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AG Sessions Interviewed by Mueller in Russia Probe; WH: Cooperating with Special Counsel Probe; At least One Dead, Seven Wounded in Kentucky School Shooting. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:00:00]

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL AND LEGAL ANALYST: -- memo from Devin Nunes, President Trump's tweet this morning regarding a series of text messages that were not preserved. So I think this does put additional sort of context into why the White House is potentially feeling so nervous and really ramping up their efforts to really try and discredit Robert Mueller's investigation.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: So we'll remember, Steve, that testimony that we were all watching sort of jaws dropped of Sessions in front of Congress saying so many times over and over I can't recall or really trying to cite executive privilege or saying I might have to in the future to not answer lawmakers questions on so many things about any communication with Russians from the Trump administration or him personally. Can he do that with Mueller? When he sat down with Mueller's team, can he use that or no?

STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CONTRIBUTOR: He can to a certain extent, but he's not going to be talking to Congress. It is going to be a different situation. It is going to be more conversational. And FBI agents can be a little bit strong in their questioning.

But he doesn't have the legal compulsion to speak. Had they brought him before the grand jury, they can compel testimony except, you know, certain types. So the choice to interview him rather than initially bring him before the grand jury is significant. But Mueller, we have seen in this investigation, is not afraid to use heavy handed tactics.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You know, Susan, first I want you to comment on the issue of privilege. But you're a walking encyclopedia into the entire Russian affair and Russia investigation. What are the major touch points that you think that Mueller would want to drill down on?

HENNESSEY: Right, so as Shimon sort of referred to earlier, you know, Sessions really is involved kind of in a number of different threads here. One he was part of the Trump transition team, part of that foreign policy team. So he was involved in meetings in which contacts and overtures with Russian officials were discussed. He himself had undisclosed contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. That's one of the reasons why he resigned. There has been recent reporting that White House Counsel John McGahn on behalf of the president had actually pressured Jeff Sessions not to recuse. And then there is also the question of sort of the obstruction of justice, the firing of Jim Comey, his involvement there. So Jeff Sessions really is involved in quite central to any number of questions that Robert Mueller is going to be trying to get to the bottom of.

HARLOW: So, Steve, we know obviously that Sessions famously recused himself from the Russia investigation as was noted. It enraged the president. The president didn't think he had to. There was a question of would he be fired, resigned as a result? Do you believe that Robert Mueller's team, one of their key questions would be the Attorney General Sessions, what did you know and when did you know it about when, you know, the president wanting to fire and ultimately firing James Comey, the reasoning behind the actual firing of James Comey. Would that be central here?

MOORE: Well, it certainly would be significant. If it's not central, then they got something bigger than that, which should scare him. The first thing I would want to know based on what I've seen in the press right now is what went on with that meeting between the president and Comey and the implications that Trump wanted him fired if he didn't comply.

So I think that's going to be important. But if it's not central, you got to ask yourself what is. And right now the way I'm looking at it, it is kind of like the Watergate thing, where the initial crime wasn't what brought that president down. The problem was obstruction afterwards. And it seems to me that Mueller is looking in that direction in this case.

BERMAN: You know it interesting, and Susan, you bring up the timing, sort of the volume and the frenzy of some of the Republican attacks on the Justice Department has increased in the last week, certainly in the time frame since they may have found out that Jeff Sessions testified to Mueller. The flip side of that are the claims from the president's White House attorneys including Ty Cobb that they're close to being done, maybe they think, with this investigation.

Well, look, you know if the attorney general is the highest ranking cabinet official that has been interviewed to date, you can't get much higher than the attorney general, right? You interview the biggest fish last. If they're interviewing the attorney general, they want to talk to the president right now. Maybe they are close to being done with a certain phase of this investigation.

HENNESSEY: Right. So it is possible and certainly go in line with reports that Mueller was also in negotiations to interview President Trump himself. That said, you know, Jeff Sessions' interview is a reminder there are a lot of really important actors here that we don't know have been interviewed. So, you know, Jeff Sessions certainly high ranking, but there are a lot of high ranking individuals that might be intimately connected here. And so I think there is a plausible alternative explanation that Robert Mueller is just getting started.

[10:05:02] That he spent a lot of time maybe looking at smaller fish, lower level individuals, getting that his sort of factual predicate right, what he believes happened and now he's going to start sort of working up the chain with increasingly significant interviews. HARLOW: We do know that, you know, that they were trying to compel and were subpoenaing Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist, to testify before a grand jury. That will now be an interview with Mueller's team. Steve, to you, just some of what we know about what the attorney general has all of a sudden remembered again and why it is important, from George Papadopoulos to Sergey Kislyak, the ambassador, to Carter Page, told by Carter Page that he was traveling to Russia in July 2016 during the presidential campaign. All things that he sort of failed to remember in front of Congress and have since flipped on.

MOORE: Yes. That's going to be extremely significant and the FBI interviewers are going to love that because one of the tools they like is, hey, you said this, but we found this, can you help us understand where the disconnect is here. Another thing you're probably going to see, if Sessions' testimony is significant as far as what other people have said before, they have got him now on record and you may see them going back and re-interviewing other people this time under grand jury conditions, because they may have found statements that do not jive with what direct -- what Mr. Sessions had said.

BERMAN: You know, Susan, I do want to get you on the issue of privilege here because so much of Jeff Sessions' role in this story over the last year has been what he's not been willing to say to Congress, you know, suggesting that he either forgot or claiming the possibility of some privilege down the line. Does it work the same way when you're talking to an investigation by the executive branch technically, the Special Counsel's Office, how would that work behind closed doors, Susan?

HENNESSEY: Right, so technically executive privilege is only available for the executive branch to assert against the legislative branch, the judicial branches. In this kind of interview Jeff Sessions might be able to assert some sort of presidential communications privilege. He also is the president's attorney, so he would be potentially able to assert limited forms of attorney/client privilege. You know, that said, these are issues on which, you know, the Justice Department is going to have already memos. They're already had come to a number of legal conclusions. And so it will be very significant if Jeff Sessions is in any way departing from our deviating from, you know, those career prosecutors, those career DOJ officials, sort of legal judgments about privilege.

HARLOW: Let me just - Susan, let me ask you a follow-up on that and let's just roll this video. We have Jeff Sessions' video, I believe, right now, leaving the White House.

BERMAN: This was yesterday.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: This was yesterday. And there was question, what was he doing at the White House.

HARLOW: Now maybe we know more. Who knows?

BERMAN: There's no way of knowing for sure. But, gosh, the timing is certainly curious, interviewed by the special counsel last week.

HARLOW: Coincidental, if not more. Let me just ask you about that. Because Susan, you just said that Jeff Sessions is the president's attorney. I think a lot of Americans hearing that would think, oh, well then he has an obligation to the president. He's loyal to the president. We know this is a president who values loyalty above almost everything else. Just to be clear here, though, I mean Sessions -- does he have any responsibility to the president here? I mean, he is the attorney general working for the American people, first and foremost, no?

HENNESSEY: Exactly. So Jeff Sessions is the attorney for the people of the United States of America. -

HARLOW: Yes.

HENNESSEY: He also has certain obligations to the office of the presidency. -

HARLOW: But not.

HENNESSEY: Donald Trump has his own White House counsel. He has private attorneys. So the nature of that attorney/client relationship is dramatically different.

HARLOW: OK. Good.

BERMAN: Guys, if you will, please stand by because we're getting much more information on this and we're going to want to lean on you for some legal interpretations.

In the meantime, let's talk a little bit about the politics of all of this. Joining us now, CNN political commentator, Errol Louis. The attorney general of the United States, you know, he is a senior ranking cabinet official. Anytime a cabinet official speaks to a special counsel or an investigation is a big deal. Jeff Sessions is also a key player in the Donald Trump campaign. This is a big piece of information.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It is a very big deal. It is not somebody who was brought on after the inauguration. It is not somebody who is part of the administration. It goes right to the heart of all of the things that the special counsel was tasked with looking at, that the White House most wanted to sort of keep under wraps. Even if we were just talking about confirming and sort of putting in place timelines, there has been so much confusion as you outline about who he was with and who met with Kislyak and how come he didn't remember and so forth.

He also can sort of confirm or deny things that Michael Flynn might be telling the special counsel. We got sort of a lot of information, a lot of those key meetings, the big one at Trump Tower that we've heard so much about where -

HARLOW: Right. LOUIS: -- you know, you can legitimately ask this key member of both the campaign and the administration who was there, what was said about it, what were you thinking, and what does all of this mean?

HARLOW: So he did, as we know, testify in front of the House Intelligence Committee, famously and in November, you had the ranking Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, who came out very disturbed after that testimony.

[10:10:06] Here is one of the reasons why, just reading you a quote, Schiff said then, "I asked the attorney general whether he was ever instructed by the president to take any action that he believed would hinder the Russia investigation." Schiff says Sessions declined to answer that question before the committee. He couldn't decline to answer that in front of Mueller's team it sounds like from our legal experts.

LOUIS: Well, he could at great legal peril. It is not entirely clear though, I have to say. I mean, if you read the various accounts, the Michael Wolff book and others. The fact he decided to recuse himself without clearing it first with Donald Trump was said -- was described as sort of like an IED going off inside the White House, the fact that he took himself out of it. It could be something no more graphic than that. No more important than that, which we already knew about, or it could be something else entirely.

BERMAN: All right, joining us also now is Alice Stewart, a CNN contributor, Republican strategist. You know, Alice, we know that the president has had a somewhat fraught relationship with the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. We also know that the president has called this investigation a hoax. And attorney general of the United States is not investigated or questioned in an investigation that is a hoax. I mean, this is sort of a big deal and a new reality that the White House will have to deal with.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Certainly. And let me just say off the top, I do think it is inappropriate for the administration to be referring to this as a hoax and a witch-hunt. I think it is important for us to get to the bottom of it. And I think the only way that we can do that, and put this behind us, is to let everyone that has any information that is relevant to the investigation, let them go before Mueller and his team and provide what information they do have. And clearly, that is what the attorney general is doing.

And the fact that he was accompanied by his long time attorney and friend of mine, Chuck Cooper, goes to show, look, they want to put all the information out there. They want to get to the relevant key facts in this, and more than anything, I think it was critical and just goes to show that Jeff Sessions wants this to be above board, by the simple fact that from the very beginning he recused himself from anything that had to do with the Russian probe because he realized it was an extreme conflict of interest for him to be investigating this Russian matter, which involved the Trump campaign when he was a key part of the Trump campaign.

So I look at this from the standpoint that Jeff Sessions is yet again doing what -- in his mind truly is the right thing under the law and the right way to get about the facts in this case. And fully comply. And I think that the more information out there, the better. And whether or not this has to do with Russian collusion between the campaign, or getting to the real heart of the matter is Russian interference in our election and whether or not it influenced the outcome of our election. That's the key point here. And the more information we can get out there, I think it is the best for not just this administration, but the American election process overall.

HARLOW: All right, we do have our Shimon Prokupecz on the justice (INAUDIBLE). With us, we're getting our Kaitlan Collins up at the White House with responses. We wait for Kaitlan. Shimon, what else are you learning?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, to - I think it's important here to point out that the relationship between the FBI and the Department of Justice is pretty much frayed here. There are a lot of problems. And just keep in mind, you know, what this must have been like on Wednesday when Sessions was interviewed. Probably FBI agents asking him questions, technically the attorney general is their boss. They were questioning their boss in an investigation that he is pretty much central on two issues. That is the firing of the former FBI director, and then also the contacts with Russia and the foreign policy team during the campaign.

And, you know, the former FBI director sort of alluded to something during the time that he testified on the Hill about this investigation found as it related to Sessions. Remember, he did that in the closed door, some of it did come out. It was about some meetings potentially at a hotel here in Washington, D.C.

And also, Comey did not have any confidence in Sessions. It is why he said he went public with those memos, because he couldn't go to Congress, he couldn't go to his attorney general because he felt that his issues that he had with the president, with President Trump, asking questions about the investigation, would not be fairly addressed by the attorney general. No doubt all of this did come up in this interview, questions by the special prosecutor, questions by the FBI agents. I mean, this is an extraordinary development. I mean, just think about sitting inside that room for these FBI agents to be questioning the attorney general.

[10:15:08] BERMAN: Look, I have to say also remarkable timeline of the last week. Last week questioned by FBI agents in the Russia investigation within the last few days. Apparently having the current FBI director threatening to quit unless the attorney general backs off his demands to shake up the House and maybe get rid of the deputy there. That is fascinating, great point, Shimon.

Let's go to the White House now, Kaitlan Collins is there. We are getting some new reaction from the White House, Kaitlan, I understand.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. That's right, John. After we confirmed this, I grabbed Sarah Sanders in the hallway and spoke with her. She said they are not commenting on this beyond saying that the White House is cooperating with this investigation, and it is worth noting that Jeff Sessions is actually at the White House yesterday meeting with President Trump. And I asked Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, if the two of them discussed his interview with the special counsel while they were meeting. And she said she could not speak to that. She did not if they had discussed it. But we do know that the White House is aware of this interview with Mueller and they are saying that they are only cooperating with him at this point.

BERMAN: All right, Errol Louis, Alice Stewart, Kaitlan, everyone, thank you.

HARLOW: Thank you.

BERMAN: Don't go very far. There is a lot going on and unfortunately we're also following breaking news out of Kentucky, seven people have been taken to the hospital after a shooting at a high school there. The governor says one person has been killed. The shooter is in custody. We have a live update coming up.

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[10:20:35] HARLOW: All right. We're continuing to follow the very disturbing, sad breaking news out of Kentucky. We know that at least one person has been killed. We got seven in the hospital after the shooting at a Kentucky high school. Again, multiple injuries, we just don't know the extent of them at this time.

BERMAN: Leah Shields is a reporter with our affiliate, "WPSD," she joins us on the phone. You're outside the school, Leah. Again, we've learned that the shooter is in custody. What else can you tell us?

LEAH SHIELDS, REPORTER, "WPSD" (via telephone): Well, it is still very active scene as you may guess. I mean there is a lot of police that's going on right now. They're transferring all the students to a different school in the county, North Marshall Middle School. So you can see armed police -- armed officers with huge guns walking students in a single file line from one building to the next to try and transport them. There is just, I mean, this is a really small community.

And so, even the law enforcement officers usually know some people who go to school. And I was trying to get to where I'm at right now. They have a lot of people stopping the roads and -- even the people who are the cross guards are just crying. It is a tragedy.

We do know that one person is dead. I talked to a parent who said his daughter has called him and said she was OK and she said she saw the person dead. They think it was a girl being carried out, blood dripping. I mean horrible, horrible details that these students have to see. I mean, my heart and prayers go out to the families right now.

This is a community that, you know, 20 years ago, they have experienced something in the county just one over with the Heath High School shooting. So these communities know how this feels and it is a tragedy to see it happening again. Cars are lining the roads, parents are trying to pick up students now, but they're transferring them. I can see the bus, a Marshall County school bus transporting high school students right now and they're going to North Marshall Middle School to keep them safe and parents I think can pick them up at that school.

HARLOW: And, Leah, we're just seeing video for the first time on our screen of pretty much where you're standing outside of the high school, first responders arriving, rushing inside, can only imagine what it is like for them. As you said, very close knit community, Benton, Kentucky, community of just 4500 people. You've got 1300 students there, 74 teachers. And, again, we're hearing seven people taken to the hospital. Is that the number you're hearing and what do you know about the extent of those injuries?

SHIELDS: I am hearing that as well. A lot of numbers are flying out right now, just because, like you said, it is such a small community. So everybody's mom knows somebody who works at the hospital or someone who works at the school. So I don't want to speculate and scare anybody. But I have people who know people working at the hospital and say that number sounds about accurate as of now. I don't have anything coming to mind, I don't want to scare anybody. People here are being very calm, though, and working diligently.

Like you said, there are plenty of first responders on the scene. I did hear a helicopter earlier. I didn't know where it went, but I did hear one in the area. So the numbers are flying around, of course. Governor Matt Bevin, he tweeted out that one person lost their life and multiple wounded. But the specifics I just haven't been able to reach my sources just yet.

HARLOW: OK.

BERMAN: All right, Leah Shields from our affiliate "WPSD." Leah, thank you very much for your reporting, we'll let you get back to work. Please keep us posted as the developments come in.

HARLOW: Thanks to Leah. We're following much more breaking news this morning as well.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions sitting down for an interview for hours with Special Counsel Bob Mueller, very significant. The first cabinet member in the president's team to be interviewed by the special counsel. The White House this morning just responding saying it is cooperating. Much more ahead.

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[10:28:48] BERMAN: All right. The breaking news, CNN has confirmed that the Attorney General Jeff Sessions was interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team one week ago. He is the most senior official to be interviewed yet in this investigation.

Back with us now, our political commentators Errol Louis, also Alice Stewart and now joining us, Brian Fallon as well. And Brian, want to go to you first because among your many other jobs, you once worked in the Justice Department. And before we were talking to Shimon Prokupecz, who points out just the oddity of this, where you have FBI agents, investigators, theoretically, questioning the attorney general of the United States in a closed room. Explain to us how unusual that is and the implications. BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it would be highly unusual in any other circumstance other than this one that we find ourselves in with Donald Trump being the president and himself being under scrutiny in this Russia investigation. So it was reported a few weeks back that Mueller's team is already starting to negotiate the terms by which they will interview the president himself. So we should not be surprised to hear that they have sought out the attorney general.

Of course, there is two points of interest with respect to the attorney general, at least two. Number one is he himself had contacts with the Russian government during the campaign. At least two meetings with Ambassador Kislyak that he didn't initially disclose to the Senate when he was going through his confirmation hearing, so the underlying collusion investigation will be interesting.