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Trump Attacks Sessions, FBI again; Senate Digs into Russian Meddling in U.S. Election; President Trump Bans Transgender Service Members. Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired July 26, 2017 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, top of the hour, breaking news. This, happening just moments ago, President Trump pummeling his own attorney general once again with public taunts and scathing attacks while the attorney general is sitting in meetings at the White House. The assault is continuing this morning, the latest "Why didn't AG Sessions replace acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who as in charge of Clinton investigation." And he went on from there.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And again, what is at issue here isn't the substance of the tweet, it's that the president of the United States, again, attacking his own attorney general while the attorney general, we understand, is sitting inside the White House for routine meetings. Let us go there right now, CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House right now. Kaitlan, what are you learning?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, we thought we are going to make it through the entire morning without a tweet from Donald Trump about Jeff Sessions, but we just got one from him.
And it's worth noting that in this tweet, while he is attacking Jeff Sessions for not replacing Andrew McCabe at the FBI, Donald Trump interviewed McCabe back in May for the position of FBI director after he fired James Comey. But putting that aside, it's very clear that Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are engaged in basically a war of a game of chicken right now. Neither of the men is speaking. And Donald Trump is making it very clear that he wants Jeff Sessions to quit. While Jeff Sessions is making it clear he has no plans to resign right now.
Just in a Rose Garden press conference yesterday, Donald Trump was repeating that he was very disappointed in Jeff Sessions. But then also let the door open for him to continue in his job as attorney general when he said he wants him to be much tougher on intelligence leaks. Then the newly minted communications director, Anthony Scaramucci was on CNN this morning and he was asked about Jeff Sessions' future. So, let's listen to what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think that he's going to get rid of Jeff Sessions because he seems to be injuring him in public?
ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I don't -- I don't know the answer to that.
I would recommend to every cabinet secretary and every teammate that I have here on the West Wing, have a tough skin.
CUOMO: Have they spoken?
SCARAMUCCI: I don't know the answer.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COLLINS: So, like he said, he doesn't know if they have spoken yet. But we do know that Jeff Sessions is in the west wing right now for what we are told are routine meetings. But we do not know if he will meet with Donald Trump today.
BERMAN: Kaitlan, thank you so much.
I want to go to Capitol Hill right now. Manu Raju, I think speaking to Senator Lindsey Graham. Let's listen.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The weakness is that the president is trying to not use his power. He is trying to get Sessions to quit. And I hope Sessions doesn't quit. If the president wants to fire him, fire him.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: You think the president is demonstrating weakness by his handling of Sessions?
GRAHAM: Absolutely. I think anybody who is strong would use the power they have and be confident in their decision. So strong people say, I've decided that this man or woman can't serve me well and I'm going to act accordingly and take the consequence. To me, weakness is when you play around the edges and you don't use the power you have.
BERMAN: You can hear us right now. We missed the top of your conversation with Senator Lindsey Graham there. We did hear him say right now that the president's treatment of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, portrays weakness. What did he say to you at the beginning?
RAJU: Yes, that's right. I mean, you really came in right as we started talking about that he was asked initially about the president's new policy about transgender individuals serving in the military. He sort of punted on that. That he wants to hear more about it. But he had some very strong words about Jeff Sessions. And he is a defender of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and does not like the way the president has been treating him publicly.
[10:05:00] Yesterday, Lindsey Graham put out that statement defending Sessions. And here, very clearly, I asked him about these recent attacks against Jeff Sessions, today's just most recent tweet saying that he should have fired - Sessions should have fired Andy McCabe as acting FBI director. And Lindsey Graham was pretty - was taken aback by it and said very bluntly, that the president is showing weakness in his handling of the Sessions situation.
So, very clearly, a lot of support on Capitol Hill, perhaps Senator Orrin Hatch, who is walking up here, maybe with an answer.
Senator Hatch walking away there, guys. He was asked a question about health care ahead of this Judiciary Committee hearing. But clearly, this issue of Jeff Sessions, he has a lot of support on Capitol Hill from Republican senators.
Dick Shelby, former Alabama senator -- current Alabama senator did serve with Sessions, who was the Alabama senator, called him yesterday, told him he has widespread support on Capitol Hill. Even Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, said that he should have recused himself from the Russia investigation.
So, the president going after almost one of their own, Senate Republicans own is just not going over very well, which is what you heard from Lindsey Graham just moments ago saying, the president demonstrating a sign of weakness by his attacks on Jeff Sessions.
HARLOW: To say the least - I mean, Senator Shelby just told us moments ago that Senator Sessions deserves better than this.
Thank you very much for bringing us that live response from Lindsey Graham who has called Jeff Sessions someone he never doubted his integrity or sense of fair play.
You are looking now at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing just getting underway. The chairman, a Republican, Chuck Grassley. Let's listen.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: -- to enforce this law and monitor potential unregistered foreign agents. It's no surprise, then, that only 400 foreign agents are currently registered. Does anyone here seriously think that only 400 people in the whole United States take foreign money for P.R. and lobbying work?
The inspector general said the FBI investigators and the Justice Department officials can't even agree on what makes a good case for enforcement of this law. It is, then, no surprise that the inspector general found there is no, quote, "comprehensive department enforcement strategy on FARA," that's the acronym for the law, end of quote.
Between '66 -- 1966 and 2017, the Justice Department brought only seven criminal FARA cases. So listen to this: It has been 26 years since the Justice Department used civil injunction (ph) relief to enforce this law. Now, then, why comply, when the Justice Department clearly doesn't treat this law as a priority?
In an April 2015 letter to then-Attorney General Holder, I wrote about Sidney Blumenthal's efforts to influence U.S. policy by leveraging his close relationship with Secretary Clinton. News articles reported that Mr. Blumenthal transmitted documents to Secretary Clinton on behalf of a political party in the country of Georgia.
The Justice Department never explained why it did it not require Mr. Blumenthal to register under FARA. If the Justice Department thought Mr. Blumenthal's activities on behalf of foreign interests did not require registration, it should simply say so, particularly when the Trump administration has required Lieutenant General Michael Flynn to retroactively register under the law in large part because he wrote an op-ed for The Hill newspaper.
The administration also required Paul Manafort, the Podesta Group, Mercury LLC to register for their work on behalf of the Ukrainian government. Recently, there has been a lot of reporting about other unregistered foreign agents attempting to influence U.S. policy.
For example, a group of unregistered Russian agents allegedly worked to undermine the Magnitsky Act. That 2012 act was passed in honor of Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered massive financial fraud in Russia involving corrupt Russian government officials and organized crime.
He was then arrested by the same corrupt officials, and later died in Russian prison under suspicious circumstances. The Magnitsky Act allows president to sanction individual Russian human rights abusers and freeze their assets in the U.S.
The law was passed due to a tireless effort of William Browder, who will testify here today. Mr. Magnitsky was Mr. Browder's lawyer and friend.
In 2016, Mr. Browder filed a complaint with the Justice Department --
[10:10:32] BERMAN: All right. You're watching a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee covering largely foreign lobbying. But there's a huge amount of crossover here with that issue and the current various Russia investigations going on in Congress, not to mention the special counsel has to do with Michael Flynn, has to do with Paul Manafort, has to do with various groups that created the initial dossier.
So, a lot of overlap here and inside this hearing we also expect to hear from the inspector general at the Justice Department who is investigating various things that overlap that the Russia investigation as well, including James Comey, his firing and dating all the way back to his investigation of Hillary Clinton's e-mails. So there's a lot going on right now. We are going to keep our eye on it going forward.
HARLOW: Let's discuss as we monitor this with our panel. Errol Louis is here, CNN political commentator and political anchor of "Spectrum," Paul Callan, our legal analyst, he just wrote an op-ed about this on CNN.com. Salena Zito, CNN contributor, reporter for the "Washington Examiner" who was at the Trump rally last night and Mark Preston, CNN senior political analyst as well as our Jim Sciutto, our chief national security correspondent.
So, to you all, where to begin, I guess, Jim Sciutto, with you, because once again, while the attorney general this time is sitting at the White House in the so-called routine meetings, the president decides to take to his favorite medium and attack the attorney general in yet another tweet for this time not firing the acting FBI director Andrew McCabe who our Kaitlan Collins rightly pointed out the own president interviewed in May to potentially be the next FBI director. Your thoughts?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen. It's all about Russia here, right? I mean the president has said as much when he fired James Comey, there was a 24 hour cover story about this being about James Comey's handling of the Clinton investigation, his public comments, et cetera. Propagated by the White House spokespeople but it disappeared when the president himself said in fact he fired Comey because of the way he was handling the Russia investigation.
Going into this, we already know that that is the driving force behind this, because the president himself has said that multiple times. It's because Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, the president said that's not fair, whatever that means to the president for him to have done that. That is the driving force here. And a lot of these other comments that you are hearing from him about his handling of this or that really, it's the president kind of piling on to some degree. But it appears that the driving force is handling Russia investigation. Investigation that president doesn't want, frankly.
The other point I would make just as we listen to Chuck Grassley there, a reminder about this hearing. This is the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And remember, there are different views of the Russian investigation, not just from the president but among some Republicans on Capitol Hill that there is too much focus on the president and his advisers and not enough focus on Hillary Clinton, her alleged ties to Ukrainian contacts.
You heard Senator Grassley there talk about Sidney Blumenthal, a frequent target of Republicans and others when you talk about the Clinton campaign and his contacts with Russia. Keep in mind, that's important because you having through the Judiciary Committee an attempt to redirect the Russia investigation if not away from the president and his advisers at least adding an additional target here. And that is, well, what about what the Democrats did? What about their contacts with Ukraine, et cetera?
That's important because, listen, depending on what happens with the Mueller investigation, you have on the Hill the Intel committee, the Judiciary Committee, they have been -- the Intel committee has been laser focused on Russian interference. The Judiciary Committee here trying to add another target, perhaps - I don't know if distraction is the right word, but takes some of the focus away from Russian meddling and Trump associates and focus it on Democrats.
BERMAN: You know, Errol Louis, what's new this morning is in a way what's old. It's the president of the United States attacking his own attorney general in these very public ways. This morning it's while the attorney general of the United States is at the actual White House, Errol. But what's fascinating about it is that this just shows the president is not going to stop. He is not going to stop this, even though he has sort of suggested a way that Jeff Sessions might redeem himself. You know, go after leak investigations, maybe go after immigration, you know, harder. And Jeff Sessions is doing both those things by the way. But it doesn't seem to matter. The president saying, no, I'm still not going to stop with this public humiliation.
ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND POLITICAL ANCHOR, "SPECTRUM NEWS": That's exactly right. It is sort of startling but not surprising.
[10:15:00] If you think all the way back to the campaign, in a lot of these sort of close fought strategic strictly political decisions, the president has always kind of telegraphed what he is intending to do. I mean, during the campaign he said, I'm going to engage in substance free personal attacks on all of my opponents. I will give them names, crooked this and lying that and I won't talk about any substance. And it worked. He told us he was going to do it and he did it.
We have seen even during the transition. If you think about the way he treated Mitt Romney. The way he treated Chris Christie, there's no amount of humiliation that is going to sort of reach a limit for him. And so, that is what he was doing with Jeff Sessions.
I think Jim Sciutto was exactly right. This is -- he is clearly on -- the president seems to be clearly on the wrong side of what this investigation is going to lead to. He doesn't want to be in that position. And so, everybody, James Comey, now Jeff Sessions, anybody who seems to be taking him down that path is going to be the subject of attacks. He has made very, very clear that he is going to do this every single day until he gets -- I guess, out of the pressure that this investigation and Justice Department is bringing on him.
HARLOW: But Paul Callan, you make a point in your fascinating new op- ed that the president may have some political cover here. And you write that he may at least for the time being have the political ability to survive the ouster of Sessions, Rosenstein, the deputy AG and even Mueller, the special prosecutor. Why?
PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. I think that we're talking often about the Saturday Night Massacre in the Nixon administration as an example of what can happen when you start firing the attorney general and his subordinates to get at a special prosecutor. Nixon was impeached. But you had a Democratic Congress at that time. We have a Republican Congress now. And the president is unlikely to be impeached by a Republican Congress for abuse of power. In 2018, after the midterm elections, we may have a different Congress.
HARLOW: They are fed up. The Republicans are fed up with his treatment of Sessions. You just heard from Senator Shelby saying as much, brutalizing.
CALLAN: They are fed up. But there's a big difference between fed up and voting for impeachment. And I want to just focus on one other thing that I haven't really heard people talking about. And that is this attack on Sessions is an attempt to get Sessions to resign. And people are talking about the president firing Sessions. Sessions is an attorney general approved by Congress. In American history, you have to go back as far as John Adams to find a secretary -- a cabinet secretary who was fired by the president who refused to resign. When Andrew Johnson tried do it in the 1860s, Congress tried to impeach him saying it was an abuse of power.
BERMAN: They did impeach him.
CALLAN: Well, they voted for impeachment but the Senate ultimately acquitted on the charge. So, the president doesn't want to fire Sessions. He wants Sessions to walk away voluntarily so he doesn't face the music, the president.
BERMAN: All right, guys. We want you all to stick around. You know, Salena and Mark Preston, you especially. You will be up first next time. We're going to talk about the Republican reaction on all this. Richard Shelby with some scathing words moments ago, also Salena, what voters where you are, are saying about all this. And plus, we have got other breaking news.
HARLOW: A lot of breaking news, a major policy announcement this morning on Twitter from the president. In no capacity can any transgender people any longer serve in the U.S. military. Why he is reinstalling that ban? What it means? Big picture and who he says told him to do it. Stay with us.
[10:22:29] BERMAN: All right. We do have a lot of breaking news this morning. This one, a policy pronouncement from the president of the United States. He just took a major stance saying that he will ban transgender people from serving in the U.S. military.
HARLOW: That's exactly right. He said that after consulting with his military generals, he has decided that no transgender individual can serve the U.S. military in any capacity. He cited the military medical costs for this, calling them overwhelming and burdensome.
Let's go straight to the Pentagon. Barbara Starr is there with more. Aside from the RAND Corporation finding that those costs for assignment surgery somewhere between $2 and $8 million, also you have reported that the folks across the hall from where you are, they are going through indications of the Pentagon taken by surprise with this announcement.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Taken by surprise and then some. I have to tell you. A short time ago, the chief Pentagon spokesman in the building today told reporters, call the White House. They didn't know anything about it. And it doesn't appear at this moment that the Pentagon has a lot of if any information about exactly what the president has in mind.
Because it was only in the last several weeks that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he wanted to take a pause for about six months and look at this entire issue of transgendered persons serving in the military more closely. Some of the chiefs, the heads of the military services, said they have a lot of questions. They still wanted to give a deeper look at all of this.
You know, there's even not a very clear answer as to how many transgendered persons currently serve in the military. -- The estimates, 1,000, 1,300 all way up to maybe 6,000 or more. So, it tells you how little they really know at this point about the scope of the issue that they're trying to address. But the president went a step further than any of the real conversation we heard about this in months saying -- really indicating that no person who is a transgender person could serve in the military. Well beyond the medical costs that might be incurred from any medical procedures that a person would want.
So, the question now -- I am stumbling over this, because we have no real clarity on it. Is the president saying that he wants the generals to go find out who is transgender and not allow them to serve in the U.S. military? Because he says -- I want to go back to this wording that -- will not accept recruits -- will not accept or allow transgendered individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. That's the strongest statement we have heard so far.
[10:25:17] BERMAN: And if you take him at his word and that's what we're told to do by the White House, that means he will not let transgender people stay in the military. The RAND corporation estimates there are thousands, thousands serving right now.
All right, Barbara Starr, thank you very much.
We want to bring back our panel to talk about this and also what we were talking about before, which was Jeff Sessions, the public ridicule that he is under at the hands of the president of the United States and the Russia investigation in general.
Salena Zito, you were in Youngstown, Ohio. You may still be there for all I know. Maybe you went home to Pittsburgh. --
HARLOW: I think that's Pittsburgh.
BERMAN: But the point is this. -- You were at the rally last night with the president of the United States. The feeling in the crowd there and in Youngstown in general, the respites as it were. Are they concerned? Are they focused on these issues? And by these issues I mean the fate of Jeff Sessions, the future of the Russia investigation?
SALENA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR AND REPORTER, "WASHINGTON EXAMINER": It was like a Steeler tailgate party. I mean, it was really boisterous. The people that were there were pretty excited -- really excited and had a lot of fun. I went around and talked to a variety of different people. All of them mentioned Sessions.
And you know, a lot of what I heard is, is this is sort of how we expect him to deal with things. They don't always like you know sort of the public demonizing, especially of someone that's a member of their cabinet. But they're not surprised.
You know, in the olden days, and I'm talking like Obama or Bush or Clinton, you know if you were -- if a president was unhappy with their attorney general -- and they have been -- that was sort of back channeled, right? Those same sort of comments that possibly Trump is saying about Sessions were told to the sitting attorney general and they got the message.
Well, Trump is a different animal. He puts it all out there. A lot of his supporters like that. Some of his supporters wish that he would pull it back a little bit. But it doesn't dislodge them. That's the key thing. It does not dislodge them from being supportive of him -- meaning Trump.
HARLOW: Mark, something that Anthony Scaramucci, the new head of communications to the White House, said you know less than 24 hours ago that I don't think is getting enough attention. He said, quote, "The president wants his cabinet secretaries to have his back."
Now, it's no surprise that this president wants loyalty. It's just a question of what does have his back mean. Does that mean against anything? Does that mean over the Constitution and their loyalty to the American people? How do you read that? And as it ties into all of these insults of Sessions over and over again.
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Poppy, let's unpack all that. Because when you join the administration, when you decide to take the oath, you are not taking the oath to be loyal to the president of the United States. You are taking the oath to be loyal to the United States, to the Constitution. Secondly, you are then -- because of being nominated and then confirmed, you are being loyal to the president as well.
But let's make no bones about this, this is not a monarchy. And I do believe that President Trump thinks that everybody in Washington should be working for him. Not only have we seen today his attacks on fellow Republicans Jeff Sessions, one of his biggest supporters, we have also seen him attack Lisa Murkowski, a United States senator, who didn't agree with him yesterday on moving forward on health care.
And if you just look back over the past couple of months, people who have left or are going to leave the White House, some of them very smart people, Mike Dubke, he was a communications director. Katie Walsh, she was one of the top advisers in the west wing. Sean Spicer, we expect him to leave next month as well, and perhaps you don't like Sean Spicer or you don't like how he acted over the past six months.
It doesn't take away from the fact that he understands politics. He understands Washington, D.C. And in the very end, loyalty begets loyalty. And I believe that the president right now is alienating himself. And at some point, and perhaps not now, but let's go a few months down the road, he's going to find himself on an island of one. And that's a very lonely place to be when you are the president of the United States.
BERMAN: We just had Richard Shelby, a senator from Alabama right now -- you know who is not a moderate, right?
HARLOW: Right. BERMAN: I mean you have a conservative Republican senator right there who was very critical of the president --
HARLOW: On two big fronts.
BERMAN: Well, exactly. You know he said that Jeff Sessions deserves better on this. He said that Jeff Sessions is being brutalized. And then, on the new policy that we heard from the president of the United States just a few minutes ago, banning transgender people from serving in the military, this conservative senator from Alabama told us he thinks that everybody ought to be able to serve.
Paul Callan, from a legal standpoint now, what has the president opened up here? If there are thousands of transgender people serving in the military right now, what happens to them? How do you force them out?