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Attorney General Sessions Holds Press Conference to Answer Questions Regarding Meeting with Russian Ambassador; Interview with Senator Richard Blumenthal. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired March 3, 2017 - 08:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[08:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What we've seen so far, scary, very scary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Kislyak is a well-known, world class diplomat. Stop spreading lies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was more than Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn who met with this ambassador.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not going to deny that I talked to him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In order for us to do our investigation we're going to need the FBI to fully cooperate. At this point the director was not willing to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome no your NEW DAY. Up first, President Trump defending his embattled attorney general, blasting Democrats for what he calls a witch hunt. Jeff Sessions recusing himself from investigations involving Russia and the Trump campaign. Sessions is under fire. Why? Because he failed to disclose that he met twice with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 race.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So lawmakers from both parties are battling over what's next for Sessions as we learn more about who in the Trump campaign met with that very same diplomat. The shadow of Russia looms over the Trump administration on day 43 of his presidency. So let's begin our coverage with CNN's Sara Murray. She's live at the White House. Good morning, Sara.

SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. Jeff Sessions may be recusing himself but that certainly does not answer all the questions about ties with this president and his advisers and Russian officials. We've now learned that not only did Jeff Sessions meet with the Russian ambassador, Michael Flynn of course met with the Russian ambassador, but now even Donald Trump's son-in-law, now a senior adviser in this White House, Jared Kushner held his own meeting with the Russian ambassador.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

MURRAY: 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 did 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' first meeting with Kislyak last July on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention. CNN obtained copies of then Senator Sessions' 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 adviser to the Trump campaign.

President Trump staunchly supporting Sessions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 adviser. 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: And there is yet another meeting with the Russian ambassador that came to light yesterday. This is one that occurred at the GOP convention over the summer between national security advisers to Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the ambassador. And it is clear he is still keeping busy as Moscow's man in Washington. He was spotted earlier this week on Tuesday at Donald Trump's address to Congress. It's unclear who offered the invite. Back to you guys.

CUOMO: All right, thank you very much, Sara.

So dozens in Congress are saying recusal is not enough. They want the attorney general to resign. Republicans are praising the attorney general's move of recusing himself. Many of them also were saying that's the right move. But Republicans are resisting right now growing calls for a special prosecutor.

[08:05:05] CNN's Sunlen Serfaty live on Capitol Hill with more. It's a surprising part of this story, how many Republicans said recusal, probably right move. Special prosecutor, we'll see.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And that will be something we'll be tracking in the days ahead, Chris. Democrats up here are trying their hardest to keep up this drumbeat. They are not satisfied by Jeff Sessions' recusal, and they say he needs to outright resign. But others up here on Capitol Hill are pushing for more information. They want Jeff Sessions to return back up here on Capitol Hill to explain what they say was misleading testimony under oath.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHARLES SCHUMER, (D-NY) SENATE MINORITY LEADER: For the good of the country, Attorney General Jeff Sessions should resign.

SERFATY: Democrats insisting that Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal from any investigation into the Trump campaign doesn't go far enough.

NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA) HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: He has proved 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do think he should recuse himself. SERFATY: Republicans stopping short of calling recessions to resign

but were initially split on his recusal. Some calling for Sessions to step aside.

REP. PAUL LABRADOR, (R) IDAHO: If there's going to be investigations about Russia, he may actually 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, (R) 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) SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: 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 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) RANKING MEMBER, 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 the committees on the Hill. It's apparent there is a problem. It's up to Mr. Comey to help solve that problem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: And while all these congressional committees are moving forward and continuing their own investigation, many Democrats are saying that's just not good enough and they are calling and pushing for the new acting deputy attorney general to appoint an independent special prosecutor. Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: We have one of those Democrats with us right now, Sunlen. Thank you very much. I want to bring in Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He's also the former attorney general in Connecticut. Great to have you here in studio.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D) CONNECTICUT: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: So yesterday you tweeted, "Unless Jeff Sessions can provide a credible explanation, his resignation will be necessary." Yesterday at a press conference he gave what he believes is that credible explanation. So let me play that for you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SESSIONS: Let me be clear. I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea that 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. That is the question that Senator Franken asked me at the hearing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Are you satisfied with that explanation?

BLUMENTHAL: No, I'm not. It really begs a lot of the critical questions that ought to be answered by him under oath.

CAMEROTA: Such as? I mean, what questions linger? He said he did not discuss campaign business with the ambassador.

BLUMENTHAL: For him to be meeting with the Russian ambassador at the height of the campaign while there were widespread reports of Russian interference in the campaign, a major cyber-attack, an act of cyber warfare including misleading propaganda and so forth, really requires him to be more forthcoming. And he has to say, for example, who was at the meeting? What was said? If he doesn't remember, the aides who were at the meeting should be brought in and his notes and their notes should be questioned.

CAMEROTA: We would you have some of this. He said it was just a meeting, I believe, between the two of them. He says "We had a conversation. He came in. We talked about a number of issues, one of them was Ukraine, and we had a disagreement over that. I don't recall any discussion of the campaign in any significant way. It was in no way some sort of coordinating effort.'

BLUMENTHAL: Well, he had two of his aides, possibly three. They were undoubtedly taking notes. He undoubtedly went over this meeting with the people who prepared him to testify before our committee.

[08:10:04] I personally feel I was misled by his responses. And he should be brought back to testify again under oath and answer our questions that were shut down because he avoided questioning by falsely denying the meeting.

CAMEROTA: So today, you are writing a letter to Senator Grassley and calling for that. You want Senator Sessions to be brought back so you can pose these questions directly. He has a different idea. He suggested last night on cable news that he would like to submit a written supplement to the record giving this further clarification. Why isn't that enough?

BLUMENTHAL: Not enough because we have questions that we would have asked had he not falsely denied that these meetings occurred. And remember that the Department of Justice isn't just any agency of government. He's not just any cabinet official. He is the legal conscience of the nation. His integrity ought to be beyond reproach. The trust and credibility of his department is at stake. And when he testified before that committee, he knew as a prosecutor that words matter when you testify under oath. And I want to know from him why he falsely denied that he had that meeting.

CAMEROTA: He has recused himself from any of the investigations into any Russian ties with the Trump campaign. Do you want him to resign?

BLUMENTHAL: If he fails to provide us a credible explanation, I think he has to resign, because he had to have known when he testified before our committee that this question would arise, had to be prepared for it. And his false denial I think requires him to resign unless he has a credible explanation. I don't know what that explanation could possibly be.

CAMEROTA: Is there going to be a special prosecutor set up?

BLUMENTHAL: I think there has to be for that investigation to be credible and independent.

CAMEROTA: And who are you looking to to call for that?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, my open is that our Republican colleagues will join us because they did eventually join us in calling for recusal. Now, remember, recusal simply means that he takes himself out of the investigation. But the FBI has the real responsibility here for investigating not only what happened before the election but what happened afterward. The pattern of apparent conciliatory calls and meetings between the Trump administration and the Russians I think opens a line of questioning that the FBI has to answer and it needs to be protected through a special prosecutor from any kind of political interference.

CAMEROTA: While I have you here, I want to ask you about another story percolating today. And that is reporting by "The Indy Star," a newspaper in Indianapolis, about then governor of Indianapolis, Mike Pence. They discovered that he used a private e-mail account, an AOL account, to conduct state business. They found out, in fact, that as governor at times on e-mails he discussed very sensitive matters including homeland security, including the security gates at the governor's residence and the state's response to terror attacks. Mike Pence was outraged by Hillary Clinton using a private server. Is a private e-mail account as governor different?

BLUMENTHAL: Really it's very much the same kind of practice because not only did he put it out of reach of the freedom of information laws, but also made it more vulnerable to hacking. In fact, there was a hack apparently into his personal account. But the point here is that Hillary Clinton eventually acknowledged she made a mistake. And my hope is maybe Mike Pence will as well.

CAMEROTA: Senator Richard Blumenthal, thanks so much for being on NEW DAY. Great to have you.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Let's get it over to Chris.

CUOMO: All right, so up next, what Republicans are saying about Jeff Sessions recusing himself from investigations involving President Trump. What should happen next? Congressman Will Hurd joins us, Republican from Texas.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:17:32] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Bowing to bipartisan pressure. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from investigations into Russia's ties to the Trump campaign. Was that the right move? What should happen now? How important is all this?

Let's get reaction from a Republican congressman from Texas, Will Hurd.

Congressman, good to see you.

REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: Good to see you, Chris. Thanks for having me on, man.

CUOMO: Good.

And to repeat the record, you said previously on this show and elsewhere that you know very well from your time at the CIA that this ambassador from Russia is someone you wanted to see kicked out of the country when other diplomats and Russian operatives were removed by the Obama administration because of the meddling in the election. You still feel that way?

HURD: Absolutely. This is something I was advocating back in October. I think kicking out the 31 intelligence officers is a good move as well. I had said this should be a basic step, kicking the ambassador out of the country.

The closing down on the two locations in the U.S. used by Russian intelligence and the treasury sanctions on the GRU and SVR, I think are good moves. Russians are -- they are our adversary, they are not our friend, and we need to be taking this activity into trying to manipulate our elections very seriously, and we need to be doing a review of this in a bipartisan sober fashion.

CUOMO: Let's get into all that. But first, with the headline, what do you think of the attorney general's decision to recuse himself?

HURD: I think the attorney general recusing himself was the right move. You know, any sense of impropriety needs to be removed from this review and this activity, and the acting deputy attorney general will be calling the shots and is probably likely to tap one of the 92 U.S. attorneys to be involved in this.

And of the 92 U.S. attorneys, they have been selected by many different presidents and they're all sharp individuals that are committed to prosecuting the law.

CUOMO: If semblance of impropriety is the issue, why not go for a special prosecutor and then have it go from there?

HURD: Well, if you use one of the 92 U.S. attorneys that are already in, I think that is an independent voice. Are people calling for getting somebody out of retirement who hasn't been involved in the legal system for a while or who hasn't been working with FBI and the intelligence agencies on how to develop a case in something like this?

[08:20:07] You need folks that are prepared, that understand the system, that are up to date on what's happening, and I think within Department of Justice, you have the folks who will do that. And these are men and women that have prosecuted some of the most serious cases across the country --

CUOMO: Right.

HURD: -- and are very political cases as well.

CUOMO: I hear you. The counterpoint is that they're still exposed to political vulnerability because of what their status of employment is. But I hear you about that. We'll see if any of it happens.

But now, putting on your CIA hat for a second and your experience with intel. When you see that you have a growing list of people who had meetings with the Russian ambassador and other officials -- and now I think we're up to at least five people connected to the campaign who did it, are you concerned with the fact that this happened or there seems to be a desire to keep it quiet that this happened?

HURD: I think everybody who has had contact with the Russians need to get in a practice of oversharing. If you were to look at the Obama administration or the George W. Bush administration, how many people in those times had contact with Russians?

Yes, the Russians are our adversary, but we are working with them in certain areas. So, there's always going to be contact between government officials and Russia.

I think the problem is, is we're making this a partisan activity, and we should be focused on how do we prevent and how do we fully understand what the Russians were trying to do to manipulate our elections, how do we respond to those types of things in the future? How do we work with our allies to make sure this kind of stuff doesn't happen in France and in Germany and places like that?

CUOMO: Look, I know there's a political price for taking positions on this kind of stuff, but do you believe this is a witch hunt, looking at all these people? I mean, that's what the president has called it. That's what some of his supporters are calling it.

Or do you believe there are real questions here that go to the role of administration officials and any coordination or just simple contact with Russia during that period?

HURD: I think -- I have full faith and confidence in the FBI to pursue any counterintelligence and counterespionage cases properly and accurately. I think a review of some of this contact is valid, but if there is no evidence, then we need to move on. That's one of the reasons why if there are investigations, it should not be done out in public.

You are looking at sensitive sources and methods. You may be looking into people that ultimately there is no fire even if their possibly is a little bit of smoke. This is why we have to allow our law enforcement professionals to do their job, and that's where members of Congress and the investigatory bodies in the House and Senate should be sure the job was done properly.

CUOMO: What do you think is going to happen next?

HURD: I think what's going to happen next is the process is going to work, is that law enforcement is going to do their review. You're going to have Department of Justice make decisions on where to go next.

I think, you know, the House and the Senate have already been involved in investigating the Russian attempts to impact our election, and looking at what sources and methods they were using, how they were using cyber activity, was the government response to these activities appropriate? How do we change to do that?

So, this is -- this is a serious matter, and we need to make sure we're doing this in a bipartisan and thorough way because we've got to protect an institution that is so vital to our republic.

CUOMO: Will Hurd, always appreciate the candor. Look forward to talking to you about this more as we go forward. Have a good weekend, sir.

HURD: You do the same.

CUOMO: Alisyn?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Chris.

What a week for President Trump. We will look at the highs and the lows. We'll get "The Bottom Line" with Ron Brownstein, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:28:07] CAMEROTA: I think it's fair to say it's been a roller coaster of a week for President Trump. It started with the high, of course, with his speech to Congress, and it ended with this Jeff Sessions controversy.

So, where does it go from here? Let's get "The Bottom Line" with CNN political correspondent Ron Brownstein.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Good morning.

CAMEROTA: Obviously, the president was feeling very good after the rave reviews for his address in front of Congress. And, you know, he doesn't want to have to be talking about all this Jeff Sessions stuff. He had other things on the agenda. So, what now?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, first of all, roller coaster is -- has been the defining principle, right, throughout his political career. I mean, this has been a political figure who has been defined by highs and lows and we shouldn't expect anything less going forward. I mean, this is kind of -- this was the most severe version of it I think we've seen.

Look, I think the speech, as I said before, I think it's a mistake to view the speech as a reset. I think it was a reaffirmation, in fact, of his determination to redefine the Republican Party as a populist, nationalist party built around the white working class, but it was the most effective presentation of that argument that we have seen. It's an argument that has limits. But as he shows, it has some real power as well.

And then to go from that directly into the kind of maelstrom of the Russia story again with another senior official being forced to acknowledge that at the least, he misled Congress and the public about the nature of his contacts with Russia shows that that, too, is not going anywhere.

CUOMO: And also, look, the president made a choice. He took to Twitter once again. He attacked the Democrats. He said this is about sour grapes about the election. He went out on a limb about what Sessions meant and said and that he's honest, before we know all the facts of the situation.

By doing that, he stoked what is the political dynamic here. Ron, give us the bottom line on what this is for the Democrats to a man and a woman when they talk to me about this, they say, hey, they didn't this bipartisan equanimity feeling on the GOP side when it was the email.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

CUOMO: They weren't' like this about Benghazi --

BROWNSTEIN: Right.

CUOMO: -- you know, where they felt that, let's just let the process takes its course. How much of fuel for the fire is that right now?