Return to Transcripts main page


Key Witness in Russia Probe: Russia Wants Me Dead; Trump Threatens to Veto a Veto-Proof Russia Sanctions Bill; Speaker Ryan's Weekly Press Briefing; Lindsey Graham Warns Trump Against Firing Sessions; Joint Chief Surprised by Trump's Transgender Ban in All Military. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired July 27, 2017 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI, FORMER GEORGIA PRESIDENT: So I wouldn't be surprised if he signs the bill. I think he would sign that.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: You say on fundamental issues that Donald Trump makes Russia nervous. You, of course, were an enemy of Putin's. There's no question about that. You're also very friendly with President Trump. It strikes me and a lot of people that President Trump has no problem criticizing folks he thinks are out of step, disagreeing with him, even folks in his own cabinet. Where he stands with Jeff Sessions right now is in stark contrast. He doesn't criticize Vladimir Putin. Why is that?

SAAKASHVILI: One thing I can tell you for sure, right now, in Russia, President Trump is not liked much. Russians are against him. Russia's propaganda is making a big campaign against President Trump. This is not the Trump they hoped they would get in the White House. I would say from the outset that is the case. I think there is any U.S. president that would have his independence strong, independent minded. Overall, President Trump has, yes, for instance, he said something about Ukraine. In Ukraine, we appreciate the support the U.S. gives Ukraine people. We are fighting with the Russians. Ukrainian people deserve all the credit of -- from the world for this. On the other hand, President Trump has a point. There are games done by Ukrainian oligarchic circles.

BOLDUAN: Let me ask you about Ukraine. That's important. It is the issue for you right now. You have been stripped of your Ukrainian citizenship.


BOLDUAN: Are you a man without a country right now, Mr. President? Are you looking for --


SAAKASHVILI: Look, the whole act was absolutely legal. I'm not looking for help from anybody at all. I happen to be with my family in the U.S. that are U.S. citizens. They have been living here 40 years. So, I was stripped because -- for the same problems, for the same reasons I ran into problems with Putin that I stood up to these oligarchic, corrupt regimes. Ukraine is a unique situation. Where I live is part of my life invited me. Then the president gave me citizenship. I took it. I though he would also permit the reforms. The reforms are very important to make Ukraine more resistant to Russian pressure. The problem is that Ukrainian leadership is similar to what exists in their region, oligarchs, corruption. Basically, taking away people's resources, cracking down on democracy. And from that standpoint, of course, I had became one of his main opponents. By stripping me absolutely legally of my nationality, in violation of the international law, he basically trying to get through to one of main operatives. But I'm heartened by huge outcry in Ukraine, but support of other opposition groups. My party, which is growing in Ukraine, is standing very firm. We believe that Ukraine nation will win this war. They will contain Russia. They will take progressive force. They will become stronger allies of the United States. On the other hand, to do that, they need to get rid of some kind of old Soviet-style oligarchs, murky deals, dirty games inside the country and outside the country. That's for sure.

BOLDUAN: We are following or tracking where your citizenship lands very closely.


SAAKASHVILI: It's a unique situation. Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

We need to take you quickly to Capitol Hill. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is holding his weekly news conference. Let's listen in.

REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: More resources to fight the opioid epidemic. More resources to expand charter schools and save the D.C. School Choice Program. We passed our plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, which is a very, very important promise to keep. Our plan to replace Dodd-Frank with relief for small businesses and community banks on Main Street. We passed the biggest expansion of the G.I. Bill in a decade. We're moving time limits for veterans to use their benefits, because in this 21st century, lifelong learning is essential. Reforms to tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, including Kate's Law. Reforms to impose additional penalties on sex traffickers and increased support for victims, because human trafficking in a real problem. Reforms to improve job training and expand career and technical education. Tougher sanctions on hostile regimes. In addition, to all of this, our committees are working on transformational tax reform. The biggest thing we can do for our workers and our economy. I know this is a long list. There's more to this list. If you just go to,, you can cut through the clutter and you can learn more about all of this work that is being done here in the House. These are real wins to solve real problems people care about. Even if this isn't always being reported, even if it's getting lost in the clutter and the distractions, that is what we are doing, one day at a time, one step at a time. As always, we will continue to raise our gaze and keep at it. We were elected to solve peoples' problems. That's what we're going to focus on doing.

Does anyone have questions?


[11:35:25] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Speaking of some of those distractions, the new communications director in the White House, Mr. Scaramucci appeared to take aim at your good friend, Mr. Priebus, the chief of staff, suggesting he might have been behind some of the leaks coming out of the White House. Do you think those were appropriate comments for the new communications director to make?

RYAN: I only heard about this. I'm not sure what their whole inner play is. All I would say is, as you know, Reince is a close friend of mine. Reince is doing a fantastic job at the White House. I believe he has the president's confidence. If those two gentlemen have differences, my advice would be to sit down and solve their differences.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Will he remain as chief of staff?

RYAN: I think Reince is doing a great job as chief of staff.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Senate dramatically scaled back what they are trying to do on health care. Does skinny repeal fulfill the promise you've been making for last seven years?

RYAN: I'm going to reserve judgment until I see what the Senate actually produces. They're about to go into their vote-a-rama, which is all of these amendments. It is anybody's guess what they come out with. We are going to reserve judgment until we see what the Senate produces.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Would repealing the individual mandate without a replacement break --


RYAN: I'm going to reserve judgment until I see what they produce.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: On that note, if the Senate ends up, up in the air, passing something, is there a chance to keep the House in potentially this weekend or --


RYAN: Yes. Extending our session is, obviously, an option we are considering. I think the majority leader will make tentative announcements later on. The question is, what does the Senate do? We don't know what the Senate is going to do. Therefore, we will reserve judgment as to what our response is until we find out what the Senate actually does.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: About the president, last week --


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: -- on the sanctions bill.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: On the sanctions bill --


RYAAN: Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The sanctions bill does a number of things. One of the things it does is severely limit the president's flexibility and authority to waive sanctions and suspend sanctions on Russia. I want you to talk about the thinking of the House if the bill is passed. Passing a bill that does that because it is very unusual for the Congress to limit a president's flexibility.

RYAN: I think what you saw, correct me if I am wrong, but it was 419- 3, I think. You had all but three -- I think the Republicans, all but three voted for tough sanctions on three regimes, North Korea, Iran and Russia. The message coming from Congress, on a bipartisan basis, is these are hostile regimes and sanctions are warranted. Sanctions are called for. We want to make sure they're tough sanctions and durable sanctions. That's why I think -- it took a while to figure it out to it right, come together to get the policy right. There were constitutional issues in the Senate. We got through those. We all agreed these tough, hostile regimes deserve sanctions. This is the bipartisan compromise that produces that. That's why you got the big vote count.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The president to take a tough line --


RYAN: No, I think what we are saying is we need to sanction the regimes because of what they have done, whether it's North Korea, Iran or Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Steve Bannon is looking for 44 percent tax rate for the top bracket. What are your thoughts on that?

RYAN: Last thing I'm going to do is negotiate tax reform in public. You know me all too well. Our tax writers will be the ones writing this bill. We are working to get consensus as a framework so that out tax writers, Ways and Means and Senate Finance, can write this legislation. What we are not interested in doing is negotiating in public what the committees will be doing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Speaker Ryan, do you agree with the president's new policy, banning all transgender individuals from serving in the military?

RYAN: The problem here or the concern here in the House was whether or not the military will be forced to pay for surgical procedures. I share those concerns. The question on the broader issue, that is being reviewed by the DOD and the White House. I look forward to seeing what it is they produce.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Your position on that?

RYAN: The DOD is reviewing this with the White House. I want to see what they produce.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Speaker, Senator Graham said he was looking at legislation that would create roadblocks to firing the special council, a review process. Do you think the House needs to act preemptively to make it harder to --


RYAN: I haven't given thought to that. I think it's in the president's interest he stay where he is and he continue and does his job.

Thank you.

[11:40:11] BOLDUAN: All right. You were listening to House Speaker Paul Ryan making remarks on everything from health care to Jeff Sessions and White House infighting. Of course, the infighting has been making news. It is clear and not surprising, they are close friends from back in Wisconsin. You can guess Paul Ryan is on team Reince Priebus. Saying if the two men have a problem, my advice is they sit down together to work it out. I'm going to speak live with a lawmaker who is defending Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Another topic that Paul Ryan spoke about, defending Jeff Sessions against the president's attacks.

We'll be right back.


BOLDUAN: More on our breaking news. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham telling CNN there will be "holy hell to pay" if President Trump fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Another Republican defending Jeff Sessions is joining me right now, Congressman Dave Brat, from Virginia. He's a member of the House Freedom Caucus.

Congressman, thanks for coming in.

REP. DAVID BRAT, (R), VIRGINIA: Hey, you bet, Kate. Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Do you agree with Lindsey Graham? BRAT: I might not put it as creatively, but, I think we have a man of

the highest ethical standards and professionalism in that slot. He's carrying out the president's agenda, dutifully. I want to see him stay in there. It's tough up in this toxic environment when everyone is hitting you 24/7. But I think the president should keep him on. It would be good for the country in the long run.

BOLDUAN: I read your lengthy statement when you obviously put out a statement supporting Jeff Sessions.

BRAT: Yes.

BOLDUAN: One thing I was not clear on, in your statement, who is at fault for the uncomfortable position Jeff Sessions is in?

BRAT: I tried to spell it out. That's what's hard up here. You put it out, you get two sentences in the newspaper, whatever. It's just the confluence in everything. No one anticipated the 24/7 coverage on the Russia piece. Sessions recused himself there, leaving the president with a deputy who called for a special council kind of hastily. Now the special council has some Democrat attorneys that worked for Clinton, et cetera. It's a just whole conglomeration that's happened since then. You can understand why the president is frustrated with that. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions acted in the highest ethical principles. I don't think it's him.

[11:45:37] BOLDUAN: So, but, is the president at fault for being the one who made the beleaguered Sessions beleaguered?

BRAT: No, no. The mainstream press has been relentless. We see the stats come out this week.


BOLDUAN: Wait, wait, wait.

BRAT: Health care 5 percent coverage.

BOLDUAN: Come on -- Congressman, nothing --


BRAT: Russia gets 9 percent of coverage.

BOLDUAN: There's no way does the media -- as much as I would love more power, there's no way the media is powerful enough to force a president to talk to "The New York Times" and say he regrets putting Jeff Sessions in the post and that Jeff Sessions is weak and -- the media is not forcing the president to tweet his attacks.

BRAT: I think you did. You forced --


BRAT: If you've got 24/7 coverage and he doesn't have an A.G. in place to cover the most important issue that the media covers with 90 percent of your coverage -- the anchors across the mainstream, you are good, you are fair to me. I know you are going to wish me happy birthday today. But some of the other --


BOLDUAN: We'll get to that next.


BOLDUAN: But, wait, wait, wait. Don't try to throw me off with the happy birthday bit. We'll get to that.

Are you kidding me?


BOLDUAN: The media did not force the president to attack Jeff Sessions.

BRAT: I'm using force in like a bank-shot metaphor. You didn't coerce him --


BOLDUAN: We didn't bank shot. I can't shoot anything.

BRAT: You made him frustrated.

BOLDUAN: We didn't do a layup. We didn't do a half-court throw. We didn't.

BRAT: Right. He is frustrated because he does not have an A.G. at the highest level who can respond to the key issue the media is grilling him on all day. So, in politics, sometimes you have to do politics. That's the source of the frustration.

BOLDUAN: At its core, when it comes down to it, the president, do you agree the president chose to push the keys on his phone to tweet an attack on his attorney general on his -- under his own control?

BRAT: I will concede the president did touch his key pad.

BOLDUAN: And he's at fault. And he's the one behind attacking his own attorney general. I feel like --


BRAT: Well, I don't --


BOLDUAN: Let's get out of the "Twilight Zone."


BOLDUAN: Let's deal in reality. Why are you hesitant to criticize the president on this? Does he not deserve criticism for putting his attorney general in this position?

BRAT: No. I like people to love me. I'm with the seminaries and I'm in the whole love school. There's too much negativity up here. I don't like dwelling on everybody hitting each other all day and who is to blame for this, that and the other. I try to stay positive. I go to Facebook and I get annihilated. I say loving things, I get annihilated all day. I don't want to cast stones and add to it. I don't want to get into all the political circus of it.

I wrote my piece to say, look, we understand why people are frustrated but let's keep a principled man in there.

BOLDUAN: Meaning Jeff Sessions we're talking about?

BRAT: Right on.

BOLDUAN: I, like, have 17 other topics. You need to come back later.

Happy birthday to you. And guess what?

BRAT: What?

BOLDUAN: My birthday is tomorrow. We have --


BRAT: Good Leo. Thank you. Thank you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Good Leo. We are going to have a bigger Leo fight.

BRAT: I appreciate it.

BOLDUAN: I wish I had more time with you.

Great to see you, Congressman.


BRAT: See you. Anytime.

BOLDUAN: I love my job.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs now saying he was blindsided by President Trump's transgender ban. Coming up, we are going to speak with an openly gay Iraq war veteran and a journalist about what it means for those serving in the military right now.

We'll be right back.


[11:52:27] BOLDUAN: Today, we're learning stunning new details about the president's announcement banning all transgender people from serving in the U.S. military. Three U.S. defense top officials, we learn, the Joint Chiefs of staff, did not know the ban was coming. And the Joint Chiefs chairman released a letter saying, "There will be no changes to the status quo," what is happening in the military right now, until he hears directly from the president and also directly from the defense secretary himself.

Joining me now to discuss this and the implications going forward, Rob Smith, an openly gay Iraq war veteran and a journalist.

Rob, great to have you here.


BOLDUAN: Continue the discussion we had in the break.

SMITH: Absolutely.

BOLDUAN: There are a couple steps here. What did you think when you heard the news yesterday?

SMITH: When I heard the news, it was shock. Utter shock. Let me tell you something, I got arrested protesting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" at the White House seven years ago this November. I thought we were done with this. I was there when President Obama signed the repeal legislation. I shook his hand. I told him I served as a gay soldier. I thought we were done with this. I thought that trans soldiers and the rest of the LGBT umbrella were protected. That's not the case.

BOLDUAN: And today, the president's announcement. And today, we learned from Barbara Starr this took not only the Pentagon but the Joint Chiefs by surprise. The Joint Chiefs chairman didn't know this was coming.

SMITH: Uh-huh.

BOLDUAN: What does that say to you?

SMITH: It says to me you have an administration that's in complete disarray. It's shocking to me that you have such a major personnel change announced via Twitter, and without, you know, letting anybody else know. To me, it is completely insane. And very indicative of the way that this administration has been run so far.

BOLDUAN: The statement that came from the Joint Chiefs, in part, it says that there's going to be no modification of current policy until the president's direction has been received by the secretary of defense and guidelines. And it says, "In the meantime, we will continue to treat all personnel with respect."

The Joint Chiefs put out. What's your reaction?

SMITH: How can you treat trans soldiers serving now with respect when they don't know whether they'll be fired today or tomorrow? These are people that have made the sacrifice to serve their country, honorably, by the way, and how can you treat them with respect when they don't know whether or not they'll be able to put food on the table?

BOLDUAN: There's no way of definitively knowing, of course. SMITH: There's not.

BOLDUAN: Do you think General Mattis signed off on this announcement?

SMITH: I don't think he signed off of it. And I think they implicitly support it. I have this thing that I do. When we talk about LGBT or black soldiers, soldiers of color, there's this idea that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all older white guys, have that a soldier is supposed to look one way. They're supposed to be a straight white guy. My message to them is soldiers are black, white, Latino, Muslim, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. I'll tell you what, we serve just as honorably as anybody else.

[11:55:28] BOLDUAN: There are still, I mean, many more questions and answers right now, even in your mind where this heads?

SMITH: So many. I don't have the time.

BOLDUAN: We don't either. I'm kidding.

Great to see you, Rob.

SMITH: Thank you so much.

BOLDUAN: Thank you very much for coming in. We'll stay in touch as we get more guidance from the White House --

SMITH: Absolutely.

BOLDUAN: -- and Pentagon of where this heads from here.

We'll continue now back to our breaking news in a moment. Including Senator Lindsey Graham with a stern warning to President Trump if he ever decides to actually go through and fire Jeff Sessions.

We'll be right back.


[12:00:12] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Welcome to "INSIDE POLITICS." I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.