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Dems as Sessions to Step Aside; Trump Meets with Netanyahu; White House Talks Two State Solution; Trump Picks Face GOP Resistance. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D), RANKING MEMBER, HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: I think what we have to do is look at it and give the public the clearest view, an unbound, unabridged view so that they can see exactly what's going on. For Attorney General Sessions to be involved in this clearly puts a cloud over whether or not an investigation can be conducted fairly. So to push it aside makes a big difference.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Congressman, you know, aside from the fact of the reporting that is out there, again, extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the election, Michael Flynn, his contact with the Russian ambassador discussing sanctions, do you have any concerns about how this information is coming forward, the fact that there are apparently leaks from the intelligence establishment?

THOMPSON: Well, any time you have a president saying I know more about what's going on in the world than the intelligence community, it raises serious questions on those professionals who do it every day. And I think that -

BERMAN: Are you saying - are you saying he asked for this? Are you saying he asked for this?

THOMPSON: Well, you know, these individuals don't see party. They do a good job. I've served on the Republican and Democratic administrations, and we always look at the professionals just like that. We don't impugn their integrity. We don't impugn what they do. I think the president made a mistake by trying to dumb down the professionals in the intelligence community. And so what we have now is clearly that community saying, well - and I don't know if the intelligence community is providing this information. All I know is thank God for the press because otherwise members of Congress are not getting it.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: So to the crux of John's question, it sounds like you're saying he deserves it a bit. That aside, do you believe that it's appropriate for any member of the intelligence committee, no matter how mad they may be at the president for things he said, to leak this information that are - that is intercepts with adversaries?

THOMPSON: No, no, no. Well, yes, I don't want you to - I'm not trying to say that. What I'm saying is, is the president, by saying this, creates conflict within his own departments. Now, whether or not they leaked it, I have no information. All I have is, for whatever reason, members of the press get the information before members of Congress. We are interested, as members of Congress, to find out exactly what went on. I know there are transcripts of some of the phone calls. As a member of Congress, I'd like to see those transcripts in a classified setting to know exactly what was said. You know, we still have the Logan Act which says private citizens can't conduct foreign policy. So there are some conflicts going on that I think this independent commission can clearly resolve.

BERMAN: We should note, your Republican colleague, Ron DeSantis, was on just a few minutes ago -

HARLOW: He said the same thing.

BERMAN: He says he'd like to see the transcripts as well. He actually wants to make them public. So you guys should get together on that. We would welcome the release of that information.

Congressman Bennie Thompson, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate your time, sir.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, just over two hours from now, a very big moment at the White House.


BERMAN: Donald Trump meets with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They are going to hold a news conference. A lot of questions about that. Will he confront the Russian controversy head on?


[09:37:48] BERMAN: We have not heard yet directly from President Trump about the new reports about campaign contacts with Russian officials -


BERMAN: Nor have we heard from him since Michael Flynn was pushed out of his job at the NSA as chairman - or national security adviser. But we will get a chance to hear from President Trump very, very shortly. He holds a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

HARLOW: Right, that's going to happen in just a few hours. We will, of course, carry it live for you here.

These are two leaders who like each other a lot. They have traded compliments many times. Today they will get to pat each other on the back in person.

Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is live in Washington with more. What a shift this will be from the relationship between Bibi Netanyahu

and President Obama. But there are a lot of questions, Elise, about a two-state solution, about settlements, a lot of key - not to mention Iran, that the two men have to talk about.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. And I think, you know, everyone's describing this meeting today that's going to be a real love fest between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump, really trying to rekindle that relationship after, you know, eight years of acrimony with President Obama. And I think initially, you know, they're still in the honeymoon phase. You know, President Trump has been very clear about his unequivocal support for Israel. But I think, you know, as the two leaders start to get together and go down the road and talk about what - whether there should be a two-state solution, whether - you know, what president - Prime Minister Netanyahu could do to deliver on some of these things, I think, you know, you're always going to find that relationship does tend to get a little tense.

The issues on the table today, Iran is really front and center. That's one of the main issues that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to come speak about, not just that nuclear deal, but also trying to curb Iran's other behavior in the region, particularly in Syria. He also wants President Trump's help in terms of normalizing relations with the Arab states. That's something that Israel thinks is very important. Syria will also be on the table. But I think what Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to find, unless he's willing to give a little on the Palestinian question, those other things like normalizing relations are going to be very hard.

[09:40:02] So President Trump said a lot of things on the campaign trail. I think now the realities of governing, you know, are going to start to hit him. And the more he hears from Arab leaders and Jared Kushner, who he's kind of designated to be his peace envoy, if you will, is hearing from these Arab leaders that, look, you know, we want to work with Israel if you're willing to bend on the Israeli question - on the Palestinian question.

BERMAN: Elise Labott for us in Washington, thank you so much.

Obviously this meeting comes at a key time for both leaders.


BERMAN: Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump.

Joining us now to discuss this, Daniel Kurtzer. He's the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under George W. Bush. He's now a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton.

Ambassador, thank you so much for being with us.

The White House held a background briefing yesterday and let it be known that President Trump will no longer insist on the two-state solution as the ultimate goal for Mideast policy. How big of a statement is that, and is it the right decision? DANIEL KURTZER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL UNDER GEORGE W. BUSH:

Well, John, on one level it's not that meaningful because in practical terms the objective is peace, and that's what the White House statement said. But if the White House believes that there really is an alternative to a two-state outcome, then it hasn't done its homework. Previous administrations have tried very hard to pursue all kinds of options and have thought through many different possibilities. And you always come back to the two-state reality because that's the one that the two peoples want. We see it in polling. We see it in the attitudes of governments.

So I think the White House will come around at some point. They may be sending this signal more for Netanyahu's political purposes back home so as not to give him trouble with the right wing of his coalition.

HARLOW: But if the White House does come around and focus on a two- state solution as you note, there are still many, many questions, especially questions that Palestinians raised about what Benjamin Netanyahu means when he says a two-state solution. Does he mean an independent and equally sovereign Palestinian state in places like Gaza, like the West Bank, like east Jerusalem? I mean that's a really important nuance if you're going to get the White House on the same page as the Netanyahu administration.

KURTZER: Oh, it sure is, Poppy. And there's no indication so far, either from during the campaign or since, that the administration has assimilated the reality that there are two parties who have to negotiate peace. There seems to be a predisposition to support the Israeli position. There's a lot of interaction between Israeli officials and the administration. Very little interaction so far between the administration and the Palestinians. A report today that the CIA director is meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. But there really needs to be an intensive discussion on both sides of this conflict to understand both their narratives and their requirements.

BERMAN: The White House has backed off a little bit on some of the more stringent stands that candidate Trump made during the election season, right?


BERMAN: He's no longer talking about moving the embassy. He may still want to do it, but he's not saying it every time he talks about Israeli, moving the embassy to Jerusalem. He has been somewhat critical of settlement construction, for instance. Why do you think he's done that, backed off a little bit?

KURTZER: Well, I think he's come to realize there's a difference between campaigning and governing. You walk through the doors of the Oval Office and you start to see different sides of the question that you were able to portray rather simplistically on the campaign trail. You know, it makes for a good sound bite during the campaign to say, let's move the embassy to Jerusalem. Every candidate for president in the last 30 years has said that, and every one who has been elected has come to the conclusion that that would not be wise if we want to see progress in the peace process. And so I think slowly but surely there is this educational process taking place, and maybe over time the administration will adopt a position that is more solidly based on the fact that they've got to deal with two sides to this conflict.

HARLOW: So we're fascinated to get your take on the fact that it doesn't look like it will be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson trying to negotiate a Mideast peace deal like Secretary of State John Kerry tried to do. It will be, you know, 35-year-old son-in-law of the president, Jared Kushner, who - I mean there was a big "New York Times" piece on it over the weekend. He has certainly background in this. The question is, does he have the depth of knowledge. What do you make of that move, that the president has really tapped him to try to get the greatest deal done? If it's possible to get it done, he thinks he's the one to do it.

KURTZER: Well, you know, the good news, based on previous experience, is that Kushner would obviously have the full backing of the president. And we've seen experiences in the peace process where even secretaries of state sometimes go out without the president being fully committed. So that's a good part of this. Kushner would have to do a lot of homework. But when he walks into the room, I think Israelis and Palestinians would understand he's got the president behind him.

[09:45:14] On the other hand, it would be equally wise for Mr. Kushner to make sure that Secretary Tillerson is very much a part of this process. You know, an envoy travels once in a while. State Department representatives are there 24/7 and can be helpful to a great degree to a special envoy's work.

HARLOW: All right, former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, nice to have you on. Thank you.

BERMAN: You know, it's interesting, I've talked to other seasoned diplomats, too, like the ambassador there -


BERMAN: And they too were not dismissive of the idea that Jared Kushner could play a vital role here.

HARLOW: Yes. Look, it hasn't worked in the past. Secretary of state after secretary of state after secretary of state.

BERMAN: At least you know he's got the president's ear.

HARLOW: Absolutely.

All right, showdown on Capitol Hill. President Trump's pick for labor secretary and budget director in jeopardy after some Republican senators are refusing to green light their nominations. The GOP's leadership last-ditch effort to galvanize support is next.


[09:50:35] HARLOW: The president's choice for labor secretary and budget director both in jeopardy this morning. This because some Republican senators are threatening to vote against their confirmation. Our Manu Raju joins us from The Hill with more.

You're not just talking about one or two. We're looking at four GOP holdouts when it comes to Puzder.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right. And there's a good chance that he could win over some, if not all of those four senators if he does well at that confirmation hearing this Thursday. Those senators are still uncertain if they're going to support him because of some of his past views, they want to know what he has to say, as well as his record in running a fast food empire, but as well as some liabilities and controversies from the past, including his hiring of an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper, as well as revelations from a very messy divorce from some three decades ago in which his ex-wife at the time was leveling domestic abuse allegations against him and also appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in disguise to talk about it.

Now, she has since dropped those charges and she supports him whole- heartedly, but, still, that episode of "Oprah" in particular has gotten some attention from senators who reviewed it in a private setting. I had a chance to talk to one of those, Patty Murray of Washington, who looked at it and said she has concerns after reviewing that tape.


RAJU: You saw the "Oprah" video. What did you think of that?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D), WASHINGTON: Well, I think it's very troubling.

RAJU: You have concerns?

MURRAY: I'm not going to comment on this case. I think there's a lot in this nominee's background, comments that he's made, that are very troubling, and should be to all of us, about someone whose job is going to be to protect workers in the workplace.

RAJU: Will you - will you -

MURRAY: Whether it's the ads that he has put out there, comments he has made in the past, issues of sexual harassment, how he treats and respects women.

RAJU: Will you ask him about the "Oprah" tape in the hearing?

MURRY: I haven't decided yet.


RAJU: So she said she hasn't decided whether to ask him about it, but expect the defense to be that even if he is asked about that "Oprah" tape, that he's going to point to his ex-wife, who said that she regretted showing up on that episode, only sought - went there for a free trip to Chicago in the late - in 1900. Now, Mick Mulvaney, who's Donald Trump's pick to be budget director,

also could face problems if Republicans - enough Republicans vote against him. I - a couple of sources are telling me that Thad Cochran, the Senate appropriations chairman, has not yet decided whether to support him because of his concerns over Mulvaney's views of defense spending. And that comes after John McCain has also raised concerns. So we could be viewing another 50/50 tie in the Senate. Mike Pence would have to break it if that were to happen.

John and Poppy.

BERMAN: All right, Manu Raju for us on Capitol Hill.

All right, the big question on Capitol Hill today is on the news of the day -


BERMAN: Which is this new reporting about Russian contacts with the Trump campaign during the election season. What will Congress do about this? Well, in just a few minutes, we may get a better sense. There's going to be a bipartisan news conference. It was scheduled to be on the issue of Russian sanctions. A coincidental subject matter. You can bet it's going to turn to the idea of investigation.

Stay with us.


[09:57:57] HARLOW: As one of the most popular comedians on television during the '60s and '70s, the queen of comedy, Carol Burnett, changed what it means to be a woman in show business.

BERMAN: This week on CNN's original series "History of Comedy," we take a look at the women who redefined comedy forever.


LUCILE BALL, COMEDIENNE: I have never thought of it as a hindrance, as something that we shouldn't do. We just go ahead and do them. We don't think how we look.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it easy, for instance, if you decide to be sexy and funny at the same time?

CAROL BURNETT, COMEDIENNE: Oh, yes, very easy.

BALL: It may be easier for you, Carol.

CARL REINER, ACTOR, WRITER, DIRECTOR: Carol Burnett is the single most talented woman or performer ever. She could do everything.

KLIPH NESTEROFF, CURATOR, NATIONAL COMEDY CENTER: She started on "The Garry Moore Show" and became a big star. People forget just how much she was a part of the culture at one point in time.

BURNETT: I did not think that I would want to ever - could ever host a variety show.

Welcome to our - our first show that we're doing. I'm real excited and very - very happy that you're all with us tonight. Looks like we got a nice full group. Could you bump up the lights so I could see? Ooh, gorgeous!

They had an image of a fellow in a tuxedo coming out and doing a monologue, and how will a woman - you know, will they take a woman doing this? And we said, well, I hope they'll take me, at least for 13 weeks, you know. And it worked. It worked for 11 years. I never thought it would go that long.


BERMAN: Of course you can watch "The History of Comedy" tomorrow night at 10:00 p.m. right here on CNN.

The next hour of CNN NEWSROOM begins right now.

HARLOW: Good morning, everyone. Top of the hour. 10:00 a.m. Eastern. I'm Poppy Harlow.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. Thanks so much for joining us.

Big questions swirling around the White House this morning surrounding our new reports of frequent contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials during the election season and now big questions about what Congress will do about it. We might learn in just a few minutes.

[10:00:05] You're looking at live pictures right now from Capitol Hill. A bipartisan group of lawmakers holds a news conference in just a short bit. Late last night, sources told CNN that senior Trump