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Interview With Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Interview With Congressman Adam Kinzinger; Trump's Attorney General Under Fire; Attorney General Recuses Himself from Trump Campaign Probes; U.S. Official: Review Under Way to Counter North Korean Threat. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired March 2, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, bowing to pressure from fellow Republicans, recusing himself from any investigation related to the Trump presidential campaign.
Sessions' announcement coming in the midst of a new firestorm over his newly revealed contacts with Russia, as the feds and Congress look into the Trump camp's possible ties to Moscow. Democrats are demanding more than Sessions's recusal, calling for his resignation and a criminal investigation.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi flat-out accusing Sessions of lying under oath during his confirmation hearings. Sessions told senators he had no communications with Russia when asked about possible Trump campaign contacts with the Kremlin.
The Justice Department now confirms that Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States last year. Sessions insisting today that he was honest and correct during the hearing as he -- quote -- "understood it at the time."
Shortly before Sessions' recusal, President Trump declared he has perfect confidence in his attorney general, this controversy distracting from the president's visit to an aircraft carrier to touts his plans to build up the U.S. military.
A senior official suggests the White House was blindsided by this new twist, first learning of Sessions' Russia contacts when "The Washington Post" wrote the story overnight.
We will get reaction from Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. Our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're all standing by as we bring you more on this breaking story.
First, let's go to our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, with more on the attorney general's recusal and the investigation into contacts with Russia.
Pamela, what are you learning?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained his decision to recuse himself and it came from his involvement with the Trump campaign. He said he felt it was the appropriate thing to do because of his ties to the campaign.
He made no mention of his meetings with the Russian ambassador as a factor in this decision and he said he did nothing wrong.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.
BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, just three weeks into his job as the nation's top cop, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing he is taking himself off of any investigations regarding Russia after revelations that he failed to disclose two meetings he had with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., a man considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies.
SESSIONS: Let me be clear.
I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea that I was part of a -- quote -- "continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government" is totally false.
BROWN: The two meetings between Sessions and the Russian ambassador took place last year, first in July on the sidelines of the Republican Convention, and then again on September 8, when the Russian ambassador met then-Senator Sessions at his office when he was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
At the time, Sessions was also a leading Trump campaign surrogate.
At Sessions' hearing on January 10, he denied any contacts between Trump surrogates and Russia.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.
And I'm unable to comment on it.
BROWN: Tonight, Sessions defending his answer.
SESSIONS: I was taken aback a little bit about this brand-new information, this allegation that surrogates -- and I have been called a surrogate for Donald Trump -- have been meeting continuously with Russian officials. And that's what I focused my answer on.
In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, but I did meet one Russian official a couple of times.
BROWN: Last night, when news of the meetings with Russia's ambassador broke, Justice officials first said Sessions did not remember the details of the meeting. Then his spokesperson said Sessions met with multiple foreign ambassadors in his role as a senator on the Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump campaign surrogate, though a Justice official also acknowledged superficial comments about the election did come up in those talks.
And then late last night, in a written statement, Sessions denied holding meetings specifically with the purpose of discussing the 2016 campaign with the Russians, saying -- quote -- "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
Still, some Democratic leaders are calling on Sessions to resign.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: It would be better for the country if he'd resign.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: He has proved that he is unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust.
BROWN: It's not uncommon for attorneys general to recuse themselves from specific cases. In fact, others have recused themselves several times during their tenure, including President Obama's attorney general, Eric Eric Holder.
Typically, a U.S. attorney or the deputy attorney general would help oversee the investigation, for context there, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, good context. Thanks very much, Pamela Brown, reporting for us.
There is more breaking news tonight about other members of the Trump campaign who also met with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Let's bring in our senior white correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, you just spoke to one of those advisers. What are you learning?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
I just got off the phone with J.D. Gordon, who served as a national security adviser to the Trump campaign before the election. He's no longer with Donald Trump or the administration at this point.
But he does tell me, Wolf, that over the summer at the Republican Convention in Cleveland that he did have a conversation with the Russian ambassador, as well as other national security advisers for President, then candidate Trump at the time.
Carter Page and Walid Phares, they all met at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for a gathering there. And then J.D. Gordon says he met again with the ambassador at a cocktail reception later on that evening in Cleveland, all of this going on during the Republican Convention.
And then Gordon says that he was a part of the effort that was pushed by the Trump campaign to put some language in the GOP platform that essentially said that the Republican Party did not advocate for arming the Ukrainians in the battle against those pro-Russian separatists. Of course, that was a big issue that was flaring up at the time of the Republican Convention.
That effort was ultimately successful. They were successful in having that language in the Republican Party platform. I asked J.D. Gordon, well, why is that? Why did you go ahead and advocate for that language? He said this is the language that Donald Trump himself wanted and advocated for back in March at the meeting at the unfinished Trump Hotel here in Washington, D.C.
J.D. Gordon said then candidate Trump said he didn't want to -- quote -- "go to World War III over Ukraine." And, so, as J.D. Gordon says, at Republican Convention in Cleveland, he advocated for language in that Republican Party platform that reflected then candidate Trump's comments.
And I can tell you, Wolf, going on about this, I asked J.D. Gordon were there any conversations with the Russian ambassador that he would view as inappropriate, was there any chatter about a quid pro quo, colluding with the Russians to help the Trump campaign? J.D. Gordon says absolutely not. That would have been inappropriate.
He said his comments to the Russian ambassador were essentially what he was saying publicly in panels and in TV interviews, that the U.S. and Russia should have a better relationship.
Wolf, I can tell you this, that the White House is aware of J.D. Gordon's comments. We should report that they were first reported in the "USA Today" newspaper, but J.D. Gordon did tell me that he had a conversation with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is the principal deputy press secretary over here at the White House, to brief her on his conversations with the Russian ambassador and that other national security advisers to the candidate at the time, that that did occur over the summer -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim, a senior administration official is also confirming a meeting between that same Russian ambassador official at Trump Tower in December with Trump officials, Trump advisers. Tell us about that.
ACOSTA: That's right.
This was first reported in "The New York Times," but CNN has been able to confirm through a senior administration official. My colleague Sara Murray was able to confirm this, that, yes, in fact, Michael Flynn, who was the national security adviser, not the official national security adviser, Trump was a top adviser to president-elect Trump, back in December, along with Jared Kushner, the president- elect's son-in-law, at the time met with the Russian ambassador at Trump Tower in December.
That is now being confirmed by the White House through a senior administration official. It does appear, Wolf, that there have been multiple contacts, as we've been reporting all along, multiple contacts between the Russians and top advisers to the president, president-elect and then candidate Trump over the summer last year.
BLITZER: Yes, that Russian ambassador must have been pretty busy with all of those meetings.
Jim, all of this comes, this latest uproar, as the president traveled today to Newport News, Virginia. You were with him on that trip. You had a chance to ask him about the attorney general.
ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.
We traveled with the president down to Newport News. He toured the soon-to-be-commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford. And it was during that tour of the aircraft carrier that we asked the president about the attorney general and whether or not he had acted appropriately.
I asked the president whether Jeff Sessions still has the confidence of the president. He said, yes, he has confidence in Jeff Sessions. Here is more of what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Total.
QUESTION: Mr. President, should Sessions recuse himself from the investigations into your campaign in Russia?
TRUMP: I don't think so at all.
QUESTION: When did you first learn that Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador? Did you know during the campaign?
TRUMP: I don't think he should do that at all.
QUESTION: When you were aware that he spoke to the Russian ambassador?
TRUMP: I wasn't aware of that.
QUESTION: When did you find out?
QUESTION: Do you think he should have spoken truthfully about whether he had spoken to the ambassador?
TRUMP: He probably did.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Now, we should point out on the way back to Washington, Wolf, back to Joint Base Andrews on Air Force, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did hold a brief gaggle with reporters.
He continued to insist that there is "no there there" when it comes into investigation into ties or contact between the Trump campaign, Trump advisers and the Russians.
But, clearly, Wolf, when you have the attorney general recusing himself, when you have national security advisers over the summer meeting with the Russian ambassador during the Republican Convention, there is some there there, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta over at the White House, thanks for that reporting.
We're joined now by Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He's a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.
REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: You bet.
BLITZER: I will get to Sessions in a moment.
But what do you make of all these meetings that the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, had with several Trump campaign advisers during the Republican Convention in Cleveland, and then another meeting with Jared Kushner, the son-in-law, top adviser to the president right now, Michael Flynn, now the former national security adviser, in December over at Trump Tower in New York, meetings we didn't know about earlier?
BLITZER: But it seems like they're coming out of the woodwork.
KINZINGER: Yes, I wish the administration would just release basically any contact that's ever happened just to get them out there.
I don't know necessarily if these meetings were improper or not. We need to have more information or not. Jared Kushner was acting as basically an ambassador for the incoming administration. They have every right to talk to Russians in this process, to say, hey, maybe this is what we're looking for in a new relationship in the future.
And the ambassador is doing his job trying to talk to people in that to. I have met with a Russian ambassador in the past. I was in fact asked today by a fellow colleague if I would meet with a Russian ambassador again. I won't do it now because I don't meet with regimes that murder people. But these are kinds of contacts that are normal. But in terms of if
there is anything else nefarious here, we need to let the House and Senate Intel Committees do their job in a bipartisan way.
BLITZER: Did the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, go far enough today by simply recusing himself from any future investigations involving Trump campaign officials and the Russians?
KINZINGER: I think he did.
I think the recusal was the right move. It doesn't say that he is necessarily admitting guilt. He's saying, look, we need a process to forward that people can trust and have faith in. And I'm a distraction to that. And there are plenty of people capable of shepherding this through.
I think it was the right move to do for him to recuse himself. In terms of what we -- the thing that concerns me right now is you have some on the right and some on the left that are turning this whole thing into a partisan fight.
Some folks over here say that don't look at the Russians at all, it doesn't matter. And you have some over here saying the Russians basically ran the Trump campaign and Jeff Sessions needs to resign.
We need to be calm and move this back to the middle in a bipartisan way so we can have real answers for the American people.
BLITZER: He's the top law enforcement officer in the country. And the accusation against him is that on two occasions during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he did not tell the full truth.
KINZINGER: Yes. I certainly think he wishes he could go back and specify that more.
In terms of how I have seen it, is it technically perjury? I don't know. I don't think so. I think you have to have intent. And what it seemed like to me is, they were in a discussion with Senator Franken about the campaign's interaction with the Russians. And when he was asked about interaction with the Russians, in fact, he wasn't thinking in his term as a U.S. senator.
Now, is he clarifying that? It sounds like he is going to from his press conference. But I don't know if that necessarily constitutes perjury or a reason to resign.
BLITZER: Yes, what he said today is what he should have done when asked by Senator Al Franken, Senator Patrick Leahy about contacts with Russia, denied having contacts with Russia.
He should have said, well, I didn't have any contacts with Russia -- this is what he should have said, in my opinion. I didn't have any contacts with Russia involving the campaign. I spoke about Ukraine, other national security issues in my capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but I did have those meetings. Campaign-related issues didn't come up.
Now he wishes he would have done that. He should have done that then.
KINZINGER: He should have. But, again, it's all about intent in terms of whether this was a lie or perjury.
And you look at it from the perspective of these accusations have been coming down about massive campaign collusion with the Russians. And I think if he in fact is totally innocent of that, he's thinking of it from the perspective of saying, if you're trying to involve me somehow that I'm in this massive collusion, I haven't had any contacts with the Russians about this campaign, forgetting, of course, that as a U.S. senator, you have sometimes casual interactions.
BLITZER: But just to be precise, when Senator Leahy, in a written question to him, said, 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, he said in his answer, no. No.
BLITZER: What he should have said -- what would you have said?
KINZINGER: I would have said, I have contacts with a Russian ambassador.
Now, in that question, it says about the 2016 election. He can say there were superficial comments. About every meeting with an ambassador I have, we talk about the presidential election before it happened just in terms of, can you believe how this is going?
Again, in terms of the 2016 election thing, it's really kind of...
BLITZER: Because I'm interested now, because he says he did not talk about the campaign in that meeting with the Russian ambassador.
The Russian ambassador, Kislyak, came to his office in the Senate. And he had two of his senior aides in the room for that meeting, two retired colonels. You know colonels. I know colonels. They're in a meeting between a top senator and a Russian ambassador. They take notes.
I'm anxious to see if they're going to release those contemporaneous notes to see if the senator is telling the truth that they only discussed Ukraine, other national security issues, did not get into the campaign at all.
You would like to see those notes as well.
KINZINGER: I would, if those notes exist. I can't promise they do.
BLITZER: But you assume they did take notes?
KINZINGER: They could. I have had meetings with ambassadors where we're not taking notes. We're just talking about contemporaneous issues.
But if they exist, of course. I really think we need a full accounting in a bipartisan way, which is why I'm trying to corral everybody against kind of the hysterics of calling for resignations and making accusations. We need the answer to this, not just Congress, but the American people want it. They want to know where this is and if it warrants any further action.
BLITZER: Because there are 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And based on "The Washington Post" reporting, they have checked, our reporting, it looks like he's the only senator that actually met with the Russian ambassador.
Usually, the Russian ambassador meets with representatives from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
KINZINGER: Yes, I have heard reports that a senator from Missouri claimed she had never met with him and then in fact on Twitter had said she had.
BLITZER: That's Claire McCaskill.
Again, these are just reports I have seen. But it is natural within the course of doing work to meet with ambassadors. I'm not excusing what was said in the committee. I'm also saying we just need a calm answer to this, instead of jumping to very fast conclusions.
BLITZER: Because it's interesting, originally, in a statement that they put out, he didn't recall details about the meeting, but now he's apparently recalling a lot of details about the meetings. You're smiling when I'm mentioning that.
KINZINGER: I'm laughing just because that is funny.
But I also think too about meetings I have, and I have no memory sometimes of some of the things I did yesterday in terms of meetings with folks. And then, when you think about it, you can come up with it.
But, again, what I want is a full accounting in a bipartisan way of what contacts the Trump campaign had or didn't have, because it will serve to put this to bed once and for all.
BLITZER: Your colleague Darrell Issa, Republican congressman, thinks a special prosecutor is justified right now. Do you agree?
KINZINGER: Not right now.
I think, again, and I have heard Democratic members of the Senate Intel Committee say, let's let the Intel Committees do their work on the Senate and the House side. Let them come to a full accounting, get the information they need.
They have the area to do it in terms of classification. If we're not happy with the results or we believe that this was not done correctly, then that may be a next step. But I think this is the perfect place to do this work, without turning it into again just a big partisan food fight.
BLITZER: Very interesting final subject on Obamacare, repealing and replacing.
Senator Rand Paul, Republican, as you know, he marched over to the House side today in the Capitol. He wanted to see a copy of the House bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, that's now being reviewed by Republicans in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
I believe you're a member of that committee.
KINZINGER: I am. Yes.
BLITZER: As a member of the committee, did you see a version of the House Obamacare repeal bill? Because he is very angry they did not allow him to see that.
KINZINGER: He's the master of theatrics, right?
This is Rand Paul getting his name out there again walking over with a bunch of cameras and trying to make a big scene. This is what he does. I have seen a copy of the draft. We're looking at it. We're in discussions right now in terms of, is this the final thing? Is this what it's going to look like? Where are we going from here?
It's not in the Senate. So, the idea that a senator can come over and bust into the House of Representatives and say, I'm going to involve myself in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, this is coming out very soon. People will know the details and we will be able to have that discussion.
BLITZER: Adam Kinzinger, thanks very much for joining us.
KINZINGER: Any time. Thanks.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on the attorney general, the bombshell developments today, his recusal today, and the Trump campaign contacts with Russia that we're just learning about tonight. Stay with us.
BLITZER: We're back with breaking news.
New confirmation that Trump advisers met with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and later in December at Trump Tower in New York City, this after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations related to the Trump campaign, following revelations that he met twice with the Russian ambassador last year.
We're joined now by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee that held Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearings.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: It's good to be with you.
BLITZER: How much do these meetings between Trump campaign advisers and the Russian ambassador to the United States concern you, especially meetings during the campaign at the Republican Convention?
WHITEHOUSE: The meetings raise some very important questions. I think we absolutely have to know what the subject matter was of those communications back and forth in that meeting.
And then, secondarily, we need to know whether Attorney General Sessions then communicated with the Trump campaign, whether he was, in fact, an intermediary in these meetings and what the content was of any communications with the Trump campaign.
Until we know all that, we really don't know how deep this hole is, but it does call for further investigation. And it absolutely, positively disqualifies the attorney general from going forward.
So his decision to recuse himself was necessary. It was necessary even before this set of facts, but this made it just perfectly obvious.
BLITZER: The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, was asked about these kinds of meetings during the campaign. And he was asked two weeks ago if these meetings occurred and said, there is nothing that would lead him to that conclusion. Does that concern you?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, they don't seem to be vetting themselves for derogatory information. So they continue to say things that end up being not quite accurate as the truth begins to come out.
And I think over time, they will learn that that's a mistake, but, for now, I think it's important that the attorney general has recused himself. There is a rule actually at the Department of Justice that disqualifies anyone with a political or personal relationship from the subject, so why this was a hard call to begin with, I can't understand.
BLITZER: Did the attorney general go far enough by recusing himself? Because, as you know, a lot of your fellow Democrats in the House and the senators, Senator Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, Nancy Pelosi, among others, in the House, 100 House Democrats, they believe he should resign.
WHITEHOUSE: For now, all that I have asked is that he recuse himself.
If it turns out that the content of the communication with the Russian ambassador related to the Trump campaign, related to trying to disadvantage Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump, and if that message was then passed on to the Trump campaign, and there was back and forth between the Trump campaign and the Russian ambassador, in which Senator Sessions then was the intermediary, then this gets very deep in a really big hurry.
And at that point, he becomes a serious target of an investigation. And I think at that point, he has real problems on his hands and we need to look further. But, for now, I think his recusal is enough for me anyway.
BLITZER: Do you want the attorney general to appear before the Judiciary Committee, as Senator Leahy now recommending, to testify?
WHITEHOUSE: I think he needs to make a clear statement under oath about what took place in these meetings with the ambassador and whether there were related conversations with anyone associated with the Trump campaign.
Those need to be clear statements, they need to be forthright, they need to be fulsome and they need to be, I think, under oath. And the committee is one good place to do that. But if he wants to find another way to reassure the American public that this was not part of a Russian effort to manipulate the outcome of the national election, then make me a proposal. I'm happy to listen to other alternatives.
But the Judiciary Committee would be a very good and logical place for that conversation to take place.
BLITZER: You had a chance to meet today with the FBI director, James Comey. I believe Lindsey Graham went with you to that meeting. What can you tell us about that meeting?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, we are about to launch our subcommittee investigation into the Trump/Russia connections.
So we wanted to make the director of the FBI aware of that. We wanted to let him know that as he was prepared to describe whatever was going on at the FBI investigating this, we would respect the traditional protections for ongoing investigations, and we wanted some clarification when he could about where those boundaries were, so that we knew not to stray into areas that would interfere with his investigation.
We described some of the early topics that we intend to raise in our opening hearings. And he seemed satisfied with those. And so we're going to stay in touch. The FBI has an important role to play. Congress has an important role to play, and we need to work together to make sure we're not stepping on each other's toes or interfering with other's investigations.
BLITZER: Do you have confidence in Comey's handling of this investigation? WHITEHOUSE: So far I have no reason to doubt him. And as we go
forward we'll learn more.
[18:30:07] BLITZER: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, thanks very much.
WHITEHOUSE: My pleasure.
BLITZER: Just ahead, more on the attorney general's recusal and additional communications between Trump advisers and Moscow's ambassador to the United States during the campaign that we're just learning about tonight.
[18:35:05] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. New confirmation that Trump advisers met with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer.
Also tonight, a senior administration official confirms to CNN that the fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who's now a senior advisor to the president, met with the Russian ambassador to the United States at Trump Tower in New York City in December.
Just a little while ago, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from investigations into Trump campaign communications with the Russians known to U.S. intelligence. Sessions was under pressure after it was revealed that he met with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the campaign.
Let's get some more on the breaking news with our experts and analysts.
And Gloria, we now know there were meetings between Trump campaign advisers during the convention, during the campaign with the Russian ambassador to the United States. But those meetings were denied by both the vice-president of the United States on January 15 and the White House press secretary on February 14. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: I'm asking you a direct question. Was there any contact in any way between Trump or his associates and the Kremlin or cutouts they had?
MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I joined this campaign in the summer, and I can tell you that the -- all the contact by the Trump campaign and associates was with the American people. We were fully engaged with taking his message to making America great again all across this country. That's why he won in a land slide election.
WALLACE: But -- if there were any contacts. I'm just trying to get an answer. PENCE: Yes -- of course not. Why would there be any contacts between
the campaign? Chris, the -- this is all a distraction, and it's all a part of a narrative to delegitimize the election and to question the legitimacy of this presidency. The American people see right through it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back in January, the president said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now, today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period -- well, we were very clear that during the transition period he did -- he did speak with the ambassador.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm talking about during the campaign.
SPICER: There's nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The next day Jonathan Carl, Gloria, asked the president the same question. He denied any contacts, as well. Clearly, now we have learned on this day there were contacts not just during the transition but during the campaign.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: During the convention, in fact.
Look, I think they have to explain this. I think either they're disorganized, they didn't know or they're -- or they're misleading journalists. We just don't know -- we just don't know the answers here, Wolf.
Look, some of these contacts may have been innocent handshakes, you know, get acquainted. By the way, the Russian ambassador is a very busy guy, as we've -- as we've discovered, clearly trying to do his job. And some of them may have been talking about policy. We just don't know.
What we know, Wolf, is that there is an awful lot of smoke here, and they have to clear this up one way or another. I think they owe the American people an explanation here about where these meetings were, who was involved in them, and who occurred.
If I were running this White House, I would put it all out. Put all the information out there, because what you -- what you don't want is a kind of drip, drip, drip, which we see here. If it's all innocent, and if it was just a bunch of pro forma meetings, then put out chapter and verse, put out those details and let the American public know what...
BLITZER: Jackie, the first rule of damage control is it's better that you put out the embarrassing information... JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly.
BLITZER: ... than let your adversaries put it out.
KUCINICH: This drip, drip, drip, is not helping them. They love to put out these surveys about what people think about things. Maybe they should have circulated them with their campaign transition team about "Have you had any contact with the Russians?"
Because these things coming out. And as you said, Gloria, it's not like -- that we know if they're hiding them or if they're just disorganized or perhaps, you know, maybe some of their -- maybe they just missed the memo. I don't know. Or they -- or they forgot, which a lot of them have said. It just -- it really doesn't square, and there needs to be an explanation. But knowing the Trump administration, perhaps they'll just try to issue something tomorrow and distract everybody from it.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd I'm anxious to get your thoughts. You served in the CIA. The Russian ambassador to the United States, obviously a very active guy in these matters. Talk a little bit about that.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, he should be active. Look at this going back to last summer, when he evidently first met with some of the officials from the Trump administration, including the attorney general. If you're looking at this from the Kremlin, you hear a lot of positive words from, at that point, candidate Trump; but on specific issues, the campaign is a black hole.
Think about what Trump might have been thinking about or commenting on in terms of sanctions. What were his intentions on sanctions, on Syria, on Crimea and Ukraine, on the Iran nuclear deal? If you're the ambassador, your responsibility as a diplomat -- I don't think this has anything to do intelligence -- is to walk into people close to the president and say, "On these issues that are critically important to -- to Moscow, including NATO, what are you guys thinking?"
And meanwhile, there's a reverse. The ambassador is going to be lobbying. He's going to be saying, "We have perspectives on the Ukraine, as well, so let you give you my perspective."
Finally, Wolf, on the surface, I don't think these meetings are that significant. Two meetings over the course of months? Not a big deal. The issue here is politics and integrity. After the meetings, you had the attorney general magically forgetting to mention them in the Hill hearings. The meetings themselves, I don't view, as a national security professional, as a big deal.
BLITZER: Yes, but you know the old adage: the cover-up sometimes is worse than the actual misdemeanor, if you will.
Steven Vladeck, let's talk a little bit about potential misdemeanor or felony or whatever. You study -- you're a professor of law. You've studied the perjury requirements. Did the attorney general, during his confirmation hearings, did he lie; and was that perjury? STEVEN VLADECK, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS SCHOOL OF LAW: You
know, Wolf, if he didn't, he came awfully close to the line. So the federal perjury statue refers specifically to material statements that the speaker knows to the false.
You played the clip earlier. Senator Sessions, in response to Senator Franken, specifically said he didn't have any communications with the Russians. Now, perhaps he meant he didn't have any communications about the campaign. But that's not what he said. So, you know, that's pretty close to the line.
Of course, I don't think this Justice Department is going to be in a big hurry to prosecute its own attorney general, but Wolf, the larger point here is exactly what Gloria and Phil and Jackie have been saying. If there's nothing wrong with the substance of these conversations, if they're innocuous, appropriate contacts, why all the cloak and dagger? Why all this effort to obscure the very existence of these contacts, which we're seeing is not working and is going to lead now to all these calls for more investigation.
BLITZER: Well, more investigations, Steve. Should there be a special prosecutor involved?
VLADECK: You know, I think that's a really good question. There are two different issues here. The first is whether anyone broke the law. Did then-Senator Sessions commit perjury when he responded to Senator Franken, Senator Leahy?
But Wolf, even a special prosecutor is only going to be focused on the criminal law piece here. There's a broader political question here that, frankly, the Justice Department is not the right body to answer. I think that's why you're hearing a lot more about calls for some kind of special select committee on Capitol Hill that can actually look at the broader context and the appropriateness of these contacts, not just the legality of the communications that resulted from them.
BLITZER: Phil, in addition to serving in the CIA, you were detailed for several years to the FBI. Do you have confidence the FBI can get to the bottom of these allegations? Forget about the perjury for a moment. But the much more serious allegations that there was improper contact between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government?
MUDD: I do. But I would expect this to take time, and I would not expect to hear a lot about this, especially after the debacle of the series of comments that FBI Director Comey made about the Clinton e- mail investigation last year.
If you're sitting in the FBI, this is a three-foot putt, Wolf. Don't say anything. But meanwhile, they've got to look, obviously, at the transcripts of NSA intercepts of any Russian officials.
And meanwhile, not just interview dozens of people but go back and do what we call re-interviews. That is, after the initial interviews, are there discrepancies?
If I could make just one more comment on the issue about -- about Sessions and perjury. One thing we haven't heard that I'd like to hear in the next couple of days is something called the murder board. When you go into a hearing of that magnitude, you go into pre-meetings within your team to ask a question and to prepare for the questions you're going to face.
If you want to tell me that Sessions' team didn't ask him repeatedly before that hearing, "You're going to get told, what you knew about Russian contacts and what contacts you had," if they didn't prepare for that question, I'd be shocked. So one of my questions is not just what he said but whether he prepped for that question.
BORGER: The -- the thing about Senator Franken's question was it was in response to breaking news from CNN about campaign surrogates having contacts with Russian officials.
And what he said today, and I listened really carefully to this He said, "I was taken aback by this new information." Meaning he hadn't been prepped on it, because he -- it was -- it was breaking news. And he said, "That's what I focused my answer on. I should have slowed down and said I did meet with one official, the Russian ambassador."
So this was how Sessions explained it, saying that he was sort of caught off-guard about this. And that was, you know, whether -- whether you believe him or not, that was his explanation today.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, he had a chance to elaborate in the written answer to Senator Leahy.
BORGER: He did, that would be my next point.
BLITZER: And he didn't do that.
BORGER: That would be my next point.
BLITZER: As he himself acknowledged, that he should have done that, should have come completely clean and said, yes, I did have two meetings with the Russian ambassador but not about the campaign, about other issues, Jackie. But --
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Speaking of being caught off guard, this also threw off the Republican Party again today. They had a good, you know, 48 hours of not having to deal with a scandal from this administration.
I was up on the Hill today getting reaction from Republican senators. You could see it on their faces when they got off the trains that are in the basement of the capital that they come over to vote in the Capitol on. They didn't want to answer questions about this. They wanted to talk about healthcare. They want to talk about taxes. They want to talk about anything else than another scandal inside the Trump administration and one that involves one of their own, someone that they confirmed, they put through.
This is yet another distraction but yet another problem that is throwing them off their message which, you know, should be the economy and making the country better. BORGER: And can I say one thing about Sessions today? He went out of
his way to kind of diss the Russian ambassador saying that their conversation, in fact, now that he recalls it was a little bit testy because they did talk about Ukraine and he said the Russian ambassador made the indication that everybody else was wrong on Ukraine and that Russia was right.
BLITZER: That's his job.
STEVE VLADECK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Of course, the more -- the more that Senator Sessions recalls that conversation.
VLADECK: The harder it is to he didn't deem fit to disclose it.
VLADECK: Wolf, we get to the real problem here. Either this is all just a lot of smoke as Gloria said just obscure and innocuous contacts, or something being hidden that someone needs to get to the bottom of. And I think the problem that folks on the Hill even Trump supporters is that it's increasingly looking like the latter.
BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. There's more coming up. Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[18:51:57] BLITZER: We'll have much more on the breaking political news, the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, late this afternoon, removing himself from any possible role in the investigations of Russia's role in the presidential election.
We also have new information tonight in the death of Kim Jong-un's half brother with two alleged assassins facing murder charges in Malaysia. North Korea is now putting its own spin on that story as U.S. officials huddled to discuss the North's growing nuclear threat.
Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us.
Brian, what are you finding out?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we are told top members of President Trump's national security team are in the middle of a major security review, trying to come up with ways to counter Kim's nuclear and missile threat. One senior administration official saying flat out, Kim Jong-un can't be allowed to have a nuclear capability. This comes against the backdrop of North Korean officials aggressively inserting themselves into the investigation of the murder of Kim Jong- un's brother.
TODD (voice-over): Kim Jong-un's regime tonight determined to present its own narrative in the death of Kim's half brother. On the ground in Malaysia, a top North Korean diplomat refuses to acknowledge the man who was confronted at the Kuala Lumpur airport was Kim Jong-nam, instead calling him Kim Chul, a false name he was traveling under.
The North Korean official flat out refutes the assertion from Malaysian authorities that Kim Jong-nam was murdered, the victim of VX nerve agent poisoning. The official says the brother had an ongoing heart condition.
RI TONG IL, NORTH KOREAN DIPLOMAT: Therefore, this is a strong indication that the cause of the death is a heart attack.
BRUCE KLINGNER, FORMER CIA ANALYST: North Korean medicine technology must be amazing in that they without access to the body have determined that it's a heart attack because Kim Jong-nam had a heart condition, though they refuse to admit Kim Jong-nam was murdered. They're just trying to deflect attention away from their own responsibility.
TODD: South Korean officials say Kim Jong-un order the murder of his half brother. North Korea denies it. Tonight, Malaysian officials say the only North Korean detained in the case is being released from custody and deported. Police don't have enough evidence to charge him.
But three other North Koreans believed to still be in Malaysia are wanted for questioning. Malaysian authorities say the North Koreans aren't making them available. Four North Koreans wanted for the murder are believed to be back in Pyongyang.
KLINGNER: I think they're out of reach. North Korea doesn't play by the international rules.
TODD: A senior administration official characterizes Kim Jong-nam's death as a sophisticated operation. That same official says Kim Jong- un can't be allowed to have a nuclear capability.
Tonight, another administration official tells CNN there's a review under way between top national security officials to come up with a strategy to counter Kim's weapons threat. Military options are always on the table in these discussions.
General Walter Sharp, who commanded U.S. and allies forces in South Korea, says the U.S. should be ready strike to North Korean missiles on their path even before they are launched if there's an imminent threat.
GEN. WALTER "SKIP" SHARP (RET.), FORMER COMMANDER OF U.S. & SOUTH KOREA FORCES: The way you deter North Korea from doing provocations is to have the capability and the demonstrated willingness and the demonstrated planning and exercises to be able to respond strongly enough that North Korea clearly understands that if they do that provocation they will be hurt more than we would be.
[18:55:23] TODD: General Sharp says if U.S. forces hit Kim Jong-un's missiles first, Kim could well try to retaliate by launching a massive artillery barrage on Seoul, and possibly on the 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. He says U.S. forces might need to preempt that by hitting some North Korean conventional forces at the same time they strike their missile facilities.
Wolf, very dangerous proposition.
BLITZER: Certainly is. Brian Todd, thank you very much. There's much more ahead on the breaking news about the attorney general.
But we also want to give you a heads-up about an important CNN series. Religious scholar Reza Aslan explores the beliefs and practices of faiths around the world in the CNN original series entitled, "Believer." In the premiere this Sunday night, Reza travels to India to explore the rituals and peculiar practices of one very small religious sect.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REZA ASLAN, CNN HOST, "BELIEVER": Thanks. Okay. All right. Okay. Maybe I'll take this off right now. Thank you. Thank you.
Why are people on that side of the river so afraid of the Aghori?
ASLAN: I see.
ASLAN: It's a mistake like somebody distracts him. I just think -- I can be polite. I can be very polite about it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The religious scholar Reza Aslan is joining us.
Now, Reza, tell us more about "Believer."
ASLAN: Well, this is spiritual adventure series. It allows me to go around the world and immerse myself in groups around the world to essentially do what they do, experience their faith the way that they do so as a way of opening up windows into other world views, other ways of thinking about the world. And, you know, not all of it is as unusual as what you just saw, but I do get myself in trouble on a regular basis, actually.
BLITZRE: Tell us more about what we saw, because it was obviously scary.
ASLAN: So, that's the Aghori. They are a 500-year-old Hindu sect that rejected the concepts of purity and pollution in Hinduism. And the way that they prove that is by taking part of these theatrical displays of self-pollution, for instance covering themselves in the ashes of dead or consuming rotted meat. Everything that would really appall any sort of mainstream Hindu. I do want to say that what's amazing is that there are other Aghori
who have taken that belief, but who put it in to practice a different way by, for instance, opening hospitals to take care of leprosy patients or taking care of low cast or even outcast children. So, I think in every one of those episodes, what you are going to see is a religion that seems frightening, and a little bit exotic and foreign, but once you go through my experience of becoming one of them, what you recognize is that it's not as scary as you thought and that perhaps you, yourself, share some of those beliefs.
BLITZER: Very quickly, Reza, what were you thinking at that moment?
ASLAN: I was pretty scared for my life. He -- you know, he threatened to cut off my head and throw me into the Ganges if I ask one more question, which I'm sure you have experienced, Wolf, occasionally with a guest.
But, you know, I'm 100 percent in. That was the deal I made with these communities. Let me in. Let me be a part of you. And I'm not there to judge you. I'm there to experience what you experience and so, I rode it out.
BLITZER: The "Believer" host, Reza Aslan, thanks very much for joining us. And thank you that everything turned out OK.
Join Reza Sunday night, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, for the premier of the CNN Original Series "Believer."
That's it for me. Thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.