Return to Transcripts main page


Standing By Sessions; Republicans Battle Over Obamacare; U.S. Tracking Down Hundreds of AQAP Leads. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired March 3, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:11] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump standing by his attorney general. It came hours after Jeff Sessions said he'd recuse himself from matters regarding the 2016 election. Will this be enough to quiet critics who say Sessions lied about meeting the Russian ambassador?

Good morning. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I've Dave Briggs.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Friday.

BRIGGS: It is.

ROMANS: I like to say that twice, it is Friday.

March 3rd, it is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

Let's continue with that breaking story overnight. President Trump stepping forward with a powerful defense of Attorney General Jeff Sessions just hours after Sessions recused himself from any investigations into Mr. Trump's presidential campaign. The move comes amid growing calls by Democrats, for the attorney general to resign over revelations Sessions met with the Russian ambassador at the same time he was serving as a Trump campaign surrogate. And then he didn't disclose that at his Senate hearing.

Sessions recusing himself at a news conference, this news conference just two hours after the president said he should not do so. Sessions denied any wrongdoing. He says that he told senators he never spoke with Russian officials about the Trump campaign.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I was taken aback a little bit about this brand-new information, this allegation that surrogates -- 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. And retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, but I did meet one Russian official a couple of times. That would be the ambassador.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BRIGGS: Sessions telling reporters he plans to mention his meeting with the Russian ambassador in a statement to supplement his congressional testimony and potentially new trouble for the attorney general. Campaign finance records show Sessions trip to the Republican National Convention where he met the ambassador was paid for with Sessions' campaign funds, not Senate funds. That under cuts Sessions argument he met with the ambassador in his capacity as a senator rather than a surrogate. We've reached out to Sessions' office for comment.

Even with all this controversy, though, the president is standing by his attorney general.

For more, let's go to CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, President Trump hoped to end the week on a high note, carrying that momentum from his speech to Congress earlier in the week. But he is ending on anything but. He is under fire here at the White House all over allegations of links to Russia yet again. We saw yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from any campaign investigation involving Russia. Congress is fully involved in an investigation, the intelligence committees both the House and the Senate.

Now, President Trump is flying down to his resort in Mar-a-Lago later today. He's going to take a bit of a weekend off, try and think about some of these things. He'll be having a Republican fund-raiser there this evening as well. But, boy, he is standing by his Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But take a look at this statement he released last night. Very interesting language in here. It says this, "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. The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election," he says, "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."

A witch hunt perhaps, but a bipartisan one at that. Republicans on Capitol Hill in Congress are concerned about this. They say they will investigate and get to the bottom of this.

So, as the Trump administration heads into the end of another week here, there are certainly more questions being raised about Moscow and they are not just about from Democrats, from Republicans as well. That's what Donald Trump is facing as he heads off to Florida later today -- Christine and Dave.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROMANS: All right, Jeff Zeleny. Another busy day and night for Jeff.

So, with the attorney general recused, what happens next? For now, the acting attorney general -- Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will over see any investigations or prosecutions related to the Trump campaign. But Boente may ultimately choose to appoint a special prosecutor to probe the Trump campaign and its ties with Russia.

For that, three conditions must be met. That a criminal investigation is warranted, that the current probe presents a conflict of interest, and that an outside investigator is in the public interest.

Who would determine if these conditions have been met? Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

BRIGGS: So, another option is being floated by some Democrats reviving the old independent counsel law under which the attorney general asks a three-judge panel to name an independent counsel.

[04:05:00] That law was put in place after Watergate and allowed to lapse after Ken Starr's lengthy probe of President Clinton.

House Speaker Paul Ryan the idea of passing a new independent counsel law is going nowhere.

ROMANS: Two more high-level Trump aides revealing they also met with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The president's son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner, he sat down with the Russian ambassador at Trump Tower in December. A senior administration official describes the meeting as a, quote, "inconsequential hello."

And J.D. Gordon, a national security advisor to the Trump campaign, admitting he met with the Russian ambassador during the GOP convention in Cleveland in July. Gordon claims there was no discussion of colluding with Russia to help Trump win.

BRIGGS: Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont calling on Attorney General Sessions to appear before the Judiciary Committee once again. This time to explain what Leahy calls his misleading testimony under oath.

At least 16 Democratic senators are now demanding that Sessions step down. They believe he lied during his confirmation hearing and is lying now. Listen to the argument being made by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer of the land, and already, his integrity and independence has been questioned. It would be better for the country if he'd resign.


BRIGGS: Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri cleaning up her own mess, meanwhile. Take a look at this tweet from Thursday. She writes, "I have been on the Armed Services Committee for 10 years. No call or meeting with Russian ambassador ever. Ambassadors call members of the Foreign Relations Committee."

Well, it turns out that's not entirely true. McCaskill now admitting she did speak to the Russian ambassador about the Iran nuclear deal. She is blaming Twitter's character limit for confusing her point.

ROMANS: All right. This morning, we are learning about a possible missed opportunity for the Trump administration to avoid some of these repeated accusations of ethical lapses. It turns out the transition team canceled an ethics training session for the White House staff just days before the president took office. Documents obtained by CNN reveal the General Services Administration planned to help cabinet nominees and employees get through confirmation hearings and work effectively with Congress and other federal agencies, but that training course was scrapped by the incoming administration which claims to save costs, the White House counsel's office handled ethics training for this incoming staff.

BRIGGS: Infighting erupting in the Republican Party over the fate of Obamacare. Senator Rand Paul calling out fellow Republicans in the House demanding to see their bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

The Kentucky senator believes House Republicans interest deliberately keeping the measure under lock and key.

We get more from CNN's Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, just the week before, House Republicans are planning to launch their legislative effort to finally repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, something they've been campaigning on for years and years, the whole process devolved into a game of hide and seek. Seriously.

So, Senator Rand Paul is very opposed to what House Republican leadership wants to do, discovered that members of one of the House committees that's considering this bill were going to meet behind closed doors to review draft language. He decided he wanted to review it as well.

He's not on the committee. He's not even from the chamber. That didn't stop him.

Here's what he had to say.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: When I came here, I introduced a bill called Read the Bill. Read the Bills Act. When I say that in public speaking, people laugh because they're embarrassed it would actually not read the bills up here. But if this is given to us, we don't know if this is a thousand pages, we don't know if it's 1,500 pages. We know that we're not given access to read it and I think that's a problem. MATTINGLY: Now, guys, one minor problem here. Senator Paul went to

the wrong room. The bill wasn't there at all. The staff that was there wasn't related to the committee.

But his point was still made. When you talk to House Republican leaders, they were very frustrated with what they called was a stunt, but they also recognized this is bad optics. These are the types of things they accuse Democrats of doing back in 2009, 2010. Hiding the bill, keeping the language not just from members, but also from voters.

That's a problem going forward and there are no shortage of problems as we head into really kind of the serious portions of this legislative debate. For now, just a stunt. It didn't look good to cameras. Going forward could be potential major problems, as this process really kicks into high gear -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Phil Mattingly, thank you, Phil. Vice President Mike Pence routinely used a private e-mail while serving as governor of Indiana, at times discussing sensitive issues and even matters of homeland security. That's according to the "Indianapolis Star" which reports Pence's personal account was hacked last summer.

Now, Pence's office insists he fully complied with Indiana law. Current Indiana governor Eric Holcomb has released 29 pages of e-mails from Pence's personal AOL account and refusing to release a number of others, claiming they're either confidential or too sensitive to be seen by the public.

[04:10:05] Pence has repeatedly bashed Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

BRIGGS: A little hypocrisy there. Well, it's the first known move stemming from the deadly raid in Yemen, officials now tracking down hundreds of al Qaeda fighters based on the intel recovered. Where are they? We'll hear from the Pentagon next.


ROMANS: All right. Details are still scarce on President Trump's border wall. But 300 companies are putting in bids to help build it. Businesses can officially submit their proposals to the Department of Homeland Security starting next week.

But the agency says hundreds of companies have already expressed interest. They'll be asked for designs and eventually to build prototype wall structures near the border. The firms include large construction companies, small fence companies and security firms. Dozens of the interested companies say in their paperwork that they are owned by Hispanic, Hispanic-owned companies.

[04:15:03] But even these companies know almost nothing of the plans they're going to build on. The DHS expects to award initial contracts in April. The other issue is how the government is going to pay for it. The

president cites the $10 billion he received from a concrete association during the campaign as a target for how much this will cost. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in January he expects it will cost $12 billion to $15 billion. Other independent estimates put it as high, Dave, as $25 billion.

BRIGGS: Well, what a lot of the agents have said is they want something they can see through. That would be helpful to them to see what is going on on the other side of this wall, not a giant concrete great wall.

ROMANS: Right, more of a fence than a wall, that's right. You know, one of the interesting, you know, barriers has been, no pun intended, there are a lot of animals that live across that wall, too. So, some are saying they want to make sure there is space between the wall so they can have the migration of animals if not the migration of people.

BRIGGS: There are rivers over there, over the border. Will they have employees to build it? Plenty of issues.

The U.S. taking action the first time based on intelligence recovered in the January raid in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL. Sources telling CNN the U.S. is now looking to track and locate hundreds of people with ties to al Qaeda. Those contacts were part of the recovered intelligence. Some of these people are believed to be in the West, though not in the United States.

CNN's Barbara Starr with more now from the Pentagon.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Dave, Christine, U.S. officials are insisting to CNN that they did get valuable intelligence from that raid back in January that killed the U.S. Navy SEAL and led to the death of several civilians on the ground. None of them can be absolutely verified because the intelligence is classified. But officials say that they are now taking action to monitor, look for hundreds of contacts that they got on some of the data, the laptops, the cell phones that they seized.

They believe they have names and contact information for people in the West who may be sympathizers to al Qaeda in Yemen, may even be working to plot and plan new attacks. So, they are taking action. They are trying to track all of that down.

At the same time, they got intelligence that is leading them to more information about al Qaeda's safe havens in Yemen. That may lead them to more raids. They have information, they say, about recruiting, targeting, all of the activities of al Qaeda and even information about its explosive manufacturing.

And, of course, it is al Qaeda in Yemen that has been perfecting non- metallic bombs, the kinds of bombs that can make it past airport security. This is a group that very much wants to get a bomb on board a U.S. airliner -- Dave, Christine. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BRIGGS: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Also in Yemen, U.S. warplanes carrying out airstrikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We're told U.S. forces hit multiple locations, targeting militants, equipment, infrastructure, heavy weapons systems and fighting positions. The U.S. defense official say the attacks were not linked to the intelligence obtained in January and had been planned for sometime.

ROMANS: Right. Could President Trump's call for more defense spending set up an arms race of sorts with Russia? Generals in Russia are calling for a new cash infusion, motivated by that big spend in Washington.

We're live in Moscow.


[04:22:53] ROMANS: President Trump's call for another $54 billion in defense spending is reverberating far beyond U.S. borders. One unintended side effect being felt in Russia. The $54 billion would only be a 10 percent spike for the Pentagon, but it's more than the entire defense budget in Moscow. Now, generals there are using Trump's move to ask the Kremlin for more cash.

CNN's international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson is live in Moscow for us.

Nic, you know, all this talk about this $600 billion overall defense budget, it's a reminder to me even a rounding error in U.S. defense spending is more than most countries pay for their entire budgets.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, and that's the situation here in Russia, of course. You know, their entire defense budget as you said is less than that increase the Pentagon is looking at right now that Donald Trump wants. But here in Russia for the last about four years, they have been going through a massive military overhaul, new tanks, new aircraft, new missiles, new cruise missiles we saw them use in Syria the first time launched from submarines, launched from ships.

What this means is for the Russian military is that they have a huge military spend going on, and right now, they are in a fight with the finance ministry here. You had the minister of defense speaking in the parliament here just last week, asking the parliamentarians to support the military generals in their call for another $200 billion from the finance ministry to help finance this overhaul in the military over the next few years.

So, for the generals here, when they hear that in the United States, there is an increase in the defense budget, for them, that's music to their ears because that's going to help them get their defense budget here. I mean, when you speak to military analysts here, they say, you know, we're not looking parity dollar for dollar, ruble for ruble. They think they get their value and punch, if you will, for their military in other areas.

One of those areas, which is critical to U.S. national interest as we saw in the elections where the allegations of Russia hacking DNC computers, is that in the past few years under one of their top strategists, the chief of staff, Vitaly Gerasimov (ph), the Russians have now strategized to develop an area of their defense spending on essentially cyber warfare on developing trolling fake news and hacking.

[04:25:14] That is part of their defense spend.

ROMANS: Right.

ROBERTSON: Strategically, they say you can have, you know, a quarter of a number of tanks that you need and use these type of cyber tactics --

ROMANS: And maybe --

ROBERTSON: -- so they may not have the money, but in an arms race like this, that's how they look at it.

ROMANS: And maybe more bang for your buck if you're undermining democratic institutions instead of firing bullets.

All right. Very interesting stuff. Nic Robertson in Moscow for us this morning -- thank you, Nic.

BRIGGS: Attorney General Jeff Sessions gets the backing he needed from President Trump. But recusing himself from election-related matters be enough to quiet Democrats calling for him to resign?


ROMANS: President Trump with a staunch defense of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, after Sessions recused himself from election-related investigations.