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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Senate Committee To Vote On Attorney General Sessions; Senate Dems Boycotting Trump HHS, Treasury Nominees; GOP's Hatch: This Is Most Disappointing Day Of My Career; Trump Fires Acting Attorney General Who Defied Ban; Sessions Grilled Fired Acting Attorney General In 2015. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 31, 2017 - 11:00   ET

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


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: -- is in the White House in the east room and announces his pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. Democrats have been fighting against those picks even though they don't know who they are as yet.

Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Carol Costello. "AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND BOLDUAN" starts now.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Today -- (audio cut) -- the president gets to make who to nominate to the highest law in the land. There's different kinds of legal drama. The acting attorney general -- (audio cut) --

BERMAN: President Trump sent -- (audio cut) -- fire her for refusing to defend his travel ban. He named a temporary replacement to defend the law -- (audio cut) -- there is so much going on. (Audio cut). There is a revolt on Capitol Hill.

Democrats in the Senate Finance Committee are now boycotting (audio cut) -- Steve Mnuchin, and the nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Now we're waiting to go to Capitol Hill to hear from CNN Congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly. We're having some communications issues. We got -- (audio cut) --

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All right. I've got you now. I think the big thing we were surprised about this morning is we knew Senate Democrats obviously had a lot of problems with pretty much everything that's been going on but particularly these two nominees, Tom Price, health and human services secretary nominee, and Steve Mnuchin, treasury secretary nominee.

But it's the mechanisms they're using to try and hold up those nominations that are causing real problems on Capitol Hill. It's worth noting, guys, Steve Mnuchin and Tom Price will be confirmed eventually.

It only take 51 votes to be confirmed. Republicans hold 52 seats in the U.S. Senate and no Republican has voiced any type of opposition to either of these nominees. So that kind of leaves Democrats now as they try and figure out what little leverage they have with things like this.

They've decided to boycott the Senate Finance Committee hearing on this issue today. Last night, they decided to reject kind of the Senate procedural area to postpone the Mnuchin hearing last night as well.

This is what you're starting to see right now as they try and figure out a path forward. Now the rationale given by Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee is he believes both Tom Price and Steve Mnuchin have lied to Democrats.

It's a strong charge. It's one that Democrats say is backed up by some of Tom Price's stock trades, by some of Steve Mnuchin's unwillingness to give information about some of the foreclosure issues at his bank that his team used to own, have been dealt with right now.

How do Republicans feel about this? Well, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch said explicitly this is, quote, "Amazingly stupid" and he made the point that he believes this is because they are frustrated with the president.

They are frustrated they did not win the election and underscore the fact that these nominees will likely, almost certainly be approved going forward no matter what happens.

What I think is most interesting particularly in the wake of what we've seen on the executive order, what we saw last night with Sally Yates is does this become an issue that Democrats use to slow things down to a complete halt.

You talk about a Supreme Court nominee that's coming soon. Again, they don't have a lot of leverage on these cabinet picks, but they can slow things down.

In the Senate you can slow everything down by refusing to consent unanimously, if you want to get into procedure on these types of issues. So the big question now is, is this a concerted strategy we're going to see going forward or something they're going to do, kind of pick their spots.

I would note Senator Jeff Sessions, obviously the attorney general nominee, his vote is still moving forward this morning. It's moving forward this morning and that is expected to happen. Obviously, you are seeing a lot of talk about what happened last night on this committee.

But I think what's really important right now is actually talking to the members, seeing what's actually going on. Who I want to bring in right now, Senator Sherrod Brown. He is an Ohio Democrat. He is on the Senate Finance Committee.

And Senator Brown, if you can just kind of lay out, what was the rationale here for the decision to not show up to the Senate Finance hearing? SENATOR SHERROD BROWN (D), FINANCE COMMITTEE: The rationale was every Democrat on this committee has pointed out that these two nominees lied to the committee. The "Columbus Dispatch," one of the most conservative newspapers in my state, pointed out how Steve Mnuchin lied about robo-signings causing the foreclosures on many, many homes in my state.

I live in zip code 44105 in Cleveland. Ten years ago that zip code had more foreclosures than any zip code in America. I know what that does to people's lives when they are foreclosed on. And I want Secretary Designee Mnuchin to come clean and tell the committee what in fact he did, not lie to us again. Tell us what he did.

[11:05:06]He's called the king of foreclosures by a number of people because of his work with this One West Bank. Congressman Price came out last night in "The Wall Street Journal," another very conservative newspaper in America, said that Congressman Price lied about a stock transaction.

He had basically inside information or was given an advantage that few had while he was in the House, while he was working on health care bills and amendments, sitting on the right health care committee. He was buying and selling stocks. We want to know more about this before we vote on them.

It's what the American public wants to know. These are two people, if they are willing to lie to Congress like this on something as important as foreclosures and health care, what would they do in these two very important jobs?

MATTINGLY: So Senator, is that the issue? You want specific written responses from each of these individuals or the strategy or kind of repercussions, you will continue to boycott en masse on block if you will going forward for these nominees?

BROWN: Yes, I would like these two nominees to go back in front of the committee and explain themselves. Two major newspapers, "Columbus" and "The Wall Street Journal" said they lied. These are papers that there's no political slant they have except to be pretty pro-Republican most of the time.

I want them to explain how they lied, why they lied. I'd like them to apologize. I don't know that people in this administration will ever do that. But fundamentally, the impact they had on foreclosures in my state and that Mr. Congressman Price will have on wanting to raise the eligibility age for Medicare.

I mean, those are their public positions that they've taken, and we want to know more and we want them to come back in front of the committee. I'm happy to vote on them at that point, but they have to disclose what they've, in fact, done.

MATTINGLY: But Senator, I think the big question is, obviously, Senator Hatch, the chairman of the committee said that's not going to happen. This has happened with a couple of nominees. They feel like they've run the process as far as they're going to before a vote. What does it mean when Senator Hatch calls a vote again as he's likely to do?

BROWN: I'm surprised Senator Hatch, who I have a lot of respect for, I've known for years, that he would put his name out there in support of two people that lied to his committee with him sitting in the chairman's seat. They lied to him. They lied to all of us. They lied not about something minor.

They lied about foreclosures and robo-signings. They lied about stock trades that they profited from -- probably profited from the position they had as members of Congress. That's a pretty serious thing.

And I wouldn't think that Chairman Hatch would want to put his stamp of approval on two people that did that without clearing it up to the satisfaction of most members of the Senate and certainly the satisfaction of people in this country who will suffer from this kind of activity.

MATTINGLY: But Senator, Senator Hatch said he called what happened today with Democrats did today kind of the most disappointing moment of his career. Obviously, he's the longest running senator in the U.S. Senate. What's your response to that?

BROWN: Well, Senator Hatch has been here, I don't know, 36 years, 40 -- 38 years, I think. I can't imagine this is one of his disappointing moments. I thought he'd be -- I would be more disappointed if I were he and the fact that these two nominees of the Trump administration lied to his committee with him sitting in the chair.

And I believe they both took an oath to tell the truth. That's a lot more bothersome to me than whether, you know, we showed up to the vote today after it was postponed one other time.

I'm always willing to work, but my work is going to be for those people who Secretary Mnuchin, if he's confirmed, the damage he could do on home foreclosures and to housing in this country or when Secretary Designee Price, if he's confirmed, what we would do about raising the eligibility into Medicare.

That's way important -- more important than hurting the feelings of a United States senator who has a well-paid job, good title, and good health insurance.

MATTINGLY: Senator, one more quick one before I let you go, is this the kind of thing we could see from Senate Democrats going forward repeatedly on multiple nominations, slow things down? Use the limited leverage you have in the minority?

BROWN: Well, it's not a question of leverage in the minority or being upset by an election. It's a question of how do you make insure this process has some integrity. If we hadn't done this, these guys would have been confirmed and then three weeks later, more stories break about their dishonesty and then you have a scandal in the administration. So, frankly, we may have done a favor for Donald Trump here by

exposing this before these guys are in office and then the press figures out how they lied on other things, too.

So, I mean, we certainly did the right thing for my state of Ohio and Senator Casey in Pennsylvania and others did the right thing for our states and country by exposing this before they come to a final vote because this is serious.

These are basically illegal or illicit activities on stock trades for people voting on health care bills and for a guy that was a banker in foreclosure and a lot of people that were innocent and lost their homes and lives turned upside down.

[11:10:13]MATTINGLY: Yes. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat from Ohio, on the committee that Democrats just chose not to show up for to help move forward some of President Trump's nominations. Thank you very much for your time, sir. I appreciate it.

Kate and John, you can see, obviously, a lot of things moving right now on Capitol Hill between the hearings, the nominees, what's happened over the last 24 hours. Don't forget. We have a Supreme Court nominee tonight. So I don't think things are slowing down any time soon.

BERMAN: We can see it and more importantly, Phil, we can hear. Thank you very much for that. Phil Mattingly in Washington for us.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much, Phil.

All right, so let's now go from there. Let's go to CNN's Evan Perez for more on President Trump's decision to fire the acting attorney general after she refused to defend the travel ban that the president rolled out. Evan, how is the shake-up playing inside the Justice Department now?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, you have a couple different sides here of the opinion inside the Justice Department. On one side, people who believe that Sally Yates was a hero for defying the president and essentially standing up to him and daring him to fire her.

On the other side, you also have some lawyers inside the department who are very concerned about this type of showdown. They think Sally Yates did not want to defend the executive order that she should have just resigned and not issued that order to the Justice Department lawyers not to defend the travel ban.

And certainly not to call it -- that she called it unlawful, if you recall from her message to lawyers in the department. What this means, though, is that you have a new acting attorney general who is going to be just there for a few more days until Jeff Sessions is able to take office.

But one of the more interesting things this morning is that Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where you heard Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat essentially point the finger at Sessions as someone who is essentially behind the scenes bringing forward this travel ban and this executive order.

We know from some of our reporting, both our Capitol Hill reporters and the ones at the White House, that, indeed, some of Jeff Sessions' former aides helped write this executive order and, in fact, kept it secret.

And that's one reason why everything was so chaotic. They did not really share it with Sally Yates. They did not share it with some of the agencies and that's why you had such a chaotic roll out over the weekend.

Now we know that Sessions is going to be the attorney general, most likely, in the next few days. We'll see the Justice Department defending this executive order -- Kate and John.

BERMAN: Evan Perez in Washington, thanks so much.

Sally Yates, you heard him talk about it there, she was an Obama appointee, but she did received bipartisan support when being considered for the deputy attorney general job. She had to have a hearing for that, and she was asked very specific questions about how she would react to political pressure. Look who is asking these questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: You have to watch out because people will be asking you to do things you just need to say no about. Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asked for something that's improper?

A lot of people have defended the Lynch nomination, for example, by saying, well, he appoints somebody who is going to execute his views. What's wrong with that? But if the views a president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?

SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: Senator, I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: If you didn't recognize him, that is Alabama senator and current attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, who was asking those questions.

BOLDUAN: That's absolutely right. So joining us now is someone who knows both Sally Yates and her replacement, Dana Boente, former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, Michael Moore. Michael was also an Obama appointee.

Mr. Moore, thanks so much for being here. You know Sally Yates and Dana Boente. Do you think Sally Yates right made the right move?

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA: You know, I think Sally is a very careful person. I think that she is a consummate professional. She is a good lawyer, a good friend and obviously a good colleague, and I think she did what she thought was right.

And that is to look at an order that came down from the administration and make a decision on whether or not the president had abused his executive authority to such an extent that it wouldn't withstand constitutional scrutiny.

I think her comments about the function of the attorney genral are interesting especially given her discussion at the hearing with Senator Sessions. You know, we want our attorney general to have backbone. We want him or her to have a spine to stand up to the administration, to the president, if necessary.

If we're not going to have that, if we simply need somebody who is going to be a rubber stamp and we can take a first year lawyer out of a night law school or wherever and put them in the Justice Department and say, why don't you be the attorney general and just do what the president wants you to do.

[11:15:03]That's not what we want. We want people who have an understanding of the Constitution. We want people who have real life experience who understands how these executive orders and the laws that are passed affect real people, and how they are applied in realtime in America.

BERMAN: So -- but critics would say that the opposition here is not being a rubber stamp. She didn't have to be a rubber stamp, but if she didn't want to carry through with defending the president's orders she could have resigned rather than say she wouldn't do it. Doing what she did, critics say, was a political move.

MOORE: Well, I think everything that happens in Washington has some tinge of politics to it. We like to say that the department is free from politics. The truth is, it's not. It's a branch of government and with executive branch a part of government, an agency there.

And I think Sally came out, told the people that she was supervising, that would be the people in the Department of Justice that she did not think the order was appropriate.

Now you remember that in her letter, she did say that we're not going to enforce it unless I'm later convinced, in fact, it does comply with the law. I don't know that she came out and snubbed her nose at the president. She said I've looked at it.

I've read it. I feel like the application is not going to comport with constitutional requirements and until I see something further, we're not going to move forward. This order was ill-timed, ill-peeped.

It was ill-executed. It was poorly communicated to the field. You could see that all weekend long as you had different reactions in places across the country. And I think that's -- it speaks for itself. She stepped in and did what she thought was right. I applaud her for having the backbone to do it. A lot of people wouldn't.

BOLDUAN: So you talk about backbones, so now you have Dana Boente in this position for a short period of time. But you know Dana Boente as well. Does he have the backbone, even though he says he'll defend this?

MOORE: You know, Dana -- my time with him was a little shorter. He came in later in the second term of the Obama administration. Dana has done some things for the department. He's been called on to fix some problems in other districts. He is a career prosecutor. He has a good understanding of the department and the requirements for the federal prosecutors.

I think he has a love for the department and I think he's a good guy and an honorable gentleman. I think he'll come in and look at the orders, whether it be this one or others that come down during what we believe will be a short tenure and make a decision on whether or not they need to be moved forward.

BOLDUAN: Michael Moore, great to have your perspective especiall with your close relationship with both of these people. A lot going to happen there going forward. We appreciate the time. Thanks so much.

MOORE: Glad to be with you. Thank you.

BOLDUAN: So more on our breaking news we've been following this morning, a revolt on Capitol Hill, Democrats now boycotting two confirmation votes. More details on that coming in. We'll be right back after a break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:21:42]

BERMAN: All right. The breaking news is out of Washington as it has been nearly every hour on the hour for the last several days.

BOLDUAN: So true.

BERMAN: Right now the news is this that Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee say they will boycott -- boycott votes on two key cabinet nominees from President Trump, the nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services and treasury secretary. So what does this mean? What will the effect be?

Joining us now to discuss, CNN political commentator, Doug Hye, also a Republican strategist and former RNC communications director, who worked on the Hill, and senior Congressional reporter, Manu Raju.

Manu, the Democrats and the committee say we're not voting so that means what going forward? How much can this muck things up?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: A significant amount, Kate and John. The Senate Finance Committee, which was considering this nomination is actually the rules of that committee require at least one Democrat to be present before that committee can actually vote and before the full Senate can vote to confirm that nominee.

If Democrats refuse to attend these votes, that creates a problem. That means they cannot actually bring it directly to the floor according to a top Republican official who is involved in these discussions.

Now what does that mean for Mr. Mnuchin's nomination to be treasury secretary and Dr. Tom Price's nomination to be health and human services secretary? It means that Donald Trump would have to recess appoint these two nominees, avoid the Senate altogether and directly install these cabinet nominees when the Senate goes on their recess, which the president is allowed to do under his constitutional authority.

But it's something that presidents tend to avoid doing as well because there's some limitations to the extent that these members, these officials can stay in office if they are recess appointed. We don't know if they will get to that point because we don't know if Democrats will eventually acquiesce and eventually attend these committee votes.

They are saying they want more information from Congressman Tom Price. They say he was not forthright with the committee during his testimony. Similarly with Steve Mnuchin, who has sort of been wrapped up in this as well because of committee votes on both nominees. We'll see how this plays out. For right now, the last week could be a recess appointment, guys.

BOLDUAN: Yes, at a standstill for at least at the moment, and you say the Democrats say that Mnuchin and Price were not forthright. Sherrod Brown said earlier straight out that they lied when asked about things. So take us behind the scenes. Orrin Hatch, Republican chair of the committee, not happy about where things stand right now. What's going on behind the scenes?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, that's putting it mildly. You have the staffs working, trying to work with each other to get some kind of accommodation. To have Senate Democrats, committee Democrats go up and do their job and if you go back to what we've seen the past couple of weeks, the optics of this.

Whether you like what Donald Trump has done with executive orders or you don't, you see him sign them and hold them up. You see him doing things, being active, leading. You look at Democrats, if that room is empty, that's going to be a terrible optic for them.

Their base of supporters may not mind whether talking about Tom Price or Steve Mnuchin or whatever, but the optic to the rest of the country will look terrible.

It will look like the same old Washington that doesn't do anything and that's why Senate Republicans and their staffs are working hard to avoid that situation and also to have the nominees approved anyways.

[11:25:06]BERMAN: Well, Doug, I think Democrats will look at this and say, we are capitalizing, they might say, on the situation where the president has had a tumultuous several days with, whether it be the travel ban, whether it be arguments about voter fraud, whether it be about arguments about crowd size that President Trump has had an interesting time here. And they may see him as potentially being vulnerable and this may be a time, they think, to stand up to him, Doug.

HEYE: Well, certainly that's one of the calculus decisions that they're making. At 1:30 p.m., Sean Spicer will be giving his briefing and he's going to say what he has said every day this week. He's going to talk about the number of nominees that have been confirmed and compare that to eight years ago.

The number is much less for Republicans now than it was for President Obama. If people want Washington to get things done and frankly, if we want the water to not be so choppy because you don't think Donald Trump is predictable, having a secretary of HHS and treasury is one of those things that can still those waters.

BOLDUAN: Manu, not to put you on the spot, but have we seen in recent memory Democrats or Republicans boycotting a confirmation vote like this? I remember I feel like one side or the other boycotting a super committee hearing when it came to the debt negotiations. But I can't remember something like this.

RAJU: Yes, it's very, very unusual, Kate, and remember when actually the -- one of the Supreme Court nominees, Elena Kagan -- actually Sonia Sotomayor was nominated by President Obama, Jeff Sessions at the time was the ranking Republican of the Judiciary Committee.

He told me that they were threatening to boycott that committee vote because of his concerns with Sotomayor, but they didn't do that because it was seen as such a drastic and unusual and maybe even unprecedented move.

That's why this caught Republicans by surprise. They were not expecting that. So the question is how do they get out of that? We don't know that quite yet but Republicans do have tools in their arsenal to push back.

But one point is that Democrats don't have much incentive, they believe, to work with the Republicans on this. Republicans didn't work very well with Democrats on their Supreme Court nominee and they were rewarded by keeping the Senate majority.

I don't know if the Democrats are taking lessons to work with Republicans after their handling of some of President Obama's nominees.

RAJU: So Manu, some of the big news overnight were reports that there were staffers on Capitol Hill who were brought into the planning of the travel ban issued in the executive order from the White House. Staffers on Capitol Hill who did not tell their bosses, and then also the word that people on Capitol Hill were not brought into the loop. You talked to Congressman Peter King, what did he say about all of this?

RAJU: Well, he thought that the Trump administration completely bungled the rollout of this plan because Congress overall was not looped in, even a few staffers were discussing this. King is a close Trump ally, but he didn't sound like a close Trump ally when I just talked to him, guys.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: I fully support the thrust of the executive order, but I have strong issues with the way it was rolled out. The fact that all these contingencies were not planned for.

RAJU: Did they consult you in drafting this executive order?

KING: No, not at all.

RAJU: What about other members of Congress or staff? Are you aware of any?

KING: As far as I can tell, no. I think there were staff who have been work with the White House since the transition, and they may have been involved, I don't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: So I asked Peter King, what do you think that the Trump administration should take away from this? He said I take away that they have a, quote, "severe learning curve going forward." He said maybe in the first month of the administration there may be some hiccups, but they need to get their act in order moving forward on such controversial policies.

And notable because Peter King works very closely on national security issues. He did during the campaign with the Trump team. He was not involved in this. Even if there were House Judiciary Committee staffers involved, larger, most of them are influential members of Congress.

Including the Republican leadership, Paul Ryan saying earlier that he was not involved in the drafting of this. One reason why there's been some significant pushback on Capitol Hill, guys.

BOLDUAN: Yes, referring all questions, Paul Ryan did, to the Judiciary Committee if people have questions about that. Not taking them himself. Doug, Manu, thanks so much, guys.

BERMAN: We do have more breaking news. As she faces a committee vote right now, CNN is reporting that education secretary nominee, Betsy Devos lifted -- did she lift quotes for her Senate questionnaire? We'll have details next.

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