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Jeff Sessions Stays Quiet on Resignation Threat; White House Stands Behind Controversial VA Nominee. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 25, 2018 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:04]

ELLIOT ACKERMAN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So, it will be interesting to see. You know, it seems as though President Trump is taking a tack right now where he is, you know, at every turn saying he's willing to throw the deal away, whether it's with Iran or do something radical with Korea.

And it will be interesting to see whether or not he's capable of sort of striking a moderate deal by using what is fiery rhetoric.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Elliot Ackerman, thank you so much.

ACKERMAN: Thank you.

BALDWIN: We continue on, hour two. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

We begin with the pushback from the White House podium moments ago, Sarah Sanders standing up there defending Trump nominee Dr. Ronny Jackson. He's the White House physician, tapped to lead the Department of Veterans Affair, and he's now facing allegations about workplace impropriety, including overprescribing sleeping medications and allegedly being drunk on the job.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders praised Dr. Jackson's qualifications, saying three administrations have employed him, so he's been vetted more than any other nominee.

Then she had this exchange with our own Jim Acosta, our chief White House correspondent, about Jackson's lack of experience as a health administrator.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If he didn't think he had the experience, he wouldn't have nominated. He said that that had been one of the questions that people had posed about him.

Obviously, the president...

(CROSSTALK)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: ... Dr. Jackson has all the experience necessary to run the department? SANDERS: Look, I think he has an incredibly strong background.

ACOSTA: That's a yes-or-no question.

SANDERS: He's a highly qualified, highly skilled individual. And if he didn't think he was capable of doing the job, he wouldn't have announced his nomination in the first place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: I have Kaitlan Collins and Sarah Westwood with me.

And I think it's just important to reiterate. Let me just go back again to what Trump said yesterday just to show everyone that Jim Acosta was right.

Trump said: "Now, I know there is an experience problem because of lack of experience. But there's an experience problem. The Veterans Administration is very important to me."

We have the sound. Let's all watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And as far as experience is concerned, the Veterans Administration, which is a approximately 13 million people, is so big, you could run the biggest hospital system in the world and it's small-time compared to the Veterans Administration. So nobody has the experience.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: So, Kaitlan, first to you. They're not on the same page.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

It's the president himself, Brooke, who acknowledged the experience problem. Of course, as we reported, Dr. Jackson was facing an uphill battle to get confirmed before these allegations came out, because not just Democrats, but Republicans as well are concerned about the lack of experience he has running something like that.

Obviously, it is the second largest agency in the federal government, and nothing to say about his medical credentials, which a lot of people have said are impeccable, but that doesn't mean that you can run the Veterans Affairs agency.

And one more thing. Sarah Sanders was saying that Dr. Ronny Jackson has been thoroughly vetted, but, of course, Brooke, as we know, the White House just found out about these allegations made against Dr. Jackson days ago.

He was nominated -- the president announced on Twitter that he was picking him to be the next VA secretary over a month ago. So it would raise a question of if he's been properly vetted, how did they not find out about these complaints made against Dr. Jackson in that month or so since then?

Of course, he was the White House doctor in this administration and in the administration prior to this, so they meant that kind of vetting. But the question is, once you are nominated to be a Cabinet secretary, did they do any kind of vetting since then? Did they do any kind of formal interviews with him to discuss these allegations?

And that's where it's just not adding up, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Yes.

And, Sarah, back to the president's comments yesterday, Kaitlan appropriately points out he absolutely talked about experience or lack of experience and then juxtapose that when what we heard from Sarah Sanders at the podium.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Sarah Sanders said publicly what we have been hearing from White House sources privately, which is that there was a sense among senior staff that Ronny Jackson had already been vetted because he had worked in such close proximity for multiple presidents for so many years.

But aides are pointing to President Trump's insistence that Jackson be the VA nominee and his refusal to seriously consider any other potentially more qualified nominees as the reason why they're in this mess. They say that they were maybe discouraged from asking as many policy-related questions of Jackson, where his actual views were on issues related to the VA, because Trump was so narrow-minded about who he wanted to fill this position.

So, the political suitability of nominating somebody like Jackson just wasn't as high a priority for a lot of aides, according to our sources, than it potentially should have been in hindsight, given the political mess they find themselves in right now.

BALDWIN: Do we know, Kaitlan? We know that the White House was made aware by Dr. Jackson himself that some of these stories, some of these accusations were going to surface and they knew that ahead of Monday. Do we know if President Trump was made aware himself of the allegations?

COLLINS: We don't know how early President Trump became aware of these.

I did ask Sarah Sanders earlier today if Dr. Jackson had discussed these allegations with the president during that Oval Office meeting yesterday. And she said, yes, that they did discuss them.

[15:05:02]

Now, the assumption would be that Dr. Jackson denied these allegations or explained these points made against him, of course, but one reporter did make a great point during that briefing, is that this inspector's general report that has been cited saying that Dr. Jackson had a hostile workplace environment when he was running the Medical Unit, that's only a dozen or so people in that unit. It raises the question of if there were complaints about him when he

was running something like that, what is going to happen when he's running Veterans Affairs, which has thousands of employees, so much going on there?

And so that raises a lot of questions that a lot of people on Capitol Hill had, is just how well he can run something like that. And that is why they are citing his lack of leadership experience as a problem here.

Brooke, the White House is being very gung-ho about him. They're really going out, all out, defending him in interviews after the president first made those remarks during that press conference.

But people I have spoken with, even people who work inside the White House, have privately said that they that Dr. Jackson is doomed. They do not think he has a chance of being confirmed as the next veterans affair secretary.

But they think the White House now, instead of pulling his nomination, they're dragging this out by defending him like they are, Brooke.

BALDWIN: That's Dr. Jackson. We will come back to him in a second.

I just also want to get to some sound. This was separate from that. It was a pretty contentious moment and exchange with Sarah Sanders involving freedom of the press. Ladies, let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Are you trying to that say this administration is a champion of a free press? That seems...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I certainly think, as I have stated a moment ago, we support a free press, but we also support a fair press.

And I think those things should go hand in hand. And there's a certainly responsibility by the press to report accurate information.

ACOSTA: Isn't there a certainly responsibility on the part of the president...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm not finished.

I think a number of people in this room do that every single day. They do their very best to provide fair and accurate information. Certainly support that. That's one of the reasons I'm standing here taking your questions.

(CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: And a lot of times taking your questions in a tone that's completely unnecessary, unneeded, and frankly doesn't help further the conversation or help the American people get any more information in a better way, which is your job and my job. And that's what I'm trying to do. I'm going to move on. David, go ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Jim, I'm finished. Thank you.

ACOSTA: The president's tone towards the press is obviously not helpful at times, and I think that that's plain to see.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Thank you, Jim.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Kaitlan, starting with you -- and Ryan Lizza is joining us here as well -- we know Jim's right. We talked to Jim a second ago about how this does seem personal. Obviously, so many attacks against the press from this president.

What did you make of Sarah's remarks?

COLLINS: We have seen the tone this president has taken with reporters.

Just yesterday, we saw him in the Oval Office with a world leader when one reporter, ABC's Jon Karl, posed a question to the president about whether or not he was considering pardoning his longtime attorney Michael Cohen if it ever came to that, the president snapped at Jon Karl and said it was a stupid question.

Of course, it's not a stupid question. It's a question on a lot of people's mind over whether or not the president would consider that. It's a question the White House has not been able to answer.

I think we see from the president how he feels about the press, but we've seen in this administration just how important the media truly is. Look at the president's Cabinet and all the scandals that have unfolded. A lot of those have been things that have been years in the making, but a lot of them have become public, the way that they're spending taxpayer money like they're printing it in their backseat, or these trips they're taking, or living in lobbyist-furnished housing, a lot of those things come to light because of reporters, Brooke.

I think that answers just how important the reporters are to this without.

BALDWIN: Ryan Lizza, what did you think?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Look, beating up on the press is obviously nothing new, right? White Houses have been doing it for a long, long time.

But you really would like and expect the White House press secretary when asked about freedom of the press to be able to say unequivocally we support, you know, a free press.

(CROSSTALK) LIZZA: Instead, Sarah Sanders always says, we support a free press, but...

BALDWIN: But.

LIZZA: And here are the things we would like to you do our way and we don't like this, this and this.

And that's unusual. I don't remember former -- I don't remember previous White House press secretaries having trouble just announcing and declaring their steadfast support for the First Amendment without throwing in a but.

And I think that's what's really troubling. And she's taking her cues from a president who doesn't seem as committed to a free press as previous presidents do. And we have seen some independent rankings recently about the United States lowered...

BALDWIN: That's what came up in the briefing, the ranking.

LIZZA: That's what Acosta was talking about. And that's really troubling.

You have a president who has just talked about opening up the libel laws, right, has called the press the enemy of the American people. When he does rallies, points to reporters and targets, intimidates them essentially, and has the crowd respond in a really negative way, if you ever have been to any of those rallies.

[15:10:02]

You know, the longer that goes on, the worse it gets without any kind of adjustment from the White House.

BALDWIN: I just wonder, too, about permanent damage to the press.

LIZZA: Yes, absolutely.

All the scholars about norms in a democratic society deteriorate, it's not like one big fell swoop. It's over time, little by little.

BALDWIN: Right.

April Ryan just put a microphone on as well. Wanted April to join this conversation.

You heard her on freedom of the press. Your opinion.

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: She defended the president vehemently.

But this president has been the biggest leader when it comes to railing against the press. He's the leader when it comes to fake news. He's issued Fakies, if you will, those fake awards.

It's not a good look. It's not a good situation. Again, I have said this before. This president and all presidents when they're sworn into office January 20, they take the oath of office and they say that they're going to defend the Constitution.

And within that Constitution is the First Amendment and part of that First Amendment is freedom of the press. And, Brooke, he's gone against that. He's gone against that.

And there has always been since I have been here the last 21 years this friendly adversarial relationship. We are doing our job. We are not yes men. That's the issue. So many people want us to fall in line to say yes. We are not saying yes, we are not saying no. We're asking pertinent questions that maybe this administration may not like.

There are real issues on the table that we are asking about. This president is under investigation. He was on -- he was being investigated by Capitol Hill lawmakers. Now there is the special counsel that's investigating him.

There's so many things that are just swirling about. And then you have other issues. His personal attorney. There are questions that we have to ask. And now with Ronny Jackson, what is wrong with asking these questions? There's nothing wrong.

And when you -- John McCain was absolutely right. When you suppress the press, it begins a dictatorship. What makes us different from any other country? A free and independent press. We're the fourth estate. It is about accountability.

People need to understand that this is not a partisan game. This has been going on for a long time. And, unfortunately, you know, this morning I got a call from one of the journalists who has been under attack, as well as myself, who said, on FOX News, they were railing against the "Variety" article talking about the fact that we are getting death threats.

It is true. It is so true. And why are we getting death threats? Because the words are going out into the atmosphere from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that we are less than human, that we're doing some kind of job that's not legal, legitimate or what have you.

We are the free and independent press. We have been part of this nation, part of the Constitution. We are part of the underpinnings of this nation. And for a president of the United States to put those words out there and then for Sarah Huckabee Sanders to say it's not true that he's done that, there's a disconnect, a huge disconnect.

BALDWIN: When you have -- Kaitlan pointed this out, Ryan, but when you have a president who answering questioning from the press, who hasn't been a press conference in I don't know how many days, over a year, when you have a president sitting with our friend Jon Karl over at ABC, who is asking an appropriate question about are you thinking of pardoning your personal attorney Michael Cohen, it's a germane question, because the guy is under criminal investigation.

And to have the president said to him stupid question, stupid question.

LIZZA: Yes. It's just -- it's an attack.

And it's not a stupid question. We know it's been reported that the White House has dangled pardons for people that Mueller has since indicted, people who have been wrapped up in the Mueller investigation. We know that the president has used his pardon authority in a fairly controversial way, pardoning Sheriff Joe Arpaio and recently Scooter Libby, who Scooter Libby's own boss, Republican George W. Bush, refused to pardon, and recently tweeted about toying with the idea of this posthumous pardon that was brought to his attention by Sylvester Stallone.

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: So, pardon is very much in the air.

Trump tweeted about it the other day with respect to Michael Cohen. You couldn't come up with a simpler, more important question right now about this incredible authority that the president has, the pardon authority, which is absolute, and whether he will use it to help his former personal lawyer.

And, look, Trump just dismisses it with a sort of snide, it's a stupid question. And it's not. It's almost -- it's a basic, obvious question about keeping this president held to account.

(CROSSTALK)

[15:15:03]

BALDWIN: Yes.

He's also -- April, back over to you at the White House. This phrase fake news born with Donald Trump, and I think we can all agree -- we can agree that fake news equals just news that isn't flattering to the president, and a lot of times this fake news that he tweets about ends up, April, being true.

(CROSSTALK)

RYAN: Right.

And how do you account for that? But, see, this president and this administration likes to create their own narrative to change things, to make it -- to spin it to their favor.

But when the fact is fact, you cannot refute it. But I'm going to tell you, Brooke, this fake news thing is not just here in the United States. Just within the last couple of months, a couple of journalists here at the White House, a couple of White House correspondents had dinner with the ambassador of the European Union.

I was one of them.

BALDWIN: April, forgive me. I want to hear the story. But we've got to go to the attorney. He is answering questions here about funding at the DOJ up on Capitol Hill.

Here is Jeff Sessions.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Senator Leahy, I am honoring the recusal in every case, in every matter that come before the Department of Justice.

I committed to that in my confirmation hearing. And I have honored that and will continue to honor that.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Does that include Cohen?

SESSIONS: It is the policy of the Department of Justice that those who recuse themselves not state the details of it or any -- or confirm the existence of an investigation or the scope or nature of that investigation.

LEAHY: I understand.

SESSIONS: And so I feel like, following the rules of the department, which I'm trying to teach all of our people to do, that I should not answer that question. It would be inappropriate for me to do so.

LEAHY: I know the question was not a surprise to you, nor is your answer a surprise to me, but recusal is not discretionary.

It's required by Justice Department regulations when you have a political relationship with the president, which you have already acknowledged, and the president has a specific and substantial interest in the investigation.

Now, the federal judge granted the president's request to formally intervene in this matter, which is here in Judge Kimba Wood's order. And I will be glad to give you a copy of this if you like.

But Judge Wood allows the president to intervene. So he is a member -- or he is part of that investigation. And that would suggest he has a specific and substantial interest.

So, wouldn't -- by Justice Department regulations, doesn't that require you to be recused?

SESSIONS: Senator Leahy, I am required to be recused from any matter involving the substance of the cases, matters you raised in your opening statement, absolutely. And I will comply with that.

But it is not -- it is the policy of the department that if you get in to discussing the details of those matters, you can reveal the existence, scope or breadth or nature of a matter that would be inappropriate.

I think the best answer for me, having given it some thought, is to say that I should not announce that. In fact, recusals that happen all the time in the department are not made public, but they're internally binding.

LEAHY: Have you sought any advice of career ethics officials about whether you should or should not recuse yourself in the Cohen matter?

SESSIONS: I have sought advice on those matters. And I have not met with the top ethics person on it, but I can assure I have not violated my recusal.

LEAHY: And you do agree that the Justice Department regulations require recusal when you have a political relation with somebody who has a specific and substantial interest in the investigation?

That is basically the regulation, is it not?

SESSIONS: That is the regulation, I believe, 600.1. But that's a regulation that I felt required me to recuse myself.

[15:20:02]

LEAHY: It was reported last weekend that you told the White House counsel you would consider resigning as attorney general if the president fired Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein.

I'm not going to ask you about that conversation. But if the president were to improperly fire either the deputy attorney general, who supervises the Russia investigation, or the special counsel, would you resign in opposition?

SESSIONS: Senator Leahy, that calls for a speculative answer or a question calls for speculation. I just -- I'm not able to do that.

LEAHY: Even though you were surprised by that question?

You don't have to answer that. Your smile answers the question.

And, lastly, on the -- you have been asked about LOP (ph). Whatever study's being done there, that will be open and transparent, will it not?

SESSIONS: We will do so.

And, look, I have some doubts about that program. The committee believes in that program. We will talk about it. And before you...

BALDWIN: OK. This is key. We wanted to dip in.

On the left side of your screen, that was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is being questioned by Democrat Patrick Leahy, senator from Vermont.

What we wanted to hear and what we caught was the A.G.'s answering a question about -- he wasn't commenting as part of his answer, the question about why he isn't recusing himself from this New York case regarding the president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen. So, I have with me Jennifer Rodgers, Robert Bianchi, and Ryan Lizza is

sticking around.

And, so, Jennifer, just to you on the Michael Cohen case. Let me read -- this is our reporting from Laura Jarrett and Evan Perez in the last 24 hours.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have said the investigation into Michael Cohen is "largely focused on his private business dealings and personal financial dealings. If that remains the case, there may be no reason for Jeff Sessions to consider recusal from aspects of the probe."

So, it would make sense -- tell me why it would make sense that he wouldn't recuse himself from this.

JENNIFER RODGERS, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: He's recused from the Russia investigation because when it came out that he had spoken to the ambassador, he became a witness at least and possibly a subject of the Russia investigation.

BALDWIN: Right.

RODGERS: So that's why, if it's separate from that, if the Southern District case has nothing to do substantively with the Russia case, he isn't necessarily recused from the Southern District case.

BALDWIN: So if they're saying though that the investigation of Michael Cohen, if it's largely focused on his private business dealings and personal finance dealings, I guess I'm just wondering -- and this is just me not being a lawyer and just being curious -- if it has to do with, among other issues, $130,000 that Cohen paid out to hush Stormy Daniels and questions about campaign finance, that has -- so you're saying that has nothing to do with Jeff Sessions?

RODGERS: Well, here's the issue on the campaign finance stuff.

So, Jeff Sessions was part of the campaign, which is why some people are saying campaign finance, campaign, there's a problem here. But here's how I see it.

You're only conflicted out if you have a financial conflict, if you have a personal conflict, like it's your brother being investigated, or if you're possibly a witness, subject or target of the investigation.

With respect to the campaign finance stuff with the Stormy Daniels payment, that was about a contribution and whether that contribution was too large for an individual contribution or was not properly disclosed.

Jeff Sessions was on the policy side of the campaign. So, to me, it is pretty likely that he had nothing to do with and didn't know about contributions coming in and how they were characterized for hidden or whatever.

So he's probably not a witness or subject or target of that investigation and that's why to me it is probably OK.

ROBERT BIANCHI, FORMER PROSECUTOR: I have a similar question. So, does this mean that we can assume that the Southern District of New York investigation into Cohen has nothing whatsoever to do with Russia?

Because, if it did, the recusal -- previous recusal would kick in? Does the non-recusal now give us a little bit more investigation about what that investigation is not about?

LIZZA: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: It's a prosecutorial discretion decision. And here's what they're saying.

Right now, largely -- listen to the words being used -- they're carefully chosen -- it's a case that is really dealing with his personal -- Cohen's personal issues, but there's also a campaign piece to this with regard to the Stormy Daniels payment.

BALDWIN: Yes.

LIZZA: Right now, we don't see a connection between that and collusion.

But if it goes back down and they find a connection, i.e., they flip Cohen or some other data or information comes back, it's going to go back up to Mueller's probe.

BALDWIN: Let me -- time out on this conversation, because we need to get a quick commercial break in.

Also noteworthy, when Senator Leahy -- and you saw the smile from the A.G. -- and obviously he wasn't going to say anything on this -- but he was asking, if the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, or Bob Mueller, the special counsel, were to go away, would you resign? And he said that's speculation and he wasn't going to answer that.

Quick break. We're back with you guys right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:29:02]

BALDWIN: Back with my panel here.

We're talking about the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. And part what we were just discussing is some questions that came in from Democrat Patrick Leahy, senator there up on Capitol Hill.

And one of the questions he asked of the attorney general was, if the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, or the special counsel, Robert Mueller, were to be fired, would you -- the question was, would you resign? And the answer from the attorney general with a smile was that that's

speculation. He obviously didn't want to go there.

And, Ryan Lizza, just to you.

Last week, according to our own CNN reporting, Sessions threatened to resign privately talking to Trump if he were to fire Rosenstein.

LIZZA: Yes. He's laid down a couple of markers, we think, so far, right?

BALDWIN: Are you surprised he didn't say more, though, on talking...

LIZZA: Not really, because he's up on Capitol Hill, and he doesn't want to create news.

I mean, the fact that he didn't say anything suggests that that reporting is correct, that he would actually resign. Right? He didn't say, no, I will stay in my job, he can do whatever -- the president can do whatever he wants, right?

BALDWIN: Right. Right. Saying nothing is saying something.

LIZZA: Saying something.