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Report: Trump Has Total Confidence in Sessions; Trump Says Sessions Should Not Recuse; Washington Post" Broke the Story That Sessions Had Contacts with Ambassador Kislyak. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President do you still have confidence in the attorney general?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President, should Sessions recuse himself from investigation into your campaign and Russia?

TRUMP: I don't think so at all. I don't think so at all.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When did you first learn that Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador? When were you aware that he spoke to the Russian Ambassador?

TRUMP: I wasn't aware of that at all.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: That was President Trump on the aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford defending his Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not disclosing his meeting with Russian ambassadors. He's going to hold news conference a short time from now. He was the first senator to endorse him for President. But this was even before Trump launched his bid Sessions had ties to those who would become his brain trust, Steve Bannon and Steven Miller. "Atlantic" writer Rosie Gray has written about their relationship and how together they created a nationalist vision before even having a candidate in mind. Rosie, give us a sense of when Jeff Sessions really became a confidant of President Trump?

ROSIE GRAY, THE ATLANTIC: I think it's important to look at the immigration bill of 2013 and that's when the relationship between Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon was cemented. When I wrote a profile of Steven Miller for "The Atlantic", he was telling me how the three of them had long planning meetings, talking about their vision for immigration and their plan for opposing the bill.

KEILAR: So, they had this idea I guess a common philosophy, right? And then Donald Trump sort of comes along and fits that for them?

GRAY: Yes, there's a way in which you could look at Jeff Sessions as a proto-Trump on issues of immigration and Trump came along and dovetailed what sessions had been talking about for a long time.

KEILAR: You write about the Breitbart wing, and Bannon and Miller being a part of this, do you consider this Breitbart versus the Washington wing, Sessions obviously very much a Washington player.

GRAY: Now he's the attorney general, but he was always sort-of a political outsider because his beliefs did not track with establishment Republicans, and he -- I would describe him as part of this Breitbart wing of the administration, he certainly -- people in his office literally had very close relationships with Breitbart writers and with Bannon himself.

KEILAR: He's someone who has in a way that Steve Bannon has -- do they in your estimation share this idea of the changing demographics and immigration into the U.S. not being something they find positive? Because it seems like Sessions has this background of opposing immigration, not just illegal immigration.

GRAY: I would definitely say Sessions and Bannon share this sort of protectionist vision for the U.S. I don't know whether their views necessarily dovetail exactly with each other but certainly a lot of resonance how they view the immigration issue.

[15:35:00] KEILAR: Thank you so much. Your piece is fascinating and definitely worth the read in "The Atlantic". Thank you much.

We are awaiting the news conference, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to be speaking in moments. First, though documents that just went public show President Trump's transition team cancelled plans to have thousands of their staff get ethics training, how the White House is responding.


[15:40:00] KEILAR: We are waiting for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to speak amid calls he should resign, Democrats saying that, some Republicans saying he should recuse himself from the investigation. We will bring it to you live, but first we are learning days before Trump took office, the administration turned down ethics training, training used by both the Obama and Bush transition teams, they had ordered that for incoming staff to their administrations.

For more on this I want to bring in CNN's Dan Merica. He reported this very interesting story. Dan, tell us what this training -- I think a lot of people don't even know this is something administrations have access to. So, tell us what the training is and why the Trump transition decided they didn't want this.

DAM MERICA, CNN POLITICS PRODUCER: This is pretty basic trainingg about everything how an administration works with Congress and works within the bounds of executive orders, how to deal with media scrutiny and how to work through the process of getting a nominee approved. And what happened was before the administration came in they decided they didn't need that training. And the General Services Administration cancelled the contract bid despite the fact that some had submitted a contract for doing that exactly for the Trump administration, so that means is the White House took on that role and a White House spokesman tells us they could have done it for less than what it would cost a million dollars for a program like this.

KEILAR: They were trying to be fiscally conservative but I'm sure there are a number of people saying this could have been beneficial for them.

MERICA: As we have seen in the last six weeks the Trump administration has dealt with a number of issues, not dealing in the process of labor secretary, who had to withdraw his nomination, not passing background checks and leaving the White House before they started the job, the spokesperson tells us they did provide ethics training, but there are a lot of Republicans and ethics advisors who say you maybe should have done this program and you wouldn't be having the problems you are having right now.

KEILAR: Thank you so much. And as we await that news conference from the Attorney General Jeff Sessions I will be joined live by a Democratic senator who served on the judiciary committee alongside the former senator now attorney general, and this lawmaker is now calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump campaign's contact with Russia.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President you still have confidence in the attorney general, sir?

TRUMP: Total.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President should Sessions recuse himself from investigations into your campaign and Russia?

TRUMP: I don't think so at all.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When did you first learn that Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador?

TRUMP: I wasn't aware at all.


KEILAR: We are waiting for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to speak. He just announced he is going to have a press conference here shortly. This is, of course, about accusations that he misled Congress about his meetings with Russia's ambassador to Washington, we will be bringing that to you live, but in the meantime, you heard President Trump saying he has total confidence in his attorney general.

And joining me now is someone calling for the former senator, colleague of his, Jeff Sessions to resign, Richard Blumenthal, joining me now, thank you, sir, and the argument we have been hearing from people supporting the attorney general is he was talking about discussing really campaign stuff with Russian officials doing so as a campaign surrogate that he felt it was his role on the armed services committee. What do you say to that?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D-CONNECTICUT: I say whatever explanation, you ought to be giving it before the judiciary committee where he omitted or denied critical facts falsely and should be brought back to provide a credible explanation. If he fails to provide a credible explanation there, he will have to resign. It's really that simple and unquestionably there should be a special prosecutor, independent counsel so that the investigation will be bipartisan, objective, independent and uncover all the facts about the Russian attacks on our -- and complicity between the Trump campaign and Russian attacks on our Democratic institutions.

KEILAR: I want to play this moment before the committee where Jeff Sessions is asked a question because I think is important to have the question and the answer. Here it is.


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 intermediaries for the Russian government. Now again, I'm telling you this is as it is 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?

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I've been called a surrogate a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.


KEILAR: Do you -- what do you attribute this to? I think we should preface this that he is a former colleague of yours and you travel today the middle east, and you had time to really get to know him, but what do you attribute this to? I think we should preface this that he is a former colleague of yours and you travel today the middle east, and you had time to really get to know him, but when you see that, do you feel misled? Do you feel like he could be mistaken? Do you feel like he should have -- should it have occurred to him to correct that record?

[15:50:00] BLUMENTHAL: I feel personally misled. We both know that words matter under oath. And feel by those apparent concealments and misstatements I feel very strongly that he owes the committee a credible explanation. If he fails to provide it then his resignation will be necessary, but very strongly equally, so I feel that a special prosecutor is absolutely vital here for the credibility and trust in the department of justice. And the fairness and objectivity of the fairness of this investigation into this cyberattack on our nation, an act by Russia and the seriousness of that attack is staggering and we need to deter it by uncovering the truth. If there is a cover up here it will be as bad as the act of aggression by the Russians itself.

KEILAR: Is that in line with the man you know?

BLUMENTHAL: I believe that Jeff Sessions is a man of his word and I believed that he was a man of integrity, and he owes us.

KEILAR: We have heard something similar before that the FBI is refusing to answer questions on the Russia probe. It seems like he's casting doubts as to whether the FBI is an honest broker in this situation. Do you trust the FBI to be forthcoming about its investigation?

BLUMENTHAL: The FBI must be forthcoming at some point especially if there are prosecutions, the American people deserve the truth. And point has to provide an explanation to the American people.

KEILAR: Senator Blumenthal, thank you so much for joining us.

And just minutes from now, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions will hold a news conference at the justice department. CNN's special live coverage continues in just a moment.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: This is CNN breaking news. Good afternoon welcome to "The Lead." I'm Jake Tapper. We're beginning the show a little bit early because we have some breaking news in the politics lead. The Attorney General of the United States Jeff Sessions will be holding a news conference at any moment. We'll bring it to you live. Obviously, this comes after President Trump this afternoon expressed total confidence in sessions, and sessions is under fire. It turns out he did at least twice have discussions with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak even after telling the U.S. Senate during his confirmation hearing this.


FRANKEN: 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?

SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.


TAPPER: But last night the "Washington Post" broke the story and CNN has confirmed that Sessions had contacts with ambassador Kislyak. Now, Sessions has said that his conversations with Kislyak had nothing to do with the 2016 campaign and were in his sole capacity as a senator and member of the armed services committee and that's what he thought the questions that senator franken and others were asking him about. But Democrats have expressed outrage, most importantly, however, the tell that this story was serious came when this morning and last night Congressional Republicans almost immediately suggested that sessions should recuse himself from anything having to do with the investigation into contacts between Trump advisors and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

Kislyak, we should point out, is not your average diplomat. His career spans the soviet era into the Russian federation. We'll have more on that coming up. Not only does this matter because of proven Russian meddling in the U.S. election and contact with Russia has caused Mike Flynn his job, lawmakers are asking whether both parties law enforcement official misled or misspoke or flat out committed perjury in front of the Senate committee during his confirmation hearing. We have with us now CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown. And as of right now, Pamela, President Trump says he has total confidence in his attorney general and he does not think that Sessions even needs to recuse himself.