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Jeff Sessions Discussed Trump Campaign with Russian Ambassador; President Trump Speaks at USS Gerald R. Ford Commissioning; Aired 11- 12p ET

Aired July 22, 2017 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:10] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. It's 11:00 on the East Coast. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Welcome to the NEWSROOM.

Setting sail as storm clouds loom. President Trump is attending a commissioning ceremony for the USS Ford, a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. We'll bring you his remarks live momentarily.

In Washington, the White House is under deepening scrutiny. A new report indicates Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have lied to officials about discussing Trump campaign matters with Russia's ambassador. And in the investigation into that secret campaign meeting, with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower last year, we now know that Donald Trump Junior and Paul Manafort are cooperating. They will speak with the Senate panel behind closed doors.

Now to the revelations involving the Russia investigation. According to the "Washington Post," Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak told his Kremlin bosses that he did in fact talk about campaign matters, with then-Senator Jeff Sessions during the 2016 election.

Current and former U.S. officials tell the "Post" they learned of the conversations from intercepts of Russian discussions. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly said that he did not speak to Russians about campaign-related issues.

CNN's justice reporter, Laura Jarrett, joining me now to go over what was discussed and what this means for the administration -- Laura.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, good morning, Fred. Sessions has really been dogged by news since March that he failed to disclose his contacts with Russian officials, but this report from the "Washington Post" goes a step further and says these recordings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sessions specifically discussed Trump's positions on Russia related issues and prospects for U.S.- Russia relations in the Trump administration back in 2016, which if true runs completely contrary to the attorney general's version of events.

And he has completely denied this. And in a statement to CNN, Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores says, "Obviously I cannot comment on the reliability of what anonymous sources describe in a wholly uncorroborated intelligence intercept that the 'Washington Post' has not seen and that has not been provided to me," Flores says. And she goes on to say that the attorney general stands by his

testimony from last month before the Senate Intel Committee when he specifically addressed this and said that he never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.

The other issue of course is whether Kislyak's recounting of these conversations can even be trusted, Fred, or whether he was exaggerating the substance of what was said for whatever reason. But nevertheless, this development comes on the heels of a rocky week for Sessions after a very public rebuke by the president who told "The New York Times" earlier this week, that if he had known Sessions was going to recuse himself from this entire Russia probe, he would not have hired him in the first place -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Laura Jarrett, thank you so much. We're going to continue to watch the developments there and all that's taking place out of Norfolk, Virginia, the president of the United States soon to be taking to the podium there for the commissioning of the USS Gerald Ford.

Meantime let's talk more about these intel leaks and if indeed they are accurate and the Russian ambassador was telling the truth it casts serious doubt on the credibility of Jeff Sessions who denied having any contact with Russians during the campaign.

Here is his sworn testimony in front of the Senate committee last month.


JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials, concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States.


WHITFIELD: CNN contributor Salena Zito is a reporter for the "Washington Examiner" and Rear Admiral John Kirby is a CNN military and diplomatic analyst and a former spokesperson for the State Department.

Good to see both of you.

All right, so, Admiral Kirby, you first. Let's begin, you know, with this if true, you know, how does this impact Sessions, his position as the AG? Now again he was talking about not having contact with Russians talking about the campaign. But he has said in the capacity as a U.S. senator, it was not unusual to meet with, say, the ambassador. How are things changed?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, I think what's changed here is that, you know, you have yet another instance where he had communications and if this reporting is true, specific discussions about campaign-related issues. Now you notice the DOJ statement said that he stands by his statement

that he didn't talk about election meddling. But that's not the reporting that the "Washington Post" had. These alleged intercepts have Kislyak saying that they talked about campaign-related issues.

[11:05:03] So it does add another layer now of suspicion to all the contacts between Trump officials, particularly campaign officials, and Russian officials as well.

So I think what this underscores for me, Fred, is that we really need to let the investigations continue. I mean all this reporting it's interesting. But it does to me underscore the need for the investigations to go on unimpeded and for the Trump administration to wrap their arms around these investigations, embrace them. If there's really nothing there, just let them run their course.

WHITFIELD: And the investigations are ongoing, Salena, but of course -- and also this latest reporting provokes the issues of whether the AG Sessions would resign or if he is asked to resign, and if that is the case, won't it be especially difficult even for this president of the United States to try to nominate somebody else if it appears as though he only wants the AG to be loyal to him, the president, as opposed to the Constitution of the United States?

SALENA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right. That is the problem. That is the issue. I mean, what we have here is it could be Kislyak or however you say his name, bragging, and boasting. It could be, you know, taking a look at the words of the DOJ's wording in that statement.

I think it's incredibly important for the president to have trust in his attorney general. I also think -- I have said from the very beginning, I think Mueller's investigation is something that the Trump administration should welcome and let it take its course because I think it gives them the opportunity. If nothing nefarious has happened they are able to get it out there and get this behind them.

As far as Sessions goes, you know, the problem for him right now are optics. Right? He had a bad week with the president, the president calling him out and revealing that he had lost faith in him to a certain extent, and now that comes on the heels of this information.

WHITFIELD: So, John, if the issue is about trust or loyalty or commitment, you know, the president you know telling "The New York Times" had he known that Sessions was going to recuse himself, he would have, you know, reconsidered whether he would indeed be the AG but despite that recusal from Sessions, didn't Sessions still inject himself? Wasn't he also a component in the firing of Comey? Did that not exhibit the kind of loyalty that the president has kind of inferred he's expecting from the AG?

KIRBY: I think that's a fair question, Fred. I'm not much of a legal expert on this but it certainly appeared to me just on the surface that by injecting himself into the Comey firing, which was all about the Russia investigation, that it certainly did run counter to me in my limited knowledge of somebody who is, quote-unquote, "recusing" themself from an issue. So yes, I do think that casts a little bit of doubt there.

But I think in general, look, I mean, I think he did the right thing in saying he was going to recuse himself. And I think, you know, to Salena's excellent point, and I agree with her, the president ought to embrace that, that he's got an attorney general who's wise enough and counsel enough to pull himself out of this and to let these things go forward and just let the facts take them where they may.

WHITFIELD: And then, Salena, what about the timing of all of this? As I mentioned, you know, Donald Trump saying what he said to the "New York Times" and now the "Washington Post" reporting. You know, so is there something to the leaks and whether the leaks are actually coming from the White House? And is this all unbeknownst to the president of the United States?

ZITO: Well, it always is the timing, right? And if it is -- you know, when the report came out last night and then it comes on the heels of what the president said, I mean, there has to be sort of a lot of people pausing and saying, whoa, wait a minute. Did he know something that we didn't know before this came out? But, you know, and also to the point, though, in fairness, you know, Trump has been very unhappy with Sessions. I mean, that's also been widely reported. He has been unhappy with Sessions for months now. And so --


WHITFIELD: The conflicting accounts of the meetings, his testimony.

ZITO: Right. Yes. I mean, all of this -- you know, this is all sort of a mess. And I think the best thing as the admiral said is let everything play out.

WHITFIELD: All right. Salena, I'm going to cut you off right there. But please stand by both of you.

Again now let's go to Norfolk, at the commissioning of the USS Gerald Ford. Here's the president, Donald Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much, Secretary Mattis, for the wonderful introduction and for your devoted service to our nation. Nobody has done it like you.

I'm thrilled to be back on this magnificent ship for this historic moment with the amazing men and women of the United States Navy.


[11:10:20] TRUMP: I was with you four months ago and I knew that I had to be here today and I told you I'd be back to congratulate you and the crew and everybody involved on commissioning the newest, largest and most advanced aircraft carrier in the history of this world. That's a big achievement.

After today, wherever this ship sails, you will all carry a proud title. Plank owner of the USS Gerald R. Ford.


TRUMP: For the rest of your lives you'll be able to tell your friends and family that you served on the greatest ship in the United States Navy and in my opinion on the greatest ship anywhere in the world.

Everyone should take a moment to celebrate this incredible achievement. I want to thank the many public servants who have joined us here today. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, Governor Snyder, Governor McAuliffe, Senator Wicker, and members of Congress, Secretary Stackly, Admiral Richardson, senior military leaders and of course the great Captain McCormick.


TRUMP: Captain, I know you will exemplify integrity at the helm. And have a good time doing it, Captain. Proud of you.

Thanks to the entire Ford family, Susan, Jack, Steven, Mike, for all that you've done to support this ship on its voyage.

Thank you, Susan. Thank you.


TRUMP: I also want to recognize two other people who were very special to President Ford. Thank you, Vice President Cheney and former secretary of defense, Rumsfeld.

Thank you. Thank you.


TRUMP: They look great. They look great. As we put this stunning ship into the service of our nation, we must also pay tribute to the thousands of citizens, military and civilian, who helped design and build her. Their love of country has been boarded to every ribbon and bulkhead on this vessel.

You hammered, chiseled and sculpted this mighty hull. You were there when the first steel was cut. When the turbines first roared to life. And when those beautiful bronze propellers first began to spin, and spin they did, and now you are here to witness the moment when your incredible work of art becomes the pride of the United States Navy, and a symbol of American power and prestige no matter where in the world you go.

American steel and American hands have constructed a 100,000-ton message to the world. American might is second to none. And we're getting bigger and better and stronger every day of my administration, that I can tell you.


TRUMP: Wherever this vessel cuts through the horizon, our allies will rest easy, and our enemies will shake with fear because everyone will know that America is coming and America is coming strong. (APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: To every worker from Newport News Ship Building and every craftsman and engineer who helped build this incredible fortress on the sea, today we salute you. Thank you.


[11:15:04] TRUMP: Your skill and your grit build the instruments of war that preserve peace. This ship is the deterrent that keeps us from having to fight in the first place. But this ship also insures that if a fight does come, it will always end the same way.

We will win, win, win. We will never lose. We will win.


TRUMP: When it comes to battle, we don't want a fair fight. We want just the opposite. We demand victory and we will have total victory, believe me.


TRUMP: Having the best technology and equipment is only one part of the American military dominance. Our true strength is our people. Our greatest weapon is all of you. Our nation endures because we have citizens who love America and who are willing to fight for America.


TRUMP: We're so very blessed with warriors who are willing to serve America in the greatest fighting force in history, the United States military. Today this ship officially begins its role, in the noble military history of our great nation.

In a few moments I will commission this wonderful, beautiful, but very, very powerful warship. Captain McCormick will assume command. He will set the first watch and then the crew of the Gerald R. Ford will man the ship and bring her to life.


TRUMP: A ship is only as good as the people who serve on it. And the American sailor is the best anywhere in the world. Among you, are great welders, radar technicians, machine operators, and pilots. You take pride in your work and America takes pride in you.

We love you, we are proud of you. Thank you.


TRUMP: But that is why it is so fitting that this ship is named after a sailor of tremendous character, integrity and wisdom.

You know that, Susan. Gerald Ford was raised in American heartland. He grew up in Grand

Rapids and became an Eagle Scout. He played football at the University of Michigan. On a team that won two national championships, and listen to this. On that great team he was named MVP. Not bad. He then went to Yale Law School, and after Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to serve.

President Ford joined the Navy and asked to be sent to sea. He wanted to do that very badly. He never really knew why he felt it was a calling. He was assigned to a new carrier, the Monterey, becoming a plank owner himself on its commissioning in 1943.

From there he sailed to the Pacific and saw action and a lot of action in the Pacific War. Like so many others of his generation, Gerald Ford returned home and started a family. He ran for Congress where he served the people of Michigan with honor for many years. From there, he became vice president and then president of the United States. With this ship, we honor him for his lifetime of selfless and distinguished service.

We also remember his wife, Betty, I remember her well. And we honor the bravery she showed, in living her life so that her experiences could help others.

Susan, she was a great woman. A great woman.


[11:20:02] TRUMP: Gerald Ford said that his time in the Navy convinced him that our lack of military preparation before World War II had only encouraged our enemies to fight harder and harder and harder. He learned a lot.

In the future Ford said, I felt the United States had to be strong. Never again could we allow our military to be anything but the absolute best. If he could see this ship today, President Gerald Ford would see his vision brought to life. And he would see his legacy of service being carried on by each and every one of you.


TRUMP: Gerald Ford embodied American values like few others. Love of family, love of freedom and most of all love of country. He knew that patriotism is the heartbeat of a nation. He knew that we must love our country in order to protect it. And he knew that we must have pride in our history if we are going to have confidence in our future.

The men and women of America's Armed Services are part of a living history. You uphold timeless customs and traditions and you protect our nation and our freedom for the next generation to come. You are fulfilling your duty to this nation, and now it is the job of our government to fulfill its duty to you.


TRUMP: For years our government has subjected the military to unpredictable funding and a devastating Defense sequester.

You remember that? Sequester, not good.

This has led to deferred maintenance, a lack of investment in new equipment and technology, and a shortfall in military readiness. In other words, it's been a very, very bad period of time for our military. That is why we reached a deal to secure an additional $20 billion for Defense this year and it's going up. And why I asked Congress for another $54 billion for next year.

Now we need Congress to do its job and pass the budget that provides for higher, stable and predictable funding levels for our military needs. That our fighting men and women deserve. And you will get. Believe me.

President Trump, I will tell you, you will get it. Don't worry about it. But I don't mind getting a little hand. So call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it.


TRUMP: And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care.


TRUMP: We must end the Defense sequester once and for all. We must also reform Defense acquisitions to insure that we are getting the best equipment, at the best prices so that our dollars are used only for the best interests of our country and those who serve. We do not want cost overruns. We want the best equipment, but we want it built ahead of schedule and we want it built under budget.


TRUMP: This is the very least we can do for the patriots who have volunteered to give their sweat, their blood, and if they must, their very lives for our great nation. The commissioning of this new American carrier marks the renewal of our commitment to a future of American greatness. Greater than ever before. Remember that. Greater than ever before.

Just moments from now the captain will set the first watch on the USS Gerald R. Ford and with God's grace a watch will stand until the day she is decommissioned 50 years or more from now.

[11:25:11] Most of you who will man the ship today are just about 20 years old. Together, you are embarking on a truly great adventure. The journey will require all of your talents, all of your efforts, and all of your heart.

As you know, the sea holds many challenges and threats, but starting today you will face together as a team aboard this ship, which is your responsibility, and your home. Three generations of Americans will eventually man these decks. Perhaps even some of your own children and grandchildren someday. You will inspire many more American patriots to follow your lead and

to serve. And one day, when you are old, and have lived a long and hopefully happy and successful life, you may find yourselves back aboard this ship surrounded by your family to mark its decommissioning and on that day, our entire nation will honor, not just this carrier, it will honor you, and the role that you will have played in keeping America safe, strong and free.

To every patriot who will serve on this ship, today and throughout history, I say this. Keep the watch, protect her, defend her, and love her.

Good luck and Godspeed. Thank you to the Ford family, and thank you to every sailor in the greatest Navy on earth. God bless you, God bless the Gerald R. Ford, and God bless the United States of America.

Thank you very much. God bless you all.


WHITFIELD: President Trump there in Norfolk, Virginia, at the commissioning of the new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the name of President Gerald Ford.

The president there praising the Navy fleet, the crew of this aircraft carrier, and praising its namesake. Let's listen.

TRUMP: I hereby place United States ship Gerald R. Ford in commission. May God bless and guide this warship and all who shall sail in her. God bless you. Thank you.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. President.

Executive Officer, hoist the colors and the commissioning pennant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Aye-aye, Captain.

Ladies and gentlemen, I direct your attention to the ship's mast. As we hoist the colors and commission pennant.

Quartermaster, hoist the colors and the commission pennant.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will the guests please be seated?

WHITFIELD: All right. In this moment what you couldn't see they were raising the flag on the ship.

Rear Admiral John Kirby is with us to give us a bit more detail on this tradition, this very regal tradition there with the commissioning of an aircraft carrier, back with me now. The president there proclaiming it being in commission now. Give us more about what is happening in this ceremony. KIRBY: Yes. This is when the ship really rejoins the fleet

officially. It's almost like when she first -- her heart beats the first pulse, when you -- when you hoist the commissioning pennant and the American flag. That's when she joins the fleet. That's her birthday if you will in terms of joining the United States Navy. So it's a very -- it's very symbolic. It's very traditional, but in the navy every ship is considered to sort of have a soul and sort of almost has a personality on their own and this is the day when she kind of gets to show that off.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, and this really is a living body. When you talk about an aircraft carrier, it is a floating city. I've had the privilege of being on a few, you know, out, but it really is something special.

And something rare, too, to see this part of history commissioning of an aircraft carrier. Talk to us about the significance of this "USS Gerald Ford," its namesake, the 38th president of the United States, also a Navy seaman, what an incredible honor for this family.

KIRBY: Yes, the aircraft carriers tend to be named after presidents, that's sort of the custom. It's not always done that way, but they tend to be, and of course, Gerald Ford is a Navy veteran. So, it makes them a little special to the Navy family.

I know the Navy was always special to him. We're very proud as a retired sailor, very proud that we have a carrier named after President Ford. And this ship, Fred, is a leap ahead. It's a brand new ship and a brand new class.

While she's about the same length and width as the old Nimitz class carriers, there's lots of differences and changes, additional technology, things that are going to make the ship more powerful and more efficient going forward.

And as the president noted, this ship is going to have a service life of about 50 years, and it could even go beyond that. We'll have to see. So those young sailors he was talking to, he's exactly right.

They're going to be in their 60s or 70s by the time the ship gets decommissioned. They'll be able to watch her defend the country for basically the entirety of their lifetimes.

WHITFIELD: At the helm, Captain Richard McCormick, who was assuming command. Describe what this moment is for him.

KIRBY: Well, this is a big day. Any time you can command a ship, it's a big thing. I never commanded and so I'm in awe and have great respect for all of those who have commanded at sea. Something I never did.

And when you command an aircraft carrier in particular, well, that's as big a capital ship as you're going to get. You're going to be able to project American power and influence in ways that no other Navy can do from the deck of an aircraft carrier. So, he's got immense responsibilities, he'll have when that air wing is on board, you know, they'll be something to the tune of 5,000 sailors aboard that ship. About 2,600 of them will belong to him and in terms of ship's company. So, he'll have vast responsibilities over people and vast power at his fingerprints.

WHITFIELD: Is that moment kind of tantamount to swearing in for that captain?

KIRBY: Well, it's not quite a swearing in for him. I mean, it's basically a swearing in for the ship, but it is a renewal. This is a man who has commanded in the past. You don't get to command an aircraft carrier without having to have commanded operational units in the past.

He's an aviator so he's commanded certainly aircraft squadrons, but he's also commanded smaller, smaller than aircraft carriers, but large surface ships so this is a renewal for him. It's a whole different level when you're commanding a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and then to be commanding the first in the class, that is a unique honor.

WHITFIELD: Yes, and coming to the podium there, Susan, daughter of Gerald Ford. Our Boris Sanchez is there, John Kirby. I want to bring him into the equation, too. So, Boris, the pageantry of this kind of event is remarkable. Kind of give us the color of what it feels like for people to be there, to be in the room there for this very special commissioning.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Fred. This is really a special event. Not only for those who built this ship. But for the families of the service men and women that are going to be serving on the "USS Gerald R. Ford."

You actually don't see it behind me, but there are several thousand people here, all lined up behind the press to watch or be part of this commissioning. This is truly an achievement of military might, but also an engineering feat.

This ship is massive and as the president said earlier, the most advanced ship in history. The president was very quick to point out that the world is in a difficult place and this ship is a message to our enemies that American military might is second to none.

He also went on to say that our enemies will shake in fear when they see this ship on the horizon. Aside from that, the president also went on to say that the past few years, specifically have been difficult for the armed services because of a lack of funding.

He asked the crowd to actually call their Congress people to push them to pay more for military.

[11:35:05] He also added that they should call their Congress people and coach them to vote yes on health care specifically Republican Congressmen. I'll play you some of that sound now.

WHITFIELD: That's not quite cued up yet. I know it's very loud in the room there.

SANCHEZ: We don't have that sound.


SANCHEZ: Yes, it looks like we don't have that sound bite for you, Fred. But the president again said that the people here in the room should call their Congressmen to demand more funding for the military and to say yes to this repeal and replacement plan that is seemingly stalled in the Senate recently.

Curious that there was no mention here of some of the president's more typical targets especially because earlier today on Twitter he launched attacks not only on the press, but on Hillary Clinton and James Comey.

All of this coming amidst in turmoil at the White House over the past week. Not only were there changes to the president's legal team, but also in the Communications Office, Sean Spicer resigning and Anthony Scaramucci being brought in to be the new head of the communications for the White House.

And on top of all of that, you have these "Washington Post" reports that there were some inconsistencies in Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony before Congress in regard to his communications with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. That coming from the intelligence community. All of that, Fred, merely the backdrop to this event.

WHITFIELD: Yes, it is indeed a lot. You have set the table very nicely. You know, (inaudible) obviously, all of that taking place, the president from that podium there talking about the dedication, but still on his mind is health care. This is that sound bite that you just referenced. Here it is now.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Now we need Congress to do its job and pass the budget that provides for higher stable and predictable funding levels for our military needs. That are fighting men and women deserve and you will get. Believe me.

President Trump, I will tell you, you will get it. Don't worry about it. But I don't mind getting a little hand so call that Congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it. And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care.


WHITFIELD: All right, Boris, we got a chance to hear that and again, the pageantry and the tradition is under way for the commissioning of this aircraft carrier.

Admiral John Kirby, if I could ask you, too, so this is interesting because while this is a ceremony that is always steeped in tradition. It was an interesting moment where President Trump is there at the podium and then he also made reference to Donald Rumsfeld, who is the secretary of defense under Gerald Ford and of course, under President George W. Bush and the former Vice President Dick Cheney. What are your thoughts on -- on their attendance at this moment?

I think wholly appropriate. I was really glad to see them there. It was really fun to see them sitting there, see the smiles on their faces. They have a part of this. I mean, not only did they serve under and with Gerald Ford, but certainly Secretary Rumsfeld had a hand in bringing this ship to be, quite frankly.

Because her design has been a long, long time in coming, and she was named in the previous administration to President Obama. So, I think it was great that they were there and I think a real testament to how long it takes to build an aircraft carrier, but also how important historical legacy goes into who you name it for and what that means.

WHITFIELD: OK, and John Kirby, I don't mean to be rude about talking over this ceremony that is under way. But if you do have a return, monitor, are you able to tell us what is happening at this instant right now?

KIRBY: I wasn't able to hear that. I don't know what exactly that part was.

WHITFIELD: OK. All right, we'll continue to do our homework here. Boris Sanchez, thank you so much there in Norfolk, Admiral John Kirby. We'll continue to keep close tabs and watch developments there in Norfolk, Virginia.

All right, also coming up next, Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort striking a deal with the Senate Judiciary Committee. Their interviews will all take place behind closed doors. So why aren't they agreeing to speak in public now? We'll discuss after the break.



WHITFIELD: All right, breaking news right now on new sanctions on Russia being proposed. The House and Senate have just struck a deal that could send a new bill to the president's desk before the end of the month. It would slap Russia with new sanctions and give Congress new veto power over easing sanctions against Moscow.

The deal also includes sanctions against Iran and North Korea and comes despite lobbying by the White House to water down sanctions on Russia. This coming as Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort, also striking deals to be interviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee behind closed doors and avoiding being subpoenaed for a high-profile public hearing next week.

[11:45:01] They have also agreed to provide records to the panel and to be privately interviewed ahead of any public sessions. Trump's son-in-law and presidential adviser, Jared Kushner has also agreed to be interviewed privately by the Senate Intel Committee on Monday. All there are likely to be asked about that secret campaign meeting last year at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, who promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton. This as Special Counsel Robert Mueller turns his focus to the first family. Here's CNN's Diane Gallagher.


DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): CNN has learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller sent a letter this week telling the White House to preserve all documents related to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a Russian attorney among others.

Staff members received notice on Wednesday from White House counsel informing them to preserve text messages, emails, notes, voicemails and any other communications related to the meeting.

According to a source who read the letter to CNN's Dana Bash, Mueller wrote in part information concerning the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya is relevant to the investigation.

Russian court records obtained by CNN show Veselnitskaya represented a military unit tied to one of the country's intelligence agencies in a Moscow property dispute from 2005 to 2013.

Veselnitskaya has previously denied that she was linked to the kremlin. The special counsel's office declined to comment and a White House spokeswoman told CNN they do not comment on internal communications. This comes as the Trump administration appears to be looking for ways to undercut the investigation.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: The entire thing has been a witch hunt.

GALLAGHER: "The New York Times" reports that Trump legal team is conducting a wide-ranging search for conflicts of interest as the president's people publicly questioned investigators possible political biases.

KELLYANN CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: These were significant donations by members of that team. They clearly wanted the other person to win. Now whether that prejudices them one way or the other in the investigation remains to be seen, but it is relevant information for people to have.

GALLAGHER: Justice Department rules allow employees to contribute to political parties and campaigns. So that would not be seen as a conflict of interest. The president went so far in Wednesday's interview with the "New York Times" as to question Robert Mueller himself, who Trump interviewed as a possible replacement for fired FBI Director James Comey before he was appointed special counsel.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: What the hell is this all about? Talk about conflicts, he was interviewing for the job. GALLAGHER: According to Bloomberg, Mueller is reportedly investigating potentially Russia-related business transactions of the president and his associates. Trump has suggested that Mueller doesn't have the authority to look into Trump family finances.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mueller was looking at your finances and your family's finances unrelated to Russia. Is that a red line?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I would say yes. By the way, I don't, I mean it's possible that there's a condo or something. I sell a lot of condo units, and if somebody from Russia buys condo, who knows? I don't make money from Russia.

GALLAGHER: The "Washington Post" reports the president's team is looking into whether he can grant pardons to aides, family members, even himself.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president maintains pardon powers like any president would, but there are no announcements or planned announcements on that front whatsoever.

GALLAGHER: The attorney representing Mr. Trump in matters related to the Russia investigation call the "Washington Post" report nonsense and insist the president's lawyers are cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller on behalf of the president.


Now that statement was from John Dowd. He is now the lead on the president's outside counsel when it comes to the Russia investigation. He's replacing Trump's long-time personal attorney, Mark Kasowitz, who CNN has learned is going to be taking a bit of a more reduced role in all of this. Coming on the heels of the resignation of the communications strategist and spokesperson for the legal team, Mark Corralo (ph). Diane Gallagher, CNN, Washington.

WHITFIELD: All right, let's discuss all of this now. Joining me right now, Michael Zeldin, CNN legal analyst who was special counsel to then Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller. All right, Michael, good to see you.

So, what do you make of this deal to allow them to be interviewed behind closed doors instead of testifying in public, Manafort, you know, Kushner, and Don Jr.? One could see this as very advantageous for the witnesses because they wouldn't be subject to public opinion. But why would the judiciary panel agree to do this?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, because they didn't want to go through the process of subpoenaing them and perhaps them challenging the subpoenas and going to court. In some sense, this is actually a win-win. It's a win for Manafort and Trump, they get to have sort of a dress rehearsal where they're not under oath and they can, you know, essentially refine their testimony as it comes to mind during the staff interviews.

But it's also good for the committee in the sense the staff tend to be more substantive, more prepared, better questionings. They'll get documentation and so in some sense this allows this prep session the senators to get a briefing on what they're saying.

[11:50:08] So that if they go to public hearing and if I were counsel to either of these guys I would try to avoid that very much, it allows for --

WHITFIELD: Does not look good when you do that, though?

ZELDIN: -- allows for more questioning by the senators. Sorry?

WHITFIELD: That doesn't look good when you do that, does it?

ZELDIN: Well, my commentary is legal. They can figure out what the political optics is in terms of the law of them testifying they have a right to refuse to testify, they can assert the fifth amendment, and my advice to them as a lawyer would be to not testify under oath in public until everything that they want to say is locked down and they know they're going to be able to maintain a consistent story.

So far Trump Jr. has not been able to maintain a consistent story. So if he testifies under oath inconsistently, he subjects himself to the possibility of making a false statement under oath, which is a much more complicated proposition for him and an easier proposition for the prosecutors who could charge him with that lie.

WHITFIELD: So while there may not be a subpoena this go-around because they have agreed, you know, for the private. Does this mean that the Senate could potentially still subpoena somewhere down the line if it needed to?

ZELDIN: Sure. I think that what we're seeing here is a two-step proposition. One, we don't subpoena you but you voluntarily give us documents and subject yourself to a staff round of questions.

Then after we've debriefed the staff and learned what you are going to say, you will promise sometime in the fall to come in voluntarily and testify under oath. And I hope that that's the deal they've made from the -- my hope on the Senate side of it.

My hope on the lawyer's side for these witnesses is that they avoid having to testify in public for legal reasons and that they limit their testimony under oath to Mueller.

WHITFIELD: So in addition to the testimony or interview next week as early as Wednesday, the committee has also asked that all documents, e-mails, texts, notes, voice mails be preserved from that June 2016 meeting. Why wouldn't that request have already been made, particularly when it was made public when Don Jr., you know, released his e-mails preemptive of the reporting of those e-mails in the newspaper just to make sure that nothing would be destroyed or altered before testimony?

ZELDIN: Yes. Well, it's a good question as to timing. You'd think that that would have been done already as soon as the meeting was revealed. I'm not sure that it actually wasn't done previously by White House counsel issuing an internal memorandum to staff saying to preserve stuff within the White House with respect to Donald Jr. and others, this is what the process is.

And if they were to have destroyed this stuff prior to this, that record of destruction would be observable to people who were receiving the data and that would be, again, problematic in an obstruction of justice in term.

WHITFIELD: You've worked with Bob Mueller. What are your concerns or thoughts about President Trump reportedly he and his team looking for ways in which to undermine Mueller, looking for possible conflicts of interest or political biases, even the notion that Mueller used to be a member of one of Trump clubs and there's some dispute over how they parted ways?

ZELDIN: Right. So, it goes with the territory that if you're going to step into one of these positions you're going to be scrutinized by the opposition. Just ask Ken Starr how that process worked for him and the Clintons.

So, I think that Mueller knew well that this was going to be part of the assignment. As to whether it will be successful, I think it's a good luck with that to the opposition. I don't think that Mueller is assailable for any of the conflicts that are being talked about in the newspaper.

And that his team will proceed with their investigation unencumbered by these allegations of conflict or golf memberships or donations by one or two staff members to a campaign opposition to Trump's.

WHITFIELD: All right. Michael Zeldin, thanks so much. See you soon. Appreciate it.

So much more straight ahead in the NEWSROOM, but first one in eight American women develops breast cancer during their lifetime. This week's "CNN Hero" was one of them. As she battled the disease, she saw that it was taking a serious toll on her husband, her young son, and she was inspired to create a way to give other families a chance to reconnect and enjoy life again. Meet Jean.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When the cancer bomb goes off in your house, it's devastating. It's financially, physically, emotionally exhausting. There you go. You got it, girl!

Our hope and our goal is to put a huge embrace on families as they're going through the breast cancer journey. To have them hit the pause button and just relax and play.


[11:55:13] WHITFIELD: All right, to see how Jean is helping rejuvenate families impacted by breast cancer, go to While you're there, nominate someone you think should be a 2017 "CNN Hero." We'll be right back.


WHITFIELD: Hello again, everyone, and thank you so much for being with me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

This breaking news that we continue following now on new sanctions against Russia. The House and Senate have agreed to a deal that could send a new bill to the president's desk before the end of the month.

It would slap Russia with new sanctions and give Congress veto power over easing sanctions against Moscow.