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Attorney General Under Fire over Russia Meetings; Interview with Sen. Al Franken; Republicans Call for Recusal; CNN Series "Believer." Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 08:30   ET

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


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[08:31:07] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Al Franken calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself immediately after the Justice Department reveals that he met twice with a Russian ambassador last year while he was a Trump campaign advisor.

However, Senator Sessions failed to disclose that during his confirmation process in response to a question from Senator Franken. Here is the exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. AL FRANKEN (R), 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?

SEN. 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 have -- not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: Now, when faced with this inaccuracy, the attorney general recently said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: Senator Al Franken joins us now live.

Senator, do you accept that explanation from the attorney general?

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Not really because between -- in between the revelation that he answered my question in what would at best be an extremely misleading way, they -- his office had said that he had no -- he had met with the Russian ambassador but he hadn't -- he didn't have any recollection of what the content of the discussion was. And so that is the -- that -- so now we have a third iteration of this, which is, I didn't discuss anything about the campaign.

Well, first it is, I didn't meet with any Russians. Second -- then it's, I met with the Russian ambassador but I don't remember what -- what I -- what we discussed. And then it's, I -- I -- these charges are terrible (ph) that I met with the Russian ambassador and discussed the campaign. We didn't discuss the campaign.

These are all contradictory. I had simply asked him, what would he do if he had learned that other members of the campaign had met with the Russians, hoping he would say he would recuse himself. He chose not to answer that, but instead chose to say that he had not met with the Russians. And, of course, the ambassador from Russia is a Russian.

CUOMO: Do you think that Sessions lied to you?

FRANKEN: I would say that at the very least this was extremely misleading. I don't -- I would love for him -- I'm going to be sending him a letter to have him explain himself. But he made a bold statement that during the campaign he had not met with the Russians. That's not true. Whether he, in his head, thought that he was answering whether he had talked to any Russians about the campaign, then he should have said so. He should have said, I met with the Russian ambassador a couple times, but we didn't discuss the campaign. But then his office shouldn't come out with an explanation saying, he talked with the Russian ambassador but he doesn't remember what he -- what they talked about. And he needs to explain himself here.

And for him to get on his high horse and say, I don't know what all this is about, I just asked a question and he was the one who offered this. I didn't ask him, have you talked to any of the Russians during the campaign. I didn't ask him that. I asked him, what would you do if you learned that members of the campaign had met with the Russians, hoping that he'd say he'd recuse himself in any investigation. Instead, he chose to answer the way he did, which, again, as I said, is extremely misleading at the most charitable.

[08:35:24] CUOMO: Well, there are two basic defenses that are being offered up for Sessions. One is from the White House and it's basically just a political blame game and that's a distraction so I don't really care about that. But the other one is that it's context. That he didn't think that the question was about meetings that pertained to the election and they used his response to Senator Leahy of Vermont, who did one of the written questionnaires -- questions in a questionnaire, and he asked in that question, "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?" And Sessions answered in a word, "no." Do you think it is a fair defense that he said "no" because, in his judgment, he never met with them about the election?

FRANKEN: Well, we don't know if that's true. We don't know if it's in his judgment he never met them about the election because he -- listen, in the hearing, what I developed, that he had been -- he misrepresented his record as a prosecutor. He said that he had been -- he personally handled four civil rights cases that he didn't personally handle.

CUOMO: Uh-huh. It was about his office.

FRANKEN: So and then -- and then he answered my question in a way that was either deliberately misleading or misleading because he literally didn't remember that he had met with the Russian ambassador or he interpreted my question differently.

Look, this is an extremely serious matter. This is -- the other major foreign power interfering with the Democratic election of the United States of America. Nothing could be more serious.

CUOMO: You know, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma was on. He says the exact opposite. He says, look, you want to ask questions about Russia, that's fine, but that's not why you lost the election, you Democrats, and this is hysteria and Jeff Sessions didn't perjure himself, he just didn't think it had anything to do with the question you were asked about whether or not the campaign was coordinating. And this is much ado about nothing. I think he said tempest in a teapot. Your reaction?

FRANKEN: OK. Well, there's all kinds of things in there. One, we don't know the extent to which this interference, which was massive. They had thousands of trolls on top of this interference of this -- of their hacking, putting out fake news.

Cole misrepresents my question. My question was simply, and it was a question that Senator Sessions or Attorney General Sessions did not answer, but -- but there's no way for us to know whether or not this changed the election. For Cole to state that categorically is obviously unjustified.

This is an election that was decided by 70,000 votes, and this is a massive effort to change the election. So I would say to Representative Cole, who's way off base here, and I think that just is so self-evident from -- if you know all the context of my questioning and the answer of Senator Sessions.

CUOMO: Now, one of the reasons it was so important to get you on this morning is that you had -- you know, for you, an essentially very animated argument about what your questioning was about and what you wanted. You got into it with Senator Cruz and Senator Cornyn about being misrepresented in terms of what you were trying to bring about in your own questioning. What was that --

FRANKEN: But that was on a different matter.

CUOMO: Right.

FRANKEN: That was on --

CUOMO: Right.

FRANKEN: Whether Senator Sessions, who's -- who had been turned down in 1986 --

CUOMO: Right.

FRANKEN: For a federal judgeship because it was deemed that he wasn't reliable on civil rights, tried to reinvent himself by answering a questionnaire in -- for our hearing saying that he had -- of the ten cases -- most important cases that he personally handled, four were these civil rights cases.

[08:40:08] CUOMO: Right.

FRANKEN: It turns out that he did not handle them at all. So he --

CUOMO: Right. I got that it was different subject matter, but I'm saying that you seem to be convinced that the senator wasn't being straight with you guys. Do you feel that this is another example of that?

FRANKEN: I do. I think this was extraordinarily misleading. That's why I'm writing a letter to him to clarify himself. I think he should do a press conference on this to clarify this.

CUOMO: And you think he should recuse himself from an inquires of Russia?

FRANKEN: He should definitely recuse himself. I think he should recuse himself before knowing that members of -- my question on this matter came out immediately after it had been -- come out that members of the campaign, the Trump campaign, had interacted regularly with the Russians.

CUOMO: Right.

FRANKEN: So my question was, will you -- was going to be, will you recuse yourself if that turns out to be the case? He didn't answer that part of the question. He said, I was a surrogate for the campaign and I never met with the Russians. The ambassador from Russia is a Russian.

CUOMO: Right. True.

Last question, what do you think should happen next in this situation? You're sending a letter. You want more clarification. What else?

FRANKEN: I would like to -- well, I would like to say -- he should, right now, say, I recuse myself from any investigation by the FBI, any investigation, if we have to appoint a special prosecutor, I recuse myself from that process. He should say like, it's clearly legitimate for anyone listening to that answer or that question to not trust my veracity on this matter. I don't see how anyone -- if he wanted an answer to that by saying, look, I've met with the Russian ambassador a couple times. We did not discuss the campaign or the election at that time, if he had said that, that would be different.

CUOMO: Then we would not be here having this conversation today. But that's not what he said and now we're going to have to ask even more questions.

Senator, thank you for making yourself available this morning and helping us understand the context of this conversation.

FRANKEN: Thank you, Chris.

CUOMO: All right, be well.

Alisyn.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Chris, let's talk about this because the House Oversight Committee chairman, Jason Chaffetz, tweeted moments ago, let me read it, "Attorney General Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself."

So what is next for Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Let's get "The Bottom Line" with CNN political director David Chalian.

Good morning, David.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Good morning, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Another day, another Russian intrigue. Maybe there is nothing there, as Attorney General Sessions just said to NBC News when they caught up with him this morning. Let me play this for you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, 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. So thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What about the calls to recuse yourself from the -- your agency's probe of the --

SESSIONS: Well, I've said that whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself. There's no doubt about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: David, what does that mean, whenever it's appropriate I will recuse myself?

CHALIAN: Well, I would imagine that's not going to be operative for very long here because when you have Jason Chaffetz and Al Franken on the very same page of saying, you need to clarify and recuse, I would imagine it's not going to be too long before Attorney General Sessions makes that clear.

He has said that line before, Alisyn. He has said, I'll recuse myself if indeed there's something to recuse myself from.

CUOMO: Right.

CHALIAN: And that has been his posture. That clearly is not going to be a sustainable posture at this point. You did hear him actually in that comment to NBC start trying to change -- you know, clarify the comment, saying that he didn't discuss any campaign matters with Russian officials, already sort of changing what he said in his testimony to Senator Franken.

CUOMO: Right. I mean, look, let's just be clear, that's every attorney general's starting point is, yes --

CHALIAN: Exactly.

CUOMO: If there's a reason for me to recuse myself, I will. That's not the context here. But do you think that this is the end of the political implications here, that Sessions may have to recuse himself on any ongoing inquiries or if this special prosecutor statute is triggered, that he won't be able to be a part of that, or do you think there might be more?

CHALIAN: Well, clearly there's going to be more fallout today on The Hill. The White House is going to have to start answering questions about a timeline, about what it knew when about this communication between Sessions and the Russian ambassador because, remember, two things, one, Senator Sessions was preparing for confirmation hearings. So the question is, did this come in that process? Two, the Russian ambassador became sort of person of interest number one inside Trump world in early January when it was revealed that Michael Flynn had conversations. So you would imagine that maybe they looked into whether or not there

were any other communications with the Russian ambassador.

[08:45:26] So I do think this isn't going away, obviously, Chris, as a story line, but I think politically look at what you see happening here. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, and Jason Chaffetz, oversight guy, already getting out saying he's got to recuse himself now. They're clearly trying to sort of provide the answer that every Republican member of Congress is going to get asked today and sort of get out in front of this. And I think they're also trying to prevent calls of a special prosecutor because they don't want to see this unravel too quickly.

CAMEROTA: OK, President Trump doesn't need this distraction. The last time there was a distraction like this with National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn, he was forced to resign. So how does President Trump respond to all this?

CHALIAN: I would imagine we're not going to hear from President Trump when we see him later today on this. He's, you know, giving a speech, trying to talk about his call for increased military spending. He wants to get back to all those rave reviews from his address to the joint session of Congress, and this is part of the road show that is aimed at selling that address out in the country. So when we hear from him later, I doubt this will be an issue.

But that -- this is my point, Alisyn. I do think that the Trump White House is going to have to answer questions about this today because I think even more so because of the Flynn scenario you described.

CUOMO: Right.

CHALIAN: And it's dealing with the same character, this Russian ambassador.

CUOMO: Well, and they're -- the White House posture has been the same. It was blame the media first then. And that wound up, you know, just raising the stakes of proving what's true. And they're doing the exact same thing this time. Don't they have to deal with it differently if they want to cut it short?

CHALIAN: They would be wise. You're right, every sort of crisis communications expert would say that at this point it's quite clear this story is not going away, and they probably would be wise to come up with a process in which they could put out every fact they understand. As you know, they've already instructed, from the White House Counsel's Office, they see these investigations coming, so the counsel's office says, don't destroy anything, preserve all the documents that you have on this. They're clearly girding for this to be with them for the long haul.

CAMEROTA: David Chalian, thank you for "The Bottom Line."

CHALIAN: Thanks.

CUOMO: All right, let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.

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[08:51:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why are people on that side of the river so afraid of the Egori (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Should we eat the living? Shall I grow you by eating my own flesh? They call me an (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see. Why -- why do --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I will cut off your heat if you (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: I'm going to say you said, no, you should not cut off my head. That was a clip from the new CNN original series "Believer," which premieres Sunday night. It takes best-selling author and religious scholar Reza Aslan on a spiritual adventure exploring the customs and rituals of faith-based groups around the globe, like the one you just saw. Reza Aslan joins us in the studio.

What is the right answer to, should I cut off your head now?

CUOMO: There's just -- it seems so much like what we deal with on this show.

CAMEROTA: Exactly. Just -- it's a free (ph) country. REZA ASLAN, CNN HOST OF "BELIEVER": Really -- yes, I expected a couple of those interviewers to be like, shut up or I will cut off your head. It was -- so those are called the Egori. They're a 500 year old Hindu sect that reject concepts of purity and pollution, which is very key to Hindu spirituality. And in order to prove that rejection, they take part in these theatrical displays of self-pollution, which include covering themselves in the ashes of the dead, eating rotted fruit and rotted animals, occasionally even corpses.

CAMEROTA: What?

ASLAN: Yes.

CAMEROTA: And you're engaging in this right now. You have ashes of the dead on you there?

ASLAN: I'm covered in the ashes of the dead and --

CAMEROTA: Did you have to eat flesh?

ASLAN: I did have to eat some things that --

CAMEROTA: Come on.

ASLAN: That -- yes, it was -- it was something. They take all of their food out of human skulls. They basically live on these cremation grounds. But as sort of insane as that sounds, there's something really beautiful about the faith underneath it. And there are many, many different ways of expressing that faith, which is that, if there's no such thing as purity and pollution, then the entire cast system upon which so much of Indian society is based is useless.

CUOMO: Right.

ASLAN: That everybody is the same. That if God lives inside of you, nothing can pollute you. And so some people do take part in these kinds of displays. Other Egori open clinics for leprosy patients or orphanages for undercast kids. They're --

CUOMO: But that's what you're doing with "Believer," right, is that this story isn't just interesting on its face because of that colorful exchange, but because you're giving insights into what that means within that culture. Like you said, in Indian culture, the cast system is so baked in --

ASLAN: Yes.

CUOMO: And this is one of the ways they get away from it with their own faith. And that's what you're trying to do in a lot of different ways, right?

ASLAN: Exactly. And more importantly trying to show people that, as strange or as foreign or as exotic as these other religious traditions may seem to you, when you really get to know them, there's something very familiar, something similar in the way that you believe yourself. And so, you know, many people, many Christians, many Jews, a lot of people would say, well, of course there's no such thing as purity and pollution. Of course what's inside of you can't affect, you know, your relationship with the divine. And so to go through that 44 minutes with me, to go from this place of, that's the weirdest thing I've ever seen to, OK, I -- yes, that make sense --

CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh.

ASLAN: Is a -- is a good journey for us to go.

CAMEROTA: That's fascinating, right, because you're going to take the exotic that we would never have access to, if not for your cameras and you traveling there, and you're going to show it to all of us. But are you worried that it will make some things seem as though we don't have common ground, that it is too weird for some in the audience?

ASLAN: I think a lot of people have asked that question. I think there is this sort of fear that, oh, you're eroticizing religion. You are sensationalizing it. But I always say, follow us through this journey because what we're -- what we're talking about here is religions that already come with this sort of heavy baggage, a lot of misinterpretation. Religions like Aghoism (ph) or Voodoo or Scientology, or the ultra-orthodox in Israel. These are religions that people just naturally have opinions of already, whether they know anything or not.

[08:55:01] CAMEROTA: And feel anxiety about. Stuff they (INAUDIBLE) so far (ph).

ASLAN: And feel anxiety. Exactly. And I guess what I'm trying to do is get you to start thinking in a deeper way, to reframe your perceptions of people who seem different than you. And, I mean, if you can do it in a TV show, maybe you can do it in the world.

CUOMO: Well, but, look, it's very instructive. You don't have to go to that extreme of perversity, right? I mean you deal with it all the time within Islam.

ASLAN: Yes.

CUOMO: I mean you have a huge part of the American population right now that is afraid that Muslims will come here and import sharia --

ASLAN: Right.

CUOMO: Or sharia instead of the U.S. Constitution.

ASLAN: Yes.

CUOMO: And people really believe it. You and I got sideways on that issue once because I believe that's something you've got to address as Muslims. And it sucks that you are like now -- each of you is appointed --

ASLAN: Yes.

CUOMO: To have to defend your own faith. But that is a reality that people feel here. How do you deal with it?

ASLAN: Well, I think we're in a time right now of profound religious polarization. We have an administration that is using, you know, a lot of fear of religions and religious people in order to drum up political support. And I think that we need to, as Americans, learn about the things that connect us instead of the things that divide us. And that's what I'm trying to do with this show.

CAMEROTA: Reza, it looks fascinating. Thanks so much for previewing it with us.

And you can catch the premiere of "Believer" with Reza Aslan Sunday nights, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

CUOMO: That may be the line of the day, if you keep talking, I will cut off your head.

"NEWSROOM" with Poppy Harlow and John Berman begins right after this break.

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