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President Trump Says Go Nuclear On Supreme Court Vote; Committee Approves Sessions Nomination; GOP Bypasses Democrats To Advance Price And Mnuchin; White House Travel Ban; Democrats Prepare for Gorsuch Battle; Sessions Nomination Advances; Tillerson Confirmation Vote. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 1, 2017 - 13:00   ET

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


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(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm keeping another promise by nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: I'll do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the constitutional laws of this great country.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA: It's a very hostile appointment.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: The Democrats will not succeed in filibustering Judge Gorsuch. They may try but they will not succeed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democrats are delaying confirmation votes for President Trump's cabinet.

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: When the president of the United States lies, it's a job of the attorney general to call him out on it.

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R), SOUTH DAKOTA, CHAIRMAN, SENATE REPUBLICAN CONFERENCE: It's really important that the Democrats get over it and start to play ball.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We begin with breaking news this hour at the White House and up on Capitol Hill.

Take a look at live pictures coming in from inside the White House briefing room. Just a little while from now, the press secretary, Sean Spicer, will be taking reporters' questions again. We'll bring that to you live as soon as it begins.

The Trump administration is celebrating the announcement of the president's Supreme Court nominee, the Federal Appeals Court Judge Neil Gorsuch. The president says he told Mitch McConnell to invoke the so-called nuclear option if necessary, allowing the nomination to be approved by a simple Senate majority.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we end up with that, good luck. I would say, if you can, Mitch, go nuclear because that would be an absolute shame if a man of this quality was caught up in the web.

So, I would say, it's up to Mitch. But I would say go for it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're also following dramatic developments on Capitol Hill after a fiery hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general of the United States. All 11 Republicans voted in favor, all nine Democrats voted against the nomination.

Meanwhile, Minnesota Senator Al Franken accused Senator Sessions of misrepresenting his record on civil rights cases. Some of President Trump's other nominees also made it through committee, even though Democrats boycotting those nominees weren't in the room and say they didn't know the vote was even coming.

Let's get some more on all of this from our reporters. Our White House Correspondent Sara Murray is outside the White House on the north lawn. Our Senior Congressional Reporter Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill.

Sara, first to you. Tell us more. The president was very blunt in saying, if necessary, to the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, go for what is called that nuclear option.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. In the land of sticks and carrots, this is an awfully big stick from President Trump, essentially encouraging Mitch McConnell, if there is gridlock when it comes to his Supreme Court pick, to go with the nuclear option, to force an up or down vote on his SCOTUS pick rather than allowing Democrats to filibuster this.

But there's, of course, a lot of work going on behind the scenes that could potentially move things before Mitch McConnell got to this moment, had to make this decision.

We know the White House is also working with the Republican National Committee, the NRSE, leadership on the Hill to try to put pressure, particularly on red state Democrats, on Democrats that are up in 2018, not to filibuster this pick but go for an up or down vote.

But it is telling that President Trump is coming out of there early, forcefully, and saying, look, if we need the nuclear option to get my guy on the Supreme Court, we'll do it.

BLITZER: I want to go up to Capitol Hill. Manu, the Senate Judiciary Committee, as you know, advances the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general but not before things got very heated. How did it all play out?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: It was intense, Wolf. This is after -- coming a long -- a long-time coming. Democrats had delayed a vote for a couple of weeks, including yesterday, they delayed it for an additional day because they wanted to have more time to assess this nominee.

And also, they wanted to drag out the process because they are strongly opposed to Jeff Sessions' views on a number issues. They do not believe he should be confirmed, even though they have served alongside here with him in the Senate for some time.

Now, Al Franken, the Minnesota Democratic senator who serves on the committee, laid in to Jeff Sessions. He raised a lot of concerns and got a lot of pushback from Republicans. Here's a taste of how it went down.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRANKEN: Now, after I questioned Senator Sessions about his claim of personally handling these four civil rights cases, Senator Cruz decided to weigh in on my line of questioning. He said that I intended -- that I had intended to undermine the nominee's character and integrity. And that my questioning was, quote, "not backed by the facts."

[13:05:01] SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I object to the senator disparaging of a fellow member of the committee in the absence. I would think --

FRANKEN: Well, he should be here, first of all. And, secondly, he disparaged me, Senator.

(CROSSTALK)

CORNYN: -- (INAUDIBLE) to do it to his face.

FRANKEN: And the fact of the matter is that Senator Sessions misrepresented his record, by claiming he -- to have personally handled cases that he simply did not handle.

And the supplement he filed doesn't explain that misrepresentation away. It lays it bare for all to see. Senator Sessions would not have tolerated that kind of misrepresentation from a nominee before this committee. Nonetheless --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Speed it up, please.

FRANKEN: OK. It's important to know whether Senator Sessions is able or willing to separate fact from fiction and speak truth to power. I am not confident that he is and I will be voting against him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Sessions likely to be confirmed by the full Senate later this week. And also, Republicans taking matters into their own hands and for two other nominees, that's Tom Price, the lead to Health and Human Services and Steven Mnuchin to lead the Treasury Department.

Democrats had boycotted those committee votes over the last couple of days so the Senate Republicans changing the rules of those committees to allow them to advance that -- those nominations to the floor of the Senate. A dramatic move to ensure that Donald Trump will get his choice.

And also, Wolf, that Judiciary Committee is going to consider the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. I had a chance to talk to a number of Democrats on that committee and off the committee.

And Democrats are divided right now about how hard to go after Gorsuch's nomination, whether or not to filibuster him. That's a big question going forward.

Dianne Feinstein, I just spoke to her, the top Democrat on the committee, that she is undecided yet on that regard and wants a full and thorough hearing. But opened question about how -- whether she joins some of her more liberal members in doing everything they can to stop him from getting that seat -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Manu. I take it the Senate parliamentarian approved a change in those rules, allowing that vote to go forward without any Democrats present? Is that right?

RAJU: That's what the Republicans are saying. They consulted with the parliamentarian behind the scenes to allow that to happen.

And now, watch for other Republican committee chairmen to take similar tactics if Democrats do, in fact, end up boycotting other committees.

They did that earlier today for Scott Pruitt, to head of the Environmental Protection Agency. And Democrats didn't show up and now Republicans are warning they will still find a way to get that nomination confirmed.

So, tensions really intensifying but Donald Trump likely to get these picks confirmed even as Democrats, sort of, try to drag out the process -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, thanks very much. Sara Murray at the White House, thanks to you as well. We'll stand by to have live coverage of Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary's briefing that's coming up shortly.

In the meantime, I want to go to Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota. He's the third ranking Republican in the Senate, a member of the Finance Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

THUNE: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: All right. So, Democrats say they boycotted the votes because both Mnuchin and Price misled Congress during their respective hearings. Take a listen to Senator Ron Wyden, the Democratic member of the Finance Committee.

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SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: The basic proposition of breaking the rules so that you can, in effect, look the other way in the face of strong evidence of serious ethical problems for two nominees is exceptionally troubling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator, he also said he didn't get a heads up about the Republicans doing this. Your colleague, Senator Hatch, said, and I'm quoting him now, "I don't care what they want, at this point." Do you agree with that?

THUNE: I think we did what needed to be done to be able to move the process forward, Wolf. All the Democrats would have had to do, if they wanted to raise these issues, was show up. They didn't show up yesterday. They didn't show up again today.

And obviously, that prevents us from being able to move forward. If they had shown up and registered their concerns and made these arguments that Senator Wyden is making, the place to do that would have been at the -- at the Finance Committee hearing room where we had the mark-up.

But they didn't do that. And so, Senator Hatch worked with the parliamentarian to find a way for us to be able to discharge those two nominees, get them to the full Senate where they'd be able to receive a vote.

BLITZER: But you realize this was a change, a very dramatic change, in the rules. Until now, you needed at least one Democrat, one member of the opposition party, at least present in order to go forward. There were no Democrats there. This was a pretty dramatic change in the rules.

THUNE: Well, and all it would have taken is for one Democrat to be there and objected to that. You can't change the rules without you fan mouse consent. And so -- or have them, you know -- super majority there which wasn't there.

[13:10:06] But if one Democrat shows up, they prevent this from happening. So, they, kind of, made that choice. They made a decision. They didn't want to participate.

And, you know, you can't, just because you didn't like the election outcome, burn this place down. These people, the Department of Treasury, the Department of Health and Human Services, are incredibly important positions and they need to be filled.

And, you know, there's a process that we all have to go through. They answer questions. They respond to it. And, at some point, you vote. And the Democrats didn't want to allow that process to move forward. But we need to get these two nominees reported to the floor where we can get them voted on. BLITZER: As you know, the Judiciary Committee approved the attorney

general nominee, Jeff Sessions, this morning, despite Democrats raising lots of concerns, including a concern that Senator Sessions is too close to President Trump. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: On the campaign trail, the American people witnessed Donald Trump glorify sexual misconduct, mock a disabled reporter and make disparaging remarks about immigrants and minorities, all with no pushback from Senator Sessions. We all witnessed chants of lock her up which Senator Sessions did not push back against and even excused in his hearing, as I quote, "humorously done."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Does Senator Whitehouse make a fair point?

THUNE: I think a lot of things get said during the course of a campaign that obviously are in a heated environment.

But Jeff Sessions helped Donald Trump. I think advised him on some of the issues throughout the course of the campaign. But all we know him here as is somebody that we've served with.

He is a very respected member of the United States Senate. He is a colleague. And he's somebody who has absolute integrity and has been elected, I think, three times to the United States Senate and attorney general by the people of Alabama.

So, we have high confidence that he will get over to the attorney general's office and have the highest levels of integrity and respect for the rule of law which is what we want to see in our attorney general.

BLITZER: Let me turn quickly, Senator, to the president's nomination of Neil Gorsuch to become United States Supreme Court justice. Some Democrats in the Senate have already signaled they're going to fight to block him. Sort of this payback for the way you guys, the Republicans, obstructed President Obama's pick, Merrick Garland.

Let me read to you a statement from the Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley. Here it is. This is the stolen seat being filled by an illegitimate and extreme nominee and I will do everything in my power to stand up against this assault on the court.

Can you understand why at least some of the Democrats feel that way?

THUNE: Well, I think it's really, though, Wolf, an apples and oranges comparison. That was the middle of a presidential election year. People had already voted. We wanted the people to decide who the next nominee on the Supreme Court should be. We had that election. They elected President Trump. He's made the nomination.

I think the more important parallel is to go back to the first term of President Clinton when he got Justices Breyer and Ginsburg without a filibuster or the first term of President Obama when he got Justices Sotomayor and Kagan without a filibuster. That's the tradition in the Senate.

This is the beginning of a full four-year term of a president. We intend to move this nomination forward in a way, hopefully, that allows the Democrats to participate in the process, because, clearly, that's the tradition and the precedent that exists here in the Senate.

Supreme Court nominees in the past just have not been filibustered, with one recent exception and that was President Obama filibustering Justice Alito back in 2006. But that's not normal when it comes to Supreme Court noms. We want to be -- we want this nominee to be treated the same way that President Clinton and President Obama's nominees were treated.

BLITZER: Do you agree with President Trump, though, that, if necessary, that so-called nuclear option should be used, eliminating a filibuster, if you will. Eliminating the need for 60 votes and simply bringing it down to a majority vote, 51.

THUNE: That's not my preference. My hope would be that we can do this with the cooperation of Democrats. Eventually, allow this nominee to get voted on in an up and down way. And preserve what I think is a long tradition in the Senate with the exception, of course, the Democrats, a few years ago, changed the rules to allow lower court and appellate court nominees to be considered at 51 votes.

But the best way to do this is under regular order, the way it's always been done, the way it was done for President Clinton and President Obama. And I hope the Democrats will work with us to make that happen.

BLITZER: One final question, Senator, before I let you go. The White House, as you know, is pushing back against reports calling what the president announced a travel ban, affecting the seven Muslim majority countries. Even though that's a word they, themselves, used.

The president tweeted this today. I'll put it up on the screen. Everybody is arguing whether or not it's a ban. Call it what you want. It is about keeping bad people with bad intentions out of the country. Do you believe, Senator, the White House needs to do a better job with its messaging?

[13:15:00] THUNE: Sure, they do. I think this was unnecessarily confusing in the way that it was rolled out. And they deserve to give more clarity to the American people on a big decision like this. But the - at the end of the day, this is a security test. This is not a religious test. And we do have a responsibility to make sure people coming into this country are carefully vetted so that we're not allowing those who come in from terrorist areas - or areas of the world where terrorists are operating to come in here who might want to do harm to Americans. So - but, yes, they're going to - they'll - I hope next time do a much better job when it comes to how they present that to the American people.

BLITZER: I'm sure they hope so as well. Senator Thune, thanks very much for joining us.

THUNE: Thanks. Good to be with you, Wolf. Thanks.

BLITZER: Up next, we're going to speak with a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who says Trump's - President Trump's pick for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice would be, quote, "a rubber stamp for the president's radical agenda." Will Democrats go ahead and filibuster?

And later this hour, we're standing by, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, will take questions about the president's Supreme Court announcement, about kill battles over the president's cabinet nominees. We're looking at a live picture. So far, the room is fairly empty. It's going to get crowded, very crowded, momentarily, as soon as the White House announces the press secretary is only moments away from that briefing.

We'll be right back.

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[13:20:09] BLITZER: All right, take a look at this. We've got some live pictures coming in from the White House. Any moment now, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, will go into that room. They'll take reporters' questions. We'll have live coverage of that as soon as it begins. Stand by for the White House press briefing.

In the meantime, President Trump's Supreme Court justice nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is making the rounds up on Capitol Hill. Already the vice president, Mike Pence, the former New Hampshire Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte, they're escorting Gorsuch from office to office. They met with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, earlier this morning.

We've also learned that after President Trump announced Gorsuch as his pick, the Supreme Court nominee's first call was to President Obama's choice for the seat, Judge Merrick Garland.

I want to bring in Senator Mazie Hirono, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Hi. Aloha.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

HIRONO: Thank you. Aloha, Wolf.

BLITZER: Aloha to you, as well.

When the president announced the Supreme Court nominee, you tweeted this. I'll put it up on the screen. "I'm deeply concerned that @realdonaldtrump's pick for SCOTUS, Judge Neil Gorsuch, will be a rubber stamp for the president's radical agenda." That said, senator, would you support a filibuster if necessary to block his confirmation?

HIRONO: Before we even get to a filibuster decision, I want to make sure that I spend the time with other members of the committee to very closely look at Judge Gorsuch's record and his attitudes toward issues such as a woman's right to choose, civil rights, voting rights, et cetera.

BLITZER: All right. I want you to listen to what your fellow Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said about all of this, about the nominee earlier this morning. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I think Republicans had enough votes to basically block Merrick Garland, but they should have at least given him a vote. That didn't happen. So now they think, OK, that's how we were treated, so we're going to treat them the same. And that's not what we were sent here to do. That's not what I'm going to do. I'm going to - I'm anxious to sit down with the new nominee to find out more about him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I assume, senator, you're also anxious to sit down with Judge Gorsuch and learn more about him.

HIRONO: Certainly. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I have a responsibility to the public to question his record, his attitude, how he would go about making decisions. And with this Supreme Court nomination, you know, there's no appeal from the Supreme Court. I know that he sits on the 10th Circuit. You can appeal from that. And that's why we have to very, very closely and seriously consider when Judge Gorsuch is coming from. And, of course, President Trump has already shown that he doesn't like decent very much. He doesn't like people who disagree with him. He fired the acting attorney general over her disagreement. So that's why I said that I would be very concerned of the independence of this judge because, after all, the Supreme Court is an independent part of government. It's another branch of government.

I also want to point out that I'm very concerned about the tendency of this Supreme Court to really put corporate interests over individual rights. And I'd say that a prime example of that is Citizens United, which opened the door for dark money to influence political elections.

BLITZER: Well, have you seen anything in his record, Judge Gorsuch, that jumps out at you, that potentially could result in an nay vote as far as confirmation on your part?

HIRONO: I haven't gotten to the point where there would be, you know, I'm contemplating a nay vote. As I said, I'm really going to be vetting him very closely and looking at the record. But, of course, I know that he wrote an opinion on Hobby Lobby and that certainly could be characterized as another decision that puts corporate interests over individual rights.

BLITZER: On paper, though, I'm sure you agree, his academic background, his judicial background, his reputation, even among those who disagree with his philosophy, shall we say, legal decisions, is first class, right? HIRONO: So that's why I'm going to give him every opportunity to

explain and to reiterate where he would be coming from. But as I said, I'm very concerned about the tendency of this Supreme Court to put corporate interests over individual rights. And so you can name any number of decisions that reflect that kind of leaning. So I'd be interested to know. But also a women's right to choose, which is a constitutionally based right. I'd be interested to know where he would come from on those kind of individual rights decisions.

BLITZER: Senator Hirono, let's talk a little bit about the Judiciary Committee. You're a member of the Judiciary Committee.

HIRONO: Yes.

BLITZER: The committee voted to send the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to the full Senate floor as the attorney general of the United States.

HIRONO: Yes.

BLITZER: You voted against Senator Sessions. Tell us why.

[13:25:04] HIRONO: I expressed major concerns about how the attorney general - he as attorney general would exercise his prosecutorial discretion to enforce voting rights laws, civil rights laws, to support a women's right to choose. And I did not get very reassuring answers from him on those points.

And, of course, I'm also very concerned about his independence as attorney general since the attorney general is the people's attorney, not the president's. And he was so much an integral part of President Trump's campaign, not to mention that his fingerprints are on the recent executive order that targets Muslims. And I have been a very strong voice against this executive order. Joined, by the way, by a number of Republicans, such as Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who also have issued a statement very much questioning President Trump's executive order on immigration targeting Muslims.

And as an immigrant myself, you know, immigration issues are very much at the forefront. I am aware that immigrants are a particularly vulnerable group. And so I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that immigrants in our country are not targeted. And every time we target minority groups, American Indians, slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act and, more recently, the internment of 120,000 Japanese- Americans during World War II, history shows that we have been very, very deeply wrong.

BLITZER: All right. I just want to point, the White House -

HIRONO: So if we don't fight against -

BLITZER: The White House denies they're targeting Muslims. We don't have to get into that right now.

HIRONO: Well, in effect, it does. BLITZER: But - well, let's talk a little bit about what's going to

happen in about an hour or so. The full Senate will convene to decide whether to confirm the former Exxon Mobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state. How will you vote?

HIRONO: I will be voting "no" because, again, I question very much Tillerson's connections to Russia. We know that Russia sought to influence the outcome of our elections. He was not a supporter of sanctions on Russia regarding their activities and actions in the Ukraine. So his very, very close ties to Russia makes me question what kind of a job he would do on behalf of America as secretary of state.

BLITZER: But, remember, he was chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil when he made those decisions. He repeatedly said when he is secretary of state he's not going to worry about a company like Exxon Mobil, he's going to worry about the national interests of the United States. I take it that was not good enough for you.

HIRONO: Definitely not because he continued to really espouse, I would say, President Trump's perspective regarding Russia, which is that I - to pull back on the sanctions and I don't think he shows a kind of independence and the severance of the kind of ties that Exxon had to Russia as secretary of state.

BLITZER: Senator Hirono, thank you so much for joining us.

HIRONO: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, take a look, once again, we've got some live pictures coming in from the White House Briefing Room. Momentarily, we'll go there live as soon as the press secretary, Sean Spicer, arrives. He'll open with a statement, answer reporters' questions. We'll have live coverage.

Up next, though, could venerable Democrat senators be key to confirming President Trump's Supreme Court nominee? Ten senators will be up - Democratic senators will be up for re-election in 2018 in states that voted to put Donald Trump in the White House. Where will their loyalties lie, with their constituencies, their party? They're all in a rough spot right now. We'll assess right after this.

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