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Deputy AG Faces Senate ahead of Sessions Testimony; Trump Friend: President Considering Firing Mueller; Paul Ryan, GOP Leaders hold Weekly Press Conference. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 13, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- because we did just get a statement from the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on this. Let's listen in.


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, is the president getting rid of Mueller?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Excuse us. Excuse us. We've got to get through. Sorry. We've got to get through.

QUESTION: Any reaction to the North Korea news, Dennis Rodman there. Is that the U.S. solution now, sir?

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: No comment on that right now.

QUESTION: No comment? Are you feeling good about the release? What's the U.S. reaction? Do you have any reaction?

TILLERSON: Stay tuned.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senators, we're going to walk into the chairman.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, you heard him there, Secretary Tillerson saying, "Stay tuned." Obviously, I'm sure he learned about this news before we did, but again, the headline there.

Wonderful news for Otto and his family, one of four Americans detained in North Korea, has been released. There are still three, though, that are detained that we know of.

All right, we have a lot of news to get to. Let's get right to it.

BERMAN: All right. Good morning, again, everyone. I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow. An attorney general under oath, a special counsel under fire and startling statements made by close allies to the president are under scrutiny this morning. We are watching a remarkable morning unfold. In moments, another grilling for the only man who actually has the power to fire the special counsel in the Russia investigation, that is Rod Rosenstein. You see him seated right there, papers in tow, binders in tow, about to testify this hour in public and out loud. And he will be certainly asked about reports that the president is considering an action so drastic, it could trigger outrage from both parties.

BERMAN: We're going to hear some from lawmakers any second. Speaker Paul Ryan and other House Republican leaders are about to hold a news conference. They no doubt will be asked by this flurry of news that the White House, the president considering asking for the firing of Robert Mueller as special counsel.

And then, there is more huge testimony on Capitol Hill. The Attorney General Jeff Sessions will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He will face a flurry of questions. Among them, what role did he have in the firing of James Comey? Did he have a third undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador? Did he offer his resignation to President Trump last week? We have a lot to cover this morning.

Let's get straight to Capitol Hill. Ryan Nobles is there. Ryan.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John and Poppy, it will be a busy day here on Capitol Hill, especially for members of the Justice Department. As you guys just showed there, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general getting set to answer questions from an Appropriations Committee, subcommittee on the Justice Department budget. But we do expect that he will get some questions about Russia, the firing of James Comey and perhaps whether or not he would, if asked by the president, fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Well, he is just the opening act, because then later this afternoon, the attorney general himself, Jeff Sessions, will be here in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now, Sessions was the one originally scheduled to appear in front of the Appropriations Committee. But when it came out that he may be asked questions about Russia by Democrats, he pulled a switch, asking to appear in front of the Intelligence Committee instead.

The Intelligence Committee agreed and you can bet that there are going to be some questions about the role he may have played in James Comey's firing. And, of course, the role that he played in the Russia investigation, based a bit on this answer to a question that James Comey gave during his explosive hearing last week.


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.

(END VIDEO CLIP) NOBLES: One question we know will be asked today is whether or not there was that third undisclosed meeting between Sessions and the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at the Mayflower Hotel on the day of Donald Trump's first major foreign policy speech. The Justice Department has repeatedly said it didn't happen, but the attorney general himself has yet to answer that question. He will be forced to do so today under oath.

But of course, John and Poppy, we're not sure how forthcoming the attorney general will be today. He may attempt to invoke executive privilege, especially with questions regarding his conversations with President Trump and he may even say that some of his answers involve classified material and can't be answered in an open session. No doubt, though, there will be fireworks later this afternoon here on Capitol Hill.

HARLOW: Indeed, definitely in a few moments as well. You're looking at live testimony just about to get underway with the deputy attorney general, the only man who can fire Bob Mueller. Ryan Nobles on the Hill, thank you.

This morning, the White House is in the middle of swirling speculation about whether the president would have Rosenstein fire Mueller, the bombshell claim that he's considering it made all the more shocking, considering the source, a longtime friend of the president. Listen.


CHRIS RUDDY, CEO NEWSMAX MEDIA: I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's weighing that option. I think it's pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake.


[10:05:05] BERMAN: All right. Again, we're watching the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, testify. If he talks about this and he will be asked about it shortly, we're going to cut right to that.

In the meantime, let's go to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux at the White House with this latest swirl of questions about whether or not the White House wants Bob Mueller fired.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christopher Ruddy, he really is no stranger to the White House. He calls himself a good friend of President Trump. They've known each other for some 20 years. And it was just yesterday that he paid a visit. But he says he was just talking to White House officials, not specifically the president, before he made that dramatic claim about Trump's thinking potentially firing the special counsel.

Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, fighting back, firing back rather quickly with this statement, saying "Mr. Ruddy never spoke to the president regarding this issue. With respect to this subject, only the president or his attorneys are authorized to comment." Well, we saw Ruddy today doubling down this morning with this statement, insisting that he knows exactly what he is talking about, what he's suggesting, saying here that "Spicer issued a bizarre late night press release that, a, doesn't deny my claim that the president is considering firing Mueller and b, says I didn't speak to the president about the matter -- when I never claimed to have done so. Memo to Sean, focus your efforts on exposing the flim-flam Russian allegations against POTUS and highlighting his remarkable achievements. Don't waste time trying to undermine one of your few allies."

We also saw from Ruddy today going on "New Day" just earlier this morning saying that, in fact, he knows exactly what he thinks the president should do and that the problem is with the White House. Take a listen.


RUDDY: I only speak for myself and not the president. He has his own spokesman, although they are, I think in need of a little bit of a help from time to time.


MALVEAUX: And White House sources are telling us that Trump's advisers certainly are saying, do not, do not fire Mueller. They don't think it's a good idea. It's the same thing that we've heard from Ruddy, leading some to suggest that they're trying to get that message through to the president on TV. John, Poppy?

BERMAN: All right, Suzanne Malveaux at the White House. Two things going on that we're watching right now. Number one, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, testifying before the Senate, he will be asked about this swirl of questions about whether the president wants Robert Mueller fired. Why will he be asked? Because Rosenstein's actually the guy who would have to do the firing, so his opinion is of paramount importance.

Also, House Republican leaders, including Paul Ryan, are speaking right now. They will probably be asked about this. There's Kevin McCarthy right now, the majority leader of the House. When they get questioned, we'll bring you there as well.

In the meantime, want to bring in CNN political commentator Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, CNN political commentator, Symone Sanders, a former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders in his presidential campaign. Also with us, political reporter for "The Washington Post" blog "The Fix," Amber Phillipps, and CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Michael Zeldin, he worked with Bob Mueller in the Justice Department once upon a time.

Doug Heye, first to you. Again, I can't help but think that the White House and the allies of the White House have put Rod Rosenstein in a bit of a bind here this morning as he testifies. He will be asked directly and repeatedly right now what he would do if the White House comes to him and says, fire Bob Mueller.

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR RNC: Yes, look, I think what we can expect is that he won't answer that question directly. He won't speculate. Now, as we saw in the previous hearings -

BERMAN: Doug Heye, I hate to do this to you, but I'm going to cut right to the hearing right now, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen asking about it.

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D), NEW HAMPSHIRE: -- come before this subcommittee and testifies to the important work of the Department of Justice.

DOJ is on the front lines fighting the deadly, uncontrolled opioid epidemic and it is still gaining strength. The DOJ hiring freeze risks the safety of correctional officers in our federal prisons and curiously, the request for the Federal Bureau of Investigation is less than Congress provided for fiscal year 2017, even while the bureau conducts the crucial counterintelligence investigation into Russian influence in our 2016 election process.

While providing testimony before a newly scheduled Senate Intelligence Committee hearing is important and I understand that. The attorney general is still responsible for answering critical questions from this committee. He needs to provide his explanation of DOJ's budget, as well as the defense of his policies in an open, public hearing for not only us but for the American public.

Mr. Rosenstein, I applaud your appointment of Robert Mueller as the special counsel to oversee the ongoing investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election and believe this will help to depoliticize that investigation. However, many questions remain about both your and Attorney General Sessions' role in this matter.

[10:10:02] Your knowledge of resource requests made by former Director Comey, your involvement in Comey's firing and your prior meetings with Russian officials, among many concerns. I will return to these subjects during my question period later and know that many of my colleagues will express their concern in questions as well. So, Deputy Attorney General, I look forward to your testimony, to our discussion today and to some future date having the attorney general appear before us in open session. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VICE CHAIRMAN APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE: I do, Mr. Chairman. Thank you and ranking member Shaheen.

The deputy attorney general, I won't mince words. You're not the witness we were supposed to hear from today. You're not the witness who should be behind that table. That responsibility lies with the attorney general of the United States.

Attorneys general of the past did not shy away from this committee's questions, regardless of the topic, regardless of the party. Attorneys general of the past did not cower to the request of Congress to fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibility. And they didn't agree to come and then cancel at the last minute and then send their second in command instead because members of this committee may have questions they may not want to answer. Until now, that is.

And so, with respect, Mr. Rosenstein -- and I voted for you, as you know -- you're not who I'm interested in speaking with or hearing from today. I do have questions for the attorney general. I want to know why he has provided false testimony to me and to Senator Franken. I want to know why if he's recused in the Russian investigation, he played any role in the dismissal of FBI director Comey. I want to know how he believes he can credibly lead the Justice Department for which he has requested $28.3 billion, amid such stressing questions about his actions and his integrity.

Importantly, I believe the attorney general of the United States, the nation's chief law enforcement officer, owes it to the more than 116,000 Justice Department agents, intelligence analysts, attorneys and support personnel, the roughly 1 million state, local and tribal police officers and staff supporting more than 4,500 local victim assistance programs in every state to justify the budget request of the Department of Justice. He owes them that courtesy because the president's budget request for the Justice Department is abysmal.

They cut the department's budget by $643 million from the FY 2017- enacted level. The department's request is built on unrealistic assumptions. But worse than that, it's also built on the backs of crime victims, the permanent rescission of $1.3 billion from the crime victims' fund. Let me repeat that. The president and the administration talk about how they support -

BERMAN: All right, Doug Heye, we interrupted you with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Pat Leahy now speaking. We're asking you about the sort of bind that the administration has put Rod Rosenstein in, not just sitting here in this committee and testify for Jeff Sessions, who was supposed to be here originally. But now, he will no doubt face questions about whether or not or what he would do if the administration asks him to fire Bob Mueller.

HEYE: Sure. And I think if you're Attorney General Sessions, it's not just the Mueller question. Certainly, that will come up a lot. But what may be the bigger deal for Senate Intelligence members is whether or not there was a third undisclosed meeting with Russian officials and what that would be. What his response is to that and how the members react is going to be very important.

And I would say, for the Senate Intelligence Committee, if you go back a year ago -- I worked for Senator Richard Burr, as you know -- he was being criticized for not campaigning enough because he was so focused on doing his job as a senator. He's taking this very seriously and we saw that last week when he criticized members for not being open and honest enough. And his first words after the Comey testimony was "This isn't the beginning, this is a long process." There's going to be a lot to watch, not just today, but moving forward. Amber, what do you think? Do you think that Rosenstein, as we see him about to be questioned here, is going to stonewall? Again, like he and Rogers essentially did last week? Two questions from both Democrats and Republicans in their testimony?

AMBER PHILLIPPS, POLITICAL REPORTER WASHINGTON POST'S "THE FIX": There is no reason why he would change exactly his M.O. last week, which you're exactly right, frustrated Democrats in the Senate to no end. He, you know, clearly said -

HARLOW: And Republicans.

PHILLIPPS: And some Republicans.

[10:15:00] Democrats were quick to use it as political leverage, you know, look at this Trump administration refusing to talk to us. And I think that the purpose from the White House's point of view of having Jeff Sessions testify later today -

HARLOW: All right. Hold that thought. Let's go to House Speaker Paul Ryan answering questions about Mueller. Listen.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Yes. I mean, all I've heard so much are rumors, but I think in the best case for the president is to be vindicated by allowing this investigation to go on thoroughly and independently. So, I think the best advice would be to let Robert Mueller do his job.

QUESTION: And Mr. Speaker, (INAUDIBLE) I mean, do you think you could continue to stand by this president and -

RYAN: Oh, I'm not -


RYAN: Look, I just said it. I think the best thing to do is to let Robert Mueller do his job. I think the best vindication for the president is to let this investigation go on independently and thoroughly. That to me is the smartest thing to do, the best thing to do and that's what I think hopefully will happen.

QUESTION: On the budget, you guys are running into issues like you did last year with disagreements over -- on some number and some members are talking about (INAUDIBLE) on health care. Do you think you can get a real budget resolution that lays out your priorities and what other accomplishments (INAUDIBLE) --

RYAN: Yes, that's a good question. So the question is about the budget. Remember, with a new president in the first year, you always have an abbreviated budget season. That's just the way budgeting with a new administration works. So we always knew that we had a constricted budget in appropriations season. We're having debate right now about how much we can assist the Pentagon and the military.

So, it's not a question of more resources for the military. It's just a question of the degree of how much more resources we can dedicate to the military. That's really what this big debate is about and then we're going to have the kind of debate about what kind of, what we call reconciliation instructions, are necessary not just for tax reform, but for other kinds of things we need to make sure we're getting the budget trajectory heading the right direction.

What's the purpose of this budget, get us on a path to balance, get working on our debt problem, which is a long-term problem, rebuild the military and then put the kind of tools in place so we can maximize economic growth, the crown jewel of growing this economy -- regulatory relief. You just saw what we did with the Choice Act last week, tax reform.

We think tax reform is absolutely critical to get 3 percent economic growth, to get higher wages, to get people going to work and that is really important. That's what this budget's about. So, we have lots of priorities that we're having debate about how best we advance these priorities. We're having the kind of family conversation you have every year when we have a resolution on that, you'll know. Deirdre (ph).

QUESTION: Other Republicans have been criticizing Mueller and the team around him and his firing. Do you have complete confidence in Mueller and his team?

RYAN: Yes, I don't know his team. I know Bob Mueller. I have confidence in Bob Mueller.


RYAN: Way in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you, Speaker Ryan. Two parts. One, did you convey your opinions to the president on Mr. Mueller that he should just let the investigation continue? And if the president does go ahead and let Mr. Mueller go, would you -

RYAN: There's no debate that's going on here.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), MAJORITY LEADER: You're creating a debate that's not happening.

RYAN: Yes. I heard this. This is like a rumor we heard last night, so there's really not some big debate that's occurring on this.

QUESTION: Would Congress be interested in re-upping the special prosecutor?

RYAN: You're creating -- like I said, Kevin just said it -- you're creating a debate that's not occurring here. This is something that I think was a rumor that came out last night -

MCCARTHY: (INAUDIBLE) and health care. And you're creating a rumor that's not happening.

RYAN: So, Kevin made a good point here. Look at what we're doing this week. We found out three years ago, veterans were dying on these waiting lists that were occurring at the VA in Arizona and then all around America. So, we uncovered a scandal and then we realized when we were uncovering this veterans scandal, we couldn't even bring accountability to the VA. They couldn't even fire people who were grossly negligent in their jobs.

So, what are we doing? We're fixing this problem today. What did we do last week? We passed the Choice Act. We repealed and replaced Dodd/Frank, ended too big to fail, ended bailouts and brought need regulatory relief for community banks to help small businesses get credit and grow.

What are we working on next week? We're working on the skills gap so that people can get the skills they need to get good jobs. The point I'm trying to make is, let's put this all in perspective. We are focused on solving problem's problems.

What I think the American people want to know is that their government's working. Yes, these issues, I'm not saying this isn't important. These investigations are important. They need to be independent. They need to be thorough. They need to go where the facts go, but we also have a duty to serve the people that elected us to fix the problems that they are confronting in their daily lives. And that is what we're doing. Thank you.

HARLOW: Paul Ryan there, saying the best road ahead for the president is to just let Bob Mueller do his job, the special counsel, saying quote, "I have confidence in Bob Mueller."

Let's go back to our panel who we have now twice had to interrupt for breaking news. Amber, your thoughts.

PHILLIPPS: Yes, sure. Well, I think the headline there is, Paul Ryan saying it would be a bad idea, Mr. President to fire Bob Mueller. And I think that underscores that if the president did make this decision, he would be almost completely alone in Washington.

[10:20:05] He would have no support for it, you know. And it's easy to look back at the Comey firing and see why.

The president said, we've reported he told the Russians, he did it to relieve pressure off himself. Well, the exact opposite happened and now we're looking at questions of whether the president himself obstructed justice. It's hard to see how firing Mueller does anything but dial up that pressure notch by a factor of ten.

BERMAN: Look, "I have confidence in Bob Mueller," those are the exact words from the House Speaker. Message sent, I think, loud and clear. Michael Zeldin, the House Speaker also said something which isn't quite true, which is that this debate is being invented out of nowhere.

The reason people are discussing it is because allies of the president, starting with Jeffrey Lord on CNN Friday night, started going after Bob Mueller. Then Newt Gingrich did, then Ann Coulter did, then Newt Gingrich did again and then Chris Ruddy speculated in the president's thinking about it, which the White House never even knocked down, to this moment has not said the White House is not thinking about it.

You've been close to Bob Mueller in the past. Put us in his head right now. What's he supposed to make of this?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think he's paying any attention to it. I honestly think that Bob Mueller has sort of a marine, recon, singular focus of doing his job and that's what he'll be focused on and let these chirpers chirp away. I personally don't think that this is a very serious possibility. I think that the notion that the special counsel would be fired by the deputy attorney general -- I think the deputy attorney general would resign before he would execute that order and I think we'd then be in a Saturday Night Massacre proposition all over again. So, I just don't see it as practical.

But that said, I think that what we're probably seeing is sort of trial balloons of a PR strategy, PR/legal strategy, similar to what we saw in Clinton versus Ken Starr, where they had no facts, they had no law, so what were they left with but to demonize Ken Starr. Worked pretty well for them and so maybe the same thing is going to be tried here. They're trying to demonize Comey. They're calling him a leaker, when actually, he is not a leaker. They are saying that Mueller is political, when actually, Mueller made no contributions himself. But that's the effort. Can they somehow create in the mind of the public doubt as to the integrity and therefore, honesty of Bob Mueller and his team, so that if there's a determination by Mueller that the president and/or his subordinates did something wrong, people have a reason to doubt its sort of authenticity and see it more as a political decision.

HARLOW: Yes, the Dick Morris strategy, as Berman was pointing out this morning, a little lesson in history there. Guys, stick around. Symone, we'll get to you next. Thank you for waiting patiently. And we will address those contributions that some Republicans are pointing to about that top hire of Bob Mueller to a number of Democrats, obviously a lot to follow in Washington. Stay with us. We'll be right back.


[10:27:40] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RYAN: Oh, I'm not -


RYAN: Look, I just said it. I think the best thing to do is to let Robert Mueller do his job. I think the best vindication for the president is to let this investigation go on independently and thoroughly. That to me is the smartest thing to do, the best thing to do and that's what I think hopefully will happen.


BERMAN: That was House Speaker Paul Ryan just moments ago, saying "I have confidence in Bob Mueller," This as there is a swirl of questions about whether or not the White House is considering moving to fire the special counsel.

HARLOW: He calls it sort of invented rumors, but this is someone who is a very close friend of the president who was at the White House last night who said it out loud. Let's bring in Democratic Congresswoman Dina Titus of Nevada. First, just your reaction to Paul Ryan, just now?

REP. DINA TITUS (D), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Well, I agree with him. I think we should let the investigation go forward. I think Director Mueller is just an impeccable person to lead this and all this talk about firing him just makes you wonder what have they really got to hide?

BERMAN: Some conservatives are pointing to the people that the special counsel has hired. He's hired a number of lawyers, you know, very accomplished lawyers in Washington with investigations, but a number of them have made donations exclusively to Democratic candidates in the past. We have a chart. I don't know if we have it available right now we can put up so you can see what these candidates have given. But he has hired lawyers who have given to Democrats. Should that be a concern?

TITUS: Well, I don't think so. I think that's a red herring. I think the same people who were pointing to this not long ago said what a great person Mueller was. And you know if you look at the campaign contribution records of people, Donald Trump gave money to Democrats as well. So, let's look at their credentials. Let's look at their politics. Let's look at the fact that they're there to do a job.

HARLOW: So, moving on to what's happening right now, you have Rod Rosenstein, the only man who could fire Bob Mueller, testifying on the Hill as we speak. We're monitoring it for any news. But frankly, Congresswoman, I mean, he stonewalled Democrats and Republicans last week when they were asking him questions, just refusing to answer them, not because of executive privilege and not because of classified information. If you were questioning Rod Rosenstein right now, what would your number one question be to him?

TITUS: Well, he's supposed to be talking about appropriations. He's there in place of Mr. Sessions, who's going to show up later today. Who knows what he's going to say. I think he wanted to stay out of the political fray, not be part of anybody's personal agenda and that's why he didn't answer the questions. I, frankly, don't believe he's going to fire the man he appointed to head up this investigation.

BERMAN: All right. Jeff Sessions,