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Who Is Attorney General Nominee Jeff Sessions?; Democrats Call For Independent Election Hacking Probe; President Obama To Give Farewell Address Tonight. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired January 10, 2017 - 07:30   ET


[07:30:00] (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general was the first U.S. senator to endorse him.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), NOMINEE FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL: This is a movement. Look at what's happening.

BASH: The Alabama Republican gave the New York reality T.V. star credibility with the GOP base because Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is a rock-ribbed conservative, an Eagle Scout from the heart of the south who was a U.S. attorney and Alabama attorney general. Yet, 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions to be a federal judge Democrats blocked him, something Sessions rarely talked about but did with us in 2009.

SESSION: It was not a pleasant event, I've got to tell you. It was really so heartbreaking.

BASH: He was accused of racial insensitivity, calling a black lawyer "boy" and civil rights groups, like the NAACP, un-American, which he denies.

SESSIONS: I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks.

BASH: Sessions was pounded by Democrats, including then-senator Joe Biden.

SESSIONS: They may have taken positions that I consider to be adverse to the security interests of the United States.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (then-Senator): Does that make them un-American?

SESSIONS: No sir, it does not.

BIDEN: No. Does that make the positions un-American?


That was not fair. That was not accurate. Those were false charges and distortions of anything that I did and it really was not. I never had those kind of views and I was caricatured in a way that was not me. BASH: Now, the son of a civil rights activist whom Sessions prosecuted for voter fraud is coming to his defense.


BASH: Albert Turner Jr., an Alabama county commissioner, says he's worked extensively with Sessions, who was elected senator 20 years ago.

TURNER: When I would talk to Sen. Sessions about historical black colleges and trying to get historical black colleges some assistance and funding, he listened. I could go on and on about the particular issues that Jeff Sessions and I have discussed.

BASH: Susan Collins, a moderate Republican, was elected to the Senate the same year as Sessions.

You don't agree with him on a lot of issues.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: We don't agree on a host of issues.

BASH: Still, she plans to introduce Sessions at his confirmation hearing for attorney general.

COLLINS: I don't know what happened more than 30 years ago, but I do know the Jeff Sessions that I have worked with in the past 20 years. I want a person of integrity and experience and Jeff Sessions has all of those characteristics and qualities.

BASH: Sessions spent two decades in the Senate fighting for conservative causes but did team up on a bill with this high-ranking Democrat.

You worked with him on legislation.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: This was like a miracle.

BASH: Dick Durbin was trying to reduce the penalty for crack cocaine, which was 100 times higher than powder cocaine, then he saw Sessions in the Senate gym.

DURBIN: We both showered and we're putting out clothes on and about to leave. I said Jeff, give me a number. If you can't do one-to-one and you won't -- and I won't go for 100-to-one, what is it? It was 18. I can't tell you why but it was 18, we agreed.

BASH: Still, Durbin says he disagrees with Sessions on most legal issues, which makes it hard to support him for attorney general. Other Democrats Sessions got to know in the gym agree.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: I said to Jeff Sessions in the gym the other day, if he made you trade -- head of the trade represented, we'd be working together very well. We can kibitz in the gym. You keep these positions on immigration, you keep these positions on civil rights and voting rights, it's going to be very hard for me to support you.

BASH: Dana Bash, CNN, Washington.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Joining us now is Sarah Isgur Flores. She is the spokesperson for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions. Sarah, thanks for being here.


CAMEROTA: So, Dana just laid out well everything that happened in the 1980's. People are becoming familiar, if they didn't know it already, with how his desire to become a federal judge was torpedoed by Democrats who felt that he had made and done some racist or, at least, racially insensitive things. What's changed since then for Sen. Sessions?

FLORES: Well, we know since that hearing is that one of the main witnesses had to recant under oath, another had been discredited. Arlen Specter has said he regrets voting against Sen. Sessions. I'm sure it will come up in the hearing today and what you'll hear from Sen. Sessions if how false those allegations were at the time, and they remain false today. It's why Tim Scott has endorsed him this morning -- Condoleezza Rice.

And we'll have a number of witnesses -- African-American leaders -- civil rights leaders who have worked with Sen. Sessions over the years, both as a prosecutor, a state attorney general who has 20 years in the Senate who will speak to his character and his record.

CAMEROTA: And yet, you'll also have something unprecedented happening and that is two of his congressional colleagues, African-Americans, who will basically be testifying against him. You have Congressman John Lewis and you have Sen. Cory Booker, who do not support his nomination or confirmation. So let me play for you what Sen. Booker has said about this.

[07:35:10] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: We've seenconsistently Jeff Sessions, as Sen. Jeff Sessions, voting against everything from the Matthew Shepard Act, voting against -- or speaking out against key ideals around the Voting Rights Act, taking measures to try to block criminal justice reform. He has a posture and a positioning that I think represent a real danger to our country, and even nations.


CAMEROTA: So, there you heard -- I mean, Sen. Booker said that he's a danger to the country because of some of his positions on gay rights, civil rights. What's your response, Sarah?

FLORES: Well, I think some of that's a little bit of posturing. Again, Tim Scott has endorsed him. We'll have African-American leaders who actually know Sen. Sessions, who have worked with him for decades, understand his record. He's voted for the Voting Rights Act. So, you know, politics is politics but I feel very confident in what we'll present as Sen. Sessions' character and record in the next two days.

CAMEROTA: Do you believe he will be confirmed?

FLORES: I do, and I believe he'll be confirmed with Democratic votes as well. Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia has already said that he'll vote for him. There's also a number of Democrats who I think will actually give him a fair hearing. Hear what he has to say at this hearing today and hear from people who know his record, his four- decades career in public service upholding the rule of law, and his priorities for the justice administration. It's why he's been endorsed by so many law enforcement organizations, civil rights -- or victims' rights organizations. And again, African-American and civil rights leaders who have worked with him for decades.

CAMEROTA: So, let's talk -- if he is confirmed and I think you're right. It certainly points to that he will be. Let's look at his views on current laws and some of the things that might present challenges if he were to be confirmed. So, for instance, same-sex marriage. Senator Sessions has said -- I'll read you his quote. "It is not disputable that adopting a same-sex marriage culture undermines and weakens marriage." Well, that is disputable, number one, but what does that mean now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land? Where would he stand on any challenges?

FLORES: Well, the role of a senator is very different from the role of the attorney general. I'm sure he'll be discussing that today and I'm sure some senators will ask. The role of a senator is policy- making. The attorney general enforces the law. Obergefell has settled law at this point. It's the law of the land. He will enforce laws that he voted for and he'll enforce laws that he didn't vote for because that's his role.

CAMEROTA: So he recognizes, obviously, that gay marriage is the law of the land and he would allow that to stand. As attorney general he wouldn't challenge that somehow?

FLORES: That is the role of the attorney general to enforce and uphold and defend the law. It's something that we hadn't seen over the last eight years from this administration who turned the Department of Justice, frankly, into a political wing of the White House. That's not the proper role of the department and I think Sen. Sessions, as attorney general, will bring that back, mend relationships with law enforcement that have been damaged, and again, make the Department of Justice an enforcement mechanism for the law, whether you agree with those laws or not.

CAMEROTA: How about waterboarding? Since he has been on the record saying waterboarding worked. I hate to say it, it worked. Obviously, that's not the opinion of the FBI. That's not the opinion, even, of Gen. Mattis. So where would he stand on that?

FLORES: Well again, our current law is that the Army's field manual holds so he will enforce current law on that issue.

CAMEROTA: So you think that he will, despite his past positions -- what the law stands as he inherits it, that's what he would do as attorney general?

FLORES: I know it sounds surprising because for the last eight years we haven't had a Department of Justice who has actually just enforced the laws as they're written, not how the Department of Justice wishes they were, and has declined to defend laws that they didn't agree with. But that actually isn't the role of the Department of Justice and as attorney general Jeff Sessions will uphold the law, enforce the law. Something he has done over his four-decade career and something he understands well going into the role of attorney general.

CAMEROTA: Sarah Isgur Flores, thank you for explaining it all to us. We will be watching very closely today.

FLORES: Thank you, Alisyn. Good morning.

CAMEROTA: Great to see you -- Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. So, our current president, President Barack Obama, is set to pass the baton, delivering a farewell speech to the nation tonight. Up next, we're going to talk to longtime Congressman Elijah Cummings about the Obama legacy and what he needs to see happen right now to the Russians -- next.


[07:42:55] CUOMO: National security is very much front and center. House Democrats have introduced two new bills calling for an independent bipartisan commission to investigate Russia's interference in the U.S. election, but President-elect Trump and his team say Democrats are just playing politics and no further investigation is needed.

Here to discuss this, and President Obama's farewell speech, and what's going on with the ACA is Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings from Maryland. Always a pleasure, sir. Happy New Year.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: It's my pleasure to be with you.

CUOMO: So, what else do you need to know? The I.C. report came out. You and other have access to classified information, if you wanted to request it. What else do we need to know?

CUMMINGS: We've got to figure out -- rather than take the long view, we've got to look at exactly all that's happened. There's still more to be looked at, Chris, and we've got to come up with recommendations as to how to deal with it. My concern is, and the reason why we have this independent bill -- a bill for an independent commission is because we want to take it out of politics. Remember, I was the head of the Democrats -- the Benghazi committee and it got bogged down in politics.

We want an independent commission, like the 9/11 commission, to take a look at everything, come back and an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, and present to the American people what we need to do.

CUOMO: Well, how will it make it less political? Won't you have the Democrats sitting there saying -- looking for reasons to prove this changed the election and the Republicans will be looking for reasons to say Russia wasn't even involved?

CUMMINGS: No, no, because we're going to -- we're going to -- we're going to have -- what it is, is a commission like the 9/11 commission. If you'll remember, these were citizens of upstanding reputations. They came in, looked at it, and so you're not going to have any senators, no congressmen. So -- and they come back to us with that recommendation. And I think if it worked for 9/11, it will work for this.

CUOMO: But you had consensus there about who the bad guys were in 9/11.


CUOMO: Here, you have this somewhat bizarre -- although I must say, that report that they put out -- the unclassified one --


CUOMO: -- was not the most compelling document I've ever seen in my life.

[07:45:00] CUMMINGS: Well, you've got -- you've got to protect your sources and, you know -- and --

CUOMO: I mean, look, that's the contradiction with intel, right?

CUMMINGS: Right, and a lot of people don't understand that because -- a lot of the Republicans don't understand that because there's a lot of classified information that they -- the public will never see.

CUOMO: Or they don't trust.


CUOMO: And when it comes out and their big stick is being swung at Russia today, and media propaganda sources, it doesn't give you a lot of confidence that they know for sure that Russia was behind these hacks. Do you have complete confidence?

CUMMINGS: I have complete confidence when you've got your 17 intelligence agencies saying it and they're in agreement, which is not always the case, then Ibelieve it. And I -- and, by the way, if we're going to err, let's err on the side of the safety of the American people and protect united democracy, by the way.

CUOMO: Why do you think Donald Trump is fighting the conclusion?

CUMMINGS: I don't know. I think President-elect Trump is concerned, just listening to him, that he doesn't want anybody to get the impression that if the Russians were involved that it affected the outcome of the election. I would say to the president-elect, with all due respect, forget that part. Let's just deal with what we know. That is that there was an attack on our election system, that Putin is responsible for it, and that they're going to do it again.

CUOMO: Will you say that to Democrats? Stop playing with what the impact was on the election and let's focus on who --

CUMMINGS: Well, I think, basically, Democrats have said that. If you've heard Lindsey Graham, I think even on this station the other day, he said he hasn't heard Democrats talking about whether it actually affected the election. I think that's a distraction that distracts us from what we need to do, and that is protecting the American people and protecting our democracy. And, Chris, I will go to my grave protecting this democracy.

CUOMO: All right, two quick points on other issues. One, the ACA.


CUOMO: What is your disposition and your understanding of other Democrats in the House about how you will approach working with or against what happens when they repeal the ACA?

CUMMINGS: Well, we all know that there's some improvements that need to be made to the ACA and I will work with Republicans to do that. But I'm telling you, Chris, in my twenty-some years in the Congress, the most important vote I ever took was the ACA so I will fight with regard to that, and I think other Democrats will, too.

They're talking about replacing -- repealing and replacing. No, no, no, no, no. They've had seven years to tell us how they're going to replace it. They still don't know how they're going to replace it. And the now, they're talking about delay. They still don't know what to do. They -- and they do not know how to deal with this issue of people with preexisting conditions being able to get insurance, and the 26-year-olds staying on their parent's plan.

CUOMO: They've got to keep the revenues up from the program --

CUMMINGS: Got to do it.

CUOMO: -- in order to get coverage.

CUMMINGS: Got to do it.

CUOMO: You can't cover those things if you don't have the money.

CUMMINGS: And by the way, now the Republicans have to govern. They've been sitting back throwing rocks, getting all upset, and now they have to govern. Now they see how hard it is.

CUOMO: So where's your heart going to be tonight and what does your head tell you that you need to hear from President Obama?

CUMMINGS: I want to hear the president talk about what he's accomplished because, Chris, over these years I have seen Republicans torpedo every single thing he has done. They have stood in his way over and over and from my perch as ranking member of the Oversight Committee, I see more than people see.

And then I want to -- I want him to say something that Donald Trump has said, that this is no time for political correctness. We're talking about the future of America and so when he goes out I don't want him to sit back and lay back and say OK, I'm going on vacation. I'm going to get a little vacation -- get a rest. But if he sees things going wrong that will affect children, yet unborn, I want him to do that.

CUOMO: What about the idea of the transition of power and the president, once they leave office, kind of being understated?

CUMMINGS: I just said I want -- if he sees things that are going to affect the voting rights of people, he sees things that are going to hurt people, I would pray that he would say something because it's what we do in these moments -- these moments right here -- that will affect my grandchildren and great grandchildren. And I told my constituents this is not about me, this is about the future. And so, I would hope that the president would stand up and say whatever he's got to say. And I know that's not politically correct but it's not about that.

CUOMO: But for all the -- what you call the torpedoing you've seen that's gone on, one thing that can't be taken away is what he represents in American history.

CUMMINGS: Oh my God.

CUOMO: How much pride do you --


CUOMO: -- leave with tonight for what it means to have had Barack Obama as president?

CUMMINGS: He has elevated African-American people so much. And Michelle Obama, as they say, put the "O" in Obama. I am so -- I cannot tell you how proud I am of him. And I look at the guys in my neighborhood -- you know, I live in the inner city. You've been to my neighborhood.


CUMMINGS: They are pressing their chests out a little bit more. Their heads are up. Their graduation rates are going up. They feel better about who they are. They now know -- they used to think that the only thing they could become was a basketball player or a football player. Now they know that they can become the President of the United States -- priceless.

CUOMO: We've spent a lot of time together and I know you said during the campaign, you know, this is a -- this is the time -- we knew this day would come. Did you? Did you? With all the things that you've lived through did you really think that in your lifetime you would see Barack Hussein Obama being President of the United States and coming in the way he did?

[07:50:05] CUMMINGS: No, never. Matter of fact, when he first called me back in 2007 he said Elijah, I want you to run my campaign in Maryland. I said campaign for what? He said for president. I said president of what? And he said back then, I'm going to win, but I never dreamed it. And my 90-year-old mother who suffered a stroke -- and she can be down and out but every time Barack Obama comes on television she looks up and waves.

CUOMO: What about when you come on? Congressman Cummings, thank you very much. We look forward to these important battles going forward. You know we'll cover it.

CUMMINGS: All right, thank you.

CUOMO: Be well -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Chris. So what will President Obama say tonight? Well, he can look back at George Washington's farewell address for some ideas. John Avlon is going to join us next to talk about his fascinating and prescient new book.



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.


CAMEROTA: President Obama will return to Chicago's Grant Park tonight to give his farewell address to the nation. The president paying homage to George Washington, citing his address as he writes his own. We are told that Mr. Obama has done at least four drafts. They expect him to keep working on this well throughout the day into the evening.

So here to give us some historical perspective is CNN political analyst and editor-in-chief of "The Daily Beast", John Avlon. He is the author of the new book out today --


CAMEROTA: -- "Washington's Farewell: The Founding Fathers Return to" -- warning -- "to Future Generations". John, how fortuitous is it that on the day of President Obama's farewell your book about Washington's farewell comes out? Who did you pay to make this happen?

AVLON: Yes, and it -- the timing turned out to be pretty good. Lucky and good, I'll take both.

CAMEROTA: So why did George Washington -- I mean, George Washington set the precedent. Why did he feel the need to write a farewell address to the nation? AVLON: Well, this really did set the model, you know, for folks who wonder whether this is unusual in no way, shape or form. George Washington, the first president, set the model by doing his farewell address and it was an important document for a number of reasons.

[07:55:05] First of all, it sets the two-term precedent. He voluntarily leaves power. Unheard of, basically, in the world at that time. But most importantly, he decides to not just simply talk about what he's accomplished but to pivot forward. To warn future generations about the forces he felt could destroy the American experiment, and that sets the model that other presidents carry forward and it's a prescient document.

CAMEROTA: Oh my gosh, is it ever. It's almost eerie.


CAMEROTA: I mean, it's crazy to read in your book the same things that they were dealing with then. Here are some examples. So this is about the danger of hyperpartisanship that George Washington worried about. Let me read it. "It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasional riot and insurrection." I guess we haven't learned much since then.

AVLON: Not so much. But look, I mean, you know, that is ripped from the headlines stuff. In the farewell address Washington is reflecting on the forces that had destroyed democratic republics in the past and he writes this with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. And hyperpartisanship, the rise of political factions, in one of the key forces that destroys democratic republics.

And, particularly, Washington warns about parties being division by -- divided by regional lines, so that's red states, blue states. That's exactly what we're dealing with today. And he also warns that when democracies become dysfunctional because of hyperpartisanship that opens the doors to demagogues.

CAMEROTA: Do you think President Obama will talk about that tonight?

AVLON: I do think that that's one of the rifts he's been hitting and in his final press conference he warned -- or talked about how hyperpartisanship and a partisan media gave rise, itself, to fake news. That kind of confirmation bias that people seek that divides the nation where people sort of self-segregate into separate political realities. That's one of the things --

CAMEROTA: We're living it.

AVLON: -- we're reaping right now.

CAMEROTA: OK. He also -- George Washington, in his farewell address, also talked about immigration. Here it is. "Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations." And we tend to think that we sort of invented the immigration argument and here he is talking about it.

AVLON: No. I mean, look, obviously we're a nation of immigrants but Washington was very clear. First of all, enormously focused on the farewell address on the importance of national unity because even then there were states' rights folks who were hostile of the constitution who said no, no, we're Virginians before we're Americans. Washington said no, we're Americans first. And that -- and also encouraging immigrants to come here but saying put the American first. We need to focus on what unites us, not what divides us.