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EARLY START

Jeff Sessions Met Russian Ambassador, Twice; Trump Hits the Road; Skepticism Over Trump's Immigration Compromise; Dow Climbs to New Record Above 21,000. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 04:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:30:12] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight. President Trump's attorney general failed to disclose under oath he had met with Russia's ambassador during the campaign. Could the difference between roles as senator and Trump surrogate determine whether he keeps his job?

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Dave Briggs.

Remember all that goodwill 24 hours ago about that speech?

ROMANS: How the news cycle changes, huh?

Here is what is not in question this morning: Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. twice last year. What is in question this morning, whether he did so in his capacity as a Trump campaign surrogate or as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Now, Sessions facing accusations he misled Congress about the meetings. With all of this making for a potentially devastating blow to the new attorney general, the Justice Department now confirming that twice last year, Sessions met with the top Russian diplomat in Washington. Once on the sidelines of the Republican Convention in July, and the second time in September in Sessions' Senate offices.

Sessions was a prominent surrogate for the Trump campaign at the time of the meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, who is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies and spy recruiters.

But listen to what sessions said or didn't say in the confirmation hearings when Senator Al Franken asked about the campaign and Russian officials.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: And if there is any evidence that any one affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the campaign, what will you do?

JEFF SESSIONS, THEN-ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: So, despite failing to disclose the meeting, the attorney general and the administration are -- they're pushing back he misled Congress. Sessions says this in a statement, quote, "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."

A spokesperson for Sessions says there was absolutely misleading about his answer that he was meeting in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Not the Trump campaign. That distinction will be critical in efforts to absolve Sessions of wrongdoing.

The White House is dismissing the story as a partisan attack intended to blunt momentum of the president's speech to Congress.

BRIGGS: Reaction overnight to the late-breaking news was swift.

The top Democrat in the House calling for the attorney general to resign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issuing this statement, "Attorney General Sessions has never had credibility to oversee the FBI investigation of senior Trump officials ties to the Russians. Now after lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the attorney general must resign."

Another leading Democrat, Sessions former Senate colleague, Elizabeth Warren, also calling for him to step down.

The top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings, at first called for Sessions' resignation and then later told CNN he should at least recuse himself from the investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND (via telephone): This man has been the U.S. attorney for a state. I mean -- and he knows the law. He's probably prosecuted people for telling untrue statements to the FBI and others. At some point, people have to ask the question, where is the integrity? Where is the rule of law? Where is the obedience of law? All of these excuses over and over.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: So no surprise really. I think the Democrats are finding a moment here. But there are even some top Republicans voicing concern.

At a CNN town hall, Senator Lindsey Graham suggesting it may be time for an independent investigation into the Trump-Russia communication. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If there is anything there and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make this decision about Trump. So, there may be not -- there may be nothing there, but if there is something there that the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then, for sure, you need a special prosecutor. If that day ever comes, I'll be the first one to say, it needs somebody other than Jeff.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Senator Franken, he says that the attorney general's response to his question was at best misleading. He stopped short though of calling for Sessions' resignation. He says this, "It's clearer than ever now that the attorney general cannot in good faith oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump- Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately."

BRIGGS: Even if Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador as a member of the Senate rather than surrogate, such encounters are no small matter. Ambassador Kislyak is the same official whose interactions with former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn ultimately led to Flynn's firing.

For more, let's bring in senior international correspondent Matthew Chance live in Moscow.

Matthew, now, intelligence officials here have said Kislyak's potential proximity to Russian spying is one reason interactions with him tend to raise concerns.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, they certainly would, wouldn't they? If he does have that proximity to spying and espionage, as has been reported. It's something the Russian foreign ministry for one has almost immediately pushed back on and basically rejected the idea that Sergey Kislyak, who's the longstanding Russian ambassador to the United States, remember, he's been there since 2008, has anything to do with espionage.

The statement from Russian foreign ministry this morning saying, "Has the media hit rock bottom or has it got further to go?" We are expecting a fuller statement in the hours ahead basically rejecting that.

And certainly, if you look at his resume, there's nothing on the resume. Or perhaps you might say you would not expect to see anything on the resume, suggesting he comes from an intelligence background. He's been a career diplomat. He served in the United States on two separate occasions previous live, one as the Soviet political officer in the embassy in Washington and another time at the United Nations. He's been the ambassador to Belgium and ambassador to NATO. And as I say, he's been the ambassador to the United States since 2008.

So, that's one aspect of this, but the Russians are pushing back on this, that Sergei Kislyak has anything to do with Russian intelligence.

BRIGGS: Matthew, thank you. We'll check in with you next hour.

ROMANS: All right. The Obama administration took steps to make sure information about Russia's meddling in the election would be preserved after Mr. Obama left office. This is according to a blockbuster report in "The New York Times", which cites officials saying the effort was to ensure there was a trail of information for government investigators after Obama left office.

Eric Schultz is the spokesman for the former president, President Obama, he tells CNN, quote, "The situation was serious, prompting President Obama to call for a review by U.S. intelligence."

And now, the White House staff members have been instructed by administration lawyers to save all records related to potential Russian interference in the election. Those instructions coming after Senate Democrats asked the White House and other agencies to preserve those materials.

BRIGGS: One person, no doubt, paying close attention to these developments is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. Senior administration official tells CNN that Huntsman is in talks to become the U.S. ambassador to Russia. Sources say that Huntsman has spoken with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the job, as well as top Trump advisers and possibly the president himself. Huntsman served as ambassador to Singapore and China and ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

ROMANS: All right. The White House working to keep up momentum from the president's speech Tuesday night, even as news about Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, starts to dominate the news cycle. The president is back on the road today. He's selling his vision for America. His first stop comes in a state he failed to win in November but one where he could find support and he pushes for the big boost for the military.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House with more on what's on the agenda today for President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, President Trump traveling today to Virginia, to Newport News, Virginia, delivering a speech on the deck of the USS Gerald Ford. He'll be making his case in a blue state, one of the few states he did not win during last year's election that he's actually visiting. Normally, he visits red states, but he'll be targeting this, talking about his build up of military spending. He wants to increase the military budget.

Now, of course, there is not much resistance among Republicans on Capitol Hill to this, but there is questions to his overall agenda on health care, on tax reform, on infrastructure. So, the president taking the first of the speeches out to the country trying to rally his supporters against some of these potential Republican congressmen who may be reluctant to adding on to the deficit.

Now, the question here at the White House is what the president will do to urge these Republicans to come along with him? Will he try and rally directly in their districts to get these physical conservatives with him or will he try and just build a bigger case here?

But his speech today in Newport News, Virginia, is the first of many across the country, we're told, that will make the case to build his agenda. So, the president starting today making his case out to the country. It's not the campaign trail, but will be going back to sell his message to the people -- Christine and Dave.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BRIGGS: Have some questions, though, as he tries to sell that today.

[04:40:00] President Trump not expected to roll out his travel ban today, but he is still expected this week and at least one major change from the original version. Three of the president's top advisors, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Chief H.R. McMaster, all urging Mr. Trump to remove Iraq from the list of seven banned countries.

The revised ban was supposed to be unveiled yesterday, but the White House delayed the signing in order to keep the spotlight on the positive reaction on the president's address to Congress Tuesday night. Critics slamming the delay because the president has been making the argument that the national security emergency requires quick passage of the measure. That is why they, of course, had to, in their words, rushed this thing out on a Friday night without going through all the proper channels initially.

ROMANS: All right. The big misdirection play that presidential suggestion of a compromise if immigration. Was that a head fake? Was that meant to generate good press? Was never a policy? We'll explain the misdirection play, next.

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[04:45:15] ROMANS: All right. Brand new data this morning shows workers in the U.S. with families in Mexico are sending more money home and at a faster pace. It's due in part to fears President Trump may put restrictions on those transactions. Remittances, that's the fancy word for the cash transfers from workers in the U.S. to Mexico, they rose 6.3 percent in January. In total, US$2 billion were sent during the month. That's according to Mexico's central bank.

Two reasons, first, some feel President Trump will crack down on payments, something he threatened to do during the campaign, to pay for the wall. Remember, he said he could take the remittance for the wall? And since taking office, he has not threatened that again.

Plus, the Mexican peso is near an all-time low. I mean, it has crashed. So, workers here can send U.S. dollars home and relatives will get more pesos for the exchange. Remittances are a vital source of income for millions of low-income Mexican families. Did you know it is the largest foreign revenue source? It makes more

money from what people send home to their families than it does from oil or anything else, even tourism, I think. $27 billion sent to families or friends last year. That's more than Mexico earned from exporting oil. It just shows how important the relationship is with workers in the United States who are, you know, scrapping together $200, $300 at a time and sending them home.

BRIGGS: What a remarkable number that is.

ROMANS: Sure is.

BRIGGS: Well, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle skeptical about President Trump's talk of the big immigration compromise during his speech to Congress. On the right, Republicans want to see immigration laws toughen before even addressing the 11 million people already living in the U.S. illegally. Meanwhile, Democrats can't forget Trump's past rhetoric and actions on immigration.

Now, even the White House admits it used the idea of compromise as a way to generate good press ahead Trump's address. Senior administration official calling it a, quote, "misdirection play" before Trump pivoted to what the hard liners want on his speech.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju has more on the immigration debate from Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine and Dave.

Now, there was some pushback on Capitol Hill yesterday to the idea of doing a compromise immigration bill that could provide some legal status to undocumented immigrants. Of course, this was an idea that was suddenly proposed by the White House in a meeting with journalists just moments before the State of the Union. But when Republicans caught wind of this, they were surprised, they didn't know what to think and some frankly pushed back pretty aggressively, thinking that they cannot move on this first without moving on issues like securing the border.

Now, one of those conservatives was Ted Cruz of Texas, who I talked with him yesterday about this issue and about the White House floating this idea which he discounted. Take a listen.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: You know, I don't make it a habit to respond to rumors passed on by reporters.

RAJU: It wasn't a rumor. It was the president of the United States.

CRUZ: Well, you are welcome to testify and give your own views. I'm going to wait until I see specific legislative proposals to comment on them and not chase down every press rumor of people reporting --

RAJU: What about just the idea of giving legal status on undocumented immigrants? Are you open to that idea?

CRUZ: My view is we need to secure the border.

RAJU: Now, after the pushback, the White House actually pulled back from those remarks, saying that, you know, perhaps immigration is not the top priority of this administration, at least passing a compromise bill dealing with legal status and so, instead, focusing on some of the things that Donald Trump has been talking about along -- on the campaign trail -- Christine and Dave.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BRIGGS: Manu, thank you.

The Pentagon is looking for more authority to approve counterterrorism operations. U.S. defense officials tell CNN the goal is to speed up the authorization process by allowing defense officials and even field commanders to decide when to launch missions without the blessing of the White House. A senior official says this does not mean the president would be left out of the loop.

Two more of the president's cabinet picks are up for a vote in the Senate today. Lawmakers are set to confirm Dr. Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. They will end the debate on former Texas Governor Rick Perry as the secretary of energy. The move comes after the Senate confirmed Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke as interior secretary on Wednesday. This leaves the secretaries of agriculture and labor as the remaining vacancies in the Trump cabinet.

ROMANS: All right. A new P.R. nightmare for Uber, right from the CEO's mouth. A billionaire CEO verbally smacking down an Uber driver. There's video. That's viral.

BRIGGS: Someone is always watching.

ROMANS: This is leadership 101, folks.

BRIGGS: Always a camera rolling.

ROMANS: There is.

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[04:54:17] BRIGGS: Is talk show icon Oprah Winfrey toying with the idea of a bid for the White House? Not seriously -- at least not yet. But during an interview, after saying she had never entertain the idea, the media mogul suggested that could change after President Trump won the election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OPRAH WINFREY, MEDIA EXECUTIVE: Never considered the question even a possibility. I just thought, oh, oh!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. Because it's clear that you don't need government experience to be elected president of the United States, right?

WINFREY: That's what I thought.

I thought, oh, gee, I don't have the experience. I don't know enough. I don't know. And now, I'm thinking, oh! Oh!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: She keeps using that oh, by the way.

[04:55:02] Oprah later saying, no, that won't be happening, but --

ROMANS: It shows you how in the wilderness the Democrats are that they got so excited, so many people got so excited. Maybe Oprah could be on our bench, you know?

BRIGGS: The trending hashtag was #oprah2020 in the afternoon. We shall see.

Winter making a dramatic return to the East after record warm.

Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri has the forecast.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Dave and Christine.

Yes, you know, the 1st of March on Wednesday was actually the first day of meteorological spring and now, we go into March 2nd, and we're talking about a significant cooling trend ahead of us over the next several days. But it's going to be short-lived.

We get the cold air that bottling up right around the Northeast comes Saturday into Sunday. And then, beyond that, we warm up rather quickly yet again. So, you see the trend. We dropped off about 30 degrees in yesterday to today. Places like Washington with record highs, we're seeing of 80 degrees. Forty-nine is what they expect in New York. We made it to 70. Forty-eight is what is slated even across, let's say, Cleveland, temps going from the 60s to 30s.

So, that storm system exits. We get a few flurries flying around parts of the Great Lakes. Chicago, we could get her first flakes there flying in 2017 incredibly and we'll watch that carefully. But notice, gusty weather expected around parts of the Northeast. We could see winds on the coast up to 60 miles per hour.

But remember when I told you it was going to warm up. Well, high will struggle to get above freezing mark on Saturday. But look what happened next week. Tuesday, up to 63 degrees yet again, that is back up about 15 above average -- guys.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Wow. All right. Let's get a check on CNN Money Stream this morning. The Dow surging to a record high, jumping 300 points. Over the past month, the Dow is up more than 2,000 points, now above 21,000. It has only dropped three days since the start of February.

President Trump's speech is one positive. There's only optimism the Fed may raise rates at its meeting in two weeks. That could bring in more money for banks and financial institutions, Dave. I know you were so worried about the banks.

BRIGGS: I was --

ROMANS: J.P. Morgan Chase.

BRIGGS: We need deregulation.

ROMANS: That's a very good point.

BRIGGS: They can't loan.

ROMANS: Right. Except they can make record highs for their stocks. J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are among the big winners in the day yesterday. Boeing and materials maker 3M also among the top gainers.

A new public relations crisis for Uber this morning. And now, viral video Bloomberg says it received from an Uber driver. The passenger CEO Travis Kalanick, it shows the billionaire and car driver arguing over pay.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UBER DRIVER: I lost $97,000 because of you. I'm bankrupt because of you. Yes. You keep changing every day.

TRAVIS KALANICK, UBER CEO: What did -- I hold on a second. What have I changed about black?

UBER DRIVER: Huh? You changed the whole business.

KALANICK: What?

UBER DRIVER: You dropped the prices.

KALANICK: On black?

UBER DRIVER: (AUDIO DELETED) Yes, you did, $20. (AUDIO DELETED)

How much is the mile now, 2.75?

KALANICK: Some people don't like to take responsibility (AUDIO DELETED)

They blame everything on life on somebody else. Good luck.

(CROSSTALK) UBER DRIVER: Good luck to you too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: So, Kalanick issuing a statement about that rant. "To say that I'm ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead, and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I've been willing to admit I need leadership help and I intend to get it", end quote.

There have been a few things that have happened here. There is a sexual harassment investigation going on in the company after high profile women said it was a difficult place to work. Also, there was a #deleteuber incident when Uber fans were upset he was advising the president in the business capacity.

BRIGGS: And there's this. Did he tip the driver?

ROMANS: No.

BRIGGS: I mean, at least, you made $6 billion off him. At least tip the guy. He gave you a few tips.

ROMANS: Four letter tips.

BRIGGS: Someone is always watching.

ROMANS: OK. For McDonald's now. New apps at kiosks and curbside delivery. McDonald's thinks that it's a winning recipe for sales. The apps and kiosks will come later this year. It let's you save favorites for easy ordering.

And for those who love the drive-thru, you can order on your phone and read a code to the employee taking your order. This is all in an attempt to modernize and compete with Chick-fil-A and Chipotle. If you're feeling even lazier, McDonald's experimenting with a different delivery options. It boasts 75 percent of the population and its top markets live within three miles of McDonald's location.

BRIGGS: Sorry. You're eating at McDonald's and now, you are lazier?

ROMANS: Yes. Now you can just like --

BRIGGS: At least run to McDonald's. This is my advice. You eat a Big Mac, at least work off a few calories.

ROMANS: Come on, you hate the Big Mac.

BRIGGS: I do. I love the fries and breakfast, though.

EARLY START continues right now.

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ROMANS: Breaking overnight: Did President Trump's attorney general mislead Congress about talks with the Russians during the campaign?