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White House Stands behind Sessions; U.S. Hunting for Contacts found in Raid; Lawmakers Turn up the Heat on Sessions; Russian Ambassador Kislyak; Trump Speaks Aboard USS Gerald R. Ford. Aired 2- 2:30p ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, right here on CNN.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Brooke Baldwin.

This is CNN's special live coverage of a chaotic day in the Trump administration. The president is just moments away from speaking live aboard the USS General Ford.

But this comes amid a major firestorm involving his attorney general, calls from both parties growing for Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation over ties between Trump aides and Russia. All of this after it was revealed that Sessions met with Russian's ambassador twice. This included a formal sit down in Session's office. This happening all during the election season, during these cyberattacks by Russia.

The top Democrat in the House says Session lied about those meetings and she is demanding that he resigns, Well, why? This is why. Because in an online questionnaire for his confirmation in which he was asked, quote, "several of the president-elect's nominees or senior advisors have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day?" "No," he responded simply.

Also on camera this exchange.


SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president- elect last week that included information that, quote, Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump." These documents also allegedly stated, quote, "there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermarries for the Russian government."

Now, again, I'm telling you this as it's coming out, so, you know. But if it's true, it's obviously extremely serious. And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in the campaign and I didn't have - not have communications with the Russians.


KEILAR: Sessions' first meeting with the ambassador came during the Republican Convention in July. It appears to be a more informal meeting. But the second time was a private meeting in September at Sessions' Senate office. The attorney general today defending himself.


JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that. So, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What about the calls to recuse yourself from the - your agency's probe of the -

SESSIONS: Well, I've said that whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself. There's no doubt about that.


BERMAN: Jeff Zeleny, CNN's senior White House correspondent, is in Newport News, Virginia, where we are expecting Donald Trump at any time. The White House is now responding to this. Let's listen to Sean Spicer.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There's nothing to recuse himself. He was 100 percent straight with the committee. And I think that people are choosing to play partisan politics with this should be ashamed of themselves.


KEILAR: All right, Jeff, tell us what else you are hearing?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, that certainly is the line from the White House, we heard right there from Sean Spicer, calling this partisan politics. But we are also told by a senior administration official that indeed the White House did not know about this meeting in September that you referenced with Senator Sessions until they heard those news reports last evening when this was broken by "The Washington Post."

Now, we do not yet know if the president will address it here today. I am told by one official he is not likely to. We saw him avoid this questions when he was asked by reporters as he left the White House to fly here to Virginia earlier in the day. The vice president, visiting Ohio today, also did not answering questions about this.

But, Brianna, I can tell you it is hanging over this trip. The president had hoped to carry the momentum, if you will, from his speech to Congress earlier this week here to the deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford and again these controversies are Russian-related controversies hanging over this administration here. So we will find out in this hour if the president will talk about it. But there is no indication behind the scenes that the White House does not fully support Attorney General Sessions, who, of course, is one of the closest cabinet members to this president, Brianna.

[14:05:04] KEILAR: That's right, they want to be talking about defense spending today where you are there, Jeff, and that is certainly not the topic on everyone's mind.

Jeff Zeleny in Newport News, Virginia, awaiting President Trump, thank you so much.

We'll have some more on this in just a moment, but first we have some breaking news and this involves that controversial raid in Yemen where Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed. I want to go straight now to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, what are you hearing?


One of the big questions about this raid, the U.S. got a lot of intelligence, but was any of that intelligence valuable enough to start acting upon. And we now know that, yes, it was.

CNN has talked to a number of U.S. officials who say one of the things they got in this raid is they grabbed a lot of electronic data, including hundreds of potential contacts of al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers, some outside of Yemen in the Middle East, some actually in the west. And they are now beginning to take action to try and track these contacts down, find these people either through their e- mails, their online presence or in any way that they can because they believe there may be al Qaeda sympathizers out there who may be involved in planning additional attacks.

This is just one indicator, officials say, that the raid that killed the Navy SEAL, tragic outcome for the family, of course, but that this was a raid they had to conduct. They knew there was intelligence there. They grabbed multiple terabytes of data. A terabyte, of course, can be millions of documents. They are now working their way through all of it. They also believe they have intelligence about additional al Qaeda safe havens, about targeting, training, explosive manufacturing.

So there's a lot of questions, how do we know any of this is true? Well, all of the data, of course, is highly classified. U.S. officials say they won't be releasing any of it because of the very fact they believe that would risk future operations that they plan to conduct.

Brianna. KEILAR: All right, Barbara Starr, that report talking, of course, the Trump administration saying that they did have some actionable intelligence from that raid. Thank you so much for details, Barbara Starr, at the Pentagon.

We're going to have more on that in just a moment on that breaking news. But first, Republicans are now turning up the heat on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Joining me now is CNN's senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju. I want to ask you about Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. He met with the FBI director, Jim Comey. What do we know about this, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Graham is actually not talking about that very much at the moment. He just told our colleague Ted Barrett that he's going to put out a statement explaining his meeting, exactly what happened. That he would not comment further.

But this coms as Comey has actually made the rounds on Capitol Hill today. He just also met with the House Intelligence Committee and Democrats emerged from that meeting rather frustrated at Jams Comey. They wanted to hear more information about the Russian election hacking, as well as the issue of possible contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials. It's not clear what Comey said, but he was not forthright enough for Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on that committee, who is calling for Jeff Sessions to recuse himself and for an independent investigation into the Russia issue, as well as these potential contacts.

Now, other - now some Republicans are joining that call for recusal. They're not going as far as an independent investigation, but they are saying it is time for Jeff Sessions to recuse himself in the aftermath of these reports showing that he did, in fact, meet with a Russian ambassador despite suggesting otherwise in his sworn testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Take a listen to both Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressman Raul Labrador, who I talked to earlier today.


REP. RAUL LABRADOR (R), IDAHO: I don't think you need a special prosecutor, but he should recuse himself.

SEN. LINDSEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If, if, if, if there's ever credible evidence of inappropriate campaign contacts between Trump officials and Russia, Jeff Sessions cannot, in my view, make the decision to go forward or not go forward because of his ties with the campaign. That's a no brainer for me.


RAJU: Now, Brianna, not every Republican believes that Sessions should recuse himself. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, did not go that far, suggesting that perhaps only if he's being investigated, that's when he should step aside. And he's OK with what Jeff Sessions suggested this morning, that - only saying that he would step aside in the event that he feels like he needs to. And then Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, not going there yet, as well as other influential Republicans.

And you're seeing a divide within the Republican Party, but certainly calls are growing from rank and file Republicans and some influential voices that it could be time for Sessions to step aside in order to preserve the integrity of that FBI investigation.


KEILAR: Yes, and it is very interesting that he at least seemed open to it, even if he didn't say that he was going to do it.

[14:10:04] Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thank you so much for that.

And as Manu just mentioned, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff says this about the FBI's cooperation into the House investigation.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: In order for us to do our investigation in a thorough and credible way, we're going to need the FBI to fully cooperate, to be willing to tell us the length and breadth of any counter intelligence investigations they're conducting. At this point, the director was not willing to do that. There were repeated questions about the scope of any investigations they will be doing. Individuals that may be the subject of any counter terrorism investigation. And the director decline to answer those questions.


KEILAR: I want to bring in someone who is demanding that Jeff Sessions resign, Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley from New York. And he is also the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the fourth highest ranking position in House Democratic leadership.

Welcome, sir, to you.


KEILAR: And I know you're listening to all of this on The Hill. You have some high profile Republicans. They've called on Sessions to recuse himself from an investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Sessions now, it seems, is open to this. Is that sufficient for you? Do you think that signal that he is going to recuse himself at the very least?

CROWLEY: I think we already - is way beyond that at this point. I think judicial ethics require him to recuse himself. Really it's whether or not Jeff Sessions gets fired by Donald Trump at this point if he doesn't resign. And I think really - and maybe even beyond that, Brianna, it's about how deep do the tentacles of the campaign and of the Trump administration reach into Russia? That's what the American people just don't have answers to yet.

KEILAR: And I should mention actually, Donald Trump just told reporters that he has total confidence in Jeff Sessions. So you - CROWLEY: As he did with Mr. Flynn as well.

KEILAR: I think actually at one point that might have been Kellyanne Conway who said that. But certainly he did at a certain point.

I wonder, when you hear Democrats saying they want a resignation, Republicans now leaning recusal, are you worried that Democrats could be overreaching here and letting politics get too involved in this?

CROWLEY: Well, look, the reality is the facts speak for themselves. Even the alternative facts speak for themselves. Jeff Sessions, at best, for himself, misled Congress. Some would argue he lied. Some would argue that he perjured himself. Whatever the case may be, it needs to be fully vetted by the Senate. That would be up to the Senate to determine at some point through an investigation whether he did any of that. Jeff Sessions needs to come back to the Senate and explain himself at the very least.

So I do think, though, Brianna, that, you know, people might want to call this politics. It's about the safety and soundness of our government. Russia, we know, through 17 separate intelligence agencies, attacked our nation at its most rudimentary level. That is a democratic voting and our democracy and how we elect our officials. That needs to be fully vetted and investigated.

KEILAR: You tweeted the definition of perjury.


KEILAR: And it includes the word intent in it.

CROWLEY: Uh-huh.

KEILAR: So it's knowingly misleading.

CROWLEY: Well, it's -

BOLDUAN: And whether you think that or not, it's something if you talk to legal experts that is extremely difficult to prove.

CROWLEY: Well, I know one thing, that whenever I meet with a Russian official, which is very rare, I remember it. Whenever anyone meets with the Russian ambassador, Kislyak, who is described as the top spy in the United States for Russia, I find it hard to believe that Jeff Sessions would not have remembered that when he was testifying before the Senate for his confirmation hearings, when it just happened a few months prior to those hearings. I find that very hard to believe.

KEILAR: He makes the case that he wasn't speaking to the ambassador with - basically his campaign surrogate hat on. That instead he was talking in his capacity as someone on the Armed Services Committee. You obviously are privy to certain information as a congressman. You pursue certain relationships with foreign officials as well in that matter. But this is different to you, Russia?

CROWLEY: I do think - I think so because of the office that he was seeking, office that he was being appointed to and being confirmed on and the whole contents - context of the Russian investigation, how deep it leaks into the White House, how deep it leaked into the campaign at that time. He himself recognized it. And he was recognized as a surrogate for the campaign. So unless we really know - and he had an opportunity, by the way, Brianna, to explain himself at that hearing. He chose not to. In fact, he said he had no meeting. He did not meet with Russian officials. It didn't - he didn't qualify that. He said he did not meet with them.

[14:15:02] KEILAR: All right, Congressman Joe Crowley, thank you for joining us from Capitol Hill.

CROWLEY: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: And we're moments away now from President Trump's speech aboard the USS Gerald Ford, the most expensive ship period. We're going to take that live.

Plus, who is this ambassador that officials are calling one of Russia's top spies? What are his connections to Congress?

This is CNN's special live coverage.


KEILAR: The Russian ambassador who met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions last July and September, well, he's becoming a familiar name in the controversy over contacts between President Trump's campaign and the Kremlin. Sergey Kislyak is the same diplomat who reportedly discussed Russia sanctions with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Those phone calls ultimately led to Flynn's resignation. And perhaps even more concerning, current and former U.S. officials tell CNN that Kislyak is considered to be one of Russia's top spies and spy recruiters in Washington.

[14:20:02] And I want to talk more about this now with Steve Hall. He's a CNN national security analyst and he is also a retired CIA chief who headed Russia operations for the agency.

So, Steve, when - I'm sure you must be familiar with this ambassador. And you have Russian officials who scoff at the idea that he is a top spy. Is this someone who was on your radar and, if so, as what?

STEVE HALL, RETIRED CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: Well, Ambassador Kislyak, you know, regardless of whether or not he is a staff intelligence officer, and I certainly have no special information that that is the case, or whether he's just a normal ambassador, a ministry of foreign affairs official, which appears to be the case, it's a little bit of a distinction without a difference, in my view, because regardless of what his actual role was, he is primarily, first and foremost, the eyes and ears of Vladimir Putin in Washington. And in that role, getting a - getting a meeting with Senator Sessions would have been extremely valuable to the Kremlin because, of course, Sessions had two important pieces of access for the Russians. First, he was a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, which is a critical thing for the Russians. It represents the greatest strategic threat for them. And, secondly, although perhaps more importantly at the time, he was also somebody who was beginning to back candidate Trump. And so both of those things would have been of critical importance and Kislyak would have been very eager to meet with him on those issues.

KEILAR: Jeff Sessions say - what we're hearing from his office is that he testified he didn't have contact with Russians and what he really meant was that he didn't have contact with Russians in his capacity as a Trump surrogate or an associate of then candidate Trump. What do you think about that considering what you just said that that would be a key reason of why Russia would want to have contact with Sessions?

HALL: Well, it sounds to me a bit disingenuous. I mean it might have been - it might be Sessions' claim that that wasn't the capacity in which he was meeting with Kislyak, but I can guarantee you the Russian ambassador wanted to know - to know more about it. I also find it disingenuous this agreement that well, you know, we - you know, we senators have all sorts of meetings with all sorts of different ambassadors. That's true, but when you're meeting with the Russians, you hope you have the common sense, and additionally all the briefings that you've gotten on security and counterintelligence, you need to treat that meeting differently. And it's not something that is similar to meeting with the ambassador from, you know, the U.K. or something like that. It's a very different meeting.

KEILAR: I want to let our viewers know that we are awaiting Donald Trump. If you can stand by for me, Steve Hall, let's listen to Donald Trump as he makes his entrance there in Newport News, Virginia. He's going to be talking defense spending. As you can see there, he is surrounded by service members.

All right, let's listen in.

MUSIC (singing): That I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me. And I gladly stand up -

SUSAN FORD BALES, DAUGHTER OF FORMER PRESIDENT GERALD R. FORD: Mr. President, Mr. Secretary, Admiral Richardson, and thank you again, admiral, for my honorary national aviator selection. Officers and crew of the USS Gerald R. Ford, Mike Petters (ph), Matt Mulharin (ph), Jennifer Dunn (ph) and my fellow Newport News ship builders, distinguished guests and ladies and gentlemen, welcome. What a magnificent day this is for the young life of this mighty ship.

Mr. President, you have spoken passionately about America's greatness. And there are no finer examples of that greatness than the two groups that are before you here today. The crew of the USS Gerald R. Ford and the Newport News ship builders.

Hopefully we will all be together in Norfolk this summer to commission this ship. And let me add a special thank you to the Navy leaders for your continuing efforts to find a solution to Pier 11 dilemma and for the commissioning. Thank you very much.

To my fellow Newport News ship builders, this is my 17 visit to our ship. Your patriotic commitment to excellence is reflected in every rivet and every bolt. Therefore, I am very proud to say, as dad most certainly would be, congratulations fellowship builders, and thank you.

[14:25:09] I'm reminded of a speech that dad gave in Norfolk, May 3rd of 1975. That day my dad commissioned the new aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz. Four decades after the Nimitz was commissioning, the words that dad spoke that day are still spot on and accurate. The president, it's as if we can hear dad's voice speaking to us about the USS Gerald R. Ford. Quote, "I see this great ship as a symbol of the United States, of our immense resources and skilled workers and our boundless energy and our military strength." Wherever this ship flies her flag, she will be a symbol of the United States strength, made in America and operated by Americans. Whether her mission is one of defense, diplomacy, or humanity, this aircraft carrier will commend awe and admiration from some, caution from others and respect from all," end quote.

So, ladies and gentlemen, to those who threaten our homeland or our liberties, let the word go forth. Very soon 100,000 tons of the most powerful warship ever known will report for duty to her commander in chief. Congratulations, crew members, and God speed.

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, as the ship sponsor of the US Gerald R. Ford, and on behalf of the 38th president of the United States, it is a high honor to introduce and welcome to dad's namesake aircraft carrier, the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. Thank you very much. What an honor. You know, they just gave me this beautiful jacket. They said, here, Mr. President, please take this home. I said, let me wear it. And then they gave me the beautiful hat. And I said, you know, maybe I'll do that. We have a great make America great again hat, but I say, this is a special day, we're wearing this, right? So I have no idea how it looks, but I think it looks good. It's a great looking hat, just like this is a great looking ship.

Thank you. I'm privileged to stand here today with the incredible men and women of the United States Navy.


American sailors are the best war-fighting sailors anywhere in the world, and it's not even close.

And, Susan, I am so glad you could be with us. I know how hard you worked -- 17 visits, and she wanted things done right, I will tell you. They told me, she wanted this one done right, in honor of both of her parents, who were great, great people.

And we wanted to introduce this beautiful vessel to the American people. I wanted to be here. I wanted to be with you.

So, Susan, and to your family, unbelievable job. Unbelievable.

(APPLAUSE) The soon to be commissioned Gerald R. Ford, USS, what a -- what a place. It really feels like a place. You stand on that deck and you feel like you're standing on a very big piece of land, but this is better than land.

It will not only be a great symbol of American strength, but a great legacy for your father and our former president, Gerald Ford. President Ford was a Navy man. By the way, he was also a great athlete, for those of you that didn't know. He saw action in the South Pacific during World War II. He served this country with honor in the military, in Congress and in the White House.