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Interview With Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes; Attorney General Takes Hot Seat; U.S. Student Freed from North Korea Prison is in Coma. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired June 13, 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: Leaving many key questions unanswered about Mr. Trump's contact with James Comey and his reasons for firing him.
Detestable lie. Sessions flatly denies he was involved in or knew about any collusion between the Trump camp and Russia, the former senator trying to explain his recusal of Russia investigation and angrily defending his honor.
Nothing improper. Sessions insists he did nothing wrong during his conversations with the Russian ambassador as he is confronted with questions about whether an undisclosed third meeting happened.
And I don't recall, the nation's top law enforcement officer invoking the phrase multiple times, couching some answers as he testifies under oath in an investigation that is hanging over his tenure as attorney general and the Trump administration.
We want to welcome our viewers from the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, offering a fiery and indignant denial of any collusion between the Trump camp and Russia, calling any claim of wrongdoing on his part a detestable lie.
But Sessions repeatedly refused to discuss his private conversations with President Trump during his highly anticipated public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The attorney general rejected accusations that he was stonewalling, claiming he is protecting the president's right to assert executive privilege down the road in the future.
But frustrated Democrats weren't buying his explanation, as they tried to get more information about Mr. Trump's contacts with James Comey, his motives for firing the FBI director and any possible obstruction of justice.
Sessions was questioned for nearly two-and-a-half-hours by his former Senate colleagues about his meetings with the Russian ambassador, his recusal from the Russia investigation and the lead-up to Comey's ouster.
We're told President Trump watched Sessions' testimony on board Air Force One during a 90-minute flight from Washington to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sessions' remarks under oath coming hours after his deputy testified in a separate hearing.
Rod Rosenstein telling senators he saw no reason to fire the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller. He suggested he wouldn't follow any potential orders to fire Mueller unless there was a legal reason to do so.
We are covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes. And our correspondents and specialists, they are also standing by.
First, let's go to our senior Washington correspondent, Brianna Keilar.
Brianna, some very crucial testimony by Jeff Sessions today, but many questions clearly still unanswered.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf.
Sessions testified as if President Trump was watching, and as you just reported, he was. He would not answer questions about his communications, his conversations with President Trump. That is something that we have heard in past testimony from the director of national include and the NSA director.
But unlike DNI Coats and NSA Director Rogers, Sessions wouldn't commit to talking about those conversation even behind closed doors.
KEILAR (voice-over): Speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee tonight, Attorney General Jeff Sessions under oath declared he did not engage with Russian officials on issues related to the 2016 election.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Let me state this clearly, colleagues. I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.
KEILAR: His defense? Go on offense.
SESSIONS: I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you. And the suggestion that I participated in any collusion that I was aware of, any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country which I have served with honor for 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process an appalling and detestable lie.
KEILAR: Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016, meetings he did not properly disclose during his confirmation, and may have had another encounter following a Trump foreign policy speech at a Washington hotel.
SESSIONS: I did not have any private meetings, nor do I recall any conversations, with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel. I did not attend any meetings at that event.
KEILAR: When pressed, he said a meeting may have occurred, but he doesn't remember it.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: To the best of your memory, you had no conversation with Ambassador Kislyak at that meeting?
SESSIONS: I don't recall that, Senator. I guess I could say that I possibly had a meeting, but I still do not recall it.
KEILAR: The hearing was at times contentious.
SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH (D), NEW MEXICO: You're not answering questions. You're impeding this investigation.
KEILAR: With Sessions refusing to answer questions about private conversations he had with President Trump, citing an unspecified Department of Justice protocol.
SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I'm not able to comment on conversations with high officials within the White House.
KEILAR: The president has not exerted executive privilege, as administration officials testified, but Sessions effectively answered questions as if he had.
SESSIONS: I'm protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses.
KEILAR: And sparring with Democrats over matters involving his recusal in investigations into the Trump campaign and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: Mr. Comey said there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic and he couldn't talk about them. What are they?
SESSIONS: Why don't you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty.
KEILAR: Some Republicans backed Sessions up, stressing it was an event attended by many people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Trump campaign did not determine or approve the invitation list.
KEILAR: Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton taking a colorful tack.
SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Have you ever, in any of these fantastical situations, heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?
SESSIONS: Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton. It is just like through the looking glass. What is this?
KEILAR: An earlier hearing featuring Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official in charge of appointing special counsel Robert Mueller. He repeatedly made assurances Mueller is not in danger of being fired, even as a Trump friend has said Mueller is.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At this point, have you seen any evidence of good cause for firing of special counsel Mueller?
ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: No, I have not. As long as I'm in this position, he's not going to be fired without good cause.
KEILAR: Another theme in the Sessions testimony, Wolf, was a lack of hard line on Russia.
Senator John McCain, of course, a member of the same party as Jeff Sessions and a former colleague of his, is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Sessions, who had met with the Russian ambassador, we had been told by the administration in his capacity of the Armed Services Committee, asked him about a number of U.S. concerns about Russia.
Did he raise think any of these? There was only one, Ukraine that Sessions said that he raised, really bringing into question just how effective Sessions had been on communicating foreign policy to the Russian ambassador.
BLITZER: All right, good point, Brianna. Thank you, Brianna Keilar up on Capitol Hill.
Now to the Trump administration's reaction to Jeff Sessions' testimony and his refusal to talk about his conversations with the president.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's over at the White House.
Jim, so what are you hearing from the Trump team?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the White House says Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not discuss with aides over here whether the president was asserting executive privilege, and the president was not invoking it, so Sessions was essentially just dodging those questions today during his testimony, and the Republican-led committee simply allowed Sessions to do that.
The president was watching Sessions' testify aboard Air Force One earlier today on his way to some events out in Wisconsin. One moment, though, that the president may have found interesting, Wolf, was when Sessions testified about that speech then candidate Trump delivered at the Mayflower Hotel in April of last year.
Here is what Sessions said about that earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Would you say you were there as a United States Senator or as a surrogate of the campaign for this event?
SESSIONS: I came there as an interested person and very anxious to see how President Trump would do in his first major foreign policy address. I believe he had only given one major speech before and that was maybe at the Jewish event.
And so it was an interesting time for me to observe his delivery.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Now, that is not exactly true that Sessions was there as a -- quote -- "interested person."
More than a month before the speech, Mr. Trump tapped Sessions as the chair of his national security advisory board. So, he was clearly at the speech, Wolf that Russian ambassador attended as part of his role with the campaign. And how do we know that, Wolf?
Because I was there at the speech and interviewed Senator Sessions essentially under the guise that he was the chair of the president's or then candidate Trump's national security advisory board.
He was speaking to us live on CNN in that role, in that capacity. So, we know he was there as much more than just an interested person, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, clearly.
All right, Jim, you're also learning that the president had some, shall we say, some not-so-nice things to say about the House health care bill. What are you hearing?
ACOSTA: That's right.
Not to take us off topic, but earlier today, as you know, the president sat down with a group of Republican senators here at the White House to talk about this House health care bill. There are some senators who are concerned that it goes too far in restricting health care access.
And we are told by a source familiar with this meeting that during this gathering, the president described the House health care bill that was passed by the House of Representatives and that they celebrated in the Rose Garden over here at the White House, that the president referred to that bill as -- quote -- "mean" during the session with these Republican senators, and he also used a vulgar phrase to describe the legislation, words that I don't know if we can necessarily talk about here on television.
But he was clearly making it clear to these senators, Wolf, that he did not see this bill as being compassionate enough for people who don't have health insurance, which is obviously something that Democrats have been saying throughout this whole process, that it leaves too many people uninsured.
And the president appeared to indicate that he's listened to that side of the argument earlier today, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, that is pretty amazing. He is going to irritate, clearly anger a lot of those Republicans who worked hard to get that legislation passed in the House of Representatives very narrowly.
ACOSTA: That's right.
BLITZER: And now very different legislation might, repeat, might emerge from the Senate, the Republican majority in the Senate.
Jim Acosta, good reporting, as usual. Thank you very much.
We asked multiple Republican members of Congress to join us with their reaction to Jeff Sessions' testimony. But at least so far, they have declined. Maybe they will change their minds.
I want to get reaction, though, from a Democratic congressman who is deeply involved in all of this. Jim Himes is joining us. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Good evening, Wolf.
BLITZER: So, give me your bottom-line reaction, first of all, to what you heard from the attorney general of the United States?
HIMES: Yes, three things jumped out at me, Wolf, as important that came out today.
Number one, we got the attorney general on record around a lot of things, the Mayflower meeting, which has been a subject of all sorts of speculation. He is on record. And this is kind of how an investigation works. You gets lot of people on record. You compare their statements to other things that you know to be true. That happened.
Number two, he actually backed up the account of former FBI Director Jim Comey on a couple of counts. And that's important, of course, because after the Comey testimony, we basically had a he said/he said between Jim Comey and the president.
And the third thing, which I hope is of very real interest to all 535 people in this building, is that attorney general asserted a sort of odd privilege to not have to speak to Congress because the president might in the future invoke executive privilege. Now, this is a novel thing. Traditionally, you can do that. You
cannot speak to Congress because you don't want to incriminate yourself. You cannot speak to Congress because the president has asserted executive privilege.
But on any given day, there are a dozen meetings here where we are doing oversight, where we're asking executive agencies to tell us the truth about what they are doing. And if the attorney general is right and that any executive agent can say, hey, I'm not answering your questions because the president may someday exert executive privilege, we may as well shut down our oversight function here in the United States Congress.
BLITZER: Yes, he insisted, as you heard, that there were written guidelines from the Department of Justice that would prevent him from discussing what he described as private conversations he had with the president on any subject. He also insisted he was not stonewalling, just following these policies of the Department of Justice.
Are you familiar with those policies? What do you think?
HIMES: No, I'm not.
And, of course, he was asked by a number of senators to produce these policies. And if these policies exist, we have got to learn a lot more about them. Again, this is -- I would think that my Republican colleagues in this business, though -- this in this building, although there is a partisan moment, would recognize that some day there will be a Democratic president, and they will want to bring them that president's Cabinet members in front of the Congress and ask them questions and get answers.
And if there is this idea that you're not going to answer because someday in the future the president may decide to invoke executive privilege, as I said, we may as well shut down congressional oversight as a concept.
So, I think it's incumbent on the attorney general, who ought to know something about the law and about the critical oversight functions we do here, to producer whatever this policy is and to be more clear about why he won't answer questions that are pretty important to us.
BLITZER: You also heard the attorney general discuss that third supposedly undisclosed meeting he may have had with the Russian ambassador to the United States at the Mayflower Hotel here in Washington. He said, I just don't remember. I don't recall.
Do you think that's possible?
HIMES: Well, it is a little disappointing, I mean, particularly coming after the precision of Jim Comey, who took copious notes, who made contemporaneous memoranda that were there to help other people understand what happened.
[18:15:02] That the attorney general asserted that he doesn't keep notes, that he
doesn't remember is uncomfortable. Now, you know, that said, as an investigator, somebody forgetting something or not being sure about something is possible.
What is interesting to me, again, as one of the investigators, is he is clearly on record now as saying that there was no substantive meeting at the Mayflower. And we will take that forward and hopefully what he is saying is accurate. But we will take that forward.
BLITZER: Well, would you potentially hold him in contempt of Congress, assuming the president doesn't exert executive privilege, but he and others continue to avoid answering questions about their conversations with the president?
HIMES: Well, it a great question, Wolf, because, of course, the attorney general's assertion of this sort of forward-looking possibility of executive privilege echoes a little bit what we saw with the testimony of Admiral Rogers and DNI Coats, Director of National Intelligence Coats, a week ago, I guess it was, where they said, hey, we're not exerting any particular privilege. We just don't want to discuss confidential conversations.
Again, it is our right, as the Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to demand answers unless there is some assertion of privilege. And we have not seen that. And so the next step for us, Wolf, is, if this privilege doesn't exist, if this idea of not speaking to us simply because you have got a policy or you want to keep it confidential, if we don't believe as a Congress that that privilege should exist, we will subpoena these individuals and ask them those questions and hopefully get answers.
BLITZER: He also insisted flatly that he believes he did not violate his recusal from the Russia investigation by participating in the firing of James Comey as the FBI director. He said he had never been briefed on any investigative details of the Russia investigation, had no access to any classified or sensitive information about it.
Do you believe him?
HIMES: Well, I don't want to get into what I believe or what I don't believe. At the end of the day, we need to do an investigation that is based on the facts and how facts comport with other facts we have.
But it is disturbing to think that a brand-new attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer in the United States of America, in the context of a belief, a unanimous belief on the part of the intelligence community that there was illegal break-ins, that there was meddling with our elections, that he wouldn't have shown some curiosity about that, not had conversations, not asked about it.
So, that is a little bit disconcerting. The recusal is what it is. He self-recused. And, of course, there is a little bit of an echo of this with the recusal of our chairman on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. We're going to need, I think, to get the deputy attorney general and
others -- and presumably Bob Mueller is doing this -- to tell us more about the facts around the firing of Jim Comey.
BLITZER: Stand by, Congressman. There is more we need to discuss. We're getting more information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.
At the same time, we will continue all of this right after a quick break.
BLITZER: We're talking to the House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes about the breaking news, the rather heated Senate testimony by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, today, accusing by some Democrats of stonewalling for refusing to answer questions about his private conversations with the president.
He denied he was stonewalling. He cited confidentiality with the president for not discussing those conversations.
Congressman, there are some other issues that have come up today related to the Russia investigation. As you know, one of the president's long time private attorneys for the Trump Organization, Michael Cohen, he now has agreed he will testify before your House Intelligence Committee on September 5.
What do you hope to learn from him?
HIMES: Well, you know, you don't know what you are going to learn until you actually hear from them.
But, obviously, there was some travel on the part of Mr. Cohen that we're interested in learning more about. And, of course, you know, he was part of that original formation of the campaign and was in and around the campaign from the very beginning.
So we are going to be very interested in asking him questions about what the nature of any contact was with any Russians along the way. This gets to the question -- and this is really essential -- for us understanding whether there were any links there. So, I think he is going to be a helpful witness in that regard.
BLITZER: Who else do you hope to hear from?
HIMES: Well, we have got a fairly lengthy list of witnesses that we're looking to line up.
And this is a -- you know, it's a lengthy process. I hear from my constituents and from others that this should move along more rapidly. The reality is that you have got a lot of work to do in an investigation like this because you have got to look at a lot of documents. You want to order your witnesses correctly. In other words, what you
might learn from witness one could be critical to interviewing witness three. And if you do it in the reverse order, you may never learn some things you want to know. So, this is going to be a methodical process that takes some time. But that the way we're going to get to the truth here.
BLITZER: We also learned today that the former FBI Director James Comey's friend from Columbia University Law School said he is turning over what he described as relevant documents, including that memo of the Comey conversation with the president, turning them over to the FBI.
Here's the question. Do you expect that your committee will now get access to that memo?
HIMES: I would certainly think so.
Again, an awful lot was made of Jim Comey writing these memos and then providing them to this individual at Columbia and then asking them to provide it to the journalists.
This is not a leak. This was information that Jim Comey created. It was not classified. And so it is out there. So, it's not protected by anything. And I do anticipate that, because of that, we will get a look at those memos.
BLITZER: In the House Appropriations Committee hearing today, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, was asked if anyone asked him to that write that memo recommending the firing of James Comey.
He said he wasn't able to talk about that because he couldn't speak about what he described as open investigations. Does that satisfy you?
HIMES: Well, I mean, that's an echo of what we heard from him time and time again about three weeks ago when we had the declassified briefing that he attended, that he led, I think it was three or four weeks ago here in Congress.
And he asserted that time and time again. Now, what that subjects to me -- and I use the word suggest advisedly -- I suggest -- that suggests to me that this is interest to the special counsel, to Bob Mueller, that Bob Mueller has taken an interest in the question of the circumstances around that firing.
We had a long conversation, of course, after Jim Comey's testimony about whether there's a case to be made that the president obstructed justice. If the firing were part of that, you would have the kind of answer that the deputy attorney general gave today and three or four weeks ago to the Congress, which is, I'm not talking about that because it is part of the investigation.
BLITZER: So you think there was obstruction? HIMES: Well, again, I'm on the investigative committee, so I don't
want to jump to conclusions before the facts are out.
Anybody who listened to Jim Comey's testimony, who listened to the deputy attorney say I'm not going to answer the questions of the circumstances of the firing of Jim Comey knows that there is a case to be made. That does not mean that the case is fully made, but that there is strong evidence pointing to the notion that the president sought to influence the investigation into his campaign.
BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes of the Intelligence Committee, thanks for joining us.
HIMES: Thanks a lot, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, just ahead, much more on Jeff Sessions' testimony today, some of the most heated moments and whether he did himself any favors by repeatedly saying -- quote -- "I don't recall."
Our specialists, they are standing by. We will be back in a moment.
BLITZER: Our breaking news, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has strongly refuted suggestions that he aided or knew of any collusions with the Russians during the president campaign, calling that a detestable lie.
[18:32:08] Sessions confirmed that he left then-FBI Director James Comey alone with President Trump, but he refused to discuss his own conversations with the president about Comey.
Let's bring in our experts to discuss. And Gloria, on several occasions he said he couldn't recall certain events, specifics surrounding maybe a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. He was very careful on all those issues. But some are raising questions. Did he have to be that careful?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think he's an attorney, and you always have to talk about "to the best of my recollection." If, in fact, some meeting that he did not recall is eventually discovered. I think he very much tried to close the door on that today.
His opening statement was unequivocal. He said, "I did not have any private meetings; nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel." As the hearing progressed, and members of Congress asked him more about these meetings, he kept leaning on the "recollection" word.
But I do think he was emphatic here about trying to clear his name and clear up the notion that, in fact, he could have perjured himself in any way, shape or form before Congress. And also on his -- on his security clearance forms.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, what did you think of his inability to recall certain specifics?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, I'm scoring this boxing match live today, Wolf. And Attorney General Sessions wins that round. I think the Senate did not win.
Clear reasons why: we discussed strategy last night, and Gloria just touched on it. His strategy is go dumb early. I'm not suggesting he was lying. All I'm saying is, if further facts come out down the road -- because this is going to run out through 2017 and, I believe, into 2018 -- if further facts about meetings come out, he's going to say the same thing. He didn't lay facts on the ground today that could be disputed.
There's a second piece of this, Wolf. The most significant investigation is not in the Senate. It's Robert Mueller's investigation, because that could lead to prosecutions. I didn't see anything today that suggested to me that Attorney General Sessions did things that were illegal. I question some of the judgments, but nothing illegal. I think he wines this round.
BLITZER: You know, there were some pretty extreme -- extremely tense moments, David Chalian, during the course of this hearing. I want to play one exchange. This is Senator -- Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Session. They were talking about the exact reason why Sessions had decided to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: General Sessions, respectfully, you're not answering the question...
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, what is the question?
WYDEN: The question is, Mr. Comey said that there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic, and he couldn't talk about them. What are they?
[18:35:03] SESSION: That -- why don't you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty.
This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don't appreciate it. And I tried to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I've appeared before. And it's really a -- people are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters, and I've tried to be honest.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He was clearly offended by that line of questioning.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: He was indeed. I think there were three big areas to question him going into this hearing today. One was on the Kislyak meeting. And as you discussed with Gloria, I think that he was quite adamant in his description of that, that there was no private meeting, and he can't recall any conversations. So I think he pretty much dispatched with that whole Mayflower
The second was this issue of recusal. And -- and if, indeed, he recused himself, how could he be involved with the firing of Comey? I mean, he made it clear that he believes that he didn't recuse himself from running the Department of Justice and underneath that, the $8 billion FBI operation. He believes he still very much was in charge of that and had the full right to do what he was doing, especially because of Rosenstein's justification was not related to the Russia investigation.
It's the third area of question, Wolf, which is what were you thinking in that Oval Office meeting on February 14 when the president wanted to clear the room and Comey was left behind one on one, what were you thinking? Now he said, "I didn't think that was a major problem. I thought Comey could totally handle himself with the president." I was surprised that the Democrats did not pull more thread there to get at Sessions' concern or lack thereof. Because Comey clearly believed he was lingering and showing some concern.
BLITZER: Laura, he was also pressed on the exact timing of his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Why is that significant?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And he said for the first time I think today, "I recused in my own mind before I actually recused. I recused on day one."
And I think senators have been interested in this because the idea is, if Russia as on the president's mind when he fired James Comey, then why does Sessions have anything to do with it, if that encompasses the recusal?
But it's interesting to think about the fact that we are only having this discussion, in a certain respect, because of what the president said to Lester Holt. If the president hadn't tied these things too together, I think it would have been more plausible, at least on paper, for them to say James Comey flouted DOJ regulations. But the president tied those two things. And so it left, I think, DOJ in sort of a bind.
BLITZER: He didn't only tell it to Lester Holt; he told it to the Russians, to the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov, when he was here, and he told it to the Russian ambassador to the United States, who was in that Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister. He said basically the same thing. He said the pressure is off now.
JARRETT: Yes. That's exactly right, except the whole nation didn't watch that encounter.
BLITZER: The whole nation learned about that very quickly.
Everybody stick around. There's a lot more we have to assess right after this.
[18:42:56] BLITZER: We're back with our analysts and our specialists.
And Phil Mudd, I think it's intriguing. Our Dan Merrick (ph) now confirming that before Mueller was named special counsel, he actually had an interview with the president of the United States to maybe become the next FBI director, even though he had earlier served for 12 years as the FBI director. You used to work at the FBI. What does that -- what does that say to you?
MUDD: And I know him well. I would be careful reading that story. That word "interview" is loaded. Director Mueller has defined -- I heard him talk to employees all the time, college students. He always talked about his experience as a U.S. Marine. Great deal of pride. Great deal of respect for the United States and the office of the president. He served 12 years as the FBI director.
I suspect this was not an interview. I expect, as a courtesy, when he got a call from the White House, he said, "I can't tell them no over the phone." I don't know this for a fact, Wolf. But I suspect this is what happened. He's got to say, "I'm going to go into the White House, have a conversation with them and say, 'Thanks for the honor; 12 years is enough'."
BLITZER: Twelve years. Supposed to serve ten, but he got an extension of two years...
MUDD: He got an extension.
BLITZER: ... during that -- during the Obama administration. President Obama wanted him to stay an extra two years.
Laura, there was also an intriguing little element today, and during the testimony, 2 1/2 hours of Q&A with the attorney general, I think it was Senator Warner, the vice chairman of the committee, all of a sudden raised the issue of pardons. Would the president go ahead and pardon certain individuals, some of his associates? You heard that, but what was your reaction?
JARRETT: Yes. It sort of came out of nowhere. But you got the sense that Warner was sort of hinting and signaling to everybody, look, down the line we don't know where this Russia investigation is going to go, but if it does implicate any Trump campaign associate, will the president pardon it? And I think that's what he is trying to tease out from the attorney general there.
But what you heard the attorney general do repeatedly is sort of get the benefit of the executive privilege without actually invoking it. So he was able to toe this line, which many folks in the Obama administration did repeatedly, but say, "Look, I'm invoking a longstanding Department of Justice policy not to talk about communications with the White House. Because we have to be able to have full and frank conversations," and everybody sort of understands that.
BLITZER: Because the president certainly has the power to pardon anyone he wants. If he wants to pardon Michael Flynn or anybody like that, he certainly can. That is the presidential right.
You know, Gloria, seems to me that from the White House's political perspective, they got pretty much what they wanted without having to exert executive privilege.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: They did. I mean, they had a lot of angry Democrats on their hands. But so what else is new about that? And it seems that you had the attorney general out there saying I'm not going to characterize these conversations. It was clear to me that chairman of the committee, Senator Burr, was a little put off by this when at the end of the session he reminded him, well, we had Admiral Rogers in here for two hours of closed door testimony yesterday because Sessions wouldn't even commit to doing it in a -- to speaking with them in a closed-door session.
And if I'm sitting at the White House, I now have had four people testify before Congress, none of whom had characterize in any definitive way any kind of conversation with the president that could look, at the very least, inappropriate. So, I'm thinking things went pretty well.
BLITZER: You know, and, David, in another interesting element, there seem to be a clear discrepancy because Sessions, he -- like Rosenstein, basically said the reason they recommended Comey be fired is because of the way he handled the Hillary Clinton investigation. They thought it was inappropriate for him to speak out and say no prosecution. That's the role for the attorney general, or the deputy attorney general.
But the president has made it clear it was going to fire Comey, forget about what the Hillary Clinton e-mail server investigation. He was going to fire Comey because of the Russia investigation.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. He has -- the president said, irrespective of Rod Rosenstein's memo, which detailed all of the things they found faulty in the way Comey handled Clinton email, he was going to fire him anyway and he knew that in advance of getting that memo.
As you noted, he also said it was a pressure relief if you will to the Russians. And he told Lester Holt that he had Russia on his mind when he was firing him. All of that the president said. But you are right to point out this discrepancy, because Sessions today leaned heavily on the Rod Rosenstein memo about the Clinton investigation. He didn't say it was the total reason, but he said it was such a great part of the reason that he wanted to endorse that memo and pass it along with his recommendation to get rid of the FBI director.
BLITZER: You know, Phil, I thought Sessions made a strong case why he should recuse himself. He was involved in the campaign. This was an investigation looking into the campaign. But you remember, and you know this, the president, he was very upset. I think he is probably still upset he recused himself or Sessions recused himself because that set the stage for special counsel, Robert Mueller. And this investigation will go on for a long time, the president doesn't like that. PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM: He doesn't like it, but, look, I
don't see what option the attorney general had. If you participate in the campaign, you had conversations with the Russian ambassador, what are you supposed to say?
I think the most curious thing about today which senators missed and Gloria was talking about it a moment ago is, here's the question. If Comey has talked about this, that is the firing of Jim Comey and the meetings in the White House, if the president talked about this, every single person, not only Department of Justice, but across the United States of America knows one question is, what happened in those White House meetings?
MUDD: Did anybody at the Department of Justice call the White House and say, is it OK if we talk about this? I find it curious that nobody asked the question, did you get approval to talk about something the president is already talking about public. If the answer to that is Sessions never wanted to talk about in the first place, so he's going to say, sorry, can't discuss, White House privilege.
BLITZER: Yes. And I've never heard a witness say -- Gloria, I don't know if you have -- you know what he might, the president might exert executive privilege down the road. Hasn't done it yet.
BLITZER: I can't say anything because he might do it down the road.
BORGER: Right. No, you know, I haven't heard that. It may well have been said before. But I think that they feel that it was a strategy that worked because they got the benefits of executive privilege without having to exert it.
And if I could say one more thing on Jeff Sessions, Senator Reed at the end of the hearing made an interesting point, which was that all of these complaints about James Comey somehow did not come out of the attorney general's mouth during the campaign when Comey was on the hot seat for his behavior, particularly in October. In fact, that Sessions actually praised Comey's professionalism.
And so, suddenly now, he is referring to a Rosenstein memo which did just the opposite. And I think one of the reasons is that has to be his reason for firing Comey because it can't have anything to do with Russia because, of course, he's recused himself on Russia.
BLITZER: Very quickly, David.
[18:50:00] The whole discussion we've heard over the past 24 hours, some of the president's friends and supporters raising the possibility that Mueller must go, he's no good. Why are we having that discussion now?
CHALIAN: We're having that discussion because the president's friend said he's actually considering it. It's completely nuts to think that that is actually in the ether of the conversation in the West Wing. The White House has not even completely shut it down yet. But every other Republican in Washington tried very hard to do so today, including Lindsey Graham, Rod Rosenstein, Paul Ryan, all try to get that back in the box, because they all know that that is a total disaster.
All right, guys. Stand by. There's much more.
Coming up, we get more reaction to the attorney general's testimony today, what it means for this entire Russia investigation. We're also going to tell you what we're learning right now about the disturbing condition of an American after his surprise release from a North Korean prison.
[18:55:17] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' dramatic testimony today. Much more on that coming up.
But right now, we're also getting some new information about the American college student just released from a North Korean prison. His parents say the student is in a coma.
Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd.
What more, Brian, are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, CNN just learned that Otto Frederick Warmbier is expected to arrive at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center later this evening. He's been medevaced from North Korea after a flurry of diplomatic activity.
We're told he's in bad shape, having been in a coma for more than a year. Tonight, there are serious questions unanswered about how he got into that state while in North Korean custody.
TODD (voice-over): The last time Otto Warmbier's family saw him more than a year he was healthy but distraught, pleading for leniency in a North Korean court.
OTTO WARMBIER, AMERICAN DETAINED IN NORTH KOREA: I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPR Korea, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life.
TODD: It fell on deaf ears. Kim Jong-un's regime sentenced Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly taking down a propaganda banner in Pyongyang. That was in March of last year. Tonight, the 22-year-old's parents say he is in a coma and has been since shortly after that court hearing. Tonight, he is on his way back to the United States, after being medically evacuated from Pyongyang. A source close to the family says Warmbier is in bad shape.
North Korea told the U.S. that a year ago while in North Korean custody, Warmbier contracted botulism, a potentially deadly disease and went into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.
(on camera): But they have given them any kind of treatment that would have resembled anything in the West.
BALBINA HWANG, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: No, they would not have been able to do that. They would not even have known that it was botulism.
TODD: A senior State Department official says the U.S. doesn't yet accept the North Korean's version of events. And Warmbier's parents say North Korean doctors gave him the sleeping pill.
Third party diplomats were not able to see Warmbier in custody until last month. Then, they reported it to U.S. officials who flew to Pyongyang on Monday and demanded Warmbier's release.
GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN": The Kim regime has no compunctions about killing North Koreans. They do that all the time. But they don't want an American to die in detention. We saw this not only with Otto Warmbier but also with Kenneth Bae who was in poor, medical condition.
TODD: Warmbier's release comes at a peculiar moment, just as former NBA star Dennis Rodman was spotted by CNN arriving in North Korea. U.S. officials tell CNN there's no connection between Warmbier's release and the visit by Rodman, and they say Rodman was not sent by President Trump.
Rodman says he's not there to help any of the Americans currently being detained by Kim Jong-un's regime.
DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER NBA STAR: That's not my purpose right now.
REPORTER: That's not your purpose?
RODMAN: My purpose is to actually to see if I can keep bringing sports to North Korea, so that's the main thing. So, I hope (INAUDIBLE) TODD: Still, Rodman does have the distinction of being among a handful of Americans to have ever met Kim Jong un. His last trip there in 2014 to stage a basketball exhibition for Kim's birthday.
RODMAN (singing): Happy birthday to you --
TODD: At the same time, the flamboyant former basketball player and reality star also knows President Trump, having appeared on NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice."
DONALD TRUMP, CELEBRITY APPRENTICE: Dennis, you're fired.
TODD: One analyst is skeptical of everything Rodman is being told and shown by his so-called friend for life, Kim Jong-un. JAMES PERSON, THE WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Rodman is -- he doesn't have a background to more accurately interpret what he's seeing. He's being shown these brand-new high rise buildings in Pyongyang. He's not being taken out to the countryside to see these dilapidated apartment buildings. He's drinking the Kool-Aid basically.
TODD: Now, as for Otto Warmbier, sources tell CNN neither Warmbier's parents nor the State Department learned of his condition until about a week ago. No outside diplomats were allowed to see him for 14 months. Swedish diplomats saw him in custody just last month and urgently requested a meeting with U.S. officials.
Last week, U.S. officials met with North Korean officials in New York and were finally told what a horrendous situation this was. U.S. diplomats were mobilized. They got to Pyongyang yesterday and demanded that the North Koreans release him.
Wolf, you can only imagine the reaction from U.S. officials when the North Koreans finally just last week told them about the condition of this young man.
BLITZER: Let's hope he's going to be OK.
Brian, thanks very much.
That's it for me. Thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.