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Senate Votes on Repeal-Only Plan; U.S. Sanctions on Russia; Tillerson Returns to Work; Sessions Amid Trump Comments; Trump on Transgender in the Military. Interview with Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL). Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired July 26, 2017 - 09:30   ET



[09:34:04] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, happening now, you're looking at live pictures of Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Senate back in session right now. McConnell pushing his efforts to repeal and replace, or maybe just repeal, who knows about replace, Obamacare. After taking one big step forward yesterday, they took one giant step back last night after the Senate pretty overwhelmingly voted against a measure to repeal and replace. Up next, the vote to repeal only. That, too, expected to fail.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: With a heavy lift to find support, Republican leaders are now talking about something called a skinny repeal. Call that the word of the day, if you will.

Suzanne Malveaux is on Capitol Hill with lawmakers to explain what that means and the chances of that happening.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot of people talking about skinny, Poppy. What Senate Majority Mitch McConnell wants and what he is going to be trying to do over the next couple of days you'll see are multiple test votes, test amendments, to put it out there to see, can he get that critical number of 50. That is really the goal here is to get them to something, to vote on something, and they need 50 to do that. So it could be small. It could be big.

[09:35:10] We saw yesterday it failed miserably. It had to reach a 60- vote threshold. They offered $100 billion for Medicaid, a nod to the moderates. They offered the pared down, bare bones insurance plans. That was a nod to the conservatives. But, ultimately, they didn't get the number that they need. That was 60.

But today they just need 50. That is repeal and not replace. Delay the replacement by two years. That's an idea by Senator Rand Paul. The problem is originally this came back -- came up in 2015. It was voted on earlier this year. Rejected by the Senate. So it is not likely that they are going to see that pass either.

Then you've got this skinny repeal. That, perhaps, Poppy, John, is the one that is the most appealing to most of the Republicans because it eliminates that mandate. And that is something that many of them say is highly unpopular. At the same time, Democrats say that they are going to do everything

to undercut the process, to add as many amendments as possible, to make sure that Republicans are on record with exactly whatever it is that this is moving forward that might be politically damaging. They want to make sure that they pass those votes. So they're going to be putting in things they think Republicans are going to be holding their noses at voting no and essentially making it very unpopular for the elections in 2018.


HARLOW: Suzanne Malveaux with the skinny on the skinny.

Do you like that?


HARLOW: The skinny on the skinny.

BERMAN: I'm just getting used to skinny jeans. I know. Skinny repeal is going to take me a while.

HARLOW: He really wears them.

Thank you, Suzanne. We appreciate it.

This morning world leaders are pushing back against the United States just hours after lawmakers overwhelmingly in the House passed a bill to slap new sanctions on Russia, North Korea and Iran. The EU's response, "America first cannot mean that Europe's interests come last."

BERMAN: Russia is striking a harsher tone, saying the sanctions essentially threaten the future of U.S./Russia relations all together.

CNN's Claire Sebastian live in Moscow with the very latest.

Good morning, Claire.


Yes, the Kremlin coming out just about an hour ago with the press comments that we've heard from them today. The spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called this sad news for U.S./Russia relations. He said it was no less disappointing for international law and international trade relations as well.

And it's interesting because the lower down the ranks of the Russian government you go, the less measured the tone. The deputy foreign minister came out earlier today and said this is a serious step towards destroying the prospect of normalizing relations with Russia.

And we heard from another prominent senator (ph) who called for Moscow to mount a response that would be painful to the Americans. Now, we don't exactly know what that means, but we do know that Moscow has unfinished business when it comes to the issue of retaliation. Don't forget that back in December when the Obama administration imposed those sanctions on Russia for alleged election interference, it confiscated two diplomatic compounds and it expelled 35 diplomats, Russia did not retaliate at that point. And there seems to be a feeling now that, you know, with all the hopes they had of the Trump administration perhaps lifting sanctions, now it looks like the opposite could be happening. And Russia is losing patience. So that's certainly the mood here in Moscow this morning.

HARLOW: Claire Sebastian live for us in Moscow with that. Thank you for the reporting.

BERMAN: All right, we've got some breaking news.

We are learning that Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, is at the White House right now.


BERMAN: We're told that it's for routine meetings. But, you know what, there hasn't been much in Jeff Sessions' life that's been routine --

HARLOW: Not lately.

BERMAN: The last few days. So we will wait and see what that is about.

Plus, other cabinet secretaries may be feeling some jitters also. Stay with us.


[09:42:59] BERMAN: All right, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson back at work today after taking some time off amid reports that he was frustrated at his role in the State Department. Some friends even went as far as to say that he could resign by the end of this year. But the State Department is refuting those reports.

Joining us now, CNN global affairs analyst, online news director to "The New Yorker," David Rohde.

David, it's our John King who reported over the weekend that Rex Tillerson, you know, is getting antsy. He doesn't like the relationship he has right now with the White House. And essentially John's reporting might not last the year. What are you hearing about the levels of tension?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: There's a great deal of tension I think, you know, that we've talked -- you talked about the Sessions thing earlier. You know, it's -- the president contradicted Tillerson directly when there was this confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. That was a public sort of humiliation of Rex Tillerson, who's run one of the largest companies of the world. So I think he is frustrated.

He also, you know, doesn't seem to fit well at the State Department. He's talking about a massive cut, a third of the budget, and reorganizing the entire operation there. HARLOW: So tension between the White House and the State Department is

no new thing. Just wonder if this level of it is something that you haven't seen, is new, and also does it have anything to do with the fact that this is a guy who ran one of the biggest companies in the world, a CEO, who largely did what he wanted to do as long as the board agreed with him. I mean is this also a function of where he came from?

ROHDE: Yes, and where President Trump came from. He ran a very small, private company. You know, his primary thing was being a television star, frankly. This is very different and he's publicly undermining members of his cabinet. And you see the fallout from that I think with Tillerson and with Sessions.

BERMAN: And, in this case, it's also very rare policy issues. It's not being investigated (ph), you know, which is what the Russia investigation is all about. Look, you said Qatar. Also there's the issue of Iran, the Iran sanctions --


BERMAN: Where the president flat-out saying in 90 days he may not reauthorize them.

ROHDE: And the president was totally isolated on that. Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, you know, said to approve the Iran did. Tillerson did. McMaster, the national security adviser. So it's very unusual.

HARLOW: But can he do that, as we were discussing before the show, by fiat? Can the president just decide, I'm not sort of confirming that we're good on this, and that's just that, or does he need the consensus of a team on that?

[09:45:04] ROHDE: We'll see. The federal government is enormous. Being the world's most powerful, you know, power, you need lieutenants carrying out and dealing with all these complex issues. Some argue it's not sustainable. We'll see. This is how Trump is running his White House.

HARLOW: As he would say, time will tell.

ROHDE: Correct.

BERMAN: Time will tell a whole lot of things right now.

David, thanks so much.

HARLOW: Yes, it will.

Thank you.

If you're wondering what Jeff Sessions is thinking about, when he talks to the president, so are we. Next, we are speaking with a senator who did just speak with the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. More on that conversation ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:50:04] BERMAN: All right, we do have some breaking news. We just learned that the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, is at the White House. We're told the meetings are routine. Though, as we said, nothing routine with the attorney general.

Also, we'll get to this in a minute, the president of the United States tweeting new criticism about the attorney general.

Want to bring in a friend of the attorney general's, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. Served in the Senate alongside Jeff Sessions for a long time.

Senator, thank you so much for being with us.

You are someone who has spoken to the attorney general these last few days when he has suffered this public sort of shaming at the hands of the president. How did he seem to you?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: Well, he's a strong guy. Man with integrity and purpose. I told him to hang in there. And he will, I hope. He deserves better than this.

You know, he's not the president's personal lawyer. He's the attorney general of the United States. He took an oath to the Constitution, not to the president. And I think the president needs to realize that, that he is not his lawyer. He recused himself when he thought he had a possible conflict. And he -- I think he did the right thing.

But he's had a lot of experience in law enforcement. He's on the Judiciary Committee. Former United States attorney for a long time. He's a man with a lot of friends and a lot of respect.

HARLOW: So while he is at the White House right now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who you say deserves better than the treatment he's getting from the commander in chief, the president has tweeted --

SHELBY: You know I don't -- I don't know. We can all speculate what's going on if he's --

HARLOW: No, I -- I'll --

SHELBY: At the White House. I'm sure that --

HARLOW: He is at the White House.

SHELBY: He and the president are having a talk, but I'm not privileged -- I'm not privy to it.

HARLOW: Maybe -- maybe they are, senator.

SHELBY: We all wish we were. But --

HARLOW: Maybe they are, senator. But we know that just moments ago the president tweeted yet another attack on him writing, why didn't Attorney General Sessions replace acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend, who was in charge of the Clinton investigation but got -- and he's continuing the rest of that tweet, I would assume, right now. It sounds like you're saying, look, the president is way out of bounds on this. Is that your message?

SHELBY: Well, I think Jeff Sessions deserves better than he's getting. And I do believe that he has a lot of friends, he has a lot of respect around the country as a man of integrity. And that's a job for integrity. He is not the president's lawyer. And he is not going to be. And nobody should be as the attorney general of the United States.


SHELBY: I think Jeff Sessions, at the end of the day, deserves much more respect than he's getting now.


BERMAN: So if he is fired --

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: Which we don't know will happen, or if he quits because he just doesn't want to have to put up with this anymore, what will you do in the Senate? What will the reaction be in the Senate? Will you, you know, easily confirm his replacement?

SHELBY: Well, I -- that's all speculation now. He's still there at the moment, so we don't know. Let's see what happens and when it happens, if it does.

HARLOW: Well, I think it's a fair -- it's a fair question though that John brings up because just yesterday in another interview you said, quote, it would not be taken lightly if he, Sessions, is fired. So you spoke about it yesterday.

SHELBY: Well, I think --

HARLOW: What would you do?

SHELBY: Well, I don't know what we could do. But we would -- we don't have to sit around and say we like what's going on and we like somebody that -- obviously being brutalized and when he shouldn't be and he doesn't deserve it.

BERMAN: So to that point, you know, the president of the United States said last night, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office. This brutalizing, as you put it, coming from the president of the United States. Do you, senator, find that presidential?

SHELBY: Well, the president's unique. The president is our president. We wish the president well. But in this instance, I also wish Attorney General Jeff Sessions well.

HARLOW: Let's also -- and I just want to read you the rest of the president's tweet. Trying to pull it up.

BERMAN: He says -- he's talking about Andrew McCabe, you know, big dollars --

HARLOW: Yes, and he says, big dollars, talking about the $700,000 for his wife's political run, et cetera. He said this before.

Let's move on to a new policy from the president directly this morning that he also wrote on Twitter, and that is saying that in no capacity, senator, will transgender individuals be allowed to serve in the U.S. military. This is a complete reversal of an Obama administration policy. He's saying this comes from his generals and his military experts. Is this a move that you support from a president who vowed to support the LGB community more than Hillary Clinton during the campaign?

SHELBY: Well, and that would be a reversal of the current policy. The current policy is a big tent for people who want to serve. You've got to remember, our military forces is a volunteer force. So I'll have to see what he's actually said, read his tweet and go from there.

[09:55:06] BERMAN: Are you concerned about the 4,000 transgender people currently serving, or up to 6,000 based on what Rand says --


BERMAN: Serving in the military right now, what happens to them?

SHELBY: Well, I think you ought to treat everybody fairly and you ought to give everybody a chance to serve.

HARLOW: So in that answer, it sounds like you are saying you don't agree with his policy, because this is not treating everyone equally to serve. Would you agree with that, senator?

SHELBY: Well, I'd like to see the wording of his policy and really what he said.

HARLOW: So we can -- but let's read it. Let's read it for you, OK.


HARLOW: After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not allow or accept transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical cost and disruption that transgenders in the military would entail. Thank you. The Rand Corporation that helped form this policy for the Obama administration, senator, says that cost for those reassignment surgeries would be somewhere between $2.4 million and $8.4 million. That's what the president says. Your response?

SHELBY: I'm sure we'll have hearings on that in the Armed Services Committee and also in the Defense Appropriations Committee that I serve. We'll go from there. BERMAN: All right, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, thank you so

much for your time, sir. Appreciate you coming on.

SHELBY: Thank you. Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, a lot going on this morning.

Moments from now, there will be a key hearing on Capitol Hill about Russian election meddling. We are going to hear from someone involved in this investigation we have not heard from before. He could give us some new details on where this all is heading.