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New Info on Yemen Raid; Trump's Attorney General Under Fire. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired March 2, 2017 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: When you vote to confirm someone in the president's Cabinet, you have to presume that what they are telling you is true, since you're under oath.
And this has been a large issue. So, I think that's the first thing that needs to get resolved. And then you can go on to the larger issues of the fact that he's the chief law enforcement officer of this country, and lying or misleading would be a real problem for him and for the administration.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Certainly.
David Chalian, Gloria Borger, thank you so much.
And now this.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
KEILAR: Top of the hour. I want to restart our special live coverage, the attorney general under fire. Moments ago, the president said Jeff Sessions should not recuse himself from any investigation of Russian links to the Trump campaign.
This runs counter to a growing list of members of his own party. So far, no Republican has gone as far as joining the call of these Democrats, including top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi. They are actually demanding that Sessions that resign.
Now, all of this a reaction to the Justice Department revealing that Sessions, a former Trump campaign official, met with Russia's ambassador twice during the election season.
This, of course, we should mention, was prompted by reporting initially broken by "The Washington Post." But Sessions failed to disclose those meetings twice, in an online questionnaire for his confirmation in which he was asked -- quote -- "Several of the president-elect's nominees or senior have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election either before or after Election Day?"
"No," he responded.
Also on camera, Sessions had this exchange. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president- elect last week that included information that -- quote -- "Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump."
These documents also allegedly stated -- quote -- "There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government."
Again, I'm telling you as it's coming out, so, you know -- but if it's true, it's obviously extremely serious. And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Sessions' first meeting with Sergey Kislyak came on the sidelines of the Republican Convention in July and then the second time perhaps of import was in September, because this was in Sessions' Senate office. The attorney general today defending himself.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SESSIONS: Well, I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaigns. And those remarks are unbelievable to me and false.
And I don't have anything else to say about that, so thank you.
SESSIONS: Well, I have said that, whenever it is appropriate, I will recuse myself. There's no doubt about that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Joining me now, CNN senior congressional reporter Manu Raju. He's been very busy covering that marble there you see behind him, getting reaction all day on Capitol Hill.
And, Manu, you got reaction from the top Democrat on the House Intel Committee, which is investigating the alleged ties between the Trump campaign in Russia.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right.
This is after they had actually a closed-door session of that full House Intelligence Committee as part of their inquiry into Russia. They actually just got briefed by FBI Director James Comey.
And Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on that committee, came out expressing some frustration, frustration that Comey, in his view, was not forthright and did not explain exactly what was happening. Apparently, they had a lot of questions about these issues and they did not get answers to those issues.
Here is what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: In order for us to do our investigation a thorough and credible way, we're going to need the FBI to fully cooperate, to be willing to tell us the length and breadth of any counterintelligence investigations they're conducting.
At this point, the director was not willing to do that. There were repeated questions about the scope of any investigation they may be doing, individuals that may be the subject of any kind of counterterrorism investigation.
And the director declined to answer those questions. It was unclear whether that decision was a decision he was making on his own or a decision that he is making in consultation with the Department of Justice.
I would say at this point we know less than a fraction of what the FBI knows.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: That was a key point, one of the latter points there, that he did not know who was actually telling him not to say, not to disclose more information in that classified briefing.
I asked him, well, then what next? And he said that he believes it's time for a special prosecutor. That's a step that Adam Schiff has not taken at this point, but suggesting that there should be a special prosecutor to investigate what's happening.
Of course, we're hearing that from Democrat after Democrat on Capitol Hill. That's something that Republicans are not yet endorsing at this point, including the Republican leadership, House Speaker Paul Ryan.
I asked him about that as well. He does not think it's time for a special prosecutor. And Devin Nunes, who is the House Intelligence Committee chairman, standing behind Adam Schiff at that press conference, I said, do you agree with Mr. Schiff? He shook his head and said no.
So you are seeing the dividing lines happen on partisan lines on Capitol Hill, even as more Republicans say, at the very least, Sessions should step aside, recuse himself, let the number two at the Justice Department carry forward and oversee this investigation, because of all these questions involving Jeff Sessions and those meetings that he did not disclose -- Brianna.
KEILAR: Manu Raju on the Hill, thank you.
The House's top Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, is making it clear she wants Jeff Sessions to resign immediately. The White House is pushing back against claims that the attorney general lied about meetings with Russia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: We have been calling for weeks for him to recuse himself from the investigation into the personal, political and financial connections between the Trump operation and the Russians, recusing himself because -- his connection to Donald Trump campaign. And now we see that he himself needs an investigation for lying.
It's against the law. And the top law enforcement officer should know that.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There's nothing to recuse himself. He was 100 percent straight with the committee.
And I think that people who are choosing to play partisan politics with this should be ashamed of themselves.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: With me now to discuss, Laura Coates, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, P.J. Crowley, former State Department spokesman under President Obama, and John Walters, former drug czar under President George W. Bush, who wrote a letter in support of Sessions' nomination for attorney general.
John, since you did support Jeff Sessions here, what's your reaction to all of this?
JOHN WALTERS, FORMER U.S. DRUG CZAR: Jeff Sessions is one of the most honest and man of the greatest integrity I have ever worked with in Washington.
And to suggest he's lying, I mean, look, at the beginning of the Obama administration...
KEILAR: But what do you think happened, then? What do you think happened then when he testified and also put in writing?
WALTERS: There's a kind of hysteria.
At the beginning, they were pushed to reset on Russia and try to have better relations.
KEILAR: No, no, from his perspective.
He did something, right? He testified.
WALTERS: If you read the transcript -- you have shown it. The transcript said, there's been reports by CNN that some of the campaign staff have been in touch with the Russians.
Sessions answered, if I'm paraphrasing, I don't know anything about that. I have been a surrogate. I haven't been meeting with the Russians.
The context was obviously about the campaign. One of these reports of a subsequent meeting was a reception where there was a room full of people and a Russian ambassador was there. And the other is something that has been explained in terms of his responsibilities as a senator.
There's a kind of hysterical theory that Trump is selling us out to the Russians, just there was as on the right that Obama was selling us out to the Russians. It's kind of the lunatic fringe that seems to have become populated by people who should know better.
KEILAR: P.J., what do you think?
P.J. CROWLEY, FORMER U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Well, I don't think this is about the lunatic fringe.
I think there's a large issue and then a smaller issue. The larger issue is, we still need to understand what Russia tried to do during the 2016 campaign. There's little doubt about the relationship between Russian intelligence and Julian Assange.
We need to get to the bottom of that. In the process of getting to the bottom of that, we need to understand what contacts might have been made between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Might be benign, might not be benign. Again, we have got to get to the bottom of it.
Certainly, Jeff Sessions has not done himself any favors by, at a minimum, giving a misleading answer. I think it's up to the attorney general to clarify why he would, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, need to talk to the Russian ambassador? What did they talk about?
If it was sanctions in Ukraine, then it's a nonissue. If about something else regarding, then it obviously is an issue and that would probably lead you, as Lindsey Graham and others have suggested, that Jeff Sessions needs to be prepared to recuse himself, as we understand more about what actually happened.
KEILAR: John, I see you shaking your ahead.
And, Laura, I have a legal question for you.
But I just to see what John is shaking his head at. WALTERS: Well, look, Sessions has said he has met with over 25 ambassadors.
I don't understand what your guest there, does he not know that senators in these important committees meet with diplomats from other governments all the time?
WALTERS: This is kind of phony ignorance about what really goes on.
CROWLEY: In all fairness, there's nothing phony about it.
On two occasions, the senator was asked, did you meet with any Russian officials? On two occasions, he said no. Now we understand he did.
Now, I understand why that meeting would have taken place, and it might be perfectly understandable. The context here is that Sessions on two occasions said no. And now we understand that that answer was not as forthcoming as it should have been.
WALTERS: He was asked a question in context. Again, what is the underlying issue? The underlying issue has to be that is serious here is that somebody is subverting the U.S. government. That's ludicrous.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Actually, it's not about the lunatic fringe you're talking about. And I'm neither a lunatic or hysterical.
And I can tell you that the P-word you're using of phony is not the accurate one for the legal minds. It's the word perjury. And as much as you want to talk about whether there is a subversion or attempt to have Russian contacts, the issue legally speaking is whether or not you were forthcoming or honest in a sworn testimony or on paper.
And in both cases, it looks like Jeff Sessions was not. The question now is, what are you going to do about it as the leader of the Department of Justice?
And you know as well as I do that the figurehead that is the attorney general in some instances is the person who should be setting the example to say, listen if there's even the hint of impropriety, this will not be an objective agency or an objective investigation that will actually honor lady liberty or justice, then I have to recuse myself and allow the line attorneys to do their work.
And you know that Loretta Lynch did just that when there was a hint of impropriety about her interaction with Bill Clinton on the plane on that tarmac that day.
And you have before you not an issue of whether or not there was an actual wrongful conversation between Jeff Sessions and the ambassador. The issue is whether or not you were under oath -- he was -- and whether or not you made a misstatement that was akin to perjury.
That's the investigation. And that is what needs to happen now.
KEILAR: Doesn't it require intent, though, because isn't that hard part of it? Hard to prove, right?
COATES: Yes, it is. And I'm glad you mention that, because it's very hard to prove.
And, of course, that's really the lifeline that Sessions will hold on to, because you have to prove intentionally withholding or intentionally misleading. And this is why everyone hates lawyers. We parse words and battle over semantics.
And this is no different. It's very hard to be able to figure out whether somebody was intentionally nefarious in the withholding or the inaccurate statement or whether not it was simply an issue of amnesia, as he would like to say.
So, that's the battle we're having right now. But it's not about the greater issue of Russian interference. At this time, the issue is whether or not the leader of the Department of Justice was honest under oath, a requirement we have for every defendant and witness in every courtroom and in every hearing.
WALTERS: Can I just say one thing?
I believe I'm the only one here who was actually in the hearing room when Senator Franken asked the question and Senator Sessions answered it. Even knowing what we know now, I will tell you that there's no question in my mind that Senator Sessions answered truthfully and fully in the context of the question. There's no question of perjury. There's no question of a lifeline. And this is made up.
KEILAR: Why does -- why, John -- I hear what you're saying. And certainly it sounds...
WALTERS: I was there.
KEILAR: But the case that his office is making -- and obviously this is how Senator -- or former Senator Sessions feels -- is that he was sort of thinking just with his campaign surrogate hat on, and as a campaign surrogate, he felt that he had done anything wrong.
And yet clearly the Russian ambassador would have wanted to meet with him because of his ties to Donald Trump. It's difficult to believe that that wasn't part of the meeting.
WALTERS: Well, look, you could make up possibilities here. But he was in a reception with a bunch of other ambassadors and a bunch of other people.
KEILAR: No, I'm talking about the meeting in his office. No, no, he met with the Russian ambassador in his office in September, while the cyber-attacks were in full, full throttle.
WALTERS: Again, he met with 25 ambassadors.
I run a think tank.
KEILAR: No, no, I'm talking about the meeting one on one in his office with the Russian ambassador.
We have senators and congressmen over all the time to talk about policy. We have ambassadors from the foreign, the diplomatic corps there. They talk to them sometimes afterwards enough. They're interested in the same issues.
It doesn't have to be anything nefarious and it doesn't have to be anything that was the context of the question he was asked in the hearing and the context of his work in the Senate.
We want our representatives to have a wider understanding of the interest of other nations to carry out their business for America. I really do think this is -- this is not a question of perjury. This is kind of nasty politics that's now gotten to such an extreme craziness, that, again, the only serious thing underneath this is, is there subversion of the U.S. government? And that's nuts.
KEILAR: P.J., what do you think?
CROWLEY: Well, I think that's the issue, is to understand what happened during the 2016 campaign, what Russia tried to do and how they tried to do it.
Now, I think that needs to go forward as part of this. It's not a made-up issue. The question is, is Jeff Sessions as attorney general in a position, either based on reality, based on perception, to be the one who guides this investigation? That is a legitimate question to ask, in light of the revelations of the last 24 or 48 hours.
KEILAR: P.J. Crowley, John Walters, Laura Coates, thank you so much to all of you.
And next, we have some new information just in involving that high- profile U.S. military raid in Yemen that claimed the life of a Navy SEAL. Officials are now revealing to CNN what kind of intelligence was found and the new leads that they are actively pursuing. We will take you live to the Pentagon next.
[15:20:54] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
KEILAR: Now to a development in that controversial raid in Yemen that led to the death of a Navy SEAL. The U.S. will now begin locating and monitoring hundreds of al Qaeda contacts found as part of that military operation.
I want to bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Also with me, CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer. He's also a retired CIA operative.
And I do want to talk about this, but I also just to want let our viewers know that Jeff Sessions is going to be holding a press conference at 4:00 p.m. here, so not too far away. We are at 3:21 Eastern time right now. He's going to be holding a press conference in about 40 minutes.
So, we will stay tuned for that. We will bring that live to you here on CNN. Stay tuned for that.
Barbara, back to this raid. I want to begin with you, because this is coming as the Trump administration has been defending this raid. They said, even though they lost a Navy SEAL, even though civilians were killed, they have said a lot of recoverable, recovered vital intelligence has been benefiting them.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: They have said that, Brianna.
They have been very specific with their wording here. They are calling it vital intelligence, valuable intelligence. And so the debate comes up if it's something called actionable. Can the U.S. military, can the U.S. intelligence community take this intelligence and somehow act upon it?
We saw some raids, airstrikes in Yemen overnight. They were not tied to the intelligence they got here. But there have been action taken. Actions are being taken. It's not necessarily dropping bombs. What we now know, officials say, is they found a lot of electronic media, laptop, cell phones, computer data.
They went -- they're starting to go through all of it and one of things they found, they say, are hundreds of contacts that al Qaeda in Yemen had abroad, some in the Middle East, some in Europe. And now they are taking action to go through all of that and try and monitor and locate these contacts, because the concern is pretty obvious, that maybe these people are sympathizers abroad, maybe they're going to be contacted again by al Qaeda and try to plot additional attacks.
Al Qaeda in Yemen always the group that's been looking for years now to put bombs on U.S. airplanes. So there's a lot of concern about it. They found intelligence about al Qaeda safe havens, about explosives manufacturing, about training and recruiting.
So the view of the officials we are talking to is they got plenty of intelligence and they are acting on it -- Brianna. KEILAR: Bob, what's your reaction to that hundreds of names?
BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think that's plausible. Barbara is absolutely right.
They're looking for support networks, whether it's actionable or not. It's unusual for these people to put their plans on computers and hard drives. But once you have been one of these raids and you have picked up cell phone numbers, a lot of them are not in true name or prepaid, computer e-mail addresses, and on and on and on.
And once the analysts get ahold of this, it's very easy to unstitch networks and eventually prevent a terrorist attack. And, unfortunately, in Yemen, there is no government to help us, so the only way to do this is like this raid. A SEAL died. It's unfortunate. But that's how intelligence is collected in a place like Yemen.
KEILAR: And just again to remind our viewers, very soon here, the attorney general, who is embattled right now for saying he did not talk to Russian officials, when actually he did over the summer, he's going to be holding a news conference at 4:00 p.m., the first that we will have heard from him at length. And no doubt he will be talking about this issue.
So, Bob, this has been hailed, this raid, as a success by Donald Trump, despite the fact that the life of this Navy SEAL -- this Navy SEAL was killed. When you hear what is being -- has been recovered, do you say that's a success?
BAER: I think it's a success.
I think what we have to look at is the positive side. It's a tragedy, one life lost, but the military, the SEALs, Delta Force are getting better and better at these raids.
Ten years ago, running helicopters and fixed aircraft -- fixed-wing aircraft into Yemen was virtually impossible. They're just getting better at it with drug coverage and the rest of it.
And, unfortunately, as the war on terror goes on, we're going to be losing people. And there are going to be more raids like this. And the military knows the risks. They're advising the White House. And I think it's a mistake to lay the loss of this life at the doorstep of the president, definitely.
KEILAR: All right, Bob Baer, thank you so much for that insight.
Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon, thank you.
And next, a closer look at the role that Attorney General Jeff Sessions played in the Trump campaign, also his ties with chief strategist Steve Bannon that date back much farther than that, as we await Jeff Sessions giving a press conference here shortly. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)