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"The Washington Post": Sessions Discussed Trump Campaign with Russian Ambassador; Sean Spicer Steps Down as White House Press Secretary; Protests in Poland; Middle East Violence; The Counting of the Royal Swans. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired July 22, 2017 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A new "Washington Post" report contradicts the U.S. attorney general's previous assurances that he did not discuss the U.S. presidential campaign with Russia's ambassador.


VANIER (voice-over): Pro-democracy rallies in Poland as a new bill threatens the independence of the country's supreme court.

And also new violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, at least six people have been killed.

Hi, everybody, thank you for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier, live from the CNN NEWSROOM in Atlanta.


VANIER: So we're following several stories out of Washington this hour.

First, potentially damaging information about U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions is surfacing. "The Washington Post" is reporting that Russia's ambassador to the U.S. told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters with Sessions during the 2016 presidential race. That information comes from U.S. intercepts and, if true, it directly contradicts what Sessions had said about his meetings with ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Also there's been an unexpected turn of events in a Senate committee's Russian probe of Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort. The committee cut a deal with them on Friday to avoid a high-profile public hearing next week.

In exchange, Trump Jr. and Mr. Manafort have agreed to provide records to the panel and to be privately interviewed ahead of any public session.

And also this, after six months of jousting with the media and defending the president, sometimes awkwardly, White House press secretary Sean Spicer has resigned. He called it quits on Friday after President Trump hired New York financier and staunch supporter Anthony Scaramucci as communications director.

So let's begin with U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions, again under fire for his contacts with Russian officials. "The Washington Post" reporter Adam Entous spoke with CNN's Anderson Cooper earlier about this latest report that threatens to further undermine Sessions' credibility.


ADAM ENTOUS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": There is a VIP reception before Trump gives his first foreign policy speech in April.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Right. That was at the Mayflower Hotel.

ENTOUS: At the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

And so, there's an encounter there that Kislyak reports on in which they discussed campaign matters.

There's a second encounter in July. This is on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention. It's in a hotel outside the convention area. And, again, Sessions gives a speech and at the end, Kislyak has a pull-aside, if you will.

We're not sure how long it lasts, but it was described by intelligence officials who have seen the reporting as a substantive conversation. It wasn't, at least in Kislyak's view, something superficial or cursory.

And then there was a meeting, a third meeting, which took place in Sessions' Senate office, which occurred in September.

COOPER: Which Sessions has said in the past that that was in his capacity as a senator, he held that meeting. But you don't have information about what Kislyak said about that meeting.

ENTOUS: Well, Sessions did provide a little bit of a readout of that meeting in which Ukraine was discussed. Just to be -- just to clarify, Sessions initially said -- and as far as I know still argues -- that all of these meetings were about his role on the Senate Armed Services Committee, not because of his advisory role that he was playing on the Trump campaign.

COOPER: Right. And clearly what Kislyak is saying is that they discussed the goings-on in the Trump campaign and future Trump policies.

ENTOUS: Right. It's unclear what exactly Kislyak would be interested in talking about when it comes to Senate Armed Services Committee business.

Why would Kislyak go out of his way, one of the few ambassadors actually that turned up at that April event -- (CROSSTALK)

COOPER: And at the Republican convention, it seems odd to not be discussing Donald Trump as a candidate and what he would mean.

ENTOUS: Correct. I think it's important for people to keep in mind: this, again, is Kislyak's version of events.

Sessions, as you just showed very clearly, has sort of changed his accounts as we've gone through the months from basically saying there were no meetings initially to the meetings weren't about the campaign, to the meetings were not about collusion or coordination.

So, you know, again, either he doesn't recall clearly what they are and maybe shouldn't have said what he said initially or he is not telling us the full account.


VANIER: While it's possible Kislyak was boasting or misrepresenting Sessions' statements to impress the Kremlin, U.S. officials familiar with Kislyak say that would be out of character for the long-time ambassador to give Moscow a misleading report.

In the wake of "The Post's" reporting, the U.S. Justice Department has said this, "The attorney general stands by his testimony from just last month before the Senate Intelligence Committee, when he specifically addressed this --


VANIER: "-- and said that he never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election."

So earlier I spoke with Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics to get his reaction to "The Washington Post" article.


LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: It's extraordinary reporting and it's deeply disturbing. This is a pattern now with attorney general Sessions.

At first, of course, he didn't remember meeting at all with the Russian ambassador. And then he remembered some meetings when he was presented with evidence and not others.

Now there's pretty clear evidence that there were three meetings and, while he denied that he had discussed anything about Trump or the campaign, our own intelligence services, having picked up conversations that the ambassador from Russia had with his superiors in the Kremlin, it's pretty clear that he did discuss Trump and U.S.- Russia relations.


So just to be clear, does that defense still hold?

Because you summed it up. First he said he didn't have meetings, then he said the meetings weren't about the campaign or Mr. Trump's policies on Russia.

Now if that reporting is correct, that's just not true?

SABATO: That's exactly the way I interpret it. I've always remembered something that was caught on the White House tapes under Richard Nixon.

At one point, President Nixon, advising his aides as to what to say when they were questioned by the authorities, he suggested that they say, "I can't recall."

And then he added, "You can't recall what you can't recall."

VANIER: So, look, is this normal, that they would discuss Mr. Trump's policy?

He was a candidate for the presidential election at the time, of course, that they would discuss Mr. Trump's policy positions on Russia and what a U.S.-Russia relation might look like under a Trump presidency?

Is that normal or not?

SABATO: It's really not normal, according to the people who have run presidential campaigns for both parties. They've all commented on this. It's a very rare situation.

Theoretically, there's nothing wrong with that kind of discussion between a U.S. senator and the ambassador from Russia. What's unusual here and raises a lot of questions is the fact that Senator Sessions cannot remember any of this until he's prodded and then he has to be prodded again and again to remember more details.

VANIER: By the way, this comes just days after the president criticized Mr. Sessions.

What do you make of the timing?

SABATO: Well, this is not good news for attorney general Sessions. He's being criticized by his boss. In fact, his boss said that, if he had it to do over again, he wouldn't appoint him at all. That's not a good sign.

And then this comes out, which complicates the White House's position on the whole Russia investigation.

So who knows how long the attorney general will last?


VANIER: Yes, that was going to be my question, can he stay on as attorney general with this?

SABATO: Well, he could. Maybe he would want to wait until the end of the investigation. But it's clear at this point that there's serious problems in the relationship between Senator Sessions or, rather, the attorney general now, and the President of the United States. And that is untenable over the long run.


VANIER: That was Larry Sabato speaking to me earlier, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Now Russia's foreign minister is taking a sarcastic view of the controversy surrounding President Trump's encounters with President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit earlier this month. We learned just this week that a previously undisclosed encounter took place between the leaders.

Critics say the White House's delay disclosing that meeting is cause for concern. But Sergey Lavrov, for his part, is making light of it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know about President Putin and President Trump meeting three times at the G20. They met obviously for the bilateral; they met at a dinner and they met --

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Maybe they went to the toilet together. That was fourth time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They met also and they were photographed shaking hands. That's my question

Did they meet other times, in the hallways?

Were there other occasions when they met?

LAVROV: When you're brought by your parents to kindergarten, do you mix with the people who are waiting in the same room to start going to a classroom?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the G20 summit, not a kindergarten.

LAVROV: But the results of a room where they get together before an event starts, they cannot arrive all at the same time on a bus.


VANIER: Sean Spicer said President Trump did not want him to leave his job as White House press secretary. But after just six months Spicer resigned on Friday when Mr. Trump hired Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director. Our Sara Murray has more on the latest White House shake-up.


SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump's high- profile press secretary Sean Spicer resigning in protest today, objecting to the president's decision --


MURRAY (voice-over): -- to hire New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director.

Today Sarah Huckabee Sanders relayed a statement from the president, predicting his former staffer has a bright future ahead.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: "I wish him continued success as he moves on to pursue new opportunities. Just look at his great television ratings."

MURRAY (voice-over): The new communications director worked closely with Trump on his transition. He's seen as a strong television personality and a fierce defender of Trump at a time when his presidency is under siege.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I was in the Oval Office with him earlier today. And we were talking about letting him be himself, letting him express his full identity. I think he's got some of the best political instincts in the world and perhaps in history.

MURRAY (voice-over): And he'll report directly to the president.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He did a good job. He's a terrific guy.

MURRAY (voice-over): In his debut at the podium today, Scaramucci defended the president's baseless claim that 3 million votes were cast illegally for Hillary Clinton.

SCARAMUCCI: If the president says it, OK, let me do more research. I don't know. My guess is that there's probably some level of truth to that.

MURRAY (voice-over): Scaramucci's hire is welcomed by Trump's son-in- law, Jared Kushner, and daughter, Ivanka Trump. But other top officials, including key strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff, Reince Priebus, objected to the move.

Scaramucci downplayed his differences with Priebus...

SCARAMUCCI: We're a little bit like brothers, where we rough each other up once in a while.

MURRAY (voice-over): -- and insisted a little friction was no problem.

SCARAMUCCI: We serve his interests. And so if we have a little bit of friction inside the White House as a result of that, it's OK. MURRAY (voice-over): Spicer was so firmly opposed to the move that he tendered his resignation. He told CNN today, "I wanted to give the president and the new team a clean slate," and tweeted that he will stay a the White House through August.

Today Scaramucci had only warm words for his predecessor.

SCARAMUCCI: And I love the guy and I wish him well and I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money.

MURRAY (voice-over): From Spicer's first briefing at the White House podium, he adopted a combative tone and played it fast and loose with the facts. He turned to faulty statistics to defend the president's inauguration crowd size...

SPICER: This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.

MURRAY (voice-over): -- struggled to defend the president's Twitter- happy habit...

SPICER: I'm going to let the tweet speak for itself.

MURRAY (voice-over): -- downplayed an ongoing investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia...

SPICER: If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that's a Russian connection.

MURRAY (voice-over): -- and sparred with the press.

SPICER: Please stop shaking your head again.

MURRAY (voice-over): As Spicer prepares to depart after just six months on the job, Sarah Huckabee Sanders stepping up to the Briefing Room podium, leading the first on-camera briefing in nearly a month, as she accepts her new title as White House press secretary.


MURRAY: Now under Sean Spicer's leadership, this Briefing Room became a pretty combative place. But on Friday, Anthony Scaramucci arrived with his New York swagger and a gentler tone for the press.

Will that hold?

Could there be friendlier relations ahead?

Stay tuned. We'll see -- Sara Murray, CNN, the White House.


VANIER: And Sean Spicer has addressed his decision to leave just a short while ago. Here is what he said to FOX News.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESPERSON: He's been very gracious throughout this process. He wanted to bring some new folks in to help rev up the communications operation.

And after reflection, my decision was to recommendation to the president that I give Anthony and Sarah a clean slate to start from so that they can talk about the president's agenda and help move it forward.

He, after some back and forth, understood that the offer that I was making was something that was in the best interest of this administration. I thanked him for the opportunity and I'm looking forward to watching Anthony and Sarah do a tremendous job.


VANIER: And Mr. Trump tweeted Friday night, saying, "Sean Spicer is a wonderful person who took tremendous abuse from the Fake News Media -- but his future is bright!"

The Minneapolis chief of police has stepped down over the recent death of an Australian woman. Janee Harteau says that after some deep reflection, she is now ready for new leadership to take over.

The victim, Justine Ruszczyk, had called police last weekend to report a possible sexual assault near her home. Instead of that, Ruszczyk herself was shot by one of the responding police officers. Her death naturally has sparked outrage; some activists shouted down the city's mayor Friday night, demanding that she also resign.

Coming up after the break, they're calling it a power grab meaning the end of democracy in Poland. We'll tell you about the controversial new bill sparking the outrage.

Plus, more violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. What Israel says inspired a deadly stabbing attack.





VANIER: Poland's upper house of parliament has passed a controversial new bill and it has sparked outrage across the country. This was the protest outside parliament as government officials worked on approving the bill early Saturday.

It gives parliament the power to independently remove and appoint supreme court justices. Critics are calling this a power grab. Our Atika Shubert has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dubbed the Candlelight Revolution on social media, tens of thousands of Poles pour onto the streets in recent days to protest for what many are calling the death of democracy in that country.

A huge crowd gathered outside the presidential palace in Warsaw, demanding the president veto a controversial bill that would overhaul the country's judiciary.

Parliament has already passed the measure. That would force the removal of Supreme Court judges and give lawmakers control over choosing replacements.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Something unusual in democratic countries that through one deal all judges comprising of supreme court are dismissed.

SHUBERT (voice-over): Supporters say the changes are needed to make the courts more accountable. But critics call it a move towards authoritarian rule and a power grab by the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Since coming to power in 2015, the staunchly conservative Law and Justice Party has tightened government control over the courts, prosecutors and state media and introduced restrictions on public gatherings.

This latest bill has triggered warnings from the European Union, threatening the possibility of sanctions and suspension of voting rights, something never used before against an E.U. member.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These measures taken by the Polish authorities in relation to the judicial system and the judges greatly amplify the threat to the rule of law.

SHUBERT (voice-over): Recent protests have gone largely unnoticed internationally, amid high-profile visits from British royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and from U.S. president Donald Trump, who praised Poland's government during his trip.

TRUMP: A Poland that is safe, strong and free.

SHUBERT (voice-over): Many observers believe, in Poland, one of the first Communist nations to join the E.U., Western democracy now hangs in the balance -- Atika Shubert, CNN.


VANIER: And in the Middle East now, the latest wave of violence keeps escalating. Israel says three of its citizens were killed Friday in a brutal stabbing attack in the West Bank.

Officials say the assailant was a Palestinian, who climbed a fence of an Israeli settlement. They say he then entered one of the houses and that's when he carried out the attack. A fourth Israeli was also wounded. The suspect, for his part, was shot and hospitalized.

Hamas appeared to praise the attacker on Twitter, saying it was due in part to crimes against its people in Jerusalem --


VANIER: -- and at the al-Aqsa mosque. Israel says the attacker posted on Facebook that he was motivated by recent restrictions at the mosque, which is, of course, a key Islamic holy site.

So let's tell you more about that. The al-Aqsa restrictions have also led to clashes in Jerusalem itself. Palestinian officials say three Palestinians were killed in the violence on Friday; more than 100 were wounded. Tensions boiled over after the killing of two Israeli police officers in the area last week.

Ian Lee has more now from Jerusalem.


IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tensions turned prayer into protest. Both sides anticipated the violence this Friday, pitting Israeli police against Palestinians. Projectiles filled the air. Israeli police used stun grenades, tear gas and water cannons.

Palestinians throw rocks and fireworks, turning quiet Jerusalem streets into battle zones.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just want us to leave the country and we're not leaving. We're going to stay here. They don't know this. There's no way for us to leave. Even if they came out of Jerusalem, there's no meaning for my life after that because everything that belongs to me is here.

LEE (voice-over): The day's violence, paid in blood. Here, the body of a dead Palestinian, leaving the hospital. One of several Palestinians killed in the volley. Hundreds more injured in Jerusalem and the West Bank, according to the Palestinian ministry of health.

Several security officers, too, sustained injuries, according to police.

MICKY ROSENFELD(?), ISRAELI POLICE: All the police units and the Israeli national police units responded to disturbances in Ras el- Amoud, Wadi Joz, Issawiya, where our police units are located, and are responding, using non-lethal weapons after both stones and fireworks have been fired directly at our police officers.

LEE (voice-over): This cycle of violence began over a week ago, with the killing of two Israeli policemen. New security measures around the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, infuriated Palestinians, who accuse Israel of trying to expand their control and limit access to al-Aqsa mosque.

"We all know al-Aqsa is for Muslims," Ali tells me. "The occupation crossed all the red lines. Those metal detectors prevent us from our right to pray freely."

Israel's prime minister insists he has no plans to change the rules governing the holy complex. Netanyahu says he'll stick to the status quo.

Meanwhile, authorities have deployed thousands of extra security personnel in and around Jerusalem. The violence seen here also playing out across the West Bank.

LEE: The police are pushing the protesters away from the Old City. You can see, here on the ground, pieces of concrete and rocks that they're throwing at the police.

The police are using stun grenades and rubber bullets to push them back but it's really been this game of cat-and-mouse.

LEE (voice-over): Police captured a number of protesters, more than 2 dozen arrested in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Police say the day's actions were designed to keep the peace.

But in a land where violence begets violence, clashes won't likely end the current turmoil. It's more likely to take a political solution -- Ian Lee, CNN, Jerusalem.




VANIER: And now let's take you to Britain and, since it's July, to the annual counting of the queen's swans, which has just come to an end. It's called swan upping, a tradition dating back centuries and it involves counting and weighing Her Majesty's swans and checking them for injuries.

David Barber is a swan marker on the queen's crew. He explains what it's all about.


DAVID BARBER, SWAN MARKER: It's called swan upping and it dates right back to the 12th century, when, of course, swans then were a very, very important food.

Of course, today, swans are no longer eaten and the journey of swan upping now is a five-day journey. We travel in six traditional rowing skiffs. Each family of swans we come across, we will take them out of the water, put baskets around them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's gather them up --



BARBER: We weigh them, we measure them and we check them for any injuries. Quite a common injury would be fishing tackle. And we detackle quite a lot of young cygnets.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right where you are.


BARBER: It's a tradition. It's a part of British history. We work for Her Majesty the Queen. And people have uniforms. So we're in uniforms, in the queen's uniform.

That's what it is. Yes, I've been doing it for 24 years. I thoroughly enjoy it. It's absolutely a marvelous week. But what I really like, swan upping is all about conservation and education.

And education is very, very important to us because we have many schools come along during the week. They're usually primary age group. And we teach them a little bit about swans, the boats we use, how we deal with the river, the ecological side of the swans. Wonderful. And they love it.


VANIER: And I'll have you know that the swan population had been dropping in recent years but Barber says that the number of swans has almost doubled from last year. So good news there.

And another piece of good news: it's a big day for Prince George. The future monarch turns 4 on Saturday. He had an official portrait released ahead of his birthday.

There you go. He looks happy. The young prince just wrapped up a tour of Germany and Poland. He accompanied his parents, the Duke and Duke of Cambridge, and his sister, Princess Charlotte. So he's getting used to his future royal diplomatic duties.

The trip was seen by many as an effort at soft power diplomacy amid ongoing Brexit talks.

And that does it from us. Thank you very much for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. "CNN TALK" is next.