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Sessions Fight Back at Senate Hearing; "A Number of Fatalities" in Huge London Fire; Otto Warmbier Back in the U.S. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired June 14, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:07] JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: To suggest that I participated in any collusion is an appalling and detestable lie.

I am not stonewalling.

I recused myself from any investigation into the campaign for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations.

Why don't you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A fiery day on Capitol Hill as a defensive Jeff Sessions denies any collusion with Russia.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Certainly was fiery for Jeff Sessions.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START, everybody. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: Good morning to you.

BRIGGS: Good morning.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It is Wednesday, June 14th, 2017. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

Breaking news overnight from London. Look at these images. Hundreds of firefighters are battling a blaze that's consumed a 24-floor apartment building in West London. You're looking at live pictures of this huge fire.

Authorities are tight-lipped saying only that there have been a number of fatalities. Cause of this fire is not known. CNN is on the scene. We will go there shortly but this broke out about 1:00 a.m. local time with presumably dozens if not hundreds of people asleep in that building.

BRIGGS: Where our studio, every New Yorker's worst nightmare there. Again, life shot from there in just moments. But, first, Attorney General Jeff Sessions angrily denouncing claims

he may have colluded with Russian officials during the election, calling them detestable lies at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday. Sessions repeatedly declined to talk about his private conversations, though, with President Trump leaving Democrats fuming with frustration, accusing their former Senate colleague of, quote, stonewalling.

ROMANS: The attorney general did confirm that he left then FBI Director James Comey alone with President Trump in the Oval Office on February 14th.


SESSIONS: I was standing there and without revealing any conversation that took place, what I do recall is that I did depart. I believe everyone else did depart. And Director Comey was sitting in front of the president's desk and they were talking. So, that's what I do remember.

I believe it was the next day that he said something, expressed concern about being left alone with the president. But that in itself is not problematic. He did not tell me at that time any details about anything that was said that was improper.


ROMANS: So, for the very latest on this, let's bring in senior congressional reporter Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.



Now, Jeff Sessions appearing in public before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the first time he has testified publicly since becoming confirmed as attorney general and since he belatedly disclosed he had two meetings with Russian officials and maybe third meeting with the Russian ambassador after he was asked about this during his confirmation proceedings and said there was nothing of campaign- related at that time. Since then, he's recused himself of running the Russia investigation, but appearing in public yesterday before the committee for the first time, answering a number of questions and pushing back rather aggressively on the idea that he may have helped Russian officials try to sway the election for Donald Trump, including this very testy exchange with Oregon Senator Wyden.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: Mr. Comey said there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic and he couldn't talk about them. What are they?

SESSIONS: That -- why don't you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty.

WYDEN: We can -- we can -- SESSIONS: This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there by me and

I don't appreciate it.

RAJU: Now, Sessions did not respond to a number of questions that Democrats had particular about his interactions with President Trump, what he discussed with President Trump with regard to the firing of James Comey, whether or not the Russia investigation was discussed in anyway. Question after question, Jeff Sessions would not answer and he would not say if there was executive privilege that was claimed by the White House, instead saying that there was some sort of Department of Justice policy that prohibited him from discussing this matter with the committee.

Democrats said -- would point to that provision within the Department of Justice guidelines. Jeff Sessions struggled to do that and also would not commit to answering questions behind closed doors. So, after the hearings, Democrats are very frustrated they did not get their answers to some key questions. Republicans are trying to move on to other areas of this investigation -- Dave and Christine.


BRIGGS: Manu, thanks.

While Democrats fumed over Sessions testimony, Republicans used, well, a lighter touch. Here's Senator Tom Cotton downplaying the collusion allegations while nodding at Sessions taste for espionage thrillers.


SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Do you like spy fiction? John le Carre? Daniel Silva? Jason Matthews?

SESSIONS: Yes, Alan Furst. David Ignatius, just finished Ignatius' book.

COTTON: Do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond movies?

SESSIONS: No. Yes, I do.

COTTON: Have you ever in any of these situations heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and ambassador of a foreign government colluded in an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?

SESSIONS: Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton. Just like through the looking glass. I mean what is this?


BRIGGS: There was a follow up about the Jason Bourne, the James Bond.

Over at the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders weighed in on the president's behalf, saying he thought that Attorney General Jeff Sessions did a, quote, very good job. ROMANS: After a day of headlines questioning whether President Trump

might fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel still has his job for now. But when deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked if the president has confidence in Mueller, she said, I don't have anything more to add. "The New York Times" reporting this morning that gray area, Dave, is by design.

BRIGGS: Citing a source who spoke to Donald Trump on Tuesday, the paper says the president was pleased by the ambiguity of his position on Mr. Mueller and thinks the possibility of being fired will focus the prosecutor on delivering what the president desires most, a blanket public exoneration.

But the man who directly controls Mueller's fate, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told a Senate committee yesterday that as long as he holds his job, Mueller won't be fired without good cause.

ROMANS: The president by design creating that ambiguity.

BRIGGS: How will that work out for him? Will that intimidate Bob Mueller? We will ask Michael Moore later in this program.

ROMANS: Or focus him more laser-like on the investigation.

BRIGGS: More like.


The Republican effort to repeal or replace Obamacare may have hit another roadblock. This one, a road block put there by the president himself. At a lunch meeting with Republican senators, the president called the health care bill passed by the House, quote, too mean and said the solution may be to, quote, add more money.

The problem with that suggestion doing so would lose crucial conservative votes for the measure. The health care bill that he celebrated in the Rose Garden is too mean.

BRIGGS: That's right.

ROMANS: CNN's Phil Mattingly has more from Capitol Hill.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now, Christine and Dave, it was conceived as a status update of sorts. More than a dozen Republican senators going to the White House, sitting down with the president and the vice president, talking about where they currently stand on their version of the repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act.

Now, this is a really crucial time in those negotiations. Republicans working in a purely partisan basis, trying to figure out a path forward. But there might be a problem and that's coming from the president, himself, something he hinted at, at the top of the meeting.

Take a listen. DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Senate is working very, very hard, and specifically the folks in this room I really appreciate what you're doing to come out with a bill that's going to be a phenomenal bill for the people of our country. Generous, kind, with heart. That's what I'm saying. And that may be adding additional money into it.

MATTINGLY: Now, guys, let me explain why that's an interesting comment. I'm told that behind-the-scenes after the cameras left, he reiterated that point over and over again, specifically referring to House to bill as, quote, mean, saying it didn't go nearly far enough to be generous to the people. One source telling me the president made very clear that what the House did simply wasn't sufficient and the Senate needed to head in a different direction.

At this point, there's still no clear pathway forward. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear he wants to have a vote on this bill before the Fourth of July recess. That will give them exactly 13 days to try to figure this out. I'm told by multiple people they aren't there yet. No question they are working towards it.

The bigger question right now might be what the president said in that closed door meeting. Did he hinder the entire process entirely? Christine and Dave?


BRIGGS: Phil, thanks.

John Thune, the senator, said it's 50-50 if they have a bill to vote on by July 4th, yesterday.

Meanwhile, a close call for former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie in his bid to become the next governor of Virginia. Gillespie narrowly defeated former Trump campaign chairman Corey Stewart in the state's Republican primary last night. Stewart made preserving Virginia's confederate history a top campaign issue.

According to most polls, he was expected to lose by double digits. But take a look at hteh final totals.

[04:10:01] ROMANS: Whoa!

BRIGGS: Wow, it came within one percentage point of upsetting Gillespie, the establishment candidate.

In Virginia's Democratic primary also held yesterday. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam defeated former Congressman Tom Perriello by nearly 12 points. So, the Trump factor from dead, unless in Virginia.

ROMANS: And Gillespie must have far outspent the challenger there.

BRIGGS: Dramatically, much better financed there in Virginia.

ROMANS: For such a tight, tight race. That is really telling. BRIGGS: They say all politics is local, but it didn't look like it there in Virginia.

ROMANS: All right. The Supreme Court has agreed to push back the timeline for a potential ruling on President Trump's travel ban by extending the briefing scheduled. The court gave Justice Department lawyers more time to respond to Monday's 9th Circuit Court ruling, a ruling that went against the administration. The justices are expected to consider the case behind close doors in their final schedule of the conference one week from tomorrow.

Almost 200 congressional Democrats will sue the president over foreign payments to his business empire. The Constitution says the president needs the OK from Congress before receiving money from foreign governments. The suit alleges President Trump has not sought approval, violating the Constitution.

The president refused to sell his businesses before taking office, instead shifting assets to a trust but he can withdraw money at any time. And ethics watchdogs worry his business transactions could influence policy.

Some examples of foreign money, a Saudi Arabia government-backed firm renting rooms at Trump's hotel. The embassy of Kuwait holding a celebration at the same place. The Chinese government's trademark approval for Trump brand of businesses.

The White House did not immediately respond to comment on the suit. Trump Organization previously said it would donate all profits of the foreign government to the Treasury. The suit will be filed today. It's at least the fourth connected to the president in possible conflicts of interest.

BRIGGS: Tragedy in London this morning as a massive fire tears through a 24-story apartment building. A number of fatalities have been confirmed. We'll go there live next on EARLY START.


[04:16:09] BRIGGS: Turning to our breaking news now in London about 200 firefighters working to put out a huge blaze in a 24-floor west London apartment building. These are live pictures, emergency crews have been evacuating residents but it's feared many are still trapped inside. Officials right now only saying there have been a quote number of fatalities.

CNN's Oren Liebermann on the scene in West London, joins us now live.

Oren, good morning to you. What's the latest there?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dave, we're still waiting for more clarification on what that number is, how many people died here inside this building. The London fire commissioner came out and confirmed everybody's worst fears, the fears of so many neighbors here who have friends and family inside that building. The fear that there were people who didn't make it out in the evacuation. She's confirmed that, but only saying a number of people have died. Now, we wonder how many.

We don't yet have a grasp on how many people were inside the building. We know that a number evacuated and we've heard of stories of people even jumping out of the building to save themselves. We heard stories of those ran out seeing bodies on the ground. So, a simply a horrific morning here in Kensington and West London.

Hospitals here treating a number for presumably smoke inhalation, perhaps burns as well. And community center set up to help those who are now homeless. The smoke you see at this point behind me is a fraction of what it was a few hours ago when smoke was pouring out of nearly every single one of those windows, and those that didn't have smoke and flames coming out, you could see into at that point and see flames inside and nothing left there.

Since early this morning 1:00, there has been a thick black column of smoke and that continues as the flames dissipate here. This is still very much an active scene for firefighters here who are trying to get this under control. It's very difficult to fight this fire because of how quickly it spread around the building and up the top of this 24- story building.

We've only scene some efforts to get hostages up to the top half of the building, as firefighters focus their efforts on the bottom. Meanwhile, friends and family trying to figure out if their loved ones were able to make it out. That again, Dave, remains the fear. We know people have died here. The fear is how many.

BRIGGS: Just devastating story there in London. The pictures are hard to believe.

Oren Liebermann, we'll check on with you in about 30 minutes. No word yet on a cause. Perhaps we hear that later today. It is 9:18 now in London.

ROMANS: It was engulfed about 1:00 in the morning. So, you can imagine in the middle of the night, people were asleep. Don't know how quickly it spread. But some of the were saying that, you know, by the time they all converged, some 200 firefighters there that they couldn't get into the building in many cases.

All right. Thank you, Oren, for that.

American college student Otto Warmbier has arrived in the United States after 17 months of detention in North Korea. But a lot of questions about what happened to him in captivity, his medical state. Why he was just released now. We'll discuss, next.


[04:23:34] ROMANS: All right. After more than 17 months of detention in North Korea, American college student Otto Warmbier is back in the United States. His parents say he's been in a coma for more than a year. Questions swirling this morning about his health and what happened to him while he was in captivity.

We want to get the latest from CNN's Paula Hancock live in Seoul.

And I understand, Paula, that, you know, maybe a week ago, it was only a week ago they learned that there was a grave medical problem for their son here. Can you bring us up to speed?


Really devastating news for the parents to finally have their son back, but, of course, he is in a coma now currently being create treated in the United States. Now, what we know is what North Korean officials told the United States. They claim that Otto Warmbier actually contracted botulism just after his trial back in March of 2016, and then after taking a sleeping tablet, he slipped into a coma and has not woken up since.

Now, this is what we're hearing from the North Korean side. The U.S. State Department officials telling CNN that they are not taking it at face value, they don't believe that at this point until they see Otto Warmbier himself and find out exactly what happened.

But as you say, it was just a week ago that this was divulged. It has been months, in fact, since March 2016, that Washington has been pushing to be able to see their American detained in North Korea.

[04:25:06] Now, of course, they had to go through the Swedish embassy as the U.S. doesn't have diplomatic terms with -- or relationship with North Korea.

Eventually last month, that was agreed to, just a week ago, the North Koreans insisted on meeting a State Department official in New York. That's when they find out he was in a coma -- Christine.

ROMANS: Certainly, what a drain for his family. Thank you so much for that, Paula.

You know, there are three more Americans are still there and, of course, there's Dennis Rodman is on some sort of trip there. But we're told that State Department folks for many, many months now have been working behind-the-scenes to get him home.

BRIGGS: Just a tough day for that family, they get their son home and still not with us.

All right. Next, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fighting back against these allegations of collusion.


SESSIONS: I recused myself from any investigation into the campaign for president. But I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations.