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AG Jeff Sessions Interviewed by Special Counsel Mueller's Team in Russia Probe; Trump Tweets Unknown if DACA Deal Possible by February 8th; Interview with Senator Chris Van Hollen; Aired 10:30-11a ET
Aired January 23, 2018 - 10:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[10:30:00] BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: -- had contacts with the Russian government during the campaign. Had at least two meetings with Ambassador Kislyak that he didn't initially disclose to the Senate when he was going through his confirmation hearing. So the underlying collusion investigation would be interested in what the nature of those conversations were.
Secondly, of course, he was privy to the conversations that led to Donald Trump's decision to fire Jim Comey. He was famously at that Monday meeting with his deputy Rod Rosenstein.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Right.
FALLON: And so any investigation about the president's obstruction of justice, Jeff Sessions would have a lot to say there. So all of this makes it doubly inappropriate, John and Poppy, that you would have Jeff Sessions trying to weigh in and force Christopher Wray to fire Andy McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI. It would be inappropriate under any circumstances as a career official and it's an improper meddling by the attorney general.
But especially when you have the attorney general who is a person of interest, if not a subject of this ongoing investigation, the idea that he's trying to influence the personnel decisions of the FBI is entirely inappropriate.
HARLOW: Errol Louis, Jeff Sessions cannot do or could not do since this meeting has already happened in front of Mueller's team what he did to Congress. And that is time and time again essentially cited executive privilege, say can't answer that, I'm not going to answer that because the president may invoke executive privilege down the road. So therefore the assumption is Mueller's team got a whole lot more answers.
ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. It's a much different kind of conversation. If you played games in front of a congressional committee, you say you claim privileges that may or may not exist. If you try their patience long enough, they'll hold you in contempt of Congress. That itself is a cumbersome process, you have to go outside, you have to get a judge involved and so forth. We're nowhere near that point.
On the other hand, if you're sitting and talking with FBI agents, even if you are technically their boss, if you lie to them, you've already committed an offense.
LOUIS: You can get busted for that, separate and apart from any underlying conversation that was going on. So Jeff Sessions knows this better than anybody. Used to be a U.S. attorney.
LOUIS: So it is a very different conversation. It is not one where there is a lot of bargaining, a lot of give and take. It's one where you actually have to do what we so often hear, which is tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Alice, stand by for one minute. We're going to come to you in just a second.
Joining us by phone right now, CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin who of course once worked for Robert Mueller in a different capacity.
BERMAN: But an attorney nonetheless who can help us understand sort of the legal intricacies of what happened behind closed doors and what has happened since.
I guess I'll start with privilege. And you have a probing question also about what's happened since then.
BERMAN: But behind closed doors, Michael, what does the attorney general have to answer to the investigators in that room?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST (via phone): Well, he has to answer any question put forth to him as to which he has knowledge, but as to which the president has not asserted executive privilege. So when he goes in, he's like any other person, but because he was a senior policymaker, in the administration, the president retains the right to assert executive privilege as the specific questions or lines of questioning.
He cannot blanketly say I am not going to answer that question because the president may in the future want to assert it.
ZELDIN: It has to have been I am not answering that question because the president or his White House counsel or his private counsel somehow have instructed me that the president is asserting executive privilege as to the question you're asking me.
ZELDIN: Then Mueller can determine whether he can decide if it is an appropriate exercise of executive privilege and if it is, then fine. If it is not, he can go to court and say they are using this as a shield when they have no right to do so, and I want you, judge, to pierce through that.
BERMAN: This would tell us once and for all if we were to find out about it conclusively if the White House is declaring privilege. That's interesting.
HARLOW: Right. It also -- I mean, we know that this would have been a scheduled meeting, so Sessions could have gone to the White House prior and said, I'm meeting with the Mueller's team, and the president and his team could have said we're exerting executive privilege on X, Y and Z. We don't know if that happened.
ZELDIN: And that is normally -- and that is normally the way it would work.
HARLOW: Right. OK. So also, look at these images. These are from yesterday when Jeff Sessions was -- we'll pull them up in a moment -- leaving the White House. We know he spoke to the president. We don't know what they spoke about. And again the White House this morning still isn't saying what they spoke about.
My question to you is, legally, could Sessions have fully briefed the president on his hours of conversation with Bob Mueller's team? If Bob Mueller's team is getting ready to potentially interview the president, could Sessions say here's everything they asked me and here's how I answered?
ZELDIN: Well, unless Mueller advises him otherwise and says to him, were you to do that, I would view this as an interference with my investigation. Generally speaking, a witness is free to talk to whomever they want about their testimony, whether it's in the grand jury or privately unless he's instructed by Mueller otherwise.
[10:35:10] I would expect that these guys are talking to one another. We saw that earlier when Flynn backed out of the joint cooperation, the joint cooperation agreement, that led us to know that they were all talking to one another. Sessions could be similarly in such an arrangement. So, yes, I would expect that they would have conversation with a broad outlines are discussed. Not necessarily on a question by question basis because I think Mueller might find that problematic.
BERMAN: All right. Michael, stand by if you will.
I want to bring Alice Stewart back into this discussion.
Alice, Brian Fallon raised an interesting point here on the timing of all of this.
BERMAN: Which is that the attorney general was questioned last week in the special counsel's probe and this morning, we're learning that he was pressuring the FBI director Christopher Wray to fire the deputy, pressuring him so much that Christopher Wray threatened to quit if he kept that pressure up, Alice.
You know, is that appropriate, given now we know he was facing questions himself by presumably FBI agents and the special counsel probe? Is it appropriate for him to be weighing in on FBI personnel decisions a week later?
ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: In my view, no. In my view it wasn't appropriate for the president to push James Comey out either. I think it's critical for an FBI investigation and the special counsel investigation to do its job appropriately to get to the bottom of Russian interference in our election and possibly influence in the outcome of our election and possible collusion between the campaign is to let them do their job free and clear of any kind of influence by the administration.
And clearly based on what we see Jeff Sessions' meeting with the president yesterday, I think it would be safe to assume that he did fill in the president on the meetings he had last week with the special counsel. And probably evidence of that is the tweets we saw from the president this morning once again criticizing the FBI in regard to a separate probe with the missing text between two members of the FBI and that's generally what he does.
If he doesn't like one aspect of what an organization, in this case the FBI, does he attacks them for something else, trying to yet again undermine the credibility of the FBI and I think that is inappropriate. I think he should let them do their job. I think he should let Mueller do his job because more than anything the most important thing is to get to the bottom of how Russia has possibly impacted our election.
And I do commend Jeff Sessions. I think he is doing this the right way. I do think it was appropriate for him to recuse himself, given the conflict of interest. I do think it was certainly right for him to sit down with the investigators and fully and hopefully completely answer any questions they have because full and complete transparency is the best way to get to -- the best end result for Mueller and his team.
HARLOW: Look, the president has oscillated in the last few weeks between I think Mueller will be fair and once again this is the biggest witch-hunt, this is a hoax. So how does he feel this morning? We don't know.
BERMAN: We don't know.
HARLOW: Thank you, Errol Louis, Alice Stewart, Brian Fallon, we appreciate it. Michael Zeldin as well, our legal expert, on the phone.
BERMAN: All right. The government is open this morning. There's a lot going on as we say. You know, the breaking news on Robert Mueller, the investigation there. But the shutdown is over. Much more on that coming up.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [10:42:37] HARLOW: This morning the government is open. That is a good thing. The future of so-called Dreamers, though, hangs in the balance. It is very much up in the air this morning.
BERMAN: Yes. This is what the president wrote. He wrote, "Nobody knows for sure that the Republicans and Democrats will be able to reach a deal on DACA," that's the Dreamers, "by February 8th but everyone will be trying."
Joining us now, CNN's Ryan Nobles for the very latest on Capitol Hill.
Where do things stand, Ryan?
RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John and Poppy, you're right, the government is back open. Lawmakers here were able to get past that impasse, but the fundamentals of the divisions between both sides as it relates to these big issues that need to be hashed out remain.
And take a look at the calendar that lawmakers have in front of them now. Yes, the government is back open. But now they have a three- week sprint to try and come up with a deal that will keep the government open even longer, and deal with some of these big issues primarily DACA and immigration reform.
And as I said before, there isn't a whole lot of difference between where most of these senators stood before the government shutdown and where they stand now as it relates to DACA. The only big difference now is that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has made a promise. And that's a promise to bring a DACA bill in some form to the floor.
Take a look at what Mitch McConnell is promising. He's saying that, yes, they will take up legislation to address DACA. There should be a level playing field on the immigration debate. And he is promising a fair amendment process.
2Now that may result in some sort of a piece of legislation leaving the Senate with bipartisan support. But there are no promises once that bill leaves here and heads over to the other side of the capitol and the House takes it up. And already some of the hard-liners as it relates to immigration are warning House Speaker Paul Ryan that they are not going to budge.
They want to see full funding for a wall. They're concerned about things like chain migration and the visa lottery. And they also want a DACA bill that is perhaps not as friendly as some Democrats are looking for.
So, John and Poppy, the government is back open, but the problems continue to exist and they've only got three weeks to figure it out.
HARLOW: And you wonder if anything is much different than it was, you know, before. We'll see if these three weeks change things.
Ryan Nobles, thank you.
Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
It's nice to have you here and we want to get to all of that in a moment, but I'm sure you heard by now and read that Attorney General Jeff Sessions sat down last week for hours on end with Bob Mueller's team, the special counsel leading the Russia probe.
[10:45:02] What is your reaction to that news and are you encouraged that, look, this is the highest level person around the president, the only Cabinet member to be interviewed by Mueller's team, that he was willing to do so?
SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE: Poppy, this is a sign that the Mueller investigation is continuing, it is vigorous, it's getting to the bottom of everything and working to get the facts. So I think it's good news for the public because I think we all deserve accountability. We need to know what happened. So it's one more sign that the Mueller investigation is continuing at a brisk pace.
BERMAN: All right, Senator. The government is open today. And a lot of people including a lot of Democrats, progressives especially, are asking, what did you gain in the Senate, Democrats in the Senate gain by shutting the government down by three days, but then agreeing to open it for what they consider to be not much? What did you gain?
VAN HOLLEN: Well, first of all, John, let's be clear. It was the total incompetence of President Trump and the dysfunction of this White House that led to the shutdown in the first place. As Senator Lindsey Graham said, there are unreliable negotiating partners so they got us into this mess and then did nothing, nothing to get us out.
But what got us out was bipartisan group of senators working to get a commitment from Mitch McConnell to take up a bipartisan DACA bill, a commitment that they've refused to give in the past. We know there are 57 senators right now, Republicans and Democrats, who support the Graham-Durbin bill and now is an opportunity to build on that and get a vote.
BERMAN: Well, hang on one second, Senator, because he gave that guarantee to Jeff Flake to get his vote on the tax bill back in December.
HARLOW: And Susan Collins on health care.
BERMAN: And Susan Collins on health care. I mean, he's made promises before, particularly on DACA, and the vote didn't happen in January at least as he promised to Jeff Flake.
VAN HOLLEN: So, look, a couple of differences. One is this is a commitment he made in public as opposed to behind closed doors to Jeff Flake. Second, it's a commitment he made to over 15 Republican senators, in addition to the American people. And finally, there are lots more levers in this process. I mean, going three weeks on a continuing resolution, still leaves all the budget issues. It leaves all the issues relating to an omnibus appropriations.
So there are tools that we have to make sure that Mitch McConnell keeps his commitment, in addition --
VAN HOLLEN: -- to the fact that he made it out in public and people are going to be holding him to his word.
HARLOW: Look, and all of you hope he does keep his commitment because you ultimately have to answer to your constituents.
Let me read you what Frank Sherry, the executive director of America's Voice. This is an immigrants rights group. Here's what he said. "I'm moved to tears of disappointment and anger that the Democrats blinked before hoping that Paul Ryan is going to have the courage and House Republicans are going to be fair and decent or smoking something."
You know, even if you can get this through Gang of Six legislation or something similar through the Senate, you're going to have a much tougher road in the House, and with the White House unless you give a lot. Hearing things like that, concerning to you?
VAN HOLLEN: Well, look, this is a moment where everybody has got to come together and focus on getting the bill out of the Senate, bipartisan DACA bill, and then putting pressure in the House.
I understand the disappointment. We did not get everything we wanted. But there was absolutely no guarantee that two, three weeks of government shutdown would have left this in a better place. In fact, it could have very well left us in a worse place. At least right now we have this commitment, this public commitment, from Mitch McConnell, to move forward. Something they had refused to do in the past. So at least we have a path forward now. And if we get it out of the Senate, and I think there is strong bipartisan support, the whole country will have to pile on the House.
Here's what we know about the House. We know that there are a majority of House members in favor of a bipartisan DACA compromise. The key is getting them to act on it. And there are some tools like discharge petitions and other things you can use in the House, but first step is to get everybody to come together, focus on getting this out of the United States Senate, and over to the House.
BERMAN: Do you promise the 800,000 Dreamers -- if you look a Dreamer in the eye and say, I will not agree three weeks from now to open the government or to keep the government going unless there is a deal for your future?
VAN HOLLEN: What I can say is we will use every tool that we've got, and we've got lots, to keep Mitch McConnell at his word which is to have that vote on a bipartisan DACA bill. I think we will get that vote. And then the key is to make sure that we work the House as you just indicated.
And, look, March 5th is the date that President Trump set. I mean, we had Dreamers who are here illegally and it's Trump that sort of set the clock in March 5th. As we get closer to that date, there will be more and more pressure on the House, if we get our bill out, to get this done. And we will use every tool we've got to make sure that happens.
[10:50:05] I am confident that we are in a better spot today than we were before Friday, before we saw everything happen because at least we have a path forward now. Not everything we wanted. I understand that. But certainly in a better situation than we were before this whole process started.
And I must say, you know, Donald Trump's tweet today, I take no confidence in that. He has been a totally feckless leader. Totally incompetent. This is a moment where Republicans and Democrats and the Senate got to get this done, get it over to the House and then get the public fully engaged.
BERMAN: Three weeks. Senator, thank you so much for being with us. Appreciate it.
HARLOW: Thank you.
VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.
BERMAN: We've got a lot of breaking news today, including news on the Russia investigation. Stay with us.
[10:55:13] HARLOW: Wait until you hear this story. First on CNN, a veteran ATF special agent suing her own agency as well as suing the Justice Department.
BERMAN: Yes. She claims that her bosses asked her to look into claims of sexual harassment against a supervisor then retaliated against her after she says she uncovered new disturbing allegations.
Jessica Schneider sat down with the agent. She joins us now from Washington.
Jessica, this is a remarkable story.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, John and Poppy, Special Agent Lisa Kincaid, she just marked 30 years at the ATF, but she says when she brought those sexual harassment and even one sexual assault allegation to light, she said that she faced backlash. She told me that upper management brushed aside the complaints that she uncovered, and really in a new report from the inspector general we see that there are issues at the DOJ, they say systemic ones.
LISA KINCAID, ATF SPECIAL AGENT: Not the way you want to go out.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Lisa Kincaid is marking three decades as a special agent at the ATF, years she was proud to serve as a branch chief and as a supervisor for the ATF's D.C. Arson Task Force. KINCAID: I'm proud of my service. But I feel betrayed.
SCHNEIDER: For the past four years, Kincaid says she has been sidelined and demoted after she was specifically assigned by the ATF to investigate claims of sexual harassment.
KINCAID: One woman claims that she was assaulted, that the supervisor at a work related function put his hand up her skirt and squeezed her thigh. And this was after he had made several passes at her and she had rebuffed the passes.
SCHNEIDER: Kincaid was then a special agent in the Internal Affairs Division, tasked with investigating a complaint by an agent who claims sexual harassment and discrimination. Kincaid's probe began with that one woman's story, but soon she was on her way to interviewing five other women, with similar stories about the same two supervisors.
KINCAID: By the fourth interview that we connected, we knew that there existed a pattern of abusive behavior in that office.
SCHNEIDER: Kincaid turned in a nearly 300-page preliminary report to senior managers, outlining numerous allegations. They are detailed in a lawsuit she just filed against the Department of Justice, where Kincaid claims she was retaliated against for exposing what she found.
Most of the allegations are redacted. But what is revealed includes a supervisor allegedly shoving his hand up an employee's skirt and discussing oral sex in front of female ATF employees.
KINCAID: Throughout the whole process, I was naive to think that the system was going to work. And the system wasn't going to work.
SCHNEIDER: Kincaid says upper management tried to dismiss the allegations.
KINCAID: I think senior leadership tried to protect him from the very beginning of the investigation.
SCHNEIDER: Kincaid says both supervisors remained at the ATF, despite those allegations, since none of the women ever filed formal complaints. The ATF would not comment on personnel but said, "We take sexual harassment complaints very seriously and they are thoroughly investigated."
But in a motion to dismiss Kincaid's lawsuit, the government says Kincaid was reassigned because she admitted to divulging information from her investigation to her husband, a retired ATF agent and it says the inspector general did investigate Kincaid's findings and issued a one paragraph summary of the results. But that report only covered a supervisor's gambling while on duty and said nothing about complaints of sexual harassment.
Findings last year from the Department of Justice inspector general pinpoints problems throughout the Justice Department's components including at ATF. It says the DOJ has systemic issues in how it handles sexual harassment complaints and some of the subjects of pending sexual misconduct investigations received performance awards and weren't properly disciplined.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said, "The deputy attorney general has convened a working group to look at the issues raised by the report, that process is nearing completion and we will soon be responding to the inspector general with the department's recommendations for action."
But Kincaid's attorney believes that these probes and reports from the inspector general dating back to 2015 have spurred no changes.
BOB SELDOM, ATTORNEY: What happens to a woman who is an attorney who comes and talks about one of these guys, sticking his hand up her dress? You know what is she supposed to do? You know, there is nothing that is ever addressed by the IG office.
SCHNEIDER: And that's why Kincaid says she is speaking out, she wants to spotlight the issue outside the black and white.
KINCAID: I want to make a difference. I want to know that taking a stand wasn't for nothing.
BERMAN: All right. Our thanks to Jessica Schneider for that report.
HARLOW: Thank you all for being with us this morning, through all of the breaking news. We'll keep you posted on all of it. I'm Poppy Harlow.
BERMAN: I'm John Berman. "AT THIS HOUR" starts now.