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Trump to Announce Supreme Court Pick Tonight; Trump Fires Acting Attorney General Over Ban. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 31, 2017 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:00] BRIAN SMITH, HOMELESS MAN: -- and it did. I owe them so much.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, my gosh. That's a beautiful story. And you can look online and figure out where you can donate suits and dresses because they really do help people.

All right. Time for NEWSROOM with Carol Costello. Hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi. Nice way to end the show. Thanks so much. NEWSROOM starts now.

And good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining me.

A wild morning in Washington today. Key votes on President Trump's Cabinet pick is about to kick off. This, hours after he fires his acting Attorney General, sending shock waves through the capital.

Sally Yates, terminated by a hand-delivered letter and accused of betrayal. Yates, an Obama hold over, has said her Justice Department lawyers could not defend the President's travel ban because she felt it was unlawful. While some praised her defiance as an act of courage, she was promptly replaced.

Minutes from now, a hearing gets underway for Trump's pick to fill that position full-time. The Senate Judiciary Committee, expected to vote on Senator Jeff Sessions but the nominee's confirmation may now become a referendum on the immigration order itself.

And tonight, in prime time, in an address, President Trump will announce his pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. No word if that nominee is among these three perceived frontrunners, or if Trump again flouts expectations.

We are covering all the developments on this whirlwind morning. Let's begin at the White House, though, shall we, with CNN's Jeff Zeleny?

Hi, Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol. An extraordinary series of events here overnight at the White House that is threatening to take this young presidency off message.

Now, this criticism is not just coming from Democrats over that immigration order. It is coming from inside the Trump administration, from Cabinet secretaries and Republicans on Capitol Hill, who say they simply were not consulted about this. It was an extraordinary series of events, really, in the last 12 hours that is threatening the Justice Department and could influence the confirmation hearings ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): In an extraordinary move, President Trump firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Her dismissal coming via hand delivered letter, only hours after she stood in defiance of the President's travel ban. Yates, writing in a letter, she is not convinced the executive order is lawful, citing that the solemn obligation of the Department of Justice is to always seek justice and stand what is right.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: We had a Monday night massacre. Sally Yates, a person of great integrity, who follows the law, was fired.

ZELENY (voice-over): The White House attacking the career prosecutor, claiming Yates betrayed the Department of Justice and is weak on boarders after she instructed the Justice Department not to defend the President's executive order on immigration and refugees. Immediately following, the swearing in of new acting Attorney General Dana Boente. Yates' replacement rescinding her guidance right away, directing the Department of Justice to, quote, "defend the lawful orders of our President."

SALLY YATES, FORMER UNITED STATES DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I want to make sure I have the law and the facts.

ZELENY (voice-over): Appointed by President Obama, Yates garnering major bipartisan support in 2015. Senator Jeff Sessions, who is currently awaiting confirmation as Attorney General, seen here asking her if she'd bend to political pressure from then President Obama.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: -- the views the President wants to execute are unlawful, should the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General say no?

YATES: Senator, I believe that the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General has an obligation to follow the law and the constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the President.

ZELENY (voice-over): In yet another swift move, Monday night, President Trump naming Thomas Homan as the new acting Director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, demoting Dan Ragsdale to his previous position of Deputy Director.

CROWD: The Muslim ban has got to go.

ZELENY (voice-over): Meantime, the President's travel ban met with growing outrage in Washington.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Your executive order was too broad. You didn't vet it.

ZELENY (voice-over): And across the country.

CROWD: Refugees are welcome here.

ZELENY (voice-over): Only 10 days after leaving office, former President Barack Obama weighing in, a spokesman saying, the protests are "exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake." Trump's White House slamming any opposition, telling dissenting State Department officials to quit their posts if they disagree with the policy.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think they should either get with the program or they can go.

ZELENY (voice-over): All this as President Trump moves up his Supreme Court nomination announcement by two days, scheduling a prime time address tonight.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I think you will be very impressed with this person.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: That was Jeff Zeleny reporting. Thank you so much. When it comes to Trump's controversial firing of Sally Yates, many are hailing her as a hero. Trump supporters, though, don't see it that way. So how is all of this playing outside the Justice Department?

Let's bring in CNN Justice Correspondent Evan Perez with that. Hi, Evan.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good morning, Carol. Well, it's a microcosm of what you hear inside the Justice Department. You have people who believe that she is a hero, who don't believe that this executive order is something that they can defend.

[09:05:05] You also hear from other lawyers inside the Justice Department, that they're uncomfortable with this showdown. They feel that if she didn't want to defend this order, then she should have just resigned and not issued this extraordinary order yesterday evening in which she ordered Justice Department lawyers to not defend the President's executive order and calling into question whether or not they were lawful.

And there's no doubt, Carol, that the language she used in her memorandum really, essentially, dared the President to fire her. I'll read you a part of it, in which she says, "For as long as I am the acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the executive order." And she was fired four hours after she issued that memo.

Dana Boente, the new acting Attorney General, he's a federal prosecutor from over the eastern district of Virginia. He, like Sally Yates, was an Obama appointee. Both of them have served as career prosecutors for 30 years inside the Justice Department. He, obviously, has arrived at a different conclusion, and he rescinded

her order. He is prepared to defend the President's order. What we'll see now is, Boente's going to serve in the Justice Department as the leader of the Justice Department for the next few days until Jeff Sessions gets confirmed by the Senate -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. Even Perez, reporting live from Washington this morning.

And as you heard Evan say, just minutes from, now the Senate Judiciary Committee gathers for a vote on Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions. That actually kicks off a busy day on Capitol Hill with three other Trump nominees facing votes.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty has more on that. Good morning.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Carol. Very busy up here on Capitol Hill with many of President Trump's Cabinet nominees inching towards final confirmation up here. But all eyes are definitely on the Senate Judiciary Committee who, just in a few minutes, will take up the nomination of Senator Sessions, and then will ultimately vote on his nomination.

But, certainly, the President's executive order on immigration is really setting a new context for this vote that was contentious even before President Trump's move. You have many Democrats trying to hold these nominees' feet to the fire on where they stand on this travel ban. Many Democrats, like Senator Schumer, saying that they want to know where Senator Sessions and other nominees come down. Are they in support of this travel ban, or are they not?

Now, Senator Sessions, in a response to a written follow-up question from Senator Leahy on the Committee, said that he had no direct role in Trump's recent executive orders, but, of course, that notably does not answer where he falls on this specific travel ban.

We will not hear from Senator Sessions today. He will watch the Committee vote from elsewhere as is typical. But we certainly will hear from many Democrats concerned about his nomination as they have been throughout the process.

It is likely he will be voted out of Committee, and then that, Carol, will send this to the full Senate for a vote potentially later this week.

COSTELLO: All right. Sunlen Serfaty reporting live for us. We'll check back.

With me now to talk about all of this is Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. He is also the former Connecticut Attorney General.

Welcome, sir.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Thank you. Great to be with you. COSTELLO: Nice to have you here. Senator Sessions will not be in the

room when the Committee votes on his nomination today. That is typical. Do you wish he was, though?

BLUMENTHAL: I wish we had another opportunity to question Senator Sessions because, again, the question for him is where he stands on this immigration ban and whether he has the grit and grace that Sally Yates demonstrated in standing up to the President and speaking truth to power.

That's exactly the question I posed to Senator Sessions during the hearing. It's the question he posed to her at a hearing that I remember well because I was the ranking member helping preside there. And it is the classic question for any Attorney General, will you preserve the integrity and independence and the rule of law of the Justice Department?

That's the job of any government attorney, to do justice, not just win convictions or win cases.

COSTELLO: OK. So --

BLUMENTHAL: And I am opposed to Senator Sessions because I fail to believe that he has that kind of determination.

COSTELLO: So just to make things clear, Sessions will likely be confirmed by this Committee today, and then it goes to the full Senate. You'll get to vote on Senator Sessions' confirmation, and you will vote no?

BLUMENTHAL: I will vote no because the Attorney General of the United States has to be a champion of civil rights and liberty and the rule of law. And Senator Sessions actually championed this ban on Muslims coming into the country that was adopted in the Trump travel bans. He has championed this kind of ban and restriction on refugees coming into the country. He was an architect, even an author, perhaps indirectly, of these orders. And his, really, determination to stand for the rule of law is what most bothers me.

[09:10:15] COSTELLO: Well, it's difficult to determine what exactly Senator Sessions will do when it comes right down to it, and I'll give you one example. I know that many women will protest the Sessions confirmation hearing in Committee, and here's why.

In an interview with "The Weekly Standard" a few months back, you know, during the run up to the elections, Sessions was asked about Mr. Trump's assertion that he grabbed women by the genitals, and this is what Sessions said at that time. He said, quote, "I don't characterize that as sexual assault. I think that's a stretch."

He went on with his interview. The interviewer asked him, "So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that's not sexual assault?" Sessions answered at the time, "I don't know. It's not clear how that would occur."

But then, during these confirmation hearings, Senator Sessions changed his tune, saying that was sexual assault. So isn't it clear to you that Sessions was playing politics during the elections so that he'll take his job as Attorney General quite seriously?

BLUMENTHAL: He will take the job seriously, but the question is, what are his real beliefs? He has been a staunch opponent of women's healthcare, reproductive rights, Roe v. Wade. And I think his attitudes on women's issues are reflected in the comments that he made before he was nominated, not at the session.

Once he is confirmed, he is in that chair, and holding him accountable is so much more difficult. We need someone with the independence and integrity who will stand up to the President, who will be a legal conscience for the country.

COSTELLO: But isn't it likely, Senator, that Democrats will lose this fight? I mean, he is likely to be confirmed no matter how many Democrats vote no, frankly.

BLUMENTHAL: Holding him accountable in this process is very important. He needs to know that we will be watching, that the country will be watching. That on issues like voting rights and civil rights, women's healthcare, religious freedom where he has, unfortunately, demonstrated antipathy, even hostility, we will be holding him accountable.

Yes, we may lose this vote, but I think there's a chance we could block the nomination.

COSTELLO: All right. And before you go, I do want to ask you about Senator Schumer and President Trump calling Senator Schumer's tears a few days ago fake tears. Mr. Trump is painting Democrats as weak and obstructionist. This is how Schumer responded to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCHUMER: I'm not going to dignify that kind of silliness. Let him roll up his sleeves and put out something that really does prevent terrorists rather than this. He ought to stick to the substance. Name-calling and things like that are what has led to these problems that we are seeing.

He doesn't take this presidency seriously enough, at least in this instance. And, you know, I have said all along, there are times he flatters me. There are times he calls names. That's not going to influence me. I'm going to do what I think is the right thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: You know, Trump supporters say Mr. Trump is just keeping his campaign promises, and he's acting and he's moving fast. So they would say, why are Democrats just playing the role of obstructionist here and not caring about whether the country moves forward?

BLUMENTHAL: You know, the fact is that this set of immigration orders actually makes us less safe. They are contrary to the goals that President Trump articulated during his campaign. They do not include countries that are the major sources of terrorist extremists and violence, like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, and they alienated our allies. They, in fact, encourage the kind of extremists to join the ISIS movement.

We are at war with ISIS. These orders are contrary to the stated goals. And name-calling really is just a distraction from the failure of these orders to achieve what they are supposed to do.

COSTELLO: Senator Blumenthal, thanks for being with me today. House Minority Leader Nancy --

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

COSTELLO: You're welcome. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi taking a swipe at the President too this morning after he mocked a rally Democrats held on the steps of the Supreme Court last night.

To get you caught up, Pelosi, Senator Chuck Schumer, and other Democrats gathered in protest of Trump's travel ban but there were technical glitches before they began speaking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. NANCY PELOSI, MINORITY LEADER OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Good evening, everyone. Thank you very much for coming out. Do -- is the sound working?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: All right. So Trump mocked the effort on Twitter, and you can see what he wrote. I won't bother to read it. But he mocked it and called the whole Democratic Party a mess because of these technical problems.

[09:15:02] And just a moment ago, Nancy Pelosi fired back. She released a statement that read, "The mike briefly didn't work but this thin-skinned" -- you know, this is her response, but, I don't know, when you get right down to it, it's silly just arguing back and forth. You have to wonder if this is what we are going to have to look forward to in the years to come, and I bet my answer is yes.

Tonight, Trump's first primetime address. Let's talk about that now. His first primetime address as president and we will finally find out who he is nominating to fill the spot on the Supreme Court, the spot left vacant by the late Justice Scalia.

Trump says he will nominate someone, quote, "like Scalia". So, let's talk about that now with CNN justice and Supreme Court correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Hi, Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE AND SUPREME COURT CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Carol.

You know, the president really has been building this anticipation since the campaign when he released that list of 20 names for the high court and, clearly, he is trying to build the suspense with tonight's primetime announcement. We're told President Trump's likely nominee is one of two federal judges. He narrowed it down from the list he released during the campaign, Judge Neil Gorsuch in Colorado, and Thomas Hardiman from Pittsburgh are the two top contenders we're told. Both are conservative judges with sterling credentials who have had easy confirmations previously.

Gorsuch is 49 years old, and presidents like to put young justices on the bench to create this lasting legacy. Conservatives like Gorsuch because of his opinions on religious liberty. He also shares the similar judicial philosophy as Justice Scalia, and he's also a strong believer in the separation of powers.

And then, looking at Thomas Hardiman, Hardiman is 51 years old. He has an unusual personal story, Carol. He is the first in his family to graduate college. He actually drove a cab for a while to make money, and conservatives like his strong defense of the Second Amendment, and he actually sits on the bench with Donald Trump's sister, Maryanne, who is also a federal judge. We're told the two of them are very friendly.

And the confirmation team comprised of senior Republican advisers with deep experience in previous administrations in Capitol Hill. They are making these final preparations today for tonight's announcement. We are told they have not been informed about the president's choice but one member acknowledged that the immigration order, quote, "certainly doesn't make this any easier," Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. Pamela Brown reporting. Thanks so much.

Still to come on the NEWSROOM, we are moments away from what's expected to be a fiery meet up on the Capitol Hill. Democrats gearing up for an all-out fight as the president's attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, nears his committee vote. That vote coming hours after president Trump fires the acting attorney general in place. We'll break it all down for you next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:21:51] COSTELLO: It has been a wild 24 hours. So, let's recap.

President Trump fired the acting A.G., Sally Yates, this after she told the Department of Justice lawyers to not defend President Trump's executive order on immigration, and hours later, a new acting A.G. was sworn in. Mr. Trump also named Thomas Holman as the new acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

So I would like to break down the last 24 hours with my panel. With me now is Errol Louis, CNN political commentator and political anchor for Spectrum News. And, David Chalian is here, he's CNN's political director.

Welcome.

So, let's put the chaos in perspective if that's possible. How is this different from other administrations?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Oh my God! In every possible way right now. Seriously, separate from the policy, just the implementation, the rollout, the communication, bringing stakeholders together, this is what we have seen in Democratic and Republican administrations overall.

Now, Donald Trump campaigned on and promised that he was going to blowup Washington, disrupt, change the way it's done. I do think that they are now struggling to find the difference between disruption and chaos because I think that would be a place they would rather be in, sort of on the disruption side, and not the chaotic side.

But they are working at a pace, and with less experience at this than any administration I can recall.

COSTELLO: OK. So, I would suspect that one-half of the country says you go, Donald Trump, this is exactly what we voted for, right? And the other half of the country's protesting in large numbers, it's just a strange time in this country, Errol.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, if you think back to 2009 and 2010, there was something similar, right? President Obama wins with a popular mandate and then the Tea Party comes along and the pendulum swings the other way. So, I think we are starting to see some of that.

But getting back to this issue of whether or not this is intentional chaos or sort of helpful disruption that the public actually wants, and if you go back to the Reagan administration, that was disruptive but it was ordinarily. It was clear things were going to change. There was defense build up, foreign policy change, the Cold War ramp up, different things -- certainly there was an attack on entitlements and domestic policies as well, but it was done in an ordinarily fashion, and it was known that this is going to be long-term permanent change.

I think some of the chaos that we've seen in the last week raises the question of whether or not this is really going to be lasting. Is this sustainable?

COSTELLO: OK. So, I have heard, you know, conspiracy theories out there that they are doing this on purpose, creating this chaos in order to pass more controversial measures that people kind of won't notice, because it will be lost in all the chaotic happenings around different things. Is that just crazy?

CHALIAN: I don't know if I can vet all the conspiracy theories. I don't think it's crazy.

We know that Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, believes very much in this confrontational approach. They want the fight in many ways. The way I think about this, Carol, is that Donald Trump has to make a decision at some point, I think, for just his own vision of the presidency. Does he want to be president for the 40 percent that are with him that

are with him at 100 percent devotion? They are not going anywhere. Does he just want to be the leader of that movement or does he really want to broaden out a bit and be a 55 percent approval president that has a majority backing of the country behind him?

[09:25:04] I'm not sure that that decision has been settled upon.

(CROSSTALK)

LOUIS: I think it has, though. I mean --

CHALIAN: I think there are the different factions that believe different things.

LOUIS: This played out during the Republican primaries, does he want to win the whole Republican Party or just his faction? We got that answer. In the general election, does he want to be the president of all the Republican people or just the Republican core that's going to take him over the top, and we got an answer to that, and now we're in the government face and I think that the question hasn't really changed.

And so, I think we should assume the answer might not --

COSTELLO: Right. It's my way or the highway, because I was just going to bring up, you know, his new favorite song was "I did it my way," right? And you know, when all of these career diplomats threatened to release this memo against this travel ban, Sean Spicer stood up and said go for it, but you're going to pay a price. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think they should get with the program or they can go. Hold on. Hold on. This is about the safety of America. It's his number one duty, as it should with any leader, to keep our people and our institutions safe from attack.

And if somebody has a problem with that agenda, then they should -- that does call into question whether or not they should continue in that post or not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: So at this twist, right, Senator Rubio, he called the State Department and asked about the travel ban and he was told the State Department is instructed to answer no questions.

CHALIAN: He got a frequently questions hand out, no briefing they were going to provide on this.

I do think this is where the one place in Washington where I think the reality of the way Washington works and Trump's disruption are going to come to a head is that he can accomplish some things by executive order but to accomplish the big stuff, he's got to get this through Congress and have a legislative agenda here.

And I think that when he goes to Congress with his agenda, he's going to encounter a reality that isn't as disruptive or chaotic as his White House is and how that gets negotiated I think is something that's going to be critical to his success or failure.

COSTELLO: OK. So, let's say he wants to get something from Congress and they're bulking -- Republicans are bulking in Congress. Can't he mobilize his core supporters to protest en masse to force their hand?

LOUIS: You know, it's interesting because we haven't seen that yet. We haven't seen even a hint of that, as a matter of fact. The people in the streets are the anti-Trump people and they are coming out in huge numbers for a variety of different reasons.

And remarkably, the Democratic political establishment seems to be completely outside of that They are not organizing the rallies at the airports, and they didn't organize the women's march or anything like that. So, I don't know if they are going to pull that trigger anytime soon, but they might have to.

In part, if they seriously want to pick a multi-sided fight with every institution in town, with the courts and Congress and military and the intelligence agencies, they are going to have to bring their folks into the street at some point. It remains unclear as to whether or not they are prepared to do that.

COSTELLO: All right. I've got to leave it there. Errol Louis, David Chalian, thanks so much.

Wall Street looking at a second straight day in the red. Investors aren't quite sure what to make of President Trump's policies like that controversial travel ban or what they'll mean for the market, frankly.

Christine Romans is following the story for us.

Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Carol.

What in the world does the travel ban have to do with the markets here? Well, markets have been very, very enthusiastic about swift and comprehensive tax reform with House Republicans leading the way, and they're worried that dissent within the Republican Party, with the Republicans in the House and Senate, could be a problem for tax reform and that could derail what is their biggest wish list.

So, the question here is how the travel ban, the chaos and confusion around it, actually hurts the president's ability to work with Congress to get tax reform and that's a concern. You look at futures right now. You can see futures down again yesterday, it's about 122- point decline on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

And really, it has been you can see London and Paris are up a little bit here. So, watch there. But Asia closed lower and oil is higher.

I want to show you the stock market, the Dow Jones Industrial Average since the election. It has been a good Trump rally, and even the president himself has cheered it, so is Sean Spicer, his spokesperson, talked about how his policies are ushering in this up, up, era. Stocks have been rising. You can see that there's that -- that is a concern that maybe Trump rally not warranted here if you have discord among the Republicans, especially as we head into tax reform -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Interesting times. Christine Romans, thanks so much.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the would-be attorney general is about to appear in front of a congressional committee, and in the wake of Trump's immigration travel ban, we might see fireworks.

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