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Attorney General Recuses himself from Campaign Investigations; Trump: 'Total' Confidence in Attorney General. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer.

[17:00:06] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Sessions backs down. Under fire for not disclosing his talks with Russia's ambassador during the campaign, Attorney General Jess Sessions recuses himself from any investigation into Trump campaign contacts with Russia. But top Democrats say he should resign.

Total confidence. President Trump voices complete confidence in his attorney general, says he wasn't aware of Sessions' contacts with Russia's ambassador and says he doesn't think Sessions should be stepping aside from any investigations.

Spy recruiter. CNN has learned that U.S. intelligence views Russia's ambassador as a top agent and recruiter for the Kremlin, whose talks with General Michael Flynn led to Flynn's ouster as national security advisor.

And vital intelligence. Sources tell CNN that the Yemen raid on al- Qaeda which cost the life of a U.S. Navy SEAL did produce valuable intelligence: laptops and cell phones with hundreds of names and information for future U.S. strikes.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. Suddenly, the Trump administration is being rocked by another fast-growing crisis overshadowing the president's dramatic visit today to the Navy's newest aircraft carrier.

The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has just recused himself, meaning he's stepping aside, from any investigations into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Key Republicans today have been calling on him to do just that, while there are calls from Democrats for him to step down.

At issue, revelations that Sessions, then a U.S. senator and Trump advisor, met with Russia's ambassador during the campaign, but failed to disclose that during his confirmation hearing. The ambassador is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies, and General Michael Flynn's contacts with him led to Flynn's ouster as national security advisor. Sessions denies ever discussing campaign-related issues with anyone

from Russia, but more than a dozen Democrats have called on him to resign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi saying he lied under oath and should leave immediately.

The White House insists Sessions is a victim of a partisan attack, and the story was exploding today as President Trump visited a new U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, highlighting his plan to boost defense spending and America's military might.

Forced to address the crisis, the president voiced total confidence in his attorney general, saying Sessions probably testified truthfully.

I'll speak with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on the judiciary and Intelligence Committees. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with our senior Congressional reporter Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill, where there's been a steady drum beat of calls for the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to resign or at least to withdraw from any investigations. Manu, bring us up to date.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Calls had been intensifying all day from Jeff Sessions' own party for him to at least step aside from this investigation into Russia or anything involving the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian government officials.

Now, Republicans are not going as far as Democrats, who want Sessions to either resign or appoint a special prosecutor. But Sessions taking the step today to recuse himself to calm the political firestorm.


RAJU (voice-over): Under mounting political pressure, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped aside from any FBI inquiry into Russia and the Trump campaign.

JEFF SESSIONS: I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.

RAJU: The decision came after new revelations that Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign season.

Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies and spy recruiters in Washington, according to current and former senior U.S. officials. Russian official dispute this characterization.

Sessions failed to disclose those contacts with Kislyak during his confirmation hearings in January. In sworn testimony, Sessions was asked about Russia's meddling in the elections and alleged ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin. SESSIONS: I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that

campaign, and I didn't -- did not have communications with the Russians and I'm unable to comment on it.

RAJU: In a questionnaire, Senator Patrick Leahy asked Sessions if, quote, "You have been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day." Sessions' response: no.

But Sessions said he did not mislead the committee, saying that the two meetings with the Russian ambassador were not tied to his role in the Trump campaign.

SESSIONS: I was taken aback a little bit about this brand-new information, this allegation that surrogates -- and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump -- had been meeting continuously with Russian officials, and that's what I -- struck me very hard; and that's what I focused my answer on. And in retrospect, I should have slowed down and...

RAJU: Democrats say that Sessions' recusal is hardly enough, demanding that he resign.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: 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.

RAJU: Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer wouldn't say if Sessions committed perjury, but called for a special prosecutor.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: It would be of "Alice in Wonderland" quality if this administration were to sanction him to investigate himself.

RAJU: But House Speaker Paul Ryan rejected calls for an independent investigation.

(on camera): If there really is nothing "there" there on the whole Russia issue, why not just allow a special prosecutor to investigate...

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: First of all, we don't have that law, because remember at the end of the day, we have to protect our intelligence assets. We do not want to compromise our sources and our methods of getting intelligence from any adversary, let alone Russia.


RAJU: Now, Wolf, the FBI inquiry into Russia comes as the House Intelligence Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee are conducting separate inquiries, as well. The House Intelligence Committee meeting today with FBI Director James Comey. And after that briefing, the top Democrat on that committee, Adam Schiff, came out and was critical of James Comey for not being forthcoming about a number of details. And now Schiff, too, joining those calls for an independent prosecutor but something right now the Republicans are not agreeing to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Manu, we heard Sessions say at that news conference that two of his aides, professional aides in the Senate office, were in the meeting with the Russian ambassador in his office that day. They're both retired colonels. He said, "I'm pretty familiar with the retired colonels. They usually take notes."

Do we know if there are contemporaneous notes that would back up Sessions' assertion there was absolutely no discussion of the campaign; it was other issues like Ukraine, issues like that; those were the only issues that were discussed? Because I assume committees and others will be looking to see if there are contemporaneous notes.

RAJU: Indeed. I think we are still trying to find out exactly the details about the contents, what exactly was discussed and if there's anything that could corroborate what Senator Sessions at the time, then Senator Sessions said in that meeting. We don't have that information yet.

The question will be whether or not the Senate or House Intelligence Committee look into this. Senator Richard Burr, the Intelligence Committee chairman, telling our colleague Ted Barrett that he would probably not ask Sessions to come and testify before his committee. So we'll see if anyone else looks into that or if Sessions provides any of that information to corroborate his -- his own comments today, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, thank you. Manu Raju up on the Hill for us.

Let's turn to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. Evan, how did Sessions explain why he didn't disclose the meeting with the Russian ambassador when he was there testifying under oath?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the attorney general says that he simply did not understand the question. He simply was answering a question, because he thought Senator Franken was asking him about a CNN report. Take a listen to how he described it at this extraordinary press conference a little while ago.


SESSIONS: My reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time. I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct.

I was taken aback a little bit about this brand-new information, this allegation that surrogates -- and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump -- had been meeting continuously with Russian officials, and that's what I -- struck me very hard, and that's what I focused my answer on. And in retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, "But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times. That would be the ambassador."

(END VIDEO CLIP) PEREZ: So, Wolf, now you have the attorney general, just barely almost a month in office. He's now stepping aside from overseeing anything having to do with this investigation that is still ongoing by the FBI. In his stead, there is now going to be the deputy attorney general, who's going to be overseeing any of these matters.

As you heard there, he's not willing to -- to step down, which is what Democrats are asking him to do. He believes this is going to be sufficient to be able to handle this issue, Wolf.

BLITZER: And give us some more, Evan, on what he said. He did discuss during that meeting with the Russian ambassador.

PEREZ: Well, you know, one of the things that happens with the attorney general Sessions, the former Senator Sessions, is that, you know, he's a little bit wordy in trying to describe these types of conversations. And he began by saying that he didn't really remember. But then as he spoke, he gave a lot more detail, including talking about Ukraine. Take a listen to what he said.


SESSIONS: I started off by saying -- I don't remember a lot of it, but I do remember saying I had gone to Russia with a church group in 1991, and he said he was not a believer himself, but he was glad to have church people come there. Indeed, I thought he was pretty much of an old-style Soviet type ambassador.

And, so, we talked about -- a little bit about terrorism, as I recall, and somehow the subject of the Ukraine came up. I had had the Ukraine ambassador in my office the day before and -- to listen to him, nothing that -- Russia had done nothing that was wrong in any area and everybody else was wrong with regard to the Ukraine. It got to be a little bit of a testy conversation at that point.


PEREZ: And, Wolf, the attorney general made -- was very careful here today to say that he was not confirming the existence of this investigation. Of course, we know that it does exist. It's one of the most important things that is being handled across the street at the FBI.

He also said that all along, he had planned to get around to addressing this issue. As a matter of fact, today he had already scheduled a meeting with his staff to discuss whether or not he should recuse himself. He said all along this was something on his plate. Obviously, he's only been in office for about a month, Wolf, and he was going to get around to this eventually.

BLITZER: Yes. He said the ethics advisors, the career ethics experts at the Justice Department, told him, "It's best that you recuse yourself," and he said he was going to do so, and that's exactly what he did.

All right, thanks very much, Evan, for that reporting. The sudden crisis involving his attorney general accelerated today as

President Trump visited the U.S. Navy's newest aircraft carrier. Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us from Newport News in Virginia.

Jeff, all of this, the Sessions issues, certainly stole the spotlight from the president.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It did indeed, Wolf. The president was making a dramatic entrance here. He was trying to make sure his bid to strengthen the military budget was actually getting out into the country, trying to carry that momentum forward.

But he was asked by reporters whether the attorney general should recuse himself. He said no. By the time the president returned to Washington, the attorney general was doing just that.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump arrived on the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier today...

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to start winning today.

ZELENY: ... but his commander in chief moment in Newport News, Virginia, overshadowed by the growing controversy over Russia.

(on camera): Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general?

TRUMP: Total.

ZELENY (voice-over): The president expressing confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who two hours later announced from the Justice Department he would recuse himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign.

SESSIONS: I should not be involved investigating a campaign I had a role in.

ZELENY: The president was watching that press conference aboard Air Force One after landing at Joint Base Andrews. He could not escape questions about Sessions earlier during a tour of the Navy vessel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Should Mr. Sessions recuse himself from investigation into your campaign and Russia?

TRUMP: I don't think so at all. I don't think so.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When did you first learn that Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador? Did you know during the campaign? When were you aware that he spoke to the Russian ambassador?

TRUMP: I wasn't aware of that. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When did you find out?

ZELENY (on camera): Do you think he should have spoken truthfully about whether he spoke with the ambassador?

TRUMP: I think he probably did.

ZELENY (voice-over): On the aircraft carrier today, the president touting his plan to strengthen the military budget but overtaken by news back in Washington over his attorney general.

TRUMP: I am calling for one of the largest defense spending increases in history.

ZELENY: The president didn't mention the Sessions controversy during his remarks here today. An administration official told CNN the White House only learned about Sessions' contacts with the Russian ambassador Wednesday night when first reported by "The Washington Post."

It's the latest in a string of unwelcome distractions for the Trump administration over potential links to Russia. Last month the president's national security advisor, Michael Flynn, forced to resign over not being forthcoming about his conversations with the same Russian ambassador.

But no member of the cabinet is closer to the president than Sessions, who joined Mr. Trump's movement long before many Republicans took his candidacy seriously.

SESSIONS: At this time in Americans' history, we need to make America great again.

ZELENY: And there was this moment at the Republican convention.

SESSIONS: Mr. Speaker, it is my distinct honor and great pleasure to nominate Donald J. Trump for the office of president of the United States of America.

ZELENY: The White House now in damage control as the president's agenda in Congress is now competing with the deepening investigation into the Trump's campaign and Russia.


ZELENY: Now, Wolf, the White House is defending the attorney general, with White House spokesman Sean Spicer saying the president values him tremendously.

But Wolf, if you take stock of this fast-moving series of developments, it was just late last night when a senior administration official dismissed all of this as a partisan attack. Now, of course, he recused himself with the blessing of the White House. In the first six weeks of this administration, Wolf, nothing has moved this quickly.

BLITZER: Yes, Sessions said he informed the White House counsel of his decision to recuse himself. Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat of the Judiciary Committee. Also a key member of the Intelligence Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Did the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, go far enough by recusing himself?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I think that's a very important step that he took today. He moved himself out of the way, and now hopefully, an independent investigation can go on with no potential conflict of interest.

After all, this was a man who participated intimately in the campaign, was very close to the president, and it's the right thing to do. And it was done, and I think it puts us a step ahead.

This, Wolf, is probably one of the biggest investigations any committee of either House will participate in. What the Russians have done is unparalleled in its depth and breadth. And so the investigation has to go on untarnished and unblemished, and it cannot be conflicted. And I think this recusal enables some of that to happen.

BLITZER: What do you say, Senator, to some of your fellow Democrats in the House and the Senate like Senator Elizabeth Warren, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a hundred other House Democrats who want Sessions not only to recuse himself, but to actually resign?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I think you see the depth and breadth of the concern. Senator Sessions -- Attorney General Sessions, has had every opportunity to change the record, to file an amendment to say, "I misspoke. Here's what the facts are." But he did not do that. And the fact of the matter is he did not tell the truth under oath before the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate. And you just don't do that.

So, I understand what's out there. I also understand that we have to move on, and we need to get these investigations begun in both the Senate and the House, and they have to proceed in a way that there is no fault that can be thrown at them.

And, so, I think that there's one other thing that should be done, and that is consideration of a special prosecutor.

Right now the No. 2 and No. 3 in the attorney general's office are up for confirmation. None of us really know them very well. That confirmation will be taking place next week. But it seemed to me that a very prudent step at this time would be the appointment of a special prosecutor, somebody who is without blemish, someone who has inordinate skill and can put together the kind of robust investigation that really needs to be done. BLITZER: Who would name this independent prosecutor?

FEINSTEIN: Well, that's a good question. Probably within the department somewhere, but we can look into that. But somebody that's independent from everyone that's there now.

BLITZER: Do you believe that Senator Sessions perjured himself to you and your Judiciary Committee when he said he did not have communications with the Russians?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I can -- he didn't tell the truth. Let me put it that way. Anyone that knows Ambassador Kislyak knows that he's a rather formal persona, and he's not easily forgettable. So, this last meeting or talk took place in September when there was a lot of heat going on about what Russia was doing.

And, so, it is incompre -- I can't comprehend his not understanding this seriousness. This particular ambassador has been a fixture in Washington for a very long time and has a very big reputation. And one would remember meeting with him.

[17:20:04] BLITZER: What's the difference between he didn't tell the truth and actually lying? Because as you know, he was testifying under oath.

FEINSTEIN: Well, perjury is another specific thing with respect to its intent. And I can't comment on whether he perjured himself, and I'm not going to do that right now.

But I am going to say that I do not believe this was the truth. He has recused himself. Now there's an opportunity to move on, get the No. 2, No. 3 confirmed, and hopefully, be able to get a special prosecutor, someone of substantial reputation and presence, who is really able to do this free from any conflict or aspersion.

BLITZER: Should there be a perjury investigation?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I'm not there yet. I'd like to think that one out. And I'd like to really look at the perjury law, which I haven't done.

BLITZER: Current and former U.S. intelligence officials are now describing to CNN the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, as a top spy and recruiter of spies. Is that true?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I can't testify to its truthfulness or untruthfulness. I can say that's the reputation, certainly, and he's been in Washington for a very long time, and he has been a very strong representative for Russia, no question about that.

BLITZER: I assume you've met with him and you know him.

FEINSTEIN: I do, I have.

BLITZER: And what kind of meetings did you have with him?

FEINSTEIN: Oh, I was at the embassy once for dinner with some other senators and former House member. I believe he's been in my office from time to time. It's that kind of a meeting.

BLITZER: So, when you did meet with him, you just assumed, in addition to being a diplomat, the top Russian diplomat to the United States, he was also an intelligence operative?

FEINSTEIN: Well, you know, in this business, one always makes somewhat of that assumption, and you're always careful what you say. There's no question about that.

BLITZER: Do you agree with Congressman Adam Schiff of California -- he's the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee -- who now says that the FBI is not being forthcoming when it comes to Trump/Russia ties? They had a briefing earlier in the day, and he emerged from that session very disappointed that the FBI wasn't sharing what he would regard as very important information.

FEINSTEIN: Well, I have every faith in Adam Schiff. I think has enormous credibility. I think he's very good spokesperson for the committee and for our party, as well. And so I don't know exactly -- I just read about this -- exactly what the point is.

But I do know this: that our committee staff have to have access to whatever we need to have access to, or this kind of investigation is not going to work. I was vice chairman of the committee at the time when the Gang of Eight material came out. So I have been briefed on that material, and it is very serious stuff.

What the Russians have done is unprecedented in the history of this country. And the investigation has to be strong and forthright, and the intelligence community has to cooperate with the committees on the Hill. If they fail to do that within a fairly decent period of time, we're going to need to look at an alternative, because there is no reason for our two committees -- intelligence of House, intelligence of Senate -- to have to fight over who has access to what information. The Senate and the House should have access to whatever it is they need to do an adequate investigation, period.

BLITZER: Do you have confidence, Senator, in the FBI director, James Comey?

FEINSTEIN: Confidence in what sense?

BLITZER: That he's -- that he's going to do a fair job in this investigation of Russian contacts with Trump campaign officials, and whether there was anything inappropriate as far as Trump campaign officials in what they were doing or saying to the Russians?

FEINSTEIN: Well, let me put it this way. Mr. Comey was very forthcoming when he briefed the Gang of Eight, and I was part of that briefing, along with our chairman, Senator Burr, and he was very forthcoming then. And he appeared before our full committee and was very forthcoming.

I don't know what the problem is right now. I'm no longer either ranking or chairman, as I'm just a regular member. But it's apparent there is a problem. It's up to Mr. Comey to help solve that problem, and I look forward to his doing so, because we cannot differ on these things. We have to be together, and we have to see that these investigations are properly carried out.

[17:25:11] BLITZER: Senator, the White House is now confirming a "New York Times" report that was just posted that Jared Kushner, as you know, an advisor, top advisor to the president, his son-in-law, and the former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign, that the two of them met with the Russian ambassador, Kislyak, in December over at Trump Tower in New York. This is a meeting we didn't know about earlier. We knew that Flynn met with the Russian ambassador here in Washington.

Does that concern you, that additional information like that is now coming out?

FEINSTEIN: Well, it does concern me. I hadn't heard this before, so, it's news to me. And I think there is a real underestimation of Russia and Russia -- what Russia has been doing in the world. And, you know, the people killed, the plane shot down, the abandon with which they proceed, and it's very deeply troubling.

So I think, now that we have General Mattis in place and we have a strong secretary of state, that this really needs major administration attention, because there are a lot of us that are very worried over where all of this is going.

BLITZER: Senator Feinstein, I want you to stand by if you can for a moment. I need to take a quick break. There are other developments unfolding right now, even as we speak. Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.

FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Wolf.


[17:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: We're following breaking news.

The Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions just a little while ago, removed himself from any role and possible investigations of Russia's role in the U.S. presidential election. Sessions' stunning announcement comes amid a political firestorm touched off by the disclosure that the Attorney General met with Russia's Ambassador to the United States twice last year during the campaign.

I want you to listen to what Sessions said just a little while ago.


JEFFERSON SESSIONS, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL: My reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time. I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct.

I was taken aback a little bit about this brand-new information, this allegation that surrogates and I had been called a "surrogate" for Donald Trump, had been meeting continuously with Russian officials, and that's what I -- it struck me very hard and that's what I focused my answer on.

And in retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, "But I did meet one Russian official, a couple times, that would be the ambassador."


BLITZER: Yes, with retrospect, they say he should have volunteered the information that, yes, he didn't discuss, he says, political issues with the ambassador, but he did meet with the ambassador at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Brief meeting with others, but a substantive meeting in his senate office with the ambassador, two of his aides were present.

Joining us now, the top Democrat of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: So, you wanted Sessions not just to recuse himself from any investigation, but to actually resign. Did the Attorney General go far enough by recusing himself at least today?

CUMMINGS: No, no, he didn't. As a matter of fact, Wolf, he left me with more questions than before he started. We don't, you know, first of all, I'm glad that he did recuse himself. The question is how far does that recusal go? Is it just up until the Election Day? Because a lot of the concerns that all of us as Americans should have is what went on before the election, and whether there was sweet talk of taking down the sanctions and things of that nature that would have been for after the election.

So, I have a lot of concerns. I do -- you know, Wolf, we democrats and others have been asking him to recuse himself for a few weeks. And suddenly now he says because he's talked to his ethics people that he is going to recuse himself. And they say -- they told him that he should do it because he was involved in the campaign.

Give me a break. He is the number one law enforcement officer in the country. He has been a U.S. Attorney for the State of Alabama. And as an attorney, he knows and I know that there are certain things that you don't have to talk to the ethics people about. You know it.

And when you come before a committee, Wolf, the Judiciary Committee in a confirmation hearing, and you tell them that you have had no communication with the Russians and you volunteer the information, you know -- and you know how important every syllable you say is, then I really wonder about that.

[17:35:04] And then suddenly, I found it interesting that he got a memory today. That was very interesting, that he remembered some things and he didn't remember other things. There's one more thing, Wolf, that got me a little concerned. What we

have seen in the Oversight Committee, in the House, is when somebody comes before our committee and then say they forgot something or under sworn testimony and then they want to, you know, correct it, they then come back and say, "Oh, let me tell you, I forgot this, or I should have told you this." This would have never come out. I don't think this would have ever come out if it were not for the drip-drab of the press bringing these things out.

And so, I'm still concerned. I do not think it was enough. I think he left a lot of questions unanswered.

The other thing that concerns me, too, Wolf, is that I don't know what he knows now. In other words, he should have recused himself a long time ago. He's been sitting around, I guess, talking to Comey and the FBI and others. We don't know what he knows.

So, it's going to be interesting to see what he sends to the judiciary committee to try to clear the record. But I can tell you that I'm still not satisfied. I'm concerned. And I think that we as a country and we as a judicial system are better than that.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Congressman, that the investigation needs an independent special prosecutor if the acting deputy attorney general who happens to be an Obama appointee, handles the investigation? What do you want to see happen right now as far as the overall investigation?

CUMMINGS: What I have -- what I want is what I've been saying. I've wanted for the last two or three months, the bill that Congressman Swalwell of California and I, put forth for an independent 9/11 type of investigation. I'm not interested in having senators on a panel. I'm not interested in having congressmen on a panel. Keep in mind, Wolf, that I was the ranking member of the Benghazi committee and in many ways that was a fiasco because it got caught up in politics.

What I want to see are an equal number of well-established citizens who truly care about America, people that we highly respect, to look at this thing very carefully, have subpoena power, and equal number appointed by democrats and republicans, and for them to then come back with findings and then recommendations how -- as to how we never let this happen again.

I'm tired of the drib-drab. We get a drop here. We have President Trump saying nobody has had any contact with the Russians. Then we find out that his son-in-law had communications. We find out that Flynn had communications. We find out that all these other people had communications.

We need to take this into an independent situation. Let reputable citizens look at it and come back with findings and recommendations.

BLITZER: Do you believe that the Attorney General perjured himself as a senator when -- during his confirmation hearings, he told Senator Al Franken under questioning, "I did not have communications with the Russians," and then in a written response to Senator Patrick Leahy, the question was, "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?" His answer was a simple, "No." Do you believe he perjured himself?

CUMMINGS: Wolf, I'm going to -- I'm not sure. I want to look at all the evidence. As a lawyer, I'm not going to do what the republicans have done on my committee, where they come to all of these conclusions before they have all the evidence.

But I can tell you one thing on its face. I don't think that the Attorney General, if that was one of his people and they did what he did, I believe that he would fire them. And I can tell you as a lawyer of more than 30 years, certain conduct from lawyers is just not acceptable. As a matter of fact, this is the kind of conduct that could get you disbarred.

And so, that's a real problem. And this is the number one law enforcement officer in the United States. And your audience needs to understand this. He is over all of the law enforcement officers in the country. He is over the FBI.

So, we need to have the very best there and we should -- we don't have to have -- we don't need to have any question marks behind the person who is in charge.

BLITZER: One quick question, you're the ranking democrat on the Oversight Committee, do you have confidence that the chairman will work together with you and pursue these issues that you're concerned about? We're talking about Jason Chaffetz.

CUMMINGS: No, no, I do not.


[17:39:52] CUMMINGS: Because we have asked -- we were presented with 43 items with regard to what we will be looking at over the next few years. Democrats asked to look at the emoluments clause and a number of everything. And on a party vote, every single thing we wanted to do to look at this -- the situation with President Trump and all the conflicts of interest and other things, they voted down.

I think basically what the republicans have done is pretty much circled the wagon and in some instances -- and I hate to say it, it hurts me to say it but have put party first.

Now, there are exceptions and I applaud Lindsey Graham and McCain and Portman and others, but we have got to put country first. This is -- you've heard me say this before, Wolf. This is bigger than Trump. This is about saving our democracy. And I've seen that chipping away, chipping away at the very fabric of that democracy.

And now we need to have a true investigation, independent folks looking at this who care about America because this is bigger than us. This is not just about now. This is about generations yet unborn. And us passing on a democracy that is even better than the one that was in existence when we were born. BLITZER: Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, thanks very much for joining us.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. Let's get some insights now from our experts who are here.

And David Chalian, let me start with you. It took him a long time, the attorney general, to decide to recuse himself from any of these investigations. Why did it take so long?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, Attorney General Sessions said it took long because he's only been there three weeks. And that once he got there, he started looking into this.

Of course democrats are pointing out he knew well what the rules were prior to him actually arriving at the Department of Justice three weeks ago and could have recused himself before he even arrived.

It took him so long because it took this long for it to be publicly disclosed, Wolf, that he had these meetings with the Russian Ambassador. That's why it took so long.

BLITZER: But he knew he had these meetings with -- two meetings with the Russian Ambassador. He clearly should have volunteered that information in response to the questions.

CHALIAN: There's no doubt about that. And if he did it if -- let's take him at his word of what he said today that it was a breaking news story, CNN story, that Al Franken then came in and asked him about (INAUDIBLE).

And let's say he was thrown by it and didn't fully understand. Why then the next day did he not submit written answers that clarified his statements? Because he knew when he walked out of there that he clearly left an inaccurate statement.

BLITZER: He acknowledged today in this news conference he probably should have done that. But he didn't do that and now we're moving forward.

It was interesting, Mark, that just before Sessions announced he was recusing himself, the president was asked on his tour of this new aircraft carrier, should Sessions recuse himself from investigations into your campaign and Russia? The president, President Trump said, "I don't think so at all. I don't think so."

And then Sessions decided, well, he is going to recuse himself.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR AND CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Well, clearly not on the same page, you know. It strikes me even though it's still very early in the Trump administration, how they don't seem to have their message together.

Last night, when this story broke, they didn't have the correct answer to give. Sessions waited until 4:00 this afternoon, allowing time for republicans to come out, Wolf, and say that he needed to recuse himself. It looked like he was forced to do so.

And then Donald Trump probably shouldn't have answered at all. He shouldn't have said anything at all when he was asked by the reporters, and clearly hadn't been connected with the Department of Justice or with Sessions about what was really going on at that time.

BLITZER: Yes, the president said he didn't know about these meetings that Sessions had with the Russian Ambassador. I think if Sessions didn't want to go public, he could have at least told the president, "You know, I did have a couple of meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the United States."

CHALIAN: And I think the president says there was nothing to recuse himself.

PRESTON: There was nothing to recuse himself at all.


BLITZER: Let me play, you know, Rebecca, a little bit of the mixed messages we've been getting throughout the day from the White House and now from Attorney General Sessions.



SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, look, there's nothing to recuse himself. He was 100 percent straight with the committee.

SESSIONS: Since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.

SPICER: He made a statement that was 100 percent accurate and he stands by that.

SESSIONS: And in retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, "But I did meet one Russian official, a couple times, that would be the ambassador."


BLITZER: Yes, he should have slowed down. And (INAUDIBLE) told the senate, "You know what, I did have a couple of meetings. We were talking about Armed Services Committee issues, Ukraine, stuff like that, nothing about the campaign.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: For me, clearly, Sean Spicer was wrong. I mean, he was -- he was just plain wrong. He said something that was incorrect. Even though Jeff Sessions in his statement made clear that he wasn't recusing himself necessarily from any specific investigation, he said, "Hypothetically not confirming anything if there was anything to do with the campaign. Now we're in the future, I will recuse myself from all of it," just a blanket sort of hypothetical here.

And so, Sean maybe was right that there wasn't necessarily a specific investigation that they were confirming that he would recuse himself from. That said, it didn't mean that he wouldn't need to recuse himself.

[17:45:00] BLITZER: But David, there's a bigger problem here. Why doesn't the White House know what's going on?

CHALIAN: Right. I mean, we should make clear to the audience, right. Those sound bites that you just played, they're from the same day.

BERG: Right.


CHALIAN: I mean, that was Sean Spicer today and attorney general --


BLITZER: Sean Spicer in the morning and then -- and the attorney general few hours later.

CHALIAN: So, let's just make that clear. Attorney General Sessions said that he did inform White House counsel's office this afternoon --

BLITZER: This afternoon.

CHALIAN: -- that he had come to this conclusion that he was going to recuse himself. So, that was the formal White House notification.

But in what planet -- I've just never covered an administration where the White House -- when a -- when a crisis communications moment is happening like this in one of the agencies of an administration, the White House usually starts running point on that and making sure that everyone is singing from the same page.

BLITZER: It reminded me a little bit of Michael Flynn on the day that he was forced to resign. Only hours earlier, a top White House official, Kellyanne Conway, said they had complete confidence in him.

PRESTON: Complete confidence in him, and then several hours later, it was about 10:30, 10:45 at night where Michael Flynn decided to step down.

You know, one thing about this story is that -- is that I think it's been under covered but we'll see how it plays out, is that I think the democrats are probably going a little bit too far by saying, "He needs to resign right now." Because it really makes it look partisan and that they're playing politics. Instead of saying, "He should recuse himself and let's see where the investigation goes."

I think politically democrats might be overshooting their hand a little bit.

BLITZER: All right, guys, everybody stay with us. There's more breaking news coming in.

We're following some of that news over at the Pentagon. Sources are revealing some of the vital information seized during that deadly U.S. raid on Al-Qaeda. We're getting some of that information now. Stay with us.


[17:50:00] BLITZER: We have much more ahead on the breaking political news.

The Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, late this afternoon, removing himself from any role and possible investigation of Russia's role in the U.S. presidential election.

There's also breaking news from the Pentagon, where we're learning new details about the vital information seized during last month's U.S. raid in Yemen.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr has been working her sources. What are you learning, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf. There have been a lot of questions about this raid. Did it achieve any of the intelligence objectives that were set out for? And the answer becoming clear tonight that indeed it did.


STARR: Tonight, the U.S. Military and Intelligence Community are working in overdrive, trying to locate and monitor hundreds of people, contacts found in the trove of intelligence retrieve during the raid last month targeting Al-Qaeda in Yemen, where Navy SEAL William Ryan Owens and civilians died. The raid was part of an expanding U.S. military effort in Yemen.

JOSEPH VOTEL, UNITED STATES CENTRAL COMMAND COMMANDER: And the time, you know, this was linked to the broader offensive that we're -- that we're pursuing in Yemen.

STARR: Many of the contacts being monitored appeared to be located in the west but not in the U.S., officials say.

As CNN has reported, laptops and cellphones were grabbed during the raid, yielding terabytes of data. Multiple senior U.S. officials tell CNN, the intelligence recovered is vital and is, in fact, being acted on.

SETH JONES, RAND CORPORATION POLITICAL SCIENTIST: You can get lots of different types of use from this kind of information. Some are cellphone numbers or very specific locations that you can take immediate actions on to strike specific targets, to get intelligence from individuals using certain phone numbers, for example.

STARR: All the seized intelligence is classified and won't be made public because future operations could be put at risk. There's no independent verification but senior U.S. officials say

they've learned new information about Al-Qaeda's stronghold that will lead to more raids. Al-Qaeda's recruiting, training and targeting intelligence, and how Al-Qaeda in Yemen manufactures non-detectable bombs. All of which could intensify an already escalating U.S. campaign inside Yemen.

Overnight, based on different intelligence, more than 20 U.S. airstrike targeted Al-Qaeda's strongholds, attacking operatives, weapon sites, and safe haven.

The worry, Al-Qaeda in Yemen will launch new attacks.

JONES: The problem is if you're to leave it alone right now, it's going to get bigger. Its capabilities are going to get larger, and again, it's -- this has been about the most competent organization in terms of its bomb plotting and among the most innovators in trying to take down airplanes coming in the United States


STARR: And it is that threat from Al-Qaeda in Yemen and the possibility of more attacks that is in a very large sense leading to this expanded U.S. military effort. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much. Barbara Starr reporting for us over at the Pentagon.

Coming up, our breaking news. Under fire for not disclosing his talks with Russia's Ambassador to the United States during the presidential campaign, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions steps aside from any investigations into Trump campaign contacts with the Russians. But top democrats say, "That's not enough." They say, "He should resign."


[17:55:00] BLITZER: Happening now. Breaking news.

Decision under fire. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuses himself from any investigation relating to the president's 2016 campaign. This after revelations he had contacts with Russia and questions about whether he lied to Congress.

A partisan thing. The White House Press Secretary tries to blame Sessions' troubles on democrats even though republicans helped turn up the heat on the attorney general. Were President Trump and his aides blindsided by this new controversy?

Holding back. A top democratic says the FBI Director is not answering key questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. What does James Comey know about Russia's alleged election meddling and what isn't he sharing?

And under lock and key. Senator Rand Paul blasts house republicans for keeping their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare in a secure location. Tonight, Rand Paul is asking members of his own party, what are you hiding?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.