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Sessions Interviewed by Mueller; Mueller Team May Be Nearing End; Conservative Immigration Bill. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:22] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing this busy news day with us.

A major new development in the Russia meddling investigation. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, interviewed by the special counsel's office for several hours.

Breaking news today in Kentucky too. A suspect is in custody after a morning school shooting that left at least one person dead and seven injured.

Plus, the government is open after a three-day shutdown, but there was little or no progress made on the big immigration differences that led to the impasse. And the Trump White House still refusing to referee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICK MULVANEY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET: His -- the position is as it has been from the very beginning, we're interested in border security.

Yes.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": Just say what his position is on it. How do they get to stay? Who gets to stay?

MULVANEY: Again, it depends on what we get in exchange. What do we get for our border security? What do we get for a wall?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin the hour with breaking news in the Russia investigation. CNN learning Robert Mueller's team interviewed the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, last week, questioning him for several hours as part of the special counsel probe into Russia election meddling in the 2016 election. Sessions was a central player, of course, in the firing of the former FBI director, James Comey, and the special counsel wants to know if the president took that dramatic step as part of an effort to obstruct the Russia meddling investigation.

Plus, Sessions himself, you might recall, had election year encounters with the Russian ambassador and was involved in some campaign meetings when proposals to develop contacts and ties with Russia came up. A source telling CNN this is the first time the Mueller team has interviewed the attorney general. The interview also means it's the first time a member of the president's cabinet has been interviewed by the special counsel team.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz is tracking the latest in this investigation.

Shimon, be as specific as you can, what's the special counsel and his team looking for here?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, certainly, John, as you said, the Comey firing, that is probably one of the biggest issues that the special counsel will be looking at and will be seeking questions -- answers from him on because, keep in mind, this is why the special counsel was brought in, to sort of investigate possible obstruction after Comey was fired. And the attorney general was key in that. He helped draft the memo that would eventually be used as justification by the president to fire the former FBI director.

And also the contacts. The contacts that Sessions and people on the foreign policy team that he was running in the campaign, some of whom -- some of those members now have pleaded guilty. One of -- George Papadopoulos is cooperating with the FBI. So all of that is certainly things and questions that Sessions would have had to answer.

KING: And, Shimon, this comes at a time -- already you see fresh information about potential tension within the Justice Department, the FBI relationship. Reports out that Jeff Sessions tried to see if the number two -- if the number one at the FBI would fire the number two. What impact is all of this having on the Justice Department, the FBI/DOJ relationship?

PROKUPECZ: Look, I -- you know, it's fair to say, based on some of the folks that I have talked to, it is frayed. There are issues between the relationships because really central is trust. And there really is no trust. I think there -- it's lacking right now between the FBI and the Department of Justice because, in the end, while Sessions is recused from so much, you know, who knows whose interests he has in mind. Is it the president or is it justice? Is it the FBI? And that is undoubtedly always a concern now for people in the FBI.

KING: Shimon Prokupecz, appreciate the latest on the investigation. We'll stay in touch there.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Rachael Bade of "Politico," Michael Bender of "The Wall Street Journal," Michael Zeldin, who was Robert Mueller's special assistant at the Justice Department, and Karen Tumulty of "The Washington Post."

Let's just start with the basic fact that -- Michael, I'll start with you. You've worked with Bob Mueller. Unlike the president at times, and unlike people around the president at times, Director Mueller has enormous respect for the system, respect for the institution, respect for the message things send. You don't put the attorney general of the United States in the witness chair unless you think you absolutely, positively need to, right? MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO ROBERT MUELLER: Right. You want from Sessions information that you don't think you can get elsewhere. And that's why he spoke to him.

KING: And do you believe central to the questions, Sessions obviously did have some 2016 contacts. He says, maybe I didn't disclose them fully, maybe I wasn't as transparent as I should have been, but they were nothing. They were minor meetings. So, obviously, that's one issue.

Is the bigger issue, in your mind, the Comey firing and the potential of obstruction of justice?

ZELDIN: That's -- I made a list of about eight things that I think if I were Mueller I'd want to speak to Sessions about. And obstruction surely is one of them. And perhaps foremost among them, how did it come to pass that Comey was asked for loyalty? How did it come to pass that Comey was fired? How did it come to pass that Priebus and others were asked to intervene, at least publicly, with respect to the information that was coming out about this investigation? There's a lot about that which only Sessions has direct knowledge of.

[12:05:15] KING: Right.

And, Michael, covering the White House every day, what is your sense of what this does? Jeff Sessions was there just yesterday. He met with the president. We don't know. Sarah Sanders says, the press secretary, she doesn't know if they discussed his testimony to the special counsel.

But we do know that this is a relationship that was once a very close friendship from the campaign that has turned into a great deal of tension with the president furious at Jeff Sessions for recusing himself, and not liking other things.

What does it say to the president -- what do we expect from the president when he hears, my National Security Council is now -- chief was now cooperating, General Flynn, now my attorney general's in the witness chair?

MICHAEL BENDER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, I think we -- what -- we talked to the president a little bit about this a couple of weeks ago in our interview in the Oval Office. And, as you know, he says there's no obstruction and -- there's no collusion and therefore there can't be obstruction since there is no collusion. The -- I will say, the White House has done a pretty good job of kind of containing this. To see the White House's reaction, to see Trump's reaction, I don't think the place will look necessarily as Sanders or the press shop but his attorneys.

And we saw Sekulow, Jay Sekulow, last night on "Hannity." And he wasn't talking about the Sessions interview. He wasn't talking about Mueller. What they're pivoting now to are these missing e-mails from the FBI agents. And, you know, he's likening that to Watergate and say -- his quote last night was that five months of missing text messages is a lot longer than 18 minutes of missing tape during Watergate. So they're trying to, you know, divert attention to this issue and a little bit away from --

KING: And we can't connect the dots, Karen, but if you look at the politics of that, and we went through this covering the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal where, you know, for all the Democrats now screaming at the Republicans, why are you discrediting the investigator, why are you attacking the FBI, the Clinton White House did that as well during the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

The idea being, that I always say, they know more than we do. So when the president of the United States or the president's legal team starts doing something, always trying to get to the motive of it. And so, are you trying to discredit, raise questions about the integrity, the impartiality, the fairness of the investigators at a very time you know this investigation is reaching an important crossroads?

KAREN TUMULTY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Of course. And we also have seen -- I mean the pattern has been that when things get closer to the president, he's been pretty disappointed through the shutdown. But when things start getting closer to him, that's when we have these interruptions. And in Donald Trump's view, the original sin in all of this was Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself.

KING: In Donald Trump's view it is --

TUMULTY: Yes.

KING: Even though it falls -- and one of the issues here is, number one, the Comey firing, as Michael laid out I think quite clearly and very well, the questions about that. Why was he asked to pledge loyalty. What do you know about when you pulled him off into the Oval Office? How did this happen?

Jeff Sessions, remember, wrote a memo as part of that, even though he'd recused himself in the Russian investigation, helped write a memo that led to the firing of the guy leading the Russia investigation at the time.

There was also the question -- you remember this from his, Rachael, on Capitol Hill from his confirmation testimony. He couldn't recall or didn't disclose some of his meetings with the Russian ambassador. And then the coffee boy, as they call him in Trump land, George Papadopoulos, cuts a plea agreement. And as part of that he says that he was in a meeting with the attorney general during the campaign in which he said, you know, we need to reach out to Russia. We need to have some communications with Russia. Jeff Sessions' memory on that, as on several other issues, evolved some.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: That has frustrated the Democrats (INAUDIBLE) part of the congressional, whether it's the confirmation hearing or the oversight hearings when they bring the attorney general back, is he either doesn't recall or his memory evolves. He's in a different setting when he's sitting down with the special counsel.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": Yes, and I think that's why perhaps it's unusual that the FBI is, you know, sitting down with their boss, and that's a very awkward conversation and awkward interview. But, of course, it was to be expected. I mean Sessions is at the heart of a lot of these questions. He was in the room. He was talking to the president when, you know, he was considering if he's going to fire Comey because he didn't like the Russian probe.

Right now I feel like we have sort of a tale of two Washingtons where you have the FBI, obviously, sticking to, you know, their probe and continuing in the direction, getting closer and closer to the president, and then in Washington, or on Capitol Hill, I should say, Republicans close to President Trump totally tuning that out. They really are focusing on these text messages.

And I can tell you over the weekend, during the shutdown, when I was covering that, I heard a lot of House Republicans talking about missing text messages between two FBI employees that they said, you know, had anti-Trump sentiments and actually were removed from the Russian probe. And so they are really winnowing in on that and it's like, you know, two parallel tracks that don't overlap anymore (ph).

KING: And I would say in that point that if they have clear evidence, not cherry-picked evidence of that, they should present it to the American people. But the problem for them is that Devin Nunes' name is the one at the top of the memo, it's going to be immediately suspect because he was, forgive me, a Trump lap dog early in this investigation, doing things as part of that. So if you have this, if it's important, do it in a fair and impartial way and involve Democrats and lay it out in the public. If you do it as a Republican only enterprise, you're going to end up in this hyper politics if it gets there.

[12:10:18] I want to come back to the attorney general, because this is the nation's top law enforcement official being interviewed essentially by a man who has his powers. Bob Mueller essentially gets the power of the attorney general when you get named to be special counsel. What privilege does the attorney general have? Can he look at Bob Mueller and say, that's a private conversation with the president about the Comey firing or about anything else? I'm not going to tell you.

ZELDIN: So if Mueller stands in the place of the judiciary when he issues a grand jury subpoena, and then you have your separation of powers and that's when the executive privilege can be asserted, but it has to be asserted with respect to policy considerations between the executive and the president. I don't think that is going to -- and then you have the United States versus Nixon which says in the face of a grand jury subpoena in a criminal investigation, that privilege falls. So I don't think he really -- at the end of the day, if he had to go to court and contest a subpoena for his testimony, he prevails. It's pretty straightforward stuff now that Mueller will have the opportunity to get the testimony that he needs from Flynn.

KING: Right.

ZELDIN: Sorry, from Sessions. I said Flynn.

KING: And Flynn.

ZELDIN: I said Flynn because I was thinking of my next point, which is, what would be interesting also, John, is what is Flynn and Papadopoulos, the two cooperating witnesses, saying about Sessions? So Sessions comes in and he has presumably no idea what has been represented to Mueller from these two cooperators. And he has, therefore, a very, you know, sort of thin line to navigate. If he's going to start, you know, forgetting, as he did in his congressional testimony, then he's going to put himself in some sort of jeopardy with the special counsel.

KING: An important point in the investigation.

We'll continue the conversation.

Up next, more on the role of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who at times has found the lighter side of this Russian investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Is Ambassador Kislyak in the room? Before I get started here, any Russians?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:16:23] KING: Welcome back.

Let's continue now on the big breaking news this morning. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, sitting down for an interview with Robert Mueller's team of investigators. Critical moment in the special counsel investigation and one that again puts a glaring spotlight on the president's long and topsy turvy relationship with Attorney General Sessions. He was, of course, the first senator to endorse trump and a key validator during the campaign to conservatives who doubted the Manhattan billionaire was one of them. His loyalty was rewarded when the president made him the nation's top law enforcement officer. But Sessions has since, as we noted a bit in the last bloc, been a repeated source of anger and a public punching bag for a president infuriated with a single decision and the fallout from it. The attorney general's choice to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and, of course, the subsequent appointment of Robert Mueller as the special counsel.

Astead Hemdon from "The Boston Globe" joins the panel.

Sorry for the first part. We have to have a lawyer in to help me through the legal stuff in the first part.

This is the attorney general of the United States. If you just think about, we've been trying to think, how long is this going to last? How long into year two? Will the criminal investigation by the special counsel last? Does it tell us anything that if you're interviewing cabinet members, and specifically the attorney general, that at least on some of the big questions Mueller must be getting to a decision point?

BENDER: Yes, I think that's right. I mean let's take a step back and that Trump's attorneys have been saying -- they said in the summer this was going to be wrapped up in the fall. They said in the fall this was going to be done in December. In December they said it's going to be done by the end of January. At some point they're going to be right about this, right?

They've -- we've gotten basically through Flynn. They've talked to Bannon. They're on Sessions now. I think if anything the Sessions interview, you know, we don't have any sign that this is taking a new direction or a new lane but certainly must be getting close if you're interviewing the people who are in the inner circle of the president.

KING: Right, and when you mention the inner circle, I just want to show our viewers, there's more than a dozen members of the president's inner circle have been interviewed by the special counsel. Steve Bannon, we know, is upcoming. They're trying to work out the details of that. The special counsel used a little hardball, issuing a grand jury subpoena and then negotiating a deal to come in voluntarily. Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, has cut a plea deal. He's cooperating. Hope Hicks, the communications director, very important, she is, to the whole idea of why -- what do they try to say, how did they try to spin when Donald Trump Jr. had to publically acknowledge that 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton? Jared Kushner, you see right there, was at that meeting. And you see these other key players.

If you're in the Trump -- the president met yesterday with his attorney general. He finds out his attorney general has been interviewed by the special counsel. You have to start getting a bit tense about the moment of reckoning. You hope it goes well, but you know you're at that crossroads.

ASTEAD HEMDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": He would know that this is a serious interview and that this comes to -- as you said, the top law enforcement official in America. I think this is not a surprising interview, however. I mean Attorney General Sessions was intimately involved with the campaign. As you said, one of those initial supporters.

The question is, where does it go from here? We go to other senior high-level officials? Maybe Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, or other people. That would be a surprising new turn. But I think this one is an expected but still worrisome sign and the White House would be on edge.

KING: And where is the relationship today? And as I say that, I'll go back in time because we have seen the president on a number of occasions take shots at his attorney general, which is rather remarkable. And to suggest that the attorney general's job is to be loyal to the president, not loyal to the law, which the attorney general's job of all the cabinet jobs, it's the most unique in the sense that you are there to protect the Constitution, not to protect the president of the United States.

But if you go back last summer, so why aren't the committees and investigators and, of course, our beleaguered attorney general looking into crooked Hillary's crimes and Russia relations? So why aren't the committees and investigators and, of course, our beleaguered attorney general. That the tweets beleaguered attorney general.

[12:20:00] BADE: It seems like Sessions is definitely trying to win himself back into the president's good graces, right? He's done a number of regulations, very conservative regulations, that play well with the base, including cracking down on the use of marijuana across the country, in states that have legalized it. Obviously the FBI is continuing to look into the Clinton matter where -- related to the Clinton Foundation and any conflicts of interest at the State Department. So I think that he is trying to win back good graces in that regard.

I am curious to see in this interview if we hear more about what he said to the FBI. Are they just asking about the president or are they also questioning his own motives?

KING: Right.

BADE: Because there was some news, obviously last night, that he was trying to sort of clean house at the FBI and push out Chris Wray, the FBI director's, number two. Chris Wray threatened to quit if he kept up the pressure. The number two that they're talking about is someone that Republicans on The Hill have said for a long time they want gone. They don't trust him, They think he has Democratic leanings. And so it -- was he trying to do their bidding on that?

TUMULTY: And the fact that all of this is proceeding on a parallel track with delegitimizing the FBI, delegitimizing the investigators does make you wonder how close we are getting to the Armageddon scenario, which is the president firing Mueller.

KING: Right, to the president firing Mueller, which is -- everyone -- even a lot of leading Republicans on Capitol Hill said, if the president took that step, they would -- they have tried to be quiet about this, tried to walk away from this, tried to minimize this. That would cause a -- quite a moment of choice, I guess, we'll leave it at that, for key Republicans.

One of the frustrating parts for Sessions -- and, again, I don't think he can get away with this in the special counsel session. When he was on Capitol Hill facing questions, let's just say his memory wasn't what one might expect from the attorney general of the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I do not recall such a conversation.

I don't recall it.

I don't recall.

I don't recall it.

I don't recall it.

I don't recall it.

I don't recall that.

I don't recall how that exactly occurred.

I do not recall.

But I did not recall this event. I don't recall.

I don't recall at this moment sitting here any such discussions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, to be fair to the attorney general, his team would tell you they thought the Democrats were taking political shots in some of those cases. And they will say in some of the cases he didn't recall. That he was a United States senator and a campaign surrogate.

However, when you get that so many times from a witness who knows the big story, knows the big dynamics, know you're going to ask him about his interactions, that is why to Democrats on Capitol Hill, he is a more central player than many other people have thought. They get -- they are -- they are suspicious about him. The special counsel has his own set of questions.

HEMDON: And let's just remember another thing he didn't recall, which is those meetings with the Russian ambassador, which caused him to then eventually recuse himself. I mean, of course, Attorney General Sessions is the one who authored the reasons for why FBI Director Comey was fired, and that's going to be central to these questions. I mean the reasons that were stated there were ones that many brought into question and saying, are these the real reasons, or did President Trump only direct them to or -- direct them to write these reasons after something else? That's going to be what the special counsel is going to try to get at. And those excuses, the recalling, he's going to have to come up with some answers now.

KING: Well, a key point -- that's a key point you make because the president himself within, what, 72 hours sat down with Lester Holt of NBC News and said I fired Comey at least in part because of the Russia investigation.

HEMDON: Exactly.

KING: That's not what Jeff Sessions put on paper, but it's what came out of the president of the United States' mouth, which is why the special counsel is where he is and why Jeff Sessions is such a big witness.

Up next, we move back to the shutdown. The showdown is over for now, but will we play this whole game out again -- sorry -- in just a few weeks?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:27:47] KING: Welcome back.

Your government is open, unlike this hour yesterday. But little else in Washington has changed. Republicans in the House now making clear this morning that whatever Senate Republicans promised Democrats to end the shutdown, it meant nothing to them.

Quote, the House wasn't part of that deal. That from Steve Scalise, the number three Republican in the House. He told "Politico," the Senate can do whatever it wants in the next 16 days on immigration, but the House, quote, we're not going to pass a bill that has amnesty, Scalise said. There are things that would anger our base that I don't see us passing in the House.

The split over what Republicans in each chamber want signals the big divides over immigration haven't been bridged. The detailed plan from the president might change things, but don't hold your breath.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY: What are his terms and conditions? Who does get to stay?

MICK MULVANEY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET: Chris, I know you won't be offended by this, but I'm not negotiating with you on national television.

CUOMO: NO, I just want to hear it. I tell you what, I won't say anything.

MULVANEY: Yes.

CUOMO: Just say what his position is on it. How do they get to stay? Who gets to stay?

MULVANEY: Again, it depends on what we get in exchange. What do we get for our border security? What do we get for a wall?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Not clarity.

Rachael, I want to start with you. The Scalise interview was with you and your team at "Politico." He sounds pretty conservative. The number two Senate Republican, John Cornyn, is saying we need to be magnanimous, that's a reflection of math. There are 51 Republicans in the Senate. They have a bigger margin in the House.

The conservative study group gets up this morning and they're pushing this proposal from the judiciary chairman, Bob Goodlatte, which will never pass the Senate. I'm not sure if could pass the House. But it signals, we want to go to the right. We are not interested in striking a big deal with the Democrats.

It authorizes construction of the border. It requires the e-verify system of employers. It ends chain migration, the diversity visa program. It allows DACA beneficiaries to stay but only on three year renewable legal status, and cuts overall immigration levels by an estimated 25 percent.

Now, that is what conservatives want. It won't go anywhere. But if that's where they start, how do you get to a compromise that doesn't avoid us being in the same place, threats of a government shutdown, no DACA deal, in three weeks?

BADE: I don't think they're going to have a DACA deal in three weeks, and that's why we could be in the same position again. I think that Democrats feel like they were burned by the shutdown strategy. So I don't think they're going to try that again. You know, you have progressive activists calling it now the Schumer sellout, which obviously doesn't help Senator Schumer try to corral his conference. But we're going to be in this exact same position.