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THE SITUATION ROOM
Senate Questions Sessions about Trump, Russia Probe. Aired 5- 6p ET
Aired June 13, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SESSIONS: It's an important issue, you're correct.
[17:00:12] MCCAIN: "The Washington Post" reported yesterday Russia's developed a cyber weapon that can disrupt the United States power grids and telecommunications infrastructure. This weapon is similar to what Russia or Russian-allied hackers used to disrupt Ukraine's electrical grid in 2015. Can you discuss a little bit in open session how serious that is?
SESSIONS: I don't believe I can discuss the technological issues, just to say that it is very disturbing that the Russians continue to push hostile actions in their foreign policy, and it is a -- not good for the United States or the world or Russia in my opinion.
MCCAIN: Do you believe we have a strategy in order to counter these ever-increasing threats to our national security and our way of life?
SESSIONS: Not sufficiently. We do not have a sufficient strategy dealing with technological and I.T. penetrations of our system. I truly believe it's more important than I ever did before, and I appreciate your concern and leadership on that issue, and, in fact, all of Congress is going to have to do better.
SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), CHAIR, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: The senator's time has expired. The chair would recognize the vice chair.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), VICE CHAIR, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and General Sessions, thank you. I particularly appreciate your last comments with Senator McCain about the seriousness of this threat, and it's why so many of us on this committee are concerned when the whole question of Russian intervention.
The president continues to refer to it as a witch-hunt and fake news, and there doesn't seem to be a recognition of the seriousness of this threat. I share -- I think most members do -- the consensus that the Russians massively interfered. They want to continue to interfere, not to favor one party or another but to favor their own interests. And it is of enormous concern that we have to hear from the administration how they're going to take that on.
I also believe comments have been made here about where we head in terms of some of the Trump associates who may have had contacts with Russians. We've not gotten to all that have yet because of the unprecedented firing of the FBI director that was leading this very same Russia investigation, that superseded some of our activities.
So those members who, I hope, will equally pursue the very troubling amount of smoke, at least, that's out there between individuals that were affiliated with the Trump campaign and possible ties with Russians. We've -- I've not reached any conclusion. We've got to pursue that.
Final comment, and I understand your point, but you have to -- there were a series of comments made by Mr. Comey last week. I think members on this side of the aisle have indicated, you understand executive privilege, understand classified setting. I do think we need, as Senator Reed indicated and Senator Harris and others, if there are these long-standing written procedures about this ability to have some other category to protect the conversations with the president, we'd like -- we'd like to get -- get a look at them because we need to find out, in light of some of the contradictions between today and last week, where this all heads.
At the end of the day, this is not only -- let me restate what I stated last time. It's not about relitigating 2016. It is about finding out what happened, about some of the serious allegations about potential ties, but on a going forward basis, making sure that the Russians, who are not finished in terms of their activities, didn't end in the election day 2016. We know that is ongoing, and we have to be better prepared on a going forward basis.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
BURR: Thank you, Vice Chairman.
SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, one brief comment, if you don't mind. I do want to say that there -- that a change at the top of the FBI should have no impact whatsoever on the investigation. Those teams have been working, and they'll continue to work, and they've not been altered in any way.
WARNER: But there were are a number of very strange comments that Mr. Comey testified last week that you could have, I believe, shed some light on, but we'll continue.
SESSIONS: Thank you, sir.
BURR: General Sessions, thank you again for your willingness to be here. I'm not sure that you knew it, but your replacement sat through most of this hearing, Luther Strange. He's made us regret that we don't have intramural basketball team.
SESSIONS: Big Luther is a good round ballplayer at Tulane.
[17:05:00] BURR: You've -- you've been asked a wide range of questions, and -- and I think you've answered things related to claims about the meeting at the Mayflower. You've answered questions that surround the reasons of your recusal and the fact that you had never been briefed since day one on the investigation. That you made clear that you can't think of any other conversations that you've had with Russian officials. You've covered in detail the conversation that you had, though brief, with Director Comey, that he referenced to after his private meeting with the president. Just to name a few things that I think you've helped us to clear up.
There were several questions that you chose not to answer because of confidentiality with the president. I would only ask you now to go back and work with the White House to see if there are any areas of questions that they feel comfortable with you answering and, if they do, that you provide those answers in writing to the committee.
I would also be remiss if I didn't remind you that those documents that you can provide for the committee, they would be helpful to us for the purposes of sorting timelines out. Anything that substantiates your testimony today, individuals who might have been at events that you're familiar with, especially those that work for you, would be extremely helpful.
And more importantly I want to thank you for your agreement to have a continuing dialogue with us, as -- as we might need to ask some additional questions as we go a little further down the investigation. That certainly does not have to be a public hearing, but it -- it may be an exchange and a dialogue that we have.
You have helped us tremendously, and we're grateful to you and to Mary for the unbelievable sacrifice that you made in this institution but also now in this administration. This hearing is now adjourned.
SESSIONS: Thank you.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM as we continue to cover our breaking news.
You just heard the chairman, Richard Burr, gavel this two-and-a-half- hour hearing to a close. It's been a dramatic day of testimony from the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He strongly denied that he aided or knew of any collusion with the Russians during the presidential campaign, and he called suggestions to the contrary -- and I'm quoting him now -- "a detestable lie."
He got angry at times and very emotional. He refused to speak about any conversations he had with President Trump about the firing of the FBI director, James Comey, or about Comey's handling of the Russia investigating -- investigation, citing confidentiality of his conversations with the president.
There's certainly a lot to discuss with our correspondents and our specialists, but as we watch the senators and other leave this Senate Intelligence Committee hearing room, I want to bring in Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst, to get your initial reaction to what we just saw.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, if you cared most about what Donald Trump's involvement was and his -- and his motivations were for firing Jim Comey and his views of the Russia investigation, you didn't learn very much today, because Attorney General Sessions virtually -- refused to answer virtually all questions about his interactions with -- with the president.
He did so without formally citing executive privilege, referring to some confidentiality, which was apparently of his own invention. And as several senators, specifically Senator Heinrich of New Mexico, Senator King of Maine, pressed him on like "What was the basis for your refusal to answer these questions about President Trump?" and he kept referring to this confidentiality but not executive privilege.
So I think the White House sort of had its cake and ate it, too, because they got to shut down investigation -- any inquiry into what President Trump said or did. But they didn't have to face the political heat of citing executive privilege, so we didn't learn much about President Trump's role in all of this.
BLITZER: I want to go to Gloria Borger right now. What was your reaction, Gloria?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, very much the same as Jeffrey's. I mean, that this was General [SIC] Sessions not talking at all about the president, not invoking any kind of executive privilege but allowing the fact that, if the president wanted to sometime in the future, he would not -- he didn't want to stand in the way or get in the way of that. I think there were a lot of Democrats, particularly Senator Heinrich, who basically said, Wolf, "You are obstructing our investigation."
And then there was an exchange with Senator Wyden in which Wyden came out and asked him about former FBI director James Comey saying that he knew that Sessions was going to recuse himself, and there was another issue that was somewhat problematic.
And Wyden asked Sessions to explain just what was problematic, and his answer was there are none. There are none. There's nothing that's problematic, and then he got very upset and talked about secret innuendo that is being leaked out there about me, and I don't appreciate it. And Wyden went back and forth with him and basically said that doesn't pass the smell test.
So you had General Sessions up there today, saying all of this is completely wrong, although, you know, saying he didn't quite recall another meeting with Ambassador Kislyak at the Mayflower. He started out a little firmer on that at the beginning of his testimony.
I would argue than he was at the end of his testimony allowing that perhaps there was one in a group but he just couldn't recall it. But really defending himself here, saying that he had done nothing wrong, including participating in the -- in the firing of James Comey, because he said that it was, of course, about Comey's behavior previous to his becoming attorney general and making it very clear that in in his case it was not at all about Russia, and he always said, "I'll let the president's words speak for themselves."
BLITZER: You know, John King, those of us -- you and I have covered Sessions for a long time. This was a side of him we hadn't often seen, how angry he would get, visibly shaken at times, at one point saying these allegations that have been leveled against him are appalling and detestable lies.
JOHN KING, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A visceral anger at some of his former colleagues, or at least using them as the platform of news reports.
Let's draw a line at 2016 and 2017, essentially draw a lane at campaign and transition versus administration. I think Jeff Sessions, unless facts surface to the contrary, helped himself quite a bit and rebutted the argument that he was somehow involved in any collusion with the Russians.
Yes, Gloria said he didn't have the exact details of what might have happened or might not have happened at the Mayflower Hotel down pat, but he did say, "If I saw the Russian ambassador, it was in passing to say, 'Hello, how are you?' It was not a meeting about, you know, we're linking up the campaigns and colluding."
I think he answered that pretty emphatically, pretty passionately as a challenge of his trustworthiness and personal integrity and essentially saying, "Go away." And unless any evidence surfaces to the contrary, I think he served himself well there.
Now, let's come into 2017. He served himself well, again, unless other facts surface about "I never touched the Russia investigation. In fact, even before I recused myself, I refused to get briefed on the Russia investigation, because it was a possibility I might recuse myself." That is a very cautious, very detailed-oriented, very safe and smart prosecutor, if that holds up to be true.
To Jeffrey's point about the whole timeline of how James Comey got fired, one version is the president made his decision and essentially sent Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein to come up with the documentation to support it. Jeff Sessions wouldn't support that. That's largely how you hear, even from White House officials, it went down. The president decided, "I'm done. Now you guys give me the documentation so we can make a public case for it." Jeff Sessions was not very helpful there, and it doesn't look like he's going to be very helpful, essentially saying, "Any conversations I had with the president about a personnel matter or sensitive matter, off-limits."
BLITZER: And he suggested, Nia, that even if they go into closed-door session and he continues to answer questions, he's probably not going to get much -- they're not going to get much more for [SIC] him, because he respects what he called this confidentiality agreement that he has with the president, even though the president did not exert executive privilege.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And we saw that in prior testimony from Coats, for instance, essentially saying there -- he didn't want to talk about it, and that seemed to be what Sessions was essentially saying. He was kind of vaguely using the cloak of executive privilege. He referred to some sort of DOJ policy.
You saw Senator Kamala Harris from California try to draw him out and say, "What specific policy are you talking about? Did you read it before -- before you came to this hearing in preparation or for what the guidelines are?" And then he kind of vaguely said, "Well, no, the principle is confidentiality."
And that's where you saw all the Democrats really try to hone in, this idea that they can come here and talk about some conversations. He did, for instance, talk about conversations he had with the president about Comey's firing and the memo. And Dianne Feinstein tried to draw that out. You can talk about that part of it, which, of course, is in writing and the argument that Comey should be fired because of his behavior in 2016. But you can't talk about other conversations that you may have had with the -- with the president about Comey.
[17:15:06] Also, they made the point that he never himself -- Sessions had all of these kind of problems with Comey from 2016, but he never went to Comey himself to talk about those problems that he saw from 2016.
BLITZER: You know, Mark Preston, some of the Democratic senators were clearly frustrated that he kept saying, "I don't recall. I don't -- I can't say for sure." They seem to be concerned that maybe he was just using that to make sure there was no outright lie, for example.
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, one thing is that Jeff Sessions has been in the Senate, had been in the Senate for more than 20 years. He understands how these hearings work. He understands what tactics actually work and how you can not answer a question but appear to be answering a question, and I think that's what we saw on display here.
You know, there's going to be a lot of talk about the explosive exchange between Ron Wyden and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. I was really interested in seeing what John McCain did at the very end, when he called him out and said, "When you were on my committee, when you had -- headed up the Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the Armed Services Committee, you didn't seem interested at all in anything to do with Russia."
Now, just for our viewers to know, what the Strategic Forces Subcommittee does, is that they oversee all the nuclear forces. They oversee all the ballistic missiles. They also oversee the space program. These are all major components for the United States in its battle against the U -- U.S., sorry, listen to me -- against Russia. So I thought that was an interesting way of trying to blow a hole in the whole idea that Jeff Sessions was meeting Kislyak as a senator in September, as opposed to as a Trump surrogate.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And of course, he had already, by that point, been named as a top adviser to the Trump campaign, something Sessions declined to mention in his testimony today.
In fact, he described himself as attending this speech as, quote, "an interested person," not affiliated with the campaign, but six weeks earlier approximately, he been named a top foreign policy, homeland security adviser to the campaign.
BLITZER: And he gave his defense for recusal, even though the president, we are told, was very angry that he recused himself, because that set the stage for a special counsel being appointed. BERG: Right. And he framed this, really, as a foregone conclusion.
He said, essentially, "When I began serving as attorney general, even though there was this process of meeting with top ethics officials, talking about the DOJ attorneys about this," Sessions said, "This was going to happen, no matter what," which really does throw into question and doubt some of Comey's testimony, which suggested that there were some classified revelations that helped Sessions reach that decision to recuse himself.
BLITZER: Go ahead, Gloria.
BORGER: Well, the interesting exchange to me, and it's more political, I guess, than anything else, is something Nia was touching on before, which is Senator Reed of Rhode Island reading back to Sessions quotes that he had stated at the time that Comey made the mistakes he now says were catastrophic in terms of the Hillary Clinton investigation.
And at that time, as Nia points out, at that time Comey was -- I mean, Sessions was not critical at all of Comey. In fact, he was complimentary of Comey.
So, you know, what Reed -- what Senator Reed was doing is raising the question, "Well, gee, you seem to have a complete turnaround here."
BLITZER: All right.
BORGER: And, you know, I think -- I think the answer, you know, I think General Sessions' answer was, well, you know, in retrospect you see things differently when you're at the agency, but it wasn't a -- I don't think it was his strong moment.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Adam Schiff of California, is joining us.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
SCHIFF: It's good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: So what was your reaction? What jumped out at you?
SCHIFF: Really, two things jumped out at me. The first was the degree to which the attorney general really corroborated what Director Comey said. That is he testified today that, in fact, during that meeting at the White House, everyone -- he wouldn't say what the president said, but they all filed out of the room. Obviously, that's not going to happen unless the president told everyone to leave but Director Comey.
He also, I think, confirmed that he was either the last or among the very last to leave the room and did hesitate, and that Director Comey followed up the next day and said, essentially, that he was uncomfortable about what took place. So he had to know, because of the Russia investigation, that that would be what would make him uncomfortable. As he testified today it's not, you know, in and of itself improper
for a president to talk to the FBI director. It is if it's about a pending case. So the fact that the director was uncomfortable ought to have been a clear signal to him about just why he was uncomfortable.
So the degree to which he corroborated Comey stood out to me, but more than that, the degree to which he avoided really answering questions about whether his letter, Rod Rosenstein's memo were a pretext and they knew they were a pretext for the Comey firing.
[17:20:14] And from my perspective Congress cannot let those non- answers stand. We're going to go have to press to get answers, and we're going to have to force them to invoke privilege if that's what they intend to do. And I think, if that privilege is being used to cloak information that would indicate whether obstruction was going on, we will have to pierce that privilege and do what's necessary to get that testimony.
BLITZER: But you heard, Congressman, Attorney General Sessions say he was unable to discuss what he called these private conversations he had with the president on any subject. He also said he was not stonewalling but just following the policies, he said long-standing policies of the Department of Justice. Do you accept that?
SCHIFF: No. You may get away with that once, but if the Congress pursues this, you're either going to have to fish or cut bait. You're going to have to claim executive privilege or you're going to have to testify. And we have the means to compel that, and if it's not done willingly, I think we should compel that.
The privilege can not be used to hide any form of impropriety or illegality, and if the attorney general or the deputy attorney general knew that the president of the United States was going to fire the director and do so for improper reasons; and they provided, knowingly provided, essentially, window dressing in the form of a letter or a memorandum, that's improper conduct that cannot hide behind executive privilege.
So I'm not saying that we know for sure that's the case, but I can stay Congress, I think, to do its job, is going to have to find out.
BLITZER: Well, in order to compel him to tell you what he knows, would you potentially want to hold him in contempt of Congress?
SCHIFF: Well, I think the process would be negotiation with the White House. We're going to demand answers to this. We're going to subpoena him to come back, if necessary. And if he doesn't answer, and we're not satisfied with the claim of privilege, then we'll take whatever steps are necessary to compel. That may ultimately result in litigation, but we need to get these answers.
I think, ultimately, Bob Mueller is also going to get -- need to get these answers. Part of our discussions -- and we expect to meet with Bob Mueller either later this week or next week -- will be what is the proper sequencing here? What are his equities in this? And how do we coordinate these efforts?
But at the end of the day, both the Congress, Bob Mueller, as well as the American people, deserve an answer as to whether this -- this attorney general and deputy were providing nothing more than a pretense for a decision, an improper decision to fire the director on other grounds.
BLITZER: Well, let me just press you. If, in fact, he continues to refuse to answer your questions, are you ready to go as far as to hold him in contempt of Congress and then see him in court?
SCHIFF: Well, here's the sequence I think we ought to follow. If we get to that point, ultimately, the answer is yes, Wolf, but I think the sequence is we go back to the White House and we say, "We're going to need answers to these questions. Are you invoking privilege or are you not?" If they're not, we're going to have to compel him to come back in and testify and answer those questions. And if they do invoke privilege, then yes, we may think we may have to litigate that, if we think they're not making a sound basis for their claim.
BLITZER: The attorney general, when he was asked repeatedly if he met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, at the Mayflower Hotel here in Washington, he kept saying things along these lines, like "I just don't remember. I don't recall it."
Do you think that's possible, or as his critics are already suggesting, he's just trying not to perjure himself?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, I don't think we really know. Certainly I think we need to do further investigation to find out whether that's an accurate account, whether this is a lapse in recollection.
A lot may depend on if there was an additional meeting, what was the nature of that meeting? Where was the meeting taking place? Is this something that it would be natural to forget, in that it's in a broad setting, or is this a meeting that would have been recommended that can be documented and proved in other ways?
So I think, you know, we have a lot of work to do to either corroborate or disprove what the attorney general said. I don't want to pre-judge it, but neither would I want to rely completely on this testimony alone.
BLITZER: Bottom line, Congressman. Is there anything during the course of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing that you learned today that you -- that came as a surprise, information you didn't know before?
SCHIFF: Well, the most important thing, from my perspective, was we know now that Jim Comey's testimony was accurate, that he was with a meeting at the White House with many others, that they were essentially all told to leave the room. That the attorney general did linger, that he ultimately did leave the room. I think the attorney general, frankly, took no responsibility and attempted to shift it to Jim Comey. But as the attorney general, as the top of the department, he has the responsibility, I think, to shield the director and protect the director's independence. [17:25:10] But nonetheless, he corroborated what Comey said. He corroborated that had Comey followed up with him the next day and was uncomfortable with what had taken place. That ought to set off alarm bells about that conversation. If the conversation was akin to the one the president has said took place, there would have been no reason for Comey's discomfort. There would have been no reason for that conversation with Sessions that Sessions has now corroborated, so that was what was striking to me.
BLITZER: Congressman Adam Schiff of California, thanks for joining us.
SCHIFF: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's get some more perspective. Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. I just want to alert our viewers, we've invited Republicans to join us, as well. Hopefully they will. So far, we've received certain "maybes" down the road.
But let's get your reaction to what we heard, Senator. What was your immediate reaction to what you heard the attorney general say?
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, I agree with Adam. It certainly squares with the story that James Comey told to the Intelligence Committee, and I also think it raises a number of additional questions.
The idea that the attorney general didn't have any prior conversations with James Comey about his job performance before firing him, well, you know, that won't ring familiar to most employers out there about the protocol you go through before letting someone go. And it also would stand to reason that it might be why the deputy attorney general had to put together, in a really fast and quick manner, a memo to try to create an after-the-fact justification.
And the very fact that he continues to not be able to testify to these conversations with the president suggests that there's something that he could be hiding. The deputy attorney general, in closed session with us, similarly refused to give us any information about how he put together that memo that created the justification for Comey's firing. He wouldn't even tell us who he consulted in writing that memo; again, which suggests that there's a potential obstruction of justice charge here that no one wants to testify to.
BLITZER: But the president himself, Senator, said he was going to fire Comey, irrespective of any recommendations he got from his advisers. He thought it was time for Comey to go. You heard him say that.
MURPHY: No, I did hear him say that, and he certainly connected his assessment of the merits of the Russia case to the reasons for why he let Comey go. So in some way, you know, the president has already told the American public that his fear about where the Russia investigation was going was, at least, a big part of the reason as to why he discharged Comey, the FBI director. The former FBI director believes that to be the reason himself.
But to the extent that there were conversations happening about this between him and the attorney general, that is certainly something that Congress needs to hear about. I'm doubtful as to whether a claim of executive privilege ultimately would hold up.
BLITZER: Were you satisfied with the attorney general's recollection of his various meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak?
MURPHY: Yes, you know, I share Adam's thoughts on this. It does really depend on what the nature of that meeting was. If it was a passing conversation, then maybe it stands to reason he doesn't remember it.
But I'll tell you, I'm a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. I've met with the Russian ambassador a few times over the years. I remember every single one of those interactions. That's not, you know, just a minor thing when a member of the Senate meets with the Russian ambassador.
Listen, Wolf, I'm -- I'm not sure that. if there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, that the principals in that collusion were the senator from Alabama and the Russian ambassador to the United States, but I don't necessarily know that every member of that committee is going to believe that he didn't remember that meeting. Those are pretty memorable meetings when we have them with high-level Russian officials like the ambassador.
BLITZER: Well, if there was collusion, who would be involved?
MURPHY: Well, you know, again, I think it's much more likely that it was individuals who might have had a more direct connection to the campaign, individuals like Carter Page, individuals like Paul Manafort.
So I -- listen, I don't know what the end of this story is. I'm just not sure that the conclusion, if it existed, was happening in conversations at the Mayflower Hotel between a senator from Alabama and the Russian ambassador. We should try to get to the bottom of what they were talking about. But I would imagine that there were other back channels that might have had the meat and substance of those conversations about collusion, if they happened.
BLITZER: So we've heard from Comey. We've now heard from Sessions. Bottom line right now, where do we go from here, Senator?
MURPHY: Well, listen, ultimately, the truth will lie in the investigation that Bob Mueller is conducting. And so I'm pleased that he has been assembling a real A-plus team; and it seems as if right now...
BLITZER: ... from here, Senator? [17:30:02] MURPHY: Well, listen, ultimately, the truth will lie in the investigation that Bob Mueller is conducting. And so I'm pleased that he has been assembling a real A-plus team. And it seems as if, right now, he has the bandwidth, he has the mandate from the deputy attorney general to do that.
So I think we need to continue to bring witnesses before the Intelligence Committee. I hope that they will also appear before the Judiciary Committee. But my belief is that it's going to be Bob Mueller who is going to be best positioned to ultimately get to the facts to find out whether the Trump campaign really was working with the Russian government to try to steal this election.
BLITZER: And Mueller's investigation clearly only just beginning. He's only been on the job for a few weeks.
Senator Chris Murphy, thanks very much.
MURPHY: All right, thanks.
BLITZER: All right. John King, this is a moment right now that a lot of people are going to wonder, does it go in one direction or another direction? Because a lot of people are going to emerge from the Sessions testimony and say, "You know, he did a pretty good job defending himself."
KING: Himself. Himself, especially on the issue of collusion and, again, as attorney general, unless other facts surface, on the fact some Democrats were saying, you know, was he meddling in the Russia investigation before he recused himself? He was emphatic: from day one, well before he recused himself, he did nothing.
But the conversations you just had with the two Democrats are interesting, because the other significant thing today was Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, saying, "Look, I have no information that the president is really thinking about firing Bob Mueller. But I'm the person with the authority to do that. I'm the only person with the authority to do that, and I will only do it if I see just cause to do it, no matter who is it is making that ask," essentially saying, "If I thought the president were making a bad ask, I'm not going to do it."
That is significant, because what began as a look into 2016, first Russian meddling, let's not forget that. It gets lost sometimes and a lot of -- people try to bring that up today, Senator McCain including at the end. foreign state player intervened aggressively in an American election, put the parties aside. That can't be forgotten. That is the congressional investigation and Bob Mueller's investigation.
But on the political side of this, it was all about what happened in 2016. Was there collusion? Were Michael Flynn and Carter Page and Paul Manafort and maybe Jeff Sessions doing something inappropriate?
Now this is much more about the conduct of the president of the United States. Why did he fire James Comey? Why did he have a solo Oval Office meeting with James Comey? That is very different. The stakes are significantly higher when you have a special counsel with -- I agree with the senator -- an A-plus team of prosecutors, looking not just back at 2016 but what did the president do in 2017, and did he cross a very dangerous line?
BLITZER: And on the big picture, John, as you point out, whether or not the Russians intervened, interfered in the U.S. election, there's no doubt the U.S. intelligence community, the law enforcement community, is unanimous. They agree, and Sessions agreed, as well, but we haven't heard that kind of definitive agreement from the president of the United States.
KING: And even Sessions was, I think -- and part of it, I want to be fair to Senator Sessions, part of it was he said he hasn't been fully briefed on it because he recused himself. And so he has not received a full briefing on the hacking, he said, to be fair to him.
But one of the things that frustrates everybody across the spectrum here, even Republicans who are standing up to defend President Trump, is where is his curiosity about this? Why does he still say, "It could have been Russia; I guess it was Russia. But it might have still been China. It could have been a 300-pound guy in his basement." You know, the president has not spoken about it that. And that frustrates -- it frustrates the hawks like Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio and John McCain. Cotton, who was very -- very good for the White House, very favorable for the White House today. When you talk to people like that, they still say, "Why is it so hard for the president?" Look what happened in the Rose Garden the other day.
KING: Romanian reporter asked him about "Is Russia being an aggressive player in Europe?" And the president didn't answer the question; he just ignored it. That part, frankly, makes Republicans scratch their heads and just say why. Why is this so hard for him?
BLITZER: I've called it a thunderous silence on the part of the president.
Jeffrey Toobin, talk a little bit about the legal ramifications, the legal aspects of executive privilege, which the president is not citing, in either the testimony we heard from Comey or the testimony we just heard from Sessions.
TOOBIN: Well, the White House is not citing executive privilege, but it's getting the benefit of executive privilege, because these witnesses, including Attorney General Sessions and former senator Coats and the head of the NSA Rogers, they are all refusing to answer questions as if the White House has exerted -- is exercising executive privilege.
So, I mean, it's really a pretty good situation for the White House as long as the -- as Congress doesn't challenge it. And one example of why that worked so much to the White House's advantage is it allows Attorney General Sessions today to say, "You know, the reason I thought that James Comey was fired is because, you know, he was really just too mean to Hillary Clinton back in the summer of 2016."
Now, as far as I'm aware, no one believes that, including Donald Trump, who said to Lester Holt he -- that's not why he fired -- that's not why he fired Jim Comey. He fired Jim Comey because of the Russia investigation.
But because Jeff Sessions will not answer questions about his interaction with the president about the firing of Comey, he gets to put out this story, that, "Well, it was really because I was so offended by the -- by Comey's treatment of Hillary Clinton" that's just preposterous. As Jack Reed proved by -- by pointing out that Sessions supported Comey's behavior during the campaign. So, I mean, it's -- that's a pretty good deal for the White House
BLITZER: You know, and Gloria, you heard -- you heard the -- the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, say that he's not ruling out the possibility, if these witnesses continue to refuse to cooperate and testify about all of their knowledge on these issues, assuming the president continues to avoid exerting executive privilege, they could be charged. They could be held in contempt of Congress, and they could go to court.
BORGER: They could find some way to compel their testimony.
What was interesting about Sessions today was he didn't even indicate that he would testify in closed-door session about certain things. He was just unwilling to go there, and that leads me to the big elephant in the room here. If we look at the testimony of Rogers and Coats and Rosenstein and Sessions, the big elephant in the room here is that not one of them would say, in any way, shape or form, whether the president's conversations with them or with Comey were appropriate. They did not venture into that swamp, because they clearly don't want to.
And you see the frustration of members of Congress here, saying, "It's our job to get to the bottom of this for the American people. We're not prosecutors here. We have to find out about the president's behavior," as John King was talking about earlier.
And not one of them would even say, "Well, this is what I think the president meant when he spoke to me." Nothing. Nada. Nowhere. Not going anywhere near Donald Trump. And that's why today was quite good for the White House, I would argue, but in the long run, the question is are they going to be able to continue along that road, given what Adam Schiff told you?
TOOBIN: Wait a second, could I just say about Adam Schiff. You know what Adam Schiff is? Adam Schiff is a Democrat.
BORGER: I've heard that.
TOOBIN: And Adam Schiff has no power. He has no power to subpoena anybody or find anybody in contempt. Let's look -- find one Republican who is interested in finding any of these folks in contempt. I haven't seen any.
HENDERSON: You saw Burr.
TOOBIN: Adam Schiff can talk all he wants, and I don't doubt that he's totally sincere about this, that he thinks the only way to get these people to talk is to find -- is to perhaps find them in contempt, but -- but he doesn't have the power to do that.
BLITZER: Hold on, hold on, because we -- we did, Jeffrey, hear a strong statement. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, told our Manu Raju he's not ruling out any of those possible contingencies. He seems to be pretty frustrated himself, and he's a Republican.
TOOBIN: Well, we'll see. I -- count me as skeptical that Chuck Grassley is going to find anybody in the White House.
HENDERSON: You saw Richard Burr at the end kind of try to gently encourage Sessions there to say, "Listen, you know, we know you kind of didn't want to talk about things at this point. Can you go back to the White House and see if you can get permission to talk about certain areas that you didn't feel like talking about today? And if you do, can you give us those things in writing, any documentation?" So yes, I mean, it was -- it was kind of gentle encouragement I think, and you saw that -- you saw him do the same thing with Coats, as well, in the previous testimony.
BERG: It was extremely gentle, and let's contrast that with the Republican treatment a few years ago of former attorney general Eric Holder. The House Republicans voted to hold him in contempt of Congress when he invoked executive privilege and didn't want to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious investigation.
BLITZER: Let me play the exchange. This is Sessions talking about that Oval Office meeting that Comey had with the president. Listen to this, Mark.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We were there. I was standing there, and without repeating any conversation that took place, what I do recall is that I did depart. I believe everyone else did depart, and Director Comey was sitting in front of the president's desk, and they were talking. So that's what I do remember.
And I believe it was the next day that he said something and expressed concern about being left alone with the president, but that in itself is not problematic. He did not tell me at that time any details about anything that was said that was improper. I affirmed his concern that we should be following the proper guidelines of the Department of Justice and basically backed him up in his concerns in that he should not carry on any conversation with the president or anyone else about an investigation in a way that was not proper.
(END VIDEO CLIP) [17:40:22] BLITZER: But Mark, should that meeting have caused some concern to the attorney general of the United States, the meeting, the exchange that Comey had with the president?
PRESTON: Yes, and he said -- he also said he didn't think it was a major problem. And in fact when he said that Comey shouldn't be having those conversations, he's correct, but as Comey's boss he is -- incumbent upon him to intercede and really provide blocking so that Comey doesn't ever get put in that situation.
Now we haven't seen President Trump, so far, tweet out what he thinks about the hearing, but the RNC has put out a fund-raising e-mail with his words on his behalf.
BLITZER: With whose words?
PRESTON: With Donald Trump's words, where he describes this as a witch-hunt and a couple things that come out of it. He says the losing political party is using a conspiracy theory without having a shred of evidence to derail a constitutionally-elected president. He goes on to say "Our former FBI director cowardly used a friend to leak a government memo to the media as a political weapon, joining countless other unelected bureaucrats who leak." He says many other things.
KING: Says it's a sabotage. "They're trying to sabotage us."
PRESTON: They're trying to sabotage us.
BERG: Deep state.
PRESTON: Which just goes to show you how political this is, as much as our viewers done want to hear this. It is very political on both sides. Not just the Democrats; the Republicans, as well.
KING: And to the point you initially asked Mark about. General Sessions, excuse me, Attorney General Sessions says he thought Director Comey was a big guy, knew the rules, had been at the Justice Department longer than him, that he knew -- he was big enough and strong enough to stand up to the president and say, "This is an improper conversation."
That is somewhat inconsistent with "This is a guy who's a failure and a loser, and he needs to be fired."
And I think that's one of the areas, as we go forward here, you know, how did this actually come about? And we didn't learn much about that today, because the attorney general, you know, selectively criticized Comey when he wanted to, selectively praised Comey when he thought it helped him, and let's just say the saga continues.
BLITZER: You did see, Rebecca, several of the Republican senators like Tom Cotton of Arkansas, for example, they seemed to be emboldened by what they heard today; and they strongly came to the defense of the Trump administration, and they strongly went after all of these accusations. BERG: Well, Senator Tom Cotton raised, I think, a really important
point, which is that in the course of this hearing today, Democrats were not asking Sessions, by and large, tough questions about his meetings or potential meetings with Russians or potential collusion with Russian officials. They were asking him about this potential obstruction of justice, with the president firing James Comey.
Clearly, this is where Democrats see this going from here, I think, based on the questions we saw in this hearing today. And for the president and the administration, I mean, from their perspective, that's great news, because all along, the president has been insisting that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, no collusion between his campaign officials and Russia. Sessions' testimony today would seem to confirm that. He was under oath and said, "I did not have these meetings. The meetings I did have weren't substantive." And Senator Tom Cotton did raise that point today.
PRESTON: Wolf, can I say one thing about Congress as a whole? And I've got to tell you, I learned Washington through the legislative branch, right, you know, through the eyes and actions of those who were in the Senate and the House, not the White House but Congress.
But I've got to tell you. What we've seen over the past two weeks with the NSA director, Admiral Rogers, and the DNI, you know, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and now the Department of Justice, the attorney general, going to Congress, refusing to answer questions, which is fine but not having to invoke executive privilege, it really -- I mean, if you are somebody outside, you're looking over and saying Congress is toothless.
BLITZER: You know, and Jeffrey, I want to play a clip, Jeffrey, on this whole issue of executive privilege. A very tough exchange Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico had with Sessions today. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH (D), NEW MEXICO: You're invoking executive privilege?
SESSIONS: I'm not able to invoke executive privilege. That's the president's prerogative.
HEINRICH: Well, my understanding is that you took an oath. You raised your right hand, here today, and you said that you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And now you're not answering questions. You're impeding this investigation.
So my understanding of the legal standard is that you either answer the question, that's the best outcome. You say, "This is classified, can't answer it here. I'll answer it in closed session." That's bucket No. 2.
Bucket No. 3 is to say, "I'm invoking executive privilege." There is no appropriateness bucket. It is not a legal standard. Can
you tell me what are these long-standing DOJ rules that protect conversations made in the executive without invoking executive privilege?
SESSIONS: Senator, I'm protecting the president's constitutional right by not giving it away before he has a chance to...
HEINRICH: You're having it both ways.
SESSIONS: And secondly, I am telling the truth in answering your question in saying it's a long-standing policy of the Department of Justice. It's not the time --
HEINRICH: Are those policies written?
SESSIONS: And to make sure the President has full opportunity to decide these issues.
HEINRICH: Can you share those policies with us?
SESSIONS: Well --
HEINRICH: Are they written down at the Department of Justice?
SESSIONS: I believe they are. Certainly, it's --
HEINRICH: This is the appropriateness legal standard for not answering congressional inquiries?
SESSIONS: It's my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the President when he has not had a full opportunity to review the questions and to make a decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So, Jeffrey, who got the better of that exchange?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think, as a technical legal matter, Senator Heinrich clearly got the better of it because there is no such appropriateness standard that allows a witness in the executive branch to withhold information from Congress. But as a practical matter, I think Attorney General Sessions won.
Did Congress get the information? No. Is there any consequence to either the Attorney General himself or to the Trump administration for saying no? Not that I can see. So it's a stonewall that works.
REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Although I think it's worth noting that this is working for Republicans now while they have the majority in the House and the Senate. But Democrats are going to use this as a political wedge, I would anticipate, in 2018. Democrats will be able to go out on the campaign trail and say, look,
Republicans didn't demand answers of the Trump administration. They're not going to hold them in contempt of Congress. We will.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And it's one of the examples of you could call it elections have consequences. Or you could say there's gambling in the casino and hypocrisy in politics, in that, you know, the Republicans didn't say anything when Jeff Sessions wasn't willing to answer, and, as Rebecca noted, they went to court against Eric Holder, the Attorney General, when he refused to answer questions.
And Jeff Sessions loved James Comey's actions in the campaign when he was a Trump campaign surrogate. And he says now that he believes James Comey should be fired for the very same things.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: But you know --
KING: Welcome to Washington.
BLITZER: Go ahead, Gloria.
BORGER: Wolf, you know, I think Senator Burr, who is the Chairman of the Committee, indicated that he wasn't happy today in his own way when, after Sessions refused to answer a lot of these questions, he noted that Admiral Rogers spent almost two hours with us last night in a closed-door session. Hint, hint. He did it. He spoke with us.
And, you know, Senator Burr has been pretty strong on this investigation, and he is the Chairman of that Committee. And I agree with Jeffrey that, you know, Democrats don't have a lot of authority or power here, but Senator Burr does.
And I'm kind of wondering what he does because no senator likes to look toothless or like they don't have any authority or to set a precedent, quite frankly, where people appear before congressional committees and don't have to answer their questions. So I'm kind of --
KING: Or to read a presidential fund-raising e-mail that says he's part of a witch-hunt and trying to sabotage the country.
BLITZER: But so far, what has been impressive is that Senator Burr and Senator Warner, the Chairman and the Vice Chair of this Committee, they seem to be cooperating quite nicely.
KING: Right. And Gloria raises a very key point. Gloria raises a very key point. Keep your eye on Chairman Burr as we progress.
KING: Because he's clearly getting exasperated. The question is, does it reach a line?
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And to what extent.
BLITZER: And he was just re-elected.
PRESTON: Right, yes.
BLITZER: So he's got six years not to worry about politics.
BORGER: Well, and he also --
BORGER: Wolf, he also said he's not running for re-election.
BORGER: Keep that one in mind.
PRESTON: Yes, he's got six years. And, honestly, like other than John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are, you know, full force jumping into this, no Republican wants to have to deal with this. Burr wants to get this over with as quick as possible, whatever the outcome is, because what has happened is Donald trump's administration has dragged all these Republicans into the middle of this.
BLITZER: You know, Nia, for the past 24 hours, some supporters, friends of the President, have now raised the possibility that, maybe, the President will fire the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller. And that's caused a huge amount of commotion over these past several hours.
HENDERSON: That's right. Chris Ruddy, who's a good friend of the President, said that the President was thinking about this. And we know that it came essentially out of nowhere that he fired James Comey.
And in some ways, it seems like Ruddy's talking about this on air is basically to show to the President that this would not be a good idea, right? I mean, you have so many Republicans come out and say, this might be the line that he could cross to have Republicans jump ship, and so we'll see.
[17:50:03] I mean, we know that the President is an avid watcher of cable news, so we'll see what his reaction is. But, again, this President, as he likes to call himself, he's flexible, he's unpredictable. So who knows what he could do in terms of firing Mueller.
TOOBIN: Well --
BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.
(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: I'm wondering why even this whole notion of firing the former FBI Director -- 12 years as the FBI Director, highly respected, why this is even being discussed right now.
TOOBIN: Well, because Donald Trump does not like this investigation. But I thought there was some very significant testimony earlier in the day before a different committee by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is the person who would have to execute the order to fire Director Mueller because Sessions is recused.
And the way the Special Counsel regulation is written, the President can't fire. He can order his subordinate, and that would be Rosenstein, to fire him. And Rosenstein said today that he has seen nothing that Mueller has done to justify firing, and he said he would only fire him for good cause. He wouldn't just fire him because the President said so.
So he is really laying down a marker, Rosenstein to the President saying, saying, look, if you want me to fire him, get ready for me to be Elliott Richardson or William Ruckelshaus. They are the people who refused to fire Archibald Cox in the Saturday night massacre. So I think the task of firing Director Mueller, if that's what the President wants to do, got harder today because Rosenstein took a pretty hard line.
BLITZER: And Sessions was complimentary to Mueller as well.
HENDERSON: Yes, exactly.
BLITZER: John, you wanted to weigh in?
KING: Well, I think that Chris Ruddy achieved his goal though. His goal of going on television was to start a conversation in Washington about this so the President would see. And today, the Speaker of the House and any number of other Republicans said whoa, whoa, let Bob Mueller do his job. Bob Mueller is doing a fine job. I respect Bob Mueller.
Why would a friend do that? Why would a friend go on television to influence a friend? Because friends who've talked to the President about this say he sounds very much about Bob Mueller, venting about this unaccountable investigation that he has no control over, much like he sounded about James Comey right before he fired him.
BLITZER: But, Mark, it's not just Chris, Ruddy. It's Newt Gingrich, who is a strong supporter of the President. All of a sudden, he is raising questions about the integrity of Bob Mueller.
PRESTON: You know, God bless the former House Speaker.
PRESTON: But this is a gentleman who said really nice things about Bob Mueller, only to say that, you know, he shouldn't be in that position. What hasn't been said enough about this is that Newt Gingrich's wife, has been nominated to be Donald Trump's ambassador to the Vatican. So to see him flip-flop on this doesn't really surprise me much.
KING: And he is the guy who said the Democrats attacking Ken Starr back in the day were being reprehensible, attacking an agent of the Justice Department.
HENDERSON: Ah, yes.
PRESTON: Right. Right.
HENDERSON: Details, details, details.
BERG: Although the fact that --
HENDERSON: For me, it's part of stupid play here.
BERG: Right. The fact that we're even having this conversation, though, that President is venting about Mueller, that he doesn't like the way this investigation is going and could potentially fire him, as remote as that possibility is, would suggest to me, at least, that the President has not learned a lot from firing James Comey and all of the fallout from that.
It created far more problems for him than he would have had if he had just left James Comey in place. You could argue now you have this conversation, potentially, about obstruction of justice. It says to me that he has not learned a lot from that experience and from the backlash he received.
BLITZER: Speaking of venting, Gloria, the President was busy this morning, early this morning, tweeting once again. He was venting, 6:35 a.m., "The fake news media has never been so wrong or so dirty. Purposely incorrect stories and phony sources to meet their agenda of hate. Sad."
And then, later, he said, "Fake news is at an all-time high. Where is their apology to me for all of the incorrect stories?" Then he went after the former Attorney General Lauretta Lynch. So he's been busy tweeting once again, venting his own anger and frustration.
BORGER: Right. He's not stopping doing that, whether his lawyers tell him to or not. There were some tweets today also about other issues, which is what, I think, people in the White House would like him to tweet and talk about more and more, which is jobs or health care or, you know, whether it's infrastructure or just another topic here rather than same old, same old.
And I think that we're going to have to wait and see whether his attorney can have a lot of influence on him. We'll see whether he does tweet about Attorney General Sessions' appearance today. One might think he might because Sessions did not throw the President under the bus in any way shape or form. He was very careful not to talk at all about his conversations with the President, to the consternation of the Democrats on the Committee. [17:54:59] So it's just more of the same from Donald trump, and we'll
have to see whether there is a way for the people who are representing him to carve out some way where he can tweet but not about anything related to Russia or Mueller or this investigation.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. We're continuing to follow the breaking news. Our special coverage right here in THE SITUATION ROOM will continue right after this quick break.
[17:59:55] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Refusing to answer. Attorney General Jeff Sessions refuses to discuss his private conversations with the President during a testy open hearing, leaving many key questions unanswered about Mr. Trump's contacts with James Comey and his reasons for firing him.