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Dems Reveal Letters to FBI; Putin's Story Shifts; Clinton on Election Loss. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired June 1, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for sharing your day with us.

Big questions and fresh accusations driving a very busy day in politics. One emerging over the last hour, Democrats accusing the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, of giving false testimony about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. In newly obtained letters, they asked the now fired FBI Director James Comey to investigate these contacts.

Let's start with CNN's Jim Sciutto, who has the breaking news.

Jim, exactly what are the Democrats saying in these letters?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it's actually a series of three letters. One first in March, then in April, then in May, all addressed to James Comey. Well, the first two to James Comey, then the FBI director, and then the final one, of course, after he was fired. And Senators Franken and Leahy, both members of the Judiciary Committee, asking for the FBI to investigate whether Sessions had concealed other meetings, in effect, with Russian officials, including the Russian ambassador.

I'm going to quote from that first letter on March 20th to the FBI. It goes like this. "We are concerned by Attorney General Sessions' lack of candor and his failure thus far to accept responsibility for testimony that could be construed as perjury. We are also disturbed that the attorney general has not been forthcoming about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. We ask that you investigate all contacts the Russia ambassador or any other Russian officials may have had with Attorney General Sessions or with his staff and whether any laws were broken.

Keep in mind the timing of this, John, because by March 20th we already knew that in his confirmation hearings in January that he had not disclosed two meetings with the Russian ambassador. Only in March, after those meetings were reported, did Attorney General Sessions then concede that those meetings happened. He submitted corrected testimony to the Judiciary Committee. This followed that admission by some two weeks.

The implication, it would seem here, was a question to the FBI, were there other meetings. And, in that original testimony, did he break any laws by perjuring himself. The subsequent letters in April were asking for an update and then on May 12th, following Comey's dismissal, saying, hey, listen, we know Comey's gone now, but we, Senators Franken and Leahy, still want you to investigate this.

KING: And, Jim, as we get these letters today, and look at these pretty serious questions raised by the Democrats, it connects a bit to some new CNN reporting from last night on this very question, how many contacts did Jeff Sessions have with the Russian ambassador. Fill us in on that.

SCIUTTO: That's exactly right. That was a CNN exclusive with my colleagues, Jamie Gangel and Shimon Prokupecz. We reported last night that The Hill is investigating a third possible meeting between Sessions and Ambassador Kislyak. They're focused on a date in April 2016 when we know that the ambassador, the Russian ambassador, and then Senator Sessions were at a larger event at the Mayflower Hotel here in Washington, D.C. The question is, before or after that larger event was there a smaller, private meeting between Sessions and Kislyak. It's not established yet whether that is true. But we do know that The Hill, the Senate Judiciary Committee is investigating. They have asked Sessions for more information, documents, including schedules. And we also know that the FBI is looking into this as well as part of their broader counter intelligence investigation regarding Russian meddling in the election.

And we should note that the senators, though these letters were, of course, sent before last night's report, they, it seemed, decided to release these letters after CNN reported this ongoing investigation.

KING: Important new developments. With the breaking news, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, thanks so much.

With me here in studio to share their reporting on this big story and others, and share their insights as well, Julie Pace of "The Associated Press," Naftali Bendavid of "The Wall Street Journal," Karoun Demirjian of "The Washington Post," and Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast."

Let's start with these fresh questions about America's top law enforcement official. If we go back a couple months, we remember when the Democrats were pressing Jeff Sessions saying, you have not been honest to us about these meetings. Now we learn about these letters to the now fired FBI director and, number one, the questions are serious, were there more meetings, did Jeff Sessions not -- was he not totally honest with the United States Congress? But then we know Jeff Sessions had a central role in the firing of James Comey after saying he would recuse himself from all things Russia. So the pot, if you will, is getting -- swirling some more.

JULIE PACE, "ASSOCIATED PRESS": It is. And the reports about these meetings have been swirling privately for a while, the possibility that there was an extra Sessions meeting on the sidelines of Trump's foreign policy speech during the campaign. And the problem for Jeff Sessions and pretty much everyone else who's caught up in this in the Trump campaign and White House is that they just don't get the benefit of the doubt anymore on these meetings because they haven't been up front. They have been misleading. They have kept quiet about meetings until they've been reported in the press. So that's how you end up in a situation like this where you have the Justice Department saying that they don't have any record of a meeting, but senators were asking very real questions. And a date on the calendar where we do know that Jeff Sessions and other members of the Trump campaign were in a room with Kislyak. Whether that was just the big room for the speech or the smaller room I think is yet to be determined, but it remains an open question. And the fact that they haven't been up front on other meetings is what adds to the controversy around this.

[12:05:07] KING: Haven't been up front knowing that this is a giant issue, if not the all-consuming issue, in Washington. And, if you're the attorney general, I would argue you're extra special when it comes to truth, candor and full disclosure on questions of big investigations. Is that a foolish standard to hold the attorney general to?

NAFTALI BENDAVID, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, I don't think so. And it raises another point about the Justice Department generally. You know, we now don't have an FBI director. And there's really no telling when we're going to get one. The White House says it wants to move quickly but they have not named a candidate. Then that candidate would have to go through confirmation. Meanwhile, the attorney general has recused himself from probably the highest profile investigation going on in Washington. There's a special counsel working on that. He may well be distracted by some of these questions that keep coming up. So the department itself, I think, is in a little bit of turmoil, or at least some sort of struggle right now, and it's something that I think the administration and certainly the department would want to correct sooner rather than later.

KING: And so take the Republican perspective or the Trump perspective anyway for a minute and let's say -- you know, they say, oh, Jeff Sessions didn't -- he didn't think this meeting was a big deal so he didn't disclose it. OK. And now the Trump perspective, they would say Democrats are asking partisan questions. OK. Accept that for the sake of argument. What could Jeff Sessions do, if anything, in the middle of an investigation to come out -- he could ask Congress, call me back up, I'd like to answer your questions, I'd like to get this cloud out from over me. Why hasn't he done that?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, in the first place, I mean if he does do that and brings him back to Congress, I don't think it makes the cloud go away. This all started because of testimony he gave to Congress, which now, you know, people are saying, well -- which wasn't -- does not seem to have been completely on the up and up and that's what started this whole backlash from members of the committee and, you know, continues to add to the intrigue. So there's always the risk that if you go in front of Congress again, a new Pandora's box opens that you don't want to have open because especially if you're under oath you say something or you're cagy about something and then lawmakers leap on that and they open the next chapter of this. So if there's more to hide, it's a dangerous thing to do. If there's really nothing else to it, then it may not be something that actually seals it all up with a nice bow because there's still so much suspicion around Capitol Hill about what's been going on.

JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": There's also another layer to this, and that this isn't someone that they just met in front of their committee. A lot of these chairmen and these committee members have known Jeff Sessions for quite a while. And you saw that in this letter that they said, you know, Sessions himself wouldn't tolerate this sort of answer and this sort of behavior. So there might be a personal aspect of this as well, that they're angry that this guy, who worked beside them for years and years in a bipartisan fashion because this is a committee after all in the Senate lied to them essentially or seems to be that he wasn't telling the truth.

KING: Right. His testimony was not accurate. The question then, you get into motives.


KING: And, again, the easy way to clear it up, if there's nothing there, just, he forgot or he misspoke or it's an honest misunderstanding, is to put yourself back in the chair and answer the questions. And the attorney general has refused to do that. So this will be a question for the Justice Department. I suspect this question will also come up at the White House. What does the president know about this or how does the president want to push another piece of cloud away? But when you ask -- something changed in the last 24 hours. When you ask a question at the White House now about all things Russia, this is the answer you get from the press secretary.


REPORTER (voice-over): CNN is reporting that James Comey will testify that the president pressured him to drop the Michael Flynn investigation. Did the president engage in obstruction of justice in repeated meetings with James Comey?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY (voice-over): Our job -- we are focused on the president's agenda and all -- going forward, all questions on these matters will be referred to outside counsel Mark Kasowitz.


KING: Mark Kasowitz, not to be flippant, is going to have to hire a call center. But in the sense that's the -- that's the lead outside private attorney, someone who's worked with Donald Trump back to his real estate days, but he's the lead outside private attorney who's building a team of other lawyers to help the president through this investigation. And, again, I want to say this every time it comes up, just because you hire an attorney doesn't mean you did anything wrong. You have to hire an attorney when you're getting all these questions. It's the smart and the right thing to do. But if the White House is now going to say, don't ask the government, ask Mark, is that going -- is that it? Is that the new order -- new world order?

PACE: That's the new policy that the staff at the White House is trying to implement. But I would note two things. One, outside counsel did not answer any questions yesterday, and I think that we're going to probably be stonewalled there for a while. And, number two, it doesn't appear as though that policy is going to apply to the president of the United States himself.

KING: Right.

PACE: So what -- what effect does it have if Sean Spicer and other advisers are saying, we can't answer any questions, but the president is tweeting about the investigation, tweeting about Russia, taking questions on the matter? Then I think his word matters more than what we would be getting from the press secretary anyway.

KING: A little intellectual disconnect --

PACE: Yes.

KING: Between saying, I can't answer your questions if the president is raising (ph) them.

To the question -- that question, about James Comey, who has now agreed, and apparently has got permission from Bob Mueller, the special counsel, to go up to Congress next week, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and to answer questions. We presume he's going to be asked and walked through the memos he wrote after his meeting with the president, which, from sources, he was uncomfortable. He thought the president was trying to get him to shut down the Michael Flynn investigation.

Is there any chance the president of the United States would try to exert executive privilege and say, he cannot testify publicly because he's a political appointee, these are private conversations between a president and somebody and presidents do have the right, do have the privilege to shut down those conversations sometimes? Would this president roll that dice?

[12:10:14] KUCINICH: He could try, but I think one of the problems, to Julie's point about the Twitter feed, is that the president himself has discussed these meetings.

PACE: Right.

KING: So has he waived it, is the question lawyers would say (ph).

KUCINICH: And -- that he waived it. That is --

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: That is the question. And, you know, we'll know the answer if he does that.

BENDAVID: Well, but sometimes I mean just asserting it can delay things. It can make things take a while. And we've seen this really repeatedly from presidents. But it's a little bit of a difference here. First of all, Jim Comey is no longer with this administration.

KING: Right.

BENDAVID: H's an ex-official. That changes things a little bit. Also, he apparently wants to talk. Often when you see executive privilege asserted, neither the witness nor the president want the testimony to go forward.

KING: Right.

BENDAVID: So this is a little different. But however these things turn out, the risk, I think, for this administration is that they become engulfed with this. You know, we all remember the Clinton administration where a huge amount of the time of the president, of the White House Counsel's Office was just responding to multiple demands from various investigators and I think that's the risk they're running right now.

KING: Right. And we're just learning, that testimony will be next Thursday. We knew it would happen. We didn't know the date. So fix your calendar if you have any appointments for next Thursday. The Senate Intelligence Committee, must see TV. Hope you do that with us.

Let's go to the global part of this story and we have a Kremlinologist at the table in Karoun, so here we go.

Vladimir Putin met with reporters today complaining about what he called Russia-fobia in the United States and elsewhere. He also made clear, any talk of a cozy relationship with Prsident Trump is off the mark. Here's what President Putin said. "Regarding our friendship with Trump, well, how can I be friends with someone I've never met. I think Mr. Trump can't call me a friend either. We don't know each other."

Mr. Putin, importantly, also changed his story about Russian election meddling. For months the Russian president said any allegations of any Russian involvement were nonsense. But today, while insisting the Russian government had no direct role in hacking, Mr. Putin shared this.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Hackers are free people, just like artists. They wake up in a good mood and paint things. Same with hackers. They woke up today, read something about the state to state relations. But they are patriotic. They contribute in a way they think is right. They fight against those who say bad things about Russia.


KING: You were in Moscow before you came back here to Washington. This is a shift in his story. Significantly he said, go away, nonsense, this is all crazy, made up --


KING: His version of fake news, if you will.


KING: Now he's saying, it could well have happened, but it wasn't the government. And, you know, these are just artists.

DEMIRJIAN: Artists, exactly.

KING: What -- what -- what -- translate that for us.

DEMIRJIAN: Well, I mean, this is kind of classic Putin. This -- I mean, if you take as an example what happened with Ukraine, right, where he was saying, of course we weren't involved, nothing happened in Crimea that actually can be traced back to Russia or Russians. Not at all. Nothing to see there.

Wait a little bit longer. He starts talking about the very polite little green men, you know, that were clearly, you know, Russian patriots that are just going into eastern Ukraine. And then -- then he talks again, a few months later, and it's like, yes, OK, we might have had something to do with it.

I mean this is just -- he -- he -- he operates in this realm of, you know, when it -- when he feels comfortable, like it's done and his goals were achieved or at least things are set and he's not going to be challenged anymore, he'll kind of start to let a little bit more information out like that. And we've seen him do it before in other contexts. So this may be -- this actually may not even be like the final chapter of what he says on it, if there's more to say there or if more happened and we might hear more from him. But he does what's politically convenient for him and the press doesn't question him very severely in Russia and so we hear it as he chooses to let out in in little driblets about what the involvement was.

KING: Maybe he'll have an artist reception at the Kremlin if he wants to move this out a little bit, as he calls it.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. And the other thing to keep in mind about that too is that just -- you know, the relationship between the -- Trump and Putin is never absolutely pure because you have all these allegations of collusion and other forms of coordination, but you also have pretty bold steps being taken by people like Nikki Haley that are just trying to make the point of like, oh, we're not in Russia's back pocket here. We will actually uphold sanctions, things like that. So it's -- there was joy about Trump's election and then there was discontent in Russia about actually what it was going to mean. So it's always a mixed bag.

KING: We need to take a quick. But as we go to break, I just want to say, our Matthew Chance in Moscow had a run-in today -- a coincidental run-in with Sergey Gorkov, who's the Russian banker central to the Jared Kushner allegations. Why did Jared Kushner have a meeting with a Russian banker under sanctions close to Putin during the presidential transition? Matthew tried, a half dozen questions thrown at Mr. Gorkov and he got no comment. "No comment. No comment. Thank you. Sorry, no comment." But, he tried.

Up next, Joe Biden re-enters the fray with a new political group with an eye towards the future, as Hillary Clinton seems, well, you might say, stuck in the past.


[12:18:55] KING: Joe Biden is launching a new political group today. It's called American Possibilities. And make no mistake, one goal is to help him keep open, yes, the possibility of a 2020 presidential run. Helping Democrats in 2018 comes first. And in his announcement, the former vice president says, th negativity, the pettiness, the small mindedness of our politics drives me crazy. It's not who we are. Negativity? Pettiness? You mean like this? "Crooked Hillary now blames everybody but herself. Refuses to say she was a terrible candidate. Hits FaceBook and even Dems and DNC." Yes, he has a day job, but somehow the president was also keeping track and tweeting after this 2016 postmortem by Hillary Clinton.


HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, I set up my campaign and we have our own data operation. I get the nomination. So I'm now the nominee of the Democratic Party. I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you mean nothing?

CLINTON: I mean it was bankrupt. It was on the verge of insolvency. Its data was mediocre to poor, non-existent, wrong. I had to inject money into it.


[12:20:09] KING: Let me sneak one more in before I bring the group in.

In that same conversation at the Red Coat meeting yesterday, she said, yes, she has flaws, but as she works on a book, she says her flaws, and she says she'll make this clear in the book, are not why she lost.


HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In the book I'm just using everything that anybody else said about it besides me to basically said, this was the biggest nothing burger ever. I know you had Dean Baquet here from "The New York Times" yesterday and they covered it like it was Pearl Harbor. Comey was more than happy to talk about my e-mails, but he wouldn't talk about investigation into the Russians.


KING: What do we make of this? Besides the fact that the 2016 campaign apparently will never end, what do -- what -- what -- look, it hurts, and we can be snarky about this sometimes. Running for president is quite a personal ordeal for anyone who gets in the arena and it hurts and she thought up until the last hour she was going to win. However, what purpose does it serve to trash the DNC, to -- and so on and so forth at this point?

PACE: Yes, there was an interesting turn from her yesterday because we've heard the rational about Comey and we've heard Russia -- this is the first we've really heard from her blaming the party. In one sense she is not wrong. Barack Obama, when he was president, really ran his own data operations. He kept things very close into his own political operations and that hurt the DNC. That is true to some extent. She didn't inherit nothing from the DNC --

KING: Right.

PACE: And there's a lot of pushback that you're hearing privately from people who worked for the committee. I think the interesting thing with Clinton right now is that, yes, I think there is a desire that's perhaps more intense when it comes to her to see her take ownership. People want to see her be humble. I think that it is more intense when it comes to her.

But if you are going to be out there, if you did just lose this election, you are going to be out there discussing it, that is the expectation. I don't know what she thinks that people will want to talk to her about at this point other than what went wrong and led to this pretty unbelievable defeat on her part.

KUCINICH: And there's the trying to have it both ways. Saying, you know, I was flawed, it was my fault, but it was also all these other entities' fault. And it kind of dilutes any sort of, the buck stops here statement that she has and, you know, frankly, it seems like she's burning bridges within her own party at this point.

DEMIRJIAN: It's an issue of tone as well in a way. I mean there's a way of saying, she kind of took the, you know, oh, well, I had problems but the big problems were in the party. Whereas, if she'd done it the opposite way, you know, to say, you know, there are still problems in the party that we should think about fixing and itemizing, which you can do, but the buck stops here, as you were saying.

KING: No, the -- you don't understand -- you don't understand, the Russians cloaked Wisconsin so she couldn't find it on a map to get there and campaign there.

BENDAVID: But I think if you're a Democrat, I think a lot of them would prefer to have her fade away a little bit. I mean a lot of them would say the reason they lost the last election, despite a very venerable Republican candidate, is that people turned on Hillary Clinton, Republicans were able to make her be a villain. And I think an advantage that Democrats have coming up is, they don't have someone who's easy to villainize. They want to make the next couple of elections a referendum on Donald Trump. And the more their last standard bearer continues to be present, continues to speak out, I think they feel like that's not going to be good for them.

KING: And it's part of this. One of the -- when Trump came up, one of the questions still for investigators is, yes, there's no doubt in the intelligence community, the president sometimes still has doubts, but there's no doubt in the intelligence community Russia actively meddled in the election. The question is, was there collusion between Trump associates and the Kremlin, coordination into some of these hacked e- mails being leaked, where they were leaked, how they were leaked, when they were leaked, what specifically was leaked. Hillary Clinton says she has zero doubt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Russians, in my opinion, and based on the intel and counter intel people I've talked to, could not have known how best to weaponize that information unless they had been guided. And here's a -- here's one --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guided by Americans?

CLINTON: Guided by Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think we can get into confefe right now, because it's a longer thing, but -- but the --

CLINTON: I thought it -- I thought it was a hidden message to the Russians.



KING: A little humor at the end there about the president's late night tweet, confefe, whatever he meant by that. But to the other point, the grievance. Again, the, you know, in her case, we don't know -- we don't know the answer to that question. We don't have the facts yet. But she has a conclusion in her head.

BENDAVID: Well, in a lot of what she said, I mean maybe there was something to it but she over -- she stated in a very exaggerated fashion. So, for example, the e-mails. She -- you know, you could make the case that they were over covered, that they were given too much importance. But to say they were "nothing burger," I think most people, including the campaign, would see it as a pretty serious mistake that she made that created a real venerability. I don't think most people would agree that it was a "nothing burger" as she said. So she may have some points, but to state them in such an exaggerated fashion I don't think necessarily will resonate with a lot of people.

DEMIRJIAN: And the other thing that she said that I think I would just kind of pause on, and not to say that the opposite is at all true, but when she said there would no -- be no way for some foreign entity to kind of do this without American guidance, when you're living overseas, it is shocking how many people understand the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire and the intricacies of the parties and where they don't actually match-up. People pay attention to the United States in ways that we don't pay attention to anybody else. So while, yes, there might have been a lot of things that would kind of just raise eyebrows and it would cause suspicion, the idea that people, you know, overseas have no idea how American politics works is just false.

[12:25:21] KING: And you can't have that "nothing burger" if you don't set up a private e-mail server in your home against the advice of your boss, the president of the United States. Just a thought.

All right, next, the president announcing a big decision on the Paris climate deal in just a few hours. He's expected to abandon the deal. But now a source tells CNN, maybe some language in the withdrawal to satisfy a key White House adviser. That would be the president's daughter.


KING: Welcome back.

It's a big day in Washington in the Rose Garden. In just two and a half hours, the president of the United States will deliver his final answer on whether he is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Change Accords. Last minute advise is dizzying from within a fiercely divided West Wing and from all corners of the globe.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Look, we care as much about the climate as we do about jobs. There's a way to balance it. You don't have to have one or the other. And I think that's what everyone internationally needs to know, we're not going to start polluting and creating all these problems in the world. What we are going to do is balance it out.

[12:30:10] JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER, EUROPEAN COMMISSION PRESIDENT (through translator): That's not how it works.