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CNN NEWSROOM

Lawmakers Clash Over Trump Cabinet Picks. Aired 9:15-9:30a ET

Aired February 1, 2017 - 09:15   ET

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


[09:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: -- beating him in the ratings in the last week or so. Maybe the appetites are changing for what people want.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Maybe they are. All right, we will explore that tomorrow. Time for the NEWSROOM with Carol Costello.

Hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, guys. Have a great day. NEWSROOM starts now.

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

President Donald Trump sets the stage for what may be the most meaningful battle yet. Next hour, his pick for Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, heads to Capitol Hill. He'll meet with Vice President Pence and the lawmakers who will vote on his confirmation. Republicans already showering Gorsuch with rave reviews while Democrats vow a bitter fight ahead.

In the meantime, the battle heats up on Capitol Hill next hour. A Senate Committee gets ready to vote on Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions. Democrats forced a delay on that vote yesterday.

And President Trump backpedaling, after his spokesman raised eyebrows, by saying the White House described travel ban is not actually a ban at all. Trump tweeting about that just an hour ago, quote, "Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a ban. Call it what you want. It is about keeping bad people with bad intentions out of the country." Oh, but that controversy is not going away.

We're covering all the developments on this busy morning. But let's begin at the White House, shall we, with CNN's Jeff Zeleny?

Hi, Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol. Even as the White House was hoping to change the subject and focus on this nomination of the Supreme Court, the President, of course, changing the subject back to what's been really dividing his administration and this city, that immigration ban. But there is no question this is a new moment in Washington.

That presidential campaign from last year is going to fire up again in the form of a Supreme Court campaign. Carol, there's already television advertising in key states against Senators urging them to vote for confirmation.

Now, this is, without a doubt, the biggest decision of President Trump's presidency. It's a lifetime appointment to the court. That's why Democrats are vowing to try and block it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Here they come. Here they come.

(APPLAUSE)

ZELENY (voice-over): In a prime time reveal, President Trump unveiling Judge Neil Gorsuch as his nominee to the Supreme Court.

TRUMP: I only hope that both Democrats and Republicans can come together, for once, for the good of the country.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: As this process now moves to the Senate, I look forward with speaking with members from both sides of the aisle.

ZELENY (voice-over): Setting up a battle between Senate Republicans.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: I think it was an absolute home run.

ZELENY (voice-over): And Democrats who are vowing a confirmation fight after President Obama's nominee to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia was blocked for 10 months.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: If I conclude that he is out of the mainstream on issues like privacy rights, including women's health care and Roe v. Wade, or worker and consumer protection, I will use every tool at my disposal to block his nomination.

ZELENY (voice-over): For the White House, it's a chance to turn the spotlight from the growing backlash over the President's executive order on immigration and refugees, the fallout continuing with more than 900 State Department diplomats signing a memo of dissent against the travel ban. House Speaker Paul Ryan admitting the rollout was unusually rough.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), SPEAKER OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Regrettably, the rollout was confusing, but on a go- forward basis, I'm confident that Secretary Kelly is going to make sure that this is done correctly.

ZELENY (voice-over): Ryan speaking about Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly who is in charge of implementing the action, an action he defended despite chaotic scenes and flip-flopping on green cardholders.

JOHN KELLY, SECRETARY OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: We knew it was coming. It wasn't a surprise it was coming, and then we implemented it.

ZELENY (voice-over): Meantime, the White House is trying to rebrand the order.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: -- that is, by nature, not a ban.

KRISTEN WELKER, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: I understand your point, but the President himself --

SPICER: It is extreme vetting.

ZELENY (voice-over): Yet, ban is exactly how the President and his Press Secretary Sean Spicer described the action.

TRUMP: We're going to have a very, very strict ban.

SPICER: It's a 90-day ban. The ban deals with seven countries.

ZELENY (voice-over): Pressed on the point, Spicer provided no clarity, instead taking aim at a familiar target.

SPICER: No, I'm not confused. I think those are words that are being used to describe it are derived from what the media is calling this.

ZELENY (voice-over): Despite legal challenges and protests, the administration is signaling it has no plans to change the order. Three high-ranking Republican Senators saying, they were told the White House will not be rewriting its controversial travel ban.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, even as this executive order remains controversial among Democrats and Republicans alike, this Supreme Court nomination, Carol, is going to be a unifying factor for Republicans. It is also, of course, going to be one of the topics at confirmation hearings when they happen, but for now, Judge Gorsuch will be on Capitol Hill today, meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as other Senators, beginning the process here of getting to a know-you.

One interesting point, a former Senator by the name of Barack Obama from Illinois in 2006, he voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Federal Appellate bench in the first place. So you can bet that that will come up, saying that he's already been confirmed. He was also a law school classmate of Barack Obama's back in 1991 from Harvard.

[09:05:10] But, Carol, it's a new day here, and Democrats see payback and want to block this nomination. We'll see if that happens. Ultimately, the smart money now is that he gets confirmed, but all depending on how he does in those hearings, Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. Jeff Zeleny reporting live from the White House. Thanks so much.

So let's talk about that. With me now is John Adams. He's a partner at McGuireWoods law firm. He, also, is a friend of Judge Gorsuch's. Steve Vladeck is with me. He's a CNN commentator and a Law professor

at the University of Texas. And Douglas Brinkley joins me as well. He's a CNN presidential historian.

Welcome to all of you. John --

JOHN ADAMS, PARTNER, MCGUIREWOODS, LLP: Yes, Carol.

COSTELLO: -- I want to start with you because you know Judge Gorsuch. Is he a Scalia clone?

ADAMS: Well, I don't think that he's a Scalia clone. But I think, like the American people saw last night, he's an incredibly intelligent man, but he's also a very kind, gracious, and polished person.

And so he's certainly not a Scalia clone in the sense that he has some views that are a little bit different than the late Justice. But he's a wonderful, wonderful pick for the administration, and I think the American people are going to really not only respect his credentials, but as they get to know him, they're going to like him.

COSTELLO: OK. So why will they really like him?

ADAMS: Because he's genuine. He has really committed his life to the law, and he is a warm person. And I think you saw some of that last night in the ceremony, the way he interacted with the audience.

He's just a very magnetic personality and a good person. And I think you're going to see the people in the United States, well, as they get to know him, they're going to like him.

COSTELLO: Steve, if Judge Gorsuch is confirmed, he wouldn't really change the makeup of the court, would he?

ADAMS: Well --

STEVE VLADECK, PROFESSOR OF LAW, THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN: Certainly not compared to Justice Scalia. I mean, I think John is right that he wasn't a Scalia clone, but it's important to note that Judge Gorsuch, on a number of key areas, Carol, that we've already talked about, that are being discussed today online, you know, is very much consistent with Justice Scalia's judicial philosophy.

And so I think we're going to see, at least in the short term, if Judge Gorsuch is confirmed, that on many of the hot button socially divisive issues, it's going to be the same as before Justice Scalia died, where you have a fairly reliable block of four progressive justices, a fairly reliable block of four conservative justices, including Judge Gorsuch, and Justice Kennedy in the middle continuing to hold that key swing vote.

COSTELLO: Got you. So, Douglas, Gorsuch was unanimously confirmed by Congress to become a federal -- or by the Senate to become a federal judge. That's not likely to happen this time, right? DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No, that won't happen

this time. However, I think his chances of confirmation for this are very great. I mean, Judge Gorsuch is the perfect pick for Donald Trump in the fact that he's 49 years old.

I mean, pretty young for the Supreme Court, he could have a long career like William O. Douglas had. Decade after decade, they'll be a Trump stamp there. The fact that he's from Colorado, a western state, getting somebody on the west on the bench like that, and the very fact he's going to be hard to dent.

He's lived a pretty squeaky-clean life. Nobody argues that he's not fit for the job. And he's an excellent writer and one of the leading originalist voices in America, you know, believes that the constitution as written needs to be upheld. So it's going to be hard for the Democrats to do much damage to him, but they'll try.

COSTELLO: OK. Let us just kind of like hone down on issues just for a minute.

So, John, there are many important issues that will come up before the U.S. Supreme Court, but Roe v. Wade will likely be the lightning rod. Considering the makeup for the court is just about the same as it was with Scalia, right, will Gorsuch be the lightning rod to overturn Roe v. Wade?

ADAMS: Well, I don't know that Judge Gorsuch is what anyone would describe as a lightning rod in any way. I think what we can expect from him is that he will follow the textualist or the originalist approach to deciding cases. And so I think that's fair. And I have no doubt that the Senate is going to thoroughly question him about his approach to deciding cases. But I don't think anyone would really describe him as a lightning rod.

COSTELLO: And I just want to throw this out, too, and I'll post this question to you, Steve. You can't really predict what a judge will do either. For example, John Roberts, who kind of used to be a conservative darling, right, he saved Obamacare twice. Conservatives did not expect him to do that.

So who really knows how judges will react until they're on the bench, and they sit down with fellow justices and they hash things out?

VLADECK: I mean, that's certainly right, Carol. I will say, I think the two John Roberts Obamacare votes don't really undo his conservative credentials. But you're right, that we don't often know.

[09:10:03] In Judge Gorsuch's case, what I think makes him a little bit different from John Roberts, from Justice Souter, for example, is that we do have over a decade of tenure on the 10th Circuit, the Federal Appeals Court in Colorado, where we have a number of opinions that give us insights into how he thinks as a judge.

And, Carol, what's especially interesting about Judge Gorsuch's record is, these are not just majority opinions where he's applying Supreme Court precedence. Judge Gorsuch often wrote separate concurrences, separate dissents, where he would go out of his way to suggest that maybe the Supreme precedents didn't quite make sense, maybe we had gone too far in, for example, deferring to the executive branch.

So, you know, in this case, we actually have a far more substantial record, for better or for worse, than we've had for some of the folks we think of as more shadow or stealth nominees, like a John Roberts, like a David Souter.

COSTELLO: OK. So, Douglas, I know everybody is expecting this ugly fight, you know, especially coming from the Democrats in confirming Judge Gorsuch, but I guess my final question to you is, is this the right fight for the Democrats? Why not wait until the next time around which may come, right, considering the age of the Justices on the court?

BRINKLEY: I think they really are going to wait for the next time around. However, Judge Gorsuch is going to get hit on, you know, questions about environmental protection, about women's rights, you know, about, you know, views in general about what is government.

They're trying to get bad media moments for the Judge, ding him up a little bit. But at the end of the day, just like all of Donald Trump's picks for his Cabinet, they're getting through. And this will be a new Supreme Court Justice, I'm pretty confident, unless something goes very amiss that we can't foresee.

COSTELLO: All right. I have to leave it there. John Adams, Steve Vladeck, and Douglas Brinkley, thanks to all of you.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, cabinet chaos. Democrats hitting back hard against Trump's nominees, prompting one Republican lawmaker to call them, quote, "idiots."

And John McCain versus Trump's pick for Budget Director. Will the Arizona Senator reverse course and vote yes?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:16:14] CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Expect a fresh round of fireworks on Capitol Hill today. The Senate Judiciary Committee resumes its hearing on Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's pick for attorney general. This after Democrats successfully delayed his vote which was actually scheduled for yesterday.

And Sessions isn't the only one in the spotlight. Vets are expected for secretary of state and budget director. As more questions swirl around Betsy DeVos and Andy Puzder, nominees for secretary of education and labor.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is keeping track of all of this. He joins us live from Capitol Hill.

Good morning.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Carol. And certainly, a tense time here as the Senate painstakingly goes through the nominations amid a lot of delay. In fact, you have one top Senate Republican suggesting that Democrats are bringing a mob mentality to this because he says they're bitter about the outcome of the election still. We saw that boycott yesterday in the Senate Finance Committee by Senate Democrats, boycotting two of Trump's nominees, Tom Price for HHS secretary and Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary.

And today sets up a potential for more chaos as they work through some of these confirmations as well. In just a few minutes, with the Mick Mulvaney, OMB nominee, get his hearing, potentially move towards getting a vote. But we heard from one top Republican on this committee, Senator John McCain who says he may vote against him. So, that might complicate his confirmation as well.

Also today, we'll see Senator Jeff Sessions, the attorney general nominee, get finally a vote before his committee after it was delayed yesterday. This means his final vote could get pushed to the full Senate late they are week.

But, Carol, at the end of the day, there could be one key takeaway, one tangible takeaway for the Trump administration. We will very likely see by the end of the day today Rex Tillerson voted on and likely passed through to the full Senate for secretary of state -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. Fascinating. Sunlen Serfaty, reporting live from Capitol Hill. Thank you.

Here to talk more about this is Jackie Kucinich, Washington bureau chief of "The Daily Beast", Errol Louis is a political anchor for Specter News, and Ron Brownstein, senior editor for "The Atlantic", and you're all CNN contributors and we're happy about that.

So, Errol, I want to start with you. So, Democrats are boycotting these confirmation hearings. They're acting tough. You heard Senator Orrin Hatch call them idiots.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what we're going to see I think is that, you know, because Capitol Hill is not Mount Olympus. These are politicians who have constituencies they have to respond to. They see the Democratic outrage in the streets. They see the demonstrations.

They see the social media. They see the lawsuits. They see all the stuff that's going on and the incident of any decent politician when they see a parade going by in front of their house, to try to get in front of that parade before the next election.

So, they can't be less outraged and can't be less oppositional than their base. I think what they're seeing is the playing out of the politics of the Democratic Party which keep in mind still doesn't have a permanent new DNC chair. So, the direction of the party is for everyone to figure out on their own and they're playing the politics of the moment. COSTELLO: I would expect some of those protesters don't think

Democrats are reacting strongly enough.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly. That's what I was about to say.

They've already seen some backlash when Democrats voted for General Mattis or General Kelly, and also when they voted people out of committee, Democrats have gotten heat for that. So the fact that people are saying, I'm out in the streets, what are you doing, you need to fight back harder.

I think we're going to see that culminate with the new Supreme Court battle. By all accounts, the justice is very qualified individual and will likely become the next Supreme Court justice. That's not going to stop Democrats from fighting this tooth and nail.

[09:20:01] COSTELLO: So, what will that look like, Ron? Will Democrats just scream and shout and, you know, in the end, he'll be confirmed and big deal?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think there are a couple of different dynamics. I think it's interesting on the cabinet dynamics that obviously the core opposition is Democrats, and it does reflect as Errol and Jackie said, the intensity, the visceral reaction, but also the broader reality that Donald Trump is facing more opposition and public opinion particularly voters from the opposite party than any president in history. I mean, he has been at 50 -- he's reached 50 percent disapproval in Gallup polling this week, eight days into his presidency.

For Barack Obama, it took 600 days to get down that low. For George W. Bush, 1,200 days. So, you do have a reaction that they have to respond to.

I think on these cabinet officers, some ways the critical dynamic will be Republicans. It is rare for cabinet nominees to be defeated. The last one was John Tower in 1989.

But when you look at the fact that how many Republican senators have raised questions about the executive order on immigration, they now have a point of leverage on the nomination of Senator Sessions to the attorney general. There are only 52 Republicans. Republicans who are questioning the order would say that they were unwilling to vote for him without some changes, that would be their point of leverage.

I think Donald Trump is a student of power. Republicans raised objections to Rex Tillerson and then voted for him. If we see the same thing again on the executive or attorney general, I wouldn't be surprised if he concludes, all talk and no action.

COSTELLO: That Jeff Session thing, that intrigues me, because everybody saying, Errol, that, you know, it's a shoo-in, he's going to get confirmed. No big deal.

But might he not now? LOUIS: I think the opposition is serious. He more so than others has

been a lightning rod. One wonders, in fact, why he was the first one put forward. He's had a controversial past, he's had a negative encounter with the Senate which blocked him in the past. He's front and center on issues that touch at the heart of some of the core constituencies of the Democratic Party.

So, here again, the civil rights base is going to make its voice known. The labor base will make its voice known. The LGBT community is going to make its voice known.

And so, they're in no position, Democrats in the Senate, to simply sort of roll over and not give him a hard time.

COSTELLO: I did find it interesting that the Trump camp put out that press release, assuring, you know, the gay community that nothing will happen to their rights.

KUCINICH: Right. They're just not going to remove this executive order, which, you know, is great. But I don't know that you get points for not doing something in this case.

When it comes to Sessions, I don't think Republicans are going to take out their anger at the Trump administration about the executive order on Jeff Sessions. I think ultimately they're going to vote to confirm him. But Errol is right. Democrats will kick and scream the entire way.

COSTELLO: OK. Jackie, Errol, and, Ron, stay with us. We have much more to talk about.

Coming up in the NEWSROOM, the fallout coming fast and furious over Trump's travel ban. One of the battles, do we call it a ban?

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:27:29] COSTELLO: And good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining me.

One little word, three letters -- so much controversy -- ban. There is zero doubt President Trump called his move to keep the bad dudes out a temporary travel ban. He said it. His press secretary said it.

But this morning, Mr. Trump tweeted it's no big deal what you call it. So, just ignore all the other stuff we said in the past.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It can't be a ban if you're letting a million people in. If 325,000 people from another county can't come in, that's by nature not a ban.

It's a 90-day ban to ensure we have further vetting restrictions so we know who is coming in this country. The safety of the American citizens, the safety of our country has got to be paramount.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: All right. So, let's talk about this. With me again is Jackie Kucinich, Errol Louis and Ron Brownstein.

So, Errol, I'm struggling as to why we're having this semantics war.

LOUIS: If it were a different administration, I would suggest they poll-tested it and it's giving them negative results in the populace. I don't know that they've done that. They seem to be moving much too quickly on too many fronts to pay attention to that close analysis.

But, look, it makes them look bad. In the eyes of the international community, all the stories that have been done by this network, by other news organizations, finding who these people are, these so- called bad people had to be kept out and finding out that they're children, they're elderly people. They're patriots. They're members of the military. They're grand mothers. They're people who -- in at least one tragic case wasn't able to come here for medical treatment and died, you know?

And so, they seem a little more hard-hearted than even they wanted to seem around this. I think also for legal reasons, a flat ban is never going to pass constitutional muster whereas some of the other arguments they'll try to make might.

COSTELLO: But, Jackie, I don't think they're going to change the language in the executive order. So --

KUCINICH: This -- you're right. It's semantic. You can't blame the media every time you screw up. And that's what they're doing here. It's not our fault you've been using the word ban. Sean Spicer and Donald Trump.

And let's be real here, Syrian refugees are banned in definitely. That's a ban. And these are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. They're just going to have -- if they're going to do that, they've got to accept the humanitarian consequences that go along with it.

COSTELLO: Ron, are you getting a sense of what the administration wants to call it if it's not a ban. What word are we supposed to use?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, that's a very good question. Look, I --