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Attorney General Sessions Faces Calls to Resign; Sessions Slams Allegations; Repulicans Call Sessions to Recuse Himself; Trump to Promote Military Budget in Virginia. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Kate. And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

Day 42 of the Trump administration and high drama here in the nation's capital. Democrats say Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not tell the truth in his confirmation hearing and should resign.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, lied under oath to his colleagues in the Senate and to the American people about his communications with the Russians. The fact that the attorney general, the top cop in our country, lied under oath to the American people is grounds for him to resign.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.


KING: Now, Republicans reject talk of resignation and they reject calls for a special council. But there is a GOP split on whether the attorney general must now recuse himself from the investigation into Russia election meddling. Many influential Republicans say, yes, Sessions should declare now he will recuse himself. But Speaker Paul Ryan, moments ago, pushed back.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: If he himself is a subject of an investigation, of course he would. But if he's not, I don't see any purpose or reason to doing this.

We have seen no evidence from any of these ongoing investigations that anybody in the Trump campaign or the Trump team was involved in any of this. We have been presented with no evidence that an American was colluding with the Russians to meddle in the election.


KING: That partisan split there, one of the many moving parts on this story.

Plus, President Trump about to make a blue state road trip looking to sell his plan to boost military spending. We'll be tracking that throughout the day.

With us here to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Davis of "The New York Times," Karen Tumulty of "The Washington Post," Glenn Thrush of "The New York Times" and Caitlin Huey-Burns of RealClearPolitics.

At issue for the attorney general now in a firestorm is this.


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

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, 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 didn't have -- not have communications with the Russians.


KING: You heard Jeff Sessions right there, I did not have communications with the Russians. Well, we learned overnight he did have communications with the Russians, twice with the Russian ambassador during the election year again with Russia's ambassador here in the United States. Again, a lot of moving parts in this story, including word we're about to hear from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Devin Nunes.

Our CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is there waiting for that event.

Manu, before we go around the table here in the room, give us the latest from The Hill.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. And they're hearing actually increasing calls from Republicans for Jeff Sessions to recuse himself. And those calls mostly coming from rank and file Republicans, some influential members, but not members of the Republican leadership like Paul Ryan, to -- not going as far as calling for a recusal. We have not heard from Senator Mitch McConnell as well and other members of the leadership, including Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming told me earlier he does not think that he needs to recuse himself unless Sessions believes that he should recuse himself.

But there are some other pressure coming from other areas. Rob Portman, who's a friend of Jeff Sessions, thinks that for the integrity of this investigation, that Sessions should step aside. You're also hearing from conservatives, like the House Freedom Caucus member, Raul Labrador, a congressman, saying that it is time for Sessions to recuse himself for the integrity of that investigation, as well as Jason Chaffetz from the Utah Republican who chairs that House Oversight Committee.

Now, the Democrats are going a lot further. They're saying it's time for a special prosecutor if Attorney General Sessions does not resign from this post. There needs to be an independent investigation. And that is something we're not hearing really any Republicans, other than Darrell Issa of California, say that he is open to and -- but not even Republicans who have been open to recusing for Sessions recusing himself have gone as far as a special prosecutor. I just talked to Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who said it would be a no-brainer for Jeff Sessions to recuse himself, but not going as far as that independent prosecutor to create any sort of special prosecutor.

So that's where the dividing line is right now and the question is, what will the White House do? What will Attorney General Sessions do because the pressure is coming from different areas on Capitol Hill for at least for him to do something, at least -- at the very least step aside from some Republicans and most Democrats, John?

KING: All right, Manu Raju on The Hill for us. We'll be back up there with you in just a few moments. Again, we expect to hear live from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes. His committee is one of the committees on Capitol Hill investigating the Russian meddling and investigating allegations that Trump campaign associates were in touch with Russians during the campaign. Again, a lot of moving parts in this story. We'll stay with it.

Let's come into the room here.

[12:05:03] So, Jeff Sessions, this morning, let's quickly let him have a say in this. This morning he was asked about this. And before we play the sound, remember, at his confirmation hearing just a couple of weeks ago, I had no communications with the Russians. Overnight it breaks he had two conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. A man who, if you talk to anybody in this town, whether they serve in the Congress of in the intelligence community, is much more known as a spy than a diplomat. Two conversations with him last year. Here's the attorney general this morning.


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 FEMALE: What about the calls to recuse yourself from the -- your agency's probe of the --

SESSIONS: Well, I've said that whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself. There's no doubt about that.


KING: Whenever it is appropriate. So he's talking generally, not specifically about this case. I don't know anybody in town who believes that if there's something to this investigation, and let's be fair to the White House, we don't know if there's anything to this investigation, but there's nobody in this town who believes that if there is something to this investigation, they would have no choice but to recuse himself because he was a Trump campaign surrogate, because he was so close to the president. So that -- is this just a personal pride? Why not just do it now and turn the volume down on this? Or is it stubbornness, is it pride or is it some principle?

JULIE DAVIS, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think, you know, first of all, I think Jeff Sessions wants to make it clear that he didn't lie. That he's now trying to say that he thought the question was, did you talk to the Russians about the campaign, did you talk to the Russians about Donald Trump and skewing the election to him? And, of course, you know, that wasn't the question. The question was, did you have any contact with the Russians? Did anyone in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians? I think, you know, with Republicans now coalescing around this idea of him recusing himself, at least some of them, he's going to have no choice but to step aside, whether or not this investigation starts to focus on Jeff Sessions himself.

But whether or not he does recuse himself, this is a huge issue for him and for this administration separate and apart from this investigation. He's the top law enforcement official of this administration.

KING: Right.

DAVIS: He is, you know, the face of justice for the Trump administration. And for him to have something like this hanging over him at this early stage of the administration when they're trying to get things moving on The Hill, when they're trying to build consensus for the president's agenda is just -- it's a bad thing.

KING: Right. And so let's unpack this and let's take our time doing it. We have an hour here. We're going to go up to live events here. But because there's so many important pieces of this. He's the nation's top lawyer. He knew when he was up to be confirmed, a senator from Alabama, he knew that the allegations of Russian meddling were going to be one of the issues in that confirmation hearing.

One would think a good lawyer says, they're going to ask me about this, I'd better go back and just go through the record and prepare my case. This is a courtroom in a sense, prepare my case. Is it believable -- is it believable that when he's asked about, did you have communications with the Russians, that he says, no, not the correct answer. If you believe Senator Sessions and all of these conversations were perfectly appropriate, this was about Senate business. We don't know exactly what. Go out and say, no, Senator Franken, I did not have any election related conversations with the Russians. I want to tell you, though, sir, I did have a couple of meetings in my capacity as a senator. They were about the Iran deal. They were about nuclear weapons. They were about whatever. But they were -- had nothing to do with the campaign and move on. Then we're not having this conversation today. That's what a good lawyer could do.

So Jeff Sessions either didn't tell the truth or do we not have a very good lawyer as attorney general?

KAREN TUMULTY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it's worse than that because Al Franken's question was about whether anyone in the campaign had had any contacts with the Russians. And Jeff Sessions just sort of volunteered, well, I'm considered a surrogate, and I never had any contacts with the Russian. He's gone from that position to when the story first broke saying he didn't recall having met with the Russians. Then to parsing it to, well, I didn't discuss the campaign with the Russians. John, if there --

KING: And some of his aides even saying he can't recall what he discussed with the Russian ambassador. The senator himself has not said that. We've got to be fair to him. But when the story broke last night, people speaking for Senator Sessions say he doesn't recall.

I just want to throw this out.

TUMULTY: And even -- but even --

KING: Can you imagine -- well, we don't have to imagine. Do you remember last year when, on several occasions, Hillary Clinton said I can't recall certain conversations and the Republicans went -- I'll just say bonkers, to be polite?

TUMULTY: And, you know, even in Donald Trump's Washington, there are a few ironclad rules left. And one of them is that if you're parsing, you're losing.

GLENN THRUSH, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Why don't we just use the Loretta Lynch rule here. The way the Republicans dealt with -- remember that tarmac conversation that Loretta Lynch had with Bill Clinton on the plane? How a lot of these same Republicans who are saying, let's -- let's pump the brakes here and slow down and not draw any conclusions, were perfectly willing to draw conclusions, said that she was a completely discredited force in the Justice Department.

KING: Right.

THRUSH: Look --

KING: And they had a point. She made a mistake by letting the president on her plane.

THRUSH: Right. But here's the deal. To Karen's point, either one of Jeff Sessions' two explanations for this, and we have two, maybe bordering on three based on what he said this morning, are not good news for them. Did he forget talking to the Russian ambassador twice? Was that something that he forgot? If he was not able to recall that, that speaks to a question of his capacity to remember events that occurred. And if he misled or tried to parse or get too cute on this answer, it again raises the question, why? Why did he do that?

[12:10:18] We are dealing with a situation particularly at DOJ. You can have a HUD secretary or a secretary of the interior futs around with this kind of thing. You cannot have an attorney general, and I really do think that regard of what happens, whether he recuses himself, whether this blows over, there is now sufficient doubt that Democrats and Republicans who are not inclined to support President Trump are going to have ammunition to question his credibility on almost everything that he does.

KING: And we've seen -- the speaker stood up and was a good Republican leader there saying, hey, wait a minute, let's get more facts if he becomes a subject then. But a lot of other Republicans, you've had a number -- Manu went through some of them -- some a chairman of committee, some have been around a long time, say just do it. Just recuse yourself and get out of the way to save the political embarrassment, to save the clutter, in part to save them from getting asked about this repeatedly when they're trying to do tax reform or Obamacare or something else.

But there's also -- if you -- I'm sure you guys are -- your notebooks are full of the same things or your phones, Republicans to me this morning were like, well, wait a minute, we just went through this with General Flynn. This is not the first time this has happened. General Flynn didn't have any nefarious conversations with the Russian ambassador. Or I forgot that I discussed sanctions. And so Republicans on Capitol Hill have stuck their necks out before for this president and this team and are now saying, whoa.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Well, and that's exactly why you're seeing, which we haven't seen really in the past, this kind of coalescing of Republicans around this idea of recusal. I know that Ryan was kind of more tempered in his responses. But I was even talking to Senator Ted Cruz who said, you know, lawmakers meet with ambassadors all the time. Yes, he could have been more clear about that. He didn't go as far as calling for him to recuse himself. But there is an admission that, you know, this was an easy way for them to recuse themselves.

Also, Jeff Sessions, during his confirmation hearing, said he would recuse himself from anything deal with the Clintons because he was a member of the campaign. And also when he describes himself as a surrogate, it's much more than that. Jeff Sessions was an early endorser of this president, a key adviser to him. I think he kind of underestimates his own influence in the campaign by just calling himself a surrogate.

KING: And he's a creature of the Senate where they have a process. You have a confirmation hearing. Then you get to read the transcript. And, in a lot of cases, people realize, oh, I shouldn't have said. That's not exactly right, and they correct the record. Senator Sessions has had weeks and he didn't correct the record.

Including in that record is this from Senator Pat Leahy, a senior Democrat on the committee. He sent a written question. You heard at the top of the show Senator Franken's question during the confirmation hearing where Senator Sessions says, I had no contact with the Russians. Senator Leahy says, "several of the president-elect's nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election either before or after Election Day? One word answer, "no." Now, again, if you accept Senator Sessions at his word, and the

conversation was about Senate business -- again, the Iran deal, U.S./Russia relations, that is a factual answer. But is it the right answer? Is it -- is the answer a good lawyer gives when they know this investigation -- there's a hunt underway. You say, no, but --

DAVIS: No, it's not. And, you know, the remarkable thing about this is that there are many people in Donald Trump's cabinet who don't have experience with this process, who are not -- who have not been around politics, who have not been around questions of law and congressional hearings and being are under oath for things. But Jeff Session does have experience with it. He knows how this work, as he pointed out, and he was an attorney general in a state. He's been a senator for a long time. He knows how this back and forth works. And the fact that he did not volunteer this information either in his -- you know, in- person hearing or in a written capacity does seem to suggest a desire to, at least obfuscate, if not all-out cover up.

THRUSH: And there's the chess game here. The thing that the Senate is most concerned about, and the problem here is, regardless of what the personal loyalties might be, Jeff Sessions has put the Senate and the House in a terrible position here. They were kind of counting on DOJ to be an edifice that they could hide behind on a lot of these investigations. They don't want to have their committees doing the real digging on this.

With Sessions as a compromised investigator, the ball is now back in their court. And you've seen movement on both intelligence committees. And the other thing we heard today was Marco Rubio speaking on NPR suggesting -- he's the first Republican I've heard who's actually said this -- the possibility that he might support a special prosecutor if any of this -- or special investigation if any of this stuff (INAUDIBLE).

TUMULTY: Well, the question is whether the ball should be moved into even yet a different kind of court. I was talking to a -- recently Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But, more importantly, he was a co-chairman of the Iran/Contra committee and the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. And he made the argument --and I thought it was a good one -- that there's an opportunity here for the president to take some leadership and to appoint a bipartisan commission outside of this whole process. He argued that Congress has completely lost its ability to conduct any kind of investigation whose results are going to be regarded as credible.

[12:15:12] The Justice Department appears to be compromised here. If you put in a special prosecutor, you know prosecutors prosecute. It's a decision. Did something illegal happen here or not? But to get to the question of what exactly the Russians were up to, there is an opportunity for the president to decide this isn't about the credibility of his own election, but something that appears to have happened and to get out in front of it and call for a separate investigation outside of politics.

KING: That's a veteran adult in the Washington conversation. But the president has been very clear on the public record at his news conference denouncing it yet again as a ruse. He calls it fake news when we publish articles about these things. He's lost his national security adviser and his attorney general is now under fire for credibility questions about this. I'm not going to put more than a -- I wouldn't even put a penny on the fact that the president's going to do something like that. But we'll see. We'll see how this plays out.

Again, we're going to take a quick break, but we're waiting, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, about to have a news conference. We know it will be about the investigation on Capitol Hill and now the new controversies swirling around the attorney general about Russian meddling in last year's election.

Plus, next, a big stage. The deck of an aircraft carrier as the commander in chief hits the road to sell an agenda that includes a big spike in defense spending.


[12:20:25] KING: Welcome back.

I want to remind you, we're waiting for the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, to have a news conference on Capitol Hill. Among the issues, the attorney general under fire for not disclosing what his -- at his Senate confirmation hearing the fact that he had two meetings with the Russian ambassador back in the election. We'll take you to Capitol Hill, back live as soon as we can.

The president, though, moving on to a big stage today, the USS Gerald R. Ford. A new super carrier in the Navy fleet. It's a time-tested strategy, hit the road after a big speech to Congress to echo the speech's big points. Military spending is this afternoon's big theme.

But this morning, the economy had the president's attention. Look at this tweet here. "Since November 8th, Election Day, the stock market has posted $3.2 trillion in gains and consumer confidence is at a 15 year high. Jobs."

We certainly expect the president to be celebrating the economy. He has every right to. We can debate the reasons for all that, but he's the president of the United States. The stock market is booming. He has every right and reason to celebrate it.

Here's my question. This is a president, and this is -- as different as he is, this is a traditional approach what we're seeing today. You give a big speech. It was very well received. You lay out your agenda and you hit the road, you try to highlight parts of it. I'm going to guess the president of the United States is not happy that the conversation in the news today is about his attorney general, his friend, and this giant question of Russia.

DAVIS: Absolutely. I mean he wants to be focusing on the pivot that he was trying to make in front of Congress earlier this week. He wants to be talking about big military spending, which is a broadly supported thing, certainly among Republicans, even among a lot of Democrats, although the levels are going to end up being a problem when they get down to actually writing these bills. But he wants to highlight his agenda and h doesn't want to have to have his kind of distraction. And it is a real distraction at a time when he's trying to go from, you know, some very controversial, unilateral moves that he made in the first few weeks of his presidency, to a more cooperative, dynamic Congress. OK, now we're going to sit down and get things done and create jobs and do all the things I promised to do. So this -- it's a little bit of a note of dissidence.

I'm sure we're going to hear him make a lot of the same points he made in that speech where he talks about unifying the country and we're going to have a big military build-up so that we're where we should have always been the last eight years, but this is going to hang over it and I think it will create, you know, a distraction.

KING: That's an important time for the president because he's got a lot of people to convince, including members of his own party, of some of these big ticket items, where is the money going to come from? Should we do it this way or that way?

But sticking on this Sessions story for a second. Last night a White House official said -- put out a statement. I don't think they've said anything on the record yet. If they have, please correct me. But a White House official on background, something the president says shouldn't happen, people using sources, but so it goes, said that this is not -- just another partisan attack by Democrats. I just want to push back on that. It's a familiar response from any White House when they're questioned like this. But did the Democrats make Jeff Sessions say no when he was asked at his committee hearing if he had any contact with the Russians?

THRUSH: As Mel Brooks would say, that is authentic frontier gibberish. And I can say that because they didn't put a name on it, so I can -- I can attack the person -- the unnamed person.

Look, the bottom line here is there's a fact set. So we're talking about messaging and pivoting and states of the union and legislative agendas. There is a truth on the ground issue here having to do with what these guys were talking to the Russians about. And sooner or later that information is going to come out. Now, it might quite turn out to be completely innocuous, as they say, but we have not -- they have not been tremendously forthcoming. We keep finding out about meetings we didn't know happened. So does Mike Pence, by the way.

So there is still a fact set. So in addition to kind of dealing with all these messaging issues, we can expect to see these out of the blue revelations because they -- the president has not, for instance, sat down and done what other people in previous situations have done, which is give a -- as full an accounting of what occurred as is possible.

TUMULTY: Although the speech this afternoon is going to be a big test of this newfound discipline and focus of Donald Trump and his messaging because what we've seen more times than we can count in the past is that when there's a storyline that is going that Donald Trump doesn't like, he will say something outrageous that will then create a whole new story line. And I suspect that's going to be kind of the impulse that he's going to be fighting this afternoon.

HUEY-BURNS: Right. And I think that's why a lot of Republicans came out this morning and tried to address this quickly because they actually have something that they haven't had in a while. They believe that they have momentum. I was talking to lawmakers yesterday who had a completely different approach to this president. They were cheering for things and he was talking about that they wouldn't have under a previous administration, of course. But they did feel like they had momentum on their side. They felt like they had a disciplined president. And it puts the president in a really difficult position because he is so close with Sessions, because they are -- Sessions has been so loyal to him and he does feel like he has a message to talk about that could gain more attention. And so we've gone two days, right, without major controversy and --

[12:25:05] KING: Two days. And we'll see what the president says. We'll see whether he addresses this when he's there.

But for me this is an interesting test for the president because he gave a very well received speech. You can disagree with it on policy. He didn't settle all the internal Republican disputes, but he gave a very disciplined, well-constructed political speech about his agenda. That was something he hadn't done before. So it was -- is he up to this challenge? Passed.

Now we see him out on the road. We know he loves these kind of events. He's going to be out with a crowd, the military, a wonderful stage, the USS Gerald R. Ford, one of the new super carriers in the Navy, to make his case. We know he loves the rally and we know he's very persuasive at these rallies. And my question is, can he use the rally atmosphere out there in America to twist arms and change votes back here in Washington? That's the challenge right now.

DAVIS: Well, and I think we haven't seen him try to do that ever. I mean he -- we've seen him at campaign rallies and we've seen him now speak to Congress, and we know that he has an ear for his audience. He's very good at reading what the room wants to hear and delivering on that. And I think that's a lot of what we saw on Tuesday.

But I think Karen's right, when -- once he is outside of the confines of Washington and he is with a big raucous crowd and a setting that he feels is, you know, persuasive, he may well want to hit back against what he sees as a damaging narrative for him. And I think one of the reasons that Republicans were feeling a little more confident after that speech was that they felt that the president was sort of hemmed in, was more -- being more disciplined and was going to stop with these tweets, which Mitch McConnell has said are not his favorite thing.

HUEY-BURNS: That's right.

DAVIS: And actually start to deliver some policy, which is what they really want to see. But now that he feels, again, very likely sort of trapped by a narrative that he feels is damaging to him, I think there are -- there are a lot of worries. I've spoken to Republicans this morning who worry that he is going to hit back and use this forum instead of to build consensus for an agenda to bash his opponents again.

KING: Go back to that. We will see. That's in the 2:00 hour this afternoon. We'll have that event for you live here. The president, I should note, ignored questions about this as he was leaving the White House. Shouted questions. So we'll see if -- he wouldn't answer then. We'll see if it comes up later.

Up next, back to our breaking news, what next for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other new developments in the investigation of Kremlin election meddling.