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Attorney General Under Fire Over Russia Meetings; Democrats Call for Sessions to Resign Over Russian Meetings. Aired 7-7:30a ET
Aired March 2, 2017 - 07:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for watching. For you, "CNN NEWSROOM" is next. For our U.S. viewers, NEW DAY continues right now.
[07:00:06] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
CUOMO: All right. Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. We're following breaking news here. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is under fire. He failed to disclose two separate meetings with Russia's ambassador. The same ambassador that Mike Flynn was meeting with. You know who he is and what happened to him. He was still a senator, Sessions, when he was advising the Trump campaign and had these meetings.
CAMEROTA: Now, these new revelations contradict answers that Jeff Sessions gave to senators during his confirmation process. Top Democrats are now calling on the attorney general to resign as more calls grow for him to at least recuse himself about the Russia investigations.
We are in day 42 of the Trump presidency, so let's begin our coverage with senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns. He's live at the White House.
Good morning, Joe.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn.
The confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions was must-see TV as his then colleagues in the Senate got to grill him. He was sworn in three weeks ago today as the federal government's top law enforcement officer.
And now there are questions about whether he may have made a misleading statement during the hearing about contacts with Russia that could at least potentially have far-reaching consequences.
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.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't called Russia in ten years.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: At what point, how many people have to say that there's nothing there before you realize there's nothing there?
JOHNS: The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman on Facebook this morning disputing CNN's characterization of Ambassador Kislyak.
The timing of this controversy not good for the White House. The president is headed out to a ship-building event in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area to talk about rebuilding the military -- Chris and Alisyn.
CUOMO: All right, Joe. Appreciate it.
Top Democrats are calling for Attorney General Sessions to resign for failing to disclose those meetings with the Russian diplomat. Some Republicans are insisting that Sessions at least recuse himself from any Russia investigations.
CNN's Sunlen Serfaty live from Capitol Hill with more. What do we know?
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, good morning.
Very swift reaction coming from Capitol Hill. Many lawmakers calling for a special prosecutor to be appointed. They say that Senator Sessions needs to recuse himself here as attorney general. And others going one step farther. A handful of Democrats calling for Sessions to resign, including Nancy Pelosi, who says, 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 Republicans, including his former colleague, Senator Lindsey Graham.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[07:05:12] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If there is something there, and it goes up the chain of the 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: And all of this as the House Intelligence Committee was already moving forward with their investigation into all of this announcing last night the parameters for the probe, which according to the committee will focus on the contact between Russian officials and campaigns during the election, who leaked here? And the U.S. government's response to the Russian cyber activity. So all of this just adding another layer to an already very complex investigation -- Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: All right, Sunlen. Thank you very much for explaining that.
And joining us now to talk about it is Republican Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. He is the chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Good morning, Congressman.
REP. SEAN DUFFY (R), WISCONSIN: Good morning.
CAMEROTA: Great to have you here.
DUFFY: You, too.
CAMEROTA: So let's talk about this revelation, that Attorney General Sessions, when he was senator, met twice with this same Russian ambassador that Michael Flynn, who has resigned, and that he didn't disclose it. What do you make of this?
DUFFY: First off, I would say that there's a lot of congressmen and senators who meet with leaders of foreign governments and ambassadors, especially on committees like the one that Jeff Sessions served on. But with that said, it gives me some pause that he wasn't more clear about the meeting. I mean, I think as he's going through the campaign with Mr. Trump, though he was acting in his capacity as a senator. You want to disclose that information. And I think it should have been more clear during his confirmation process that he did have the meetings. But I'm going to take him at face value now that, as these meetings took place, what -- I think it was July and September, that they're in his official capacity. As a U.S. senator, he has a lot of work on his plate.
And I think, frankly, at that time there wasn't a lot of people in America who thought that Donald Trump was going to win. I highly doubt there was a correlation between those meetings and any campaign activity. I do think it was in the senator's capacity as a senator.
CAMEROTA: Why, Congressman, are you so confident about that? I mean, given that he was pretty unequivocal in his confirmation hearing that there was no communications. Let me just remind our viewers and you exactly how this went down when he was questioned. Listen to this.
(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 in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: 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 -- did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: Congressman, he says, "I did not have communications with the Russians." Yes, he did twice.
CAMEROTA: And that's why I first said that he should have been far more clear with the panel. I would note that the question did come to him about the campaign and sometimes when you're, you know, getting a question lobed at you, he might have thought it was in the campaign capacity.
CAMEROTA: I think he did think that, because he even says, "I've been called a surrogate a time or two." In other words, "I'm connected to the campaign, and I didn't have any communications." I think he did interpret it that way and even gave that misleading response.
DUFFY: But I think when you go out -- listen, I've met with the Russian ambassador as part of my official job. I think there's one thought process. Obviously, I do my job. There aren't secret meetings.
Meetings don't take place in some dark cubby hole or, you know, in some garage somewhere. They're very public. I mean, so no one's trying to hide a meeting between the U.S. senator and a Russian ambassador or any other ambassador from around the world.
And that's why it gives me some pause that he wasn't more clear on the answer. He should have been. And upon reflection, he should have actually gone back and clarified the record if he got the answer wrong in the hearing. Because if you don't, Alisyn, then you create scenarios and news stories like what we're talking about today. And it doesn't help Donald Trump, and it doesn't help Jeff Sessions., and it doesn't help move the country forward.
DUFFY: So again I think we have to have a harder look at what was -- what was taking place with regard to Jeff Sessions and the Russians. I would assume there's nothing there. But I think as Lindsey Graham said last night in your -- in your town hall, if there is, and the FBI presents us information, I think you'll see the Congress act.
CAMEROTA: Well, let's talk about that. Because what does happen next? You know there have been calls for Jeff Sessions to resign.
DUFFY: Listen, Nancy Pelosi, I think she would ask for Donald Trump to resign, too, and for Donald Trump to be impeached. But again, this is jumping to conclusions, that a U.S. senator on Armed Services met with a foreign government. That happens all the time, Alisyn. And our -- in the House, a lot of House members on these committees meet with foreign governments all the time.
CAMEROTA: Sure, sure. I hear you, but then they disclose it. And so, given that you're saying, "Let's get to the bottom of it. Let's find out the truth"...
CAMEROTA: ... should he recuse himself as the attorney general overseeing any investigation into the Trump team and Russia?
DUFFY: I would want more information on that. But again, if there's closer ties or there was information exchanged about the campaign, then I think, yes, that would be appropriate. But if he's only having conversations with the Russians about his official capacity as a U.S. senator, well, then the answer would be no. And I don't want to...
CAMEROTA: So you think...
DUFFY: I don't want to jump to -- go ahead.
CAMEROTA: You think that he is still independent-minded and qualified to oversee these investigations, though he, for whatever reason, didn't disclose his contact?
DUFFY: Yes. I do at this point. I don't have any information to say, listen, Jeff Sessions won't be someone who can adequately oversee it.
Again, a U.S. senator who is on this committee that meets with a foreign government, it happens all the time. So that in and of itself doesn't give me pause.
That he wasn't clear on the hearing, that gives me some concern. But as I look at it, Alisyn, again, they're not meeting in a garage; they're not meeting in, you know, some dark space. These are very open meetings that the senator had with the Russians.
DUFFY: And so I don't -- I mean, I don't know why he wasn't more clear, because this is -- this is oftentimes public information. People know these meetings happen.
DUFFY: And that's why I wish he would have been more clear, at least clarified his answer.
CAMEROTA: It does arouse suspicion, but listen to this, Congressman. Because it's exactly what you're talking about.
Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill just tweeted moments ago, and I'll read it -- You and I will both be hearing it at the same time -- "I've been on the Armed Services Committee for ten years. No call or meeting with the Russian ambassador, ever." Period. "Ambassadors call members of the Foreign Relations Committee."
So there you have Claire McCaskill saying, actually, it's unusual that Jeff Sessions, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, would be having this meeting with this Russian ambassador.
DUFFY: Well, I would say, as a House member, I know that those -- those individuals on these committees, whether it's Armed Services or it's the Foreign Relations Committees, oftentimes have meetings with -- with foreign governments.
When I was on the Foreign Relations Committee -- and that's a different committee -- but, obviously, you see a lot of governments come through and want to talk to you. So that doesn't -- that doesn't give me much pause, and frankly, Claire McCaskill, I don't know that she's going to be the best resource for us about those kind of meetings, having served on that committee.
CAMEROTA: I mean, why not? I mean, since she is on that committee, why wouldn't she be the best resource?
DUFFY: Well, Alisyn, I think you're seeing politics being played hard here. I mean, even if you go back to the speech a couple nights ago, I think most Americans look at Donald Trump's address to the nation and say the content and the delivery was pretty good, but there's a lot of Democrats that say, "I just don't like the guy. Personally, he's an affront to my person."
And so I hope that this isn't becoming, you know, partisan and political and a dislike for Donald Trump as why Claire McCaskill is saying this.
So let's take Claire's tweet for what it is. But I'd like to hear from other senators to go -- if I were a senator on that committee, or those that who have served on that committee say, "Listen, you never hear from a foreign government," well, that would give me pause. But I don't think that's the case.
CAMEROTA: So just to wrap this up, you do not think it's time yet for Senator -- for Attorney General Sessions to recuse himself?
DUFFY: That -- that's right. No. Am I saying that there wouldn't be additional information that came out in the future that would give me pause and go, yes, he shouldn't be a part of any investigation? That's possible if new information came to light.
But again, this information about this meeting that wasn't discussed with -- with a panel in his confirmation hearing, but was very public, I don't think so yet.
CAMEROTA: OK. Congressman Sean Duffy, great to see you. Thanks so much.
DUFFY: Thanks, Alisyn. Have a good day.
CAMEROTA: Coming up on NEW DAY, Senator Al Franken will join us in our next hour to talk about his question to the attorney general about those Russia contacts and Jeff Sessions answers.
Also we would like to note that we did invite the White House to come on the show, as we do every day; and they once again today declined our request.
CUOMO: No shocker today. We just heard from the GOP one side of the political playbook here, that all the information of inaccuracies under oath by Jeff Sessions gives pause. That's what we just heard Congressman Duffy say.
You're going to hear from a Democratic congressman next, Tim Ryan, who says it doesn't give him pause. It gives him cause to call for Sessions to resign. Why? Next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[07:18:48] CUOMO: The White House says these revelations about Jeff Sessions are just politics. We just heard a GOP congressman say right now it just gives him pause. He needs to know more.
Well, here comes an Ohio congressman, a Democrat named Tim Ryan, and he says Sessions should resign. That is a very high bar. Why do you think we are at that point?
REP. TIM RYAN (D), OHIO: Well, I think it's pretty clear he lied. He said he was a surrogate, and he then went on to say he never had any meetings in any capacity with Russian officials, let alone the top Russian spy in the United States, Chris. And I think you put this in addition to Flynn lied, Trump has not shown his taxes. You go back to Manafort, in the middle of the summer, and his relationship with Russian folks in the Ukraine. What the hell is going on here?
CUOMO: I hear you.
RYAN: Why is everybody lying?
CUOMO: I hear you, but let's give him his best defense, OK?
RYAN: You got it (ph).
CUOMO: And that would be lying would mean he wasn't just inaccurate under oath, which clearly, he was, but that he knew that the contacts that he has had with Kislyak were relevant to his response and intentionally denied them. Do you believe that Jeff Sessions thought to himself, "These meetings I've had matter, but I'm not going to mention them"?
[07:20:07] RYAN: I can't get inside his head.
CUOMO: But that's why "lie" is a very high bar, and resigning is a very high bar.
RYAN: Well -- I assume that he knew that he had these meetings in the summer and in September. And I'm assuming he knew he had these meetings. And then he's testifying before the United States Senate, in a confirmation hearing, in which telling the truth is essential to whether or not you'll get confirmed by the United States Senate; and he completely misled Al Franken and the Senate and the American people.
And again, Chris, you can't just look at this as this one contact. It's Flynn. It's Trump not showing his taxes. We need to know what's going on here. It's the leaks that seem to have been very coordinated and the hacking that only affected one side of this presidential election.
I mean, come on, like, we've got to open up our eyes here. This is some serious stuff. And I will tell you, to hear Republicans kind of soft-step this stuff is very, very troubling.
RYAN: This is essential to our democracy. The current attorney general was meeting with the Russians during a campaign of someone he endorsed. The national security advisor lied about conversations he was having with top Russian officials. The president of the United States has not released his taxes. We have no idea what his relationship is, monetarily or otherwise, with the Russian government. Meanwhile, the United States military is spending a lot of time, money and resources dealing with the Ukrainian issue and what Russia has done in Ukraine, what Russia has done in Syria.
RYAN: This is serious business.
CUOMO: The lack of transparency from Donald Trump is well-reported. We mention it on a regular basis...
RYAN: You do a good job of that.
CUOMO: ... that he will not turn over his taxes and other things. But you've got to keep certain things separate. I'm not testing your theory that there's a lot of concern about this apparent sheltering of Russia by this White House. We ask those same questions.
However, with Sessions, the defense of him right now is "I met with him in a capacity as a senator, not about the election. And in the written response to Leahy, you asked me about whether or not I had contact with any Russian about the election, and it wasn't about the election." Now, that is similar to what Flynn said in his defense of these discussions, that it wasn't about sanctions. You don't buy it?
RYAN: The question is, why are you lying? Yes, he said that after the reports that he had the meetings with the Russians. But before we knew that we had the meetings with the Russians, he was saying he didn't have any meetings with the Russians. The question then is why are you people lying?
I mean, it seems like we're dealing with a bunch of 12- and 13-year- old kids who get caught, and they lie. And then you've caught them, and then they -- then they tell you the truth. It's like, don't lie. We are adults. This is serious business. Our relationship with Russia is tenuous. We are interfacing with them all over the globe. We're spending taxpayer dollars dealing with the geopolitics dealing with Russia. We need to know what our relationship is with them, what our commander in chief's relationship is with them, what our national security advisor's relationship is with them, and what the attorney general's relationship is.
These are honest questions. I don't dislike any of these people. I'm just saying tell us the truth. The American people deserve the truth.
CUOMO: How concerned are you about what the worst implications is about what's going on here? And what can you do about it?
RYAN: I don't know. I don't think a Democrat should jump to conclusions. I think we need a bipartisan, bicameral investigation that is funded so that we can get to the bottom of all of this Russian business from -- from Trump to the election.
CUOMO: The pushback is you have the FBI looking at it now and three separate congressional committees. You're saying that's not enough or it has to be different?
RYAN: I think we need to do a 9/11-style commission. I think this -- this goes to the heart of our democracy. This goes to the heart of our elections. This goes to the heart of whether a free people in the United States of America are electing their officials through a process that is protected and has integrity. And that is the highest level of responsibility that we have here in the United States Congress. And I think we should show the American people this is going to be done on a united front. We're going to take the politics out of this and just try to get to the answers.
I mean, we have these fights. We have these relationships with a lot of different countries all over the world. But we are the beacon of democracy. We are the beacon of free elections. And if the integrity of our elections comes into question, that has a ripple effect throughout the world and damages our ability, really, to have the high ground when we go to countries and say, "Hey, you should build a democratic government here. You should allow the people to decide who their leaders are."
[07:25:09] If we can't protect and have that integrity in our own process, then we don't have any credibility around the world to say it to any other country.
CUOMO: Well, you're suggesting some very heavy implications, and there's no question that we need to know more. Congressman Ryan, thank you for making the case for your side here on NEW DAY. You're always welcome.
RYAN: Thank you, Chris.
CUOMO: All right. Now Al Franken, the senator, he was the man who asked Sessions about this during the confirmation hearing, and you'll remember he'll got into it with Senator Cruz and Cornyn about what was going on with that Sessions confirmation hearing. What led him to ask this question? How does he feel about the latest revelations? He's coming up on the show.
CAMEROTA: All right. So President Trump repeatedly delaying the announcement of his new and improved travel ban. So what does that mean for the urgent national security that he had mentioned? We discuss that next.
CUOMO: All right. We have a CNN Reality Check for you. Facts matter more than ever. President Trump made heavy claims about undocumented immigrants that deserve scrutiny. Here's what the president said Tuesday night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We want all Americans to succeed, but that can't happen in an environment of lawless chaos. We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: "Lawless chaos." Those are heavy words.