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Deputy AG Invited to Briefing; Kremlin talks U.S. Obsession with Russia; Sessions Pushes Stricter Criminal Sentencing; Trump Threatens Comey. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired May 12, 2017 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:33:22] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we're learning this morning about what is sure to be a contentious meeting on Capitol Hill next week. The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, being summoned for a closed door meeting with all U.S. senators to explain his role in the firing of James Comey.

Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill with the very latest.

Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, there are a lot of questions to Rosenstein. Members of Congress are not satisfied at this time. We saw yesterday Rosenstein was here on The Hill. It was a surprise visit meeting behind closed doors with a small group of senators to try to explain the future of the FBI's investigation, the integrity of that investigation. We have seen numerous Democrats coming forward as recently as this morning, just within the last hour on our air. Representative Elijah Cummings asking, imploring for him to appoint a special counsel independent of the Justice Department and the White House to take the lead on this Russia investigation. Some Democrats calling for his recusal.

But what we're going to see next week is that Rosenstein has been invited to meet behind closed doors, the full Senate, to get the full picture. Both Republicans and Democrats want to know what was behind Comey's firing and what is the state of the FBI's investigation as it moves forward?

This among a lot of skepticism over yesterday's testimony of the acting FBI director. That acting FBI director saying that he did not believe that the White House would influence or continue to influence the FBI's investigation. Some people on the House side, namely the top Democrat, Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee, doubted that that would be true.

[09:35:03] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I don't think you can say so categorically he's made no effort to interfere. I think that the firing was all about the Russia investigation. So I'm certain that what Mr. McCabe said may be true in the sense that the president isn't calling line agents who are working on the investigation or in other very ham-handed ways trying to interfere with the day-to-day operation of the investigation. But, nonetheless, he fired the top cop on that investigation, and I think no one believes this was about Hillary Clinton's e-mails. I think it was all about the Russia case.

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MALVEAUX: So, John, we're definitely going to be looking to the Senate next week. Not only Rosenstein going before the full Senate expected to happen next week, but also the fact that James Comey, the fired FBI director, has been called to meet before the Senate Intelligence Committee again in a closed session, not open to the public. But, of course, we're going to be trying to get as much information as possible gleaning from those two very significant meeting in terms of what happened over Comey's firing and where the FBI investigation into Russia's meddling goes from here.

John.

BERMAN: Yes, you better bet we'll try to find out what happens between those closed doors. It will be fascinating.

Suzanne Malveaux, thank you very much.

Joining me now is someone who worked with Rod Rosenstein at the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland.

Megan Brown, thank you so much for being with us.

You say the deputy attorney general is unflappable with rock solid ethics. What do you mean?

MEGAN BROWN, WORKED WITH ROD ROSENSTEIN AT DOJ MARYLAND U.S. ATTY'S OFFICE: Well, Rod has been in all manner of high profile and different situations and his both demeanor and his ethics give me a lot of confidence that he's going to be a smooth ship sailing through this storm. People who are questioning his integrity and ethics don't know him and I think he's the right person to be at the department at this time.

BERMAN: All right, so you called this a storm. Knowing what you know of him, how do you think he feels right now being at the center of this storm?

BROWN: You know, I don't think it's fair to him to speculate about how he feels. He'll keep his own council and do what he thinks is right for the department. And that's what, to me, what was so gratifying when he took the job or agreed to serve. He certainly didn't need to. He's had an amazing career, 27 years or so with the department. A career civil servant. And I, like many lawyers, was really gratified that he was willing to step up and be the deputy attorney general. So, I'm not going to speculate as to what he might be feeling or any of that. It's quite a tumultuous time and us sitting on the outside don't add to it by speculating.

BERMAN: That's fair. So you don't want to put yourself in his head and try to tell us what he's thinking.

How about what you're thinking? You're a friend to Rod Rosenstein. If the deputy attorney general was asked to do something which he feels uncomfortable with or his statements were used in a way that he was uncomfortable with, what would your advice to him be? Would you tell him he should stay in the job?

BROWN: I would tell him that he needs to continue as he has done to do what he thinks is best for the department. And I have no doubt that when he thinks about tasks that he has to do to carry out the mission of the department, which he is very loyal to and loves dearly, he's going to do the right thing. So far be it for me to advise him. He's far more seasoned and experienced. But I would say he is - he is very safe trusting his gut, which has led him very well for, you know, several decades in government service through some choppy waters and I think he's going to do the right thing at the end of the day.

BERMAN: There are reports - CNN is reporting that he was unhappy with the way that the messaging of this was handled from the White House. "The Wall Street Journal" saying he called and said, look, you know, you can't pin this on me. Does that sound like the Rod Rosenstein you know?

BROWN: What sounds like Rod he that he's going to stick to his guns and he's going to take positions that he believes in and not cow to pressure outside or people's expectations about what he should do. I think whatever he has done, he believes in and I think he will stick up for himself but more importantly for the department because what I have learned from Rod starting from when I was an intern for him, you know, longer than I care to admit ago, he cares about the department and he cares about its mission, which is far broader than whatever happens to be on the front page of "The New York Times."

BERMAN: Last question. "The Washington Post" had a quote from Dianne Feinstein today about the memo written by Rod Rosenstein. She said, "that surprised me, that a guy as highly prized as Rosenstein, on the basis of legal talent, professionalism in the department, would pull things out of a newspaper and quote them, in terms of somebody else's opinion of Comey. I means to me we really have to have him in and talk to him, because, wow, I mean, I could have written it." If you looked at that memo, which I'm sure you probably had a chance to, you know, it was a lot of clips. You know, he cut and pasted a lot of clips of things that people had said. She says that doesn't rise to the level of professionalism she would like to see. Your response?

[09:40:01] BROWN: I think that's a very glib assessment of the memo, to be honest. I think the - the - we don't know what circumstances prompted the drafting of the memo. I believe Rod wrote it himself. I believe Rod believes in what he wrote and I don't think it's unreasonable to cite what others have said. But, fundamentally, we don't know the mission that he was put to. We don't know the purpose that he was putting the memo to. So far be it from us to second guess and Monday morning quarterback the drafting of that memo.

BERMAN: That's a great point, we don't know. That's something the senators no doubt will ask next week behind closed doors when the deputy attorney general goes to Capitol Hill.

Megan Brown, great to talk to you for perspective on your friend -

BROWN: Thank you.

BERMAN: The deputy attorney general, now in the middle of all of this. Thanks so much.

BROWN: Thank you.

BERMAN: The United States is, quote, obsessed with Russia. New reaction from the Kremlin about the last few hours in Washington.

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[09:45:01] BERMAN: All right, new this morning, the Kremlin is weighing in on the last 48 hours in Washington, calling the U.S. emotionally obsessed with Russia. Even going as far as to suggest that it is just a phase that will eventually fade.

CNN's Nic Robertson joins us right now.

Russia referring to the United States as sort of a petulant teen, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, this is coming from Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for President Putin. He says that it's a pity that the United States continues this way. That Russia has got plenty of other things on its agenda. It's not interfering, not interfering in U.S. domestic affairs.

I mean, look, this is classic stuff from the Kremlin. This is deflect and deny. Deny any involvement in the hacking, as they've done multiple times, but deflect what's the core of the issue is about, by calling this an obsession, by saying that it will fade over time, that it's a pity the United States is so focused on Russia in this way.

This is a way of sort of deflecting away from the core issue here, which is that, you know, that Russia has had a hand in effecting the way that the United States democracy is performed, if you will. So I think really what we're hearing from the - what we're hearing from the Kremlin here is, again, what we've heard before, they'd like to move on, they'd like to focus on other things. And in a way all of this chaos certainly works for them because you take the issue of Syria, for example. Peace plans for Syria. Russia is pretty much getting its own way about what it wants to do there right now. So all this chaos and confusion, the priorities that Peskov is talking about here, the issues they want to get on with, Syria is one of them and they're sort of getting on quite well - they won't say it that way - by themselves.

BERMAN: All right, Nic Robertson for us, thank you very, very much.

The attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, he, too, caught up in the firestorm over the firing of James Comey. New ethics questions being raised about his role. Did he violate promises that he made? We're just moments away from hearing from the attorney general himself. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:51:39] BERMAN: Moments from now we're expecting to hear from the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. He will speak at the Justice Department. He is being presented with an award for his support of law enforcement. It does come as there are new questions, ethics questions, surrounding him over the firing of James Comey. Remember, he allegedly recused himself from all things having to do with Russia.

Also new this morning, a major shift in policy with really huge ramifications about prosecuting certain crimes. I want to get right to CNN justice reporter Laura Jarrett live at the Justice Department for us.

Laura.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Hey, there, John.

So, the attorney general announced this morning sweeping new changes to how his Justice Department is going to handle all federal criminal cases from now on, directing prosecutors, as you say, to charge the most serious offense that they can prove, which essentially means whatever offense has the longest prison sentence.

Now, this announcement was expected for some time and really comes as no surprise, but it solidifies Sessions' position on these criminal cases, and perhaps most importantly revokes Obama-era policies that sought to avoid charging drug offenses with - sought to avoid charging offenses. It would trigger mandatory minimums, especially in the drug context.

Now, we are told that U.S. attorneys across the country received this directive last night. They will be the ones on the ground in charge of implementing it. And we will hear from the attorney general himself later this morning at the Justice Department on all of this and more, John.

BERMAN: All right, we'll be waiting to hear that. Laura Jarrett for us outside the Justice Department, thank you so much.

Next hour, a Colorado mother will walk free from the church where she spent the last 86 days to avoid deportation. Immigration officials granted Jeanette Vizguerra a temporary stay until 2019. She moved into this Denver church in February over fears she would be deported from her children - separated from her children, who are U.S. citizens, because she is undocumented.

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JEANETTE VIZGUERRA, UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT (through translator): I need to fight for and defend what I think is right and just, and the right thing to do is to be with my kids.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: This woman was named one of "Time" magazine's 100 most influential people last month for her battle and her decades of activism for immigrants' rights.

President Trump, this morning, threatening the former FBI director, threatening to cancel White House briefings. And what is he defending? Inaccuracy! It's Friday. We'll be right back.

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[09:58:21] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BERMAN: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman. The breaking news this morning, the president of the United States is threatening the man he fired as FBI director. Now, that was a move that some critics called obstruction of justice. This new move, this new threat is one that one legal analyst just told us could be construed as witness intimidation. The president wrote "James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press."

I want to bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider. She is in Washington for us.

And, Jessica, this has to do with these conflicting stories about what James Comey told the president about Russia investigations and whether or not the president asked for a pledge of loyalty.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. So, the president now coming out on the attack. And really, John, the Twitter tirade, it seems to be coming out at the exact wrong time. A few of the FBI agents I've spoken with, they're upset that Director Comey was fired. We've seen some of them take to Instagram and FaceBook to change their profile pictures as well. All of these people that we've spoken with respected James Comey, and now this tweet from the president, it kind of threatens to further erode Trump's relationship with the rank and file and even the leadership at the FBI.

We do know from acting Director Andrew McCabe's testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday that James Comey had broad support at the FBI and that contrary to White House account, morale was strong at the bureau. And the president's tweets, interestingly, come on the same day that there were indications that he might visit FBI headquarters here in Washington. We know that the bureau had been prepping for the visit, complete with locations scouted outside. But, of course, two officials told our Jeff Zeleny that the White House, they realized that the timing would be bad for a visit today, that he wouldn't, the president, would not have been well received. And, of course, now after this tweet, John, that icy reception seems to be a lot more likely than ever.

[10:00:07] John.

BERMAN: All right, Jessica Schneider for us in Washington, thank you so much.

We have more breaking news this morning.