Return to Transcripts main page


Trump's Nominees Contradict His Campaign Rhetoric; Senate Dems Speak Out Against Atty. Gen. Nominee. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 12, 2017 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... I want to apologize for not giving you the hour. And I apologize for the power interruption. But I want to thank you for your service to Kansas. I want to thank you for your service to the Congress. I want to thank you for your service to the country. As a board member of west point, as you have served, like I have in the past, I want to thank you for how you have used your military education. And, more importantly, how that's highlighted the greatness of the institution and the role it plays in developing future leaders of the country of which you exemplify that. For that, we are grateful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you Senator Burr. Thank you Senator Warner.



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You've have been watching the confirmation hearings of President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for the CIA and the Defense Department. And as we learned more about where Trump's picks stands on all the critically important issues, one thing became very, very clear over the past few hours. These men, along with the Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, they have sharp differences with the President-elect on various topics, including Russia, Iran, torture and more. Here's just a portion of what President-elect Trump's nominees had to say.


JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY NOMINEE: It does an imperfect arms control agreement. It's not a friendship treaty. But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it, and work with our allies.

MIKE POMPOEO, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: With respect to Iran, we must be rigorously objective in assessing the progress made under the joint comprehensive plan of action. While I oppose the Iran deal as a member of Congress, it confirmed my role of change.

MATTIS: We have a long list of times we've tried to engage positively with Russia. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard. And I think right now, the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin. And we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic Alliance. POMPEO: It's pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy. I am very clear about what that intelligence report says.

MATTIS: My view is that nations with allies thrive and nations without allies don't. And so I would see us maintain the strongest possible relationship with NATO. I have had discussions with him on this issue. He has shown himself open. Even to the point of asking more questions, going deeper into the issue, about why I feel so strongly. And he understands where I stand right. I can tell you in my many years of involvement in the military, I had a close relationship with the intelligence community. I could evaluate their effectiveness at times on a daily basis. And I have very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) CALIFORNIA: If you were ordered by the president to restart the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques that fall outside of the army field manual, would you comply?

POMPEO: Senator, absolutely not.

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use water boarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies.


BLITZER: Very strong statements are coming up from three of President Trump's nominees were for critically important positions in the cabinet. We've got an excellent panel here to assess what we've just heard. And Dana, let me start with you. These three men had no problem making it clear they disagree with the stated views of the President-elect as he stated them throughout the many months of this campaign. Some of these very, very sensitive issues, the Iran nuclear deal, the use of torture, other specific issues.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: NATO, Russia, hacking, which obviously is very much in the news now. But also more importantly, how to deal with Vladimir Putin and whether he is a friend or foe or frenemy or something in between.

The fact we heard particularly early this morning from General Mattis so forthrightly and almost eagerly saying that he has no problem differing, same with Mike Pompeo, no problem differing with the President-elect. Tells you a lot about why they are getting the reception that they're getting. It would not be surprising to see an overwhelming vote particularly for General Mattis. The Democrats and Republicans are alike.

Lots of reasons, but one main reason is that, a week from tomorrow, Donald Trump is going to raise his hand back there and he's going to become the 45th President. And they know that's the reality. Therefore, they want somebody like General Mattis who clearly is not only very well respected, very well regarded but a -- somebody who is a strong personality to be at the President's side in the Defense Department, to help guide him.

[12:35:12] And that is really something that we've seen similarities with a lot of these nominees, Mattis, even Tillerson, assuming he gets through and also Pompeo. They are strong individuals who can help shape the policy and make clear that they do differ with him and will differ with him. And probably, let's be honest, we'll guide the policy the way they see it as oppose the way the President-elect talked about it on the campaign trail.

BLITZER: That's what I think.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is the paradox of the Trump transition and it may well be the paradox of the Trump presidency where you have senior people in very important positions. I would add General Kelly at homeland security.

BASH: Yes. Yeah.

KING: Who questioned the effectiveness of the wall -- of a wall and talked about, there are other ways to do this or other ways to secure the border. And to Dana's point, it's striking how even Democrats who will vote against some of these gentlemen believe they will be confirmed. And they are actually thrilled both Republicans and Democrats in private conversations because so many have disagreed fundamentally with the things candidate Trump said during the election.

Now the President-elect, we need to give him a little bit grace. He may have changed his mind on some of these subjects because he needs these people as he gets more fully briefed on these others. Let's see what he says once to Dana's point, a week from let's say, he becomes President. But in the Congress, they are relieved.

Again, even Democrat, a lot whom will cast no votes against some of these nominees because they believe this is, they may disagree on some policies, this may be a more conservative cabinet the Democrat would pick. But they believe they are educated, informed, open-minded grown-ups on national security issues. And to be frankly honest, even a lot of the Republicans don't view the President-elect that way.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: But doesn't this make you question whether campaigns matter at all? When you look at the statements from these men today, down the line, they seem to be disagreeing with the president of the United States, soon to be President, on almost every single issue, and particularly including Putin. Pompeo made it very clear that he believes that the hacking done by the Russians went to what he called the highest of the senior leadership.

KING: Aggressive action taken by the senior leadership.

BORGER: Right. Exactly, and Pompeo had to say, in order to calm the people over at Langley that he is confident that the new President will respect the work that is done there. And he said he will obey the law on torture. And Mattis said he will honor the Iran deal, although, obviously, both of these men have questions about it. Pompeo voted against it. And Mattis said that NATO is the most successful alliance in modern history.

So the question is, will push come to shove where the President says, this is my gut, and I disagree with you and this is what I campaigned on? Or, as you suggest, John, will they be able to help shape the President into what they believe because of their experience?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: We're going to know very quickly, right, because these are not just rhetorical differences with the president-elect. And they are substantive differences. And they have decisions. Some of them immediate decisions attached to them. You talk about Russia. There's going to be an immediate or very soon decision on whether to impose new sanctions on Russia for hacking. Does the President go along with that decision? You know not just the talk. The decision on NATO, there's a proposal Mattis talks about this of a permanent NATO base in the Baltic States, right on the front lines with Russia. Does the President go along with that decision to send U.S. forces into harm's way? He's going to be tested you know, so does he go along with them? We don't know the answer that question. Who is going to prevail?

The other thing I would say which I find this remarkable, every single national security nominee for the president-elect has been asked repeatedly by Democratic and Republican senators whether they respect the U.S. intelligence community. You have Democratic and Republican senators looking for reassurance that they respect the U.S. intelligence community because the president-elect repeatedly has called that into question. It's fairly remarkable that every nominee has to -- you would think that would be a boiler plate. You know, I'm proud to be here and I respect you and, you know, I'm happy to be, you know, a part of this great team. No, they are asked because the president-elect has repeatedly said, I don't trust them.

BLITZER: It's critically important to note that on some of these very sensitive issues where the president-elect was extremely forceful in rejecting, for example, the Iran nuclear deal saying it's the worst deal ever and he would rip it up, get rid of it right away. General Mattis, former head of the U.S. military central command which is in charge of the entire Middle Eastern region. It's an imperfect arms control agreement, not a friendship treaty. But when America gives its word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.


BLITZER: That agreement was worked out with Britain and France and Germany and Russia and China for that matter as well.

SCIUTTO: And listen, Gloria, I think you'd brought this up that the president has already decided or at least in his public comments to go forward with an issue that one of his nominees, disagrees with on the wall, right? His wall for DHA his nominee for DHS is General Kelly, says no need. Trump was it yesterday or the day before, I'm going to build it. Mexico is going to pay for it, eventually.

[12:40:15] BORGER: You know --


BLITZER: You know, I want to bring in some of our -- more partisan analysts as well as Symone, let me get your thoughts. Are you impressed that the president-elect has surrounded himself in these key national security positions with forceful, in this particular case, men who are willing to stand up and disagree with him publicly during their confirmation process? What does it say about the confidence of the president-elect of the United States? He's willing to bring in these kinds of strong, forceful leaders?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well it kind of so -- I'm actually surprised and glad about some -- a lot of the things that I heard today. But it kind of makes me wonder if Donald Trump knew the extent of the positions of the folks that he put up there. You know, Donald Trump during a Republican debate, you know, he defended torture and advocated for going farther than water boarding.

You have Mike Pompeo who's saying "Under no circumstances would I allow that to happen." So I am optimistic. I definitely think, though, from General Mattis all the way down to Pompeo and General Kelly, folks have to not just say, but be able to demonstrate and actively show that they are willing to stand up to the president-elect when push comes to shove in that moment.

BLITZER: And Alice, are they doing that today?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think clearly, there's this opportunity today to show where there is some daylight between a lot of these cabinet posts and these high-ranking officials and Donald Trump. I think the biggest contrast as Jim mentioned is there undying support for our intelligence agencies. And that is critical given all that's been going on recently. And I think they really doubled down on their support for the intelligence agencies.

And what I think also is important. Mattis today was quite clear and unequivocal. And that he has every assurance that Donald Trump will listen to him when it comes to his opinion on these issues. And he will not hesitate to say something that Donald Trump may not want to hear. He's not going to get caught up in the politics of it. He's a strong advocate for the military. What the military needs, making us -- about continuing to be the strongest military force in the world. And he's not going to worry about hurting Donald Trump's feelings. And I think that is critical for all of these appointments moving forward.

BLITZER: Cedric, you're a military man until at least you retired. And it's important to recall, as I'm sure you do, that General Mattis when he was head of the central command, he would often say, he worries number one about Iran, number two about Iran, number three about Iran. Now, he was very, very tough on Iran as the head of the U.S. military's central command. He saw Iran as the world's number one state sponsor of terrorism. The state department still regards Iran as the number one state sponsor of terrorism. But today you heard him say, "You know what, there's a deal. You got to live with it. The U.S. made commitments to allies."

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, U.S AIR FORCE (RET): Well, I think there is also a different role that he's playing now, Wolf. And the big difference is this. He is now going to be as secretary of defense a diplomat as well as a leader of the largest military force that we have. And so when you look at that and you look at, you know, when he was the boss of central command, his main focus had to be Iran. That was enemy number one whether we said that officially or not.

But right now he also is charged with not only implementing the agreement with Iran, but he's also there with enforcing it from a verification standpoint because a lot of the Department of Defense assets that will be used in this case are going to be his assets. And so he has to keep enough of an open mind to see whether or not this is actually going forward.

BLITZER: Dana, it's no surprise but the Senate Armed Services Committee has just voted to grant the waiver. So General Mattis who has been out for three years can in fact become a civilian leader of the U.S. Department of Defense.

BASH: The law says he that he can do.

BLITZER: The law says he's going to be out for seven years before he can do that.

BASH: Right.

BLITZER: Unless there's a waiver. And he has now received that waive are.

BASH: Right. No surprise.

BLITZER: At least from the Armed Services Committee of the Senate.

BASH: Right. And I don't know the exact vote count because we were talking of what happened. But I know a lot of Democrats said they were going to support it. But to follow up on what you were saying, I think that beyond the specifics, just sort of go back also to Gloria, the do campaigns matter.

The one thing that is surprising is that big picture. Donald Trump's rhetoric was very nationalistic. We're going to sort of receive from the world a little bit and focus more on America and if it means the choice between that and an alliance or even a treaty. And General Mattis made very, very clear, that's not his position. His position is alliances matter. That because he is an historian and he is a scholar that in his experience democracies and countries only succeed if they have alliances that work. And that's why he was so forward leaning on NATO and others. And not just that in and of itself as a fundamental principle, guiding principle, is so different from the rhetoric we heard from Donald Trump.

[12:45:04] BORGE: And I think, you know, the questioners on both sides went out of their way not to say, do you disagree with the president-elect on X, Y or Z? They didn't sort of go there. They just asked them specifically about there issues. When we think in sort of the Lincoln terms of team of rivals, this isn't this. This is the rival could be the president.

This is what's so strange and interesting about this. And it may be, to give Donald Trump some credit here, it may be his way of saying, "these people know a lot. I picked them because they know a lot. And I am going to be willing to listen to them." I guarantee you that in their interviews with the president-elect, somebody as strong as a Mattis or Pompeo or Sessions, who have reputations that precede them for quite some time would say the president-elect, "I disagree with you, and would you listen to me?" And I'm hoping the answer was, yes.

BLITZER: He does listen to these, especially the generals because even after he was elected president of the United States, he had a private conversation with General Mattis on water boarding, on torture. And General Mattis said, you know, my experience, Mr. President-elect, you can get a lot more done with a pack of cigarettes with these guys than you can with water boarding. And that seemed to have had an impact on him.

KING: And to Gloria's point, some people have mocked the president- elect for the same because he comes out of Hollywood. Because he was on the "Celebrity Apprentice" and "Apprentice" that he's looking for an all star cast. And he talked about the way he's considering Mitt Romney, he looks the part. And a lot of people have said that critically if, if what we're getting here is a team of very talented people, we're open to having a big debate.



KING: And the president makes them happen to look apart, sure. But he wants an all star cabinet. And they had healthy debates and then the president makes some decision, good for him. I think one of the question marks is -- and what's interesting because we heard Congressman Pompeo today said, "I talked to the president-elect. I would not have taken this job if I couldn't tell him the unvarnished truth." General Mattis said, "I would not have taken this job if I didn't know that he wouldn't listen to me and respect my opinion."

What we haven't heard and the nominee for state Rex Tillerson said yesterday. He said he has not talked about these things since taking the job with the president-elect. The inauguration is a week away. To Jim's point, North Korea could roll a missile out on the platform on day one, two, or three. The fact we don't hear -- well, I just talked about this with the president-elect yesterday. We've been having mock cabinet meetings on these subjects. That part is a little troubling actually because they start governing in a week.

SCIUTTO: And to be fair I was thinking, Donald Trump would not be the first president of any party to make promises on the campaign trail or enter the White House with a world view that has changed by events with George W. bush, and of nation building 9/11 happens. You know, you start two of the longest wars. Barack Obama, I'm going to understand these wars. He leaves office with those two longest wars and expanding, frankly --

KING: Bill Clinton said he wouldn't deal with the butchers in Beijing.


SCIUTTO: He dealt with them quite a bit. And he wouldn't deal with the dictator in Damascus. I was the old Assad at that point.


BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's a lot happening behind us up on Capitol Hill. Including Dr. Ben Carson, now the president-elect's former rival. His pick to become the next secretary of housing and urban development. Also he testified just moments ago. We're going to hear what he had to say. Our special CNN coverage continues right after a quick break.


[12:51:38] BLITZER: Renowned neurosurgeon, the former Republican presidential primary contender Dr. Ben Carson made his case to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He pushed back on concerns about his lack of government experience. He fielded questions about his strong stances against government overreach.


ELIZABETH WARREN, (D) MASSACHUSETTS: My concern is whether or not among the billions of dollars that you will be responsible for handing out in grants and loans, can you just assure us that not $1 will go to benefit either the president-elect or his family?

BEN CARSON, HUD SECRETARY NOMINEE: It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit any American.

WARREN: I understand that.

CARSON: It's for all Americans, everything that we do.

WARREN: Do I take that to mean that you may manage programs that will significantly benefit the president-elect?

CARSON: You can take it to mean that I will manage things in a way that benefits the American people. That is going to be the goal.

WARREN: To the best you understand that --

CARSON: If there happens to be an extraordinarily good program that's working for millions of people and it turns out that someone that you're targeting is going to gain, you know, $10 from it, am I going to say, no, the rest of you Americans can't have it. I think logic and common sense probably would be the best way.

WARREN: Yeah, although -- we do have a problem here, and I appreciate your good faith in this, and I do Dr. Carson. The problem is that you can't assure us that HUD money, not a $10 varieties but of multimillion-dollar varieties will not end up in president-elect's pockets. And the reason you can't assure us of that is because the president-elect is hiding his family's business interests from you, from me, from the rest of America.


BLITZER: Tough exchange there with the Senator Elizabeth Warren and Dr. Ben Carson. Though, Dr. Carson by the way never lived in public housing. He did begin his testimony by highlighting his impoverished childhood in inner City of Detroit where he was raised by a single mother. Let's get back to the panel. Is he going to have a serious problem getting confirmed by that, first of all, that Senate committee?

BASH: I don't know if serious problem yet. I think this is one of the instances where the hearing actually really does matter. They really want to hear what he has to say. Not just on issues like with Senator Warren was pushing him on conflicts of interest which probably have less to do with him, do a less to do with him and more with the way that his boss is or is not separating his businesses from his role as president.

But, and the bigger question when it comes to Ben Carson is his experience and ability to run a big agency. You know, he is a renowned neurosurgeon, and he, you know, everybody should give him credit for that. But the fact of the matter is that he doesn't have experience with what -- at all, with what he's being asked to do.

BLITZER: All right, I want to go back to the Congress right now. Some Senate Democrats are speaking out against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to become the attorney general of the United States. There is Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut. Let's listen to him.


[12:55:04] RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D) CONNECTICUT: For civil rights and liberties, a zealous advocate and legal conscience for the nation in protecting those rights and liberties. Senator Sessions said that he would follow the law but the attorney general of the United States has to be more than a follower. He needs to be a leader. And his advocacy needs to move the nation forward in the active pursuit of justice. And that is equal justice under law.

I know something about the position of attorney general because I served as the United States attorney in Connecticut for four and a half years, the chief federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice for our state. And I served for 20 years as our state's attorney general litigating alongside and in opposition to the Department of Justice. And I feel especially strongly about this office.

It is not just another government lawyer. It is not just another cabinet secretary. It is the nation's lawyer and legal conscience especially when it comes to protecting civil rights and civil liberties. Senator Sessions has failed to demonstrate that he will be that vigorous, zealous advocate in protecting civil rights and liberties. He has demonstrated hostility and antipathy, even outright opposition to voting rights, women's health care, and privacy rights, religious freedom rights. He has staunchly opposed immigration reform and criminal justice reform that implicate constitutional values and civil rights.

And he has opposed hate rimes legislation, the Violence Against Women Act, a number of measures that helped to guarantee and protect civil rights in America today. This point is especially important because those rights are increasingly threatened. Not just from outside this country but from forces within it. And the attorney general needs to be a public official who will speak truth to power and provide an independent voice assuring that the president of the United States is never above the law. He must speak truth to power and tell the president what he cannot do.

Senator Sessions has failed to demonstrate that he will provide that independent voice and assure that the president of the United States completely adheres to the law when it comes to conflicts of interest or controversies. And we are encountering an administration that seems to be prone to those conflicts of interest in unprecedented scope and scale. On voting rights, Senator Sessions said about Shelby County versus Holder that it was good news, even though it gutted an essential enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act.

When 250,000 citizens in his state were denied photo identifications necessary to vote because Department of Motor Vehicles offices were closed, he did nothing and in fact, no comment. His antipathy and hostility to that vigorous advocacy as a champion, not a bystander, not a passive follower of the law, but as a zealous advocate is lacking. And that is one of the key reasons that lack of commitment, iron clad commitment to civil rights is one of the reasons that I have said that I will oppose his nomination.

And I want to introduce now Senator Hirono to be followed by Senator Duckworth and Senator Cortez Masto.

[13:00:06] MAZIE HIRONO, (D) ILLINOIS: Thank you Senator Blumenthal. And aloha to all of you.

I served with Senator Jeff Sessions throughout my time in the Senate. And I respect him as a colleague. But I have deep concerns about how Senator Sessions would use his prosecutorial discretion as attorney general to address the number of critical issues.

During his confirmation --