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Trump Defends Embattled Attorney General; Pence Slammed Clinton's Private Email use Last Year; Trump Wraps up Crucial Week in White House; Trump Accuses Democrats of a "Witch Hunt". Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired March 3, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone, I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. So glad you're with us. This morning, in just minutes, the president will leave the White House, bound for what has become a typical weekend getaway to sunny Florida. But new clouds hang over his administration. Instead of basking in the glow of his well-received Congressional Speech, the president is attacking Democrats, calling the controversy over his embattled attorney general a "total witch hunt."

BERMAN: This comes after Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, recused himself from any investigations in possible ties between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. A growing number of Democrats say that's not enough. That he needs to flat out resign. Overnight, the attorney general, he downplayed his meetings with the Russian ambassador and his failure to disclose them and his failure to talk about it. Even after the fact, well, he testified under oath at the Senate hearing.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I had not had any such meetings. I was not meeting with Russian officials on a continuing basis to advance any campaign agenda. Sometime before that, I had met in my office in an official way with the Russian ambassador. And so, that was the answer I gave. And I think it was an honest answer, Tucker. I thought I was responding exactly to that question. And it really became a big brouhaha.


BERMAN: Again, just to state the fact here, the question wasn't did you have any contacts with Russia. The question was what would you do as attorney general about alleged contacts with Russia. That aside, CNN's Sara Murray at the White House for the latest on what the White House is doing about all this.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, both the White House and the attorney general have acknowledged that Jeff Sessions should have been, could have been much clearer in the explanation he gave at his confirmation hearing. Now, he says, he's going to add a little something to supplement the record. Listen to what he said.


SESSIONS: I'm going to submit, yes, a supplement to the record. My response went to the question as I indicated, about the continuing surrogate relationship that I firmly denied, and correctly denied. And I did not mention in that time that I had met with the ambassador. And so, I will definitely make that a part of the record as I think is appropriate.


MURRAY: Now, yesterday President Trump called Jeff Sessions an honest man and he was defiant about the criticism that he's getting from Democrats. I want to read you a portion of the statement the president put out last night, saying, "The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and now, they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt. Total witch hunt." Now, remember that, when you listen to how Russia's Foreign Minister is describing the situation.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): The ambassadors are appointed to certain relations with a certain states and these relations are supported by meetings, talks, contacts with official representatives of the Executive Branch power, as well as members of parliament, civic leaders, nongovernmental organizations. And this practice has never been disputed by anyone. I can only use the quote distributed by the mass media today, "It all looks like a witch hunt."


MURRAY: So interesting parallel messaging coming both from the president here at the White House and also Russia's Foreign Minister. Back to a guys.

HARLOW: Sara Murray, thank you so much. Let's discuss all of this with our panel. Joining us now, Mary Katharine Ham, CNN political commentator and senior writer at "The Federalist," Errol Louis, CNN political commentator and political anchor of "Spectrum News," nice to have you both here, we appreciate it.

Errol let me begin with you. So, Jeff Sessions recuses himself. The White House says nothing to see here, folks, time to turn the page. Interestingly, Sessions went farther than the president even wanted him to. Now, the world learning overnight about all of these undisclosed meetings, Jared Kushner, Carter Page, J.D. Gordon, Walid Phares, did all these other people around the president had, during the campaign and then the transition, with the Russian ambassador, how can they turn the page?

ERROR LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND POLITICAL ANCHOR "SPECTRUM NEWS": Well, it sounds like we need an investigation, right? The point of all of this and -- it is troubling to hear about all of these additional names. Well, let's keep in mind that Jeff Sessions was in charge of the national security sort of policy formation and political development side of the campaign.

BERMAN: He was the chairman of the campaign committee doing this.

LOUIS: This raises then questions about what did you folks talk about, to what extent did you sort of bounce any of these ideas off of the Russian ambassador? What did you think Russia was going to be? Were they going to be treated as an adversary of the United States, as a rival, as an ally? What were you thinking at the time? And then, all of these other contacts always -- also need to be sort of discussed and investigated. So, I think they are not turning the page. They are, you know, you can call it a witch hunt. It's an interesting parallel that the Russian guy said the same thing.

[10:05:01] The thing about witch hunts is we use it as a pejorative because witches don't exist. In this case, there seems to be a witch. And so, something does have to be chased down. Something has to be hunted down and we have to find out what kind of conversations were going on and why. And why consistently, do they seem to be in a downplaying or outright changing the story when called on it.

BERMAN: You know, Mary Katharine, Errol Louis correctly points out that witches don't exist here. The question -


BERMAN: -- involving the White House -- noted, thank you for that, confirmation, second source. The question here for the White House is, what does exist, what's the truth, because the story keeps changing. We keep learning about previously undisclosed meetings, which means, meetings they did not tell us about. Despite the fact that we asked, despite the fact that the president flat out said that meetings didn't happen. So, you know, is it fair to call it a witch hunt?

HAM: I think a couple of things here. I think, one, I've been pro investigation. I think recusal is probably the right move to keep it even above sort of an appearance of conflict of interest here for Sessions. I also think the idea that a senator who is part of the Armed Services Committee meeting with an ambassador several times being controversial is silly, to me.

I do think he gave a parsing Clintonian answer, perhaps, which could have been better, which he has said. But I don't think that the doing of diplomacy and meeting with ambassadors on its face is controversial. It wasn't controversial when other Democratic senators did it. I do think there are parts of this that I think are fishy when you're talking about connections to the Russians. I don't think Sessions is your guy for that. And I do think there's a danger of overplaying the hand and going for a resignation on that front.

HARLOW: Kirsten Powers is with us now, looking great in pink, nice to have you this Friday. You say, look party aside, it's not going to cut it to have a select committee or even the, you know, the Intelligence Committee looking at this. The only way the public can really get what they need is more than that. What do you want to see?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think we should have sort of a 9/11 commission style commission, something that's in the public, where we look at everything relating to the allegations that have been made about Russian interference in the election. And that would include what happened with Senator Sessions, what was discussed in the meetings with him. But it would be an end to end investigation. And it would be in the public.

It wouldn't be done by the Intelligence Committee where it's done in private or even theoretically a special prosecutor is supposed to be private. They do tend to leak a lot. But it's not out in the public. And so, we need something that's out in the public because I think it's reached now, a real crisis mode. And you know, in terms of it's normal to meet with ambassadors, that may be true, but when you consider what was going on with the interference in the election, I think it does change - the dynamics a little bit.

HARLOW: The timing -

BERMAN: And look, you know the fact that the meetings took place, meetings may be OK. Lying about meetings or misleading about meetings, if that's what happened, it is not OK. And this White House including all the way up to the president has said things that at this point do not appear completely factual. Remember his news conference you know, just a little more than two weeks ago, when he talked about his ties or alleged ties with Russia.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.


BERMAN: -- Since the time Errol Louis, that the president said that, we learned about two meetings between Jeff Sessions and the ambassador. We learned about a meeting with three foreign policy advisers during the convention with the ambassador. We learned about a meeting with the Russian ambassador between Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn that happened in the transition that was not listed by Sean Spicer on the list of meetings with the Russian ambassador. The president said that, that we learned all those things. The president, what he said does not appear true.

LOUIS: That's right. They have to get their stories straight, for one thing, just to have any credibility at all. Politically, I think, there is a question about whether or not Democrats are sort of going to go crazy with it and sort of call this Watergate right off the bat. There's not enough evidence for that. But clearly, they need to get their stories straight.

And I keep thinking I've got to tell you, John, that all of this would be a lot easier to understand if we had a coherent doctrine coming from the White House about who is Russia to us. The factual questions about the cyberattacks, the meddling in the election, the meetings, we can chase that down, with a commission we could find that out, with a special prosecutor we could find that out. But where is all of this supposed to be leading?

You know, the Trump folks always say, well, this is from Democrats who are mad because they lost the election. Well, if you want to impute motives to the Democrats, what are the motives, what are the potential motives of the White House? What are you trying to do with Russia and why are we supposed to be believe all of these inconsistent statements?

HARLOW: I want to get to another story. That is, a lot of people are buzzing about this morning, Mary Katharine. The fact that the "Indy Star," this big paper in Indiana broke a story that the Vice President, Mike Pence, when he was governor of Indiana, well, he used private e-mail for government business, and not just for little things. There were e-mails, because he was hacked, we know this. There were e-mails about FBI reports of people in his state arrested because of support of ISIS.

[10:10:03] Let's remember what he said about using private e-mail and private servers during the campaign. Play it.


MIKE PENCE (R), THEN-VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What's evident from all of the revelations over the last several weeks is that, Hillary Clinton operated in such a way to keep her e-mails and particularly her interactions while Secretary of State with the Clinton Foundation, out of the public reach, out of public accountability.


HARLOW: Is this a people in glass houses should not throw stones? How do you see it?

HAM: Yes. -- I mean, this is the problem. It's simple, do your public business on your public e-mail because it's supposed to be available to the public when we request it. I think there's a slight distinction for some of these various e-mail controversies over the years, where if someone actually has a professional government e-mail. That's helpful. Instead of only using a private server, which is what Clinton did, which I think caused a lot of the problem as well. But that's a slight distinction.

BERMAN: Yes, Kirsten though, at a minimum, you know it's an Irony with a capital "I," even though it may not be an exact parallel.

POWERS: Yes. I mean hypocrisy in Washington, who would have thought, right? I mean -


BERMAN: With the capital "H"

HARLOW: (INAUDIBLE) campaign -- POWERS: Yes. I mean, there's a lot of hypocrisy. I do think there's a distinction in a sense that there wasn't - I think where Hillary Clinton really got in a lot of trouble with over the server and over not telling the truth about it, right? So I think -- and I guess you could argue -- some would argue she was -- Secretary of State versus governor of Indiana.

But look, I mean, this is serious information that people got into, and I think it's a good reminder of why people should be using their official e-mail accounts, using the official server, and not relying on things like AOL for government business.

BERMAN: Or encrypted messaging apps, which apparently are looking more and more attractive to me every minute.

HARLOW: All right, guys, thank you, have a very good weekend.

BERMAN: All right, still to come for us. We got a lot coming up. President Trump, he wraps up a crucial week in the White House complete with the Congressional address and a budget blueprint. But it was not without controversy.

HARLOW: Also, CNN, sitting down for an exclusive interview with former CIA Director, Retired General David Petraeus, get his take on Russia, the White House, and a whole lot more.


[10:16:00] HARLOW: All right. Let's take a look. You're looking at live pictures of Air Force One this Friday at Joint Base Andrews, as he -- the president is getting ready to take off for Mar-a-Lago for the weekend. He will leave the White House momentarily.

BERMAN: It's an expectant door there, to say the least, just waiting for big time action. All right, the trip caps off a very crucial week among the highlights the president's address to Congress, his team's handling of the Sessions controversy and a visit to Virginia Beach to talk about military spending. The not so highlights -- well, new questions about Russia, recusals and the like.

Let's discuss with Craig Fuller. Craig Fuller worked in the White House, was an official in the George H.W. Bush administration -- actually the Reagan administration that worked for George H.W. Bush. Craig Fuller, thank you so much for being with us. An interesting week, no, between the presidential address and attorney general recusal, new questions about Russia, where are we this morning?

CRAIG FULLER, FORMER CO-CHAIR PRESIDENT BUSH TRANSITION TEAM: It takes me to that quote, "It was the best of times and the worst of times." Certainly, the address to the Joint Session of Congress, I think exceeded people's expectations. We can talk about that, if you want. But this week, ends with what Washington also often hands a president, and that's an event that they have to get ahead of.

In this case, I think probably self-inflicted. Either the preparation for the attorney general for his hearing was inadequate or somehow he wanted to move away from a line of questioning, or he just simply forgot. I don't know what the answer is, but I don't think this story is over for the Trump administration.

HARLOW: So interestingly, Craig, we saw two sides of the president this week. We saw the side in his first address to a Joint Session of Congress that, you know, got pretty high marks across the board, any way you look at it. And then, we saw the witch hunt use of words by the president, talking about Jeff Sessions and saying, look, this is just Democrats, you know sour grapes that they lost, et cetera. We saw these two different sides of the president, what he can do in both ways. Which one is more telling? Did they teach us anything new about how he will be as a leader?

FULLER: I guess what I go to, Poppy, is which side really benefits him the most for advancing his agenda? Clearly, he decided to go to the Congress with a speech that he believed was reaching out to both sides. It was much more positive. It was free of all of the attacks for the most part that we've seen. This confrontation with the media is actually leaving this administration with no goodwill. And so, when a story like the attorney general story breaks, there's cause for suspicion, and once again shots are being taken at the media.

You've already said that I've been in Washington a long time. As far as I'm concerned, that speech needed to win some votes in the Congress and to build support around the country. I'm not sure it won votes. I do think he probably helped himself around the country with some people who are a little undecided about the style of leadership. But we end this week, back with him on the attack and confrontation with his administration around an issue that actually is a serious issue, in my view.

BERMAN: It's interesting, I mean, the speech may have -- if it did win votes, it may have calmed some nerves, certainly, among the Republican Party, which are votes that he needs.

[10:20:03] You spoke about the confrontation with the media. His White House also seems to have a bit of confrontation with the truth, or at least disclosure, Craig, because there were all these previously undisclosed meetings that we keep learning about, the drip, drip, drip.

The attorney general with two meetings with the ambassador, Trump advisers with the meeting at the convention, Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn with the meeting during the transition, we did not know about them. You've been inside a White House. What is the importance of disclosure? What is the right way to treat the truth?

FULLER: Well, if three decades or so teaches anything that says, get the facts out. But first, you have to get the facts. And I think one of the problems is the administration believes they can rush out and control the story. Yes, you're on 24/7, and it's important to get ahead of the story. But any time you make a misstatement, any time you omit valid information, you're simply digging a deeper hole.

And that's why I think it would be wise to take time and you know there were notes taken of the meeting with the ambassador. What do those notes say? There are people in the room, I think, for most of the time. Although that's an interesting question, was there ever a time when it was just a one-on-one discussion?

It's not unusual. It's not a problem if the meeting took place. The fact that we can't seem to accurately account for a meeting between a senior senator, senior member of the administration, and the Russian ambassador, is a story that's going to continue to be alive even though the White House wishes that were not the case.

HARLOW: Craig Fuller, former chief of staff in the George H.W. Bush White House. Have a good weekend. Thanks for being with us.

BERMAN: You know, Craig Fuller keeps those sayings that have been around a long time. He's 29 years old. --

HARLOW: You've been around a long time.

FULLER: Thank you, John. Have a good weekend.

HARLOW: Thanks, guys.

Coming up, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, continuing to face this pressure from Democrats to resign. It is something that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales experienced himself. So, what he can make of all the controversy and does he think Sessions should resign? That's next.


[10:26:20] HARLOW: Good morning, everyone, I'm Poppy Harlow.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. Thanks so much for joining us.


SESSIONS: I believe those recommendations are right and just. Therefore I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.


BERMAN: I will recuse myself. But this morning, some Democrats say recusal is not enough for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They say he must resign.

HARLOW: Well, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced the same Democratic pressure before he stepped down in 2007. He's currently the dean at Belmont University and the author of "True Faith and Allegiance." He joins us now. Thank you so much for here. We appreciate it.


HARLOW: So how do you see it? As someone who faced this pressure for months, really. -


HARLOW: You heard this from Democrats when you were attorney general.


HARLOW: Do you think recusal goes far enough? If so, why?

GONZALES: Yes. Listen, I think it's totally unfair to demand that the attorney general resign before he's given an opportunity to explain what he was thinking, what the question was, he thought he was responding to. He began that process yesterday. It will continue with the written supplement that he's going to provide to the Senate. So, you know, again, this is a way Washington operates, unfortunately. You know, you rush to judgment, you declare someone guilty before the trial even occurs.

And so yes, I do believe that he took a -- good first step yesterday. I think recusal was the absolutely right thing to do. And I applaud him for that. He followed the process that's in place at the Department of Justice. So I have no questions or qualms about what Jeff Sessions has done to date.

BERMAN: You said he began the process yesterday. But there are questions about why it took until yesterday. That testimony, which appears to have been misleading at best, Mr. Attorney General, happened way back in January. His staff, which prepared him for that testimony, they were all watching. Presumably someone there knew that his answer wasn't completely accurate. So, given that, you know, why did it have to be yesterday, shouldn't he have cleared the record weeks before?

GONZALES: It very well may be, John. But he thought he answered the question correctly, that he heard the question a certain way and he responded to that question. And it is true that typically, you don't review your testimony after a hearing. The principal normally doesn't do that. The staff does that.

And why someone didn't catch that, maybe they did catch it and raised it with the attorney general and he said no, I understood the question and I responded, you know, this was the proper response. You know, listen, we can all differ about the interpretation of the question, questions sometimes are ambiguous. And I think it's fair to say that he could have given a more complete answer. And he's now in the process of doing that.

HARLOW: So, he has recused himself, but still, last night in his interview on Fox News he called it "all this hubbub." I think a lot of people see it as more than that. Yes, he recused himself. However, he has said he will correct the record in written testimony. He has not said, when asked, that he will indeed, yes, go before the Judiciary Committee once again and answer those oral questions, which you know they can press him, right? And they can ask him for clarification, something they can't do in written responses. Should he offer to do that rather than having to be compelled to do that?

GONZALES: Well, he may have already offered to do that. By the way, there is a statute -

HARLOW: He has not.

GONZALES: There is a statute that does impose - he does impose - that does impose a penalty upon written statements provided to the committee to supplement the record.

So, it's not like he would be free to just simply say anything that he wanted to, what he's going to submit has to be the truth. And as to whether or not, you know, there will be an additional hearing -- that will be up to the committee to decide whether or not it's warranted here. The supplemental information provided maybe sufficient. I suspect that most of the day yesterday, was spent on the phone between Senator Sessions and members of the Judiciary --