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Sessions: 'I Have Always Told the Truth' on Russia Contacts; Sessions: 'I Have Not Been Improperly Influenced' by Trump. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired November 14, 2017 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer right next door in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:09] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Lacking total recall. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies that he now recalls a Trump campaign meeting at which Russia contacts were discussed. Why couldn't he remember it at an earlier hearing? Sessions denies ever lying to Congress. Does he just have a faulty memory when it comes to Russia?

Politically motivated? The attorney general says he is not improperly influenced by President Trump, so why has he now asked federal prosecutors to look into the Clinton Foundation, as demanded by the president and Congressional Republicans?

Unfit for office. As a growing number of Republicans call GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore unfit, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he's discussed the matter with President Trump and has looked at the options to keep Moore out of the U.S. Senate.

And nuclear button. A number of Democrats voice concern about President Trump's command of the nuclear arsenal, calling him unstable. Are there enough checks and balances to keep any commander in chief from launching an impulsive nuclear strike?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, under oath again today, denying before a House committee that he ever lied under oath about Trump campaign contacts with Russia. Sessions has previously testified he was unaware of anyone in the campaign who had communicated with Russia, but he now recalls the March 2016 meeting where a campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, suggested he could arrange a meeting between then candidate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Sessions still insists he doesn't remember the details of the meeting, although he does remember that he pushed back against the Papadopoulos suggestion.

The attorney general also says President Trump has not influenced the Justice Department, but his Justice Department is following up on the president's demand to investigate GOP allegations against Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration concerning the sale of a uranium company to Russia. Sessions did say he'd need a factual basis for naming a special counsel on the matter.

And other lawmakers today are voicing concerns about President Trump's ability to order a nuclear attack. Senate Democrats are calling the president unstable and volatile, warning that his heated rhetoric, quote, "could turn into nuclear reality."

All that comes as North Korea warns that the presence of three U.S. aircraft carriers off the Korean Peninsula is pushing the region toward war.

I'll speak with Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees, and our correspondents, specialists and guests, they're all standing by with full coverage.

Let's start with the breaking news.

The attorney general Jeff Sessions gets an all-day grilling by lawmakers, denying that he ever lied about the Trump campaign Russia contacts but admitting that he left out some things in previous testimony.

Let's go to our senior Congressional correspondent, Manu Raju.

Manu, take us through this testimony.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a lot of "do not recalls" from Jeff Sessions today under questioning mainly from House Democrats about those Russia contacts. He said he did not remember Carter Page, the former foreign policy adviser, suggesting that he was going to go to Russia shortly before he actually did. He did not recall Michael Flynn having any discussions about former national security adviser about the RNC platform.

He also said he did not recall George Papadopoulos suggesting a meeting between President Putin of Russia and candidate Donald Trump. Only until recently did he learn about this.

The 88-year-old top Democrat on the committee, John Conyers, told me perhaps Jeff Sessions has a memory issue because he's getting, quote, "old." This is a criticism, however, that Republicans are saying is just simply unfair.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you solemnly swear that the testimony...

RAJU (voice-over): Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifying that he now remembers a March 2016 meeting with George Papadopoulos, a campaign adviser who wanted to set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I do now recall that the March 2016 meeting at the Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting.

RAJU: Sessions in previous testimony said he was not aware of any communications between campaign surrogates and the Russians. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his Russian contacts. Sessions went on to say rejected Papadopoulos's request to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.

SESSIONS: I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government, for that matter.

[17:05:00] RAJU: In one of many heated exchanges with House Democrats, Sessions insisted that his answers have not changed and he did not lie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You did have communications with the Russians last year, isn't that right? Just a yes or no.

SESSIONS: I had a meeting with the Russian ambassador, yes.

That's exactly the opposite answer that you gave under oath to the U.S. Senate. So, again, either you're lying to the U.S. Senate or you're lying to the U.S. House of Representatives.

SESSIONS: Well, I hope the Congressman knows, and I hope all of you know that my answer to that question I did not meet with the Russians was explicitly responding to the shocking suggestion that I as a surrogate was meeting on a continuing basis with Russian officials, and the implication was to impact the campaign in some sort of nefarious way.

And all I did was meet in my office with the ambassador, which we didn't discuss anything like that. So I just want to say I appreciate the Congressman's right. I guess he can say his free speech. He can't be sued here, so that's just my response. And I'm sorry that -- that's my response.

RAJU: But when pressed to more details, the attorney general frequently said he couldn't recall, something he repeated more than 20 times.

SESSIONS: I don't recall it.

I don't recall it.

I don't recall it.

RAJU: Sessions also took aim at WikiLeaks and its role in the election. Even though Trump praised the group during the campaign.

SESSIONS: I'm not a fan of WikiLeaks.

RAJU: Sessions's comments come after Donald Trump Jr. released private Twitter member messages between him and WikiLeaks that took place during the 2016 presidential campaign, revealing that WikiLeaks repeatedly contacted Trump Jr., who apparently replied on two occasions when WikiLeaks told him about an anti-Trump super PAC that was about to launch. Trump Jr. responds that he will ask around.

On another occasion, WikiLeaks encouraged Trump Jr. to push a story about Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. responded, quote, "Already did," following up with a question to WikiLeaks that wasn't answered.

WikiLeaks continued its secret Twitter outreach until July 2017.


RAJU: Now Donald Trump Jr. did disclose those WikiLeaks communications to the Senate Judiciary Committee. And the chairman of that committee told us earlier today that those communications he found are, quote, "very innocuous."

Now, Democrats on that committee don't agree. They're pushing for a public hearing, something that Chuck Grassley has not yet agreed to.

And Wolf, some other news on the Jeff Sessions hearing today. He said that those women who are accusing Roy Moore of sexual misconduct in the race for his old Senate seat are believable. He essentially said he had no reason to doubt them.

He also said that there are 27 leak investigations looking into classified leaks that have occurred. And, Wolf, he also disclosed that he has recused himself from nearly ten investigations that are happening at the Justice Department, but he did not disclose which investigations those were, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, lots of news during the course of that hearing. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.

It wasn't just Democrats holding the attorney general's feet to the fire today. CNN's Ryan Ryan Nobles is with us right now.

Ryan, Jeff Sessions got it from both sides.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No doubt about that, Wolf. And the attorney general had a tall task today. He had to convince Republicans that he was taking seriously their concerns about Hillary Clinton, while at the same time assuring Democrats that the Department of Justice remains independent.


NOBLES: Attorney General Jeff Sessions facing pressure from his fellow Republicans to investigate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: What's it going to take if all of that, not to mention the dossier information, what's it going to take to actually get a special counsel?

SESSIONS: It would take a factual basis that meets the standards of the appointment of a special counsel.

JORDAN: And is that... NOBLES: The grilling of Sessions comes after Republican members of

the House Judiciary Committee sent the attorney general a letter requesting a host of investigations and the setting up of a special counsel to look into claims that Russian interests donated to the Clinton Foundation with the goal of getting approval for the sale of a Canadian uranium mining company to the Russian Atomic Energy Agency while Clinton was secretary of state.

The Justice Department responded to that letter, promising, quote, "The attorney general has directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate certain issues raised in your letters." And Sessions confirmed that position in today's hearing.

REP. BOB GOODLATTE (R-VA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Do I have your assurance that these matters will proceed fairly and expeditiously?

SESSIONS: Yes, you can, Mr. Chairman, and you can be sure that they will be done without political influence, and they will be done correctly and properly.

NOBLES: Up until this point, Sessions has yet to confirm any investigation into Clinton exists. But today left open the possibility that one could begin at any time.

SESSIONS: We will make such decisions without regard -- hear me, without regard to politics, ideology or bias.

[17:10:00] NOBLES: That could bring with it a whole host of new issues for the attorney general, who is already struggling to regain the trust of President Trump.

Before he left on his trip to Asia, the president tweeting a not-so- subtle warning to Sessions and his team not to ignore his concerns about Clinton, writing, quote, "Everybody is asking why the Justice Department and FBI isn't looking into all the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary and the Dems."

The Department of Justice is supposed to operate independently from the White House on law enforcement matters, and Democrats warned that a new probe into the president's primary political opponent would show the administration is too involved in DOJ business.

REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: In a functioning democracy, is it common for the leader of the country to order the criminal justice system to retaliate against his political opponents?

SESSIONS: Mr. Conyers, I would say that it's -- the Department of Justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents, and that would be wrong.

NOBLES: And it also raises questions about the specific role Sessions himself will play. During his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions said this. SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: To be very clear, you

intend to recuse yourself from both the Clinton e-mail investigation and any matters involving the Clinton Foundation, if there are any?


NOBLES: A promise he was asked to reiterate today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you stand by that statement, yes or no?


NOBLES: Even entertaining the notion of a Clinton investigation brings up the possibility that its purpose would be to provide the Trump administration with a political distraction, one that could potentially take the focus off the special counsel probe into Russia's influence on the U.S. election. In part because of this promise made by President Trump during the campaign.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.

NOBLES: A point Democrats used to press Sessions on, but he resisted.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: It's a promise that your boss, he hired you, to fulfill. Are you going to fulfill?

SESSIONS: We will comply with the law with regard to special prosecutor appointments.

NOBLES: And he vowed to protect the Department of Justice's integrity.

SESSIONS: We will not be infected by politics or bias. We will make only decisions we believe are right and just. And we're not going to use the department to unlawfully advance a political agenda.


NOBLES: And one promise that should please Republicans today, Sessions said he planned to root out the leaks coming out of the administration. He described the leaks as reaching epidemic proportions. And, Wolf, he claimed that at one point that there are 27 open investigations into leaks by the Justice Department.

BLITZER: Ryan Nobles reporting for us. Thanks, Ryan, for that report.

Joining us now, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thanks for having me. BLITZER: I want to play an exchange from your questioning of the

attorney general, Jeff Sessions, earlier today. Listen to this.


CICILLINE: Now we're turning to the Papadopoulos issue. In your October 18th testimony, you purport to have forgotten this conversation about -- by Mr. Papadopoulos about Russia that you put an end to. You said you weren't being dishonest, you simply forgot it. Remember that testimony?

Sessions: Something like that, yes.

CICILLINE: OK. When did you remember the remarks of Mr. Papadopoulos? When did that memory come back to you?

SESSIONS: I think it was when it -- the press came up with it or some -- it was revealed in the press.

CICILLINE: That was the first time you remembered it?

SESSIONS: I would recall that my October statements -- it was a broad question.

CICILLINE: I understand. Mr. Sessions, I have a limit. I'm reclaiming my time. You were a senior -- Mr. Sessions, you were a senior campaign official...

SESSIONS: It was over 18 months before.

CICILLINE: ... and a member of the national security team. Did you ever exchange any e-mail, text message or any other communication to or from Mr. Papadopoulos about Russia or any other subject?

SESSIONS: Repeat the category? List of things?

CICILLINE: Exchange any e-mail, text message or any communication to or from Mr. Papadopoulos about any subjects?

SESSIONS: I do not believe so. I'm confident I did not.

CICILLINE: Did anybody -- did anybody ever forward to you a communication from Mr. Papadopoulos?

SESSIONS: I don't recall it.

CICILLINE: Did anybody from the campaign ever communicate with you about Mr. Papadopoulos?

SESSIONS: I can't say that there were no conversations about him before or after this event.


BLITZER: All right. Congressman, were you satisfied with the attorney general's answers on Papadopoulos? CICILLINE: No. Wolf, throughout the hearing the attorney general

said on many, many occasions "I just don't recall." He said his testimony remained the same but, of course, he gave very different testimony to the Senate committee.

[17:15:07] And then he refused to answer questions as we probed more about the Comey firing and about Mr. Papadopoulos, saying, those involved conversations with the executive branch and "I don't want to answer them" or "I can't answer them."

I pressed the chairman. He wasn't invoking a Fifth Amendment privilege. He wasn't invoking the executive privilege. He's simply saying, "I don't want to answer the question," either because it was embarrassing or would have revealed some damaging information. There's no such ability to just not answer a question. He's a witness. We're doing our oversight responsibilities. He took an oath. He was required.

But unfortunately, the Republicans, including the Republican chairman, protected him from answering some of these difficult questions by just invoking this, you know, "I'd rather not" or "I can't answer it" without invoking a real legal basis to do that. So you know, I was very disappointed.

I think the principal lesson we learned from this hearing is that the independence of this attorney general has been significantly undermined. And he did nothing today to restore confidence in the members of the committee and, I think, in the American people that the Justice Department remains independent from the executive branch.

BLITZER: Congressman, will you push the chairman of your committee to bring Jeff Sessions back for more questioning?

CICILLINE: Absolutely. And when he brings him back, we're going to insist again that he require the attorney general to answer questions. Unless he has a privilege to invoke, he's obligated to answer the questions truthfully and honestly, and the Republicans on the committee should insist on that, as well.

We pressed -- I pressed the chairman as hard as I could to ask him to order the attorney general to answer the questions. He refused to do that, and I think it did a disservice to our oversight responsibilities and to the American people.

BLITZER: The attorney general was questioned heavily about his decision to ask senior federal prosecutors to take a close look into whether to name a special prosecutor, should be appointed to investigate the Clinton Foundation, the uranium deal with Russia. What did you make of his answers on this very sensitive subject?

CICILLINE: Look, I think this is a completely made-up story and effort to distract away from the very serious business of the special counsel and the ongoing intelligence investigations. I think even Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, said, "Look, you need facts before you can appoint a special counsel" and I think dampened the spirits of the Republicans on that point. So I know, you know, they sent a letter. They got a response right

away saying they would look at it. But I think the attorney general made it clear that even he, certainly, at this point doesn't see any basis to do it. He said you need facts. The fact that you want it to happen isn't enough.

BLITZER: Yes. He was a little bit vague, but the president of the United States, as you know, not vague at all. He fully wants this investigation.

Congressman, stand by. There are other new developments unfolding. We'll continue the interview right after a quick break.


[17:22:18] BLITZER: Our breaking news. In a lengthy conversational hearing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reveals an apparently spotty memory when it comes to the Trump campaign and Russia, but he insists he's never lied under oath.

We're back with Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, the attorney general was also asked today about those Twitter direct messages that were exchanged in 2016 between Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks. Sessions said he did not know about them at all. He was not a fan, he said, of WikiLeaks. Were you satisfied with his answers on that?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, he was asked directly what he thought about WikiLeaks and he said, "I'm not a fan." That obviously is contrasted with what the president of the United States said during the course of the campaign where he said, "I love WikiLeaks."

We now know, of course, that WikiLeaks was involved in distributing stolen e-mails against the Democratic nominee, so no one should love WikiLeaks. But I think his answer was at least that he doesn't like them, and that was good to hear from the chief law enforcement official of the United States.

BLITZER: Would you like Donald Trump Jr. to come before your committee?

CICILLINE: Absolutely. I think during the Judiciary Committee has important oversight responsibilities. This was the first time we had the attorney general of the United States before our committee since he was sworn in.

We have been pressing the chairman to allow the Judiciary Committee to fulfill its oversight functions and to bring witnesses before the committee. So far the chairman of the committee has not done that. We should be doing that, absolutely.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman David Cicilline, thanks so much for joining us. CICILLINE: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Coming up, there will be more breaking news. Democrats voice concern about President Trump's command of the nuclear arsenal, calling him unstable. Are there enough checks and balances to prevent an impulsive nuclear launch by any commander in chief?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Under existing laws, the president of the United States can start a nuclear war without provocation, without consultation and without warning. It boggles the rational mind.



[17:28:59] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeatedly insisting he did not lie under oath when he said he knew of no interactions between the Trump campaign and Russia, even though his story keeps changing.

Let's bring in our political, legal specialists. And Jeffrey Toobin, Sessions was grilled today on that 2016 campaign. I want you to listen to what he had to say about that meeting he had with George Papadopoulos, who recently pleaded guilty to those charges filed by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Listen to this.


SESSIONS: I would like to address recent news reports regarding meetings during the campaign attended by George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, among others.

Frankly, I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports. I do now recall that the March 2016 meeting at the Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting.

After reading his account and, to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government, for that matter.


[17:30:16] BLITZER: I'll show you a picture of that meeting, Jeffrey. There you see Papadopoulos in the middle. The president, then the candidate Donald Trump at the one end, Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama on the other end. Seems like a big shift in his statement right there

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you could call it a contradiction. I mean, the last time he testified under oath, he was asked all about Russia. I mean, that was the focus of the questioning, especially from Senator Al Franken, and he said categorically he knew of no contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Today, he said, "Oh, by the way, I do remember my contacts with George Papadopoulos, and I instructed him not to have contact with Russia."

Now he said his memory was refreshed. All of us have had that experience of having our memories refreshed, but people are going to have to draw their own conclusion about whether he was disassembling the last time or now or both. I mean, it is a marked contradiction.

BLITZER: Yes. Do you want he was effective, despite that contradiction, Mark?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Let me answer two ways. If you're a Democrat, no. If you're a Republican, yes.

I think that, as he walks away from Capitol Hill tonight and goes home, he's going to say to himself, "I performed well enough. I didn't get myself in a lot of trouble." And more importantly, I think that President Trump is going to look at what he did today, and he's going to be happy. And as we know, every senior aide that goes out there and speaks publicly speaks to an audience of one, and that audience of one is Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Yes. And on another sensitive issue, Abby, the senator was asked a lot today about his decision to let the Justice Department and the prosecutors there come up with a decision whether to name a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, the uranium deal with Russia. This in the aftermath of the president criticizing the Justice Department for not having a formal special counsel do that kind of investigation.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think Jeff Sessions is in a really tough spot here, because we know the president wants him to do this; and -- and it's not clear that Jeff Sessions wants to do this.

I think his answers today were really interesting because, you know, he had a Congressman, a Republican, pushing him to say, "We've asked you, 20 of us on this committee have asked you to appoint a special counsel. Why haven't you done it yet?" That's exactly what the president is saying, as well.

And Jeff Sessions' answer was essentially, "We have to have a factual basis to appoint a special counsel. We can't just do it on a whim, based on what looks like a crime or what you might think might be a crime." So there's that.

And I think the letter that he -- that basically authorized his Justice Department to look into this was read as an indication that maybe he might do this, but I think it could also be read as an indication that Jeff Sessions is looking for something to offer to the boss to say, "Hey, I'm looking into this." That may not actually result in a special counsel but just gives him a little bit of an out here.

TOOBIN: But there was a weirdness about that whole subject. Because earlier, he had said, "I am recusing myself from anything related to Hillary Clinton."

Today in his testimony he said, "Well, I can't discuss recusal, because it has to go through some ethics committee." I mean, that's not something I've heard before. And I didn't understand why he didn't just say in a straightforward way "I'm recused," unless he was trying to cultivate favor with the boss, who is still angry at him for recusing himself on the Russia matter.

BLITZER: Very angry about that. How did you see it?

PRESTON: You know, just following on what Jeff said, what I was surprised is his ability to not answer questions and then not evoke executive privilege.

PHILLIP: Correct.

PRESTON: Just basically saying, "Listen, I'm not going to answer it. That's longstanding policy." And then turn to the chairman of the committee who provided the cover. Bob Goodlatte said, "Let's move on. Your time is over." Really stonewalling Democrats from trying to get any answers.

But yet again, he didn't have to invoke executive privilege, which if he had done so, would have led to even greater questions heading into tomorrow. He doesn't have to face them.

TOOBIN: One of many, many reasons why it's good to be examined by a committee that is controlled by your party.


TOOBIN: I mean, all those legal issues, like citation of privilege, like refusing to answer questions, like just five-minute rounds of questions, all are due to the fact that Bob Goodlatte, a good loyal Republican, is the chairman of that committee.

BLITZER: Yes. Five minutes goes very, very quickly.

TOOBIN: Yes, it does.

BLITZER: Especially when you're a lawmaker who likes to hear himself or herself speak, as well.

TOOBIN: But that's only about 100 percent of them. So...

BLITZER: Not just quick questions and answers. It's answers and answers.

All right. Stand by. There's a lot more coming up. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:39:18] BLITZER: We're back with our political specialists. And, Abby, Republican senators today, they surprised a lot of us by saying they were going to put into the tax bill, the tax reform bill, at least the Senate version of it, a repeal of the individual mandate, part of Obamacare, which will eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans right there.

How's that going to play as far as the moderate Republicans in the Senate are concerned? You can't lose more than two if you're going to get this legislation passed.

PHILLIP: Well, it's interesting. I mean, I think this idea is -- most people agree it complicates the tax effort a little bit more, but I think the dynamic that's playing out right now on the Hill is that Republicans are thinking they can't say no to an individual mandate repeal. It seems like the lowest common denominator, the one thing that they could do, that they might have to do because if they're faced with a vote, they can't defend it to their constituents if they say no.

John McCain indicates that he's potentially in favor of voting in favor of the tax bill if it's included. Susan Collins is kind of on the fence, but notably she didn't say no. She said, "I think it's complicated," but she didn't say no.

So I think Republicans are, you know, they might get it; and they might get a little bit more extra cash to give to middle-class voters, which might be more important, ultimately, to them than other considerations.

All right. Some studies have suggested 13 million Americans would lose health insurance if the individual mandate goes away.

TOOBIN: And you know what happens to people who lose health insurance? They die. They die at a faster rate. They die younger. They die sicker. And, you know, I just -- we always talk about health insurance in political terms, and I understand that, but it is worth pausing to remember that people who lose health insurance die. And that's just something that should be figured into the calculus.

BLITZER: So is it going to -- how is it going to impact passage of the Senate tax cut bill?

PRESTON: Well, a couple of things. So you have it on the Senate side and whether or not they're able to keep at least 50 votes together right now, it looks like they're getting there, but the question is what happens on the other side of Capitol Hill with the House bill and the fight over that. And will that be included in the bill? And if not, when these two bills come together.

They're very ambitious about trying to get this tax bill done by the end of the year. I am, you know -- I'm a bit negative to think that anything on Capitol Hill can get done, you know, in a couple of months, let alone a bill as massive, as controversial and as detailed as a tax bill in such a short period of time.

PHILLIP: There is one other dynamic to take into consideration. If they do this individual mandate right now in the tax bill, they're going to use those savings, most likely, to reduce taxes for middle- class families. But if they ever come around to health care reform in the future, they're not going to have that money available to them. It's actually going to make health care reform harder if they ever try to come back to this issue again.

So I think as we get into -- it's only been a couple of hours. They haven't even fully committed to this yet. If they get into the details some senators say, "Hey, I'm not willing to throw, you know, to sacrifice a short-term gain for a long-term reform that we want," then maybe they might have a little bit more trouble with this.

TOOBIN: Also the argument that you are cutting the individual mandate for the middle class. I think that's a debatable proposition. You're also cutting the estate tax. You're cutting the corporate tax rate.

PHILLIP: The property tax.

TOOBIN: Those are not middle-class tax cuts. Those are gifts to wealthy people.

BLITZER: You know, Mark, an interesting development in the Roy Moore saga today.

PRESTON: There's other news today? OK.

BLITZER: He's the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama. Not just Mitch McConnell but the House speaker, Paul Ryan, they all want him to go away.

And it was very interesting. McConnell now wants Sessions to give up his job as the attorney general, go back to Alabama -- He was the U.S. senator from Alabama for 20 years -- and run as a write-in candidate, thinking that he could beat the Democrat.

PRESTON: Right. I think that's wishful thinking. I'm sure that Jeff Sessions is thinking to himself, "That's not a bad idea if we can make this work."

Look, they're in a world of hurt right now, Republicans are. Right now, they're heading towards the point where they're very likely to lose this seat. But forget about politics. It should be done on the basis of what we know at this point; Roy Moore needs to leave the race. I don't think he will do so on his own volition.

TOOBIN: They have no leverage over him. I mean, he's an independent actor.

BLITZER: What if the president of the United States, he'll be back here in Washington tomorrow, if he comes out and says Roy Moore must go?

TOOBIN: Or what? Or what? I mean, I just don't think that the president has that leverage over him.

PRESTON: But he can be sworn in, and he can be turned around and expelled. And I think that's what you'll see. TOOBIN: Maybe yes, maybe no.

PHILLIP: Even if Roy Moore steps down or does whatever, he's going to remain on the ballot. It's a problem for Republicans regardless. There's no easy fix.

I think the reason the Jeff Sessions scenario is so, you know, appealing to Republicans is because he has such high name recognition. It might be their only chance if they want to do a write-in, someone who people can easily remember and just put their name down.

Otherwise, I think it's just going to be a long road. I mean, not even the current interim senator might be able to accomplish that at the -- at this late stage.

BLITZER: Mitch McConnell keeps talking about Lisa Murkowski, who lost the Republican primary in Alaska, was a write-in candidate; and she's now still a United States senator from Alaska.

PRESTON: Wishful thinking. Alaska, a lot different than Alabama. Smaller state. Her father was a governor, senator. She'd been a senator a long time. Different circumstances.

BLITZER: Sessions is well-known in Alabama.

PRESTON: Absolutely. It's a hail Mary.

BLITZER: Stand by. There's more breaking news we're following.

North Korea now warning the -- that U.S. naval exercises off the Korean Peninsula are moving the area, the region closer to a nuclear war. Some U.S. lawmakers are sounding alarms at the same time over President Trump's ability to command U.S. nuclear weapons.

SEN. EDWARD MARKEY (D-MA), MINORITY MEMBER, SENATE COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Even General Kelly, the President's Chief of Staff, can't control the President's Twitter tantrums. As a result, many Americans share my fear that the President's bombastic words could turn into nuclear reality.



[17:50:17] BLITZER: Tonight, North Korea is complaining that the presence of three U.S. aircraft carriers off the Korean Peninsula is pushing the region closer to a nuclear war.

This comes at the same time that there's breaking news here in Washington as senators question whether President Trump is stable enough to have command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

CNN's Brian Todd is working this story for us.

Brian, tell us more about this eye-opening Senate hearing. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Some very stark and sobering

observations in this hearing, Wolf.

There is serious concern tonight here in Washington, and even from a NATO ally, about President Trump's emotional fitness to responsibly command America's nuclear weapons arsenal.

It comes after months of personal insults, threats of annihilation between the President and Kim Jong-un which have only escalated.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

TODD: Tonight, with military tensions with North Korea at a dangerous level, lawmakers from both parties in Congress are openly voicing concern about President Trump's mental and emotional fitness to launch a nuclear strike.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY (D-CT), MINORITY MEMBER, SENATE COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: We are concerned that the President of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.

TODD: A diplomatic source tells CNN a NATO ally has also raised concerns about the President's command of nuclear weapons. His past comments like one on the campaign trail about bombing ISIS prompt critics to say he is rash, prone to lash out.

TRUMP: I would bomb the (INAUDIBLE) out of them.

TODD: A Senate hearing was held today just to address the President's fitness and legal authority to launch a strike.

Experts said if a nuclear tipped missile were to be launched against the U.S., the President's authority to retaliate is unquestionable. But what if he wants to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on an enemy?

PETER FEAVER, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, DUKE UNIVERSITY: In the other context where the President's waking up the military, maybe in an extreme funk, saying, I'm angry and I want something done, the President alone could not effect the strike. He would require lots of people, cooperating with him, to make the strike happen. And they'd be asking the questions that would slow down that process.

TODD: Experts say military officers could question the President's order, but they really couldn't stop it, short of a full-on mutiny. And slowing the process down, they say, is relative.

GARRETT GRAFF, AUTHOR, "RAVEN ROCK: THE STORY OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT'S SECRET PLAN TO SAVE ITSELF, WHILE THE REST OF US DIE": Today, you have a system so finally tuned that from the moment the President gives a launch order, the first nuclear missiles would leave their silos just four minutes later.

TODD: Like all other presidents, Donald Trump has got a military aide always by his side, carrying nuclear football, a satchel with launch codes, communications equipment, laminated briefing cards on potential targets, cynically referred to as the Denny's Menu.

Former aides who have carried the football told CNN they had to undergo rigorous psychiatric and emotional screening, as does everyone else in the nuclear chain of command. Everyone except the Commander- in-Chief.

GRAFF: There's nothing in the system meant to check whether the President is crazy, is drunk, is high, or whether there is any even valid geopolitical reason for a nuclear launch to be ordered.


TODD: Despite our repeated requests, the White House has not responded to the concerns of his critics who have questioned the President's mental stability in relation to launching nuclear weapons.

But we're told the administration has tried to ease concerns by arguing that the system that Trump operates under, like that of all presidents before him, has enough checks in place that he would be discouraged from making any rash move -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, you've been speaking with experts about the kind of nuclear firepower President Trump has control over. What are they telling you?

TODD: It's hard to wrap your mind around it, Wolf. We spoke with the Arms Control Association. They tell us that, right now, America's nuclear arsenal consists of about 900 nuclear warheads, which range from being about 10 to 20 times more powerful than the bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, reporting for us. Thank you.

Coming up, breaking news. The Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies that he now recalls a Trump campaign meeting in which Russia contacts were, in fact, discussed. He couldn't remember it at an earlier congressional hearing. Does he just have a faulty memory when it comes to Russia?


[17:54:55] JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: I will not accept, and reject, accusations that I have ever lied. That is a lie.



BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Selective memory? Attorney General Jeff Sessions tells lawmakers that he now remembers a controversial discussion about the Trump campaign's links to Russia. Why is his recollection of other key events still so fuzzy?

[17:59:57] Justice for all? Democrats pounce on Sessions after his deputy reveals a Special Counsel probe of Hillary Clinton is being considered. Is President Trump pressuring the Justice Department to go after his political enemies?