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Trump Heads to Pentagon; Trump Rips Attorney General Sessions for Recusing Himself; Senate Judiciary Unanimously Approves Wray as FBI Director; Trump, Mattis to Discuss Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired July 20, 2017 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, 10:00 a.m. Eastern. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. John Berman has the day off.

Live at this hour, President Trump leaves the White House and heads to the Pentagon. But, he just ignited another battle with his own attorney general in the Justice Department.

On the right side of your screen, you can see where Jeff Sessions is about to speak for the first time since President Trump raged over the Russia investigation. The president, still fuming over Attorney General Sessions, a long-time ally, recusing himself from all things Russia. Here is what he told the Times.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sessions should've never recused himself and if he would - if he was going to recuse himself, he should've told me before he took the job and I would've picked someone else.


HARLOW: We will hear shortly from Jeff Sessions, his first live remarks since that attack from the president.

Also though, a devastating diagnosis, Senator John McCain is battling brain cancer. The iconic warrior both in politics and on the battlefield faces one of his toughest battles yet. Those closest to him say, he will never surrender. More on that in just a moment.

But now, to that "New York Times" interview with the president, our Kaitlin Collins is at the White House. And Kaitlan, after those choice words, the president had for and about Jeff Sessions, his own attorney general. It has a lot of people wondering this morning if this is the president trying to get Sessions to quit.

KAITLIN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, that's a great question. And we have not heard publicly from Jeff Sessions, yet. But we likely will when he hold this press conference here in a few minutes. This was a previously scheduled press conference where he will undoubtedly be asked about the comments that the president made in that "New York Times" interview.

We did hear from people familiar with Jeff Sessions, his thinking last night, who said at that time he had no intention of stepping down from his role as attorney general. That he really is enjoying the job that he has right now. But it's hard to see how he's not under an unbelievable amount of pressure to do so, especially after the president trashed him several times in that interview. This is a guy who gave up a very safe Senate seat in Alabama to take this job and was a very loyal supporter to Donald Trump.

HARLOW: And we are looking at live pictures of Jeff Sessions here. He is speaking about cybercrime enforcement. We are going to listen in, monitor this in the control room and if he brings up, of course, the president's remarks, we will bring them to you. Let me just follow up by - by talking to you about - I mean, it is not just Jeff Sessions, Kaitlan. The president went after his entire Justice Department. No one was there.

COLLINS: That's exactly right. He went after the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe. He went after Special Counsel Bob Mueller. And he also went after James Comey, the former FBI director, who he fired earlier this year.

He made a new allegation against James Comey saying that he thinks he only told him about that unverified solicitous Russian dossier because he wanted to have leverage over him, saying, he was asked - he said, when James Comey brought up the dossier to me, I said this is really made-up junk. I didn't think about anything. I just thought about, man, this is such a phony deal.

The reporter asked why he thought James Comey shared it with him. And Trump said, "I think he shared it so that I would -- because the other three people left, and he showed it to me."

The reporter said, "As leverage?"

Trump said, "Yeah, I think so."

So as you can see, Poppy. This is a remarkable interview where Donald Trump went after several layers of the Justice Department.

HARLOW: It is remarkable and it's candor for sure and in the varied attack that he has laid on his own Justice Department and others. Thank you very much, Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

COLLINS: Thanks, Poppy.

HARLOW: To discuss, Doug Heye, CNN political commentator, former RNC communications director, John Phillips, CNN political commentator and talk radio host and Jackie Kucinich, CNN political analyst and Washington bureau chief for "The Daily Beast."

Doug Heye, let me begin with you. So, there's a lot of buzz this morning about whether this is a tactic by the president to get Jeff Sessions to quit as attorney general so that he can then put someone more friendly in place, who could then fire Bob Mueller. Because he's very critical and has been very critical of Bob Mueller saying there are all sorts of conflicts of interest here. There are lines that Mueller should not cross in this special investigation. What do you think?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think you are smart to use the word tactic. This was a tactic that appears not to have a strategy behind it. It's not clear whether the rest of the White House press team knew, which is a big problem for any kind of a communication strategy. And we just don't know whether it was the comments on Sessions or kind of a bit of incoherent structure on what he thought about health care.

[10:05:05] What really the purpose for this was other than for, once again, Donald Trump to make some news and do it with a news organization that he calls failing because it turns out he talked to Maggie Haberman at "The New York Times" all the time.

HARLOW: I'll just say, it's good that he's giving an interview to a, you know, down the middle, unbiased publication like "The New York Times." It reminds you of when he sat down with Lester Holt at NBC, right? And he was very, very open in that interview as well.

John Phillips, to you, you have this tweet, which is fascinating from former deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, who was of course, fired by the president. Here's what she said about how troubling she finds all of this.

The president attack on Russia recusal reveals yet again his violation of the essential independence of the Department of Justice, a bedrock principle of our democracy.

There are a number of places in this interview where it feels like the president doesn't understand the separation of powers and the independence under which these entities need to operate as a bedrock principle of our democracy. Do you read it that way?

JOHN PHILLIPS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, because the DOJ falls in the executive branch and he of course, was the one that appointed -

HARLOW: It does, however, as you know, in part of this interview, he was talking about the FBI director, right? And he said the FBI person, really reports directly to the president of the United States. After all of that brouhaha over whether he asked Comey for loyalty or not to him and Wray even said in his confirmation hearing a few weeks ago, no, my loyalty is to the Constitution.

PHILLIPS: I think he's putting them all on notice that this is an investigation that's about Russia. And if they try to expand this investigation into something else that he's not going to just sit back and take these punches. Let's not forget, if you go back to Whitewater, that whole investigation Ken Starr that started out as an investigation that dealt with real estate issues back in Arkansas. And it morphed into something that was about Monica Lewinsky. Sometimes, these prosecutors take a case and they have a more dramatic transformation than Sammy Sosa. And so, he's telling these people that he's not going to allow this to happen. And I think he's right to do that. --

HARLOW: Wait, wait -- why is he right to do that? Why is it up to him to allow where he special independently appointed prosecutor go with their investigation?

PHILLIPS: He's telling them that they need to stick to what they were hired to do, which was the issue of Russia. He believes that he did nothing wrong. And if they investigate him on Russian ties or suspected Russian collusion, that he's going to come out clean as a whistle. But you start digging into anything and everything, and who knows, maybe he clipped his mattress tags off and they'll start going in that direction.

HARLOW: All right. Of course, Bill Clinton would have preferred the Ken Starr focus just on Whitewater as well. But that is not how it ended up.

Jackie Kucinich, as we look at these live pictures of the president and his team getting ready to arrive at the Pentagon to discuss a number of key issues right now. Let me also get your take on what he said, you just heard it from our White House reporter on James Comey, and saying, look, I think he used that, you know, Russian dossier as leverage over me.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE DAILY BEAST": That's clearly the president's point of view on this. What James Comey said during his testimony was that he didn't want to -- he wanted the president to know everything that was out there. And the reason that he took him aside, just the two of them, was because he and his team have decided that it would be embarrassing frankly for the president and that the two of them should just have that conversation. Trump, perhaps reflecting back to his time as a real estate mogul, saw it as a threat. Now, where he and his relationship with James Comey stands right now, you would have to imagine at this point, he does look at those interactions as nefarious.

But I just want to respond a little bit to what John said. The president doesn't get to play red light/green light here at this point with the special counsel. It's a special counsel. So, if this does -- if he starts these financial ties and -- if Trump has financial ties with Russia and to find that out that he has to go into the finances of the Trump family, he's going to do that. And what the president does at that point if that happens, this is all hypothetical, it will be very interesting to watch.

HARLOW: All right. Jackie, hold that thought. We are looking at President Trump arriving at the Pentagon right now. We have our Barbara Starr on standby as well covering all of this. He is arriving with the Defense secretary, James Mattis. You see at the president side, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin also joining them and the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Joseph Dunford.

A lot on the table, talking about - it is expected policy and U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Also North Korea after U.S. Intelligence overnight shows potential preparation for yet another intercontinental ballistic missile test and Syria, the "Washington Post" this morning reporting that the administration is shutting down the CIA program on arming anti-Assad rebels.

[10:10:02] We will get more on that in just a moment but again, the president and his team walking in there into the Pentagon for this critical meeting.

Doug Heye, to you, your response to Jackie Kucinich's point that the president doesn't get to play red light/green light here?

HEYE: I'm jealous. I didn't use the analogy. I think that is spot on. And also, I think we learned two this from this interview that are really important. One, if you go back in the campaign, Trump loyalists would use the word loyalty all the time, if that was the most important thing to Donald Trump. Jeff Sessions wasn't just loyal to Donald Trump. He stuck his neck out for him and stuck his neck out early. We see that's one side.

The other is Macron may be the smartest head of state in the world right now. He cracked the code on how to get to Donald Trump. He threw him a parade, offered lavish praise to him and then we saw from Trump, he talked on and on about how -- what a great thing it was for him. He talked a lot about hands. We know he talked about small hands in the past. Now it's about holding hands. Macron has cracked the code. We'll see if other heads of state can do it as well.

HARLOW: Yes. He did say three times in that interview how much Emmanuel Macron liked holding his hand. Guys, thank you very much. Doug Heye, John Phillips and Jackie Kucinich, we appreciate it.

Now, of course, to a warrior politician, a man who has dedicated his entire life to serving the American people. Senator John McCain is facing, perhaps his toughest battle yet, diagnosed with brain cancer. The news comes after the 80-year-old underwent a procedure on Friday to remove a blood clot. Support already of course pouring in from all sides of the aisle, all across America, an emotional statement coming from his daughter, Meghan McCain.

"He is the toughest person I know. The cruelest enemy could not break him. The aggressions of political life could not bend him... cancer may afflict him in many ways, but it will not make him surrender. Nothing ever has."

And of course, his close friend and colleague in the Senate, Lindsey Graham said this.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: God knows how this ends, not me. But I do know this. This disease has never had a more worthy opponent.


HARLOW: Also this message from former president, Barack Obama. "Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John."

Senator McCain's doctor spoke exclusively with CNN's chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. And of course, President Trump is well weighing in last night with his thoughts and sympathies for the entire family. And Sanjay, you had a chance to speak exclusively with McCain's doctors, with his permission about what he is facing.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes -- what we learned was that Senator McCain, you know, was feeling tired, fatigued the last few months, but nothing specific. And he went in Friday morning, this past Friday for a routine check-up, a prescheduled check-up. Complained of that fatigue, also complained that he had had just a little bit of double vision. It was enough for the doctors to order a CAT scan, which revealed this blood collection. And that same day, just a few hours later, he was in the operating room having that blood collection taken out through an incision right in the eyebrow. And then a bone removed right above his eye there in the left forehead.

But as you point out, now and as we have heard, the blood collection, that bleeding was caused by a tumor. The tumor is known as a glioblastoma. It's a type of brain tumor. It's an aggressive type of cancer. And that news is just now coming out, again, as you reported. So, we know Senator McCain and his family are talking to the doctors about next steps. He is at home. He is recovering well, they tell me. But that is what they are now facing.

HARLOW: This is the same kind of cancer that Beau Biden of course suffered from and proved fatal for him, the same type of cancer that Senator Ted Kennedy battled for those 15 months. Is it curable, Sanjay?

GUPTA: Glioblastoma is not considered curable. It is a -- as you point out for -- if there's a literature on this, the median survival is around 14 months, although about 10 percent of people do survive five years or more. It is something that's going to require further treatment. Typically, that treatment is chemotherapy and radiation to that part of the brain. And that's something that is likely to begin if Senator McCain chooses to do that. And it's all indications that he will. That will begin in the next three to four weeks after his incisions heal up and he recovers from this most recent surgery.

So, that's likely the plan. But again, this is what he and his family are discussing right now with the doctors. He just saw them yesterday, we know. And that's part of the discussions that are ongoing.

HARLOW: If there were ever a fighter, it is John McCain. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thank you for that reporting.

At any moment, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is set to take questions. Of course you see him there behind. This is all following the president's attack of his own attorney general in that interview with "The New York Times." Will he talk about it?

And soon, O.J. Simpson makes his case for freedom at a parole hearing. We are on it. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:19:10] HARLOW: All right, a bit of breaking news for you this morning. The entire Senate Judiciary Committee has unanimously confirmed Christopher Wray as the next FBI director. Now, it will go to a vote of the full Senate of course. This is a critical position. He would replace fired FBI director, James Comey.

Also, take a look. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is right there, behind the podium, about to come back to the podium and take questions from reporters. Why does that matter? Well, because he was attacked over and over again in an extensive interview last night that President Trump gave "The New York Times" saying, he would not have hired Sessions had he known that Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia probe. We'll bring you that as soon as those questions begin.

And now, to the Pentagon, where a critical meeting is underway, the president as he walked in to the Pentagon, up the stairs there with members of his cabinet.

[10:15:00] Saying, quote, "ISIS is falling fast." He said that just as he reached the top of the steps. He is meeting with key cabinet members. He's weighing a lot of things including the next steps for U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the latest response to North Korea, what that should be, and of course, Syria.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us now. Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Poppy. The president was asked if he was planning to send more troops to Afghanistan. That's a decision everyone here at the Pentagon is waiting for and the president simply said, we'll see.

We don't expect this to be a decision making meeting, this more of optics. This is the commander in chief coming to the tank at the Pentagon sitting in the secure conference room for 90 minutes with top officials, top White House staff is here. His adviser, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner is here, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin. So, you know, that begins to tell you, this is not some meeting that plan out some military operation. When things like that happen, they go to the president at the White House, he doesn't come here.

We have seen this optics in previous administrations. It's a valuable picture for the president to be seen here at the Pentagon, meeting with top officials. But make no mistake. There are a number of key decisions that are being teed up that somebody has to make a decision on.

Troops for Afghanistan, the way ahead in Syria and Iraq, a plan, an updated plan to fight ISIS that the president has long promised, a number of decisions in the coming weeks are expected. But, for now, today, this is about having that photo, having that picture of the president sitting down with his top advisers as we chatted about a few minutes ago. This commander in chief, so far, has not gone to the front lines to Iraq and to Afghanistan to see the troops out there in the field. Poppy?

HARLOW: Important point. Barbara Starr, thank you very much from the Pentagon.

Joining us now, CNN military analyst, Major General Spider Marks and CNN national security analyst, Juliette Kayyem. Thank you both for being here. And General, let me begin with you. We have not heard yet what the president's strategy will be in Afghanistan. We have heard somewhere potentially that he's considering the range of 3,000 to 5,000 additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He's really deferred a lot of that to Secretary Mattis. Should we expect an update soon, do you believe, on that front?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES SPIDER MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, we should, absolutely. Let's review for a second where we are. What you have in Afghanistan is an Afghan military that's not as large, they're not in sufficient numbers and as professional and as mature as they need to be. That is growing, incrementally. Probably need to pick up the pace there. Secondarily, the Taliban has increased its presence in the country beyond where they were at 9/11. Now, keep that in mind. In other words, the Taliban is really creeping back in as the United States has departed, it has regained strength. And the third thing is, we've really got to get tough on Pakistan. There has to be an outside- in type strategy.

Now, having said all that is kind of review. I think it's important that what United States do right now is create a strategy that articulates why this is important, why the United States continue presence in Afghanistan is important. If everything I just said is not relevant to us going forward, I got it. Then we need to leave. And we need to leave behind a presence in the U.S. embassy that allows us to then increase on demand what needs to be there to help protect our own interest. We haven't heard that articulated yet. I'm certain that we will hear that immediately going forward. We need to.

HARLOW: All we have heard from the president as he arrived at the Pentagon is what you see on your screen. And that is as he got to the top of the steps, Juliette, before he walked into that meeting, which is closed to the press, he said, "ISIS is falling fast" really focusing on the successes that this administration has had fighting ISIS.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes and those are successes obviously built on the last two years in the anti-ISIS campaign and the president is correct in that sense. The problem is, is that when ISIS leaves or ISIS is destroyed, there is a vacuum. And the question of what or who is going to fill that vacuum is what an ISIS strategy is at this stage, right?

So, everyone knows that ISIS is, sort of you know, we know how to get rid of them. We know what the options are, it's military, its drones, all those things. The vacuum that they are leaving in both Syria and Iraq is one that the Russians are more than happy to fill, that the Syrians are more than happy to fill, that the Iranians are more than happy to fill. If the strategy is, which is it appears to be, just given the news yesterday that the United States is at least considering not arming the Syrian rebels. If the strategy is, in this proxy war, the United States is going to step back and Russia won. Because that's what Syria was all about. And Assad will stay. We just need to enunciate it. I mean, a little bit about what Spider said in Afghanistan. Whatever the strategy is, you know, the planning has to follow what that enunciated strategy is. And we haven't done that with ISIS, either.

[10:25:01] HARLOW: Absolutely. I mean, the White House doesn't want more headlines like "The New York Times" over the weekend. You know, that Iran is filling the void in Iraq left by the United States.

General, let me get you on this. The "Washington Post" reporting this morning that the CIA sort of covert program to arm the Syrian rebels is going to be dismantled -- is not going to continue, according to the "Washington Post" reporting. Now, these are anti-Assad Syrian rebels. This is a move that Vladimir Putin will like, despite the Kremlin this morning coming out with a no comment.

MARKS: Well, absolutely. And I need to tell you that we have probably about a year plus ago acknowledged not publicly exactly what Juliette said, which is -

HARLOW: Hold that thought. Let's get to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

QUESTION: What is your reaction to those remarks and how seriously are you considering possibly resigning?

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We, in this Department of Justice will continue every single day to work hard, to serve the national interest and we whole heartedly join in the priorities of President Trump. He gave us several directives. One is to dismantle transnational criminal organizations. That's what we are announcing today, the dismantling of the largest, dark website in the world by far.

I congratulate our people for that. I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It's something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department. I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.

QUESTION: General Sessions, how do you feel like you can effectively serve from here on now if you don't have the confidence of the president?

SESSIONS: We are serving right now. The work we are doing today is the kind of work that we intend to continue. Just last week, we announced the largest health care takedown ever in the United States. We had all the major law enforcement leaders in my office yesterday to talk about our unified efforts to improve our crime fighting state in local officials.

So, I'm totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way. But I really would like for you to focus now on the work of the individuals behind me that have helped put this case together so that we can celebrate and affirm the work that they have done so that we can learn from it and get even better in the future.

QUESTION: The president told "The New York Times" yesterday that the fact that you are from Baltimore -- many Republicans (INAUDIBLE). Is that something that is valid concern in your view? What do you make of that decision?

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: As the attorney general said, we are working here every day to advance the priorities of the Department of Justice administration. I was proud to be here yesterday. I'm proud to be here today. I'll be proud to work here tomorrow. And we are spending every minute working to advance the interest the department.

And as the attorney general said, we are happy to answer any questions about the cybercrime case. It's a very important case. We have a lot of folks here who assisted in that investigation. And that's all I'm going to talk about today. Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. There you have questions to both the attorney general, Jeff Sessions and of course, Rod Rosenstein as well, the deputy AG, all about the president's interview with "The New York Times," slamming both of those men, frankly. Attorney General Sessions was asked, how can you continue doing your job if you don't have the confidence of the president. And he said we are serving right now. He said that he plans to continue to serve, plans to carry out the priorities of the president of the United States. He said went back as much as he could to cybercrime, something they were talking about today.

Also, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy AG, was asked about the president's remarks to "The New York Times" that he's from Baltimore and there aren't many Republicans in Baltimore, seeming to question his allegiance to the party despite this being a non-political position. And Rosenstein said he is proud to be here today and then said he will only talk about the case that they were discussing on cybercrime today. There were no questions on that case and the press conference ended.

With me is our Jeffrey Toobin. So, doesn't sound like Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going anywhere?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely not. And he said, I think the only thing he could say, which was he showed up at work today and he is going to show up at work tomorrow. And the Department of Justice is doing important work like this press conference about fighting crime. And you know we'll see if he gets fired.