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Dems Focus on Ethical Issues of Trump Cabinet Picks; Intyerview with Rep. Pete Sessions. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired January 19, 2017 - 07:00   ET


GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R-SC), U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. NOMINEE: NATO obviously has been an alliance that we need to keep.

[07:00:04] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: NATO has a way of fighting back if you're not paying attention to it.

REP. TOM PRICE (R-GA), HHS SECRETARY NOMINEE: No one is interested in pulling the rug out of anyone.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: We have seen repeated efforts in a way that hides their views from the American people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you agree that global warming is a hoax?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So Donald Trump is wrong?


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. We are live in Washington, D.C. This is really happening on your screen. That was the sun rising behind the U.S. Capitol. Washington D.C.


CAMEROTA: It's such a beautiful city. I'm struck by it every time I come back here. This, of course, is where Donald Trump will be sworn in tomorrow as the 45th president of the United States. The president-elect hoping most of his cabinet nominees will be confirmed on day one.

CUOMO: Senate Democrats have something to say about that. They're trying to slow down the confirmation process, largely because of ethical concerns facing several of Mr. Trump's nominees. All of this unfolding as new questions arise about the Trump administration's readiness to run the nation's federal agencies.

We're just a day away from the inauguration. Let's get to our coverage. We've got CNN's live on Capitol Hill -- Sunlen.

CAMEROTA: Good morning to you, Chris. President-elect Donald Trump is pushing for his cabinet nominees to be

confirmed on Friday, just hours after Donald Trump is inaugurated. But Senate Democrats here, they are threatening to push the breaks on this, saying that they will not rush this and really threatening, saying that Republicans here are trying to jam these nominees through.


SERFATY (voice-over): Top Democrats hoping to jeopardize the confirmations of some of Donald Trump's cabinet picks.

SCHUMER: This is a swamp cabinet full of bankers and billionaires.

SERFATY: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer trying to slow down the process as Senate Republicans push for confirmations of seven of his nominees on his first day in office.

SCHUMER: It's no surprise Republicans are trying to rush through these hearings. They don't want people to know the true views of their nominees.

SERFATY: Democrats focusing on ethics concerns of three of Trump's picks in Wednesday's hearings.

PRICE: Everything that we have done has been above board, transparent, and ethical and legal.

SERFATY: Grilling the president-elect's nominee for secretary of health and human services, Tom Price, about stock purchases that could have benefitted from legislation he proposed during his time in the House.

PRICE: I knew nothing about those purchases.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to have a diversified portfolio while staying clear of the six companies that were directly affected by your issue?

PRICE: As I said, I don't have any knowledge of those purchases.

SCHUMER: It's a very narrow specific company that dealt with implants, hip and knee, and the legislation specifically affects implants. He puts it in a week after he buys the stock? That cries out for an investigation.

SERFATY: Mick Mulvaney, Trump's choice to head the Office of Management and Budget facing scrutiny after admitting he failed to pay more than $15,000 in payroll taxes for household employees.

And Department of Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross revealing that he unknowingly employed an undocumented immigrant. Meantime, Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, grilled on his views on climate change.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Why is the climate changing?

SCOTT PRUITT, EPS ADMINISTRATOR NOMINEE: Senator, in response to the CO2 issue, the EPA administrator is constrained by statutes.

SANDERS: I'm asking you a personal opinion.

PRUITT: My personal opinion is immaterial.

SERFATY: The president-elect, though, has repeatedly denied climate change is real.

SANDERS: So Donald Trump is wrong.

PRUITT: I do not believe that climate change is a hoax.

SERFATY: And Nikki Haley, chosen by Trump to be the ambassador to the United Nations, also publicly splitting with her new boss's views on foreign affairs, questioning Russia's agenda and showing support of NATO.

HALEY: That's how an administration works. You surround yourself with people who don't just say yes to what you think.


SERFATY: And today on Capitol Hill, two more confirmation hearings are scheduled. Rick Perry for energy secretary and Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary. And today the President-elect Donald Trump will nominate former governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue to be his potential next agriculture secretary. Alisyn, this officially marks the last pick for Trump's cabinet.

CAMEROTA: Sunlen, thank you very much.

So in just a few hours, the president-elect will make the move from New York to Washington ahead of tomorrow's inauguration. How is he preparing? CNN's Jason Carroll is live in Trump Tower in New York with more. What's the latest, Jason?

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Alisyn. You know, when the president-elect heads your way, he'll be doing it on a military jet, not the Trump jet that we've seen him fly so many times in the past.

[07:05:10] But even as he heads to Washington, D.C., there's still some questions about whether or not his transition team for national security is really ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

This after CNN has learned that that particular team has been slow to interact with Obama's National Security Council. That council has prepared a number of briefings and memos; and they say it's unclear if team Trump has even read them.

There are similar concerns at the State Department. Having said that, Trump's spokesperson, Sean Spicer, is really pushing back on that, saying that the team is ready to go, that they have ground teams, landing teams ready to go. Also noting that their -- that their deputy national security advisor, K.T. McFarland, has met with her counterpart on many occasions. Mike Pence also pushing back on that, saying their team is ready to

go, ready to take on the challenges. Ready to take on Obamacare.


GOV. MIKE PENCE (R-IN), VICE-PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think you can expect that a President Donald Trump is going to hit the ground running on day one, come Monday morning. and the first week there will be a series of executive actions, both putting executive orders into place, repealing some executive orders and continue to work very energetically with the Congress to both repeal and replace Obamacare.


CARROLL: Well, Pence says repeal and replace but still no specifics on exactly what they would replace it with but Pence says it will be coming shortly.

Looking ahead to the president-elect's speech his inauguration speech and some of the themes that he'll be touching on. Some of those themes will be including job creation, defeating terrorism and Americans common goals -- Alisyn, Chris.

CUOMO: All right Jason, appreciate it. Let's discuss. Let's bring in CNN political commentator and senior writer for "The Federalist," Mary Katharine Ham. CNN political analyst David Gregory; CNN political analyst and "The Daily Beast" Washington bureau chief, Jackie Kucinich; and CNN political commentator and senior contributor at "The Daily Beast," Matt Lewis.

CAMEROTA: If you weren't all so accomplished, he could catch his breath.

CUOMO: For you and me, it's just Alisyn and Chris.

All right. So let's put up the graphic of the issues that are presented writ large by some of the evident nominees. And you have ethics. You have some taxes in there. You have Jeff Sessions and his history. The first and most important question -- M.K., I'll start with you. This stuff may be bad, and it may be optics, and it may be the tone. But is any of it going to be enough to overturn any of these nominations, in your opinion?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think that's the real question.

CUOMO: That's why I asked.

HAM: And the answer is likely no, because Democrats disarmed themselves by getting rid of a filibuster. And so now you only need one for each of these. So that -- Schumer can push the time line, but that's the power he has. They don't actually have that much power anymore, because they did it to themselves.

CAMEROTA: So now the tables have turned. I get it. And I understand that procedural issue. But I guess just an ethical issue, Matt Lewis, why don't Republicans seem to care anymore about somebody taking advantage of tax laws or having an undocumented immigrant in their home as a worker? Why don't Republicans -- why aren't those deal breakers anymore?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I think part of it is the fact that we now are very tribalistic, and the nation is polarized. And basically, the message goes out, you stick with your team, right? So I think some of it is just pure partisanship.

I would also say that some of it is clearly Democrats who are playing politics, and this is kind of a show. They're putting on a show, and you know, you dig into somebody's background and stuff enough, you're going to find some stuff.

CAMEROTA: But you know, you heard Chuck Schumer. He said, "Hey, what's good for the goose is good for the gander."

LEWIS: Yes, Chuck Schumer -- Chuck Schumer who, by the way, supported the Wall Street bailout while taking money from bankers. So I think there's a lot of hypocrisy.

CAMEROTA: You're saying everybody is dirty so the rules don't apply?

LEWIS: I'm just saying I think that we're now in a state of politics where you stick with your team. And I'm not saying it's good for America. But I do not expect -- the one example could be Tillerson, where you could have Rubio and McCain and Lindsey Graham standing up against him. Otherwise, I don't see any attrition here at this point.

GREGORY: But there's this hot-button issue, you know, Russia being one, and we see that the president elect has this tension with Republicans over Russia. So, you know, is Vladimir Putin a war criminal? You've heard that from McCain. You've heard it from Rubio. And that's not where the administration is.

I mean, I think the Tom Price thing is interesting and some of these investments, it could be a real problem for him, and you may see in the days to come that more Republicans have a hard time with it. And it is, and that's the point. This is tough, because he becomes such an important person in trying to figure out what they're going to replace Obamacare with if they repeal it.

So there's a -- there's a lot riding on these things, but there's no question whether it's not paying your nanny or having an illegal immigrant in your home, as Linda Chavez did, forced her to resign back in 2001. You know, history has shown us one thing. We may be seeing something else now.

[07:10:18] JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But I thought what was more problematic was that he wasn't able to present any sort of plan, sort of answers to the presidents who were asking about Obamacare, what was going to happen. He said that there -- people will have access to healthcare. That was very different than saying everyone is going to keep their healthcare, which is what Pence and Donald Trump said. CUOMO: Access is also different, as defined term from coverage.


CUOMO: Access means you could get a plan. Not that you definitely will have a plan.

HAM: You shouldn't say that everyone will keep their plan, because it was a lie the first time, and it would be a lie this time.

CUOMO: You don't want to lie. Let me ask you something, before we run away from the ethical thing, because OK, they'll get the votes. Maybe on Tillerson. All right. I here you.

But this is about who you are and what you're about. Unless Congressman Price can bring out his broker, who says, "I can show you that this was blind. He didn't know. And here's why I made the choices of these very specific companies that do very specific things.

Absent that there is really, that I see -- he said it's above board. It's ethical. It's legal; it's transparent. It is, at best, two of those. Legal, but the laws are a joke. And transparent, because he put out his holdings, and it was there for everyone to see.

CAMEROTA: But the Stock Act, doesn't that say -- why do you say it's legal? The Stock Act prevents lawmakers.

CUOMO: Because as long as it blurs (ph), basically, you're OK. They changed the laws, and he's not getting caught up in that in terms of what he did with his stock. But even if it's OK. Even if it's that he had the right to do it, is it right for a law, a bill to get pushed -- I know Democrats are on the bill, too -- but if this doesn't stink nothing stinks, even if he passes. You're OK with this?

HAM: No, you can be charitable and say this is not best practices. This does not look good. This is the appearance of conflict of interest, and it's not exactly -- it's not actually a conflict of interest that he can do about it.

I think the broker information would be important. But here's the part, and this is why I bring up the Democrats getting rid of the filibuster on this stuff. Is that they have to concentrate fire on someone they can actually get six votes against. That's why the Tillerson part of this is so interesting and the Rubio part. They cannot spread out and take down every single person over every single issue. It's just not possible.

CUOMO: Obviously, but why would the Republicans -- why would the Republicans OK putting him up? Why was Trump OK saying, "Yes, I know about this thing with him, and I'm all right with this"?

GREGORY: Because I think we have to go back to something we said earlier. You have a president, an incoming president who didn't want to share his tax returns so that we can see. We have a president who doesn't see fit to divest himself from his assets, something his billionaire friend, Wilbur Ross, was willing to do. LEWIS: The other thing about Price, Price, though, is actually very

important and instrumental. And I would say that losing Price would be like losing Daschle. Of Barack Obama had kept Tom Daschle, the whole Obamacare rollout could have gone very differently in terms of getting bipartisan support. Tom Price is one of the people on the Republican side who actually -- despite the testimony.

GREGORY: So they might be willing to take the hit on him.

LEWIS: They need him to make this actually work.

CAMEROTA: I've said as much.

Betsy Devos is also not going as well, because the Democrats feel that she doesn't know about public education. What's going to happen there?

KUCINICH: I have no reason to think she's not going to get confirmed. I mean, she wasn't able to answer basic questions because -- and also the fact that none of her children went to public schools. She never was to public schools. No one has ever taken out a student loan in her immediate family. That's problematic.

But this kind of goes to -- and I don't mean to say scoreboard, but elections have consequences. And Donald Trump said he was going to appoint someone to several of these agencies that was going to shake it up, and she is a prime example of that.

GREGORY: Look, I think education is also different. We've seen a movement here that has become bipartisan around accountability, around challenging public schools. That's not popular on the left and the right. And I think she'll be a lightning rod. But so was Arne Duncan in some ways.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you very much. Great to talk to all of you.

CUOMO: As Alisyn Camerota says every day, three hours ain't enough. So tomorrow, programming not for you. NEW DAY will begin an hour early tomorrow for the inauguration.

CAMEROTA: Finally.

CUOMO: We will be here live in Washington starting at 5 a.m. Eastern. I hope you are.

CAMEROTA: Oh, yes. Sometimes dreams do come true.

Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats are ready to grill two more of Mr. Trump's cabinet picks in hearings today. So how many of the picks will actually be confirmed by the time he takes office? Which by the way is manana? We're going to take a closer look at that.


CUOMO: The Trump transition team is defending its cabinet picks after blistering committee hearings over the last week or so. Trump's treasury secretary nominee, Steve Mnuchin; energy secretary nominee, Rick Perry face Senate hearings today.

Let's discuss the state of readiness with Congressmen Pete Session, Republican from Texas. He is the chairman of the House Rules Committee and joins us now.

It's good to have you on the show.

REP. PETE SESSIONS (R), TEXAS: Thank you very much. Good morning.

CUOMO: So let's talk about -- politics matter, but the practicalities here. Where's your level of confidence in the team that, as of noon, right, on the 20th, they are ready, the Trump administration to get to work?

SESSIONS: Well, first of all, Mr. Trump has picked a great cabinet. And he -- person after person, they're effective. They know what they're doing. they have a vision.

They are going to work with the president, with Congress. We're going to have not only a plan, but we're going to sell to the American people the things that we do. No more weaken a bill to find out what's in there. No more passing the bill to then wonder, find out six years later it's a very understandable, direct group of people who understand their mission and what we're trying to accomplish.

Congress is ready. The cabinet is going to be ready. The president's going to be ready. And the American people want progress now. The things that we touch, we're going to own. Because we're going to own them, we need to do it well; and the American people will see that we're prepared and ready.

CUOMO: The concern that a lot of the less flashy positions, the deputy positions at different agencies, aren't filled yet. Not a concern to you?

SESSIONS: Well, they will be. It will take a little bit of time. You've got to get the main positions. Your principles have to be decided.

CUOMO: Let's talk about some of that. You've always approached this in a very principled fashion. There was a time where not paying a nanny or any kind of tax issue would get you thrown out. Even Tom Daschle couldn't be saved by the Democrats. Right? That's how Kathleen Sebelius got in there at HHS. Now you have two of them like that. You guys seem OK with it. Why the change?

SESSIONS: Well, I'm not sure I'm OK with it.

CUOMO: You just said they're great people.

SESSIONS: It doesn't mean every single person in the vetting process but if they paid the taxes, even if they maybe found out that someone was not honest with them, that's different than not paying the taxes. Paying the taxes and attempting to follow the law is the key to the entire matter. CUOMO: All right. So you've got to dig a little more there, but

that's almost an argument for delaying some of these processes until more information can come. And it seems that Trump and Co does not want that to happen.

SESSIONS: Fair questions, and the American people need to know we are following the law, and we expect them to also.

CUOMO: Even if it extends the process.

SESSIONS: Even if it extends the process.

CUOMO: Uncommon candor. Let's see if we can keep that going.

SESSIONS: It's got to be done, because the American people have to have confidence in what we're doing.

CUOMO: That's true.

SESSIONS: People who are making decisions have to be forthright and open about that.

CUOMO: There's no question about that. A lot of the Democrats on the Senate committees would agree with you.

So that takes us to Tom Price. He matters. Everybody's got the starting five, so to speak, and he's your center because he's the only one with a functional understanding of what could be done with your repeal and replace. But he also potentially presents the biggest ethical problem. Absent proof that, "Yes, this is totally blind. I made these choices, and here's why I invested in these unusually discreet companies that do unusually specific things that had a direct connection to legislation that come up right after purchase." Boy, does this stink, this situation.

SESSIONS: Well, I think -- I think it's worthy to look at the whole evaluation in the process. If Tom were...

CUOMO: He says, "I don't know." He says, "I didn't know about these." But isn't that something that you'd want to be proven to you, just because of how much resemblance the company's interests stood to that bill that he put out.

What Democrats -- just days after the purchase.

SESSIONS: What I would say to you is you should ask the question. They should be required to put into writing, and you should be able to ow it today out to that bill with Democrats but just days after the purchase.

What I would say to you is you should ask the questions. He should be required to put it in writing and you should be able to offer some rebuttal to that and make sure that's correct.

I know Tom Price. I've known Tom Price for 15 years. He's an above- board, honest, straightforward guy; but every single issue must be vetted and looked at. And I'm for that, and I think whatever Tom tells you to prove it.

CUOMO: With Tillerson, questions are obviously about, you know, was the coziness of the relationship that made business work well that it extended beyond that, compromise your feeling on it.

SESSIONS: I know Rex Tillerson well. I represented him when he was at Exxon, the congressional district. I know him. I gave him his national distinguished Eagle Scout award. We think great things about him.

CUOMO: Just so people know, not just the leader of the Boy Scout organization but was in favor of opening the Boy Scout community to gay scouts and scout leaders.

SESSIONS: In fact, he did. In fact, he did. That was our national president.

But here's what Rex Tillerson brings to the equation. He understands the economics of energy better than any other person in the world. He understands what's above ground, what's underground in Saudi Arabia and Russia. He knows the strengths and weaknesses. The things that he has done for that company and this country, he will do again. He is brilliant. He is honest to a fault. And he will be forthright about what he would do. And when he draws a red line he'll mean it, and he will work well and help the president in foreign affairs who can use some help. We all can but he -- Rex Tillerson will be the star of the class.

CUOMO: So let's touch on something that you and I -- you were welcome here to talk about a lot going forward, which is what repeal and replace means. Address the main fear, which is repeal sounds great. And what will happen, you know, to people who want change.

Every time you defund something, someone becomes vulnerable, because if you don't have the money to provide it, it can't be provided. How do you avoid that if you're not ready for the replacement for that funding to allow that person that get their care.

[06:25:03] SESSIONS: Well, let me say this. The president-elect is now speaking up on this issue and has said he will have -- he is going to have a healthcare plan where everyone has coverage.

CUOMO: A lot of your brothers and sisters on the right are shaking their heads. "Everybody? Hold on now."

SESSION: Well, American citizens. Let's say this: that the Republican party has better ideas; and we must replace it before we repeal it. We must tell the American people what the plan is. We must lay it out for them. It could be simultaneous, but it must be with a plan that's well understood, that members of the Congress can go home, hold town hall meetings and talk about it. That's how proud we are.

Now have we completely decided which exact plan that is? No. I have a plan. World's greatest healthcare plan, which truly has been not only a bill for some period of time; but it allows every single person in the marketplace to have the same tax advantage, which is the problem, the tax advantage to where they can purchase healthcare January 1.

CUOMO: So let's do this. That's an important discussion. It's going to be a protracted one. Let's continue to have it. You're welcome here to discuss it any time.

Pete Sessions, Republican from Texas. Good to have you on.


CUOMO: We have breaking news for you. The U.S. military is in action, targeting ISIS on President Obama's last full day in office. We have a special report from Barbara Starr. Where are the bombs falling? Next.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CAMEROTA: We do have some breaking news for you right now.

U.S. bombers have struck ISIS camps in southern Libya overnight. The airstrikes happening in the --