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Trump's Extraordinary Move in Firing Acting AG; Trump's Supreme Court Pick. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired January 31, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:15] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight: an extraordinary move from the White House. President Trump fires his acting attorney general after she refused to cooperate with his travel ban. Who is in charge now and how will it affect the president's executive order?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR: A major distraction just hours before the president is set to make first nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Will this battle over attorney general affect Donald Trump's nomination to the high court?

So many questions this morning. A lot happening.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm George Howell, in for John Berman.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Tuesday, January 31st. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

It is hard to overstate the nature of the rapid developments we saw in Washington overnight. In a move that evokes President Nixon's mass firings amid the Watergate investigation in 1973, the Trump administration achieving a level of chaos that would be unusual for any White House, let alone one trying to find its footing, after just a week and a half on the job.

A new acting attorney general has been sworn in to replace the old acting A.G., Sally Yates, after she ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend President Trump's travel ban in court. The U.S. attorney for eastern Virginia, Dana Boente, took the oath and quickly rescinded Yates' order. More on that in a moment.

CNN's Evan Perez has been on this story from the very start. He joins us with the latest.


EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: George and Christine, in an extraordinary series of events, as President Trump fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, because she had ordered the Justice Department not to defend the president's executive order on immigration and refugees. The president's order rolled out chaotically over the weekend ban

travel to the United States from people of seven countries deemed to be security risks. Yates is an Obama appointee, and a nearly 30-year career lawyer in the Justice Department.

On Monday evening, she told Justice Department lawyers that, quote, "I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remained consistent with this institution's solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what's right." She went on to say that she didn't think that the executive order is lawful.

A few hours later, the White House issued a statement attacking Yates for being weak on illegal immigration. The statement said Yates, quote, "has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States."

The new acting attorney general is Dana Boente, the top federal prosecutor in northern Virginia. He will remain in office until the Senate confirms Senator Jeff Sessions expected later this week -- Christine, George.


HOWELL: So, the new acting attorney general issued a statement overnight, reversing its predecessor's earlier directive. It says this, "Based upon the Office of Legal Counsel's analysis, which found the executive order both lawful on its face and properly drafted, I hereby direct the men and women of the Department of Justice to do our sworn duty and to defend the lawful orders of our president."

ROMANS: Reaction overnight to President Trump's move has been strong from both sides. Lawmakers' statements highlighting different legal interpretations of the ban, as well as the widening political gulf.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said, quote, "The firings of Sally Yates underscores how important it is to have an attorney general who will to stand up to the White House. The attorney general should be loyal and pledge fidelity to the law, not the White House. The fact that this administration doesn't understand that is chilling."

HOWELL: On the Republican side, Senator Ted Cruz highlighted Yates' status as an Obama appointee. He said this, "It is fitting and sad that the very last act of the Obama DOJ is for the acting A.G. to defy the newly elected president. Sally Yates now joins the ignominious succession, from Eric Holder to Loretta Lynch, attorney generals who put brazen partisan interests above fidelity to law."

ROMANS: Also noteworthy, earlier in the day, the White House had foreshadowed its approach to internal dissent. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded to a memo signed by dozen of State Department diplomats opposed to that travel ban. He responded by saying they need to get on board or they should quit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think they should get with the program or they can go. Hold on. Hold on. This is about the safety of America. It is the number one duty with any leader to keep our people and our institutions safe from attack.

And if somebody has a problem with that agenda, then they should -- that does call into question whether or not they should continue in that post or not.


[04:05:01] HOWELL: These are likely to be very busy times for the lawyers at the Justice Department, defending against the growing list of lawsuits aimed at overturning the travel ban. But Dana Boente's turn as an acting attorney general, it may not last very long. His permanently replacement, Jeff Sessions, is one of four cabinet nominees set for committee votes today. That along with Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, Tom Price for health and human services secretary, and Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary.

The president's travel ban may complicate the process for those nominees. Senate Democrats say they will demand all of them come out against what Democrats call the president's Muslim ban.

Mr. Trump's secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, is moving to a Senate vote, over the objections of Senate Democrats. They are calling for delay until after they can question him about the travel ban. A final confirmation vote is now expected tomorrow.

ROMANS: Also overnight, new criticism from a top Republican from the administration's chaotic rollout of that travel ban. The House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul says the ban as written goes too far. His statement, "We should not be turning away people who have lawfully approved to come to the United States. This issue could have been avoided through better coordination between the White House, Congress and the agencies on the frontlines, which is more important now than ever."

But despite all the opposition, the administration standing by the order trying to smooth things over. Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly will meet with Republican leaders today.

White House correspondent Sara Murray has the latest.


SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, George and Christine.

Donald Trump beginning his week under fire by both Democrats and Republicans for his rollout of this travel ban. There were members of his own government agencies who weren't sure how to implement this ban when it was passed. And a number of Republican allies on the Hill say that they were not consulted. They were taken by surprise. And even if they do agree with what the travel ban includes, they do not agree with some of them called a sloppy rollout.

Now, in spite all of that, the White House vigorously defended the move on Monday. Here's what Sean Spicer had to say.

SPICER: If we announced this earlier, this would give time for people to flood into the country who could have done us harm. That's not exactly a sound strategy, right? So, the people that needed to be kept in the loop were kept in the loop. The people that needed to be briefed were.

MURRAY: There's no indication however that President Trump plans to slow down his breakneck pace. Today, he is going to be having a meeting on cyber security and we are expect him to sign executive action on that front.

But the big show comes this evening, when we're expecting Donald Trump to announce his pick for Supreme Court justice.

Back to you, guys.


HOWELL: Sara Murray, thank you.

President Obama is speaking out against President Trump's travel ban without ever mentioning his successor. The former president said last year, he might step into the debate if he felt any of the policies of his successor conflicted with American ideals. Now, he is doing just that. A spokesman says Mr. Obama fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals based on their faith or religion.

President Trump denies that his travel discriminates against Muslims. The former president goes on to say he is heartened by the level of engagement taking place, and that he expects to see protests when American values are at stake.

ROMANS: Also new overnight, a lot of developments, folks. Another personnel move to address the top campaign priority. President Trump has named acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. A department veteran, Thomas Homan, replaces the current acting director, Daniel Ragsdale. Unlike the turbulent situation at the top of the Justice Department, Mr. Ragsdale keeps his job, returning to his previous post as deputy director.

HOWELL: Democrats are cautious of carrying out an all-out war to block President Trump's Supreme Court nominee. Mr. Trump wrapped up interviews for that position just last week. He's set to unveil his choice in the East Room of the White House at primetime, 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

Two sources close the process tells CNN these are the most likely finalists. Neil Gorsuch, who sits on the federal appeals court in Denver, Thomas Hardiman of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and William H. Pryor Jr. of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. CNN has learned Democrats may not pull out all the stops to block the president's nominees. They are concerned that Republicans would deploy the nuclear option which reduces the threshold for carrying a filibuster from 60 votes to 51 votes.

ROMANS: All right. The big question on Wall Street this morning, will President Trump kill the Trump stock market rally, the rally he started by winning the election. The Dow had its biggest loss since election day, dropped to 122 points or half a percent. Futures are down again this morning and abrupt pull back after a 10 percent climb after Election Day. That was fueled by promises of lower tax rates and less regulation.

The White House press secretary isn't worried and says that market run up is just an added benefit of Trumponomics.


[04:10:05] SPICER: When you look not just at the ups and downs of a market, but you look at consumer confidence and a lot of the other market indicators, a Trump presidency brought a lot of confidence back to traders, to investors, more importantly to job creators. The overall commitment that businesses have to want to work with this administration, to add jobs, to create better jobs, to add benefits, to find out how the president can ease the regulatory burden they face. So, it's a holistic process that is being undertaken to unleash the American economy.


ROMANS: George Howell, remarkable to hear the press secretary to talk about the ups and downs of markets. Usually, in my experience, they try very hard not to talk about the day-to-day moves on the stock market.

What's so interesting about that moment in the press conference yesterday with Sean Spicer, is that it was happening as the stock market was falling apart.


ROMANS: Falling apart and here's why. All of the optimistic things you heard him talked about, about job creation, this idea of driving wedges within the Republican Party, many feel could derail all of the hope about tax reform and infrastructure. If you are going to have in-fighting over a travel ban, it takes Republicans off course for tax reform soon, at least.

HOWELL: This is an administration that likes to take credit for things. The Trump bump, as you're pointing out, not really keeping an eye to the numbers.

ROMANS: There are those saying pull back in the stock market is healthy. Nothing goes straight up. The growing division in Washington, president at odds with his party could delay a tax reform package. And that's what the mood was yesterday.

What investors want to see is the Republicans can get on message. They have a White House, both houses of Congress for the first time in ten years, they want tax reform and they want it quickly. And they think this infighting, this infighting over travel ban --

HOWELL: So much uncertainty.

ROMANS: Absolutely.

All right. So, confusion still over the president's travel ban. Not limited to the United States. Several European countries are trying to understand how it affects travelers there. We are live in London, next.


[04:16:16] HOWELL: Welcome back to EARLY START.

A third day of protests across the country and in Europe against President Trump's travel and immigration ban. Officials overseas scrambling to clarify what the executive order would mean for citizens with dual nationality.

Let's go live to London. Nina Dos Santos following the story with us this hour.

Good to have you with us.

Clarity seems to be hard to come by with his.

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, George. Just around 12 hours or so ago, the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson took to the floor here in the House of Commons behind me in parliament to say that the U.K. government had managed to get exemption for British citizens who hold dual nationalities with seven countries. But even in some of the U.K. press today, again, more confusion if the exception still holds.

In the meantime, we've got other foreign ministers of other European countries like France and Germany urgently trying to get clarification for citizens of theirs who hold those kinds of passports and also one of the other seven nationalities that is on the banned list at the moment.

And here in Westminster, this was the scene of some heavy protests yesterday evening as people took to the streets of the capital here in London, across other cities across the U.K. as well to protest against this travel ban. The U.K. foreign secretary saying that, well, he thought that the move to ban people for 90 days that do hold these seven passports was divisive and wrong.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May standing back from outright criticizing the U.S. government, and in the meantime, there is a growing fury over the imminent state visit of Donald Trump. You remember that Theresa May, the U.K. prime minister, extended the opportunity of the state visit from the queen to Donald Trump when she met Donald Trump a week ago in Washington, D.C. That is something else that people are growing angry about here in the U.K. They want to see it downgraded, some say, to a more minor role.

Back to you.

HOWELL: Nina Dos Santos with the confusion and the reaction from across the pond -- Nina, thank you so much.

ROMANS: All right. Despite the uproar over that travel ban, many of President Trump supporters, they remain in his corner. They like the ban, they like what they see right now about this president over the past two weeks working so quickly. We're going to hear from some of them, next.


[04:22:55] ROMANS: President Trump's controversial travel and refugee ban struck a nerve with many Americans. Tens of thousands of them took to the streets to protest the measure to express their outrage. But the move also has its share of supporters. And some of their backgrounds may surprise you.

More this morning from CNN's Martin Savidge in Atlanta.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I sat down and spoke to seven supporters of Donald Trump, all of whom said they voted for Donald Trump and all of whom now say they supported him on his immigration executive order.

Among them were two immigrants. They all essentially stressed one point, and that is national security and immigration in our modern and troubled world go hand-in-hand. That Donald Trump is actually carrying out his primary responsibility to the American people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How can you agree with our president that so many people are left on the airports? I'm saying, yes, there's a human side which I think -- which we could have done differently. But the intent -- I think the intent is right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I walk that same street in Nice with -- where the truck ran all over the people. So, I'm aware that we're just a few steps removed from terrible things that could happen. And I'm OK with the temporary stop so that we can re-evaluate where we are.

SAVIDGE: When I pointed out the majority of 9/11 attackers came from Saudi Arabia which wasn't on the list, they all admitted that the list is not necessarily perfect, but it is a start. They all only see it as temporary -- George and Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Thank you so much for that.

Canadian officials say the suspect in the shooting that left six people dead in the Quebec City mosque Sunday was a lone wolf. They identify the shooter as Alexandre Bissonette. The university student faces six counts of murder and five attempted murder charges. The Canadian public safety minister says the attack was on that would have been difficult to prevent. He says the nation's medium terror threat level remains unchanged. On Monday, marchers held a candlelight vigil at the mosque to honor those victims.

HOWELL: In a major shift, the Boy Scouts of America will begin accepting members based on the gender of which they identify, now opening the door for transgender boys to join.

[04:25:08] That means the Boy Scouts will no longer require birth certificates to determine membership eligibility. The new policy takes effect immediately. This move comes eight months after an 8- year-old Cub Scout in New Jersey accused the organization of kicking him out for being transgender.

ROMANS: All right. A stunner at the Department of Justice. A new acting attorney general is in after the old one was fired by the president for refusing to defend his travel ban. More on the fast moving and dramatic developments in Washington.


HOWELL: Breaking overnight: fast moving developments in Washington. The White House capping a dramatic day, installing a new acting attorney general after booting the old one out for refusing to back the president's travel ban.

ROMANS: This chaos overshadowing the lead-up to the president's big announcement today, his choice for the Supreme Court. More on the wild night and what lies ahead right now.