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Trump Standing By Sessions; Republicans Battle Over Obamacare; U.S. Tracking Down Hundreds of AQAP Leads. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 3, 2017 - 05:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump standing by his attorney general.

[05:00:01] It came hours after Jeff Sessions says he would recuse himself from matters regarding the election.

Will this be enough to quiet critics who say Sessions lied about meeting the Russian ambassador?

CNN's complete coverage of all the developments from Washington begins right now.

Bright and early this Friday morning, good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Dave Briggs. It's Friday, March 3rd, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

There's one question: did you talk to the Russians last year?

ROMANS: I did not. I know I didn't. Did you?

BRIGGS: OK. You're clear.

ROMANS: I'm clear. I did not.

BRIGGS: I cannot confirm or deny anything.

Breaking overnight, though, President Trump stepping forward with a forceful 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, then failed to disclose that at his Senate hearing.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 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.


ROMANS: All right. Sessions telling reporters he plans to mention his meeting with the Russian ambassador in a statement to supplement his congressional testimony, essentially amending that testimony with details of this meeting.

Potentially, new trouble, though, for the attorney general. The campaign finance records show Sessions' trip to the Republican convention where he met the Russian ambassador, it was paid for with Sessions' campaign funds, not Senate funds, and that undercuts Sessions' argument he met with the ambassador in his capacity as a senator rather than a surrogate. We've reached to Sessions office for comment on that particular angle.

Even with all this controversy, the President Trump just standing by his attorney general.

More now from 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.


BRIGGS: Thank you, Jeff.

So, if the attorney general recused for now, Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will oversee any investigations or prosecutions related to the Trump campaign, but that may not be the end of it. Boente may have to bring in a special prosecutor at some point. We're also learning more about one of the meetings that Sessions had with the ambassador and how it could impact the battle over Sessions' job.

Joining us to explain, CNN justice reporter Laura Jarrett live in Washington.

Good morning to you, Laura.

What else have we learned about the September meeting Sessions had with the Russian ambassador?


We now know it took place in Sessions' office and he was accompanied by two of his staffers. He said that they talked about normal things, like a visit Sessions had taken with a church group in the '90s and, though, he didn't recall any political discussions taking place, he said it did get testy at one point.

[05:05:03] Now, importantly, we don't yet know whether anyone took any notes at this meeting or recorded it, or even who has that recording at this point -- Dave.

ROMANS: So what do we know about the purpose of that meeting, and does it even matter what the purpose was?

JARRETT: Well, Sessions was kind of -- I should say he was holding back on this a little bit, right? He was asked yesterday why he believes the Russian ambassador wanted to meet with him, and he was very careful in his answer. He was saying I don't remember a lot of it, and on the critical question of whether the to you men discussed President Trump or the campaign, he said, "I do not recall." But the White House yesterday said, look, there's no there there.

BRIGGS: He did remember some color, though, that he was not necessarily a believer, that Sessions is a believer and he talked -- that Ukraine was brought up so he certainly remembered some color to this meeting, but Sessions doesn't recall some of the details of the September meeting. Does that rebuke the allegations from some Democrats of perjury here?

JARRETT: Well, it certainly helps protecting him from boxing himself in on a story going forward, right? So, in the event new details emerge about that September meeting, but there's still the issue of the original testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last January and whether that was truthful because some Democrats say he needs to come back and explain to the committee what happened there.

But as you mentioned Sessions told FOX News last night he plans to supplement his testimony in the record with a new response to the question about the meetings with Russia. So, we'll have to wait and see whether that will suffice for everyone -- Dave, Christine.

ROMANS: All right.

BRIGGS: Laura, thank you. Let's bring in Zach Wolf, the managing editor of CNN Politics Digital.

Good morning to you, Zach.

ROMANS: Good morning.


BRIGGS: All right. So, broad terms here. Is this thing over? The Democrats don't have many moves now.

WOLF: Well, I mean, this is kind of the third aide or, you know, member of the Trump administration. We had Paul Manafort back during the campaign. We had Michael Flynn, both of whom had to lead. There's no indication that Sessions is going to have to resign or leave, but the hits keep on coming, I guess. So, it's hard to say that this is the end.

But, you know, people I think will turn with even more focus to every meeting between a Trump official and a Russian. And that can tend to make these things go forward. So, we'll have to see.

ROMANS: How common or legit or, you know, standard operating procedure for so many meetings with Russian officials? I mean, is that just the way Washington works, that they -- Russians officials and the Russian ambassador goes to the nominating convention for the GOP and, you know, meets with important people?

WOLF: Yes. I saw that, too, and thought it was interesting that the Russian ambassador was at the Republican convention, sort of meeting with people on the sidelines. But, you know, in talking to people, these are ambassadors who are here to forward their country's agenda, and they were dealing with an agenda and a platform at the convention. So, I don't think it's totally unheard of for that kind of thing to happen.

BRIGGS: There's also the speech on Tuesday night, but good luck, Sergey, getting a meeting with anyone in the Trump administration in the year ahead.

But this is further complicated by Claire McCaskill who in the tweet said, "I've 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."

We later learn that she did in fact have a phone call with Sergey Kislyak. This does just bring to life that it's not that simple. United States senators do meet with ambassadors, even Sergey Kislyak.

WOLF: Yes. And what I love about this story is that we found out, she tweeted that she has never met with one, and then somebody through her tweets and own meetings that she had tweeted about. So, you know, the Twitter trail is there. Who knows what she didn't tweet about.

ROMANS: I know. And then she said it was 140 limit of how much she can give, which is why I say, maybe we shouldn't be giving press releases and doing diplomacy with Twitter, but that's my own issue here.

When you look at the front "The Daily News," "Well, Recuse Me" and then you look at the number of Democratic senators who are calling for his resignation. I mean, the number continues to grow. It's hard to believe it can be over if you still have headlines and so many -- you know, so many Democrats still jumping on board.

WOLF: Well, I think Sessions had to do something and recusing himself yesterday sort of might quiet some of the concerns within Republican ranks, and that's really what's most important for him because they are the ones who control Capitol Hill, et cetera. You know, I think something else would have to happen for this to get to the level of him having to resign.

So, I don't think we're there yet. Democrats, rather, are going to be sure to keep it in the news and -- and keep the drum beat going but I'm not sure that -- that the there is there yet.

[05:10:03] BRIGGS: All right, Zach. It's 510:00 in the East. Caffeine is always on the minds of Christine and myself, and I'm sure you as well.

Tom Hanks wants to caffeinate the White House press corps, is that right?

WOLF: Yes. He sent his third espresso machine to the White House and attached a note telling them how important it was to, you know, journalism. So, people were passing that around yesterday.

ROMANS: Nice to know the worker bees in journalism at the White House got a little treat from him.

BRIGGS: Mr. Hanks is watching this morning, we could use one, too. Just saying, we got up a little earlier than them.

ROMANS: All right, Zach. Come back in a few minutes. Go get a cup of coffee and come back and see us in a few minutes. It's the first known move stemming from the deadly raid in Yemen. Officials tracking down hundreds of al Qaeda fighters based on the intel recovered. Where are they?

We go live for an update from Washington next.


[05:15:02] BRIGGS: The U.S. taking action for the first time based on intelligence recovered on 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. Some of these people believed to be in the West, though not in the United States.

CNN national security reporter Ryan Browne has more from Washington.

Good morning, Ryan.


That's right. U.S. officials are telling CNN that they have uncovered information pertaining to hundreds of contacts with links to al Qaeda, some of them living in Europe. Now, it's not clear whether these are operatives or sympathizers, but it's a real concern to U.S. officials because al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen affiliate, is considered al Qaeda's most capable affiliate and has carried out attacks in Europe before, including the 2015 "Charlie Hebdo" massacre in Paris.

Now, there was -- U.S. officials are saying additional intelligence was uncovered pertaining to safe havens, terror groups tactics and its bomb-making it can NBC as well as its training operations. They say that additional action will be taken based on that intelligence down the road.

Now, there were over 20 air strikes carried out against the terror group yesterday targeting what U.S. officials say were al Qaeda, infrastructure, al Qaeda militant. Now, they are saying that that strike group was not related to the intelligence gathered in the raid. That had been in the planning for some time, but we're now hearing local reports of even additional strikes being carried out overnight. The Pentagon has yet to confirm those, but we're going to be following this closely.

Now, this is -- we're seeing a real uptick of actions by the military against the terror group. This is part of these kind of expanded mission sets that the military has pursued in the early days of the Trump presidency. Of course, this raid is proving controversial, as you mentioned, resulting in the death of a Navy SEAL and civilian casualties. Donald Trump said that vital intelligence was obtained, and we're now starting to learn a little bit more about what that intelligence actually contained -- Dave

BRIGGS: Likely have not heard the last from that raid. Thank you, my friend.

ROMANS: All right. Details still scarce on President Trump's border walls but 300 companies are putting in bids to build it. Officials or businesses can officially submit proposals to the Department of Homeland Security starting next week. The agency says hundreds have already expressed interest. These companies will be asked for their designs and eventually they will have to build a prototype wall or structures neither border.

The firms include large construction companies, small fencing companies and security firms. Dozens of interested companies say in their paperwork that they are owned by Hispanics, but even these companies know almost nothing about the plans they will build on. You know, there's not like a specific model yet. The DHS expects to award initial contracts in April and the other issue is how the government is going to pay for it.

The president cites that $10 billion cost. He says he got that from a concrete association during the campaign. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in January said it would cost $12 billion to $15 billion, other independent estimates put the cost as high as $25 billion.

And there's been an attempt to make a virtual wall. There was this big push a few years ago for virtual walls and had cameras and sensors an all these problems from the get-go. I mean, a lot of money because a virtual wall just didn't work. For example, jack rabbits setting off sensors instead of people, kind of a mess.

BRIGGS: It was a slam dunk as a campaign line but far more difficult than anyone ever imagined.

ROMANS: Yes, we'll see how it works out.

BRIGGS: One of the best catches you'll ever see, and it was made off the field by a New York Mets prospect. He wasn't even wearing a glove.

Andy Scholes has more this morning on this morning's "Bleacher Report".

ROMANS: You've got to be kidding me.


[05:23:08] BRIGGS: One of the biggest story lines from the NFL last season was Colin Kaepernick, of course, taking a knee during the national anthem. According to multiple reports, Kaepernick will end his protest and begin standing next season.

ROMANS: Andy Scholes has more on this morning's "Bleacher Report."

Hey, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Colin Kaepernick will soon be a free agent and according to multiple reports, he has decided to stand for the national anthem next season. Kaepernick's action of kneeling through the anthem to protest social injustice started a movement in the NFL and across the sports world over the past year. According to ESPN, Kaepernick no longer wants his method of protest to

detract from the positive change he believes has been created. Kaepernick has also donated more than $1 million to community organizations helping underprivileged people.

All right. The Golden State Warriors playing their first game since Kevin Durant suffered a knee injury that will keep him out of action for at least a month and it did not go well against the Bulls. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were ice cold from three-point land and Warriors coach Steve Kerr got so frustrated during this game he broke another one of those clipboard. Golden State scores just 87 points, their lowest total of the season. They lose back-to-back games for the first time since 2015.

Elsewhere in the NBA, Thunder and Blazers squaring off. Check out Taj Gibson right here. He intercepts this pass and heaves it the length of the court almost and it goes in at the buzzer and take another look. Look at how high he threw that basketball. What a shot, but that was not the most impressive shot from that game. He took the half court shot to win a car and he nails it.

Look at that. Perfect rotation. Nicely done, sir.

All right. Finally, Mets and Marlins and spring training. Echeverria throws his bat on the swings and heads straight to the Mets dugout but don't worry.

[05:25:00] But don't worry, prospect Luis Guillorme cat-like reflexes, catches the bat out of mid-air.

Take another look -- this guy here decides to run for cover but the prospect sticks his arm out and snatches it, guys. I don't think I've ever seen someone stick an arm out and snatch a bat that was flying through the air.

And there are two people in this scenario. There's the guy like we saw right there that will run for cover and then there's the guy that will play the hero. Obviously, Guillorme is a hero.

Dave, what would you do, if there's a foul ball coming your way or bat, which role do you think you will play?

ROMANS: I'll try it. Dave Briggs.

BRIGGS: I'm hero.

I was there with my son and a foul ball came at us and I missed the ball but I did take one for my son. That guy is the most interesting man in the world. Dos Equis should sign him up.

ROMANS: Dos Equis, there you go. Get a sponsorship.

BRIGGS: Scholes, good stuff, my friend.

SCHOLES: All right.

ROMANS: Have a good weekend, Andy.

SCHOLES: You, too, guys.

ROMANS: All right. Attorney General Jeff Sessions gets the backing he needs from Donald Trump. Will recusing himself from election- related matters be enough to quiet Democrats calling for him to resign?