Return to Transcripts main page
Sessions Faces Senate; President Goes to Milwaukee; Rosenstein Talks about Firing Mueller. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired June 13, 2017 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[14:00:04] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is CNN's special live coverage of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
I'm Jake Tapper.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf Blitzer here in Washington.
Senators are expected to challenge the attorney general on key issues raised last week by the fired FBI director, James Comey, in front of this very same committee. Also about his meetings with Russians officials, Sessions' recusal or lack thereof from the Russia investigation, his role in the firing of James Comey and about the moment when Comey claimed the president cleared the Oval Office to ask Comey to let go of the investigation into the fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
TAPPER: Also happening now, Sessions' deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, is about to testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, where he, too, could face some important questions.
But let's go first to the main event and CNN's Manu Raju, who is live outside of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing room, where Sessions will soon testify.
Manu, are we expecting the same kind of drama that we saw last week when the fired FBI director, James Comey, told his story?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Indeed we are. There are going to be a lot of tough questions for Jeff Sessions. The first time that he has testified publicly since his confirmation proceedings and since he had to amend his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee when he did not disclose two contacts that he had with Russian officials, the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Expect him to be questioned about that, as well as the possible third interaction that he had with Kislyak last year at the Mayflower Hotel. Sessions expected to be grilled about his decision to - his involvement in the firing of James Comey and whether or not that was appropriate given that he recused himself. And those things that James Comey raised last week, raising concern about - to the attorney general about these specific interactions that Trump had with Comey about Michael Flynn and about whether to drop that investigation.
Now, this comes as a number of committees are still ramping up their investigations into the Russia matter, including the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jake. The chairman of that committee, Chuck Grassley, telling me earlier today that he does want to hear from Jeff Sessions before his own committee and also wants to look into other matters about Russia and the FBI and does not rule out looking into the issue of obstruction of justice. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Senator Feinstein wanted to talk to me by phone today. I sent word back that I'd like to have her and I sit down face-to-face and we'll work out all of the subpoenas and all the stuff we have to do in the future and work out a whole program.
RAJU: Are you OK, though, looking into the potential of obstruction of justice? Is that something for your committee -
GRASSLEY: I think we're going to leave that to a conversation with Feinstein.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: So this may actually not be Sessions only testimony before Congress. Expect him also to come before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jake, and also we'll listen to see what Sessions will actually say before this committee. We don't know if he's going to assert executive privilege yet. Our colleague, Tom (INAUDIBLE) asked the top Democrat on the committee, Mark Warner, whether or not he expected that to happen. He said he did not believe that Sessions would, but we'll see what he decides to do in just a matter of moments here, Jake.
TAPPER: Of course, top intelligence officials didn't assert executive privilege when they testified a few days ago, but they also declined to answer questions, which may be what we see from Attorney General Sessions.
Manu Raju, thank you so much.
BLITZER: A good point.
Today, as a prelude to this hearing, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, testified at another hearing before the Senate, saying very clearly, he sees no good reason to fire the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller. A move the president is said to be considering.
Today, President Trump is traveling to Milwaukee. CNN's Jeff Zeleny is traveling with the president.
Jeff, so how closely is the White House watching this hearing? JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White
House is watching this hearing incredibly closely. Now, the president is flying here to Wisconsin. In fact, he left the White House just a few moments ago. You can bet those televisions on Air Force One will be watching this hearing.
So interesting on so many levels. There is no one who is from the Senate, no Republican, who is a bigger supporting during his campaign than Jeff Sessions. He was loyal to this president, but he drew the ire of this president, Wolf, when he recused himself from the Russia investigation. So you can imagine the president will be watching every word his attorney general says with great interest here because this has been the subject of some dismay, some discord between the White House and indeed the Justice Department.
But the president had hoped to change this subject this entire week. He's coming here to Wisconsin to talk about jobs. He's traveling with Ivanka Trump as well, talking about apprenticeships. Of course, Wisconsin, one of the states that the president won. The first Republican to win Wisconsin since 1984. All of that, Wolf, even here in Wisconsin, the local news casts, the local newspapers talking about the Russia investigation as well here.
[14:05:13] So the president trying to change the subject. But you can bet he'll be watching the hearing as he flies out here. He's going to making a series of remarks once he lands at the airport, visiting a community college, even having a fundraiser this evening before returning to the White House. But all along the way, Wolf, you can bet this president will be watching his attorney general testify. And we'll see his reaction and outcome as the day goes on.
BLITZER: We know there's been some tension between the attorney general and the president in recent weeks and months.
Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.
Let's go back to Jake in New York.
TAPPER: Thanks, Wolf.
Here with me to discuss the very high stakes for today's hearing, which is just minutes away, we have with us CNN's senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, former U.S. attorney Matthew Whitaker, and CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.
And, Jeffrey, let's just start with a story that has been breaking in the last day or so, which is that according to Chris Ruddy, a friend of President Trump's, it is possible that President Trump might assert executive privilege and fire Robert Mueller, who is the special counsel investigating the Russia investigation.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: And that's where today's earlier hearing comes into play. Rod Rosenstein testified before a different committee and he was asked about this because this really goes to him. The president cannot directly fire Robert Mueller. Under the Justice Department regulations, he would have to ask the attorney general to fire Mueller. The attorney general is recused, so it would be up to Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein was asked repeatedly about this issue and said, I see no basis for firing Robert Mueller and I would only fire him for good cause. So I think he basically put to President Trump today, if you want to fire Robert Mueller, I'm going to quick first. Saturday night massacre style the way Elliott Richardson and William Ruckelshaus quit rather than fire Archibald Cox in 1973. So I think the chances of any kind of attempt to fire Mueller dropped considerably today after Rosenstein's testimony.
TAPPER: Although, Matthew, we should point out, I mean President Trump is a disruptor and does things differently. Maybe two or three weeks ago if somebody had said the same thing to you, Jeffrey, about firing James Comey, perhaps you would have said the same thing.
TOOBIN: Not perhaps. Definitely.
TAPPER: You definitely would have said the same thing. So, who knows?
MATTHEW WHITAKER, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, who does know. And this president seems to use these types of situations to distract or change the narrative from whatever I guess - well today is strengthening the workforce week, I - if I recall.
WHITAKER: Yes, apprenticeships. But I could see this discussion play out and the Department of Justice pushing back. But at the same time, this is not the old independent counsel. This is a special counsel that does fit in to the executive branch and ultimately the president is in charge of discharging the full menu of executive jobs.
TAPPER: Yes. And so it's not a question about whether or not he could achieve it, he could, and even if Rod Rosenstein resigned, somebody would be appointed who would then -
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He would find someone.
TAPPER: Who would then do the job.
TAPPER: As who was it that did it when -
TOOBIN: Robert Bork.
TAPPER: Robert Bork is the one that did it for Nixon.
TOOBIN: Attorney general at the time.
BORGER: Bork, right. But he could find someone.
TAPPER: But politically - but politically what would it mean?
BORGER: Well, I think it would mean that you would start seeing a lot of Republicans melting away from this president. And, you know, you could also - this is another scenario - you could also go back to the Congress. I mean I understand that the Congress is controlled by Republicans, but you could always go back to the Congress and pass an independent counsel law, which is what they had before - who was totally independent and could not be fired by the president, and that law took effect, I believe, as a result of Ken Starr.
TOOBIN: Well, as a result of the Saturday Night Massacre.
BORGER: Saturday Night Massacre.
TOOBIN: Right. Right. Yes.
BORGER: So that if Congress were outraged enough by it in a bipartisan way, they could always pass a law about it.
TAPPER: And, Matthew, let me ask you, because I've - I've been hearing a lot of conservatives casting aspersions on the integrity of Robert Mueller -
TAPPER: And talking about maybe he should be fired or maybe he's biased or whatever. You worked with him presumably when you were - he was -
WHITAKER: He was the FBI director when I was U.S. attorney and -
TAPPER: Yes. What's your take on him?
WHITAKER: I - you know, I would agree with Rod, who I served with as U.S. attorneys together in the Bush administration. I don't see any current reason or good reason that Bob Mueller shouldn't stay in that special counsel role. I think, from what I can tell, I mean there has been an attempt over the last couple of days to discredit or discount maybe some of the members of his team that he's assembled for part of the reason -
TAPPER: Some of them have - some of them have given money to Democrats for president.
WHITAKER: Right. But at the same time, I man there is no honest person that sits in the world of politics, in the world of law, that can find anything wrong with bob Mueller. I mean he - if something's wrong with Bob Mueller, as we sit here today, then it's - and it's based on his public reputation and what we all know about him, then I think, you know, our republic is in more trouble than we might imagine.
[14:10:02] TAPPER: And, Jeffrey, we should point out, in terms of donations to Democrats, you really can't beat Donald Trump who was -
BORGER: That's right.
TAPPER: Who was Chuck Schumer's biggest supporter financially.
TOOBIN: Donald Trump - Donald Trump gave a lot of money. And, also, you know, this business of criticizing the independent counsel, the special prosecutor who was investigating the president, this is part of the program. I mean this - remember - you certainly remember how the Clinton people went after Ken Starr -
TAPPER: Sure. Absolutely.
TAPPER: With fervor. Now they would say, well, it's justified there. It's not justified against Robert Mueller. Look, if Mueller really starts to take action against Trump or people close to him, he is going to become a figure in the political crossfire. I think, given his background, he's very well situated to rise above anything like that.
TAPPER: All right, everyone stick around. We have to take a quick break. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will testify on Capitol Hill any moment. We'll bring it to you live. We want to sneak in this quick break. Stay with us.
BLITZER: All right, the president of the United States just boarding Air Force One. He's getting ready to leave Joint Base Andrews for the flight to Milwaukee, talk about health care, jobs, other issues.
And in a moment, the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, he'll enter the crossfire of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
[14:15:02] I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
TAPPER: And I'm Jake Tapper.
The attorney general is sure to be questioned about any number of interactions he had with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. and his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
BLITZER: All this comes amid some swirling questions, Jake, about whether President Trump is considering removing the recently appointed special counsel in the Russia probe.
Let's bring in our political round table here in Washington.
So, John King, is that really realistic at all that he could potentially set the stage for firing of Robert Mueller?
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I you talk to people around the White House, and the people the president has talked to, no one says that the president has said he's planning on firing Bob Mueller. But the fact that a friend of his, Chris Ruddy, who is a legitimate friend of the presidents, somebody who talks to the president frequently, he says he did not talk to the president about this. That he went to the White House yesterday talking to other people, the fact that he went on television and said, I'm told the president is thinking about this and I think it's a really bad idea, that's a friend of the president trying to stir a conversation that the president will then see on television. He'll see Paul Ryan asked about this. He'll see Rod Rosenstein asked about this. It's a friend of the president trying to tell him, dial it back.
What we do know is that the reason the friends are concerned about this is the president is venting about Bob Mueller in ways very similar that he vented about James Comey in conversations with friends saying, I can't control this. This is a cloud over my White House. My staff isn't able to control this. Why is this spinning out of control? You know, Washington is in this fever pitch. He's having the same conversations with friends about Bob Mueller now that weeks ago he was having about James Comey. They remember, he stunned everybody by firing James Comey. So I think they're trying to - they may be getting a little out ahead of it. Maybe. But their - these are friends of the president in an odd way trying to do him a favor.
BLITZER: How forthcoming, David Gregory, do you think the attorney general is going to be, because there's going to be a lot of potentially explosive, very sensitive questions that will come up?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think the interest level will be in the interaction between the senators and the attorney general. I mean this is not Jim Comey, who had just been fired and had his own story to tell and made a lot of headlines. I think you have an attorney general who's quite loyal to the president, who has a story that he wants to get and wants to answer Jim Comey. So I think it's going to be very different. I think it will be much more confrontational in that regard. It was noted, I think, in "The New York Times" this morning that that senatorial privilege will be gone now. I think it will be much more confrontational.
BLITZER: Yes, and he's got to really be, you know, very, very blunt in giving the explanations otherwise he's going to really face even further trouble.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICS REPORTER: That's right. And you saw frustrations with some previous hearings, frustrations on the part of the senators there basically saying don't come to a Senate hearing, to these witnesses, if they don't have answers. He's in a tough place because he's loyal to this president. We've heard - our reporting has shown that this president has been frustrated with his recusal from the Russia investigation. So you know President Trump will be watching. And in some ways Sessions, obviously, is going to have that on his mind, this sort of relationship with Donald Trump that is in some ways sour.
We'll see what Republicans do. They have been frustrated with some of these witnesses as well. And then Democrats. People like Kamala Harris, who have been very aggressive in terms of engaging with a lot of these witnesses, who actually has called for Sessions to resign for his post. So it will be a real, I think, challenging hearing for Jeff Sessions as he, in some ways, fights for his job in some ways. He's apparently, at some point, might have offered his resignation to this president because this president was so frustrated with his recusal.
But also what to figure out, what are the terms of his recusal, right? He clearly has been involved in some decisions related to the Russia investigation because he recommended that Comey be fired. So I think that will be a very pointed line of questioning as well, particularly from Democrats.
BLITZER: And, David Urban, you're a supporter of the president. You worked hard to get him to become president of the United States. Paid off in Pennsylvania, where you spent a lot of time.
But what's your - what's the best strategy for the administration right now in dealing with this overall Russia investigation? And start with Sessions.
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Wolf, I think today - you know, it's never a good day to be in front of the United States Senate testifying, right? So let's just start with that.
However, I do think this is an opportunity for the attorney general to get the other side of the story out, right? There's - Manu said it appropriately before, he talked about contacts, right? There's a lot - there's a lot to be made here between these interactions between the attorney general and the ambassador - the Russian ambassador. Well, let's - let's have the facts. We know the attorney general met with the Russian ambassador once in his Senate office for a brief period of time, not knowing what the exact conversation is. We know that he had some incidental contact on July 18th at the Republican National Convention with some other ambassadors present and a Heritage Foundation event. And then there's possible - there's a report that Jim Comey gives of a possible third interaction at the Mayflower, which was intercepted between two Russian agents, obviously, which the attorney general I believe is going to say never happened, which people there said never happened. So I think the attorney general is going to get to give another side of the story. The administration's going to get their side out. And so it will take them a lot of - a lot of space and - because up until this point we've only heard from one of the participants, Director Comey. We've only heard his side of the story, his version of the facts. And there is no (INAUDIBLE) truth here, Wolf. There's - there's just two versions of the same story.
[14:20:19] BLITZER: You agree, Angela Rye? You're a Democrat.
ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I actually don't agree, surprisingly. I think one of the things that this administration is really going to have to solve for us, something that really began on the campaign trail, Wolf, and that is that Donald Trump, from the outset, decided that he was going to try to drain a swamp by not being transparent. He started that with the tax returns, right? And from there we continue to see layer after layer, person after person being compromised, potentially with his administration, or having some type of ties to his administration, whether they're key advisers, allies, folks who were working on the transition team, or someone like Jeff Sessions, who was the very first senator. So probably not only a loyal, but some of us would say a right or die Trump supporter and to that end had potential contacts while he was in office in the Senate, while he was on the transition team. And -
URBAN: But I was just going to say - RYE: I'm sorry. Just one second.
RYE: And failed to disclose these potential meetings during his confirmation hearing. And that is what makes -
URBAN: But - but -
RYE: I'm not finished.
URBAN: But that's not true.
RYE: And that -- David, I'm not finished. Give me one second.
BLITZER: Hold on a second. One at a time.
RYE: And that is what makes draining a swamp really, really challenging. There's no transparency.
BLITZER: All right.
URBAN: But we - let's go to the facts. I mean I know you have feelings. Feelings aren't factual.
RYE: Oh, no, I definitely - those aren't feelings, those are facts.
URBAN: No, no, no, they're not - they're not facts. Let's just state the facts. They're not.
RYE: They're disputable facts.
URBAN: They're disputable - they're disputable -
RYE: But - but they're not alternative facts.
URBAN: Do I get a chance to talk now?
RYE: Yes. sure.
URBAN: OK, thank you.
What we know is that he had a meeting with - along with 30 other member - 30 other foreign dignitaries, ambassadors, over that year, which, when he talked to the FBI they said, no need to put on your SF- 86. We can hear about that. We know he briefly met perhaps - not even a fact - no proof of it - briefly had an interaction at a reception after a speech. Those aren't - contacts don't equal collusion. So we're making a giant jump here.
RYE: I didn't -
GREGORY: But I think - one of the things that I think David is appropriately returning to is the underlying questions about what the contacts, appropriate, inappropriate were between Trump officials and Russia at various points. The difficultly for Sessions will be, he'll face those questions. He also is going to have to answer for the president's - you know, actions, which appear to be covering up for something.
GREGORY: Whether there's anything to cover up for, we don't know. But his behavior with Comey and Sessions and others is raising so many questions that Sessions is going to be pressed on it.
BLITZER: And hovering over all of this, John King, is the fact that the president really hated the fact that Sessions recused himself. He saw that as a sign of weakness and he's - also sees that as opening the door for a special counsel, Robert Mueller. And you don't know where that investigation is going to wind up.
KING: And it goes back to the issue of control. The president comes out of an environment, a family run business, where he was the CEO, where when he said, do this, it got done. And so is it that this just frustrated him because it was so unusual to him and he vented to his friends and he said, why did you do this, and he's mad at Jeff Sessions, or is it that we've lost control of this and now we can't pull the levers of this. Those are the questions and that's where the - you know, is it just a person frustration and reaction because it was - it is impeding his agenda in Washington, his ability to communicate (ph), or was it something more nefarious. Those are the big questions here.
And to just quickly to David's point, that if the attorney general just didn't disclose these things, because they're stubborn and they don't believe in - you know, they have to be pushed for transparency, that's very different than nefarious meetings. And this is a chance for the attorney general to just lay it out there.
BLITZER: The first time we're going to hear directly from him on all of these sensitive issues.
The hearing room, filling up right now. The senators are arriving. You see the photographers are all there as well. They're walking in.
Sessions has got a lot of questions that he'll have to answer. At any moment now, the attorney general of the United States will start facing some tough questions from these senators. We're - we'll have extensive live coverage. That's next.
[14:28:25] TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's special coverage of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony before the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence. I'm Jake Tapper. This could be another major round of dramatic testimony today, Wolf.
BLITZER: Certainly could, Jake. I'm Wolf Blitzer.
Among the issues, Sessions likely will be questioned about revelations from last week's explosive testimony by the fired FBI director, James Comey, his role in the decision to fire Comey and his meetings with Russian officials.
TAPPER: Thanks, Wolf.
I want to continue the conversation with my panel here.
And we were talking before the break about the fact that when Clinton, Bill Clinton, was being investigated by then Independent Counsel Ken Starr, there were efforts to discredit Ken Starr by Democrats. Newt Gingrich has recently been saying that there's no way Bob Mueller, the special counsel looking into the Russia investigation, will be fair and criticizing him. But here is what Newt Gingrich had to say about those people attacking Ken Starr back in 1998.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R), HOUSE SPEAKER (APRIL 27, 1998): The fact is, if he wants to fire Ken Starr, he can do it in the morning. And if he doesn't want to fire Ken Starr, he should tell his staff to shut up because there's something - there is something profoundly demeaning and destructive to have the White House systematically undermine an officer of the Department of Justice. And when I watch these paid hacks on television, to be quite honest, I am sickened by how unpatriotically they undermine the Constitution of the United States on behalf of their appointment (ph).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[14:30:06] TAPPER: Interesting words in retrospect.
Gloria, I mean the thing is, we have seen this play out on the other side -
TAPPER: With Democrats attacking the credibility of an independent prosecutor, in this case --