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Reports Surface that Attorney Jeff Sessions Met with Russian Ambassador during Presidential Campaign; Interview with Congressman Tom Cole; U.S. Carries Out Air Strikes in Yemen; Interview with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 08:00   ET


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Barbara, sorry to keep you on hold there, but we have you on for the -- another top story today and that is that there may be this shift in policy that commanders in the field -- generals -- will have more autonomy to act on raids more quickly, rather than having to run it up the flagpole and get the president's approval.

[08:00:04] What do we know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, maybe more autonomy. It's something that they wanted. There was a big feeling in the Pentagon that the Obama White House were micromanagers. They wanted every detail on all kinds of missions before they would move and approve them. Commanders felt some of them, they had a hand tied behind their back, that they needed to move faster.

The Trump White House at this point looks like it is willing to give them some of that flexibility. But there is a real bottom line here. It doesn't mean that the president is not the commander-in-chief and isn't responsible ultimately for every military operation to some extent out there. There is some risk involved in taking that step back.

What our sources are telling is, President Trump will continue to be briefed on everything. Authority to the defense secretary, to his top generals when they say they want to do something, he's likely to approve it much more quickly. If some of these missions go wrong, if they turn tragic, it may be a risk for the president.

CAMEROTA: Barbara Starr, thank you for that reporting. Mike Rogers, thank you as always.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, guys. Good to see you.

CAMEROTA: We want to let you know the man who questioned Senator Sessions, Senator Al Franken, is going to join us live in a few minutes. So let's continue our breaking news coverage right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CAMEROTA: Good morning everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. We do begin with breaking news for you because Attorney General Jeff Sessions is under fire this morning for failing to disclose two meetings he had with a Russian diplomat. Sessions was still senator at the time but he was also an advisor to the Trump campaign when he met last year with Russia's ambassador, and that person is considered by U.S. intelligence agencies to be a high level spy.

CUOMO: That's interesting. The attorney general says he never talked to any Russian personnel about the campaign. But these revelations come in the Justice Department. That's where this report is coming from in "The Washington Post." Sessions during his confirmation hearings certainly gave information that was inaccurate. Moments ago the attorney general was speaking out about the revelations. This is going to be a big issue. The White House is back in damage control, day 42 of the Trump presidency.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Joe Johns live at the White House. It certainly has legs this story, that's for sure.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It certainly seems that way, Chris. Jeff Sessions was one of the president's earliest supporters in the United States Senate, now attorney general, now on the defensive about statements he made before a Senate committee during his confirmation hearing.


JOHNS: The Justice Department revealing Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice during President Trump's campaign in 2016, contact Sessions did not disclose under oath at his Senate confirmation hearing.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: 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 --

SESSION: 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 the Ambassador Kislyak last September in his Senate office. The White House blasting allegations by leading Democrats that he mislead 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 Ambassador Kislyak is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies in Washington. Last December U.S. intelligence intercepted conversations between Kislyak and President Trump's former national security adviser 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. The White House has repeatedly denied any such contact.

[08:05:06] 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: On Facebook this morning a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry disputing CNN's characterization of the Russian ambassador. Also this morning, another network caught up with Attorney General Sessions. He denied any wrongdoing and also said that he would recuse himself in this case if necessary and when appropriate. Chris and Alisyn?

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

So top Democrats want Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign or at least recuse himself. And some Republicans also insisting that the attorney general recuse himself from any Russia investigations. CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is life from Capitol Hill with this developing story. Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, very swift reaction up here on Capitol Hill. Many lawmakers saying Sessions needs to recuse himself and calling for a special prosecutor, and others going one step farther. A handful of Democrats saying that Sessions needs to resign, including Nancy Pelosi who says in a statement, 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 Republicans up here on Capitol Hill are not rushing to defend Senator Sessions, including his former Senate colleague Senator Lindsey Graham.


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 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 as the House Intelligence Committee was already moving forward on their own investigation looking into all of this, announcing last night the parameters of their probe which the committee says will focus on contacts between Russian officials and campaigns, who leaked what information, and the U.S. government's response to Russian cyber activity. So this just adds one more layer to what was already a very complex investigation. Chris?

CUOMO: Sunlen, thank you.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking out just moments ago outside his home. Here is what he told NBC about the allegations.


SESSIONS: I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign, and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that.


CUOMO: All right, so it's not saying he never had contact. That's what he said to Senator Franken. He's saying specifically that the context was driving his answer, it wasn't about the campaign. Will that hold up? Let's discuss with Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma. Does that put it to bed for you, Congressman, what you heard from Jeff Sessions?

REP. TOM COLE, (R) OKLAHOMA: It absolutely does. I think the hysteria, the desperation on the part of Democrats is almost laughable. The idea that somehow Jeff Sessions was conspiring with the Russians to impact the election is just simply an unbelievable fiction. So, yes, I think it's pretty much a tempest in a teapot.

CUOMO: Well, let's not get ahead of the implications, because sometimes that makes it easier to dismiss the shorter questions, which is, he was asked a question about whether he had any contact with Russian officials and he said no twice. That's not true. That means nothing to you?

COLE: No, it doesn't, frankly. I think he understood that question to be did you talk to somebody about the campaign. Look, it's not unusual for a United States senator or even lowly congressmen to meet with ambassadors. I do it all the time. We don't usually talk about anything to deal with campaigns. We usually talk about relations between our respected countries or some request they have. So I don't find this unusual in any way.

And what strikes me as unusual is the manner in which Democrats seize on this. Look, if they want to figure out why they lost the election, they need to look in the mirror. They nominated a flawed candidate who ran a bad campaign. That's pretty much why you lose most elections in America. CUOMO: I think that's a little bit of a distraction at this point,

though, don't you? This is about what happened during his confirmation process. I think if you want to go broader context, I don't know that you go to the election unless you want to go to the hacking. And that's the concern, right, is that you have the intelligence committee conclusion that your party does seem to want to run away from as quickly as it can. But doesn't it matter to you that you don't know the extent of any contacts between our government and whatever Russian activities led to the hacking?

[08:10:00] COLE: First of all, on the hacking issue, I'm quite content to have any investigation anybody wants to have. Other countries try to impact what happens in the United States. Quite frankly, we try to impact what happens in other countries. So that's not unusual. The first interference in an American election was in the 1790s by the French government. So that's sort of normal.

The real question here, did it have any impact on the election? No. Now, do we want to know what the Russians are up to? Of course we do. But to suggest that in any way somehow Senator Sessions was involved in the manipulating the election or in some way in some inappropriate contact with Russia, look, I'd have to see a lot more than what we've seen. Frankly, this is an old political guy, I would tell my friends on the other side of the aisle, we want to figure out about the election, again, start looking at your own campaign, your own candidate. You'll figure out why you lost pretty quickly.

CUOMO: You think there's no cur curiosity in why he didn't answer this? You say a lot of people met with the Russian ambassador. Have you?

COLE: I met with him in a green room once, yes.

CUOMO: So no, not really.

COLE: But in my office, no. Do I meet with ambassadors on a regular basis? Absolutely.

CUOMO: But not the Russian ambassador. And the reason I ask is that Claire McCaskill who is on that same committee with Sessions also says she never met with the Russian ambassador let alone in her office.

COLE: She's also a minority party. Maybe you'd like to talk to somebody in the majority.

Look, who they meet with -- the real question here, was there any impact on the election? Did Senator Sessions do anything improper? No, he didn't. If he misspoke, he should issue a clarification. But frankly I think he took the question to mean have you talked to the Russians about the campaign, and I think he probably responded appropriately when he said no. There's some confusion here, I think that's all there is, is confusion. I don't see anything sinister.

CUOMO: There's certainly confusion. I don't think that's speculative at all because he gave an answer that was fundamentally inaccurate. But to your question and to your suggestion, if the attorney general knew that there was a meaningful distinction between a meeting he might have had at a senator on a certain committee and as a Trump surrogate, don't you think he would have pointed that out? Don't you think he would have said, yes, I did meet with this person twice, but it was in this capacity, not in this capacity?

COLE: I think he probably in retrospect would like to have said that. But the real question here, you do lots of meetings. The schedule is pretty packed. I just don't see this as that significant. And again, if the implication is that somehow this is why the Democrats lost the election, and I think that is the implication.

CUOMO: I think it's as much a defense mechanism as it is a justification by the Democrats, because every time any question comes up about telling the truth, you guys say the election is over. I think everyone should accept that at this point. But you do have this other context. If you want to talk politics, lying under oath was sure a big, big interest for you when it involved Hillary Clinton.

COLE: I don't think he lies under oath. I think he probably wasn't as clear in his answer as he should have been, particularly given the fact that we have this sort of hysteria on the part of our friends on the other side of the aisle.

CUOMO: So you think all questions about Russian intervention are hysteria?

COLE: No. I actually said earlier, if you go back and rerun the tape, I think an investigation is appropriate. Do I think they had any impact on the election? Absolutely not.

CUOMO: All right, but that's your conclusion. It doesn't mean you shouldn't ask the questions. What's the hysteria?

COLE: The question is fine to ask.

CUOMO: What's the hysteria?

COLE: The hysteria is here is a lot of friends somehow believe the Russians managed to manipulate the election and somehow President Trump is sort of a Manchurian candidate, to mix China with Russia. But it's just what happened --

CUOMO: What does that have to do with what happened with Sessions? We just had Sessions not answer questions accurately. That's the extent of the inquiry right now.

COLE: If this is the biggest inaccuracy they can find in hours of testimony under oath, I think it's just laughable. I think the guy probably sits there for eight or nine hours, answers multiple questions, maybe made a mistake here, either didn't recall or wasn't clear. I just don't see a plot here. I don't think this is very sinister.

Now, again, in my friends want to chase this particular rabbit, so be it, and that's fine. But I don't think it's going to get them any closer to the truth as to why they lost the election. And I think when they begin to think about that, it will actually help them if they're analytical as opposed to hysterical. And I think they are hysterical.

CUOMO: I just think it's so interesting that you say you see a legitimate interest if finding out the extent of Russian hacking efforts, and yet every time I'm trying to ask you about whether or not any of this is relevant to that discussion, you go to the election.

I just want to draw your attention to one more thing. The second conversation between Sessions, according to "The Washington Post" and this Russian official happened in September in private in Jeff Sessions' office. Both meetings, one which you could excuse as just coincidence at the convention, happened after the U.S. intel officials disclosed that Russia was attempting to interfere in the election.

[08:15:08] Why wouldn't Sessions have seen that as relevant to disclose?

COLE: Look, I can't speak for Jeff Sessions and what he recalled or what he did, or what he thought was relevant, and what he thought wasn't. You know, what I'm suggesting here is I don't see anything serious here. I think anybody that does or that thinks that somehow had something, some impact on the election is badly mistaken. And I'm happy to have that debate or argument with anybody.

In terms of Russian activity or any country -- believe me -- every country in the world tries to influence elections. The president of the United States, President Obama went to Britain and told them not to vote for Brexit or they'd go to the back of the line. It was certainly a blatant interference in a democratic country's elections. I don't think it had any impact one way or the other. I would suggest the same thing is probably true here.

CUOMO: I appreciate your conclusions, Congressman. Hopefully, we'll get the investigations to get the proof for them soon enough. Appreciate you being on the show as always.

COLE: Thanks for the invitation.

CUOMO: Always.

Coming up in just minutes, Senator Al Franken is going to be here. How does he feel about this? What did he think of that answer? Where does he think it should go from here?

We'd also like to note, just as we extended the information to Cole and all the other congressmen today, we extend it to the White House every day. Once again, they've declined the request.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CAMEROTA: We do have breaking news to tell you about right now. The U.S. carrying out airstrikes in Yemen.

Let's get right to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon with all of the breaking details. What have you learned, Barbara?


A senior U.S. official now does confirm to CNN that overnight, the U.S. conducted a number of airstrikes against al Qaeda in Yemen. Of course, this coming about a month after that controversial raid on the ground that left one Navy SEAL dead and a number of civilians also killed.

The -- what we don't know may be the most interesting question. Was the intelligence that led them to conduct these airstrikes overnight, did any of that intelligence coming from that controversial raid on the ground? We do not know the answer to that yet.

But what we do know is the U.S. military very much stepping up the campaign in Yemen, going after al Qaeda in that country, going with airstrikes and possible additional ground raids and now, we have seen the next step here, these airstrikes overnight in Yemen -- Alisyn.

CUOMO: All right. We appreciate it, Barbara. Thank you very much.

Democrats are calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from Russian investigations or to even resign because of the inaccuracies in his confirmation testimony. The only Democratic senator who voted to confirm Sessions joins us next.


[08:20:29] CAMEROTA: So, the Trump White House again under fire for campaign contacts with Russia. Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice last year, we now know, with he Russian ambassador. This is a fact that he failed to disclose at his confirmation hearing.

Sessions denies the allegations.

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz tweeted just moments ago just this, "Attorney General Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself."

Let's discuss with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Senator, good morning.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Good morning, Alisyn. How are you?

CAMEROTA: I'm well, Senator. Thanks for being here.

You were the only Democrat to vote for Senator Jeff Sessions to become attorney general. This morning, do you feel misled?

MANCHIN: Well, basically, I asked for Jeff to recuse himself when I thought the investigation into Mike Flynn, because he definitely worked with Mike Flynn. They campaigned together. Jeff should recuse himself from all of these investigations that have Russian ties or Russian investigations going on within the FBI or any other of other intel committees. So, I've asked point-blank.

With that, I want to see what the facts are, but Jeff is going to have to answer to these. The facts will take us to the truth is. The truth will lead us to what actions we have to take and make the appropriate action, or take the appropriate vote if necessary.

CAMEROTA: Congressman Jason Chaffetz, as we just reported, agrees with you, also just called for Attorney General Sessions to recuse himself. Some of your other Democratic colleagues have gone further. They think he should resign for misleading Congress.

MANCHIN: Well, I understand that. I wasn't in the committee hearing. I don't know. I'm not on that committee that basically Jeff went through for the hearing.

But Jeff is going to have to answer to this. If there's facts that bear out that there's actions to be taken, we'll have to vote on those actions. I will take the appropriate vote to move forward and build trust in this government.

People have to have trust in what we're doing here. It's not about who you vote for, who you don't vote for. It's the facts. That's what intel is all about.

The intel committee will take us to where the facts are. The facts whether take us to the truth and the truth will lead us to make the decisions we have to make to keep this country basically solid and whole and protected and people have confidence we're doing our job.

CAMEROTA: Well, it's not quite the straight line that you're making it out to be. Another network just caught up with Attorney General Sessions this morning. He said once again, "I know nothing about this. I didn't ever have any conversations with the Russians about any campaign dealings whatsoever. There's basically nothing to see."

So, if you're calling for him to recuse himself, it doesn't sound as if he's open to recusing himself?

MANCHIN: Well, basically -- Alisyn, basically, it's clear he should recuse himself. If the FBI is investigating Mike Flynn for his, you know, talks with the Russians, then that basically is very clear that Jeff -- that Jeff should not be involved.

CAMEROTA: Right, if he doesn't want to recuse himself, then what?

MANCHIN: Then I think Jeff is making a horrible mistake and we'll have to take actions. You know, you cannot function as attorney general or any other high official in government without the confidence of the people. You can't function.

Now, with that being said, Jeff has got to put himself in a position to where his word is his bond, people trust him. If the trust is not there, then it's hard for him to move forward. So, he needs to put any of this behind him, get the facts out. If he's never talked to the Russians concerning any campaign, or

campaigning or how they could be more helpful in the campaign and distort our elections, if there's no facts to that whatsoever -- that's one thing. The other thing is, what was the conversation? Was it his official duty being on Armed Services, I'm on Armed Service, I served with Jeff.

CAMEROTA: Have you met with the Russian ambassador in your capacity?

MANCHIN: I have. I've met with him with a group in my capacity with a group of other senators. Yes, that happens. We meet with all the ambassadors or try to any way to build the relationships, if you can have some, the course whatsoever that we can basically talk and have some type of interactions back and forth and know where in the world people are coming. So, that's not unusual.


CAMEROTA: Good to know. This is great context for us. And so, if you were questioned by a congressional committee, would you disclose that?

MANCHIN: Oh, absolutely. I disclosed it to you.

[08:25:01] In my official capacity as a member of the Armed Services, wanting to understand the people that we have and the people we do business in a country that I think is the most dangerous country to the United States of America, Russia, you better see if you can find some discourse that you can basically talk about.


MANCHIN: Somehow, you can have some kind of communications. So, that's in my official capacity. That's nothing -- I mean, that's my job.

CAMEROTA: Senator, when you say we need to get the facts out, if this was a private meeting in Senator Sessions' office between himself and the Russian ambassador, how are you going to get the facts out of what they talked about?

MANCHIN: Well, Jeff is going to have to come forth with this. He's going to have to talk about this. I mean, if the facts are there that he met with them, the same as other officials meet with them, meet with different people all the time, there's nothing wrong with the meetings. Just -- you know, we talk about official business.

Is there a pathway forward? Can we build a relationship so you don't start pushing buttons and shooting missiles at us? I mean, that's part of our -- that's part of our job as Armed Services.

I don't know. Jeff is going to have to build that trust up. If he doesn't, he has to look and see if he can be effective or not.

CAMEROTA: Senator, very quickly, before I let you go, one last thing, I know you liked some portions of President Trump's address before Congress on Tuesday night, and you stood up and applauded when the rest of your Democratic colleagues were sort of sitting silently or giving a thumbs down, you were supporting what he said about coal miners.


CAMEROTA: Today, dozens of activists say they will deliver more than 225,000 signatures on a petition to Senator Schumer to demand that he remove you from any Senate Democratic leadership because they don't believe that you are really a sort of bona fide Democrat. What's --


MANCHIN: Alisyn, I think they're calling me unacceptable. That's what I've understood. But, you know, these are the same people that asked all of us and had a million people sign a petition not to have Chuck Schumer as our leader of our Democratic Caucus. So, I understand that.

You know what? The Democratic Party is a big tent. We have people all over the board. You can be a little bit of anything and everything, as long as you believe that you want to help people and make it better for them. I'm happy to sit down with them and talk with them.

And if we agree to disagree, it will be respectful on my part and hopefully on theirs, too. So, it's part of democracy. This is what we're involved in today.

CAMEROTA: There you go. Senator Manchin, we always appreciate you coming on NEW DAY and talking to us.

MANCHIN: Sure thing, Alisyn. Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Thank you very much.


CUOMO: All right. So, the harshest question that can be asked about this entire Jeff Sessions situation is whether or not he lied under oath about contacts with Russia. Up next, we're going to talk to the senator in question, Al Franken. He's the one who asked Sessions about this. What is his take, what should happen next? Let's see.