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Trump's Attorney General Faces Calls to Resign; Top Republicans Call on Sessions to Recuse himself; Schumer on AG Sessions' Meeting with Russian Ambassador. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:00]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- leading Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Overnight, Pelosi said that Sessions should flat out resign. She accused him of lying under oath, under penalty of perjury when he said this back in January.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign, communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), THEN ATTORNEY GENERAL-NOMINEE: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Here's what we do know. We know that Sessions, to was then a sitting U.S. Senator, and not only a Trump supporter but a surrogate and in fact, the chairman of the Trump campaign's National Security Committee, met twice, two times last year in July and in September with the ambassador to Russia. That matters a lot because of all of the findings about Russian meddling in the U.S. election and whether Sessions could legitimately oversee an investigation into those possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. Well, this morning, he defended his sworn testimony. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign. And those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that. So thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What about the calls for you to recuse yourself from your agency? (INAUDIBLE)

SESSIONS: Well, I've said that out, whenever it's appropriate I will recuse myself, there's no doubt about that. (END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: All right. Look at what Jason Chaffetz, a top Republican, is tweeting this morning, calling on the attorney general to recuse himself and also clarify his testimony. We are covering this new -- this morning all of the new changing developments with Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, as well as, Sunlen Serfaty. And let me begin, as we await hearing from Democrat Chuck Schumer, what he has to say about all of this.

Let me begin with Manu. There is a growing chorus of Republicans, leading Republicans saying this is not OK, Sessions must recuse himself.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right. They're saying he should recuse himself but they're not going as far as saying that there should be an independent prosecutor, what a lot of Democrats are calling for, either for an independent prosecutor or to resign altogether. Instead, they're saying, it is time for him to step aside.

Would there couple of key Republicans in the last hour, pushing for this recusal, including Raul Labrador, who's a top conservative, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, saying it's time for Sessions to recuse himself to avoid any of these questions about a conflict to ensure there's integrity in this investigation. The FBI is conducting about these alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian officials during the presidential election season.

And you mentioned Jason Chaffetz. We just talked to him outside of the House Republican conference meeting, saying that, he should recuse himself. I asked him if that means there should be an independent investigation, a prosecutor. He says he's not there quite yet. I said, will your committee investigate this itself, he said he left that option open either. He didn't say whether his House Oversight Committee would look into this issue.

But you are hearing some concerns from Republicans about Sessions, staying in that position overseeing this investigation, believing it's time to step aside to avoid -- to push back on this political pressure that is growing including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggesting as much earlier this morning. Well, here are the Democrats have to say, whether Chuck Schumer goes as far as calling on Sessions to resign. But at the very least, there's pressure growing on both sides of the aisle for him to recuse himself from this investigation.

HARLOW: All right. Manu, we're going to wait and hear. We'll bring everyone live what Chuck Schumer has to say. Stay with us.

BERMAN: We want to bring in Sunlen Serfaty right now for the very latest on exactly what Senator Sessions is said to have done and the conversations he is said to have had, with whom and when, Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, guys, up here on Capitol Hill, I could tell you that their reaction to those very questions is coming fast and furious, as Manu said, a growing number of not only Democrats but Republicans, really getting on the record this morning in the halls of Congress. Some Democrats calling for Senator Sessions to resign, but notably, we're hearing from increasing Republicans saying that Senator Sessions should at the very least recuse himself, including notably -- Kevin McCarthy, who was a top Trump supporter during the campaign, member of the House leadership. He came awfully close to saying that Senator Sessions should recuse himself. His office seeming to back off that a little bit, but here is what he said earlier this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I think the trust of the American people you recuse yourself in these situations, yes.

[10:05:01] MARK HALPERIN, MSNBC SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He should. You said, you would urge him to recuse himself?

MCCARTHY: I don't have all the information in front of me. I don't want to prejudge. But I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation come -- that there's no doubt within the investigation. It's just easier --

HALPERIN: Does that require his recusal, Congressman?

MCCARTHY: I think it would be easier from that standpoint, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: And we're hearing from many other Republicans, at the very least here, Senator Sessions -- Attorney General Sessions, must clarify more about what -- when these meetings happened, what capacity he was operating in, basically get specific with details.

And interesting, John and Poppy, we also heard from Senator Franken, who of course was the senator at Senator Sessions' confirmation hearing to become attorney general. He was the one that asked him about any potential meetings and conversations he had with the Russians. Senator Franken, saying this morning, he believes that his answer there was misleading at best. So, basically, guys, bipartisan calls up here on Capitol Hill for more information from Senator Sessions.

BERMAN: Look, Senator Leahy, Sunlen, just told us flat out he didn't think that Jeff Sessions was truthful. He wouldn't use the word "lie," but he said not truthful, and you can look in the dictionary, I think those are pretty close. Sunlen Serfaty, thank you so much for being with us.

More to discuss now with our panel, Ron Brownstein, CNN political analyst, senior editor of "The Atlantic," Alex Burns, CNN political analyst and a national political reporter in "The New York Times." Alex, first to you, you've got Kevin McCarthy, flat out saying, it would be a good idea for Jeff Sessions to recuse himself. You have Jason Chaffetz, chair of the Oversight Committee saying the same thing. There is this drumbeat. Is this thing cooked at this point? ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER "THE NEW YORK TIMES": This is a really, really big deal, John. You know, I was in D.C. over the weekend and the first few days of the week, talking to Democrats about their general approach to dealing with the Trump administration. And they basically acknowledged that their whole strategy, not just on Russia but on a whole host of issues, is to build the level of pressure where Republicans have to split away from the administration.

Democrats know that they can't sort of bring Trump to the table to make concessions on his own. They can't force him to appoint a special prosecutor. So this morning and last night, this is really the first time we've seen Republicans bend and say anything, really other than, you know, we trust the White House to do the right thing here.

HARLOW: So, Ron, to you, if Sessions does not recuse himself, why is that a win for the White House? Doesn't that just lead to this dragging on and more questions? Wouldn't it be more of a win for the White House to say, all right, just to be -- we don't think he did anything wrong, but you know they could even blame the media or whomever and blame Democrats, but just for appearance purposes, he's going to recuse himself?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST AND SENIOR EDITOR "THE ATLANTIC": I think it's kind of -- you know, you kind of lose either way. I mean, if you recuse yourself, obviously that gives more momentum to the investigation to the story. It adds to the sense that there is smoke and therefore, there is fire. If you stay, I think the investigation is under a cloud. And you know, as you have discussed, it's always a tough day when the line of defense that your friends are taking is that you should recuse yourself rather than resign.

And you know, the magnitude of this great "Washington Post" story by my former colleague Greg Miller has overshadowed the equally important "New York Times" story that really kind of underscores the stakes here. Because "The New York Times" this morning is reporting that out on the way, out the door, the Obama administration was working to preserve information provided. For example, by European Intelligence Services that they said corroborated meetings between Trump associates and Russian officials, as well as, Intelligence intercepts in which Russian officials -- Russians bragged about their access to the Trump campaign.

So, you know, again, there is all this sense of continued activity here. And I think either way, it's going to be a tough outcome for the administration.

HARLOW: Let's be clear, some of that reporting from "The New York Times" about some of those meetings in the Netherlands, et cetera, not confirmed by CNN, just an important point to make.

BERMAN: And to follow up with the point that Poppy was making, Alex, I'm not sure I understand, given the options available, what the political cost is to recusing yourself from this investigation. What would Jeff Sessions be doing in it anyway, couldn't he just say, I'm out, I'm out? And that's not having a special prosecutor and the White House could wash their hands of this, at least for the time being, pretty easily.

BURNS: Right. There's actually a pretty compelling political case for stepping back for the White House for Jeff Sessions to step back from this investigation. Because as we've seen over the last couple of weeks, every time the story comes up, because they're seen as operating the machinery that runs this investigation, -- these are their questions to answer. It goes straight to the White House, straight to the attorney general every time.

This is traditionally why presidents have used special prosecutors, you know, that's going beyond recusal. But you go to a special prosecutor so that you can say, look, that's an independent deal and I'm going to pursue my agenda. I don't think we're quite there yet because the downside risks are really, really considerable. But to your point on recusal, I think it's a lot there.

HARLOW: Let's talk -- go ahead.

BROWNSTEIN: Real quick, but there are risks in recusal as well. You do lose a certain amount of political control. We saw Attorney General Lynch recuse herself and ultimately that I am sure had some weight on the scale in terms of James Comey releasing his second -- his letter right before the campaign. So, from the administration, recusal is not a cost-free option either.

[10:10:14] HARLOW: All right. So, let me get your take, to both of you. And to Ron, to you first, just on -- you know, part of Sessions' defense I would -- think would be, you know, sitting senators meet with ambassadors and they do.

BERMAN: Pat Leahy just told us, he just met with the Ambassador of Columbia -

HARLOW: He just met with the Columbian Ambassador. -

BERMAN: -- which is worthy of note there.

HARLOW: Right. However, when you look at someone sitting in his position, Sessions was on the Armed Services Committee. He was not the chairman. And when "The Washington Post" asked the 26 members of that committee, the senators, did they meet with Kislyak, did they meet with the Russian ambassador over the last year, 20 of them who responded, all said no, including the chairman, John McCain. So do you think that Sessions has ground to stand on with that argument?

BROWNSTEIN: I think he was asked directly if he had met with Russians during the course of the campaign, and he said no, twice, in -- two different answers. I think that makes it very tough. I think senators will feel that they were misled. Now, he can make the, you know, very precise legal argument that he did not see himself at that moment as a surrogate for the campaign. But the fact is he was the first and the most prominent and at times, the only Republican senator who was supporting Donald Trump during the primaries.

So, I think while he can find a legal defense that may make it very difficult to pursue a perjury charge, I think there's no question, and you've heard it emphatically, that senators will feel the answer was misleading in terms of the impression it gave relative to the question and the information that was being sought.

BERMAN: You know, Ron brought up earlier "The New York Times" report, which gets to the issue that the Obama administration on its way out the door, felt that some of these contacts that it was seeing between the Trump campaign and the Russians were so important that it sort of tried to push it out and disseminate it as much as possible before they left office.

How do you see that? I suppose you can look at that, two ways, number one, the Obama administration trying to poison the well for the Trump people coming in. Number two, you know, they were so concerned with the level of things that they felt they had to do something.

BURNS: Right. Look, I want to be up front here that that was not my reporting. That was superb reporting by my colleagues -- at "The New York Times." So I don't want to characterize, you know, any material that's not literally published in the story. -- But every outward indication we have is that this is a very serious and extensive investigation emerging from several quarters in the government. And that the previous administration didn't want to see it buried, right?

So, part of the reason why the question of who's running the investigation, whether Sessions is recused or not, whether there's a special council or not, is because we have no indication that this is going to be over anytime soon.

BERMAN: All right. Ron Brownstein, Alex Burns, thank you so much. Stick around, guys, there's a lot going on, on Capitol Hill. We're waiting to hear from senior Democrats who've been lashing out at the attorney general into Chuck Schumer who will be speaking. So, right now, we're looking at is the vote to confirm Ben Carson to be the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. We'll get a lot more, coming up. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:17:40] BERMAN: All right. We're looking at live pictures from Capitol Hill, where the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the senior Democrat in the Senate, is set to speak at any moment. He is going to be talking about the future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That future, according to Democrats, in question this morning, many of them calling on him to resign after the revelations that he met twice with the Russian ambassador last year after telling the Senate Judiciary Committee, he had not met with any Russians during the elections campaign.

We're joined again by Ron Brownstein and Alex Burns. Alex, as we look at that podium, we are getting ready to hear from the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. What's the play for him, right now?

BURNS: If you're Chuck Schumer, if you're in Democratic leadership, the big picture is that you want the most robust and extensive investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. So, Jeff Sessions, himself, is an important player in that and the question of what role he plays in the investigation is a critical one. But he is ultimately sort of the appetizer before the main course which is this larger Russia investigation. And for Chuck Schumer, the goal is not just to put pressure on the administration and on Jeff Sessions but on Republican Senators as well who have been managing their own investigation through the Intelligence Committee. The Democrats have been complaining about.

HARLOW: So, on the Republican front, it's very important. You already have Jason Chaffetz coming out, head of the House Oversight Committee. Coming out and saying Sessions should recuse himself. You also have Kevin McCarthy, very high ranking Republican as well, saying he should recuse himself. How long, Ron Brownstein, do you think Republicans can sustain silence on this or not calling for at least a recusal of Sessions?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I think you have a cloud. I mean, what's striking is, this comes at a time when we already have a cloud over each of the Congressional investigations. As several news organizations have reported, the White House successfully recruited the chairs of the Senate Intelligence and House Intelligence Committees to call reporters, to challenge the previous round of "New York Times" reporting in which the FBI concluded there were consistent contacts between people in the Trump orbit and the Russian government.

And then, so you have even Mark Warner, who is about as bipartisan as it gets in the Senate, saying this raises serious questions about the integrity of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation because that seemed to be prejudging the eventual outcome of that. --

HARLOW: All right. Let me just jump in here, Ron. Let's listen to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer right now.

[10:20:00] SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: Sorry I'm late. All right, last night, when I read the revelations regarding Attorney General Sessions' contact with the Russian ambassador and his decision to mislead Congress about those contacts. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. I worried about the future of our country with foreign influence in our elections. It goes to the very wellspring of our democracy.

For weeks, I have said that Attorney General Sessions needs to recuse himself from any investigation into contacts between the president and his associates on the campaign and transition and Russia. For weeks, I made clear that I believe Attorney General Sessions' close relationship with the Trump campaign requires that he recuse himself from the Executive Branch investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

It's matter of Department of Justice guidelines that I've read to you several times that are very clear. The guidelines are clear as day. Yet Attorney General Sessions has demurred. The information reported last night makes it clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that Attorney General Sessions cannot possibly lead an investigation into Russian interference in our elections or come anywhere near it. With these revelations, he may very well become the subject of it. It would be of "Alice in Wonderland" quality of this administration were to sanction him to investigate himself.

Recusal should have been given. But this goes beyond that. He had weeks. Attorney General Sessions had weeks to correct the record that he made before the Judiciary Committee. But he let the record stand. There cannot be even the scintilla of doubt about the impartiality and fairness of the attorney general, the top of law enforcement official of the land. After this, it is clear. Attorney General Sessions does not meet that test. Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.

But whatever one's views are on resignation, the most important thing we must do is ensure the integrity of the investigation. Has it already been compromised? What can we do to ensure it moves forward in a way that ultimately leads to the unvarnished truth? To that end, I am calling on three things -- sorry, to that end I am calling for three things today.

First, the Justice Department must immediately appoint a special prosecutor. Given that Attorney General Sessions' impartiality is compromised, that responsibility will fall to the acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who is a career civil servant, originally appointed U.S. attorney by President Obama. It is incumbent upon the acting deputy attorney general to select a special prosecutor, an individual who is beyond reproach, completely impartial without any significant ties to either political party. The choice for special prosecutor will be scrutinized. Even the hint of partiality in that choice, even the hint that this person will not be able to get to the bottom of these troubling questions, would be disqualifying. The prosecutor must be of great experience and unimpeachable impartiality.

Now, this is not just common sense. This is what the Justice Department regulations require. They say that a special counsel should be appointed when a standard investigation, quote, these are the Justice Department's words, "When a standard investigation would," quote, "present a conflict of interest for the department or other extraordinary circumstances and it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside special counsel."

[10:25:00] The regulations also require that a special counsel be a lawyer with a reputation for integrity and impartial decision making. There cannot even be the shred of a connection between the attorney general, Mr. Sessions, and this Department of Justice investigation into the events of 2016.

Second, if the Justice Department drags its feet and refuses to appoint a special prosecutor or selects someone with insufficient independence, there is another route. We will then urge Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan to work with Democrats to create a new and improved version of the Independent Counsel Law which would give a three-judge panel, the authority to appoint an independent counsel. This was a law that was on the books, put in place after Watergate to avoid a repeat of events like the Saturday Night Massacre. It was designed for this purpose. Unfortunately, it was not drafted with enough constraints. Congress allowed the authority to expire after Ken Starr's investigation into Whitewater went out of control. Ken Starr went too far. He tested the boundaries of the authority he was given. The law, the original Independent Counsel Law, went too far. Sorry, the law, the Independent Counsel Law, was not drafted tightly enough. But in this case, cognizant and wary of this history, we would work to craft a narrow authority with specific guidelines for this investigation to prevent this from becoming a political witch hunt. We hope that if the administration fails in its responsibility, that Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan will rise to theirs.

Finally, third, the inspector general of the Department of Justice must immediately begin an investigation into the attorney general's involvement in this matter thus far, to discover if the investigation has already been compromised. The inspector general doesn't need any permission from either anyone in the administration or the Congress. And he should go forward immediately.

We know the attorney general met with the president several weeks ago. What did they discuss? Have there been other contacts between the president or senior administration officials and the attorney general regarding this matter? Have there been any attempts to interfere with the investigation in any way? Have the AG or his close associates personally managed the work of career officials at the Department of Justice or FBI in the course of the investigation? The inspector general has the ability, the right, and the obligation to find out answers to these questions and more.

The revelations that we learned about last night are extremely troubling and raise even more questions about the president and his associates' contacts with Russia. Did the president know about the meetings between then-Senator Sessions and the Russian ambassador? Were these the only two meetings between the now attorney general and the Russian ambassador or other Russian officials? Did the attorney general disclose these meetings during the FBI background check for his nomination?

There has been revelation after revelation, mistruth after mistruth. Stories shifting like quicksand. If there is truly no "there" there, why won't they tell the truth? The bottom line is we have an obligation to get to the truth. We must evaluate the scope of Russia's interference in our election and assess if agents of their government have penetrated to the highest level of our government. Nothing less than the sanctity of our dear Democratic process, the primacy of rule of law, and the integrity of our Executive Branch is at stake. We now know the only way that this will happen is if an independent, impartial special prosecutor who has no attachment --