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Russia Probe Reaches Trump Cabinet: Sessions Questioned; Source: FBI Chief Threatened To Quit Over Sessions Pressure; At Least One Dead, Seven Wounded In Kentucky School Shooting; Battle Brewing Over DACA, Immigration Deal. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 11:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- all right, thanks to Jessica Schneider for that report.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, all, for being with us this morning, through all of the breaking news. We'll keep you posted on all of it. I'm Poppy Harlow.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. "AT THIS HOUR" starts now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. At this hour, two major breaking stories that we are following, both of them related to the Russia investigation. First, word that the special counsel's probe has now breached the president's cabinet for the first time.

CNN is learning that Robert Mueller's team interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions as part of its probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the president obstructed justice since taking office.

And there is a new twist in the president's ongoing feud with the nation's top law enforcement agency. Word that the Trump and Sessions nearly lost their new FBI director. We have learned that Christopher Wray threatened to resign because Sessions was pressuring him to fire or reassign FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

The president has made McCabe a target over and over again, suggesting that he's biased, and questioning why Sessions has not replaced him.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is covering the story from the White House. First, though, let's go to our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz. Shimon, what do we know about Sessions speaking to the Mueller team?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: We have been told this interview, the meeting with Mueller and his team happened last Wednesday. It lasted several hours. And presumably he was questioned about his knowledge concerning the firing of the FBI director and also the other key issue in this investigation, which is the contacts with Russians. Remember, Jeff Sessions was leading the foreign policy team for the Trump campaign. Members on that team have been questioned by the FBI. Some have pleaded guilty, like George Papadopoulos, George Papadopoulos has talked about his conversations with the attorney general during the campaign.

So, all of this undoubtedly something that Sessions would have been questioned about. And just think about this, Brianna, you have FBI agents who technically report to the attorney general, now assigned to the special counsel, who are presumably probably in this room, questioning the attorney general about his knowledge concerning the firing of the FBI director, and also the contacts with Russians.

KEILAR: All right. Shimon, I want to bring in Kaitlan Collins. She's at the white house for us. Kaitlan, you're getting some early reaction from the White House. What can you tell us?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Brianna. I found the Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in the White House a short while after we had confirmed this. The only thing that she would comment on this report that Sessions was interviewed by Mueller's office is to say that the White House is cooperating fully with the special counsel's investigation, something they have said for several months now.

And she could not say if Jeff Sessions and President Trump discussed his interview with Mueller's office when Jeff Sessions was at the White House yesterday afternoon and CNN cameras caught him on that. For right now, they're sticking with the line that they are cooperating with the special counsel's investigation and nothing further on that front -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And what can you tell us at this point in time about whether the White House is saying anything about Sessions and Sessions pressuring Wray to get rid of McCabe. Is the White House even touching that?

COLLINS: Well, the White House put out a very lengthy statement after it was first reported yesterday, and they did not hit down the specific reporting, but said the president praised Wray, complimented the FBI and said he only had a problem with a few senior officials.

But we have learned and confirmed today that the Attorney General Jeff Sessions did pressure the FBI Director Chris Wray to remove some of his -- remove or reassign some of the senior staffers over at the FBI, saying they needed a fresh start.

And we're told that he specifically suggested that the bureau's Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and its top lawyer, James Baker. Now, Baker was reassigned late last year. We are told that Wray threatened to resign if Andrew McCabe was removed or reassigned from his post.

So, it just goes to speak to the level of tension in between the DOJ, the FBI, something the president has criticized multiple times. Andrew McCabe specifically, Brianna, saying that he should step down and just as recently as early December, the president said that the FBI was, quote, "in tatters."

KEILAR: That's right. He did. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you so much. Joining me now to talk more about this, we have CNN political analyst and Washington bureau chief for "The Daily Beast," Jackie Kucinich with us.

We have reporter and editor-at-large for CNN Politics, Chris Cilizza and also with us, CNN contributor, Garrett Graff, the author of "The Threat Matrix Inside Robert Mueller's FBI and The War On Global Terror."

OK, so, Garrett, I want to start with what we heard Shimon reporting, which is that Sessions was questioned about Russia's meddling in the election and whether the president obstructed justice since taking office.

So, what specifically would Robert Mueller's team have wanted to get from Jeff Sessions in this interview?

GARRETT GRAFF, AUTHOR, "THE THREAT MATRIX: INSIDE ROBERT MUELLER'S FBI": Well, there are multiple different phases of this Russia investigation that Jeff Sessions intersects with. I mean, first, you have Sessions' own contacts with Russian officials like Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign on the sides of the Republican National Convention.

Potentially a meeting at the Mayflower Hotel during one of -- then Candidate Trump's foreign policy addresses where Jeff Sessions and Sergey Kislyak were also present. And then, remember, he was involved during the transition and then obviously now as attorney general.

So, he has a window into the discussions that the president has had with him, around Jim Comey's firing, around that Rod Rosenstein memo that led purportedly, although, the president himself has contradicted this theory, that led to Jim Comey's firing. So, Jeff Sessions has been in a lot of rooms that Bob Mueller is trying to get inside himself now, looking back.

KEILAR: And what does it say to you about where this investigation is. Just the timeline of it. What point we're at?

GRAFF: Well, it is not necessarily that this is a new avenue that we have never imagined. We sort of always imagined that this investigation would end up at Jeff Sessions' door right now.

But you have to imagine, Shimon made this point, this is an unprecedented moment for FBI agents and prosecutors within the Justice Department to be questioning the head of their own department in what is a sprawling criminal matter.

This gives you some sense at this point that Bob Mueller knows a fair bit and is fairly confident about the outline of the basic facts because you don't go to a high profile central witness like Jeff Sessions unless you have a pretty good understanding of the questions that you're going to ask and like any good prosecutor, a pretty good understanding of the answers you're going to receive. KEILAR: Jackie, the other part of this story about the Russia investigation and the thread we're pulling now is understanding that Sessions himself tried to pressure the Trump appointed FBI director to clean house really at the top, including the Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. So, seeing Sessions interviewed by Robert Mueller's team just underscores even how much more problematic it is that an AG would be doing that.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, right, so he has been not in the president's good graces for a while. So, whether this is an attempt to try to make it up to the president, the fact he recused himself from the Russian investigation, that early on.

But the fact that it used to be that you thought the president maybe didn't understand the role of the Justice Department. Now it just doesn't seem like he cares, looking at this reporting -- based on this reporting that Sessions was, you know, told by the president or pressured by the president to pressure the FBI.

He's pitting his own AG against a key law enforcement agency under his purview and that is -- that's troubling.

KEILAR: That's such an interesting point Jackie makes. He knows he's not supposed to be doing this, but it doesn't seem that that's a particular concern to the president and certainly, Jeff Sessions, who is trying to get back in his good graces.

CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes, I mean, look, Jeff Sessions doesn't have to look that far to figure out what Donald Trump thinks of Andrew McCabe. I mean, right before Christmas Donald Trump was advocating Andrew McCabe get rid of.

It is Trump pressuring Sessions publicly and saying -- this water trickles downhill. He doesn't, to Jackie's point, he does not respect the traditional separation between the executive branch and law enforcement.

He feels his purview is sort of everything, they work for me, don't they, they're -- technically in the sort of, you know, the hierarchy chart of the government, yes, they do. But most presidents have avoided that he is not -- Kaitlan mentioned the comment about the FBI being in tatters.

He's repeatedly attacked Andrew McCabe, James Comey and fired Jim Comey. The CIA and intelligence community, his unwillingness to accept their unanimous conclusion that Russia actively sought to interfere in our elections to benefit him and hurt Hillary Clinton, called it a hoax last week. This is a -- this not a one off, two off, three off.

[11:10:04] This is an active campaign based on a deep-seated belief that he has voiced that there are deep state actors embedded within the federal government that are out to get him because they don't like his politics.

KEILAR: How significant is this that this is getting to the Sessions level? I mean, this is the sitting attorney general.

KUCINICH: I think Garrett made a very good point, that yes, Mueller wouldn't have interviewed Sessions if he didn't have a basic understanding of the facts. The closer we get to the president himself, the more significant this is and the fact that he's -- we're now inside the cabinet, it seems unprecedented.

KEILAR: Do you think, Jackie, that the president -- I mean, obviously he's looking at this. How would he be responding to this if past is prologue?

KUCINICH: We'll see. He hasn't -- his lawyers have been able to keep him quiet on some parts of this, but we'll see if it boils over. You know, when he turns on the tv at night and is watching the news coverage of this, I think we may see. It is hard to predict, of course, with this president, but he's never really been shy at expressing his displeasure.

KEILAR: Garrett, Sessions wasn't under subpoena. What do you make of that?

GRAFF: I think that there is not a lot to read into that. I mean, the administration's view has been that they are trying to cooperate fully with the special counsel's investigation, and that seems like what we are continuing to see here.

What we're seeing, of course, what we're learning particularly with some of these Capitol Hill interviews as they're unfolding, there is a more nuanced level of cooperation, where you have people sort of purportedly willing to testify but then invoking all sorts of strange executive privileges that may or may not actually exist.

You know, I think that what is just hard to really wrap our arms around as Jackie and Chris were saying here is just how unprecedented and almost untenable this situation really is. Where, of course, Jeff Sessions is technically recused from the Russia investigation.

But Andy McCabe, Jim Baker, the general counsel and deputy director of the FBI, these are critical figures to this investigation and the obstruction investigation into Jim Comey's firing.

And you still have Jeff Sessions making pronouncements, trying to apply pressure about those individuals, these are people who are career nonpartisan, apolitical government officials. Exactly the type of people that you would want in these jobs.

And Chris Wray is fighting hard to preserve that independence in a pretty difficult situation. He said to me, actually, sort of years ago, he was talking about Jim Comey and bob Mueller and what he learned from them.

That Chris Wray said, you know, that the FBI director is about the toughest job in government, and that there aren't that many people who can weather the slings and arrows of that job and Chris Wray is learning right now just how true his own words are. KEILAR: Chris, one of the next stops for Sessions could be the Hill. So many facets to these investigations. You think about all of these administration officials, and sort of how they reserve the president's right to invoke executive privilege, Garrett was referring to this -- how they're basically saying executive privilege had they may or may not have grounds for it. What do you think will happen with Sessions?

CILIZZA: Jackie mentioned this, he's not -- you would think going back to the Hill would be somewhat friendly territory for him in that he served in the Senate from 1996 until 2017. But he is both struggled and run into some very tough questioning.

A lot of it came from someone who is not there anymore, Al Franken. But on his role in the Russia investigation and he has struggled, you know, I would think he has been more -- a little bit more open than some of the other people who have come up there.

But he has also done this thing that you mentioned, and Garrett mentioned, how do you reserve the right to let the president invoke executive privilege? It doesn't make any sense. He hasn't invoked executive privilege, but he could.

I mean, you could use that for almost anything. Look, Bob Mueller, I think -- I still think the Mueller investigation is the one that ultimately is going to yield --

KUCINICH: That's what I was going to say because he has partisan cover when he goes to the Hill increasing Republicans and increasingly with the controversy about the text messages, with the FBI agents, that have now -- some are gone missing apparently, they will want to talk to him about that. And to kind of maybe detract attention from what is going on in the Mueller probe. It seems the Mueller probe is the main event.

[11:15:08] CILIZZA: Two separate conversations. You have the Democrats asking about the Russia stuff and the Republicans trying to fix things up and ask him about the FBIs, the text messages.

KEILAR: Chris, Jackie, Garrett, thank you so much to all of you.

We do have some breaking news, at least one person is dead, many more rushed to the hospital after a shooter opens fire at a high school in Kentucky. These are live pictures that you're looking at. Stay with us for an update.


KEILAR: Right now, at least seven people are being treated at hospitals after a deadly shooting at a high school in Kentucky. CNN has confirmed that so far at least one person has died as we're getting new information in.

I want to go to CNN's Alison Kosik. You've been monitoring developments. What can you tell us, Alison?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: OK, Brianna, so the shooter is in custody. We do not know if it is a student. We do not know what his or her motive was. But, yes, seven people have been transported to hospitals, two of those people were taken by medical helicopter to Vanderbilt University Medical Center located in Nashville.

[11:20:13] The school, by the way, located about 20 miles southeast of Paducah, Kentucky, the school located in Benton. One other victim, one female at the high school was shot and taken to a different hospital. She is said to be OK.

Shots rang out around the time that the high school was starting the day or right around that school was going to begin the day. And we know -- we're hearing reports of first responders really jumping into action.

Benton City Clerk Beth Cooper telling CNN that the Benton Police Department is located right inside city hall where she is, and she said when they got the emergency call, all of the officers in the police department rushed to the high school.

Also assisting the investigation, ATF, FBI on the scene as well. We're 2also getting a statement from Kentucky Governor Matt Bevan. He says this, "This is a tremendous tragedy, and speaks to the heart break present in our communities. It is unbelievable that this would happen in a small close-knit community like Marshall County" -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes. We understand that this is a small community, just grasping with the very beginning of this. Alison, we know you're keeping an eye on this and we'll give us details as they develop. Thank you so much.

In the meantime, the government shutdown may be done, but the battle over immigration reform is just heating up again. Senate Democrats agreed to reopen the government with a shorter continuing resolution in return for a promise to work on immigration issues including a solution for DACA, for DREAMers.

And they have just 16 days to make this deal. At this point, it is not clear how negotiations are going to move forward, and the White House already is already saying the president's position on the DREAMers, depends what they get in exchange on border security and the wall.

Joining me now to discuss this is Republican Congressman Mario Diaz- Balart from Florida. Sir, thanks so much for being with us.


KEILAR: The majority whip in your conference, Steve Scalise, this morning said to "Politico Playbook," March is really the timeline, the House wasn't part of that deal, meaning the Senate deal, we're not going to pass a bill that has amnesty. There are things that would anger our base that I don't see us passing in the House.

Now, you are someone who supports protections for DREAMers, young people brought to the U.S. undocumented, but who know no other home besides the U.S. Do you worry that your conference will not be able to support whatever compromise comes out of the Senate?

DIAZ-BALART: Brianna, I worry that the two extremes, right and left, will do everything possible to stop a deal from happening. Here's what I think is the situation in the House. There is strong bipartisan support to protect those DREAMers, to make sure that they can permanently and forever be in the United States legally.

And there is also, I think, strong bipartisan support that understands that we have to do that, protect the DREAMers, but we also want to make sure that we don't have another million a month or a year or three years from now so there has to be an agreement.

I felt very positive about the first meeting in the White House that was very public, when there was agreement about four things that have to be part of the deal. A number of us are working in a bipartisan way to get those four things done.

And I generally believe that we're going to succeed. Remember those conversations were already taking place in a bipartisan way before the Schumer shutdown, which I think was needless, just wasted time and, again, just frankly ridiculous.

KEILAR: You mentioned the bipartisan support in the House, which makes me wonder if the speaker would rely on that. Because it is entirely possible if the Senate does pass something that comes out and moves over to your chamber, I think it is easy to see a pathway where it gets enough votes in the House, but it may require the speaker to rely on Democrats. Do you think he's willing to do that?

DIAZ-BALART: Brianna, what makes no sense is passing something at the Senate, for example, that the president won't agree to because we all know what the magic formula is. This is not --

KEILAR: Let's do this in order. Because before it goes to the president, it goes to your chamber. So, if it can get through your chamber, but it actually requires being put on the floor and being subject to possible support from Democrats, taking off some of the members on the right side of your party, should the speaker do it?

DIAZ-BALART: Well, again, the concept that either a House bill can be shoved through the Senate or a Senate bill can be shoved through the House just doesn't tend to work. So, that's why I think it has to be --

KEILAR: What do you mean? It happens all the time. I mean, the president has been jammed on other things.

[11:25:08] DIAZ-BALART: Look, it happens from time to time, but not something of this nature, of this complexity that this is emotional. So, here's what I think has to happen, and by the way, those conversations are taking place.

It has to be bipartisan with obviously buy-in from the White House. Otherwise, there is nothing doing, and bicameral. There are a lot of conversations taking place. I feel optimistic. I think that the deadline, by the way, I think march is the drop-dead deadline, but bad things happen before then.

So, I think we have to get this as soon as possible. Here is the sad part. There were serious conversations, whether it was the -- that group of four and the leadership, bicameral, bipartisan that were taking place.

There were also other conversations taking place, bicameral and bipartisan, and then all of a sudden for some reason you had the Senate Democrats saying, well, we're not going to do this unless we have conversation.

KEILAR: But, wait, there were bipartisan discussions that the president totally shut down. Before the shutdown there was a bipartisan proposal and the president rejected it and it seems what is consistent is that there is bipartisan confusion over where the president stands.

If you're saying it is so important to know where the president stands, he would have to sign off on this. I mean, we've heard from people on your party, they don't know what he wants.

DIAZ-BALART: Well, except that it is pretty clear what he wants and more importantly than that, there was an agreement that the entire world and the American people saw it televised where there was an agreement about four things that have to be seriously addressed and then -- and I respect --

KEILAR: Those are four broad pillars sort of. Those are four areas --

DIAZ-BALART: Brianna, those broad pillars, you're right, they have to be negotiated, there was a group of folks negotiating those four broad pillars. Two members, few more, decided they have a different deal, they can do that. That's positive. That's all great.

But, again, the concept, just a handful of members can stuff something down either the Senate or the House or the president is just not going to happen. Here is the good news. There are a lot of real conversations taking place.

They have to continue shutting down the government, all it did was waste time and taxpayer money and a lot of other things. So, now that we're reopened, we can start once again where we left off, which was bipartisan, bicameral conversations, and with the White House.

I don't think there is a lot of confusion. There should be no confusion where the White House is. They want to secure the border, make sure we have -- there is border protection and willing to deal in a reasonable, I think very generous way with these DACA folks that deserve legalization, I think we'll get there, we have to lower the decibels, lower the rhetoric, to be able to sit down privately --

KEILAR: To that point, some of your fellow Republicans in their messaging on the shutdown talked about DREAMers in a way that is different than I've heard you talk about them. Take a listen to Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: The American people cannot comprehend why the senior senator from New York is advising his party to keep government shutter for American troops, veterans, military families and vulnerable American children until he gets exactly what he wants on the issue of illegal immigration. The situation does not even become urgent until March.


KEILAR: The president tweeted Democrats are far more concerned with illegal immigrants than they are with our military or safety and our dangerous southern border. You said the decibels need to come down. Does that bring the decibels down?

DIAZ-BALART: Well, again, all this happens, and I understand -- I think the decibels need to come down on all sides. But this shutdown takes place at a time and nobody can deny this when there were productive bipartisan negotiations and then Senator Schumer said, unless we have productive bipartisan negotiations, we're going to shut down.

They're already taking place. Now, look, I'm not here to point fingers. Thank God that's behind us. What we have to do now is lower the decibels, sit down, most of this has to be done quietly and privately to reach a resolution. I think we're going to get there. We have to get there.

We have to stop the deportation of these almost 800,000 young people who don't know another country, and part of that has to do that we have to also secure the border. I think those are logical things we have to do.

I think there is enough of us Republicans and Democrats that are willing to put partisanship politics aside to get it done, so let me tell you, I am optimistic. It's very difficult, but I am cautiously optimistic that the adults in the room will prevail.

KEILAR: We hope your cautious optimism is right on point. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart joining us from beautiful Miami. Sir, thank you so much.

DIAZ-BALART: Thank you so much.

KEILAR: We have more developments in the president's alleged hush money to porn star, Stormy Daniels, money that came from his personal lawyer under a different name we are told. So, a watchdog group claims that the reported $130,000 payment may have violated campaign finance law. We'll have that next --