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Trump on Blumenthal's Comments; Supreme Court Nominee's Comments; Trump Takes Aim at McCain; Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 9, 2017 - 13:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: -- Senator Blumenthal were -- the words were demoralizing and disheartening. The president saying that was a distortion of what was said.

But it's interesting that the official spokesperson that the White House selected, that the White House had selected for Judge Gorsuch, confirmed that's precisely what the judge said.

Take a look at this. We've got some live pictures coming in from the White House right now. The White House briefing room.

Lots of questions coming up for the press secretary, Sean Spicer. He'll be taking questions from reporters later this hour. Likely to be asked about Gorsuch's comments critical of the president. We'll, of course, have live coverage of that coming up this hour.

In the meantime, let's get more on these late-breaking developments. Our reporters are standing by. Our Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is with us. Our Senior Congressional Reporter Manu Raju is with us.

And, Jim, let's, first of all, talk -- the president not backing away at all. We just heard him at the end of that photo opportunity, not backing away at all, saying that what Senator Blumenthal was saying was distorting the words of the Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And you'll notice that the president made those comments as he was sitting at the table with some Senate Democrats there. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, John Tester from Montana, Joe Manchin from West Virginia. These Senate Democrats, by the way, are facing some tough re-election battles.

So, the White House had those senators over today to talk about a variety of subjects. But the subject of the Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, did come up.

And, as you heard there, at the end of the president's comments, he was asked about what Senator Blumenthal has been saying about what Judge Gorsuch said. And you heard the president there say, make this accusation that Senator Blumenthal is distorting his comments.

And then, he took this shot, once again, at Senator Blumenthal, resurrecting this old story from when Senator Blumenthal was running for election to the Senate in the state of Connecticut when he falsely claimed that he had served in Vietnam when he had not done that.

That was something that the senator apologized for several years ago. But because of this controversy, the president is resurrecting those comments to go right after Senator Blumenthal.

But, Wolf, keep in mind, as you just pointed out, Neil Gorsuch's handler up on Capitol Hill, via the White House, from the White House, has confirmed to multiple reporters, including here at CNN, that Judge Gorsuch did say that behind closed doors in the private conversation with Senator Blumenthal.

Other senators have come out and said that Judge Gorsuch said the very same thing. As a matter of fact, Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska made very similar comments on MSNBC earlier this morning.

So, it is very strange and odd and just peculiar as to why the president continues down this road. But keep in mind, Wolf, having covered Donald Trump out on the campaign trail, when a senator comes after him, he tends to go after that one vulnerability that he thinks he can exploit.

He did that time and again with Elizabeth Warren out on the campaign trail. And he seems to be taking the same tactic to Senator Blumenthal -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Kelly Ayotte, the former senator from New Hampshire who has been selected by the White House to coordinate his confirmation process through the U.S. Senate, she publicly released a statement saying that those words were, --

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: -- in fact, uttered by the Supreme Court nominee, that the president's tweets and comments about the judiciary were demoralizing and disheartening.

So, it's surprising to hear the president just now, once again, reject that. Jim, the president's new attorney general, he's scheduled to arrive at the Justice Department shortly, Jeff Sessions. He will be in place. The legal fight continues over the president's proposed travel ban.

Update us on the latest.

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was over here at the White House earlier this morning. He was sworn in. He made some comments about immigration. This is an issue that Senator Sessions, and now Attorney General Sessions we should call him, talked about frequently up on Capitol Hill.

He was a fierce critic of illegal immigration and he brought it up again earlier this morning after he was sworn in along with the president. Here's what he had to say earlier this morning.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We will defend the laws of this country as passed by Congress. And we'll defend the lawful orders of the president of the United States with vigor and determination.


ACOSTA: So, there you go, Wolf. We're going to defend the law with vigor and determination. But it was also during those comments where he talked about this issue of illegal immigration. He said that we need to get back to a system adding (ph) legal immigration in this country.

And if -- we've talked about this frequently, Wolf. President Trump has come into office and is fulfilling a lot of his campaign promises that he talked about out on the campaign trail. And one of those promises was tracking down on illegal immigration.

And now, he has one of the fiercest critics of illegal immigration over at the Justice Department. We understand that Attorney General Sessions has arrived over at the Justice Department, so he's now very much in charge over there -- Wolf.

[13:05:09] BLITZER: He certainly is. First day, full day, on the job. We're going to get back to you. We're going to get back to the White House shortly.

We're standing by to hear from the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer. He's going to go into the briefing room and take reporters' questions. And there certainly are a lot of them today.

Manu, you're up on Capitol Hill right now. The confirmation battle for the labor secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, is heating up dramatically. I want you to listen to what the Senate Democratic leader, the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said just a little while ago.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: Everything in his career is antithetical to the goals of the Department of Labor.

They ought to withdraw Puzder's nominee before he further embarrasses this administration and further exposes the hypocrisy of President Trump in saying one thing to the workers of America and then doing another.


BLITZER: So, Manu, how is all this playing out on Capitol Hill?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I can tell you that top Republicans are telling me they expect this nomination, perhaps, to be the toughest of any of Donald Trump's nominees so far. And no small part because a lot of these same Republican senators, who took a beating from supporting Betsy DeVos as education secretary, now have to turn around and do the same thing for Andrew Puzder.

Now, Puzder is going through that same committee. He'll have a hearing next week before there are votes in a couple more weeks.

And so, Republicans are nervous, not just about some of his viewpoints that have energized the left, but also some of his own damaging personal issues, including acknowledging, earlier this week, that he hired an undocumented immigrant for several years as a -- as a housekeeper. And then, had to only later pay back taxes.

Now, behind the scenes, Wolf, I am told there is a pretty aggressive campaign underway to figure out how to combat the pressure from the left.

And efforts by -- from the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to Senator Lamar Alexander who's the chairman of a key committee, talking with conservative outside groups as well to help push back against this furious push from the left. And as well as trying to persuade some of those key Republican senators that they should support Andrew Puzder.

One of those key senators, Susan Collins of Maine will sit on that committee. She voted against Betsy DeVos but she's undecided about Puzder right now. Here's what she said just moments ago.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I have not reached a decision. I almost always wait until there's a hearing, unless I know the individual well. I've had two conversations with Mr. Puzder. And I think there are questions outstanding that will be, I'm sure, delved into at his hearing.

But I've reached no decision.


RAJU: And, Wolf, that just really raises the stakes for next week's confirmation hearings. But what's given some Republicans some nervousness is that after the hearings, the Senate will go on a one- week recess, meaning that the nomination will just hang out there for a week. Up to two weeks before there's a vote, giving forces on the left chances to mobilize.

But, Wolf, I'm also told that the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, views Puzder as incredibly important. He's telling folks, behind the scenes, that Puzder is, perhaps, the most qualified of any nominee for the Labor Department in history.

And it also has raised some eyebrows because his wife, Elaine Chao, was the labor secretary under George W. Bush for eight years. It just shows how important this is for Mitch McConnell -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And she's now the transportation secretary. About to be the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao.

All right, thanks very much. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

Let's bring in our Justice Correspondent Pamela Brown, A.B. Stoddard, Associate Editor and Columnist for "Real Clear Politics" and Dana Bash, our Chief Political Correspondent.

Dana, this is the strangest thing that is going on right now. Top aides to the Supreme Court nominee, they are confirming what Senator Blumenthal said. How he described his reaction to what the president's description of the judiciary as demoralizing and disheartening.

But the president keeps on saying, this is not true.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Because the president has a history of wanting his own personal truth to be everybody else's reality.

The bottom line is that Senator Blumenthal reported this. Said that he asked Judge Gorsuch if he could say this. And the Judge Gorsuch said, yes.

As one of our reporters --

BLITZER: He actually went one step further, Blumenthal, in a T.V. interview this morning. He said that it was the -- Gorsuch himself said to him, go ahead and release it.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: It's OK if you do. And he said, sort of, are you sure? Blah, blah, blah. And it was Gorsuch who said, release this information. That I believe it is demoralizing and disheartening --

[13:10:01] BASH: Right.

BLITZER: -- what the president has said about the judiciary.

BASH: Exactly. And now, you have not just somebody from the president's opposing party, you also have Senator Ben Sasse who, to be fair, has not been the biggest fan of Donald Trump, even though he is a fellow Republican, saying the judge said something similar to him.

And, more importantly, you have the people who are working for President Trump to get his nominee confirmed also saying that this happened. Kelly Ayotte, the former senator from New Hampshire who is his Sherpa. Ron Bonjean, who we've all worked with for many years. Who is now doing the communications. Who, you know, has a good deal of credibility on these issues. All supporting what appears to be the truth which is that the judge wanted this out there.

You know, Chris Coons, who you have on your program a lot, a senator from Delaware, who is not a partisan flame thrower, this morning said something I think just sums it all up. Are we really in high school? Is this -- is this happening?

And I would even go a step further to say, I think kids in high school act more mature and, kind of, in the realm of reality than what we're seeing here. It's more like, you know, maybe my kindergartner.

I mean, it's just -- it's to believe that we're talking about the United States government. The president of the United States. The person he wants to be in the Supreme Court and the -- I mean, you have all three branches of government part of this soap opera that is not even made for people who are even remotely adult.

BLITZER: And I want to play the clip. This is at the very end of the photo op that we just saw with the president, A.B. And I just want to remind our viewers what the president is doing in a tweet and now on camera.

He's turning this around. Not only saying that the comments that Senator Blumenthal said were distorting what the Supreme Court nominee had to say. But he's now attacking Senator Blumenthal for lying about his experience in Vietnam. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You've misrepresented his comments terribly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I only asked you what your thoughts were, sir.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: His comments were misrepresented.


BLITZER: And then, he goes on to talk about Blumenthal. Once again, Blumenthal did serve six years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves but he never served in Vietnam, as he earlier had said in 2010 when he was running for the Senate. He apologized for that.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST, "REAL CLEAR POLITICS": I think he chose the word misrepresent which I thought was interesting. Is it misrepresenting the context but those two adjectives were actually correct?

You have all these people, as Dana points out, in both parties vouching that for Blumenthal -- Senator Blumenthal that Gorsuch used the same words with senators in the other party. And Senator Sasse said, he was pretty emphatic about it.

Look, Judge Gorsuch has no choice. And everyone around Donald Trump, and Donald Trump knows that himself. He knew it when he sent that tweet this weekend, that he was putting Neil Gorsuch in a terrible corner.

Maybe this is all -- you know, it's a parlor game now. That maybe this was intentional and it's designed to make Democrats, you know, take another look at him. That he's going to be independent. And --

BASH: Wow, that's giving a lot of credit.

STODDARD: But none of this matters. The point is Judge Gorsuch would always have to disavow this. I think it was a way for Donald Trump to take an opportunity to remind people that he will always come at you if there's an open door for an attack. He attacked Sydney Blumenthal and -- I'm sorry, Senator Blumenthal.

And it was a warning to him in the Democratic Party and the Republican conference, I will come out you. I'll find something you did in the past and I'll do it in front of cameras. I'll do from the Oval Office. And be afraid.

BLITZER: All this happening right now, Pamela, as we're awaiting a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the president's travel ban, affecting seven Muslim majority countries in the Middle East. Whether that will be reinstated or it will be off the books, at least for now.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. And we expect that decision to happen this week. As though there isn't enough news --

BLITZER: It could happen today.

BROWN: -- as it is. It could happen today, exactly right. So, really, any minute now, we could expect this decision.

And it could go a number of ways. The Ninth Circuit could send it back to the district court. As you'll recall in the oral hearings, it was brought up repeatedly that this was all moving so fast. In fact, the DOJ lawyer admitted repeatedly that this is moving very fast, it's quickly.

And so, that is an option. It could send it back to the district court. But what happens to this temporary stay, this temporary restraining order, is still unclear.

So, the Ninth Circuit could either say, look, we're going to grant DOJ's request for a stay on that temporary restraining order which means the ban would go back into effect. And then, that raises a number of questions.

Well, will that lead to the same chaos that happened when the executive order was initially signed, when people are flying to the U.S. and then they land. And they are told, you've got to go back to wherever you came from.

Or will they maintain this temporary restraining order. Send it back to the district court and see what happens? Or will it go up to the Supreme Court on an appeal?

So, a number of different scenarios could play out. And we're just, basically, in this waiting game to find out what the Ninth Circuit does.

BLITZER: And we could find out, within the course of a few hours, later today. We're all anticipating that is clearly possible.

Everybody stand by. There's a lot more coming up, including the White House press briefing. Sean Spicer getting ready to answer reporters' questions.

[13:15:05] Lots of questions, including some questions about senior adviser Kellyanne Conway's apparently breaking some ethics rules by promoting Ivanka Trump's clothing line while at the White House. We're going to take that live, that news conference with Sean Spicer, once it begins. Reporters are beginning to gather.

Also, Senator John Barrasso, he's standing by to join us live as well. There he is. We'll discuss the fallout over Judge Neil Gorsuch's comments, the latest on President Trump's cabinet nominees. Lots to talk about when we come back.


[13:20:02] BLITZER: Take a look at this, live pictures once again from the White House Briefing Room. The press secretary, Sean Spicer, will be walking in fairly soon. He'll be answering reporters' questions, and there are many of them today. We'll, of course, have live coverage of the Sean Spicer briefing.

Take a look at this. Got a picture of the Justice Department here in Washington, D.C. Soon, the newly sworn in attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, he'll be arriving there. It's his first official day on the job. We're going to bring you that when it happens as well. Lots of news going on right now.

In the meantime, President Trump is questioning reports that his U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, privately slammed his attacks on federal judges as, quote, "demoralizing and disheartening." The president lashing out, not at his nominee, but at the Democratic senator that Gorsuch spoke to and made those comments. We're talking about Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. The president saying Blumenthal misrepresented the conversation, even though Gorsuch's own White House appointed spokesperson confirms that, yes, he uttered those words.

Here to talk about that, Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: It's pretty extraordinary, is it not, just - Ron - I don't know if you know Ron Bonjean.


BLITZER: He's been around for a long time. A highly respected conservative Republican spokesman. The White House asked him to help work with Gorsuch to get him confirmed through the Senate. Kelly Ayotte, you know her, former Republican senator from New Hampshire.


BLITZER: She lost, but she's the sherpa, or the coordinator, helping him get confirmed. Both of them, they are both credible, said that Gorsuch did describe the president's words as disheartening and demoralizing. And the president is denying that. How do you explain that?

BARRASSO: Well, it says to me that everybody ought to vote for Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court because it shows how independent he is. Not only is he highly qualified and mainstream, he's independent. I briefly visited with him this morning as he was heading down to Susan Collins' office. I think he's going to be a terrific member of the Supreme Court. I support him all the way.

BLITZER: But why does the president, you know, go against Kelly Ayotte's word. Forget about Blumenthal. He's a Democratic senator and he's attacking Blumenthal, and he goes after Ron Bonjean, who's the spokesman. As I said, you and I have known him for many years.


BLITZER: He's very, very credible. Why do you -

BARRASSO: He gained a lot more credibility when he married a woman from Wyoming, my home state. So that's a big thing for me, yes.

BLITZER: All right, well, that's - that's another. That's another. But why did the president do that?

BARRASSO: I don't - I don't speak for the president, but I will speak for myself. I am so delighted that Neil Gorsuch has been nominated for the Supreme Court. He's a guy that understands that the Constitution is where we need to be. And that he is somebody that's going to apply the law, not try to rewrite or re-create the law. So I'm with him all the way.

BLITZER: Do you think the president was out of the loop on that because it looks like a lot of other White House officials were in the loop when they said, you know what, he did say that. And it wasn't just that he said it. Judge Gorsuch told Senator Blumenthal, on his initiative, by the way, you can say what I said about the president's comments, disheartening and all that, you can make that public, I don't have a problem with that. And Blumenthal, as a result, after the initiative came from the judge, he decided to do it.

BARRASSO: Yes, I can't speak for the president, but I - what I can say is this. I think increases the credibility of Neil Gorsuch and the reason that he ought to be on the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: And I think a lot of Democrats are saying exactly what you're saying and so maybe there was some sort of maneuver, deliberate maneuver, to get him to say - apparently said very similar things to Senator Ben Sasse -


BLITZER: Who's a Republican, a colleague of yours, and Senator Schumer as well, the Democratic leader, the minority leader in the Senate. What's also intriguing is, the president went one step further. He

didn't just, you know, criticize what Blumenthal said. He then went after Blumenthal in this tweet, reminding us that back in 2010, you know, Blumenthal apologized for having lied about what he said was his service in Vietnam. He did serve in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves for six years, but he never served in Vietnam. He apologized for that and he went on to get elected as the U.S. senator from Connecticut. But the president, you know, is calling him a - basically calling him a liar. Don't believe him. Is that appropriate?

BARRASSO: Well, I think it's - it's appropriate that the president right now is meeting with bipartisan group of senators. And, again, I don't speak for the president. I think we have an incredibly credible nominee to be a member of the Supreme Court. That's where I'm focused.

BLITZER: All right, the other issue I want to get to is the attack by - and I know this is awkward for you because you don't speak for the president, but the attack by the president on Senator John McCain, your Republican colleague, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This is what the president tweeted this morning.

"Senator McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy. He has been losing so long, he doesn't know how to win anymore. Just look at the mess our country is in. Bogged down in conflict all over the place. Our hero, Ryan, died on a winning mission according to General Mattis, not a failure. Time for the U.S. to get smart and start winning again."

[13:25:06] You know, is that - is that appropriate, you think, for the president to be attacking Senator McCain? He was a war hero. He did serve in Vietnam. He was a P.O.W. for six years. He was tortured by the Vietcong. He did not reveal information. He could have left Vietnam because his father was a highly respected admiral. They said you could - he said, no, no, no, I'm not leaving unless my fellow -


BLITZER: Troops are leaving as well. And now for the president to be saying that about him, is that appropriate?

BARRASSO: I have nothing but the utmost respect for John McCain. He is a man of courage, of character and of credibility. I've traveled the world with him. No matter where I am with him, we've been in Iraq together, Afghanistan, Ukraine. No matter where I am, people come up, thank him for his service, thank him for his heroism. People around the world know about the work of John McCain and continue to look to him for leadership, specifically on issues about military and national security.

BLITZER: He's highly respected in the military area and he's well- liked by his fellow Republicans and Democratic colleagues because he's not afraid to speak out. You know, and the other point that a lot of observers are making right now, he served in the U.S. military. He was in the Navy. He was captured in Vietnam. Spent six horrible years as a P.O.W. Say what you will about Senator Blumenthal. He did spend six years in the U.S. Marine Corps, the reserves, serving here in the United States. And what they're pointing out, the president, he got draft deferments. He never served in the U.S. military. And what they're saying, you know, Mr. President, you should be a little bit more sensitive going after military vets like Senator Blumenthal, Senator McCain, since you didn't serve yourself in the military. You've heard that argument. I just want you to respond.

BARRASSO: My dad was in World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. My wife, Bobbi's dad, World War II and the Korean War as well. I have nothing but the most respect for anybody that ever wears the uniform, bears the battle. I have no criticism.

BLITZER: OK. Well, senator, there's a lot more we could discuss.


BLITZER: It's a busy news day, but I'm grateful to you for joining us.

BARRASSO: Thanks for having me.

BARRASSO: Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming.

Coming up, President Trump reaching across the aisle, inviting a group of Democratic senators and Republican senators for lunch. Among the Democratic senators there, Montana Senator Jon Tester. He's meeting with the president in the White House right now. Once he emerges, he'll join us. We'll get some details.

And the White House daily press briefing only moments away. Sean Spicer, once again, will go to that lectern there and answer reporters' questions. We'll be right back.