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President Trump Fires Acting Attorney General Sally Yates; President Trump to Announce Supreme Court Nominee; Interview with Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez; Interview with Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired January 31, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We have every angle covered for you starting with CNN's Jeff Zeleny. He is live at the White House. Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. I just talked to a senior administration official and they say that the president's announcement for this evening for the Supreme Court they believe will hold until this evening. They are going to try to keep it secret until then. But there is no question, Alisyn, this White House today is consumed by that extraordinary series of events that happened over the last 12 hours or so.

And it's not just criticism coming from Democrats. This White House is also listening to Republican criticism that is threatening to consume this young presidency.


ZELENY: 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 that the solemn obligation of the Department of Justice is to always seek justice and stand 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 boarders after she instructed the Justice Department to not defend the president's 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." Appointed by President Obama, Yates garnering major bipartisan support in 2015. Senator Jeff Sessions, who is currently awaiting confirmation as attorney general, seen here asking her is she would bend to political pressure from then President Obama?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), NOMINEE FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL: If the views the 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 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.

ZELENY: In another swift move on Monday night, President Trump naming Thomas Homan as the new acting director of the U.S. immigration and customs enforcement, demoting Dan Ragsdale to his previous position of deputy director.

Meantime the president's travel ban met with growing outrage in Washington and across the country. Only 10 days after leaving office, former President Barack 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.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that they should either get with the program or they can go.

ZELENY: All of this as President Trump moves up his Supreme Court nomination announcement by two days, scheduling a primetime address tonight.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think you will be very impressed with this person.


ZELENY: Now, there is no more important position that the president can appoint somebody to the Supreme Court. This of course is to replace the seat that's been vacant for a year, the late justice Antonin Scalia. Now, CNN has learned that the two leading candidates for this position are Neil Gorsuch, he's on the federal appeals court in Colorado, also Thomas Hardiman. He's on the federal appeals court in Pittsburgh. Gorsuch just 49, Hardiman is 51, so either of these two gentlemen would be serving for a very long time if confirmed. But Alisyn, those confirmation hearings now are also complicated by the fact that this immigration fight and this executive order will certainly be front and center, and the Democrats say they will fight whoever this president nominates.

CAMEROTA: Jeff, thank you very much for all of that.

President Trump Trump abruptly firing Sally Yates and naming an immediate new acting attorney general. How is all this playing inside the Justice Department? Let's bring in bring in CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez live from Washington. What are you hearing, Evan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. All weekend long Sally Yates wrestled with what to do about an executive order that the White House didn't consult her on. She was among several top lawyers in the Justice Department who didn't feel they could defend the order which bans most travel from seven Muslim majority countries. A chaotic weekend rollout led to emergency court hearings that showed how ill-prepared some government lawyers were to defend the executive order.

White House officials anticipated Monday that Yates might resign. Instead she wrote a memo ordering Justice Department attorneys not to defend the executive order. Her memo essentially invited the president to fire her. She was said, quote "For as long as I am the acting attorney general the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the executive order." And she was fired about four hours later.

[08:05:01] Dana Boente, the new acting attorney general, like Yates, was also an Obama appointee and he has now rescinded her memo. But by defying President Trump and getting fired, Yates became a big hero to many inside the department. On the other hand you have Justice Department lawyers who are very uncomfortable about this showdown. They think Yates should have just resigned without instructing subordinates not to defend the executive order. Chris?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Evan, thank you very much, appreciate it.

So President Trump's top pick for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, is about to be under the spotlight on Capitol Hill as his final hearing gets under way in just a few hours. Many are wondering if Jeff Sessions confirmation is going to become a referendum on the president's travel ban. CNN's Sunlen Serfaty live on Capitol Hill with more. Sunlen, I have no crystal ball, but I do know this -- Jeff Sessions is going to be asked to answer the question that he asked Sally Yates, will he tell the president truth when it comes to what is lawful and unlawful.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Chris, and that moment was really notable given all the questions right now that Senator Sessions is facing. He was already one of the more contentious nominees that Donald Trump picked. But the president's immigration executive action certainly is handing Democrats up here on Capitol Hill more fuel to their fire to push back on him.

You have top Democrats like Senator Schumer who is saying that Senator Sessions should go on the record one way or the other what he thinks about President Trump's travel ban. We know that Sessions, according to a written answer that he submitted to Senator Leahy overnight, he said he had no direct role in President Trump's recent executive order, but that answer likely doing little to quell the Democrats' concern here, who are frankly feeling emboldened by the public backlash over the immigration order and certainly will be asking these public questions today.

Now the Senate judiciary hearing gets under way at 9:30 today and Senator Sessions will not be there, but certainly we will hear from many Democrats airing their grievances and asking these public questions of Senator Sessions today and then will go on to a committee vote. Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: OK, Sunlen, thank you for that.

So let's bring in now a man who understands this situation better than most anybody. We have former attorney general Alberto Gonzalez. He is the author of "True Faith and Allegiance, A Conservative and Compassionate Approach to Immigration Reform," and he is currently the dean of Belmont University College of Law. Mr. Gonzalez, thank you very much for being here. What do you think about what has happened in the past 24 hours? Do you think that Sally Yates should have been filed?

ALBERTO GONZALEZ, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's certainly been extraordinary within the Department of Justice. And let me just say, I don't know Sally Yates, but by accounts she has done a tremendous service to the Department of Justice and to the American people.

Having said that, I think I tend to agree with those who are concerned about the fact that she should have resigned. And this whole episode has some very bizarre facts. As a typical matter, of course, the department of justice signs off on every executive order because in the event it's challenged, they are the ones that are going to defend it, and for those that are controversial, the fact that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general is not aware of what OLC Is considering and the advice the OLC was given, I would find that very unusual and perhaps a breakdown of the process within the Department of Justice.

CAMEROTA: Let's talk about that, because if she was not consulted -- I mean, if the reporting stands that she was not consulted, this blindsided her, she wasn't part of these discussions, then what does that tell you about how things are operating in the Trump White House?

GONZALEZ: Well, of course, it may be more of an indictment of what is going on in the Department of Justice because, listen, when I was in the White House we dealt with a lot of very sensitive terrorism issues, asking OLC to provide advice on a lot of classified information, but we always made it a point to allow OLC to consult with the attorney general or the deputy attorney general. I think that's vitally important. And the fact that that might not have occurred here to me is very troubling indeed.

Also interesting, of course, is the notion that the White House is dealing with congressional staffers and not dealing with the principles themselves on the capitol. That also is very puzzling to me.

CAMEROTA: Should the White House have reached out -- I know you said that might be a problem with the Justice Department, but should the White House, to your mind, have reached out to her?

GONZALEZ: I think there may have been expectation that OLC would have a discussion with the head of the department. That's what normally happens. But once the attorney general has an issue with an order from the White House, there should have been discussions between the attorney general and the White House council and the chief of staff, and then ultimately the president of the United States to advise the White House that she had serious concerns. [08:10:05] And at that point if the White House says we still want to move forward, I think it would have been appropriate for Sally Yates to then resign as opposed to sending out a blanket order to Department of Justice lawyers that they are not going to defend this executive order.

CAMEROTA: You, obviously, are well-equipped to talk about all of this. You resigned your post as attorney general, your tenure there was certainly no stranger to controversy. So help us understand this. When you had a difference of opinion, if you ever did, with President Bush, then what? Are you not supposed to be attorney general?

GONZALEZ: No, at that point you have a conversation with the White House, and ultimately hopefully with the president of the United States. And there was one instance where I had a very serious conversation with the president, and depending upon which direction the president was going to go, I was prepared to resign my position as attorney general, because the president is entitled to have his lawful orders carried out.

And the fact you have a disagreement, there are many lawyers have a different view, and obviously Boente has a different view about the legality of the executive order. I've listened to many commentator over the past 24 hours, some in agreement with Sally Yates interpretation but others who are in disagreement because this is a very complicated area, and as we all know, the president of the United States has a great deal of discretion with respect to immigration enforcement and the protection of our country. So this is not a black and white analysis from my perspective.

CAMEROTA: But Mr. Gonzalez, do you have any concern Mr. Trump may not be seeking out or even tolerating dissent?

GONZALEZ: Absolutely. I think it's very, very important for the president to have diverse views from members throughout his administration, and I think people within the administration should be confident, should be able to express freely their opinion as to whether or not something is lawful and as a matter of law, but also as to whether or not something represents good policy. As the attorney general, for example, I might say to the president, Mr. President, I believe this is lawful. But Mr. President as a matter of policy I am not sure this is a good idea and these are the reasons why.

CAMEROTA: Does this move of firing Sally Yates suggest that he is not engaging in those kinds of dialogues?

GONZALEZ: Again, it's hard for me to know. I don't know President Trump, and I don't know his views about lawyers. I don't know how he takes bad news. But I do believe it's very, very important for the Department of Justice and lawyers at the Department of Justice to be able to express their views freely. And I'm hoping in this particular case, acting attorney general, Sally Yates, has an opportunity to express her views directly to either the counsel and the chief of staff and hopefully to the president of the United States. Again, the presidential of the United States is entitled to have his lawful orders carried out, and I have concerns about the fact that a blanket directive to the attorneys not to enforce this executive order.

CAMEROTA: Mr. Gonzalez, do you think that refugees should be banned?

GONZALEZ: Listen, we have a long history as a country. We are a compassionate country to accept refugees, people that are in trouble. That is our nature, what is America. But we live in a post 9/11 world. It's a very dangerous time right now, and if we don't have the capability to fully vet individuals that come into this country, I think that present a serious challenge for the president of the United States.

CAMEROTA: But do you think we don't have the capability to fully vet? As we have heard, refugees go through an arduous vetting process that takes 18 months. Do you think that they are not being fully vetted?

GONZALEZ: What I worry about is oftentimes the vetting is based upon a database that may not exist. It's fine to have someone come in and say this is who I am, but the question is what kind of records exist back in those home countries, and oftentimes those records can be unreliable, and that's the concern that I have. Clearly we are much better today at vetting individuals. I don't have a problem with trying to do more to make sure the vetting process is more accurate and more complete. No question about that.

CAMEROTA: But until then people should be banned, in your mind?

GONZALEZ: Listen, I think until then what we need to do is do everything we can to make sure people are not coming into this country with evil intent. I am just talking about a very, very small percentage. But we all know that it's a very dangerous world and there are people out there that want to do harm to the United States. I listened to the earlier statement about homegrown terrorism. No question about it, we have our own challenges within our borders, but that doesn't mean we ignore totally what is going on outside our borders.

CAMEROTA: Mr. Alberto Gonzalez, thank you very much for being on NEW DAY. It is great to get your perspective.

GONZALEZ: Thank you for having me.


CUOMO: And again, bears repeating -- refugees are hardly ignored. They are the most vetted individuals who gain access into the United States. That's one reason that President Trump's immigrant travel ban is being felt not just in the seven Muslim-majority countries that are identified but all around the world.

[08:15:08] Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright joins us with her take, next.


CUOMO: The latest drama inside the Trump White House. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates fired for refusing to defend the travel ban in court, replaced hours later by a new acting AG who did vow to defend Trump's orders.

Joining us to discuss, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

And the pin tells the story, madam secretary. You've got the Statue of Liberty on your lapel this morning. Obviously what Emma Lazarus gifted us in "The New Colossus" at the foot of that statue is very much under review in the president's new policy. What is your concerns about the ban?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Every part of it, Chris, because what it is, in many ways it's anti-American and what this country stands for. It is -- we are a country that has been created and populated by people from other countries. And so the Statue of Liberty's message is, in fact, one of open arms and welcoming people. And I do think that there are tears in the eyes of the statue at the moment.

And I do think that the whole aspect of this, in terms of deciding that our safety and security depends on keeping people out rather than welcoming people and understanding what this country is about.

[08:20:05] So, I think it's just flat anti-American.

CUOMO: OK. So speak to the Americans who are afraid. ISIS wants to kill us. They are all Muslim. We need to be more careful about Muslims. These are bad countries that sponsor terror. Refugees, ISIS has said, they will infiltrate there into those programs. Then candidate Trump promised to keep us safe from the threat and now he's making good on it. I am satisfied. Speak to that person.

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that part of it here is that it has not made America safer. Let me just say, I think this was the most unprepared plan that I have ever seen in terms of the lack of coordination with other parts of the government. We're seeing that every hour where various departments were not, in fact, notified. So, unprepared.

Also, not clear about the unintended consequences of this decision. It has actually created more danger because there are countries that are now, in fact, not able to cooperate with us in terms of intelligence sharing or generally mistrust. There's going to be tit for tat where our people are kept out.

For instance, we have troops in Iraq now and so we have to worry about how they are going to be treated. And I think it's created chaos internationally. And then I think it is all not based on facts, undocumented. It is made up of various statements that don't make any sense.

So I think it is one of the worst decisions. And -- and then blaming a whole religion for this is truly outrageous and un-American. And I think the question is, there is danger in the world. There's no question about it. But all the facts that you've been presenting in terms of who are the ones that commit terrorist attacks, it is not people that come from those seven countries.

Why are the decisions made on the basis of what decisions? IS it because somebody has business in those countries? So -- of Arab countries, Muslim countries, Muslim majority countries. So there are lots of questions that have not been answered.

And part of what really bothers me is that this country is based on diversity and respecting diverse opinions. And what is happening is that this administration is making decisions based on the decisions of people that are uninformed about what is going on in the world. Disruption --

CUOMO: Well, let's talk about that.

ALBRIGHT: Well, disruption is interesting, Chris.

CUOMO: Right.

ALBRIGHT: Destruction is bad.

CUOMO: OK. So I take that distinction. But what's wrong with Sean Spicer saying, if you're not on the same page with the president and you work at the State Department, leave?

ALBRIGHT: I think it is one of the really a ridiculous statement -- and there have been so many in the last few days -- because part of what is important in our system is to hear people that have different views. The dissent channel in one of the most important parts of it. In many ways, it's kind of sacred to the Foreign Service because it gives people the opportunity to disagree and to have their views heard.

The secretary of state is supposed to take cognizance of that, meet with a lot of the people that have dissent. That's what this is about. And it would be useful if the people at the top of our governmentally actually read the Constitution.

CUOMO: Now, there is an actual mechanism within in the State Department for dissent. That's what the secretary's referring to. You can Google it yourself. But let's extend that concept to another move from the White House, to put Steve Bannon, a known sympathizer for white nationalism, with a seat at the table at the NSC, the National Security Council.

What about that in terms of having a dissenting view that the president trusts in on those meetings?

ALBRIGHT: Well, it's more complicated than that. I have been a part of those meetings when I was in the government. They are meetings that are based on the fact that the National Security adviser is somebody that wants to hear the different views of the people that are there. People that have experience in national security. Those from the State Department, the Defense Department, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the intelligence agencies that come in and have discussions. And they do have diversity and dissent. That's what makes them so important.

It is, however, to bring somebody in that is an extreme ideologue at a level that, in fact, is not allowing for that kind of information to -- people to express their views freely and then decide that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the intelligence agencies would only be invited if wanted, so it's a combination of those two decisions that undermines the National Security Council decision process that has been in place since 1947.

CUOMO: Bannon -- Bannon recently -

[08:25:00] ALBRIGHT: It doesn't mean that Bannon doesn't -- is not going to be listened to, but what he wants to do is destroy the state.

CUOMO: Right.

ALBRIGHT: That's what he said.

CUOMO: He said that -- by the way, he said that verbatim. He said, "I am a Leninist." And it was interesting that he would pick a Russian, and not only a Russian, but, you know, Lenin, for those who haven't done their homework, you know, he was the author of red terror who went through those who disagreed with his regime and put them to death or put them out and actually regretted it at the end of his life. An odd choice for Bannon. Interesting for him to offer that up.

One last thing while I have you, Madame Secretary. This Holocaust Remembrance Day, obviously near and dear to your soul and that of all Americans. What did you make of the White House not mentioning the murder of Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day?

ALBRIGHT: I found that stunning also because everybody knows how many Jews died in the Holocaust. There are those who want to deny that. I wouldn't -- I would be kind of surprised if people in the White House really thought that.

I think that it was really -- really unbelievable in terms of what day it was issued in Holocaust Memorial Day and not to understand the suffering and, by the way, that one of the things that people remember about the United States is that during the '30s, a ship of Jews was turned away from America. Is that the things that we want to remember is how we people -- how we turn people away from this country when they need help? So the combination is pretty bad, chaotic and disgusting.

CUOMO: Madeleine Albright, appreciate the perspective, as always.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

CUOMO: Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: All right, Chris.

There are plenty of questions and controversies surrounding President Trump's immigration travel ban. But the White House says it has widespread support from Americans. Is that true? We will get the bottom line and the numbers for you, next.