Return to Transcripts main page

INSIDE POLITICS

Sessions Faces Calls To Resign Over Russia Meetings; Trump Arrives At Langley Air Force Base; Pelosi: Republicans Want To Hide The Truth; Schiff: FBI Refused To Answer Questions On Russia Investigation. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 12:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:31:17] JOHN KING, INSIDE POLITICS HOST: Welcome back. Again, we're standing by for a news conference on Capitol Hill. Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee about to meet with reporters to discuss among other things. New controversy around the Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

A close confidant of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign who testified a Senate confirmation hearing to be attorney general that he had no contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election. We learned overnight Jeff Sessions had two conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. He says they were about Senate business. He says he did not mislead the committee. The committee believes it was misled and now some Democrats are calling that a lie. Other Democrats calling it perjury. Jeff Sessions himself as he tells with this controversy. Can remember something said by this guy back in 1999.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, 84TH ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: As a former federal prosecutor for 12 years, attorney general for two years, I know and believe very deeply in the rule of law, in the fact that honest and -- testimony is required if we're to have justice in America. A president, under oath, being alleged to have committed perjury. But there are serious allegations that that occurred. And in America, in the Supreme Court, and American people believe no one is above the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Democrats will be rushing to use his own words against him. That is back in a time I remember quite well during the Bill Clinton investigation when then President Clinton have said some things under oath and in public -- both under oath and in public, that turned out not to be true. Did the question there about testimony needs to be honest. How does the senator, he's gave very short answers. A statement last night. Very short comment this morning where he could have been more expansive if he wanted to.

He could have said, I made a mistake. I took the question out of context. Of course I had these meetings. They were nothing. Instead he gives two very short answers which usually raise more questions of an answer. What's the burden on him? What does he do to put this behind him?

GLENN THRUSH, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I expect him to say, I did not have meeting with that ambassador. I think he is tied up in his own shoe laces here. He's given several conflicting accounts. I think the only thing that's left -- I thought it was very, very interesting that he didn't rule out recusing himself. He came back. For those of us who read these things. He came back for the second part of the question.

JULIE DAVIS, THE NEW YORK TIMES: He heard the word recuse.

THRUSH: So I think that is going to be --and I think you pointed it out perfectly right. I think recusal is the escape hatch on this thing. The question is, is he going to -- you know, he went very dark during his confirmation hearings. He's not been out in the public much. Is he going to give a fuller accounting of this at any point in time? I think that's --

KING: In this environment, if you give Democrats recusal, which everyone believes is inevitable down the road if there's something to this. And again, we don't know if there's anything to this which I suspect is what we're about to hear from the House Intelligence Committee chairman that they have no evidence of any wrongdoing. These are just the allegations. And you're innocent until proven guilty in this society.

But he could end this by getting out of the way now at least in part of the conversation by saying, I recuse myself. From now on, I recuse myself. However, that would be giving the Democrats a victory and I suspect that they get one, they will ask for more.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, REALCLEARPOLITICS: But what's interesting too is that Democrats have been calling for recusal for a while now. Now they're saying that's not enough. He has to resign. And even Chuck Schumer said, what's -- people talks to him about there's (ph) all the time. Lawmakers talks him about there's (ph) all the time.

What's different is that he misled Congress. But he went wouldn't go as far to say that he perjured himself. Ask Claire McCaskill the same thing. She said Jeff is a former prosecutor. She said she didn't want to get into the perjury aspect of this.

So, I think Democrats are going to clamor for more beyond recusal. They are calling for full resignation. You heard Nancy Pelosi do that, Chuck Schumer do that. What leverage do they have though, right, is the question. And I think Republicans would be very happy I think if Sessions came out with a statement then they could move on and then say the Democrats are kind of creating a political theater around this because they didn't like him in the first place.

[12:35:01] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And one thing to point out here too is that one bullet that the White House does not have in its arsenal because they already used it in the saga with General Flynn is they cannot just say, he told us it wasn't discussed. We believe him. Let's move on. I mean, Vice President Pence in particular is probably going to be pretty loathed to go out and defend the guy just on the basis of his word.

KING: All right. Just as you're watching as we continue the conversation. That's the Air Force One landing at Langley Air Force Base. Marine One standing by to take the President to the USS Gerald R. Ford. The President on the road today helping to promote the agenda he outlined in that speech to deny (ph) Washington instead talking about these new questions about his attorney general.

As this plays out, it's an interesting point. The Democrats, number one, want to make this about Jeff Sessions. They want to make this about the credibility. The White House saying Ambassador Flynn had to correct the record on the one point and misled the vice president. Now Senator Sessions apparently misled in the minimum. The United States Senate during his confirmation hearing.

The question for Democrats is can they make this even bigger. Nancy Pelosi tried this morning saying this isn't just about the Trump administration. It's about how Republicans up here on Capitol Hill conduct themselves.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: The question is to them. What are they afraid of in the tax returns? What are they afraid of in the investigation of the Russian involvement to undermine our democracy, to repeat that in other countries, to combat here and do that again? What does it say about them that their chief law enforcement officer, the top cop in the country lied to his colleagues in the Senate and to the American people. A person who himself knows about prosecution and knows about the law and knows about perjury and its penalties. So what is it about the Republicans that they want to hide the truth from the American people? I call it stonewalling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We are in the very early days of March 2017. But when you watch these things play out, there are some legitimate, substantive questions the Democrats have about this. Make no mistake about it. About Senator Sessions and why he said what he said at that committee. What happened with General Flynn. These investigations are going.

But even as they asked some legitimate questions, it's also pretty clear that they view this as an opportunity. There's an election next year. And they are trying to take any clouds over the President and bring them into the Republicans.

HUEY-BURNS: Exactly. I'm sorry. And this is coming after they felt like they lost a little bit of energy and momentum after that speech, right? They were caught off guard a little bit about how smoothly it went and actually the reception that the President received. And so, they are certainly trying to gain some ground here.

DAVIS: And they also have to be careful and I think they recognize this. Not to overplay their hand too early. I mean, this administration wants to tamp down on any blood in the water. They already had, as you mention, General Flynn who, you know, sacrificed because of this issue. They don't want Jeff Sessions to go the same way.

If he recuses himself, that could be a way to sort of staunch the bleeding. But Democrats have to be aware of the fact that if they continue to call for people's resignations every time something happens, that it's going to start to carry less weight. And (INAUDIBLE) there's a fact set here. They should rely on that because it's fairly effective in their (INAUDIBLE).

KING: But the pressure from the Democratic base is extraordinary. You make a key point if you ask -- on Thursday, if you're asking for a resignation. What do you ask for on Friday if things don't go your way?

Everybody standby. You are watching there pictures Marine One, Air Force One. The President arriving at Langley, Air Force Base in Virginia. He is heading to Norfolk. Perfect speech on the USS Gerald R. Ford for his agenda. We'll keep track on that. A beautiful picture there.

Also we're waiting to hear from House Intelligence Committee chairman live on Capitol Hill about the big controversy surrounding the attorney general. Stay put.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:41:14] KING: Take you straight up to Capitol Hill. Devin Nunes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

REPPRESENTATIVE DEVIN NUNES (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN (on camera) ... that we need from the director and from other intelligence agencies, but I thought today was a good first step in making sure that we're transparent. Not only between the legislative branch of government and the executive branch of government but also with the American people and with all of you.

So with that, we'll open it up to questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After meeting with the FBI Director, are you still confident that there's no evidence yet of contact between the Russian officials and Trump campaign (INAUDIBLE) season?

NUNES: We still have no evidence of that, other than the ones that we -- and other than General Flynn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And did that come up in today's discussion?

NUNES: I'm not going to get into what was talked about or not talked about in the hearing today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what's your reaction to Jeff Sessions, his meeting with the Russian Ambassadors. Would you stop Trump --

NUNES: Well, I think it's just -- we got to be very careful here. It's a slippery slope. All the countries in the world basically have embassies here. A lot of those countries are adversaries. But we all meet with those. Many senators and congressman meet with those ambassadors on a regular basis.

So I've only read the press report that said that Mr. Sessions had a meeting, and so I think at this point it would be up to Attorney General to, I guess, clarify with the Senate if there's some disagreement. And I don't know if there is yet because I haven't seen what the senators are saying who attended those hearings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Has Jeff Sessions' name come up at all in the course of your briefings as for the investigations?

NUNES: We're not going to talk about what's going on behind closed doors in a classified nature. I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Should Jeff Sessions recuse himself from the investigation that's going on in the (INAUDIBLE)?

NUNES: I have no idea because we have no idea what he did or didn't do. So I think it's up to the Attorney General to, like I just said, I think he needs to talk to the senators if there's some disagreement there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Graham told some of us this morning that he wanted Director Comey to tell him whether or not there was an ongoing investigation. Is that something that you could ask of the FBI director or that's something that's not appropriate for him to tell you guys?

NUNES: If there was an investigation of a sitting senator, I think that would be pretty rare for them to tell us or any elected official for that matter, of the legislative branch.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do this challenge change your mind about how the investigation to be with special contact between Trump surrogates and the Russians? Is this independent investigation be at this point or do your committee still well to handle this?

NUNES: Well I think this is the appropriate place for this to be done. We have the legislative branch and have the House Intelligence Committee that has very broad jurisdiction over the intelligence agencies. It's bipartisan. We have a bipartisan agreement.

And as I've always said, this is a long, ongoing investigation and concern that we've had into Russia, Russia activity, not only in the cyber realm but involving elections and other elections across the globe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now that you have set the scope of your investigation, what's the timeline and the next step?

NUNES: Look, we have -- there's a lot of information that we need to get as it relates to the document that was produced by the Obama Administration, the I.C., in the early part of January. All of those -- all of that intelligence that went into building that document. Well, we're still awaiting some of that. And we're setting up -- we'll also be looking at what the FBI can provide us. Then also waiting to determine if we can figure out who may or may not be part of these leaks that have occurred.

[12:45:03] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Nunes, I mean you -- you said that you meet with ambassadors all the time. But the real issue here is this failure to disclose that when he was asked about this during the confirmation hearings. So how can the American people trust him to oversee this investigation into the campaign contacts with Russian officials if he did not disclose it himself when asked by the Senate?

NUNES: Yes. So I don't know what has been said or not said. I mean, I only just quickly read the press report. Then I know that there are sayings at the senators may believe that they had asked him and then he responded.

So at this point, I think there's a disagreement between the attorney general and some United States senators. And the best thing to do here is, I think, for them to level their heads to prevail and for them to discuss this just to see if this can be solved, if there can be any agreement. But look, I'm in the House of Representatives. I'm not in the Senate, so.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... today?

NUNES: No, I'm not. I won't be talking to the attorney general. I would have --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- so far because you haven't so far, campaign officials talking with Russian officials?

NUNES: Yes, that's correct. Other than in newspapers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, outside of Jeff Sessions, the outside of campaign officials, is there evidence of associates being in contact --

NUNES: Not that I'm aware of at this time. But as I've said, I read about this in the newspaper and I see some of you talking about it. If you have those names, of those people, if you want to come forward as a whistleblower, bring those to us, we would greatly appreciate it because we would like to have those names, brings those people in but we need credible evidence in order to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Speaking of newspaper reports. The "New York Times" also reporting today that British and Dutch intelligence officials had let Americans know about meetings in European cities between potentially Trump associates. Are you familiar with any of that information?

NUNES: Yes, I don't have anything that would lead me to believe that if that's the case. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And do you have any concerns about the other piece of that reporting which was that the Obama administration was concerned that this intelligence might be destroyed or ignored?

NUNES: It seems pretty farfetched. I don't even know who -- because I think those were unnamed Obama officials. So -- I mean, if those Obama officials have -- former Obama officials have those concerns, it would be pretty easy to stand up in front of a press conference like I'm doing now and talk about those concerns with all of you. I would suggest that you guys go chase them down, sit outside of their house and ask them if they have concerns about whether or not the FBI and other agencies were going to conduct an investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The White House has asked the staffers to preserve any documents that you all might need to investigate this. But the preservation order, I don't think was issued until like a couple days ago. What happens to the information that was already out there? Is it without the --

NUNES: Look, I am not at this point. I would have no reason to believe that any information is going to ultimately be withheld from us. You know, I will say there's a lot more information that the FBI and the intelligence agencies need to provide to our committee so that we can thoroughly go through all the information and process it and do an investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without getting any --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just that the other day they've said he wasn't really convinced that -- he hadn't gotten the assurances from the FBI that they would be cooperative. Did you get that information today?

NUNES: Yes, I think that -- well, the director was very upfront with us. I think we were very direct with him that we want to continue to get this information. And he, you know, I think has an agreement with us that he's going to try to provide what he can with us.

So, is there more information needed? Absolutely. But, you know, there are also, you know, it's not always easy to get this because when you're talking about information that was gathered through FISA that some of it would possibly was picked up incidentally of Americans, especially as it relates to General Flynn which we went over on Monday about.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So what are the reasons that the FBI can't be as forthcoming as you might like?

NUNES: It's just -- it's not a matter of them not being forthcoming. It's a matter of them providing us timely information when they can get it to us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why can't they?

NUNES: I would assume that because it's quite complicated as it relates to, if, for example, you were on the phone with the Russian Ambassador and somehow your phone call got recorded, would you want them turning over that phone call and that transcript to the committee?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wasn't there a difference between a cobbled person and a private person?

NUNES: Well, that's the point here. General Flynn was a private American citizen. So, you know, look, I'm sure some of you are in contact with the Russian Embassy. So be careful what you ask for here because if we get -- we start getting transcripts of any of you or any other Americans talking to the press, then we can -- do you want us to conduct an investigation on you or other Americans because you were talking to the Russian Embassy. I just think we need to be careful.

Other questions? Any other questions? Yes, sir.

(OFF-MIC)

[12:50:08] NUNES: Yes -- I mean, look, we're hopeful that we're going to get additional resources in the normal process of the House Committee on Administration.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Without getting into the classified information that you discussed today, did you learn anything new?

NUNES: I'm not going get into what we've learned new or didn't learn new. Look, I -- Mr. Schiff is here. So any other questions for me? I'm going to -- all right. Thank you all very much.

REPPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: Thank you. The chairman invited me to join. I thought it would be better for us to do this sort of (INAUDIBLE) together but I appreciate that and would be happy to respond to any questions you have.

I do want to express some concerns at the outset. I appreciate we had a long briefing and testimony from the director today, but in order for us to do our investigation in a thorough and credible way, we're going to need the FBI to fully cooperate, to be willing to tell us the length and breadth of any counterintelligence investigations they are conducting. At this point, the director was not willing to do that. There were repeated questions about the scope of any investigation they were doing. Individuals that may be the subject of any counterterrorism investigation and the director declined to answer those questions.

It was unclear whether that decision was a decision he was making on his own or a decision that he is making in consultation with the Department of Justice. But both in the Gang of Eight setting and we had our quarterly counterintelligence briefing this week as well as in the full committee thus far, the bureau has not been willing to give us a full counterintelligence briefing. That can't persist. If we're going to do our job, the FBI is going to have to fully cooperate with us and that means they can't say, "We'll tell you about this but we won't tell you about that."

So, we are, obviously, going to persist. The director will be coming back. We hope to get a different answer from the director next time we meet because this counterintelligence investigation that we are undertaking is among the most serious that we've ever done and we cannot represent the American people that we're doing a thorough job if the Department of Justice or the FBI is unwilling to tell us what indeed they looked at. What leads they have followed. Where they've found substance and where they have not.

So I'm disappointed we didn't have that briefing today. And it's going to be vital that we get the full cooperation of the FBI, not just rhetorically but in fact, that they share with us the length and breath of what they may be doing.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: What was the rationale that Director Comey gave for not giving that information today?

SCHIFF: Well, I don't want to go into too many specifics but he made it very clear, there were certain questions that we were asking that he would answer and others he would not. And when members asked questions, he referred to us earlier a decision to decline to answer the question.

Again, I hope that when we next meet with the director, he will have a different point of view. I hope the department will. Because we're going to need that information and we are better off getting that through the voluntary cooperation of the FBI than having to contemplate whether we need to subpoena the FBI.

RAJU: Should there be a special prosecutor now that you're not getting this kind of information? Do you think there should be a special prosecutor --

SCHIFF: You know I can say this, and up until now I wasn't sure whether there should be a special prosecutor because that is a function of a couple of things. It's a function of whether the attorney general can be independent and -- or whether it's a conflict of interest or an appearance of impropriety. And whether there is something concrete and specific enough to be investigated.

I am now convinced that both of those criteria are met and an independent prosecutor should be appointed. Certainly, the attorney general is in no position to oversee any investigation or prosecution involving any of the counterintelligence issues concerning Russia. So I am now convinced that an independent prosecutor is necessary.

(OFF-MIC)

SCHIFF: I -- we've been in a hearing all morning and I have did not have a chance to go through the testimony that Senator Sessions gave. I want to reserve judgment until I have a chance to study exactly what he said.

Certainly, if he willfully misled the Senate during his confirmation then, yes, he should step down. But I want to have a chance to look more into the facts before I reach a conclusion about whether that was a willful misrepresentation. [12:55:07] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So if independent prosecutor is appointed, then what's that to the commission -- bureau -- committee's investigation?

SCHIFF: Well, the committee investigation goes on. Regardless of whether an independent prosecutor -- those are, I think, very different functions. An independent prosecutor would have the responsibility of bringing someone to justice. That is not a core part of our responsibility. Our responsibility is our national security and counterintelligence interest.

Now that may lead to referrals to the Justice Department or not but that doesn't obviate our needs to do our jobs. And, you know, I'm certainly very pleased that the chair and I have reached bipartisan agreement on this bill (ph) of our investigation. We're going to look at the hacking, the dumping of documents. We're going to look at the use of the paid media, the Russian propaganda campaign.

We're going to look at the FBI response. We're going to look at the issue of collusion with U.S. persons, including anyone affiliated with the campaign. And we're going to look at the issue of leaks and so we have a now detailed scope of investigation that we've agreed to and I think that's a very positive step.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why was it necessary to ask the administration to preserve the records? Did you not trust them in any way?

SCHIFF: Well, I think that -- and this is not uncommon in any investigation. You want to make sure that the administration and the department is on notice that these are the subject of congressional investigation and that any destruction of records will be violation of law. So I think it helps clarify if there's any ambiguity that there should be a complete preservation of evidence.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have any reason to believe that they have destroyed evidence in the meantime?

SCHIFF: I don't want to get into any of the facts of our investigation. But the request to preserve documents is made prophylactically at the very beginning of the investigation so that we don't have any issue like that come up in the future.

RAJU: Are you aware of any evidence about contact between Russian officials, people tied to the Kremlin in any way and the Trump campaign during the election season?

SCHIFF: I'm not going to go into any of the specifics. And that would go into the specifics of the investigation. I'm not going to comment on that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you say how the Director Comey -- the FBI Director looking for -- whether if they give you some evidence of contact.

SCHIFF: Yes UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the reason (INAUDIBLE) that the chairman says there's no evidence, but is it that the FBI didn't say whether they do or don't have evidence? The committee don't have any evidence or?

SCHIFF: All I can say is that the director made it clear on this he would discuss and this he would not. And we can't do a complete job unless the director is willing to discuss anything that they are investigating. And I hope that will take place. We're going to need it to take place. Otherwise, I don't know that we can represent the American people we've really done a thorough job.

(OFF-MIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- fraction that the FBI knows?

SCHIFF: I would say at this point we know less than a fraction what the FBI knows.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And the goal of today's meeting was to learn more about the FBI's investigation into the connections of the Trump campaign (INAUDIBLE).

SCHIFF: Well, I'm not going to go into the contents of the testimony, but I can tell you the director spent about 3 to 3.5 hours with us and on the areas he was willing to discuss, we had a very in depth set of questions and answers, but there were very large areas that were walled off and those walls are going to have to come down if we're going to do our job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there a standard for the FBI director or any other intelligence director to withhold information when talking with the intelligence committee or is that normal for them? Is that there's -- is he just following routine procedure here?

SCHIFF: You know, I would say that certainly there is a cultural, as well as a policy framework for when individual members of Congress approach the department who wanted to know about investigations and when committees do.

And what the department has to look at is, is this within the scope of the committee's responsibilities and clearly it is. Is this in the public interest and, clearly it is. In this case, it's the subject of a bipartisan agreement. This is not an investigation that is being undertaken by only one party or the other. It's hard to imagine something of greater public interest.

And more than that I'll say and I think the chair and I are in agreement on this. These are issues that should have been brought to the Gang of Eight at a minimum. If we're to get quarterly counterintelligence briefings then we need the confidence of knowing they're briefing us on the most significant issues.

And at this point, I think that's very much in question. I don't think at all we've gotten the kind of quarterly briefings that we should have been getting. Not now. Not while the -- not in the summer. Not in the fall and not even to this day. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just to be clear. You learned things today that you had not previously been aware of as a member of the Gang of Eight