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Interview With Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro; Colorado Massacre. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 23, 2021 - 14:00   ET



BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Now Powell and Trump and the rest have to hope that the rest of the country doesn't hear about this ridiculous legal defense.

They have to hope people don't hear about it, because again 24 hours ago Trump was on right-wing TV still claiming he won. It's still going on, Brianna, every day.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Yes. It's a lot of money that she's being sued for, and that's -- might have something to do with her defense.

STELTER: The ultimate consequence.

KEILAR: Yes, exactly.


KEILAR: Brian Stelter, thank you so much.

STELTER: Thanks.

KEILAR: Top of the hour. I am Brianna Keilar.

And the country must decide yet again whether it's acceptable for people to be shot dead with a semiautomatic weapon just because they went grocery shopping. It's a country that's already decided it's acceptable enough for moviegoers, concert-goers, food festival-goers, club-goers, Walmart shoppers, people just sitting at their desks at work or going to the spa for a massage, college students, high school students, and even first graders to be killed by guns.

And nothing has been done at the federal level to address what is clearly a problem. This is America, where less than a day after flags were raised from half-staff, having been lowered in honor of the eight victims of the shootings in Atlanta, the president ordering them lowered again today, in memory of the 10 people killed yesterday at a grocery store in Colorado.

We now know the names of those victims and of the man the Boulder police suspect of firing the shots. Investigators say they still don't have a motive.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MICHAEL DOUGHERTY, BOULDER COUNTY, COLORADO, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Why did this happen? We don't have the answer to that yet. And the investigation is in the very early stages, and the investigators are working hard to determine that.

That information will come. The investigation is really in its early stages. And we're going to work and we're going to work incredibly hard to see it through to completion. That completion is likely more than a year from now. But between now and that day, when justice is done for all 10 of these victims, I can promise you we're going to work together.


KEILAR: These 10 victims range in age from 20 to 65. At least one of them was an employee at King Soopers grocery store.

One was a Boulder police officer, Eric Talley, who was also a father of seven children. He was first on the scene. Talley's fellow officers and other members of the community held a procession for him as his body was removed from the scene.

We will have the latest on those killed in just a moment.

The Boulder county DA says the suspected gunman is 21 years old and from a town about 30 minutes south of Boulder. Boulder police say they received the first call at 2:40 p.m. local time. The team swarmed the King Soopers grocery store, where witnesses describe people running for their lives, hiding in closets and scrambling for exits.

One man happened to be livestreaming when the shots rang out. And a warning that this video is disturbing.


DEAN SCHILLER, EYEWITNESS: He went in the store.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He went right down here.

SCHILLER: Oh, my God. Guys, we got people down inside King Soopers. Look. Look, there's...




KEILAR: This is the sixth mass shooting in the U.S. so far this year in which four or more people have been killed.

CNN's Dan Simon is live for us in Boulder.

Dan, we are learning more about the suspect from his brother. Tell us what he said.


Well, earlier today, authorities identified the suspect as 21-year-old Ahmad Alissa of Arvada, Colorado.

And, as you said, authorities did not talk about any potential motive, but we are learning what could be some critical information from the suspect's own brother, who spoke to CNN's Blake Ellis.

And what the brother is saying -- and the brother is 34 years old. He says that Alissa was suffering from some kind of mental illness. He had become increasingly paranoid, to the point where he had taken some duct tape, put it on his computer camera because he thought somebody had been watching him or following him.

He says that, back in high school, his brother was bullied because he was Muslim, and that had made him antisocial. And, interestingly, those two lived together. They were roommates. He said he didn't know that his brother had a gun, didn't think of him as being a violent person.

But then we're getting some conflicting information now from a sister, because, in an affidavit that was just released, the sister says that recently she saw her brother playing with a gun. And she described it as a machine gun.

That affidavit also providing some more details in terms of what happened inside the grocery store. Among the items that were located by police officers was a green tactical vest, along with a handgun and the weapon that was used, which was a modified AR-15 gun, looked more like an AR-15 pistol with an arm grip.

And we're also learning that, when he was first taken into custody by why those police officers, the suspect said he wanted to talk to his mother -- Brianna.


KEILAR: Dan Simon live for us from Boulder, thank you.

Outside of the Boulder police station, Officer Eric Talley's patrol car has turned into a memorial. President Biden calling him an American hero last hour.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When he pinned on that badge yesterday morning, he didn't know what the day would bring.

And I want everybody to think about this. Every time an officer walks out of his or her home and pins that badge on, a family member that they just said goodbye to wonders whether they will have -- subconsciously, will they get that call, the call that his wife got?

He thought he would be coming home to his family and his seven children. But when the moment to act came, Officer Talley did not hesitate in his duty, making the ultimate sacrifice in his effort to save lives.

That's the definition of an American hero.


KEILAR: We have just learned the names of the other nine victims.

I want to bring in CNN's Stephanie Elam.

Stephanie, what can you tell us about the people who are lost in this?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, you're talking about people from the entire age range just about who were inside of this grocery store at around 2:00 in the afternoon on what should have been a normal day.

But I'm going to take a moment here to just read off their names so we can just remember them for one second here, starting off with Denny Strong. He was 20 years old. Neven Stanisic, 23. Tralona Bartkowiak, 49. Suzanne Fountain, 59. Teri Leiker, 51. Obviously, Officer Eric Talley is one of them that you were just speaking of. He was 51.

Kevin Mahoney, 61, and Lynn Murray, 62, as well as Jody Waters, who was 65 years old.

And the last person that I'm going to mention now is Rikki Olds. And the reason why I'm going to mention her now is because we have some information about her. She's 25. We're working to get as much as we can about all 10 of these victims. But this 25-year-old was a manager, a front end manager at the grocery store where this shooting happened.

Her uncle that you see there confirming to CNN that she was in fact killed. He described her as being a strong and independent young woman who was raised by her grandparents and lived on her own in Lafayette, Colorado. He called her energetic and charismatic, as well as a shining light in this dark world.

So, being remembered with love, as you look at these stories. And we're starting to hear now about some of these people who lost their lives just being either in the wrong place at the wrong time, or, in her case, at her job, which, if you think about what this has been about for the last year, what people working in grocery stores have been dealing with and the pandemic and being at the front line, it's really just a tragedy that you see someone who's lost her life while she's been working in these grocery stores.

I know she worked in another one before this as well.

KEILAR: Yes, and so young. They're all so young. They all had so many years left to live.

Stephanie Elam, thank you so much.

President Biden is on his way to Columbus, Ohio, where he is expected to land shortly, Biden's trip to mark the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act and celebrate the American Rescue Plan marred by the deadly rampage in Colorado.


BIDEN: I don't need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take commonsense steps that will save the lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.

We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again. I got that done when I was a senator. It passed. It was the law for the longest time. And it brought down these mass killings.

We should do it again.


KEILAR: Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us.

We heard Biden there, Jeff, urging the Senate to move on these key gun reform bills that have passed through the House. But is that something that is going to have any success?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, that is the open question here.

And it will be a test of President Biden's leadership, no question about it. I mean, this is really an issue that has spanned the arc of his career. He talked about the ban on assault weapons. That happened in 1994 in the crime bill. But it had a 10-year window on it. That expired. And since then, the Senate, the Congress has not been able to pass it.

This was a central issue for him when he was the vice president. He stood alongside President Obama for mass shooting after mass shooting, particularly the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, when all those children were gunned down.

The vice president, at that point, he took this issue on and tried to lobby the Senate. That did not succeed. But, today, he had a different message for this Senate.


BIDEN: The Senate should immediately pass -- let me say it again -- the United States Senate -- I hope some are listening -- should immediately pass the two House-passed bills that close loopholes in the background check system.


These are bills that received votes of both Republicans and Democrats in the House. This is not and should not be a partisan issue. This is an American issue. It will save lives, American lives. And we have to act.

We should also ban assault weapons in the process.


ZELENY: Adding near the end there also ban assault weapons. That has always been a bridge too far for many largely Republican senators.

But, Brianna, this is a different time. It's a different moment. We have seen so many more shootings. And the gun lobby, the NRA and other groups, also have divided and weakened over the years.

So, the question is, is this going to be a focus of the Biden White House? As of yesterday at this time, it was not. And the flag you can see behind me was lowered to half-staff then for the Atlanta shootings. It was raised last evening. I saw it being raised around 7:00 p.m., lowered again.

So, the question is how much effort and political capital, quite frankly, is the president going to put into this? We will see, Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes. And that flag that you witnessed, I mean, that's really the commentary on...

ZELENY: Right.

KEILAR: ... the times in which we're living. As you said there, Jeff, it's a matter of how much capital the president wants to spend.

So it sounds like there's this calculation, because, look, if any president is going to be successful on something like this, even though polls show that Americans, they want some measures that Congress just will not be on board with, if you look at where their current positions on, for a White House to be successful on this, they would almost have to put all of their -- like, their eggs in one basket, like, spend all of their capital, right, to do this.

And even then, they might not be successful. How -- what is the calculus, ultimately, here? Is this enough to push this White House into taking that chance?

ZELENY: Brianna, we have seen time and time again, no matter how horrific the shooting, that does not necessarily seem to equate to passing legislation.

It's hard to imagine something more horrific than Sandy Hook. We all remember that day at the end of 2012. We all remember the families walking the halls of Congress in 2013, Vice President Biden right then at their side through many of this. And even then, there was bipartisan support. There was not enough to get a background bill check passed.

Now, the House just a couple weeks ago has passed an expansion of background checks. So, that now is waiting in the Senate. The question here is, this requires 60 votes of the Senate, or it requires the elimination of the filibuster.

And, Brianna, this is something that we're going to be talking about again and again. Under the Biden presidency, a president who spent really his life's work in the U.S. Senate., is this the time when the old rules of the Senate filibuster, which requires a 60-vote margin to pass anything, are they going to go away?

And something on gun control, something on voting reforms, other issues could push that in that direction. Again, it depends how much the president puts sort of into this and what the senators want to do.

So, this is something that was not at the center of the Biden agenda. He's, of course, campaigned on these measures, but had not really talked about it, because they did want to get other issues through first. Now this is something that has landed squarely on his desk.

He said today he is urging the Congress to do it. So we will see how much effort he puts behind this. But the indications are right now, now this is his burden, and he wants this to be a challenge that he can get the Congress to pass as well -- Brianna.

KEILAR: If Democrats do away with the filibuster, Jeff, so they dispense essentially with Republican opposition to what they're proposing, do they have all Democrats on board?

ZELENY: That is a good question, but it's likely to say that they do.

You will remember back from that debate, Brianna -- you covered as well as I did -- Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia, always in the middle of all of these, is Joe Manchin on board with this or not? On this issue, he absolutely is.

In fact, he led the bipartisan bill supporting this with Republican Senator Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania. So there is wide support among Democrats for this bill. Of course, it depends what it would look like.

But we're just talking about universal background checks. That is something that is supported by some eight in 10 Americans, some polls show. This is not necessarily a heavy lift. But we have seen this White House do something with the COVID relief bill. It got zero Republican votes, but they say it has the support from the country.

So that is something that the president could certainly use on his behalf to get this through the Senate. But we will certainly have to see what the parameters are of this. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader now, has always been opposed to advancing this.

We will see if this is a different moment or if it's not.

KEILAR: We will see.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much. Really appreciate your reporting on this.


KEILAR: Next, a former Cabinet official of President Obama's, Julian Castro, will join me live to discuss gun safety measures, as a few senator Republicans signal they may be open to minor changes to gun policy.


And later: Multiple states are planning to make vaccine doses available to all adults. Is supply finally catching up to demand?


KEILAR: Some Senate Republicans are now signaling they may be open to narrow changes in gun policy, this coming as a hearing on Capitol Hill about gun reform got heated today.

This was actually a hearing that was planned before a gunman opened fire in a Colorado grocery store, killing 10 people yesterday.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): Thoughts and prayers are not enough, and yet thoughts and prayers is all we have heard from my colleagues on the other side.


Thoughts and prayers must lead to action. The hate-motivated shootings that tore through Atlanta last week are just the latest example. They won't be the last.

Without access to a weapon, the Atlanta shooter is just a racist and a misogynist. But armed with a firearm purchased that very day, he is a monster, a mass murderer.

A disturbed man going into a grocery store yesterday armed with a weapon of war can kill with the brutal efficiency and speed meant for combat. We need to end this epidemic with a comprehensive nationwide approach, expanded background checks, extreme risk laws to prevent suicides, mass shootings, and hate crimes, protecting domestic violence victims and safe storage standards.

These kinds of measures are within our reach.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): The senator from Connecticut just said it's time for us to do something.

I agree. It is time for us to do something. And every time there's a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater, where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders.

The senator from Connecticut just said the folks on the other side of the aisle have no solutions. Well, the senator from Connecticut knows that is false. And he knows that's false because Senator Grassley and I together introduced legislation, Grassley-Cruz, targeted at violent criminals, targeted at felons, targeted at fugitives, targeted at those with serious mental disease, to stop them from getting firearms, to put them in prison when they try to illegally buy guns. What happens in this committee after every mass shooting is, Democrats

proposed taking away guns from law-abiding citizens, because that's their political objective. But what they propose, not only does it not reduce crime. It makes it worse.


KEILAR: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is promising that his chamber will take up gun legislation and address what he called the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

I want to bring in Julian Castro. He was President Obama's secretary of housing and urban development.

Secretary Castro, thank you so much for being with us.

We hear the majority leader pledging to bring the House's background check bill to the floor. This would require background checks on everything, gun shows, sales from friend to friend, really everything.

And Senate Democrats, though, they don't have the votes for that. But you have heard some Senate Republicans say they're open to some narrow changes in gun policy. I guess my question is, do you see anything different about what we saw yesterday that will actually prompt Congress to do something?


But your point is well-taken. Look, we have been here before. As Jeff said, a few moments ago, we saw this after what happened at Sandy Hook. We saw Senator Manchin and Senator Toomey come together, Democrat and Republican, propose legislation, universal background checks that at the time, if I remember correctly, was supported in poll after poll by between 80 and 90 percent of Americans.

And yet they could not overcome the 60-vote threshold in the Senate that the filibuster requires. It's good to hear that there's some Republicans that are open to considering the legislation that the House has passed, which is similar, basically, universal background checks, closing loopholes that can be deadly, as we saw in Charleston.

The question is, can Washington actually work, or do we need to get rid of that filibuster? I actually think this is going to be another indictment of the filibuster. How do you not call something strongly bipartisan in this country when almost 90 percent of Americans support it, and yet mainly one political party stands completely against it?

It doesn't make any sense. And this is one more example of why, in the least, we need significant filibuster reform that makes it possible for effective, meaningful legislation like this to actually get enacted.

KEILAR: You do have bipartisan opposition in Congress to getting rid of the filibuster. Joe Manchin, for instance, doesn't want to get rid of the filibuster

and take this to a 50-vote threshold. What do you say to that, if it doesn't appear that there's a majority of senators who want that change?


CASTRO: Look, I understand the concerns of not only some senators, but just everyday Americans out there, that say, look, is the filibuster, can it be an effective way to preserve minority rights?

At the same time, there are a lot of other checks and balances in our democracy. If you think about it, really, the filibuster only comes into play where you have one party that has control of the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.

But it can make it very difficult to pass things, almost impossible these days, even when the overwhelming majority of Americans support something like universal background checks.

So, what I would say to Senator Manchin or others that might have reservations is that there are sufficient checks and balances built into the system to make sure that minority rights in the House or the Senate are protected.

On top of that, is there a way to compromise? For instance, President Biden has suggested that we perhaps return to the talking filibuster, and look at other reforms that may keep a version of it in place that actually allow legislation like this, perhaps, on universal background checks that's widely supported by the American people, to move forward.

The filibuster today has become a weapon to kill any kind of legislation, even when it has very strong support from the American people. And that's not what it was intended for in the first place. It's being abused today, so we need to change it.

KEILAR: I will tell you, I can't -- I was speaking with one of our correspondents earlier in the show about -- I mean, that I was having deja vu, to be honest, because I'm pretty sure that she and I were talking to each other during another shooting, just like we were today, or right after one.

And it seems like this just plays over and over, and nothing happens at the federal level. But the constituency of people who are either survivors of gun violence, who have lost someone to it -- I mean, we saw this play out in Parkland. It's a growing constituency.

And they're getting louder. I just spoke with a state representative in Colorado who lost his son in the Aurora shooting. When you look at where actual movement can be made, as these folks are concentrating on availability of weapons and mental health issues, of people with mental health issues having clear legal access to guns in many states, do you see the real solutions being at the state level?

I mean, is that where really is the only shot for something?

CASTRO: Yes, I mean, two things.

I agree with you. If you take today vs. 10 years ago, 15 years ago, there are -- there's a lot -- much more organizing and activism around this issue, often led by parents or young people, as we saw with the Parkland young folks, who have been directly impacted by this kind of violence. And they have made a good amount of headway.

Just because nothing's happened in Washington, D.C., doesn't mean that there hasn't been some good legislation in statehouses and in local communities. That makes me very hopeful, because I do think that we can make progress there.

And the second point is, look, Boulder had a prohibition, a ban on assault weapons. And 10 days ago, the NRA was successful in court, as I'm sure you all have reported, in getting this blocked. And so it's a reminder that, in this political ecosystem and legal ecosystem, that we have to ensure that we're focused on all of it, and that we can make change at the local level, at the state level, and at the federal level.

So, that means, for folks who may want to do something about it, and they get dispirited because they see that it hasn't happened in Washington, that's not the only answer. Think about what's happening at your statehouse and also at your local city hall.

KEILAR: Secretary Castro, thank you so much.

Unfortunately, on this topic, here we are again, but thank you so much for coming on to talk to us about it.

CASTRO: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: Ahead: AstraZeneca says it stands by its vaccine trial, as public health experts raise alarm bells over an announcement which included -- quote -- "outdated and incomplete data."

How does one vaccine have so many P.R. issues and maybe some other issues? We will discuss.