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Pushed by Political Pressure; Total Upgrade Plans. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired March 3, 2017 - 03:00   ET



[03:00:00] NATALIE ALLEN, CNN HOST: ... live from Atlanta. Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. I'm Natalie Allen.


We're following breaking news out of Washington. New reports of contact between Donald Trump's campaign advisors and the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

ALLEN: Attorney General Jeff Sessions will not be investigating any of those allegations. He recused himself Thursday, acknowledging he met with the Russian envoy twice last year.

Sessions failed to disclose those meetings during his Senate confirmation hearings. A growing number of democrats in Congress say didn't go far enough, they want him to resign.

VANIER: President Trump is standing by his attorney general calling the controversy a witch-hunt. He released a statement on Thursday saying, "Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong, he could have stated his response more accurately but it was clearly not intentional. This whole narrative is a way of saving face for democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win. Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and now they have lost their grip on reality."

ALLEN: Meantime, a senior Trump administration official says the president's son in law, Jared Kushner, and former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, also met with the Russian ambassador at Trump tower in December.

VANIER: The top campaign adviser says he and two others met with the Russian envoy Sergey Kislyak during a Republican National Convention last July.


CARTER PAGE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I'm not going to deny that I talked with them, although I will say...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you talked with them.

PAGE: I will say that I never met him anywhere outside of Cleveland. Let's just say that much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only time that you met him was in Cleveland?

PAGE: With that I may have met him possibly might have been in Cleveland.


ALLEN: OK. For more on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself, here's CNN's Pamela Brown.


JEFF SESSIONS, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: just three weeks into his job as the nation's top cop, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing he is taking himself off of any investigations regarding Russia after revelations that he failed to disclose two meetings he had with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. A man considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies.


SESSIONS: Let me be clear. I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea I was part of a quote, "continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government" is totally false.

BROWN: The two meetings between Sessions and the Russian ambassador took place last year, first in July on the sidelines of the republican convention and then again on September8, when the Russian ambassador met then Senator Sessions in his office when he was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At the time Sessions was also a leading Trump campaign surrogate.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you swear...


BROWN: At Sessions' hearing on January 10, he denied any contacts between Trump surrogates and Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) AL FRANKEN, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: If there is any evidence that any one affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

SESSIONS: 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 did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.


BROWN: Sessions defending his answer.


SESSIONS: I was taken aback a little bit about this brand new information, this allegation that a surrogates and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump, had been meeting continuously with Russian officials and that's what I focused my answer on. Retrospect, I should have slowed down and said but I did meet one Russian official a couple of times.


BROWN: Last night when news of the meetings with Russia's ambassador broke, justice officials first said Sessions did not remember the details of the meetings, then his spokesperson said Sessions met with multiple foreign ambassadors in his role as a senator on the Armed Services Committee not as a Trump campaign surrogate.

But as justice official also acknowledged superficial comments about the election did come up in those talks. And then late last night, in a written statement, Sessions denied holding meetings, specifically with the purpose of discussing the 2016 campaign with the Russians 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." Still some democratic leaders are calling on Sessions to resign.


CHUCK SCHUMER, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: It would be better for the country if he resign.

NANCY PELOSI, UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES MINORITY LEADER: He has proved that he is unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust.


[03:04:58] BROWN: Of her context it's not unusual for attorney generals to recuse themselves from investigations. In fact, past attorney generals have recused themselves multiple times during their tenure including President Obama's Attorney General four-time Eric Holder. Typically what would happen is the deputy attorney general or a U.S. attorney would then oversee the investigation. Pamela Brown, CNN, Washington.

VANIER: Leslie Vinjamuri joins us now from London. She's a senior lecturer in international relations at SOAS University of London. First of all, how much trouble do you think the White House and the President Donald Trump is in?

Because depending on what side of the isle you're on here in the U.S., some people are saying well, there's nothing untoward, it's normal that you're meeting ambassadors if you're part of a presidential campaign.

Democrats calling for the attorney general to resign, and generally calling into question the credibility of the president on this.

LESLIE VINJAMURI, SENIOR LECTURER, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON: I remember that the issue is not that Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador. The issue is that he wasn't honest about this and he didn't reveal this and he actually offered explicitly in his confirmation hearings the statement that he had had no contact.

So it's the lying under oath which is a grave problem, and it's also you have to remember the broader context, right. There are ongoing allegations of Russian efforts to undermine the integrity of the U.S. election.

This is extraordinary if you think about it. This is the attorney general is very important role in the U.S. as we know, and having this integrity of the office is absolutely essential. So it's the dishonesty rather than the context.

Of course it's not obviously that it was wrong for him to meet and it's not clear what the content of those discussions was, but just to actively deny that is a very serious concern now.

VANIER: Right. And that's as far as the specific case of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions is concerned. But that's my question about what it's doing politically to the president. You know, it seems that the White House is constantly playing defense at a time when they should be 100 percent focused on their main legislative issues.

VINJAMURI: That's right. And we're barely into this presidency, it's only been seven weeks. We haven't even hit the 100 day mark. We've already lost the national security advisor the shortest tenure in history. And this question of U.S. and the Trump administration's relationship with Russia has plagued this presidency and it has prevented I think sort of forward looking.

Interestingly, you know, we were expecting the release of a travel -- a revised travel ban on Wednesday that has not come out. And in large part I'm sure due down to the part -- I'm not saying that's a good or bad thing. But in large it said it's a sign of a distraction.

So this has been very damaging for the Trump administration and it's not going to stop, right. The investigations will proceed. There's a lot of questions about whether or not there will be an independent prosecutor or who will lead those investigation.

But it cast as very serious shadow over the current presidency and one that the rest of the world, of course, I'm sitting here in London, the rest of the world is very aware of this, following this and it raises a lot of uncertainty and concerns I think in Europe as well.

VANIER: So, is there anything at this stage the president can do to put this behind him?

VINJAMURI: I think that the wisest move of course, would be for the president to say we need to look at this. It's appropriate to pursue an investigation, an independent prosecutor has been suggested.

It makes sense I think to take it out of the Justice Department so long as the attorney general remains in place. Of course, he's recused himself, which is a good move. But really the president should just support this rather than tweeting that this, you know, all about the democrats being sore loser losers. To really respect the integrity of this kind of investigation is absolutely essential on the part of the President of the United States of America.

VANIER: Do you feel the president has a credibility gap now after he said to reporters that he had no ties to Russia, nor did his campaign and he was -- he was really very categorical about it during that infamous press conference a few weeks back when reporters asked him about it.

VINJAMURI: Yes. I mean, this is clearly the credibility issue on the relationship between the president and his -- the people surrounding him and the connections with Russia is one again that's been cast a shadow over the current presidency and it's not going away. And every time it gets quiet for a few days, there's sort of a new revelation.

So I think this will continue to be absolutely central. It raises some real credibility issues and it's a massive distraction. It's a necessary distraction now because it's absolutely essential I think to investigate further.

But again, the wisest move for those in the White House right now would to be just to back an investigation and to the let the process of looking into this go forward and to go grant to that's important to the integrity of the American democracy.

[03:10:00] VANIER: All right. Leslie Vinjamuri, in London, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

VINJAMURI: Thank you.

ALLEN: Well, let's look at the timeline here of how revelations of connections with Russia have plagued the Trump campaign and administration. It started last year with Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort. On August 14, the New York Times reported on $12.7 secret cash payment earmarked from Manafort from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.

Manafort denied the story but resigned from the campaign a few days later.

VANIER: And fast forward to December. And Mr. Trump has picked Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser. Investigators intercept communications between Flynn and the Russian ambassador, including calls on December 29th. Now why is that important? That's the same day the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Moscow for interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

ALLEN: Flynn, the White House and the Kremlin initially said sanctions were not discussed in those calls. It turns out that may not have been true and Michael Flynn resigns February 13th. He admitted giving the vice president-elect incomplete information.

VANIER: And now the top cop of the U.S. has had to recuse himself from investigations on contacts between Moscow and the Trump campaign because of those previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador.

ALLEN: Well, let's get the perspective from Moscow and head there now. CNN's international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson joins us now live. And Nic, what are the implications of pointing a finger at Moscow's man in Washington?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, the reaction here is one of anger, of frustration, of claims by the foreign ministry spokeswoman that this is a media vandalism. We've heard from a president's spokesman here as well, Dmitry Peskov saying describing the atmosphere in Washington as one that's emotionally charged and they really need to wait until the situation in Washington is normalized.

And there's a huge frustration that this internal political fighting as they see it that's going on in Washington is tarring Russia and, in particular, their ambassador there. This is something really that we're hearing a very, very strong push back from officials here in particular.

The foreign ministry spokesman, spokeswoman, rather, Maria Zakharova speaking about the allegations that the Russian ambassador to Washington, according to former and current U.S. officials from intelligence officials saying that he is indeed a spy and a spy master. This is how she responded to our Matthew Chance.


MARIA ZAKHAROVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESWOMAN: I mean, Mr. Kislyak is a well-known -- I mean, world class diplomat who was a deputy minister of foreign affairs in Russia...


ZAKHAROVA: ... who was communicating with his American colleagues for decades on different fields. And CNN accused him of being a Russian spy, recruiting -- oh, my God.

CHANCE: But it was U.S. officials. (CROSSTALK)

ZAKHAROVA: Come on, stop, stop spreading lie and false news. This is good advice for CNN.

CHANCE: Are you concerned that the investigations into Russia are going to turn up more secret meetings?

ZAKHAROVA: Please stop spreading lies and false news.


ROBERTSON: I think you really get a sense of the frustration and the anger. I mean, the point being from officials here from Maria Zakharova that this was a diplomat who was doing his job, she said.

It's the job of diplomats in whatever country they're in and whatever, you know, whatever country they're representing to get out and talk with people, understand what the officials in that country are thinking and never more so than when there's a train -- when there's a change in administration.

Their point being he was doing absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. This is outrageous. These accusations are outrageous and wrong and the bigger point, they are damaging the relationships between United States and Russia at a very important time.

ALLEN: Wow. I was going to ask you about this if they could be damaged any more than they are right now, and it also perhaps delays relating to the mess in the Middle East and doing something about it and working together on the wars going on.

ROBERTSON: Sure. I mean, there are very big important issues that are very important for Russia to deal with and they are currently dealing with them. I mean, they got sanctions on them from Europe to the United States over Ukraine.

Syria, they have an active military campaign going there that has in the past at least at a diplomatic level involved the United States trying to find a peace solution there and the sense in Russia is that they got no one to go to.

The State Department no clear policy and part of that is because the relationship between Washington and Moscow is so strained at the moment and it's toxic and polluted by these accusations and by the involvement of the Russian ambassador in Washington.

[03:15:01] So, you know, while we hear from the president's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, saying we need to wait until the situation normalizes. The reality is that chance that sort of warm relationship that was being sort of built in the nature of the dialogue that we were hearing from President Putin and from President-elect Trump and then President Trump, that's gone away.

And that's been replaced by a sense that from Russia's side that the window for dialogue isn't closed, that's still open and there's a potential to talk. Indeed Russia really sees that, you know, if they closes the window on this current administration, and then it's got another four years to wait potentially before it can -- before there's a chance to, you know, change the dialogue with Washington.

So, the perspective here is that they need to wait but the reality is that waiting is incredibly frustrating. I mean, they have foreign policy issues that they want to push ahead with. They are pushing ahead with sanctions on the country that they would like to see lifted. And none of this can happen until they can improve the dialogue with Washington. And this atmosphere, right now, that doesn't seem like it's about to happen anytime soon.

ALLEN: No, it doesn't at all. All right. We thank you, Nic Robertson for us from Moscow. Thank you, Nic.

VANIER: And there is a major story that we are following this hour. Vice President Mike Pence reportedly used a private e-mail account in his dealings while he was governor of Indiana and that account was hacked.

ALLEN: The Indianapolis Star newspaper broke the story and the reporter behind it explained what he found.


TONY COOK, INDIANA STAR REPORTER: He used a personal AOL account to correspond with his top advisors on issues related to homeland security and other sensitive issues. The cyber security experts told us, you know, can be vulnerable to attacks from hackers.

In fact, the e-mail was hacked. His e-mail account was hacked by apparently, a scammer who, you know, sent an e-mail out to his contacts claiming that Pence was stuck in the Philippines and needed some money wired to him.


VANIER: All right. Stay with us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, can Attorney General Jeff Sessions be charged with perjury after he failed to mention that he met with Russia's ambassador? We ask CNN's legal analyst. Stay with us.


PATRICK SNELL, CNN WORLD SPORT REPORTER: Hi, there. I'm Patrick Snell with your CNN World Sport headlines.

The International Olympic Committee warning it will move the Tokyo 2020 golf tournament from the current venue if the club doesn't change its policy on female members.

[03:19:57] Kasumigaseki Country Club struggle to host the competition but currently doesn't allow women to become full members. The club's board members have yet to make a decision about changing the policy. IOC vice president John Coats remains hopeful the event won't need to change venues but has warn time is running out for a decision to be made.

In F1 news testing Lewis Hamilton and his team call an early end to the day. And the final day of testing for F1 drive, as the Brit failing to get on the track in the morning after an apparent electrical problem. The driver did not make it out on the track testing out their new Pirelli intermediate compound tires after the track was artificially dampened.

Ferrari's (Inaudible) for the record for the best time of the day.

And finally with the ever increasing drama surrounding the race for the seasons Premier League crown in Spain, third place Sevilla looking to keep pace with Barcelona. And Real Madrid on Thursday and they would do just that. Hosting Bilbao Vicente Iborra striking in the 14- minute of the game. That is all they would need, winning 1-nil.

They close really putting up the pressure on the leaders. By the way, it was Barcelona who have a one-point advantage right now over Real Madrid's Los Blanquirrojos, the defending champs.

That's a look at your world sport headlines. I'm Patrick Snell.

ALLEN: Welcome back. The Trump White House apparently didn't know that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice last year with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. A senior administration official says the White House only learned of it when the news broke Wednesday night.

On Thursday, Sessions recuse himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign's relationship with Russia.

VANIER: But Sessions wasn't the only Trump advisor who met with the ambassador. The senior official says the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner and former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn also had a brief meeting with him at Trump Tower in December.

Well, let's bring in CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney, Page Pate to see what the legal implications are of all of this. Page, good to have you with us. One of the questions that's being raised obviously is, was there anything illegal in what Jeff Sessions said to Congress during his confirmation hearings.

Listen to how Charlie Crist, a democratic Congressman put it.


CHARLIE CRIST, (D) UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVE: The notion that you have somebody at the head of the Justice Department, which essentially is what he is, and saying that he's digging in his heels, that he's recusing himself. He's going to go to timeout room in elementary school.

The analogy I draw is not to be funny. It's to put the seriousness of this issue where it needs to be. We have an attorney general basically being exposed for having lied to the American people while under oath. That's called perjury. That is an offense somebody ought to charge him for.


VANIER: All right. So, let's ask a lawyer. Is it perjury?

PAGE PATE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It could be. But it doesn't sound like it's perjury. Perjury is a very specific federal crime. You have to be under oath and he clearly was at the time he gave this answer. You have to make a false statement. And I think if we look at what he said it's arguably a false statement. He said he had no communications with the Russians.

VANIER: And we now know they met twice.

PATE: Exactly.

VANIER: With the Russian ambassador, at least.

PATE: But there's more. You also have to show that the person willfully intended to mislead, in this case Congress when he gave his answer. And I think there's enough about that answer where Senator or Mr. Sessions can now say that I was speaking only as a representative of the Trump campaign and in that connection, I didn't have any communications with the Russians.

VANIER: But it's kind of difficult to understand from a lay person's point of view. He is asked questions about contacts with Russians. He's met with the ambassador twice. And he says I've never had contacts with the Russians. How is that -- how is not intention to mislead?

PATE: In a perjury prosecution or any investigation relating to a false statement made under oath, one of the first things a prosecutor looks at is the question. Before you even get to whether the answer is truthful, look at the question. Was it precise, was it vague? Was is it clear that the subject matter that the questionnaire was asking about was limited to one particular type of communication or was it so broad as to cover everything?

In this case, I think Senator Franken was not very precise with his question. He was talking about the breaking news, he was talking about the allegation that the campaign had continuous communications with the Russians. And so in that context since the question was kind of vague, it's harder to prove a perjury.

VANIER: But the answer sounds pretty precise.

PATE: It was. In fact, I think the answer was non-responsive to the question. Because Senator Franken had basically ask him, what would you do if you found out that this was going on. And instead of answering that question, Mr. Sessions said, well, I didn't have any communications with the Russians. Which was really non-responsive.

And in my opinion, it should have led to a follow up question from Senator Franken saying, hold on a second, did you have any communications at all with the Russians during the campaign? Had that question been asked and answered, I think we would see a perjury prosecution.

VANIER: So you're saying as it stand it's not clear whether or not it was perjury or it would have to be litigated. And the answer certainly isn't a home run one way or another.

[03:25:00] PATE: Right.

VANIER: Who would actually take the initiative of bringing this case?

PATE: Well, it would have to be the Department of Justice. And of course Mr. Sessions is at the top of the Department of Justice. So, unless he appoints a special counsel to investigate not just the Russian connection, but whether or not his testimony before Congress was perjury, then nobody's going to look at it. Because even though the statement was made to Congress, the Congress cannot investigate someone for a crime. That is left up to the executive.


VANIER: So there's not going to be a case unless Jeff Sessions brings a case or instruct someone else to bring a case against himself?

PATE: That's exactly right.

VANIER: All right. Page Pate, CNN legal analyst, thank you very much. We appreciate you, sir.

PATE: My pleasure.

ALLEN: Lots of analysis around this one for sure. And we'll continue to bring you more in just a moment.

President Trump says Jeff Sessions did nothing wrong with his meeting with the Russia ambassador. But some top democrat want the attorney general to step down.


PELOSI: The fact that the attorney general, the top cop in our country, lied under oath to the American people is grounds for him to resign.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

VANIER: Hi, everyone. Welcome back. Good to have you with us. I'm Cyril Vanier.

ALLEN: And I'm Natalie Allen.

Our top story this hour, U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions was not the only member of the Trump campaign who met with Russian officials last year.

VANIER: A senior Trump administration official says that president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn also met with the Russian ambassador at Trump Tower in December.

ALLEN: On Thursday, Sessions gave in to political pressure and recused himself from any investigations into the Trump campaign and its contacts with Russia.

[03:30:00] VANIER: President Trump says he stands behind Sessions and he's accusing democrats of going on a witch-hunt.

ALLEN: CNN's Manu Raju has more on the controversy surrounding the attorney general.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Under mounting political pressure, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped aside from any FBI inquiry into Russia and the Trump campaign.


SESSIONS: I have now decided to recused myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaign for the President of the United States.


RAJU: The decision came after new revelations that Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign season. Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies and spy recruiters in Washington.

According to current and former U.S. senior officials Russian officials dispute this characterization. Sessions failed to disclose those contacts with Kislyak during his confirmation hearings in January.

In sworn testimony, Sessions was asked about Russia's meddling in the election and alleged ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin.


SESSIONS: I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it.


RAJU: In a questionnaire, Senator Patrick Leahy asked Session if quote, "if you've been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election either before or after election day." Sessions response, no.

But Sessions said he did not mislead the committee saying that the two meetings with the Russian ambassador were not tied to his role in the Trump campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SESSIONS: I was taken aback a little bit about this brand new

information, this allegation that a surrogate and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump, had been meeting continuously with Russian officials, and that's what struck me very hard and that's what I focused my answer on, in retrospect, I should have slowed down...


RAJU: Democrats say that Sessions' recusal is hardly enough demanding that he resign.


PELOSI: The fact that the attorney general, the top cop in our country, lied under oath to the American people is ground for him to resign.


RAJU: Senate democratic Leader Chuck Schumer wouldn't say if Sessions committed perjury but called for a special prosecutor.


SCHUMER: It would be of Alice in Wonderland quality if this administration were to sanction him to investigate himself.


RAJU: But House Speaker Paul Ryan rejected calls for an independent investigation.


RAJU: If there really is nothing there there on the whole Russia issue, why not just allow a special prosecutor to investigate?

PAUL RYAN, UNITED STATES SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: First of all, we don't have that law. Because remember, at the end of the day we have to protect our intelligence assets. We do not want to compromise our sources and our methods of getting intelligence from any adversary, let alone, Russia.


RAJU: And on Capitol Hill, FBI Director James Comey was making the rounds including a private briefing with the House Intelligence Committee, but after briefing, democrats were not happy, including the top democrat in that committee, Adam Schiff who said Comey was not forthcoming in a lot of key details.

And now Schiff calling for an independent prosecutor to go after this issue of possible Russia connections with the Trump campaign associates. But the question is will republicans go along with that. We're not getting any indication that's going to happen as of yet.

Manu Raju, CNN, Capitol Hill.

ALLEN: David Siders is a senior reporter for Politico. The attorney general, David, has recused himself from this investigation. What is the reaction on Capitol Hill?

DAVID SIDERS, POLITICO SENIOR REPORTER: Well, I think from democrats, it's fairly predictable. This is not enough for them and they want to keep pushing the issue. We saw Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi both called for a resignation not just a recusal. Clearly they want to pound this issue home.

On the republicans it was a bit more of a -- I mean, there was some moderating that had to be done. Initially they were saying that there should not be a recusal, and then overnight and into Thursday, we saw at least some of them breaking ranks and saying that would be appropriate.

ALLEN: And so what of Sessions that he sits out a major investigation into Russia and their involvement in the election.

SIDERS: Well, what he said is that he was advised by attorneys in the office that this was the appropriate thing to do since he was a surrogate in the campaign. This falls to the deputy now of most likely assuming his conformation and then we'll see. He does sit on the sideline.

ALLEN: And President Trump said this in a statement about what happened. "Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately but it was clearly not intentional." What's the reaction to the president's words on this?

[03:35:06] SIDERS: Well, I think clearly that he's doubling down and calling this a witch-hunt. You know, the president's strategy I think or avenue from the get go on this was to not go after the alleged ties between the campaign and Russia, but rather to focus attention on leaks.

And there's some indication that his base appreciates that and that republicans may be more concerned about going after who's leaking and who's getting information to the press than you're hearing about what those ties actually are. And of course, the democrats go ballistic about this.

I'm out here in California where, you know, we have a congressman tweeting out links to how do we leak better to reporters. So the liberal side of things clearly sees this as an opportunity.

ALLEN: Well, that the bottom line is somehow we're going to learn hopefully what involvement they did have and we're also hearing two more of Trump's advisors -- we know mike Flynn met with this the ambassador, the Russian ambassador and so did Jared Kushner, his son- in-law. And that's coming out now. Is there a sense that this is trickling out and perhaps there's more here?

SIDERS: Well, not only that, we also heard about Carter Page today. I mean, there are clearly are more advisers from the campaign and people close to the president who are coming out as seen as having these connections.

Now individually, I'm not sure any of those is a huge deal. But really what this is a kind of drip, drip, drip that keeps the president on this issue instead of things that he would like to be talking about.

I mean, it was just how long ago that he gave the speech to Congress that was fairly well received, and he was getting positive remark or reviews for. And then immediately the conversation has turned and changed to Russia. These drips don't help his efforts going forward.

ALLEN: Right. And what more might he have to do about this other than blame the leakers? As far as does he need to step up more and address the American people over the Russia issue?

SIDERS: You know, I'm not sure. The polling, not today that I've seen but before these last series of leaks, suggested that yes, Americans were interested in some kind of investigation but it's not clear that his base is, the people who he's really trying to cater to.

So, I don't know that he needs to. I also don't know if in my city or anybody else's city that this the first issue of concern on their minds. So, I'm not sure what he has to do. And clearly what he's trying to do is to get this behind him and move on to something else.

ALLEN: We'll see if he's able to do that. David Sider with Politico, thanks for joining us.

SIDERS: Thank you.

VANIER: And on another topic, President Trump made overhauling the military a major pillar of his campaign. How he says he's going to do that, when we come back.


VANIER: We're following breaking news. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from all investigations into the Trump campaign and its contacts with Russia.

ALLEN: President Trump faced a flurry of questions about the announcement as he was leaving a navy event. Here's that exchange.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, did Sessions recuse himself from investigations into your campaign and Russia?

TRUMP: I don't think so at all. I don't so at all.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When did you first learn that Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador? Did you know during the campaign?

TRUMP: I don't think he should do that at all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When were you aware that he spoke to the Russian ambassador?

TRUMP: I wasn't aware at all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When did you find out?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, do you think he should have spoken truthfully about whether he had spoken with the ambassador?

TRUMP: He probably did.


ALLEN: You know, even when you're the president and you're setting out, the one thing if the media's following you, they're going to be asking you questions about.


VANIER: There's a microphone around there, yes. You can't escape, especially it's the...


ALLEN: Doing our job. Right. Well, Trump has spent the event focusing on his plan to beef up the military. He tour the USS Gerald Ford, a newly built aircraft carrier.

VANIER: Later he spoke aboard the ship and promised in true Trump form to make things great again.


TRUMP: I am calling for one of the largest defense spending increases in history. And by eliminating the sequester and the uncertainty it creates, we will make it easier for the navy to plan for the future, and thus, to control costs and get the best deals for the taxpayer which of course is very important, right? Got to get a good deal.


VANIER: Let's talk more about this Colonel Rick Francona, CNN military analyst. He's in La Quinta, California. Colonel, I want to show you U.S. military spending compared to the military spending of several other countries, just to put things in perspective.

U.S., the biggest military spender in the world by far, with over $600 billion. This was for the year 2015, that's three times as much almost as the next biggest spender, China. So my question is, does the U.S. need in your assessment to spend more money on this military?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think we do because our commitments are worldwide. When you look at these other countries that we're comparing this military spending with, they generally have a regional focus or just their own self-defense focus. So when you looking at a military with a worldwide presence, a worldwide mission, such as the United States, it's much, much more expensive to run that kind of Department of Defense.

And we've been suffering over the last several years with the sequestration so our real spending has not increase at all. At the same time we've increased operations tempo. If you look at the U.S. military, we've been in a state of war since 2001 almost nonstop. This takes a terrible toll not only on the personnel but the equipment. And our equipment is aging. We need to replace some of it, we need to refurbish a lot of it. So, all of that cost money.

VANIER: But Colonel that being said, is there anything that the U.S. wants to do or has wanted to do in recent years that hasn't been able to do?

FRANCONA: Yes. I think that they would like to introduce more aircraft and more ships on a faster pace. If you look at the U.S. Air Force, it is the smallest and oldest that it's ever been. Many of our bombers are much older than our pilots are flying, sometimes twice the age, many of them are over 50 years old.

Our tanker fleet is aging. We need to replace those. The fighters are old and aging and you know, other nations are introducing fifth generation aircraft. We have fifth generation aircraft, we just don't enough for our worldwide commitment. So we need to replace what we have. We're doing the mission barely but it's taking a real toll.

VANIER: And then new U.S. President Donald Trump wants to increase military spending by upwards of $50 billion for fiscal year 2018. He also wants to find some money to add on to that for fiscal year 2017 this year.

[03:45:02] Do you feel that -- what is the U.S. military going to be able to do that it currently cannot do?

FRANCONA: Well, as you know, he wants to increase the number of carriers. We currently have 10 navy carriers. He wants to increase that to 12. That's a major, major investment. These are very expensive ships. And it's not the carrier.

Because if you're going to increase another carrier. That means you're going to have to increase to another carrier air group. And that's going to be a lot of ships, talking maybe 40, 50 ships. And he wants to increase the size of the navy to up to 350 ships. All costing a lot of money.

It's not that we don't have enough equipment to do the job now, it's that we don't have enough modern equipment and we don't have enough equipment to replace as we go. If you look at the serviceability rates of Marine Corps aircraft, navy aircraft, even air force aircraft, they are very, very low. We're probably at the minimum acceptable rate right now.

VANIER: All right. CNN military analyst, Rick Francona, thank you very much. FRANCONA: Good to be with you, Cyril.

ALLEN: Well, in just a moment, we'll take a closer look at Moscow's ambassador to the United States. The man alleged to be a top Russian spy. Is he? We'll get that in a moment.


PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Thank you for staying with CNN. I'm meteorologist Pedram Javaheri with Weather Watch here.

We're showing you part of the northeastern U.S. getting some cold air here that really haven't seen in a long time across this region. We'll see couple of shots of cold air coming over the several days but it really recovers rather quickly with mild temperatures and of course, you know, days are getting longer on the order of two to three minutes a day.

So that will help as far as extending your day light hours as well. You notice the trend in places like Charlotte it takes up to 21 degrees. Atlanta same score. Washington also climbing out of the single digits into the upper teens. And New York City it was 20 degrees or so earlier in the week, about 21 to be precised, cooling off to minus three for a high temperature.

But again, it is a seesaw battle right now of the seasons across parts of the U.S. That is what's in store there. Montreal, taking the brunt of this with a cold air, minus four in the forecast, Los Angeles, a dry perspective for now here with sunny skies and 24 degrees.

But parts of the northwestern U.S. beginning to really enter -- open the storm door for some multiple storms to come in here. It should begin to really bring a lot of snowfall across the high elevations and wet weather across the i-5 corridor as well.

And work your way towards the south in San Juan, Puerto Rico expecting sunny skies there with 29 degrees. A few showers possible around Belize City. Mexico City, a very comfortable day at 22 degrees there with sunny skies expected. And some thunderstorms returning around Quito at 17. Lima, high temperatures around 30.

[03:50:08] ALLEN: Again, our top story this hour, Jeff Sessions is under fire after meeting with Russian's ambassador during the presidential election campaign and failing to disclose the talks during his confirmation hearing at U.S. Attorney General. He denies any wrongdoing.

VANIER: Both critics and supporters say the Kremlin envoy is well known in Washington. And according to one U.S. lawmaker it's unlikely that Sessions forgot about meeting him.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: He didn't tell the truth, let me put it that way. Anybody that knows Ambassador Kislyak, knows that he's a rather formal persona and he's not easily forgettable.

So, this last meeting or talk took place in September when there was a lot of heat going on about what Russia was doing. And so it is incompre -- I can't comprehend he's not understanding the seriousness. This particular ambassador has been a fixture in Washington for a very long time and has a very big reputation. And one would remember meeting with him.


VANIER: Kislyak is considered one of the Kremlin's top spies by U.S. intelligence, and that's according to currents and former U.S. government officials.

ALLEN: But Russia denied that. CNN senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski reports.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak has spent a dozen of his 66 years living and working as a diplomat in the United States. He and his wife Natalia, often seen out and about enjoying parties and events around Washington, D.C.


SERGEY KISYLYAK, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: I personally have been working in the United States so long that I know almost everybody.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: He's straight out of central casting. Perfect English, heavy Russian accent, immaculate suit. He's blunt and he stands out.


KOSINSKI: Trained as an engineer in Russia and described as highly intelligent. Kislyak joined the foreign ministry at the height of the Cold War in 1977. He's been ambassador to the U.S. for more than eight years running.

But some U.S. Intelligence officials believe he's more than that, far more. They believe he has very close ties to Russian intelligence. According to current and former senior U.S. government officials. Here speaking at Stanford he described the U.S.-Russia relationship just after Donald Trump was elected President.


KISLYAK: Most probably we are leading ahead into the worst point in our relations at the end of the Cold War.


KOSINSKI: He express optimism things would get better. This week he attended the president's address to Congress. Now, though, the controversy over Kislyak's meetings with Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the second time in weeks the ambassador finds himself at the center of a storm regarding the Trump White House.

Then incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had told top members of the administration that when he spoke to Kislyak by phone prior to the inauguration he did not discuss sanctions against Russia.

Later, though, admitting he did not remember whether they talked about that. Flynn was forced to resign. Those conversations had been captured and recorded according to U.S. intelligence officials because Russian diplomats calls routinely are, and some of the content raised flags.

Kislyak has not responded to the latest flap over Attorney General Sessions. His spokesman saying they have nothing to add to this. From the Russian foreign ministry responding to questions over whether he himself is a spy.


ZAKHAROVA: Stop spreading lie and false news.


KOSINSKI: Echoing a now familiar refrain.


DOZIER: Something I've heard from former spies is that the Russians have really stepped up their spy game in recent years and you can see that by looking at their embassy in Washington, D.C. They estimate that something like half of the personally in there are related to intelligence.


KOSINSKI: As Russia continues to figure into the political controversy in America right now, whether it's hacking, spying or just talking.

Michelle Kosinski, CNN, the State Department.

VANIER: If you're in government or if you happen to be president, international espionage is not a laughing matter, but if you're a late-night comedian, it's more material.


ALLEN: And the U.S. talk show hosts are having a field day with the Jeff Sessions story. Have a listen.


STEPHEN COLBERT, THE LATE SHOW HOST: Big news today out of the Kremlin -- I'm sorry I misread that. White House.

TREVOR NOAH, THE LATE SHOW HOST: What makes him worse is that he lied under oath while interviewing to be the guy who prosecutes people for lying under oath.

How do Trump's people keep forgetting that they've met with Russians? Meeting a Russian is always the highlight of your day.

[03:55:02] Like you could meet an alien after you meet a Russian and still you'll be like you'll never guess what happened on the way to that alien. Oh, my God. I met a Russian.

JIMMY FALLON, THE TONIGHT SHOW HOST: He recused himself but he still claims he did not lie under oath. That he said I'm not under oath right now am I? That if I am you got to tell him.

O'BRIEN, TV HOST: When asked if the allegations were true, Sessions said absolutely yet.

JIMMY KIMMEL, TV HOST: This afternoon Jeff Sessions said campaign, I thought he said champagne. So, there was a mix up. It's an honest mistake.


VANIER: And a little bit more from the comedians. Actor Alec Baldwin is known for his scathing impersonation of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.

ALLEN: He says he didn't hate Trump but he was asked to play the part he said he wasn't interested until his first dress rehearsal. He told talk show host Jimmy Kimmel what happened next.


ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: I had had no idea what I was going to do. I tried to stick my face out and my mouth out. I was in the makeup room they put my wig on, and I literally, it was like a scene from like a mental hospital. And I'm saying like China, China.


ALLEN: He's got the China thing down. Baldwin and Kimmel later discussed the possibility the actor would play the president at the White House correspondent's dinner. Mr. Trump says he won't attend it this year. We'll have to wait and see if Alec Baldwin attends.

VANIER: Who knows?

ALLEN: Thanks for watching. I'm Natalie Allen.

VANIER: And I'm Cyril Vanier. Early Start is next for viewers in the United States, for everyone else, stay tuned more news coming up with Max Foster out of London.