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Jeff Sessions Talks Leaks of Classified Information, Media Subpoenas; Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski Speak Out on Health Care, Russia Investigation. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired August 4, 2017 - 11:30   ET



[11:32:35] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Just moments ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions held a briefing to talk about leaks of classified information. He says the Justice Department has tripled the number of investigations into unauthorized leaks. Let's listen.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It is important for the American people and those who might be thinking of leaking classified or sensitive information to know that criminals who illegally use their access through our most sensitive information to endanger our national security are, in fact, being investigated and will be prosecuted. Since January, the department has more than tripled the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the last administration. And we have already charged four people with unlawfully disclosing classified material or with concealing contacts with federal officers.


CABRERA: Let's bring in Michael Allen, former member of the security council in the Bush administration. Also, with us CNN senior political analyst, Mark Preston, and CNN senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter, host of "Reliable Sources."

I'll start with you, Mark.

Leaks are not unprecedented. They happen in every administration. What is your take away from those tough remarks the attorney general just gave, talking about combatting these leaks?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I think there's two types of leaks. And our colleague, Phil Mudd, a former CIA analyst, FBI analyst, counterterrorism analyst, there is a leak that is a national security leak where information is released that puts men, women, our soldiers at harm, our security professional overseas at harm. And then there's leaks like this where these transcripts have been released, like in the "Washington Post" this past week. They are embarrassing leaks. They're embarrassing to the president because what he says publicly has been contradicted with what we see in the transcripts privately. It is a fine line when talking about national security, about leaks. At the same time, there is something to be said about the fourth estate in the media acting as a check and balance without impunity against the government. And in many ways, it keeps the government more straight and narrow than they would be.

CABRERA: Michael, are leaks like the transcripts released to "The Washington Post" dangerous for the national security of this country?

[11:35:00] MICHAEL ALLEN: Yes, I think so, for sure. One, it shows some in the bureaucracy have developed a culture of leaking. I understand that Donald Trump is controversial, but I don't think people should take it upon themselves to leak these transcripts. These are private conversations between the leader of the free world and other leaders around the world. They have a right to be able to discuss things privately. Often, they discuss classified information. And no one ought to take it on themselves, just arrogate onto themselves, hey, I'm going to release the transcripts to embarrass the president. It's not good national security decision making.

CABRERA: I want to play a clip from Attorney General Jeff Sessions talking about reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas. Let's watch.


SESSIONS: I have listened to our career investigators, FBI agents and others, and our prosecutors about how to most successfully investigate and prosecute these matters. At their suggestion, one of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas. We respect the important role that the press plays, and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited. They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press' role with protecting national security and the lives of those who serve in the intelligence community, the armed forces, and all law-abiding Americans.


CABRERA: Brian, your reaction to that?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT & CNN HOST, RELIABLE SOURCES: A couple things. Number one, he is suggesting some reporters who published stories involving leaks have places lives at risk. That kind of empty rhetoric demands evidence. It demands proof. Yet, he held the press conference and didn't take questions. He left the room without providing that proof. That's disappointing.

I'd say what he's doing is he's making big news saying the DOJ is reviewing the subpoena policy. Right now, when the government is investigating leaks, they will pursue the leaker, but not the reporter who wrote the story. There were times in the Obama administration where the Obama Justice Department went too far. There was widespread criticism of Obama for that, that the Obama DOJ pulled back, reviewed policies and changed policies. Now it sounds like Sessions and Trump want to become more aggressive again. That's going to cause widespread concern among press freedom groups.

In the broader point, Sessions was speaking to President Trump through the television this morning. He was speaking to President Trump who has been calling for weeks and months to have a more aggressive prosecution of leakers. He has criticized Sessions for not being more aggressive on this. So today's press conference by Sessions was for President Trump.

The bottom line is, without the leaks, we wouldn't know. We, the public, wouldn't know about Michael Flynn's behavior or Donald Trump Jr's meeting.


STELTER: There are people inside the government afraid of the president's behavior, afraid of what this White House has been doing, concerned about possible illegal and unethical behavior. And what do they do? They reach out to reporters.

I understand the morality point Michael was making. A lot of us wouldn't have done it if we had these jobs in the government, wouldn't hand over confidential or sensitive information. But leakers do it, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is for revenge or ticked off at their boss. But sometimes it is for reasons involving whistleblowers wanting to alert the public to malfeasance and improper behavior.

CABRERA: They are concerned about what is happening --


STELTER: We're seeing that now.

CABRERA: Michael, did you see anything like this in the Bush administration?

ALLEN: I did. I saw quite a lot of people leaking, in and of their own accord, because perhaps they had a problem with the counterterrorism or an intelligence collection program. Except that in those cases, they were properly vetted by the Department of Justice and overseen by Congress.

I agree with Brian, we can't go overboard and prosecute the press, necessarily. But I think, also, a review is appropriate. As I understand it, the press -- going after the press in the Obama regulations is a last resort. Not everybody. There's a difference between Brian and others on CNN talking about Michael Flynn's misbehavior and, for example, what WikiLeaks has done and what Edward Snowden has done by putting out many --


ALLEN: -- hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper that revealed some of the ways we access information across the globe.


ALLEN: That was deeply irresponsible and we can't have that. CABRERA: Quickly, Mark, I think it's important to peel back that for

our viewers. When journalists get this information leaked to them, they don't just take it, run with it and publish it, immediately. There is a vetting process.

PRESTON: You are right. I'm glad you brought that up. There is something to be said about pulling back the curtain. Oftentimes, our news organization or any of these major news organizations across the country get information that could put people at risk. There's discussions, oftentimes -- you never hear about them -- between the federal government, whether it be the Army, Navy or Air Force, whatever it may be, the CIA or FBI, and the news organization to hold stuff back. Specifically, when there's hostages taken, oftentimes, we know more than we discuss publicly because there are lives at risk. Also, the concept of whistleblowers as well. It's a fine line between national security and keeping the government honest.

So far, right now, I think there's a chilling effect from the Trump administration and from the DOJ led by Jeff Sessions on the idea of this information getting out.

[11:40:43] CABRERA: Mark, Brian and Michael, thanks for joining us.

Coming up, they're hitting the president on the Russian investigation and how he handled the health care fight. They are both Republicans. The exclusive sound of these two ladies, just ahead.

Plus, twin ISIS terror plots involving the bombing of a passenger plane and a potential poison gas attack stopped. Details ahead.


[11:45:17] CABRERA: The two women, two Republican Senators who stood up to their party and voted no on the Republican health care bill are speaking out. Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski told CNN's chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, they could not support the legislation because of issues dealing with access to health care, specifically women's issues.

Plus, Senator Collins weighed in on the special council into Russia's election meddling. Let's listen.


DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: CNN is reporting that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is expanding his investigation to include the president's financial dealings that may not have anything to do with the campaign in 2016. Is that appropriate?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R), MAINE: I believe that the special counsel has a very broad mandate and he should follow the leads wherever they may be. Thus, I do not think his investigation should be constrained beyond the mandate that he was given when he was --


BASH: The president called that a red line?

COLLINS: The president can't set red lines for Bob Mueller.


CABRERA: Well said.

Let's bring in our Dana Bash, as well as Reid Wilson, national correspondent for "The Hill," and CNN politics reporter and CNN editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza.

Dana, that interview with Senators Collins and Murkowski much more far ranging than we just played but, clearly, they are not afraid to take on this president.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they are not. The conversation was mostly about their health care votes. They were both the only consistent "no" votes, and sort of opponents to what the Republican leadership and, to a lesser extent, the White House was trying to push through. They were the key reason that it failed. Obviously, John McCain, at the end, came in and sort of gave it the final -- the final blow.

But, we talked about what it was like behind the scenes for these two women and these two Republican Senators and the intense pressure that they had to change. A lot of people say, Ana, that they are heroes, and a lot of people don't. That's where I started the conversation.

CABRERA: Reid, the president's --


CABRERA: You are both heroes to a lot of people. And heretics to a lot of people. How do you see yourselves?

COLLINS: Well, I see myself as someone who has an obligation to represent the people of Maine. Sometimes that means casting uncomfortable votes, votes that will make my party uncomfortable and even angry at me.

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI, (R), ALASKA: You want to vote to do the right thing and so worrying about the consequences, are you fearful of repercussion from your party? A tweet from the president? A backlash from your leadership? I don't believe that we should be motivated or discouraged from taking the positions that are important to the people that we represent and our respective states.


BASH: Ana, she told me a story about the second time during this process that the president called all Republican Senators down to the White House, and he was, you know, really trying to get everybody to get on board and come together. And she said she stood up and said directly to the president, paraphrasing here, I don't vote for the Republican Party, I vote for the people from Alaska. Then Susan Collins jumped in and said, I remember that, I was really proud of you.

It was interesting to get more of a sense of what went on in this dramatic, several-week process for the Senators behind the scenes.

CABRERA: Reid, the pressure coming from the president on that and other issues doesn't seem to be working. In some cases, it seems to be backfiring. Talk about the bipartisan effort to protect Robert Mueller, the special counsel to the Russia investigation, and giving Congress power to intervene if there's an attempt to fire him.

REID WILSON, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE HILL: Right. You made a very important point that the president's pressure is not working terribly well. And even somebody like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't necessarily have the leverage, especially over these two Senators. Susan Collins built a career out of being an independent Senator. She's even thinking of running for governor in Maine, which would reduce the pressure even more. And let's not forget how Lisa Murkowski won reelection. She lost the Republican primary and then won a write-in vote. That's remarkable. And it speaks to how popular she is back home in Alaska.

The fact that there are now two Republican Senators, Lindsey Graham, in South Carolina, and Thom Tillis, in North Carolina, joining with Democrats to support a measure that would protect Bob Mueller, the special counsel, tells me a lot of Republicans are not feeling political pressure that a typical White House might be able to exert over members of their own party.

The fact is, this president has not built a relationship necessary on Capitol Hill to twist those arms and effectively get his legislative agenda through the Senate. And now that's starting to hurt. It has hurt over the last seven, eight months. The president is now leaving for vacation today and doesn't have a major legislative accomplishment under his belt.

[11:50:45] CABRERA: Chris, of course, the issue of Bob Mueller needing protection by Congress, again, becoming a hot topic because of the president himself suggesting that if Mueller's investigation veered into his and his family's finances, that's would be a red line.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Right. And you've heard the president's lawyers yesterday say something similar to that, which is, you know, we don't know about this, we haven't been told about it, but if it did go into his finances, we would object to that.

Now, what does object to that mean in terms of what they actually do? I think you heard in Dana's great interview there with Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski that there's not a lot of appetite in the Senate for getting rid of Bob Mueller. As Reid noted, Thom Tillis, who is not exactly sort of a maverick, thus far, in his time in the Senate, joining with lindsey Graham saying we're going to protect Bob Mueller. There would be a huge outcry if Donald Trump did anything with Bob Mueller. That doesn't mean he won't. This is Donald Trump we're talking about. But I think he'd have huge problems in the Senate. Even within his own party, and even among many Republican Senators we're not talking about. Not the lindsey Grahams, Susan Collins, John McCains of the world, but others rank-and-file down-the-line Republicans I think would object to this.

So does that mean Donald Trump won't do it? No. But I think he is at least aware it would face significant opposition among Republicans in the Senate and in the House if he did something like this, to penalize Bob Mueller for violating what he called the red line.

CABRERA: And, Dana, I also want to ask you about there's the Russia sanctions bill as well, that we've recently talked about in which the Senators and House members, Republicans and Democrats, passed bipartisanship. And they essentially tied the president's hands when it um cans to negotiating with Russia. It seems they may be emboldened now as a branch of government to really dig into their role as a check on the president's power. What are you hearing from others you're talking to on the Hill?

BASH: There's no question that they are emboldened. And, you know, look, you've got a bigger issue. There is widespread belief that Russia meddled in the U.S. election among Republicans. There is widespread belief, clearly, based on the lopsided votes for sanctions, that they need to be punished for that. That is why, as you said, Congress acted as the ultimate check on that issue, forcing the president to sign something he clearly did not want to sign to do just that. And so that's one example.

Another I would point to is what went on with Jeff Sessions. The fact that the president was publicly shaming him and, you know, maybe even you could go so far as bullying him. Clearly, trying to get him to resign with his statements on Twitter and a couple of occasions in public in front of the microphone. And you saw Republican Senator after Republican Senator stand up and push back. Not just because Jeff Sessions is a former member of the Senate club, but because they got what the president -- what they thought the president was trying to do. Get Sessions out, try to get somebody in who is, maybe, you know, more easy to manipulate with regard to the Mueller investigation, and try to do it around there. And they stood up and said, oh, no, no, no, this isn't going to happen, we'll make sure of it.

CABRERA: Dana Bash, Reid Wilson, Chris Cillizza, thank you all for joining us.


[11:54:16] CABRERA: Coming up, remember that vulgar tirade that cost former White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, his job? We have the actual audio now. Stay with us.


CABRERA: This week's "CNN Hero" was living alone on the streets as a teenager. And for the past 32 years, dedicated her life for helping vulnerable youth in Israel, providing them with a safe haven and a family. Meet Mariuma Ben Yosef.


MARIUMA VEN YOSEF, CNN HERO: To be homeless at a young age, it's very lonely. When you don't have your family, all you have is a black hole.


BEN YOSEF: I know exactly what they're going through. I want children to breathe and feel alive. I want them to feel secure and feel they can be hugged and they will not be in danger. We can see it in a different way and win life.


CABRERA: That video tells the story of Mariuma. To see more on how she helps, go to And while there, nominate someone you think should be a "CNN Hero."

Thanks so much for being with me AT THIS HOUR.

"INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now. Have a great weekend.

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

The president heads off today for a 17-day break from Washington. And the Congress, on vacation, too. Here's a safe bet, the Republicans won't be bragging about their report card.

Plus, a strong July jobs report pushes President Trump --