you compare it to that quiet meeting with all the parents and the victims and the survivors at the White House. What version of President Trump should we expect in the coming weeks when it comes to guns and comes to politics?

MS. DAVIS: Well, like so many other issues – every issue with President Trump – you never know which one you’re going to get. I mean, this is a lot like immigration. You know, you have the President Trump who talks about, you know, these incredible kids when he talks about the DREAMers and that we need to do something for them, and he talks with great compassion about them, and then the next day he will turn around and, you know, he recited “The Snake,” that poem that’s basically – compares immigrants, all immigrants, to a poisonous snake that’s going to kill you in return for your hospitality. So I really do think that there is a big question, and it’s probably a question in the minds of his staff as well as in his own mind about what he’s going to do tomorrow, the next day, next week on this issue. And it’s an open question to me what will influence him. I do think these kids and that session in the State Dining Room at the White House this week really had an impact, and you could tell. It’s a side of him that you rarely see. He used the word I grieve for you, and he seemed like he was really moved by what he heard and wants to be the person who breaks the impasse on guns and takes action. But it’s going to be difficult.

MR. COSTA: A lot of moving parts on guns. We’ll keep following and tracking that whole debate.

But let’s turn to the Russia probe, because President Trump’s former campaign chairman was hit with new charges on Friday just hours after another campaign advisor stuck a plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The new charges against the 68-year-old Manafort include conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, and failing to register as an agent of a foreign principal. Hours earlier, Manafort’s former business partner Rick Gates pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and for making false statements. Gates has now struck a plea deal and has agreed to cooperate with Mueller. Earlier in the week – don’t forget this – an attorney who is the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch pled guilty to lying to investigators about his communications with Gates. How big is this? Gates was on the campaign plane with the president. Is this more about what Bob Mueller wants to learn about Paul Manafort or more about what Bob Mueller wants to learn about President Trump and the administration and the transition that Rick Gates was part of?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Without knowing exactly all of the questions and the answers that Rick Gates would give, it would be hard to answer that question because it could be both. In the particular case of looking at the finances that the two, Manafort and Gates, were involved in, you can see that the special counsel has a whole very complex avenue that they’ve been pursuing and obviously coming up with evidence. But Rick Gates is also someone now who can cooperate over a period of time in which he was very close to the campaign and the campaign’s chair. And the idea that perhaps the special counsel is putting the squeeze on Rick Gates to then provide information about Manafort and then present the squeeze on Manafort, as you point out, is 68 years old. If he’s found guilty and goes to prison, he would be there potentially for the rest of his life.

MR. VANDEHEI: I the truth is all of us on truth serum would say we have no clue. (Laughter.) And the reason that we’d say we have no clue is that – and this is important for the viewers – is that when you’re reading these stories, all we really have access to are the people that are getting interviewed by Mueller, the people around Donald Trump. The Mueller investigation, that team, the best I can tell, is leaking to nobody. And that was illustrated not with these last two, but the one before that indictment where he indicts all these Russian oligarchs that nobody saw coming. So you can take these pieces and you can try to put them together and say, ah, I start to see the puzzle, but we don’t know. He could go after Gates just to nail Manafort. He could go after Gates to nail Manafort to put pressure to cough up more information on the president. I think this is an extremely methodical investigation by 17 people who know exactly what they’re doing and who they’re going after, and the truth is all of us want to know; I think it’s going to be a while before we do.

MR. COSTA: It’s true.

MR. SCHERER: What we do know is that there is clear aggression in the way he’s going about this. Anyone who says something false – even, you know, a lawyer for an oligarch in London, to an FBI agent – he’s bringing charges against you. You know, these are bank loans unrelated to the Trump campaign that – where fraudulent information was given; he’s going after you. So they’re leaving no stone unturned as they go about this, and that sends a message to whoever is still a target of the investigation that they can’t mess around with this group of people.

MR. COSTA: Paul Manafort, furious, issued a statement saying I’m going to continue to fight on.

MS. DAVIS: Right, I mean, he made the distinction between I don’t know why my former partner, you know, decided to plea, but I’m not going to plea and I’m fighting these charges. You know, as much as Mueller may be trying to send a message with this move, I think, you know, Manafort’s also trying to push back and say I’m not going to be squeezed by this, you know, try another – you know, I’m staying firm. But the fact is that not just for Manafort, but also for the White House and for President Trump himself –

MR. COSTA: Any chance of presidential pardons?

MS. DAVIS: Well, that’s, again, an open question. But this has to strike – because we know so little – and not only we, but I think they in the White House know very little about what’s actually going on in this investigation, we see these little snippets – the indictments, the pleas we see; there are tiny little shards – but Mueller has a complete picture that he’s pursuing. The White House does not have that. And without knowing that, you know, don’t forget that they are considering, the president’s legal team, whether he should talk to Mueller, whether he should sit for an interview with him. And every little step along this path makes that seem more perilous.

MR. COSTA: And Rick Gates, most people don’t know who Rick Gates is. He’s even grown a beard. He’s changed his whole appearance. (Laughter.) But he was around at the convention when there were questions about how friendly the Trump campaign was with Russian figures, when Donald Trump Jr. had his meeting with the Russian lawyer. He was around in the transition when Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, had meetings with foreign officials including the Russian ambassador and others. He saw a lot. He matters.

MR. SCHERER: And he was at the White House, too, in the early days of the administration, a lot of visiting. He does matter. But, you know, like Jim said, we don’t know what he knows. These indictments are not about what happened on the campaign. This is – the guilty plea is not about what happened on the campaign. We haven’t gotten to that stage of the investigation, so we just don’t know what state’s evidence he can turn.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the one thing I think that everybody is watching is when you’re talking about their relationships with the Ukraine and the representation that they were doing there, then that’s leading you back to the discussions that had to do with Russia and what their interests – their financial interests were. What were the – what was the incentive for Manafort to want to be engaging with Russian contacts? What was the incentive there? Was it personal for him or was it a broader – a broader situation? And we might not know that for, as you say, months.

MR. VANDEHEI: What amazes me in talking to White House officials is now much to them every day does feel like yesterday. It was funny because we were talking to some folks this week in the White House, and they’re like, is this February of last year?

MR. COSTA: Well, every day is yesterday. We’re going to have to leave it there, Jim. (Laughter.) Today is Friday, and we appreciate you joining us. (Laughter.) Thanks, everybody.

Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra . We’ll tell about the standoff between the White House chief of staff and the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner. And if you miss the show or the Extra , you can always watch it online later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching. And thank you, Ed Lee, for your 38 years of service here in Washington Week ’s production team. Enjoy retirement. (Applause.)

(End of broadcast show.)


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