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Trump Fires Acting A.G., Set to Pick SCOTUS Nominee; Focus on Sessions as Trump Cabinet Pick Hearings Resume; Inside the DOJ Following Shake-up; White House Defends Bannon Security Council Appointment. Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired January 31, 2017 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The American dream is back.
[05:58:40] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has fired the acting attorney general, because she disagreed with his executive order.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This will give the Democrats an excuse for trying to delay the Sessions nomination.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're not going to wait and react.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This executive order, poorly masked, as a ban on Muslims.
SPICER: You don't know when the next threat is coming.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The former president is encouraging people to go into the streets, because Trump has obstructed American principles.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Mr. President, I'm not trying to start World War III. I'm trying to win the war we're in.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Tuesday, January 31, 6 a.m. in the east. And up first, welcome to the new abnormal.
Trump has dug himself in on controversial positions and created tension with his party and allies around the world, and he's done it all in just 12 hours. The president sending a hand-delivered letter to the acting attorney general, firing her for refusing to defend his travel ban, shortly after a new acting A.G. was sworn in promising to, quote, "defend the lawful orders of our president." Then, the Trump administration naming a new acting ICE director as questions remain about how the suspect travel ban that all -- started all this is going to be implemented at airports across the country. ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So it's been a stunning 12 hours, and
the next 12 hours will also be action-packed. Mr. Trump preparing a primetime announcement tonight for his Supreme Court pick, as more cabinet picks face confirmation votes today and possibly more delays.
All of this as the president enters his 12th day in office. We have every angle covered, starting with CNN's Jeff Zeleny, live at the White House. Give us the latest, Jeff.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn.
It has been an extraordinary series of event overnight here at the White House. Once again, this administration shaken by this. But I can tell you, there are some Republicans this morning wondering why the president did not hold off until he had his attorney general in place to sign this executive order in the first place, which would have avoided all of this.
All of this is what Democrats are calling a Monday night massacre.
ZELENY (voice-over): In an extraordinary move, President Trump firing acting attorney general Sally Yates. Her dismissal coming via hand- delivered letter, only hours after she stood in defiance of the president's travel ban. Yates writing in a letter she is not convinced the executive order is lawful, citing the solemn obligation of the Department of Justice to always seek justice and stand for what is right.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: We had a Monday night massacre. Sally Yates, a person of great integrity, who follows the law, was fired.
ZELENY: The White House attacking the career prosecutor, claiming Yates "betrayed the Department of Justice" and is "weak on borders." After she instructed the Justice Department not to defend the president's executive order on immigration and refugees. Immediately following, the swearing in of new acting attorney general Dana Boente. Yates's replacement rescinding her guidance right away, directing the Department of Justice to, quote, "defend the lawful orders of our president."
SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: I want to make sure I have the law and the facts.
ZELENY: Appointed by President Obama in 2015, Yates garnering major bipartisan support. Senator Jeff Sessions, who's currently awaiting confirmation as attorney general, seen her asking her if she'd bend to political pressure from then-President Obama.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: The views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general, or the deputy attorney general say no? YATES: Senator, I believe that the attorney general or deputy
attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the president.
ZELENY: In yet another swift move Monday night, President Trump naming Thomas Homan as the new acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, demoting Dan Ragsdale to his previous position of deputy director.
Meanwhile, the president's travel ban met with growing outrage in Washington.
GRAHAM: Your executive order was too broad. You didn't vet it.
ZELENY: And across the country.
Only ten days after leaving office, former President Obama weighing in. A spokesman saying, "The protests are exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake."
Trump's White House slamming any opposition, telling dissenting State Department officials to quit their posts if they disagree with the policy.
SPICER: I think that they should either get with the program or they can go.
ZELENY: All this as President Trump moves up his Supreme Court nomination announcement by two days, scheduling a primetime address tonight.
TRUMP: And I think you will be very impressed with this person.
ZELENY: Now, the president has met personally with at least three finalists for that Supreme Court position. Of course, that's to replace the yearlong vacancy of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
CNN has learned that the two leading candidates are Neil Gorsuch, who's on the federal bench in Colorado; and Thomas Hardiman, who is also on the federal bench in Pittsburgh. Both of these men are about 50 years old, so this is, of course, a lifetime appointment. But now the confirmation hearing of whoever is decided is going to also be embroiled in this legal fight over immigration -- Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: What a day that we are just beginning. Jeff, thank you very much for all that.
Several Senate committee votes scheduled for today also as President Trump's cabinet nominees. Now, the one that everyone will be focusing on is pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions. That is now seen as something of a referendum on the Trump travel ban.
CNN's Sunlen Serfaty live on Capitol Hill with more. What do we expect, Sunlen?
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn.
Well, Senator Sessions' confirmation hearing was already one of the most contentious; but the outcry over Donald Trump's executive actions and orders really adding some fuel to the Democrat fire here and pushing that specifically against Senator Sessions.
You have top Democrats like Senator Schumer who are saying -- demanding that Senator Sessions come down and say publicly if he agrees or disagrees with President Trump's travel ban. Now, we know Senator Sessions, in a written statement, Chairman Leahy overnight since released says he has no direct role in President Trump's recent executive orders.
[06:05:02] But certainly, for many Senate Democrats, who are feeling emboldened in the moment by the public backlash over this travel ban will be pushing him further to say whether he agrees with it or disagrees with this. All of this likely to play out today as Sessions faces a committee vote in Senate Judiciary -- Chris.
CUOMO: All right, Sunlen. Thank you very much.
So Sally Yates' abrupt firing and naming of an immediate replacement for the acting attorney general really muddies the water between justice and politics. All this as Senator Sessions is expected to take over soon.
How is it going to play out inside the Justice Department? We've got CNN's Evan Perez live from Washington.
And boy, you couldn't get a more on-the-nose exchange than then- Senator Sessions talking to Sally Yates about whether or not she would bend to political pressure and enforce an unlawful law.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Chris.
Well, all weekend long, Sally Yates wrestled with what to do about an executive order that the Trump White House just simply did not consult her on. She was among several top lawyers in the department who didn't feel that they could defend the order, which bans most travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Trump aides wrote the order largely in secret, without the input of Republican lawmakers with jurisdiction over immigration, and they unveiled it on Friday without providing very many details to frontline homeland security employees on how to deal with passengers that were already in the air.
The chaotic roll-out led to emergency court hearings that showed how ill-prepared government lawyers were to defend the executive order. Yates is an Obama appointee, but she's also a career Justice Department lawyer who has worked as a federal prosecutor for nearly three decades and, by standing up to President Trump and getting fired, Yates also became a big hero to many inside the department.
But at the same time, other Justice Department lawyers are very uncomfortable with this showdown. They think Yates should have just resigned without instructing subordinates not to defend the executive order. The new acting attorney general, Dana Boente, is an Obama appointee also, and he has now rescinded her decision -- Chris, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Evan, thank you very much for all of that. We have a lot to discuss with our panel. Let's bring them in. CNN political analyst, David Gregory; CNN political analyst, Washington bureau chief for "The Daily Beast," Jackie Kucinich and Matt Lewis. Thank you very much for being here. It's a very important morning.
Just to get us started, read Sally Yates' statement that she gave last night, because the language is quite strong. And let's just read it again for our viewers. She said, "I am responsible for insuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution's solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful." She was gone shortly after that.
David Gregory, what's happened in the past 12 hours?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, she took a principled stand. The Trump administration doesn't like the independence of the Justice Department, but that's what it's supposed to be. You could argue, if you're opposed to what she did, that this is just politics by another name on her part, as a holdover from the Obama administration.
But there are a lot of people who think there are at least parts of this executive order that are unlawful, that the courts are going to have to intervene, and that maybe Congress has to intervene.
And there's no question that the social fabric of the country has been torn apart by this. You see people in the streets who think this is un-American, because it's clear that the Trump administration didn't just want to improve upon the vetting that already exists. They had to do the most dramatic, the most bold, and the most offensive to a lot of Muslims around the world, which is to put this ban in place. And by taking that more extreme step, you've seen the reaction.
CUOMO: All right. So let's play again -- I know it was just in the piece, but it's early; everybody is waking up. Jeff Sessions will probably be the next attorney general. Exactly this conflict between politics and justice played out in Yates' confirmation hearing with Jeff Sessions. Listen to the exchange they had.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SESSIONS: If the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?
YATES: 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)
CUOMO: Matt Lewis, do you believe that Jeff Sessions can give that same answer right now and work for President Trump?
MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do. Look, and I think that President Trump's executive order might be bad policy. It was certainly rolled out haphazardly and provocatively, and I would actually argue that maybe the chaos is not unintentional.
But I do believe that it is legal; and a lot of legal experts agree. That the president has wide discretion to make these sorts of decisions. Of course, President Obama paused refugees coming in, you know, migrants coming in from Iraq.
[06:10:11] CAMEROTA: Slowed it down, they would say.
CUOMO: Right. Yes. But you -- somebody -- you could use the same argument to say, "Well, that's, you know, that's not legal."
I think that she made a mistake here, and I do not think that -- even though I think it's a very interesting clip, I think that she actually is the one who erred legally, maybe not morally but legally here.
CUOMO: You are not a lawyer.
LEWIS: I'm not. I just play one occasionally.
CUOMO: Right. I think that's -- I think it's an important distinction, though, Jackie Kucinich. This is somebody who's a career -- this is somebody who is a career prosecutor. She's in the business of deciding whether or not something is lawful or unlawful.
And Matt is right: There are legal experts who say everything in here is legal. And there are a hell of a lot who don't say that, and there are federal judges who've moved against the actions taken in furtherance of this order. To say there is no legal question is at best generous to the president at this point, isn't it?
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Again, I'm not -- I'm not a lawyer either, but I would like to remind everyone that this particular order was drafted by one of Jeff Sessions' very close aides, Stephen Miller. So on this question, it is a matter of legal opinion, clearly, because you have people on both sides who can argue both sides of this issue.
But, again, the law isn't necessarily my expertise, but it seems like this is something that's going to be debated. That said, I don't know that this imperils Jeff Sessions. I don't think this changed a lot of Republican minds. They're angry. They didn't know about this to begin with. But I don't know that they're going to take that -- I doubt they take that out on Jeff Sessions.
CUOMO: David, I know that you say that the Justice Department is supposed to be independent. Obviously, there's been lots of talk about whether or not it's been politicized. And in fact, the White House released this statement after Yates' firing that they certainly thought that she was political.
"The acting attorney general, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration."
I mean, don't you expect the attorney general to be, if not in lock- step with the president, to share the president's world view?
GREGORY: It's OK to share the president's world view. And I understand the anger within the White House. To disagree with her legal opinion is one thing. To then take the extra step and try to take her down, because she's an Obama appointee who they needed to be there, because their person wasn't confirmed yet is something other.
You know, you're not in a political brawl every day.
And yes, the Justice Department is independent of the executive. It's a political appointment at the top of the Justice Department, but there's certainly plenty of examples of disagreements between attorneys general and the president. Go back to the Clinton administration and how Clinton got along with Janet Reno.
So look, she's rendered a legal judgment here. And there are federal judges who have -- who have attacked some parts of this. And Matt is also right. There's wide discretion.
But what you're seeing from the Trump administration is a scorched- earth strategy on this. And what exactly was the harm? I mean, again, if they wanted to crack down on this, they could have tightened up existing vetting procedures.
You know, if you're a Syrian refugee, it's not like going to Disneyland, coming to America. It takes months. So they could have tightened it up. They could have restricted the flow.
Here, they wanted a ban; and the president talked about wanting a Muslim ban for his whole campaign. And Rudy Giuliani said he wanted a Muslim ban. He wanted to find out how to do it legally. So they sent a message. And America's reputation is being hurt.
They don't care in the White House. And they think that, at any time the media hyperventilates or that the Democrats weenies complain about it, all the better. That's, of course, their charting in the first 12 days.
CUOMO: Well, you don't have to hyperventilate, because this is all calm. There is no reason to make it more than what it is on its face. It smacks of a very authoritarian outlook towards government.
Kellyanne Conway says, "Hey, why aren't you firing people who said bad things about Donald Trump and predicted..."
CAMEROTA: In the media.
CUOMO: "... he would lose in the media?" Yes. You have "This attorney general doesn't agree with me. They're out."
You have Sean Spicer saying, "Hey, these career people who make this State Department function, they don't like what they do, they should get out."
This is very clear in terms of what they want. It is, as David says, a scorched-earth policy. How do you feel about that as a conservative?
LEWIS: Well, I think it's like the roll-out, obviously, people are saying it was botched or it was incompetent. I think that's actually part of the strategy.
I mean, I think that Donald Trump said he was going to be a disruptive force. And I think that Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, this is not an accident or a mistake. I think that they actually view politics as a continuous battle, and right now they're flooding the zone.
There are other executive orders that aren't being paid attention to, because we're focused on this.
[06:15:12] So I think this is part of their philosophy of how to govern. It's going to be a constant battle, and it's going to be being provocative, sometimes for the sake of being provocative.
CAMEROTA: We have much more to talk about in terms of the cabinet confirmations today.
CUOMO: Holding the strings at the White House.
CAMEROTA: We'll get into all that. Panel, stick around.
CUOMO: President Obama speaking out for the first time since he left office. What he said, and will President Trump respond? Our panel discusses, next.
CUOMO: We're hearing from former President Obama for the first time since leaving office. He's speaking out against the Trump immigration travel ban.
Let's bring back our panel: David Gregory, Jackie Kucinich and Matt Lewis.
Let's put out what the president had to say about this. Where is his statement? "President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country. Citizens exercising their constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by the elected officials, exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake."
[06:20:00] He goes on to defend that, Matt Lewis, what he did in 2011 was not a ban. It was in direct response to a threat that had been posed by an Iraqi. It was about traveling to those places, not simply being from those places. So the idea of same country, same policy is bogus.
LEWIS: Yes. It's certainly not exactly the same, and people are saying should President Obama be speaking out about this now? After all, President Bush sort of, you know, faded away. Right. And there's a sense that that's an appropriate thing to do. You have to let the new president sort of have some space.
I felt like this statement was -- was pretty tempered. This was not somebody flying off the handle. This was a pretty modest and moderate statement. And I also think, just in this day and age, with Donald Trump breaking all of the rules, to expect President Obama to kind of go quiet -- completely go dark, I think is...
CUOMO: Especially if they're going to falsely interpret Obama's policy to defend Trump's controversial policy, someone has got to speak out.
CAMEROTA: And Jackie, there you have it. The rule book has been thrown out...
CAMEROTA: ... so while presidents often respected that tradition of "I'm no longer in the Oval Office. I cede to my successor." That clearly is not what President Obama is going to do in these times, where the new normal is anything but that.
KUCINICH: President Obama hinted at this, in his going-away speech, that he would speak up if he felt the need to do that. I don't know that he would have thought he would be doing it this soon, perhaps.
But he did -- he did signal that this could -- that this could be something that he would do. And, listen, you know, as Matt said, this was very tempered. I don't think that President Obama really wanted to do this, but his policy is the one that Trump -- the Trump administration is presenting as the basis for their own, and that as you said, Chris, is not the case.
GREGORY: May I just add I think it's also a popular outgoing president who's uniquely in a position to try to stiffen the spines of Democrats in Congress and around the country. He wants to play that role, and you know, Democrats have some thinking to do and some strategizing to do. Between the march on women, some of the other areas of opposition.
I think there is a progressive movement. While it's trying to figure itself out, it's galvanized. And it's going to stay in the streets. I think a lot of the divisions in this country now because of Trump have become more social than political. I think we're in a different -- different day here.
CUOMO: Also, they've been given a big gift in the form of Steve Bannon. Clearly, he has the influence that many feared he would. He just went on record describing himself as a Leninist, saying that he wants to destroy the state. LEWIS: Now, that's the thing that I think people need to understand
when they talk about this botched roll-out. Like, he's not playing by the typical "This is how you run a campaign. This is how you do public relations."
LEWIS: This guy is a radical. He is a revolutionary. He has studied how to be disruptive. He believes in a philosophy of constant combat. Most Americans, we like comity; we like peace. He believes that the way you achieve your goals is through constant conflict. In a way, he studied leftists like Saul Alinsky, I would say like other revolutionaries, by design.
CUOMO: As a conservative, to know that the head of the DNI, the DNI and the head of the joint chiefs have been replaced with a political operative that doesn't get Senate confirmation, who has said that he marvels at Lenin, the author of Red Terror, where they killed people who were their political opponents. So harsh that even Lenin regretted it at the end of his life. You're OK with him being in that seat of power?
LEWIS: I think he should have a vote, certainly. But I do think we should know that this is a guy who's the Marco Rubio line, you know, about let's not pretend that Steve Bannon doesn't know exactly what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Like, he has a philosophy that I think is studied from pretty radical and revolutionary people. This is not your normal American politics, Republican Party politics.
CAMEROTA: And, yet, Jackie, the Trump White House is sort of pretending, "Nothing to see here. Yes, Steve Bannon will now be, you know, sitting in on these National Security Council meetings, but you know what? David Axelrod did that, as well."
David Axelrod has responded. Let me read that: "I was not a member of the committee. I did not speak or participate. I sat on the sidelines as a silent observer with Robert Gibbs, because we would be called upon to publicly discuss the president's decision on that critical matter and the process by which he arrived at. Our access came with limits." Unlike Steve Bannon's now.
KUCINICH: Well, right. And the joint chiefs has pushed back a little bit on this and says that he would be part of the meetings. But that said, yes, this is highly unusual. Steve Bannon, despite being a student of war and TheDailyBeast.com has a good story about that today on the website. He doesn't have any -- and real experience. He was in the Navy, but any real military experience in terms of policy. He doesn't have it. He is a disrupter.
[07:25:14] And he and Stephen Miller, who's playing a big part in policy, have been bomb throwers. They haven't been legislators. And this is -- this is just the beginning, to Matt's point, to how they're going to run things.
CUOMO: David, the one good piece of news for people who are afraid by the right hand of the president being a Leninist, is that there's very little threat of communism meeting Donald Trump's ear with any type of favor. However, are you surprised at how susceptible our president seems to this extreme thought?
GREGORY: No, I'm not surprised. I mean, I think even supporters of Trump questioned his qualifications and his temperament for the job. His obsession with his own legitimacy, his taste for the jugular, for his opponents even, as he's the president is only enforced or fortified by Steve Bannon, who is this kind of enigmatic figure, who is a key adviser.
So his influence is growing. He's more secretive. We know how pugilistic he is. And now these policies are going to be determined one at a time, and they're going to be evaluated by the courts, by Congress and by the public. Look, this is a minority president with lower approval ratings and a hardcore base. And we're going to see how this plays out, day at a time, policy at a time.
But again, as long as these divisions in the country get more entrenched, become more social, I think the president is losing an opportunity early on, particularly with foreign policy, to send a kind of message to the public about what's most important. You know, does he want to be free of politics and these influences? Does he want the military to have a good role or is he going to go entirely a different way? America first. Isolationist. Ethnic and economic nationalism. If he goes down that path, I think it's going to become increasingly divisive in the country.
CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you.
CUOMO: All right. There's a lot of news coming out of D.C. after a staff shake-up that we just heard about there.
But first, a big change for the Boy Scouts of America. Children previously banned will now be able to join the troop. Who? When? Next.