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Top Democrats Call for Sessions' Resignation; Skepticism Over Trump's Immigration Compromise; Wild Ending for Wildcats. Aired 5- 5:30a ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 05:00   ET


[05:00:03] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight: Did President Trump's attorney general mislead Congress about talks with the Russians during the campaign?

His testimony raising big questions. Now, some top Democrats are calling for Jeff Sessions to step down. No surprise. They found an opening they think.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.


That goodwill from that joint sessions of Congress just lasted less than 24 hours. And now, some big questions for President Trump.

Here's what's not, though, in question this morning -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with 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 acquisitions 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 at 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 Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak who is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies and spy recruiters, not simply a diplomat.

But listen to what Sessions said or did say this confirmation hearing when Senator Al Franken asked about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.


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.


ROMANS: So, the meeting and disclosing -- failing to disclose the meeting. The attorney general of the administration pushing back at the exact accusations that he misled Congress. Sessions says this in a statement, "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 nothing misleading about his answer, that he was meeting in this capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not for the Trump campaign. That distinction -- that distinction will be critical in this as we go forward. 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.

With 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.


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.


ROMANS: No surprise that Democrats are seizing on this and looking for a weakness to exploit. But even some top Republicans are voicing concern.

At a town hall, CNN town hall, Senator Lindsey Graham suggesting that it might be time for an independent investigation into the Trump- Russia communication.


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.


BRIGGS: For more on where this leaves Attorney General Sessions, the Russia investigation and the Justice Department itself, let's bring in justice reporter Laura Jarrett live for us in Washington this morning.

Good morning to you, Laura. Where are we headed next?


So, the issue at this point seems like one of transparency, right?

[05:05:05] So, Jeff Sessions says he never met with Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. But the reality is that last year, he was both a sitting senator and also a major surrogate for the Trump campaign.

And so, even though he feels like he was able to wear those two hats at the same time, so to speak, the problem is nobody knows what was in his mind and he didn't disclose the fact that he had those conversations when he was directly asked about it as the confirmation hearings for attorney general earlier this year. So, we have to see how this proceeds, Dave.

ROMANS: So, Laura, what is the plausibility of Sessions being able to prove he really had those conversations as a senator, not a surrogate, especially at the Republican national convention? He is making a very fine distinction here.

JARRETT: I think that's exactly right, Christine. And so, especially given the timing of it, right? So, one of those conversations as you mentioned was, right, you know, during the GOP convention and then the other one was in his office. And so, these are private conversations.

So, how you are supposed to show where you drew those lines is going to be really tricky for him, I think.

BRIGGS: So, how does the DOJ handle the next few weeks amid all of this uncertainty?

JARRETT: Well, you know, it's certainly going to be a distraction. The DOJ is one of the institutions that have a number of career lawyers that sort of truck on and do their work day-to-day. But this is going on in the background. At best, it leaves it sort of awkward for Sessions and Republicans on the Hill who now are facing a chorus of other lawmakers saying not only maybe he has to resign, but at least has to recuse himself from the investigation.

ROMANS: At least gives Democrats something they can keep hammering this young administration about.

Let me ask you this, Laura. If Sessions cannot oversee a Russia probe, then who makes decisions on that in the meantime and what's the timeline for appointing a special prosecutor if it comes to that?

JARRETT: Right. And so, the situation here is if Sessions decides to step aside, then the Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente could step in. That's happened a number of times throughout history, when the attorney general feels there's a conflict of interest.

Now, the special prosecutor issue is really interesting because there used to be a statute on the books to actually provide for an easy mechanism to do this. But that lapsed in the 1990s after President Clinton. So, ironically, the very person to appoint a special prosecutor is Jeff Sessions. And so, the timeline is up to him and political pressure from Congress -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Thank you so much for that. Laura Jarrett for us this morning in Washington.

Let's now bring in CNN politics reporter Tal Kopan live in Washington as well this morning.

There's two issues here. There's the issue of the meetings, right? One on the outskirts of the RNC, Heritage Foundation event. Maybe not surprising that, you know, around these conventions, you had all kinds of meetings, you know, think tanks and lawmakers and journalists frankly, and this meeting in the Senate office, which seems a little bit different between the ambassador and Senator Sessions, now Attorney General Sessions.

There is also the Al Franken, not telling Senator Franken that, oh, yeah, by the way, I did meet with him. There are two different issues and very related.

TAL KOPAN, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, absolutely. And, you know, Laura hit it the nail on the head when she called it a transparency issue. You know, you can imagine if he disclosed this during his confirmation hearing, there would have been a dust-up. But it would have been really hard to paint a picture of malfeasance or, you know, nefarious intent with meeting with the officials if he was up front about it.

But now that it's coming out after the fact and after he was directly asked if he had any, you know, contact with the Russian government, he can try to split hairs and say, well, it wasn't for the campaign, it was in my official capacity as senator. And yes, it's true that his office has put out a number of ambassadors he's met with beyond the Russian ambassador, including the Ukrainian ambassador.

BRIGGS: Right. KOPAN: That's the role of a senator.

But by not disclosing it, he is adding fuel to the fire that the Democrats see smoke. Some Republicans are starting to as well.

BRIGGS: What's interesting, you talk about that because Franken did not say, did you talk to the Russians? He did not suggest he was a surrogate. Sessions volunteered that information.

But is it common for a sitting U.S. senator to meet with ambassadors? He met with 25 over the course of the year.

KOPAN: Yes, and, you know, lawmakers do a lot of international outreach that we may not think of a lot. You know, they go on, they're called codels, congressional delegations. They go overseas, in fact, during recess week. Many lawmakers were overseas, including McCain, who, you know, went to some conferences.

So, it's not entirely uncommon for members of Congress to have contacts with foreign officials, whether they are ambassadors, whether they are other lawmakers.

[05:10:05] Meetings do happen. But, you know, it is absolutely a question of whether they are appropriate. I think on a case by case basis, some can be and some cannot. Remember the flack that Tulsi Gabbard got when she went to Syria and met with President Assad there.

So, there's definitely some lines you don't cross. And there's also some disclosures you should make.

BRIGGS: Let me add one thing. "The Washington Post" reached out to 20 members of the U.S. Armed Services Committee. All said they did not meet with the Russian ambassadors. That makes him the only one.

ROMANS: Let's talk about this. A tweet coming from the George W. Bush former ethics attorney, Richard Painter. He says this, "Misleading the Senate in sworn testimony about one own contacts with the Russians is a good way to go to jail." That's certainly putting it out there.

KOPAN: Yes, those are fighting words.


KOPAN: You know?

I have to imagine a lot of folks on the Hill, mostly Democrats, who feel if this had been Hillary Clinton or another Democrat, that we would already have oversight investigations starting. You know, you hear that.

You hear why are we not treating this the same way we treated other sort of mounting questions even if there is no silver bullet of wrongdoing? Like I said, a lot of smoke here. And so, you have folks asking those questions. Now, the difference, of course, you have same party control. The same

party in the White House is controlling Congress. And so, there's a lot less incentive to conduct these investigations. But when you already have Republicans saying time is come for recusal or an independent investigation, that looks a lot more likely at this point.

BRIGGS: There is an awful lot of smoke. Richard Painter who tweeted that will be on NEW DAY later this morning. Another guy we can't wait to hear from is Darrell Issa, who suggested in an independent investigation on the Bill Maher show. So, someone's going to go back to him this morning.

KOPAN: And former oversight chairman himself.

BRIGGS: Exactly.

ROMANS: All right. Tal, we'll talk to you in a few minutes. Thank you.

KOPAN: Thank you.

BRIGGS: Well, after the president suggested a compromise on immigration. The White House now admits the idea was all good press than good policy. We'll explain the stunning misdirection play, next.


[05:16:28] ROMANS: All right. We all learned a new trick this week. Misdirection play. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle skeptical about President Trump's talk of a big immigration compromise during his speech to Congress. On the right, Republicans want to see immigration laws toughened before talking about addressing the 11 million people living in this country 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 a compromise -- remember that bombshell this week?


ROMANS: The idea if there was compromise, the president could sign it. Well, the White House is admitting, oh, that was a way to generate good press ahead of Trump's address.

A senior administration official calling it a misdirection play before Trump pivoted to what the hard liners want when he gave his speech.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju wades through the swamp has more on the immigration debate on Capitol Hill.



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.


ROMANS: Misdirection play.

BRIGGS: We fell for it.

ROMANS: Hook, line and sinker.

BRIGGS: Come on. All right. Well, thank you, Manu.

Close call for Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. He was sitting court side last night at Celtics-Cavs game and nearly got steam-rolled by, who else, LeBron James.

Andy Scholes has the highlights in this morning's "Bleacher Report".

Good morning, Andy.


[05:23:19] BRIGGS: March Madness has officially arrived, my friend. Northwestern winning with a buzzer beater last night over Michigan, may turned out to be one of the biggest wins in school history. ROMANS: We have updated brackets. Andy Scholes is going to --

BRIGGS: Andy Scholes will help you.

ROMANS: He's got more in this morning's "Bleacher Report".

Hey, Andy.


You know, Northwestern fans have been waiting a lifetime for last night. I say that because Northwestern is the only big conference school that has never made it to the NCAA tournament. Wildcats are always home watching the dance, just like the rest of us. They're tied at 55-55 under two seconds left. Inbound the ball the length of the court, and Dererk Pardon puts it in at the buzzer.

The Wildcats go absolutely nuts. They dog pile Pardon. Fans rush the court. Win over Michigan almost certainly secures Northwestern a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Their coach, Chris Collins, was asked if his biggest fan was his dad Doug who's a former NBA and now TV announcer. He got the winning games thoughts.


CHRIS COLLINS, NORTHWESTERN HEAD COACH: He's actually on the air right now doing the Boston-Cleveland game on ESPN. Hopefully they did a cut-in out of a time-out and showed him the play.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doug, your son likely is the man who led the school to the first NCAA tournament.

DOUG COLLINS, FORMER NBA HEAD COACH: Well, to see where he was when that started and to see where they were today, the excitement, to see the kids storm the floor. Pretty special. I've got to tell you, I'm proud of my son.


SCHOLES: As for the Celtics-Cavs game, Bill Belichick taking courtside, taking in the action. In the fourth quarter, LeBron nearly barrels over the Patriots coach. LeBron said he slows down because he knew it was him and he wasn't going to take out a legend.

[05:25:03] This game came down to the final seconds. The Cavs' new addition, Deron Williams, has a chance to win it for Cleveland but his three no good. Celtics beat the Cavs, 103-99.

Now, if you thought that Northwestern buzzer beater was good, check this one out from the Indiana high school basketball tournament, 0.5 seconds on the look, Josh Clanton rebounds the free throw and his prayer is answered. Central Christian Academy wins on this absolutely miracle. Their coach told them to miss the free throw on purpose, but I can't blame him. That was a once in a lifetime shot. All right. Finally, all the kids love to dance to this song "Juju On

That Beat". Eight-year-old Noah Young has the moves even if he is wearing all of the goalie equipment.

I tell you what, that is impressive. I can't do that on solid ground. Let alone wearing skates.

ROMANS: Andy, I have to tell you I need that this morning. I needed that kid this morning. You gave him to me. Thank you.

BRIGGS: Book that young man. Let's get him on.

ROMANS: Awesome.

SCHOLES: Little Noah, man, he's got it going.

BRIGGS: I could not do that move on a dance floor at 2:00 a.m. That kid has it going on skates. Love it.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks, Andy. Nice to see you.

BRIGGS: All right, guys. Have a good one.

ROMANS: So, was he speaking as a surrogate or senator? That is a distinction that is pivotal as Attorney General Jeff Sessions comes under fire for failing to disclose talks with the Russian ambassador. Details next.