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Attorney General Under Fire Over Russia Meetings; Critics: Delay Shows Travel Ban Not Urgent After All. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 06:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:58:49] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're watching NEW DAY. It is Thursday, March 2, 6 a.m. here in New York City. We begin with breaking news for you.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not disclose during his confirmation hearings two meetings that he had with a Russian diplomat. The Justice Department says that then-Senator Sessions met with this Russian ambassador twice during the 2016 race when he was an advisor to Donald Trump's campaign.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. The White House is playing this off as a partisan political play. The facts are pretty plain. Meeting twice with the same Russian that Mike Flynn did directly contradicts the answers that Sessions gave twice during his Senate confirmation hearing. The explanation from the DOJ, basically, Sessions met with a lot of people.

Sessions has resisted calls to recuse himself from Justice Department and FBI investigations into Russia. Democrats are saying he should not only recuse himself; some are saying he should resign. What will Republicans ask for now? Just 42 days into the Trump presidency.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns, live at the White House -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris.

One of the president's early supporters on the campaign trail, who later became his attorney general. The chief law enforcement officer in the federal government and apparently has a credibility problem this morning.

Jeff Sessions was sworn in three weeks ago today. Now the latest administration official answering questions about contacts with Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): The Justice Department revealing Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice during President Trump's campaign in 2016. Contacts Sessions did not disclose under oath at his Senate confirmation hearing. JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: I have been

called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. I would just say to you that I have no information about this matter.

JOHNS: Sessions denying any impropriety, releasing a new statement now saying, 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." But the Justice Department revealing that Sessions met with Kislyak last July on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention.

SESSIONS: Make America great again.

JOHNS: Four months after Sessions was named chairman of the Trump campaign's national security advisory committee. Sessions met again with Ambassador Kislyak last September in a Senate office. The White House blasting allegations by leading Democrats that he misled Congress as partisan politics, in a statement saying, quote, "Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony."

Sessions' spokeswoman says, quote, "There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer."

The denials from Sessions and the White House are in direct conflict with what the Justice Department says happened. Senior government sources tell CNN that the ambassador is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies in Washington.

Last December, U.S. intelligence intercepted conversation between Kislyak and President Trump's former national security advisor, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Flynn was later fired for misleading the vice president about discussing sanctions with Russia.

Meanwhile, "The New York Times" is reporting Obama administration officials scrambled to preserve any information about possible contacts between President Trump's campaign aides and Russia before Mr. Trump took office. The officials quickly spreading information about Russia's efforts "to leave a clear trail of intelligence."

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have nothing to do with Russia.

JOHNS: The White House has repeatedly denied any such contact.

TRUMP: I haven't called Russia in ten years.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What point, how many people have to say that there's nothing before there you realize there's nothing there?

JOHNS: And so what is Russia saying about all of this? Its foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, posted something on her Facebook page referring to CNN. Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak considered by U.S. intelligence to be top Russian spy and recruiters. She writes, "Do you think this is the media bottom, or do they have to fall further?"

The administration was hoping to get on policy today with a trip out to the Tidewater area of Virginia, but apparently, the White House is back into drama mode.

Back to you.

CAMEROTA: OK, Joe, thank you very much for all of that.

So top Democrats calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign for failing to disclose those meetings with the Russian diplomat and some Republicans now insisting the attorney general should recuse himself from any Russia investigations.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is live from Capitol Hill live with more. What have you learned, Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn.

Well, swift reaction coming up here on Capitol Hill. Several lawmakers calling for Sessions to recuse himself, saying there needs to be a special prosecutor appointed. And others saying that doesn't go far enough.

Many Democratic lawmakers are now calling for Sessions to resign, including Nancy Pelosi, who said in a statement overnight, quote, "Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign. There must be an independent bipartisan outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal and financial connections to the Russians."

And so far Sessions is getting little support from his Republican former colleagues up here. Here's Senator Lindsey Graham.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If there is something 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's something there that the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then for sure you need a special prosecutor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: All this comes as a House Intelligence Committee was already moving forward on their own investigation up here, announcing last night the parameters for their probe, which according to the committee, will focus on the contacts between Russian officials and campaigns, the leaks here and the U.S. government's response to Russian cyber activity. So this just adds just another layer to an already very complex investigation -- Alisyn and Chris.

[06:05:09] CUOMO: All right. Let's get some deeper reporting and perspective. Let's bring in our panel, CNN political analyst and author of "How Is Your Faith," David Gregory; CNN political and "Washington Post" reporter Abby Phillip; and CNN political analyst and senior congressional correspondent for "The Washington Examiner," David Drucker.

Brother Gregory, Sean Spicer asks how many have to say "nothing's there" before there's nothing there? You have to add one more to the list now.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, yes.

CUOMO: Jeff Sessions and how interesting that the Russian pushback from their official sounds just like the White House pushback...

GREGORY: That's right.

CUOMO: ... about how low can the media go. What do you make of this?

GREGORY: Well, that's noise at this point. This is an issue primarily for the Senate and for the integrity of the Senate. Right? So on level, you have a former senator, now the attorney general, who had contact with the Russian ambassador during a hugely important period, right? When Russia's in the news, when there's hacking going on. Relations are already bad between the U.S. and Russia, so how -- how do you know remember something like that. That's No. 1.

But then on the other side of it, what is actually the content of those meetings? As Lindsey Graham was saying, is there something criminal in nature? I don't know that that's the case. Certainly, he -- someone on the Armed Services Committee, he would have had a reason to have such a meeting, but he's also an early supporter of Trump. He's in line to become a senior administration official, part of the cabinet.

Clearly, that would have been known, and he certainly didn't appear to be forthcoming with his Senate colleagues. So that's where the action is going to be. This is a big deal, and it's also going to be a bigger deal on the Hill, where there's going to be a lot more reason to push for either a select committee investigating these Russian contacts and/or a special prosecutor.

CAMEROTA: Abby, just so everyone knows what we're talking about, let's replay the moment that Senator Al Franken asks Senator Jeff Sessions in the confirmation hearings whether or not, he knows of any contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the course of this campaign, what will you do?

SESSION: 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 didn't -- not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: OK. So Abby, what he now says is that he did meet with the Russian ambassador but in his capacity, as David Gregory was saying, as a senator on the Armed Services Committee; and they did not discuss the campaign.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, that wasn't really the question. That's the problem. The problem is that you have to be responsive to the question that you're asked when you're under oath in front of a Senate hearing, and he clearly didn't answer that question truthfully. The question is why.

It's not just that verbal interaction that we just saw, but there was also a written inquiry from another senator that he also responded unequivocally "no" to. That's -- that is the source of the issue here.

Perjury is a serious, serious problem. Beyond that, I think the White House has tried to prejudge the outcome of several investigations that are ongoing both the -- both in the Senate and in the House and in the intelligence community at the FBI. I think it's very -- it's going to be very hard for them to continue to do that, considering there's so much evidence that all of these issues, Jeff Sessions himself is now part of the inquiry happening at all levels of government now.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

CUOMO: So just to keep it straight, there are two different instances of when the -- Jeff Sessions may have met with this Russian ambassador. There's also two separate instances of when he denied it. That was the first one.

The second one is one of the confirmation hearing questionnaires, the written question and answer. It's on your screen right now. Several of the president-elect's nominees or senior advisers 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? Jeff Sessions, attorney general now, no.

David Drucker, the key part of that will be about the election.

CAMEROTA: The 2016 election.

CUOMO: And that's what the response is so far. The suggestion here is that you ran from the police. They catch you, and you say, "I did nothing wrong," and they say to them, "Why did you run, David?"

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Let's back up here, and at least discuss the fact that there's no way Vladimir Putin, the Russian strong man, is going to place an ambassador in Washington that is not an intelligence gatherer. I mean, this is not simply going to be a diplomat. We're not talking about the Russian ambassador to Malta or something like that. So let's get that out of the way.

[06:10:05] The issue for Sessions, if there's nothing there, is that he didn't disclose. And when you're dealing with the government in matters as sensitive -- as sensitive as this because of Russia's meddling in our election, which may or may not have had an impact. Not disclosing makes it look as though something happened.

And finally, we get back to the root of the poisonous fruit here, which is that Donald Trump, the president of the United States, has always been friendly and apologetic for Vladimir Putin. He has absolved him and excused him for horrible behavior for Russia's invasion of other countries. He has not jawboned Russia the same way he has China or NATO, and that has always rubbed people the wrong way on Capitol Hill.

It's made Republicans very curious, and it's made it look as though he's trying to work with Russia in a way that doesn't make sense from a strategic standpoint from the United States. And that's why people continue to look into this sort of thing and why it has credibility as news to report.

CAMEROTA: So David Gregory, since it's the attorney general that asks for a special prosecutor, for an outside commission to investigate this, but the attorney general is obviously the one with a dubious now connection. What's going to happen with calls for a special prosecutor?

GREGORY: Well, I mean, you obviously have to look at what pressure comes from Capitol Hill, particularly from Republicans. I do think the Republican leadership will have a lot to do with how much pressure is put on this to make it a select committee or a special prosecutor. The White House would create some pressure, as well. And elements within the Justice Department.

I mean, I think it's striking that the "Post" story here quotes Justice Department officials. That's not surprising. There are -- there are a lot of career people of the Justice Department who perhaps had knowledge of this and is willing to talk about it anonymously, because they're uncomfortable with it.

But again, this becomes a pressure issue. As David and Abby are saying, this failure to disclose. I mean, if nothing else, the fact that all of this is going on; and you don't see -- because in that answer to Franken, it's very interesting. He says, "Look, I've been called a surrogate sometimes, and I haven't had any contact." So he acknowledges that even he would be part of that mix. He should have said, "Look, I had meetings, but they were related to, you know, my capacity as being on the Senate Armed Services Committee." That's the deal.

And the idea that the White House still wants to stand back and say, "Oh, yes, this is just the partisan -- you know, the former administration and the entire intelligence community that is stacked against us here," to trump all of this up. That's just not a credible claim. They're going to have to be more serious about answers. Just imagine, just insert President Hillary Clinton and her top advisers...

CAMEROTA: Right.

GREGORY: ... into this scenario and imagine the reaction.

CAMEROTA: Right. Panel, stick around. Believe it or not, there is much more news to discuss with you today, so please stick around. Coming up on NEW DAY, we will have Senator Al Franken, who we've been talking about, the exchange that he had with Jeff Sessions. So please join us in our 8 a.m. hour to talk about these revelations.

CUOMO: All right. Critics are pouncing on President Trump for delaying the new travel ban. Why? Because part of the reason that the president was arguing to get the ban passed was that it was needed for imminent threat. It had to be done right away. So why the delays? Is it just about playing politics? Our panel discusses that, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: The fact that the president thinks, "Well, we can wait another day so I can get a political benefit from another day focused on my speech," tells you they don't see that much urgency with this either. So it looks arbitrary and political, which is exactly, I'm afraid, what it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: All right. That's critics, seizing on the White House decision to continue to delay the new and approved travel ban. The critics say that it flies in the face of the administration's original claim that that executive order and that travel ban was critical to protect national security.

Let's talk about that with our panel. We have David Gregory, Abby Phillip and David Drucker.

So Abby, you know, it's not just delaying it by a day. I mean, we've been hearing for a couple of weeks now the new and improved travel ban is imminent. And back on, I believe, February 6, when they originally talked about it, they said it was, you know, imminent danger. They needed it passed immediately, because the country -- you know, bad guys could be coming in and affecting national security. Why are they -- I mean, the White House said that they're now postponing it, because they wanted to continue to talk about President Trump's great address in front of Congress.

So how does that square?

PHILLIP: Exactly. I mean, I think it's a major problem, especially as they plan to continue to defend the old travel ban in court. They've said that they need to do that. But even the existence of a new travel ban with changes that address some of the legal problems that were raised by the previous one makes it very difficult for them to do that.

If they do end up delaying it for several days, I mean, it's already been delayed for several weeks. Even if the State of the Union speech-esque from this week didn't delay it even further, I think they would have had a problem defending the rationale that it was so urgent that it needed to be done sort of under the cover of secrecy without the proper approvals in various levels of government and also with the list of countries that are currently on -- on the ban. I mean, I think the White House is going to be in a little bit of a tough spot legally going forward here.

CUOMO: David Drucker, is it fair to say that the White House is delaying the travel ban, because they wanted to give more attention to the address? And is it true that they received reporting that there is no imminent threat, according to homeland security, that would require this kind of ban?

DRUCKER: Well, look, Chris, I think that the administration should be -- you don't have to commend them for doing their job. But the fact that they got it wrong and in a big way starting out and then going forward with this new executive order, have tried to get it right, have tried to get their facts straight and have tried to prevent future problems with another executive order, is what we should want to see out of the government. Competence, and things done properly.

GREGORY: Right.

[06:20:12] DRUCKER: But you know, but as Abby said, it flies in the face of the case the president made for the first executive order when he attacked the judiciary and his opponents putting American lives in the homeland at risk, because this was an imminent threat.

So look, I think it's very important that they get their messaging straight and their story straight as to the purpose for these things, because that can help them sell it. And it gives people confidence that they know what they're doing. But the fact that they're moving slower this time, to try and get everything right, I think is the most important part of what's going on, even though clearly, there's a lot of politics at play.

CAMEROTA: Go ahead, David Gregory.

GREGORY: Yes,, I just think, look, we can't bang them over the head and say, "Wow, this was so chaotic and so hasty. Rush this thing out there." And now that they're being far more deliberate about it after judicial review, you then say why are you sitting on this thing?

CAMEROTA: But can you bang them over the head for making what sounds like a political decision, not a national security decision?

GREGORY: Well, right, and that may be the case. That may be the case. I certainly think that it's fair to scrutinize them, based on, "Oh, now you're taking Iraq out of this." Foreseeable. This was a judgment that could have been made right off the top. And so it shows, I think, flaws in the decision making and the execution of this entire deal.

But if you're an opponent of this ban, you like the fact that the courts have said no, this crosses the line. This is wrong and that the White House has to go back and take a lot of time to make sure they -- they get this right.

Now, you know, if there is evidence that they're sitting on it, you know, just to get -- you know, to bask a little bit more in the president's speech or to -- you know, to put the focus on it at a different time. Then yes, that absolutely undercuts the -- the urgency of the argument.

CAMEROTA: Well, I mean, here's the -- excuse me, a senior administration official statement to CNN. What they say is we want the executive order of the travel ban to have its, quote, own moment. So interpret that as you will.

GREGORY: No, I think that's fair.

CUOMO: Well, that's what I was asking about, David, is whether or not, you know, you believe that that was fair, David Drucker, to put it that way.

GREGORY: Yes.

CUOMO: Loo, we were saying here on this show, I think David Gregory, you said it in the immediate aftermath after it got denied by the court, that they needed to take more time. They rushed it through. They didn't get the right vetting. Nobody's questioning that. You would be questioning the basis, Abby Phillip, of whether or not there is any imminent threat.

Isn't there reporting out there that government agencies sent a report to the White House, saying there is no imminent threat to the country right now that would justify a ban?

PHILLIPS: Yes. Absolutely. I actually think that the place for deliberation was at the very beginning when they were coming up with it. At this point to say that the consideration here is making sure that the travel ban has its own moment is -- is not a national security consideration.

CUOMO: Right.

PHILLIPS: I think that's pretty clear. And I think the courts will look at that, and they will say then, how do you justify a ban of -- that is, you know, if it is in a similar vein as the previous ban. Pretty widespread. That is going to come under legal scrutiny. I don't think that necessarily helps their case.

CUOMO: Well, they're going to have to lean even more on the executive mandate when it comes to immigration.

GREGORY: Right.

CUOMO: That's our reporting on it, but they just got an opportunity, Abby, to delay if they want. Because now they've got to deal with the Sessions situation. You know, I mean, they were looking for a reason to delay. This is a real issue. You've got the attorney general of the United States, who's going to have to play a role in these investigations. He's now implicated in them. So if they want to beat the White House to deal with something, they

can use this, can't they?

PHILLIP: They certainly can. I mean, I think that -- but here's the other thing. I mean, Jeff Sessions being caught up in this issue about Russia, Jeff Sessions is also the person who has to make decisions about how to defend the travel ban in court. So they have a lot involved in the air right now. And ultimately, I think they have to kind of sort -- let things settle down a little bit.

CUOMO: But do you remember how much time they spent on whether or not Hillary Clinton had lied to the FBI and how they brought Comey up there. And then Comey had to go back on it. I mean, that was a huge fixation. This could be equally so, just in terms of the political attention.

I'm not saying the merits of it. I'm not saying the subject matter. That all remains to be seen. But David Gregory, final word. This could take time.

GREGORY: It could take time. Right. It could mean that the travel ban has to have its day on yet another day. Because again, this is also about disclosure to the Senate. You know, I mean, we talk about the Senate being a club, and this is one of their guys.

Well, they're going to have to stand up and account for the fact that he didn't level with them at the very least in these disclosure documents.

[06:25:04] CAMEROTA: All right, panel. Thank you very much for all the information.

So the acts following on those accountants who were in charge of the envelope at last Sunday's Oscar fiasco. What's going to happen to these guys? We'll tell you their punishment. Details next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUOMO: A suspect now jailed in the murder of Kim Jong-un's estranged half-brother is set to be released and deported back to North Korea tomorrow. Malaysia's attorney general says there's not enough evidence to charge him in the murder of the North Korean leader's relative. Meantime, Malaysia officials are ending its visa-free travel for North Koreans, citing security reasons. The country's prime minister said the change will go into effect in just four days.

CAMEROTA: The Midwest and southeast hit by severe storms for the second straight day. Twenty-six tornados were reported from Iowa to Tennessee on Tuesday. Here's the aftermath in Illinois that you're looking at. Three people died in these storms. On Monday, twisters touched down in Kentucky and West Virginia. No reports of death or injuries there.

CUOMO: The Motion Picture Academy issuing a lifetime ban for the two accountants who were in charge of the envelopes at the Academy Awards following that Best Picture envelope gaffe.