Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Stands by Embattled Attorney General; Calls for Sessions to Step Down Intensify in House & Senate; Could Sessions Face Perjury Charges? Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired March 3, 2017 - 07:00   ET


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: -- anything wrong with a United States senator meeting with an ambassador from Russia.

[07:00:05] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a lie. That's perjury. He needs to resign.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner meeting with the Russian ambassador.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: What the Russians have done is unprecedented in the history of this country. The investigation has to be strong.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to your NEW DAY. And we do begin with President Trump standing by Jeff Sessions. The embattled attorney general fighting back against perjury allegations and recusing himself from all investigations into Russia. But he is still under fire for his failure to inform Congress about two meetings that he had with that Russian ambassador.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: More information has come out about other staffers on the Trump administration team meeting with a Russian official.

There's no question that Democrats see Russian interference as an existential threat and are calling for Sessions to resign, but you also have GOP, Republican lawmakers calling for Sessions's recusal and saying a special prosecutor may be necessary.

This Russia connection is looming over day 43 of Donald Trump's presidency. Let's begin our coverage with Sarah Murray, live at the White House -- Sara.

MURRAY: Good morning, Chris.

Well, Jeff Sessions may have recused himself from any potential probes into the Trump campaign, but certainly, questions about ties between the president and Russian officials do not end there.

Now we're learning it wasn't just meetings between Jeff Sessions and the Russian ambassador. It wasn't just meetings with Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador. But Donald Trump's own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a senior adviser in this White House, also met with the Russian ambassador.


SESSIONS: I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.

MURRAY (voice-over): Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from any investigations into the Trump campaign.

SESSIONS: Let me be clear: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.

MURRAY: But defending himself amid revelations that he failed to disclose in his confirmation hearing that he met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice during President Trump's campaign last year.

SESSIONS: I don't believe there's anything wrong with a United States senator meeting with an ambassador from Russia.

MURRAY: Under oath, Sessions had a different answer.

SESSIONS: I didn't have -- not have communications with the Russians.

MURRAY: The attorney general admits...

SESSIONS: In retrospect I should have slowed down and said, "But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times."

MURRAY: And now plans to submit a supplement to the record of his congressional testimony.

SESSIONS: My response went to the question, as I indicated, about the continuing surrogate relationship that I firmly denied and correctly denied.

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.

MURRAY: Sessions's first meeting with Kislyak last July on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention. CNN obtained copies of then-Senator Sessions's expense report. It appears to reveal Sessions used his own campaign funds, not official Senate funds, to travel to the RNC, possibly undercutting his claim he met with Kislyak as a sitting senator, not as an advisor to the Trump campaign.

MURRAY: President Trump staunchly supporting Sessions.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Total. MURRAY: After his recusal announcement, the president issuing a statement that reads, in part, "Sessions did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional."

This as a senior administration official confirms another undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador, this time between former national security adviser Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a senior advisor. The three meeting at Trump Tower in December. The official describing the meeting as "introductory" and "an inconsequential hello."

This meeting was not included in press secretary Sean Spicer's initial timeline of contacts between the Russian ambassador and Flynn, who was fired last month for misleading the vice president about his discussion with Kislyak about sanctions.


MURRAY: Now it turns out the Russian ambassador kept himself awfully busy during the presidential campaign. He held yet another meeting at this Republican convention in Cleveland over the summer, this one with national security advisers to Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

And he continues to make his mark around town. Earlier this week, he was at Donald Trump's speech to the joint address of Congress on Tuesday. It remains unclear who invited him.

Back to you, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: He seems to be enjoying himself in those pictures. Sara, thank you very much.

So dozens of Democrats in Congress say recusal is not enough. They want Sessions to resign. Most Republicans still resisting calls for a special prosecutor.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is live on Capitol Hill with more. Good morning, Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Alisyn.

[07:05:11] Democrats are keeping up the drum beat, not satisfied by Jeff Sessions's recusal. They want him to outright resign, and others are pushing for more information. They want Jeff Sessions back up here on Capitol Hill to explain what they believe was misleading testimony under oath.


SCHUMER: For the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.

SERFATY (voice-over): Democrats insisting that Attorney General Jeff Sessions's recusal from any investigation into the Trump campaign doesn't go far enough. REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: He has proved that he is

unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust.

SERFATY: They are now demanding Sessions go before the Senate Judiciary Committee to face more questions about his past testimony on Russia.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R-UT), CHAIR, HOUSE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: I do think he should recuse himself.

SERFATY: Republicans stopping sort of calling for Sessions to resign but were initially split on his recusal. Some calling for Sessions to step aside.

REP. PAUL LABRADOR (R), IDAHO: There's going to be investigations about Russia that he may become a witness, and I don't think he should be leading the investigation.

SERFATY: And applauding him after he did so.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (D), ILLINOIS: The recusal was the right move. It doesn't say that he's necessarily admitting guilt.

SERFATY: House Speaker Paul Ryan defending Sessions.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We have seen no evidence from any of these ongoing investigations that anybody in the Trump campaign or the Trump team was involved in any of this.

SERFATY: All of this as a top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee is blasting FBI Director James Comey for dodging questions about the bureau's investigation into Russia's meddling in the U.S. election last year.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: In order for us to do our investigation in a thorough and credible way, we're going to need the FBI to fully cooperate. At this point, the director was not willing to do that.

SERFATY: Democratic senators are calling for more transparency as five congressional committees are investigating the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: The intelligence community has to cooperate with them committees on the Hill. It's apparent there is a problem. It's up to Mr. Comey to help solve that problem.


CUOMO: All right. Lots to talk about. Let's bring in Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

Senator, thank you for joining us this morning.

SEN. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (R), WEST VIRGINIA: Thank you. Good morning. CUOMO: So if there's all of this talk on both sides of the aisle of a need for the attorney general to recuse himself from any prosecutions and roll in the inquiries of these Russian allegations and the Trump administration, why not just take the step and remove this inquiry from the realm of politics, get yourself a special prosecutor or a bipartisan body to do all of the searching in that regard?

CAPITO: Well, I think when the attorney general recused himself from this investigation, I think it was quick. I think -- I'm glad that he came out yesterday forcibly and removed himself because of the -- any kind of appearance of impartiality.

I think it's also been reported that five committees on the House and the Senate side are investigating this. I think we have impartiality on our Intelligence Committee most certainly and other committees. I trust that they'll come up with a good resolve here.

You know, if the story unwinds even more and more, I think other questions will probably be asked. But at this time, I'm satisfied with the direction that we're going, and I think we'll get the right answers. The correct answers and the correct results.

CUOMO: You know, but there's reason to question the confidence, because you remember with 9/11 and why they went to the commission the way they did? The concern was that it couldn't not be politicized. Everybody had too much at stake in the outcomes of what the answers were, and if there were blame to be ascribed. And they decided to remove from that. And it wound up yielding, many believe, better results. Why isn't this situation the same?

CAPITO: Well, I voted for the 9/11 Commission, and I think a lot of the recommendations that came out of that commission have been very useful for us. So I think it served a great purpose, particularly the independence of that commission.

I just don't think we're there yet. And at the beginning points of investigating this with the Intelligence Committee. I heard Senator Feinstein earlier on your show talk about her concern about the intelligence community joining in here. I think, you know, we're going to see this moving forward, and I think we're going to get the right answers and answers, the full answers, that we need.

CUOMO: But logically, the idea of, "Well, we're not there yet," that fights the whole notion of why you would want to investigate it in the most complete and nonpartisan way as possible.

You know, you have so many people looking at it, competing interests, that it may just be mired in process. You already know the Russians hacked, you know, different entities during the election. You already know you have a growing list of things that need to be discussed and understood within contacts and connections in and among the Trump administration. You already know all that. Why leave it up to political circumstance, when you could remove it and get a much more uncompromised answer?

[07:10:16] CAPITO: You know, I think right now, we also already know that the intelligence community has been looking into this and has been aware of this for more than just a short period of time.

CUOMO: True.

CAPITO: Which tells me that the information that can come forward to the Intelligence Committee on both the House and the Senate side. I think the chairmen of those committees, Richard Burr and Congressman Nunes, have been very forceful in making sure that information is detailed, is complete, is just as interested in the outcome.

And so, you know, these investigations are moving forward. Let's find out what these investigations through the committees find and where that might lead us.

CUOMO: It doesn't concern you that Nunes keeps saying, more than anything else, that there is no proof of anything? That Burr admitted that he coordinated with the White House about trying to tamp down some stories about the depth of any of these connections, and that the president of the United States went out of his way to delegitimize our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia was behind the hacks?

CAPITO: Well, I think that -- first of all, let me speak to the committee chairmen. I know both of them well. I think they are known for being forceful and detailed and -- and honest brokers, shall we say, in terms of getting to the -- with the best interests of our country at heart. So I trust their conclusions.

I think that, certainly, you know, this story is still unfolding, as you know. I mean, you wake up, and there's a new little bit to it or big bit. And so I think that let's let the committees move forward. And then, if -- if it winds itself into a much larger investigation...

CUOMO: Right.

CAPITO: ... with impartiality in question, I think those are the questions that we can get to.

CUOMO: That's -- that's what I'm asking you about, though, at its core, which is why do you have confidence that, when we have learned, really, nothing out of any of the committees, this is all journalism that has revealed these?

CAPITO: These are ongoing -- yes, but these are ongoing investigations. I mean, I don't think it does -- and I think we can see that leaks from intelligence investigations, leaks from intelligence communities, from...

CUOMO: Right.

CAPITO: ... leaks from the White House, leaks from anywhere are not serving any kind of an investigation. Let's let this move forward and see where we are, you know, after we get -- reach some conclusions from the investigations. I think that's the smarter way, the simpler way and also the most honest way to proceed.

CUOMO: But you don't think that politics plays into that?

CAPITO: Oh, politics is...

CUOMO: That because Republicans control these committees, that of course, you want to keep it in those committees, because it's your team controlling the ball?

CAPITO: Well -- yes, but you also have to remember who else is in the room. It's not just Republicans in the room investigating a Republican president...

CUOMO: Right.

CAPITO: ... or a Republican attorney general. There is a very forceful -- and those committees are known to work well together and to coordinate well together. And I think if you were to ask Senator Burr, he and Senator Feinstein have a history of investigating and working with intelligence communities for -- for more than just a few years. And I think they have trust in one another. You know, let's let this -- they're going to be in the room asking the tough questions, as well. As it should be.

CUOMO: All right. Let me ask you about something else while I have you, Senator.


CUOMO: What do you make of these shenanigans of people walking around, trying to find the Obamacare replacement plan? You had Senator Paul having people follow him around. And somebody else was doing it on Facebook. Have you seen a plan? Is there a plan?

CAPITO: Yes, there is a plan. Have I seen the fully-detailed plan? No, because I'm not sure that, you know, the House is going to be working it before it comes to the Senate.

We've had several meetings over the last two months, or you know, since we've been back after the inauguration and before, where we've talked about where our concerns are with the replacement of the Affordable Care Act. For me, I've been very forceful in repeatedly saying that the expansion of Medicaid is tremendously important to 184,000 West Virginians. That is something every time we talk about where is the plan and how has it moved and changed, I am constantly asking about. And...

CUOMO: Are you -- are you convinced that expansion of Medicaid will be in there?

CAPITO: It better be.

CUOMO: Because that doesn't go well with tax credits.

CAPITO: I get that. But that is an important to 31 states.

CUOMO: Yes, it is.

CAPITO: We have governors, Republican governors who have expanded. I'd like to see -- you know, have the waivers and have more flexibility for our governors to be able to meet the challenges of Medicaid, not only on the health outcome side but on the expense side and all the things that are -- kind of shackle them to be able to really use the funds, I think, most efficiently, and I think that's important.

But you know, we're seeing more and more about the finer details, and that's where we can ask those questions, which we did of Congressman Brady and Congressman Walden last week. Well, how does this impact this? With this push, where is that pull?

But I think we need to be -- we need to be studied about this, and, you know, there's been some criticism that it's going too slow. I'm actually pleased it's going slow, because I think this -- we're getting into more of -- of the finer details of how this is going to influence a lot of people.

CUOMO: There's been criticism it's going too slow. There's been criticism it's going too fast.

CAPITO: Right.

CUOMO: Been criticized that you shouldn't repeal before you can replace, but the main question is will everybody keep their coverage?

Senator, thank you for being on NEW DAY. Appreciate the candor. You're always welcome here to talk about what matters.

CAPITO: Great. Thanks so much.

CUOMO: Be well. Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Chris, President Trump is standing by his embattled attorney general while Democrats in Congress want Jeff Sessions to resign. Could he face perjury charges? The legal implications, next.



SCHUMER: The Justice Department must immediately appoint a special prosecutor. Given that Attorney General Sessions's impartiality is compromised, that responsibility will fall to the acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, who is a career civil servant originally appointed U.S. attorney by President Obama.


[07:20:12] CAMEROTA: All right. That was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, calling for a special prosecutor. After a firestorm of criticism, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from investigations involving the Trump campaign and Russia. Could Sessions face perjury charges for misleading Congress about those contacts?

Let's discuss with former White House ethics czar Norman Eisen. He's a fellow at the Brookings Institution. And former U.S. attorney Matthew Whitaker. He's also executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civil Trust. Gentlemen, great to have you here.


CAMEROTA: Mr. Whitaker, let me start with you. So now Jeff Sessions has recused himself. Legally, what's next? Do you believe he could face perjury charges?

MATTHEW WHITAKER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FOUNDATION FOR ACCOUNTABILITY AND CIVIL TRUST: I don't, and it's pretty simple. You know, in order to go up on perjury charges, not only would they have to demonstrate that what he said was willful, which it's you watch -- I watched the video at the time and have gone back and watched it since -- and it's very clear that Senator Franken is asking him about campaign contacts with Russian officials and not his -- not Senator Sessions at the time talking to the Russian ambassador as part of the Armed Service Committee job he has.

And then you would also have to demonstrate that his testimony was regarding -- was willful, his false statement, and that it was regarding material fact which, you know, based on that standard, I just think it would be impossible to -- for any prosecutor to bring a case based on these facts.

CAMEROTA: OK. Mr. Eisen, do you share that opinion?

NORMAN EISEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS CZAR: Good morning, Alisyn, thanks for having me.

I do not share that opinion. The attorney general said, "I did not have communications with Russia." It was a categorical statement. And we know now that he did have communications with Russia twice.

His spokesperson came out yesterday and took the same position as Mr. Whitaker. He says, "Well, it was a surrogate thing." But now we know that the trip on which he met the Russian ambassador, one of these occasions was paid for by political funds.

CAMEROTA: Campaign funds, yes.

So does that mean that you think that he will face perjury charges?

EISEN: I -- I think he can face perjury charges. I think there's ample -- when you watch that video, I see something very different than Mr. Whitaker. I see a categorical declaration. I think he's exposed. I think that's why we need a special counsel to be appointed by Mr. Boente under the rules.

And I think it's one more issue, Alisyn. That's what's so concerning. Issue after issue. It has that Watergate feel to it. And it all leads me back, the Watergate question, follow the money. Donald Trump's son says he gets a lot of Russian investments. We need to see those Trump tax returns. That's where this is headed.


EISEN: We need a special counsel. CAMEROTA: That -- the press has certainly been calling to see those

tax returns. But let me play for you both what Jeff Sessions said in a press conference yesterday. This was him explaining why he answered Senator Al Franken the way he did. Listen to this.


SESSIONS: My reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time. I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct. I will write the Judiciary Committee soon, today or tomorrow, to explain this testimony for the record.


CAMEROTA: In fact, Mr. Whitaker, he says that he's going to submit this supplemental information by paper to the committee. So is that it? Case closed? I mean, legally, is that all that has to be done here?

WHITAKER: Well, again, I mean, I appreciate my colleague's perspective, but I will tell you that, as you look at the testimony, and the questioning from Senator Franken, you know, it was not Jeff Sessions's job to anticipate what Senator Franken was asking him or should have asked him. I mean, if Senator Franken wanted to go outside the context of the campaign, and the Trump for president campaign and its contacts, and Senator Sessions's contacts with Russian officials, he could have.

Senator Franken knows that, as part of the Armed Services Committee job that Senator Sessions at the time had, that he would be meeting with ambassadors and quite possibly could have met with the Russian ambassador.

And so, you know, I love how some folks on the left love to just bring in, you know, Trump tax returns and all these -- you know, campaign funds to try to muddy the water. But it's, you know, a much simpler question than that. And as a former federal prosecutor, I don't get distracted by sort of the circus atmosphere. I look very specifically at, you know, what was -- what was the answer? And I think, based on the context of the question, Senator Sessions at the time answered the question and is now going to supplement the record.

[07:25:11] CAMEROTA: OK. Well, I think maybe at this point it would be helpful to go back and watch that exchange so we can all decide for ourselves if he answered the direct question. Let's listen to this.


SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

SESSION: Senator Franken I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I didn't have -- not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.


CAMEROTA: OK, so Mr. Eisen, that -- he said if there's any evidence of having communicated with the Russians in the course of the campaign, so you can understand Mr. Whitaker thinks it was just a campaign question, but that's not how you interpret it.

EISEN: No, the attorney general veered off of the question and volunteered that he had not had any Russian communications, when we know that he had two. He can't -- the defenders of the attorney general can't just wave a magic wand over this scandal.

And the context is very important. It's not just that there are serious questions, and the attorney general should have to answer under oath. He should be cross-examined. He can't just brush it off with a letter to Congress. We need to understand, was it willful or not?

But it's in context, where there have been so many issues about the Russian investigation and such slow rolling.


EISEN: And the people in Congress who are supposed to be looking at it are actually now, we find out, making off-the-record calls to reporters to defend the conduct.

We need a special counsel to look at the whole context in which these possibly false statements were made, including the president's ties to Russia. My goodness. Our democratic procedures were attacked by a foreign power, and it turns out the Trump campaign, and possibly Mr. Trump himself, his attorney general...


EISEN: ... was involved. The attorney general is in charge of truth in our country, Alisyn. A different standard applies. Alberto Gonzales had to leave his post...


EISEN: ... for a lesser statement in the Bush administration.


EISEN: Mr. Kleindienst, Nixon's attorney general...

CAMEROTA: Understood.

EISEN: ... had to plead to a misdemeanor for a lesser statement than what Mr. Sessions did.

CAMEROTA: OK. Thank you. Mr. Eisen, Mr. Whitaker. Obviously, we will see what happens next in this investigation. Thank you both for your opinions -- Chris. CUOMO: Good, good debate there.

A dramatic scene unfolding on Capitol Hill. Republican Senator Rand Paul going on a scavenger hunt to find the GOP's secret Obamacare replacement bill. If it sounds tongue and cheek, that's because it was; and yet it was real. Was it being held under lock and key? We discuss.