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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Congressman Jason Chaffetz; Interview With Senator Bob Menendez; Trump Attacks Nordstrom; Republican Leader Silences Senator Elizabeth Warren; White House, McCain Spar Over "Success" of Terror Raid. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired February 8, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And shaming critics. The White House demanded an apology for questions about the success of a deadly raid on al Qaeda, Press Secretary Sean Spicer calling criticism a disservice to a U.S. Navy SEAL killed in the mission. Is he ruling out any criticism of President Trump?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news.
Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is speaking out about President Trump's attacks on federal judges, including the three-person court panel currently weighing whether to reinstate his travel ban.
Gorsuch told a Democratic senator the president's words are -- quote -- "demoralizing and disheartening." And the president is sparking more debate with his dressing down of Nordstrom on Twitter.
He accused the department store chain of unfairly dropping his daughter Ivanka's clothing line and tonight his action is escalating concern over potential conflicts of interest.
And there is more breaking news this hour. The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote soon on the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to be the attorney general. The debate has roiled the chamber with the Republicans invoking a rarely used rule to silence Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren as she spoke out against the nomination.
We're covering all that, much more this hour with our guests, including the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz, and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.
Let's begin with President Trump's latest attack on federal judges and the reaction from his own U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, has the very latest for us tonight.
Pamela, Judge Gorsuch told Senator Chuck Schumer, among others, an attack on one judge is an attack on all judges.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
A dramatic new development. President Trump's own pick for the Supreme Court who was rolled out last week with great fanfare openly questioning now President Trump's attacks on what he calls his fellow sisters and brothers in the judiciary.
Judge Neil Gorsuch telling senators on Capitol Hill the comments are disheartening, all of this as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing what to do about Trump's travel ban.
BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, President Trump for the first time claiming he wanted to delay the implementation of his controversial travel ban.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the reasons you probably heard that we did this so quickly -- in fact, I said, let's give a one-month notice.
But the law enforcement people said to me, oh, you can't give a notice, because if you give a notice that you're going to be really tough in one month from now or in one week from now -- I suggested a month. Then I said, well, what about a week? They said, no, you can't do that because then people are going to pour in before the toughness go in.
BROWN: An admission that could bolster the state's argument that the executive order banging people from seven majority Muslim countries for at least 90 days was hastily done. But Trump also sounded the alarm that the halt on the ban is already harming national security, tweeting -- quote -- "A big increase in traffic in our country from certain areas while our people are more vulnerable."
TRUMP: Believe me, I have learned a lot in the last two weeks, and terrorism is a far greater threat than the people of our country understand.
BROWN: Trump is also trying to pressure the very court that is right now deciding the fate of his ban.
TRUMP: I don't ever want to call a court biased, so I won't call it biased and we haven't had a decision yet. But courts seem to be so political.
If these judges wanted to, in my opinion, help the court in terms of respect for the court, they'd do what they should be doing. I mean, it's so sad.
BROWN: And he slammed his own Justice Department attorney who argued his case last night. TRUMP: I listened to lawyers on both sides last night and they were
talking about things that had just nothing to do with it.
BROWN: During Tuesday's court hearing, which the president called disgraceful, the three judges fired off questions at the administration's lawyers about the scope of the presidential power.
JUDGE WILLIAM CANBY, NINTH CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS: Could the president simply say in the order, we're not going to let any Muslims in?
AUGUST FLENTJE, DOJ ATTORNEY: That's not what the order does here.
CANBY: I know. I know that.
FLENTJE: That's not what the order does here.
CANBY: Well, I know. I know.
FLENTJE: The order relies on -- sorry, Your Honor.
CANBY: I know. Could he do that? Could he do that?
FLENTJE: That's not what the order does.
CANBY: Would be anybody be able to challenge that?
FLENTJE: That's not what the order does here.
BROWN: One of the judges also tried to poke holes in the state's argument that the ban discriminates against Muslims.
JUDGE RICHARD CLIFTON, NINTH CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS: How do you infer that desire if, in fact, the vast majority of Muslims are unaffected?
NOAH PURCELL, WASHINGTON STATE SOLICITOR GENERAL: There are statements that we have quoted in our complaint that are rather shocking evidence of intent to discriminate against Muslims, given that we haven't even had any discovery yet to find out what else might have been said in private.
The public statements from the president and his top advisers reflecting that intent are strong evidence, and certainly, at this pleading stage, to allow us to go forward on that claim.
BROWN: And the Ninth Circuit Court said it will likely make a decision this week. Of course, the whole world will be watching to see what happens there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We're anxiously waiting that decision. Pamela, thank you very much. Let's get some more on the breaking news.
Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us.
Jim, you're over there at the North Lawn of the White House. What are you picking up?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is just a fascinating development in the president's battle to have that travel ban executive order reinstated in court.
And the White House we should point out is not disputing this. The president's own Supreme Court pick, as we have been saying, Neil Gorsuch, told Senate Democratic Richard Blumenthal that President Trump's sharply critical comments about the judges handling the executive order case are "demoralizing and disheartening."
The White House confirms at this point that Gorsuch did say this. You recall the president referred to the judge who slapped that original restraining order on the executive order as a "so-called judge " and he described the oral arguments at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as "disgraceful."
For now, the White House is not planning to comment on this. But, Wolf, given the way the president has been tweeting about this, no one is ruling out any further comments from President Trump on this, who is of course trying to win all of this in the court of public opinion.
But you have mentioned and Pam mentioned that Senator Chuck Schumer is saying that Judge Gorsuch said something similar to him. It's important to point out the senator's office put out a statement questioning why Judge Gorsuch did not go further and condemn the president for his comments.
You could see sort of the political arguments taking shape that may play out during Judge Gorsuch's confirmation hearing.
BLITZER: It's pretty amazing that a Supreme Court nominee, who is awaiting confirmation, is being critical of the president who nominated him in pretty biting words as well.
As you know, Jim, the president also took to Twitter today to lash out at the department store chain Nordstrom for dropping his daughter Ivanka's line of clothes and accessories. Tell us about that.
ACOSTA: Right. Wolf, the president weighed in on his personal account earlier today in response to Nordstrom's decision to drop his daughter Ivanka's clothing line.
Tweeting -- and we can put this up on screen: "My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom. She is a great person, always pushing me to do the right thing. Terrible."
Now, we should point out the official Twitter account for the president, which is usually reserved for government business, that is @POTUS, retweeted that tweet from @realDonaldTrump. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, he was asked at some of this at the briefing today. He argued that the president is well within his rights as a father to defend his daughter. Here is what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is less about his family's business and an attack on his daughter. He ran for president, he won, he's leading this country.
And I think for people to take out their concern about his actions or his executive orders on members of his family, he has every right to stand up for his family and applaud their business activities, their success.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: We should point out that the president's tweet was posted on Nordstrom roughly 20 minutes after the scheduled start of his presidential intelligence briefing that occurs just about every day here at the White House.
But Spicer during the briefing, he was asked about that. He said the president was free of that meeting, free of that briefing when the tweet went out, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thank you very much for that report.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah is joining us. He's chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
Mr. Chairman, thanks for joining us.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: Hi, Wolf.
BLITZER: I want to get a lot of issues in a moment, but I want to get to the breaking news first.
You heard Senator Blumenthal say the Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, used the words demoralizing and disheartening to describe President Trump's attacks on the judiciary. An administration official confirms he did in fact use those words.
Do you agree with those words?
CHAFFETZ: Look, it sounds like Neil Gorsuch might be a darn good judge.
He's not going to be politically swayed on side of the aisle. He's going to call it as he sees it. That's exactly why so many of us like the judge. In general, I think it's ill-advised to criticize a judge.
You may criticize the ruling. You may criticize the questions that be asked, but to criticize somebody personally like that, I don't like to see that in any realm and certainly not against a judge.
BLITZER: The president has a history, though, of doing that. You're on the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Chairman, how concerning is it to you that President Trump called the overall appeals court hearing that was on last night for an hour, he said it was disgraceful? Does that trouble you? This is an attack on the judiciary system, if you will.
Look, the president is very opinionated. He has a right to his opinion. Members of Congress routinely weigh in with their opinion about how the court proceeding is happening.
And certainly we have seen things that have been beyond pale, that I just think are absolutely wrong. I'm not going to criticize the president for his comments about that proceeding. I thought there were a lot of questions that those judges asked, which were well outside the scope of what the hearing should be.
It was about presidential power, the president's ability to enforce the law and to protect this nation. And some of the questions that those judges asked really have you scratching your head, thinking, they are spending valuable time asking the attorneys questions and they were totally off-topic.
BLITZER: Do you think it's OK for the president to call a federal judge who was nominated by President Bush, who was approved unanimously, a so-called judge?
CHAFFETZ: He's a real judge, in my opinion. The president is entitled to his opinion. I have mine as well. But, yes, he's a real judge and he made a real opinion.
BLITZER: Let's turn to some of the other opinions from the president today. He's tweeting about his daughter's business, saying it's been treated unfairly.
Is it appropriate, do you believe, is it ethical -- and you oversee the executive branch of the government -- for the president to be commenting about his daughter's business like this?
CHAFFETZ: I think most people can relate to the fact that a father, a doting father with very successful children is going to look after those children.
And, you know, if he sees something going wrong, he's going to call it out. I think that's what is appealing to people about Donald trump. I don't pay attention to it. Every once in a while, my wife is watching E! Entertainment Television and something like that will come up. But I don't think it raises to the standard that Congress or CNN or somebody think that this is a big deal. But that's my opinion. BLITZER: But he's not just a father. He's also the president of the
United States. And he's attacking a major American business, the Nordstrom department store chain, for dropping his daughter's business line, if you will, the attire. Is that appropriate really for a president to be doing that?
CHAFFETZ: I think that the president has the right to weigh in on his opinion on things, and especially as it relates to his children.
I think you have other elected officials at every level that weigh in on their opinion about the Super Bowl and which teams they support, which stores they like, which hamburgers they like. I tweet a lot about cheeseburgers. I have never had anybody complain about that.
And if he's complaining about Nordstrom, I think it was politically motivated. It looks to me like Nordstrom was politically motivated.
BLITZER: Why do you say that? They say it was strictly a business decision and it was done in early January for business reasons.
CHAFFETZ: Well, so be it.
I have spent more time talking about this than I even -- than we should even be talking about. All the things facing this nation, this is not in the top 757 of the most important things out there, Wolf. It's really not.
BLITZER: Let's talk a little about some other issues. And I think it's an important issue.
The whole notion right now of your role as the chairman of the Oversight Committee, you're seeking documents about management of various executive branch issues. The Democrats on your committee, they want to take a look at the Trump International Hotel here in D.C. It occupies a government-owned building.
You have also said you're curious about that. Is it possible that President Trump is profiting off the presidency and is that an issue that your committee should be looking into?
CHAFFETZ: I am curious about the lease that -- it seems to be properly executed when it was.
It's interesting what the GSA, who administers these contracts -- I gave a letter to the Democrats earlier, another letter asking the GSA what is their opinion of this. It will take some time for them to respond.
They did give us the fully unredacted contract. It was something I asked for back in December. But we now have that. So, I think that is something that we should look that, and I have been doing that.
BLITZER: You suspect he's in violation of the terms of that GSA lease that specifically says the leaseholder cannot be a federal elected official? CHAFFETZ: What's interesting if you have somebody who is both the tenant and the landlord, the question for the GSA is, how do they rectify it?
Maybe the answer is nothing. Maybe they just need to have some simple paperwork in place. I don't know. That's why I'm curious as to what the GSA is going to say about this. And we started that process even before the president was sworn in.
BLITZER: Don't the profits from the hotel, though, still go eventually to Donald Trump and isn't that potentially a conflict of interest?
CHAFFETZ: If you recall, Wolf, Section 208 of the criminal code, the president is exempt from conflicts of interest.
And so it's somewhat of a nonissue because he's exempt from these types of things. He did lay out a process where he was going to wall that -- you know, wall that off, what the Trump operations were doing vs. what he's doing as president.
But certainly the precedent is such that Congress of past has always come to the conclusion that the president should be exempt in this case. And they would know that they would have...
BLITZER: Here is the question, Congressman, and I know you are going to looking into this.
Has he satisfied that commitment that he's made to sort of lock himself off? And what about the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution?
CHAFFETZ: There is a lawsuit that's out there. It will be interesting to see what happens with that.
But, again, I know it's surprising and frustrating Democrats, but the president is exempt from these conflict of interests.
BLITZER: He's not exempt from the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, is he?
CHAFFETZ: He's required by law to do a financial disclosure, which by all accounts he has done and is complete. And I have never heard anybody complain specifically about that.
He is -- I believe -- I think he should have introduced and made his tax returns available. He hasn't done that, but that is optional.
And I am curious about this contract here. But I'm not about -- as I have said before, I'm not going to go on this fishing expedition that the Democrats want us to go in.
I think the public understood when they elected Donald Trump overwhelmingly that he had vast interests in a variety of businesses all around the globe. That is not breaking news. Everybody knew that when they voted for him. That was out there clearly.
What he's required to do by law as best I can tell, he has complied with in his financial disclosures.
BLITZER: Yes, but I guess the whole issue, we all knew about his business and all of that, what he disclosed, what he didn't disclose. Tax return, he didn't disclose them. He had that under explanation that he was under audit. He wasn't going to release them.
But there are so many people who are asking, why doesn't it concern the chairman? I assume it does concern you. You're the chairman of this Oversight Committee that is looking at the executive branch of the U.S. government -- that the president of the United States potentially could be in violation of the United States Constitution?
CHAFFETZ: I just don't see it like that, Wolf. I just don't. I just -- I have looked at this. I have had people pepper me with information.
BLITZER: Should you have hearings on it?
Look, I never did this type of investigation on Barack Obama. I never did this on Hillary Clinton. And unless there is some real cause to do it, I don't intend to do it on Donald Trump.
There is nothing to suggest that he's profiteering in an inordinate -- unordinary way from the fact that he's the president of the United States. He does have vast interest in a variety of things. You can go look at them on the financial disclosures. But if there is something that rose to the surface that was extraordinary, of course we would look at it. I don't see any evidence of that.
BLITZER: Congressman, Congressman, Barack Obama, he didn't have any businesses. I don't think he had any businesses at all when he was elected president.
CHAFFETZ: Well, then how did he walk out such a rich person?
BLITZER: He wrote books. He made a lot of money writing books. That's how he made all that money. But he didn't have 500 businesses like President Trump has.
CHAFFETZ: Well, I didn't look at it into the Clintons either. And some people suggested that I probably should have. We're going to
look at government expenditures, how they're administering the government, how taxpayers dollars are used, how the administration is running things. That's what the Oversight and Government Reform Committee is set up to do.
And until something rises to the surface that's extraordinary, I'm just not going to go on this fishing expedition on the possibility that something might have been going on.
BLITZER: Mr. Chairman you want his tax returns to be released. You could subpoena those tax returns if you wanted to.
CHAFFETZ: I could.
The reality is, though, he's not required to do it by law. And so I don't think that's appropriate. I have said publicly on this show and on CNN, even before the election, and I say it here again, I think if you're going to run for president, you should do a financial disclosure.
I have suggested that there should also be a medical disclosure. I'm working on a bill that I hope I can do on a bipartisan way that a candidate for president and vice president would have to go through a medical examination.
So, you get to have that information. I wish he would had done the tax return. It is tradition, but that doesn't mean that I should overuse the power that's vested in the Constitution that I have in order to do something that's not required by law.
Imagine if the executive branch did that to me, the legislative branch. That would be inappropriate.
BLITZER: Why would that be an overuse of power to subpoena his tax returns just to make sure that everything was fine?
CHAFFETZ: You know what? If the executive branch and the FBI did that to me, and we did it to all the members of Congress, they would be yelling and screaming, and rightfully so.
You just don't go on fishing expeditions on doing this. I did investigations, so-called Hillary Clinton investigations, because there were four people that were killed in Benghazi, because the inspector general found that there was classified information in a non-classified setting.
It was only upon that information that we started these investigation. I didn't start an investigation into Hillary Clinton before she took office. And I certainly did not do it of the Clinton family and their finances. That would have been wholly inappropriate.
And I think the same is true with Donald Trump, whoever is in the office, no matter what political hate they're wearing.
BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, I ask these questions because you yourself have said on CNN that if you're going to run and try to become the president of the United States, in your words, and I will quote you, "You're going to have to open up your kimono and show everything, your tax returns, your medical records. You're just going to have to do that."
That's a quote from you.
CHAFFETZ: Yes, sorry for the bad visual for everybody that's watching on that.
But I do believe that that would have been a very important piece of information for the American public. The American public had to weigh that. But we're not just going to go to the standards of whoever is the chairman of the Oversight Committee.
Let's look to the law. And if you want to do that, you need to change the law. That's why I'm looking at introducing a piece of legislation on the medical disclosure, which I do think would be -- if you're going to have your hands on the nuclear codes, I think you should have a physical checkup that everybody can kind of look at.
Now, that's my opinion, but it doesn't mean I'm going to go subpoena somebody's medical records just because I want to see it. You have got to go through a process here and respect that process.
BLITZER: Because you say now financial disclosure, you want all of that have. But during the campaign, you said you want to see his tax returns.
CHAFFETZ: I think it's more appropriate. I think that is the right way to do it. But that's my own personal opinion. It's not the law.
And so if somebody has not violated the law, and there is no evidence that they're violating the law, do you really think that it's appropriate for me to just go on a fishing expedition and look at tax returns or -- there is very strict rules on that.
The 6103 information is very highly held. There are only certain people in the Ways and Means Committee that can actually look at tax returns. For me to just unilaterally go and take them and put them out there I think is an abuse of power.
And if the executive branch did that on the legislative branch, or imagine if the executive branch did that on the judicial branch. It would be inappropriate. Any way in this triangulation of the three branches of government, it would be inappropriate, unless we pass a law.
And maybe people are making the case that it should be the law. I happen to think it would have good better practice, it would better inform the public. But he chose not to do that. And they still elected him the president. BLITZER: But what about issuing a subpoena to get the tax returns, but you don't necessarily, if the committee decides not to, you don't have to release them publicly, but you review them confidentially? Are you open to that?
CHAFFETZ: I have just explained it, Wolf.
I really don't believe that it's appropriate for one branch of government to go digging into somebody else's tax returns unless there is some sort of cause that leads you to believe that there is something that has gone on that is illegal and that is a misuse of taxpayer funds, it's a misuse of -- that's not what we're set up to do.
There is an IRS that is set up to do this. Nobody has suggested that there is anything wrong or inappropriate. They certainly can't point to anything in Donald Trump's tax returns. It's a fishing expedition. It's curiosity. It's Democrats with their heads exploding wanting to see this because they can't believe that Donald Trump is actually the president of the United States.
I know where their motivation is. And it's ill-placed and it's an abuse of power, if I were to do that.
BLITZER: I think we are going to leave it on that note.
But I just want to point out, Mr. Chairman, that your committee is designed to be a sort of a check and a balance on the executive branch. The Oversight Committee, that's what it's called. You have to look potentially at a whole bunch of issues that are sometimes awkward.
I will give you the last word.
CHAFFETZ: That's very true. And we have a very full plate of a lot of things we're looking into. And, look, my job is not to be a cheerleader for the president. We are tip of the spear on checks and balances. And when something goes awry, and when something is inappropriate, we will go dive into it. We really will.
BLITZER: You're always generous with your time, Mr. Chairman. Thanks very much for joining us.
CHAFFETZ: Thanks, Wolf. Thank you. Thank you.
BLITZER: Jason Carroll is the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the House of Representatives.
We're joined now by Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. If you were listening, Senator, I would love to get your quick
reaction to what we just heard from the House chairman.
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, I think that Congressman Chaffetz has far left veal -- zeal, I should say, and drive to pursue some critical questions than he had under the previous administration and with former Secretary Clinton.
He seems to have lacked the zeal. Certainly, on the issues that you presented with the federal lease that exists on the old post office building that is now the Trump Hotel, that is clearly an area that needs to be pursued.
And I would hope that he would be more than curious about it. You know, foreign governments publicly reported that they're now going to that hotel for the purposes of ingratiating themselves. That hotel is federally owned, ultimately.
The lessee is the Trump Organization. I mean, there are serious conflicts there which could have been resolved by the president in having a clear wall set off, a blind trust with no ability to fire his trustees or get reports. He chose not to do that and that leads to these questions.
And I was shaking my head when I was listening to the interview because Congressman Chaffetz was a zealot under the Obama administration and certainly after the Clintons. And I'm not quite sure that his remembrance of history as to why he pursued it is the same as mine.
BLITZER: He said he is going to look into that GSA lease on the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington. There are some appropriate questions, but he says he's not simply going to subpoena Donald Trump's tax returns, that would be inappropriate.
Do you agree with him on that, that the legislative branch really shouldn't be going after the tax returns of the president of the United States unless there was something that justified it?
MENENDEZ: Well, certainly not for the sake of just going after his tax returns.
But, first of all, I would hope that the president would keep his word. The president gave his word to the American people that, in fact, after his audit, those returns would be released. I think people are still entitled to the promise that the president made, number one.
Number two is those tax returns, if he did release it, would be publicly viewed in a way that we would understand what potential conflicts the president has as he pursues the interests of the American people vs. the interests of the Trump Organization.
That's very clear. We have a very unique president in terms of his background. That's fine. That's not prohibitive and it shouldn't exclude him, right, from having run from office. The American people chose to elect him. That's fine.
But what is not fine is not knowing the potential conflicts that exist in his web of interests in a way that can conflict with the decision- making process at any level over whether not just by himself, but by those who he has appointed, who will know of these interests globally and will have decision-making that hopefully will be pure and walled out, from any concern about that .
But how do we know that they have done that until we see what those potential conflicts are?
BLITZER: Let me turn to the other breaking news we're following, Senator.
Your colleague Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut, he said that the Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, used the words demoralizing and disheartening to describe President Trump's attacks on the federal judiciary. Is that encouraging to you to hear what this nominee, this Supreme Court nominee said?
MENENDEZ: It's a step in the right direction. They were fundamentally outrageous and wrong. And the president is playing with fire with the Constitution and the underpinnings of the Constitution.
The courts in our nation are the check and balance on both the executive and legislative branch, and the ultimate entity that preserves the rights that you enjoy, Wolf, that I enjoy as a citizen, that you enjoy as a journalist, that I enjoy as a legislator, and that every American enjoys as an average citizen. They are the guarantor.
And when you seek to undermine that institution, to try to bully it, to call into question the integrity of judges for which there is nothing that I have not seen that their integrity should be called on, whether it was Judge Curiel, whose Mexican descent was called into question because he was Mexican and he couldn't decide honestly on the Trump University issue, according to then Donald Trump.
Or now to question the so-called judge, the federal judge who made the initial temporary restraining order, or to try to influence and/or pressure or bully, not that they will be, but the circuit court judges and the arguments that they made. That is -- that is dangerous to the Constitution and the checks and balances that the founders created that are so essential to our government.
[18:30:19] BLITZER: I know you have a big vote coming up momentarily on the attorney general nominee, your colleague Senator Sessions. How do you plan on voting tonight?
MENENDEZ: Well, I've given Senator Sessions every due diligence and deference that I have to any of these nominees. And I've voted for several nominees; I've voted against several. My -- I came to the conclusion that I don't believe that Senator Sessions has the zeal to make sure that voting rights, that civil rights, that the LGBT community will be protected, that women's rights will be protected. I don't feel he has the same zeal that we need from the attorney general of the United States for those classes of Americans and those Americans affected by those issues as he does for other issues. And so I will be voting against him in a little while.
BLITZER: I'm going to go let you vote with your colleagues. Senator Menendez, thanks for joining us.
MENENDEZ: Thank you.
BLITZER: Much more on the breaking news right after a quick break.
[18:35:34] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news tonight. The U.S. Senate about to hold a confirmation vote on President Trump's attorney general nominee, Senator Jeff Sessions. That vote momentarily.
President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is now speaking out about President Trump's attacks on federal judges, including the panel currently consider whether to reinstate the travel ban.
Gloria, Judge Gorsuch used strong words in a meeting with Senator Blumenthal, when he said that the president's attacks on the federal judiciary are demoralizing and disheartening. An administration official confirming that the judge used those words.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that President Trump may be having a little bit of buyer's remorse tonight, because, of course, what Gorsuch was reacting to was the president's comments that judges are political, that the interrogation of the attorneys by the judges last night was disgraceful, as he called it. And clearly, Gorsuch, who has been -- served on the 10th Circuit for more than a decade, comes at this from a very different point of view, with a clear regard for the separation of powers and for the role of the judiciary here.
And I'm sure he didn't intend for his comments to be broadcast by a Democrat. But nonetheless, this is probably really troubling for the president who just nominated him.
BLITZER: Yes, but his press aide confirmed to the news media...
BORGER: Well, what are you going to do, say...
BLITZER: ... that he did, in fact, say that.
BORGER: What are you going to do, say the senator was a liar? You can't -- you can't do that.
BLITZER: Jeffrey, do you think this actually could help Judge Gorsuch get confirmed, because Democrats are going to see him as someone who's straightforward, reliable, honest?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I take a somewhat more cynical view, perhaps, of this. You know, this is very mild criticism of the president, "disheartening," you know, "demoralizing." I mean, those are not exactly condemnatory words.
He's a judge, and judges believe that they -- you know, that they should not be ridiculed.
I do think that President Trump is right to think that judges can be criticized. I mean, these are unaccountable, very powerful people who can be criticized sometimes. The problem here is that Trump is using this sort of childish language, saying, you know, that there -- this is a "so-called judge" and any high school student could resolve this case. But you know, the idea that judges are off-limits for criticism for presidents or anyone else, I think, is wrong.
BLITZER: So you disagree with Gorsuch, who told Senator Schumer, the Democratic leader, that an attack on one federal judge is an attack on all federal judges?
TOOBIN: I do disagree with that. I mean, you know, I would like to know precisely what was said. But I don't see why judges should be outside -- should be free from criticism from the president or anything else.
Remember, Barack Obama attacked the Citizens United case in his State of the Union address. Franklin Roosevelt fought with the Supreme Court. I mean, I don't think it's unprecedented to attack judicial decisions.
What's different is Donald Trump attacking judges in this juvenile, high school way, which is just the way he expresses himself. But the idea of criticizing judges I really just don't think is so bad.
BLITZER: David Swerdlick, where do you come down?
DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, no, I think that's right. The manner in which the attacks are coming is really what's separating this from other instances. Calling judges "so-called judges" is not attacking the merits of that decision. It's essentially saying judges -- it's diminishing their role in the separation of powers of the three branches of government.
BORGER: Well, but you know, I think that he was just nominated by Donald Trump. And Donald Trump will take this as a personal affront. I'm telling you this.
BORGER: And he'll -- he'll think, "Why did I nominate this guy who's criticizing me?"
I mean, there is a larger point which Jeffrey is making, which is that judges are not above being criticized. But I think Donald Trump is going to -- is going to take this personally. It won't go over well with him.
BLITZER: Rebecca, I agree with Gloria, because I've covered Donald Trump for a long time. Gloria has, as well. When he hears the man he nominated to the highest court criticizing him, his tweets about his judiciary, what he's saying about the judiciary, about federal judges, "demoralizing and disheartening." I know how Donald Trump will react, and it won't be positive. [18:40:07] REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And certainly, we've
seen that Donald Trump, in these tweets, doesn't necessarily hold the judiciary and its role in the highest regard.
But by the same token, I think a lot of us were surprised when a number of his cabinet nominees during their confirmation hearings went out and publicly disagreed with him on some really big issues, like his approach to Russia, for example. And this wasn't just a one-time thing. It was multiple nominees. And his reaction to that was, "You know what? I nominated them. I think it's fine if they disagree. I'll take their disagreement..."
BLITZER: And none of those, whether it was General Mattis or General Kelly, or Mike Pompeo, who is the CIA director, none of them were -- said the president's words were demoralizing and disheartening or anything along those lines. They said -- they expressed their support for NATO. They were very condemnatory of Russia and Putin, for example, but it wasn't personal like this.
BERG: Right. So this is certainly a little bit more direct than those circumstances. But I would agree with Jeffrey that this isn't really a cutting sort of rebuke. It's very nuanced.
BORGER: Well, it might help him with some Democrats, actually.
BLITZER: I think it will.
TOOBIN: I mean, Gloria -- Gloria is making a very important point there. I mean, this is going to help him get confirmed.
TOOBIN: It will show him -- it will show -- I mean, you know, these comments, which are -- again, are fairly mild, you know, do show a measure of independence and especially at this moment when the judiciary and the president are, you know, at loggerheads over the immigration issue. Judicial independence is going to be something a lot of Democrats are looking for.
BLITZER: And we'll see how he deals with all these sensitive issues during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. He'll be asked about all of them.
A programming note: Senator Blumenthal will be a guest tonight on "AC 360," 8 p.m. Eastern. We're back with the panel. Much more on the breaking news right after this.
[18:46:36] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this hour: the U.S. Senate voting. It's scheduled to begin momentarily on the confirmation of President Trump's attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions. We're watching the roll call. Stand by for that.
In the meantime, let me get back to the panel.
David Swerdlick, Nordstrom, the retail got this tweet today, and I'll put it up on the screen from the president. "My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom. She is a great person. Always encouraging me to do the right thing. Terrible."
Should the president be involved in an issue like this as president -- I can understand supporting his daughter. He loves his daughter. But should he be getting involved in an issue with Nordstrom deciding in early January to drop her line for business reasons?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: In a word, no. I mean, for one thing, Nordstrom released a statement and you have to take them at their word that this was a business decision that they let Ivanka Trump know about. And, you know, whether or not this has to do with politics, they as a private company are certainly entitled to make this call, whether or not President Trump agrees with it or not.
I think it's -- it also suggests further that he has a thin skin about these kind of things, something he clearly could just let go.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I -- there are a couple of things here. First is, you know, he's unleashed the power of the presidency against a retailer that is refusing to renew a contract of some sort with his daughter. And what kind of a message does that send to other people who had done business with the Trump Organization, who may want to change their business relationships in one way or another. And I don't think it sends a great signal. It certainly blurs the lines and it's certainly what ethics lawyers are going to be looking at.
The second part of the tweet also had me kind of scratching my head which is always --
BLITZER: Pushing me to do the right thing.
BORGER: -- pushing me to do the right thing, as if he would do the wrong things otherwise? I mean, I don't know what he's referring to there. We heard that she was pushing him not to change rules on LGBT issues, et cetera, et cetera, but I'm kind of curious as to --
BLITZER: I think he was referring to that and also what she's pushing him to do on women's issues. That's a passionate issue for her as well.
BORGER: Right. Are his instincts the other way?
BLITZER: Apparently, what he's suggesting.
What do you think, Rebecca?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, clearly, this is going to be problematic, not only for the reasons we've already raised here. But the questions that persist about conflicts of interest with Donald Trump, his company, Ivanka Trump, her company, she completely steps down from her company. So, she's just receiving regular payments of the same amount, doesn't matter how much the company is making. So, she can at least claim some distance from her company.
But this doesn't necessarily reassure critics of Donald Trump that he's going to do the right thing when it comes to conflicts of interest with his company, which his two sons still run. Clearly, they keep in touch and he knows what's going on. So, this could create some problems for him moving and raise more issues.
BLITZER: Let me get your legal opinion, Jeffrey. But go ahead. Make your point.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I just think -- and, by the way, he's never released his tax returns.
TOOBIN: And he said -- remember, during the campaign he first said, I'm going to release my tax returns. Then he said, well, I'm in an audit, and when the audit is done, I'll release my tax returns.
Now, it's like to hell with everybody. I'm not releasing. I'm not releasing my tax returns ever.
[18:50:01] So, we don't even know what his businesses --
BLITZER: Well, let me ask you, because I interviewed Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the chairman, Jeffrey, of the House Oversight Committee earlier, and asked him, why not subpoena -- he's in charge of oversight, looking at the executive branch of the government, why not subpoena his tax returns? And he said, "Overuse of my power to subpoena his tax returns" is something he thinks would be inappropriate.
Do you agree?
TOOBIN: Well, you know, do you think there were enough investigations of Benghazi by the Republican House? I mean --
BLITZER: He points out four people died in that particular case. He says this is different. Just based on, what? Why would he go subpoena tax returns?
TOOBIN: Jason Chaffetz is only interested in investigating Democrats, period. That's the reason why Jason Chaffetz is in Congress, which is to investigate Democrats. He has no interest in making trouble for Donald Trump and he's not going to make trouble for Donald Trump.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. We got a lot more coming up, including the White House now demanding an apology for questions about the success of a deadly raid on al Qaeda.
[18:55:51] BLITZER: Two major stories breaking right now. Looking live pictures of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he's speaking in the Senate. They're about to vote on whether to confirm Senator Jeff Sessions as the attorney general. We're watching that roll call.
Also, President Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, calling President Trump's criticism of the judiciary, quote, "disheartening and demoralizing."
We're also following another controversy. The White House now demanding an apology from Republican Senator John McCain for questioning the success of a raid on an al Qaeda operation that left a U.S. Navy SEAL dead.
Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is working the story for us and he's getting new information.
What are you learning?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly, senior Yemeni officials are upset with the results of this raid. It's natural. There were as many as two dozen civilian casualties, many of them children, the images of that broadcast broadly in Yemen and beyond. But we are told both by the U.S. military and Yemeni officials that there was no change resulting from this in military cooperation, perhaps, though, a reminder from Yemen to the U.S. that they need to be consulted on operations.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, Yemen condemning the deadly U.S. raid on an AQAP compound last month. Yemeni officials tell CNN it is requesting that all future U.S. operations come only with the approval of a Yemeni government.
JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It has a government that's cooperated with us in the sharing of intelligence, allowing missions to come in, drone strikes by the United States in their country so that we could help them and help us minimize the terror threat. And that is a cooperation that is now at risk.
SCIUTTO: A U.S. defense official tells CNN that, quote, "nothing has changed" in the relationship and that Yemen officials were notified ahead of the January 29th raid. The assault left U.S. Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens and some two dozens Yemeni civilians dead, among them an 8-year-old girl who was the daughter of an American-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki.
Today, Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised hard questions about the raid, saying in a statement, quote, "While many of the objectives of the recent raid in Yemen were met, I would not describe any operation that results in the loss of American life as a success."
White House spokesman Sean Spicer immediately demanded an apology from McCain.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's absolutely a success. I think anyone who would suggest it's not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.
SCIUTTO: Though last week, he seemed to echo Senator McCain's words.
SPICER: You never want to call something a success 100 percent when someone is hurt or killed and that was the case here.
SCIUTTO: AQAP's leader, Qassim al-Rimi, now is taunting the U.S. in a new audio recording.
QASSIM AL-RIMIN, LEADER OF AL QAEDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA (through translator): The new fool of the White House received a painful slap across his face by your own hands and upon your own land.
SCIUTTO: Yemen's criticism of the raid comes as the country is included on a list of countries whose people are temporarily banned from entering the United States, with potentially damaging effects on a key U.S. counterterror partnership.
KAYYEM: Between the executive order and then 24 hours later a failed raid in Yemen, it just became unsustainable for the country to essentially cooperate with the United States anymore, and that's a long-term impact of the executive order whether it survives in court or not.
SCIUTTO: Keep in mind that many Yemeni officials and their family members likely to have visas to the U.S., those visas now affected by Trump's temporary travel ban and this is an issue that counterterror officials, military commanders in the region had warned about being an effect of this ban, that you cause animus with some of your closest allies in the fight against terror in the region.
BLITZER: Let's not forget the mission was to go after AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We hear about ISIS but this is still a very deadly threat.
SCIUTTO: No question. Always at the top of their list in terms of threat potential.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting, thanks very much.
That's it for me. Thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.