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"The Washington Post": Sessions Discussed Trump Campaign with Russian Ambassador; Sean Spicer Steps Down as White House Press Secretary; Middle East Violence. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired July 22, 2017 - 00:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): An explosive new report claims the U.S. attorney general did in fact speak about the Trump campaign with Russian officials. What it might mean for Jeff Sessions' future in the Trump administration.

Plus the end of the line for the president's much maligned spokesman. Sean Spicer resigns after another shake-up at the White House.

And tensions turn into violent clashes in Jerusalem's Old City.

Thank you for joining us, everyone. I'm Cyril Vanier from the CNN NEWSROOM in Atlanta.


VANIER: New reporting from "The Washington Post" reveals potentially damaging information about U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions, specifically this: his conversations with Russian officials during last year's election campaign.

According to "The Post," U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak telling the Kremlin that he and Sessions discussed Trump campaign matters on at least two occasions.

The article is based on what Kislyak allegedly said as he was being monitored by U.S. intelligence. Now this is not backed up by other sources. It's also important to note that Kislyak could have been boasting or misrepresenting Sessions' remarks.

"Washington Post" reporter Adam Entous spoke with CNN's Anderson Cooper about these new revelations.


ADAM ENTOUS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": We knew about the meetings. We knew about them in March, that Sessions did not disclose them when he appeared for his confirmation hearing.

We were trying to figure out, what was the nature of those contacts, what was being discussed? So what we've learned is basically what Kislyak sent back to Moscow.

This is his account of his conversations, these two conversations, one in April, a second one in July, of his contact with Sessions.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: So while Sessions didn't seem to remember any specifics about these meetings, Kislyak sent back specifics?

ENTOUS: Yes, at the end of his conversations, I assume he gets into his car and goes back to the embassy or back to his residence and then he writes a report. That's the way most ambassadors' diplomats operate.

COOPER: So what did he tell his Russian bosses?

ENTOUS: He told them what he thought they discussed, which was campaign issues; in other words, what the relationship would be like between a future Trump presidency and the Russian government, the kind of thing that Kislyak was under orders from his boss, Putin, to try to get information about.

Kislyak was doing exactly his job, which is basically meeting with people in the Trump campaign, trying to get information about how that campaign would actually deliver on some of its rhetoric during the campaign, if it was elected. And so that way Putin can make a decision about what he thinks of this relationship.


VANIER: Let's find out what the U.S. Department of Justice is saying about all this. It put out a statement, saying, "The attorney general stands by his testimony from just last month before the Senate Intelligence 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."

But now compare that to what Sessions said back in March this year.


SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-ALA.), U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Let me be clear. I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.

And the idea that I was part of a, quote, "continuing exchange of information" during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false. That is the question that Senator Franken asked me at the hearing."


VANIER: Larry Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and joins us now.

Larry, so the attorney general, who was then an adviser to candidate Trump, did speak, in fact, about the campaign with the Russian ambassador, this is according to today's reporting in "The Washington Post."

What's your reaction to that?

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: It's extraordinary reporting and it's deeply disturbing. This is a pattern now with attorney general Sessions.

At first, of course, he didn't remember meeting at all with the Russian ambassador. And then he remembered some meetings when he was presented with evidence and not others.

Now there's pretty clear evidence that there were three meetings and, while he denied that he had discussed anything about Trump or the campaign, our own intelligence services, having picked up conversations that the ambassador from Russia had with his superiors in the Kremlin, it's pretty clear that he did discuss Trump and U.S.- Russia relations.


So just to be clear, does that defense still hold?

Because you --


VANIER: -- summed it up. First he said he didn't have meetings, then he said the meetings weren't about the campaign or Mr. Trump's policies on Russia.

Now if that reporting is correct, that's just not true?

SABATO: That's exactly the way I interpret it. I've always remembered something that was caught on the White House tapes under Richard Nixon.

At one point, President Nixon, advising his aides as to what to say when they were questioned by the authorities, he suggested that they say, "I can't recall."

And then he added, "You can't recall what you can't recall."

VANIER: So, look, is this normal, that they would discuss Mr. Trump's policy?

He was a candidate for the presidential election at the time, of course, that they would discuss Mr. Trump's policy positions on Russia and what a U.S.-Russia relation might look like under a Trump presidency?

Is that normal or not?

SABATO: It's really not normal, according to the people who have run presidential campaigns for both parties. They've all commented on this. It's a very rare situation. Theoretically, there's nothing wrong with that kind of discussion

between a U.S. senator and the ambassador from Russia. What's unusual here and raises a lot of questions is the fact that Senator Sessions cannot remember any of this until he's prodded and then he has to be prodded again and again to remember more details.

VANIER: By the way, this comes just days after the president criticized Mr. Sessions.

What do you make of the timing?

SABATO: Well, this is not good news for attorney general Sessions. He's being criticized by his boss. In fact, his boss said that, if he had it to do over again, he wouldn't appoint him at all. That's not a good sign.

And then this comes out, which complicates the White House's position on the whole Russia investigation.

So who knows how long the attorney general will last?


VANIER: Yes, that was going to be my question, can he stay on as attorney general with this?

SABATO: Well, he could. Maybe he would want to wait until the end of the investigation. But it's clear at this point that there's serious problems in the relationship between Senator Sessions or, rather, the attorney general now, and the President of the United States. And that is untenable over the long run.

VANIER: Larry, one more thing we have to get in there, which is the source of all of this. This is U.S. intelligence intercepts of conversations that the Russian ambassador himself is having.

In other words, the Russian ambassador is giving accounts, verbal accounts, of the conversations he had with Mr. Sessions back to his hierarchy back in Moscow.

Doesn't that raise some alarm bells?

After all, he could have mischaracterized the conversations or grossly exaggerated the content of his conversations with Mr. Sessions.

Doesn't that at least raise flags?

And isn't that cause for some -- shouldn't we be circumspect about what you're reading there?

SABATO: No one can eliminate that possibility. But people who know Ambassador Kislyak or have observed him for a number of years, don't believe that's the way he is, that describes his character. He is a precise, careful individual.

I've had some contact with him. That was my impression of him, in private as well as public. And I would further suggest that he would not have lasted as Russia's ambassador to the United States for so many years had he been careless in the way that's being suggested.

VANIER: All right, Larry Sabato, always a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you very much for joining us and reacting to this latest news. Thanks.

SABATO: Thank you.

VANIER: And Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort have cut a deal with the Senate committee, which called on them to testify next week. In order to avoid a high-profile public hearing, Trump Jr. and Manafort agreed to provide records to the panel and to be privately interviewed before any public session.

Lawmakers want more information from them about their meeting last year with a Russian lawyer, who had promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is asking the Trump administration to preserve any evidence pertaining to the Russia investigation. Our Dianne Gallagher reports.


DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 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 J. 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 2005-2013.

Veselnitskaya has previously denied that she was linked to the Kremlin. The special counsel's office --


GALLAGHER (voice-over): -- 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.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The entire thing has been a witch hunt. GALLAGHER (voice-over): "The New York Times" reports the Trump legal team is conducting a wide-ranging search for conflicts of interest, as the president's people publicly question investigators' possible political biases.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP COUNSELOR: These are 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.

TRUMP: So what the hell is this all about?

Talk about conflicts. He was interviewing for the job.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): 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, your family's finances unrelated to Russia.

Is that a red line?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would that be a breach of what his actual --

TRUMP: I would say yes. Yes, I would say.

By the way, I would say, I don't -- I don't -- I mean, it's possible there's a condo or something. So, you know, I see a lot of condo units and somebody from Russia buys a condo. Who knows. I don't make money from Russia.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): "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, DEPUTY 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 (voice-over): The attorney representing Mr. Trump in matters related to the Russia investigation called "The Washington Post" report, "nonsense," and insists the president's lawyers are cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller on behalf of the president.

GALLAGHER: Now that statement was from John Dowd. He's 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, Marc 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 that legal team, Mark Corallo -- Dianne Gallagher, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: A shake-up at the White House. Press secretary Sean Spicer is leaving his job. After just six months, Spicer resigned when the president hired Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director. Jessica Schneider breaks this down for us.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A seismic staff shake-up in the West Wing, Sean Spicer out as press secretary after six tumultuous months.

Spicer submitted his resignation minutes after Anthony Scaramucci, a former Trump campaign fund-raiser and New York financier, accepted the job of communications director.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I like the team. Let me rephrase that. I love the team.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Scaramucci announced Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will move into Spicer's role.

SCARAMUCCI: Sarah is going to be the press secretary, right?

OK, so congratulations to you, Sarah.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): President Trump asked Spicer to remain on staff, according to a top Republican adviser and White House official, but Spicer decided to step down instead, a move that shocked White House staffers.

A source familiar with the changes says the president has been pushing to add Scaramucci to the staff for some time, but Spicer opposed the move, since Scaramucci isn't a Washington insider.

Scaramucci denied any problems with Spicer and chief of staff Reince Priebus...

SCARAMUCCI: But I don't have any friction with Sean. I don't have any friction with Reince. This is the White House.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): -- and downplayed tensions with chief strategist Steve Bannon, who sources tell CNN opposed Scaramucci's hire.

SCARAMUCCI: I want to keep my head in the game. I want to keep my ego low and I want to work with Steve Bannon as close as I possibly. I have a huge, enormous amount of respect for him.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Scaramucci pledged to use his role to highlight the advances the White House is making that he says the media isn't paying attention to.

SCARAMUCCI: I was in the Oval Office with him earlier today and we were talking about letting him be himself, letting him express his full identity. I think he's got some of the best political instincts in the world and perhaps in history.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Spicer first stepped up to podium the day after the inauguration to lecture the media about reports that the crowd size was significantly less than President Obama's first inauguration in 2009.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESPERSON: This was a largest audience to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): In recent weeks, Sean Spicer was frequently replaced in the daily press briefings by deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders...


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Spicer's place at the podium was widely spoofed on "Saturday Night Live."

"SPICER": And this is the new Spicey.

SPICER: The president just wrapped up --

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Spicer says his departure won't be immediate, tweeting --


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): "It's been an honor and a privilege to serve POTUS @RealDonaldTrump and this amazing country. I will continue my service through August."

The president issued a statement thanking Spicer.

SANDERS: "I am grateful for Sean's work on behalf of my administration and the American people. I wish him continued success as he moves on to pursue new opportunities. Just look at his great television ratings."


VANIER: That was Jessica Schneider reporting there.

Anthony Scaramucci steps into the job just a month after he began a role as vice president and chief strategy officer at the U.S. export- import bank. The New York hedge fund manager has been a prominent TV surrogate for President Trump. He also served on the executive committee of Trump's transition team

after the election. Scaramucci previously hosted a financial news show.

The White House is demanding the release and return of Americans held in Iran and threatening Tehran with, quote, "new and serious consequences" if it doesn't happen.

A White House statement says the Trump administration is redoubling its efforts to bring home all Americans unjustly detained abroad and it accused Iran of using hostage-taking as a tool of state policy.

Also the U.S. will no longer allow its citizens to visit North Korea. The restriction will go into effect in about a month. Certain exceptions for humanitarian work or other purposes will require special government approval.

U.S. college student Otto Warmbier came home in a coma last month and died days later after North Korea detained him for almost a year and a half.

Still to come in the show, more violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. What Israel says inspired a deadly stabbing attack -- ahead.

Plus, after the tragic shooting of an Australian woman, a police chief is stepping down. But some activists are making it clear that's just not enough. Stay with us.




VANIER: Welcome back.

The latest wave of Middle East violence keeps escalating. Israel says three of its citizens were killed Friday in a brutal stabbing attack in the West Bank.

Officials say the assailant was a Palestinian, who climbed the fence of an Israeli settlement. They say he entered one of the houses and carried out the attack. A fourth Israeli was wounded and the suspect was also shot and hospitalized.

Now Hamas appeared to praise the attack on Twitter, saying it was due in part to crimes against its people in Jerusalem and at the al-Aqsa mosque. Israel says the attacker posted on Facebook that he was motivated by recent restrictions at that mosque, which is a key Islamic holy site.

The al-Aqsa restrictions have also led to clashes in Jerusalem itself. Palestinian officials say three Palestinians were killed in the violence on Friday. More than a hundred others were wounded. Tensions boiled over after the killing of two Israeli police officers in the area last week. Ian Lee has more now from Jerusalem. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)


IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tensions turned prayer into protest. Both sides anticipated the violence this Friday, pitting Israeli police against Palestinians. Projectiles filled the air. Israeli police used stun grenades, tear gas and water cannons.

Palestinians throw rocks and fireworks, turning quiet Jerusalem streets into battle zones.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just want us to leave the country and we're not leaving. We're going to stay here. They don't know this. There's no way for us to leave. Even if they came out of Jerusalem, there's no meaning for my life after that because everything that belongs to me is here.

LEE (voice-over): The day's violence, paid in blood. Here, the body of a dead Palestinian, leaving the hospital. One of several Palestinians killed in the volley. Hundreds more injured in Jerusalem and the West Bank, according to the Palestinian ministry of health.

Several security officers, too, sustained injuries, according to police.

MICKY ROSENFELD(?), ISRAELI POLICE: All the police units and the Israeli national police units responded to disturbances in Ras el- Amoud, Wadi Joz, Issawiya, where our police units are located, and are responding, using non-lethal weapons after both stones and fireworks have been fired directly at our police officers.

LEE (voice-over): This cycle of violence began over a week ago, with the killing of two Israeli policemen. New security measures around the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, infuriated Palestinians, who accuse Israel of trying to expand their control and limit access to al-Aqsa mosque.

"We all know al-Aqsa is for Muslims," Ali tells me. "The occupation crossed all the red lines. Those metal detectors prevent us from our right to pray freely."

Israel's prime minister insists he has no plans to change the rules governing the holy complex. Netanyahu says he'll stick to the status quo.

Meanwhile, authorities have deployed thousands of extra security personnel in and around Jerusalem. The violence seen here also playing out across the West Bank.

LEE: The police are pushing the protesters away from the Old City. You can see, here on the ground, pieces of concrete and rocks that they're throwing at the police.

The police are using stun grenades and rubber bullets to push them back but it's really been this game of cat-and-mouse. LEE (voice-over): Police captured a number of protesters, more than 2

dozen arrested in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Police say the day's actions were designed to keep the peace.

But in a land where violence begets violence, clashes won't likely end the current turmoil. It's more likely to take a political solution -- Ian Lee, CNN, Jerusalem.


VANIER: The Minneapolis chief of police has stepped down over the recent death of an Australian woman. Janee Harteau says that, after some deep reflection, she's ready for new leadership to take over.

The victim, Justine Ruszczyk, had called police last weekend to report a possible sexual assault near her home. Instead of that, Ruszczyk was shot by one of the responding police officers and her death naturally has sparked outrage. Some activists, shouting down the city's mayor on Friday night, demanding that she, too, resign.

Coming up after this break, one woman says it's like being boiled in a microwave. We'll tell you about the record-breaking heat taking over Shanghai. Stay with us, right here on CNN.





VANIER: And before we wrap it up, a long lost bag containing moon dust made an astronomical profit. The bag Neil Armstrong used to collect moon samples sold at auction Thursday for $1.8 million.

The original purpose of the bag was only discovered two years ago after a woman bought it in an online auction for just $995. Apparently after returning from space, the bag was misplaced during an inventory error.

Neil Armstrong collected about 500 grams of moon dust and 12 rock fragments during his moon walk in July 1969.

And that does it for us. Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment. Stay with us.