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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
AG Sessions Recuses Himself from Trump Campaign Probes; Trump Advisers Met with Russian Ambassador During GOP Convention; Interview with Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired March 2, 2017 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. John Berman here in for Anderson Cooper.
Tonight, new revelations about previously undisclosed contact between Russia and Donald Trump associates both during and after the campaign, one after the other after the other. Just weeks ago, President Trump flatly proclaimed that he had nothing to do with Russia, and as far as he knows, no person he deals with does.
Well, his attorney general did. And today, he recused himself from any campaign investigation because of it.
And tonight, we are learning that other advisers did, too, during the Republican convention.
CNN's Jim Acosta has that. He joins us from the White House.
Jim, what are you learning?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John.
We understand from talking to a former national security adviser, J.D. Gordon, that he and other foreign policy advisers to then-candidate Donald Trump met with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the Republican convention in Cleveland last July.
Now, according to J.D. Gordon, this meeting occurred over a Case Western Reserve University. It was during this meeting that Gordon said that he and other advisers explained to the Russian ambassador how they would like to see and the campaign would like to see better relations between the U.S. and Russia.
Now, all this is important because during the Republican convention, Gordon says he was part of a Trump campaign effort to put a change in the Republican Party platform that advocated against the arming of the Ukrainians and their fight against those pro-Russians rebels. That was obviously a very hot topic at the time.
Now, J.D. Gordon does tell me that at no time during these conversations with the Russian ambassador was there any talk of a quid pro quo, that in exchange for doing this at the convention, that the Trump campaign was hoping for help from the Russians. He said that nothing like that was ever discussed with the Russian ambassador. J.D. Gordon says that the reason why they sought this change in the
Republican Party platform is that earlier in the year, in March, during a national security meeting at the unfinished Trump hotel here in Washington, D.C., and a meeting chaired by none other than former Senator Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, then-candidate Trump talked about his desire that the U.S. not enter into what he called World War III with Russia over Ukraine.
So, Gordon says he felt at the time that he essentially had the candidate's wishes and interests at heart when he decided to seek that change in the platform. I am told by J.D. Gordon that he talked to a White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders about this meet that occurred at the convention or during the convention earlier today. So, this is an indication, John, that the White House here is very interested in all those contacts that former campaign advisers and associates had had with that Russian ambassador.
BERMAN: Yes, more contacts keep popping up that just two weeks ago, the president said he did not believe happened.
All right. Jim Acosta at the White House, stand by. We're going to come back to you in a moment.
Now, the attorney general, what he said about his contacts with the Russians at his confirmation hearings, what was revealed today and what he did to put this out this fire.
CNN's Pamela Brown has that.
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, just three weeks into his job as the nation's top cop, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing he is taking himself off of any investigations regarding Russia after revelations that he failed to disclose two meetings he had with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., a man considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies.
SESSIONS: Let me be clear, I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea that I was part of a, quote, "continuing exchange of information" during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false.
BROWN: The two meetings between Sessions and the Russian ambassador took place last year, first in July on the sidelines at the Republican convention, and then again on September 8th, when the Russian ambassador met then-Senator Sessions in his office when he was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
At the time, Sessions was also a leading Trump campaign surrogate.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wow! UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you swear --
BROWN: At Sessions hearing on January 10th, he denied any contacts between Trump surrogates and Russia.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: 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?
SESSIONS: 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. And I'm unable to comment on it.
BROWN: Tonight, Sessions defending his answer.
SESSIONS: I was taken aback a little bit about this brand-new information, this allegation that surrogates -- and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump -- had been meeting continuously with Russian officials and that's what I focused my answer on.
[20:05:11] In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, but I did meet one Russian official a couple times.
BROWN: Last night, when the news of the meetings with Russia's ambassador broke, justice officials first said Sessions did not remember the details of the meetings. Then, his spokesperson said he met with multiple foreign ambassadors in his role as a senator on the Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump campaign surrogate.
One justice official also acknowledged superficial comments about the election did come up in those talks. And then, late last night, in a written statement, Sessions denied holding meetings specifically with the purpose of discussing the 2016 campaign with the Russians, saying, quote, "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
Still, some Democratic leaders are calling on Sessions to resign.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: It would be better for the country if he'd resign.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: He has proved that he is unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust.
BERMAN: And Pamela Brown joins us now.
Pamela, how unusual is it for an attorney general to recuse him or herself from a matter like this?
BROWN: Well, John, it's not very unusual for attorneys general to recuse themselves. In fact, there have been several attorneys generals in the past, including more recently Eric Holder under President Obama who did several times, several different cases.
And so, it's really not that unusual. Of course, there isn't always this sort of drama surrounding it, as in this case, John.
And, typically, what happens, if an attorney general decides to recuse his or herself, then the deputy attorney general or a U.S. attorney who is appointed would then oversee the case. And so, that is the expectation for what will happen in this case. And in rare cases, John, a special prosecutor will be appointed.
But, typically, the Department of Justice still wants to have a hand in the investigation. And so, for that to happen, that would be the deputy attorney general or U.S. attorney -- John.
BERMAN: All right. Pamela Brown, thanks so much.
This just in. We just got response from the White House to all this from the president himself.
Let's go back now to Jim Acosta at the White House.
Jim, what did he say?
ACOSTA: Right, John. There's a statement from the president on this. We received this just in the last several minutes. We can put it on screen.
He defends the attorney general to some extent but says he could have said it more clearly.
It says, "Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional. This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win.
The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election. And now, they lost their grip on reality," the president says. "The real story is all the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!"
That is the comment tonight from the president. And, John, we can tell you, I was on Air Force One earlier today. The White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a brief gaggle with reporters, he continued to say that there is, quote, "no there there" when it comes to this story.
But when you have this drip, drip, drip of information coming out almost every day, a couple times a week at the very least, there is some there there. Take example the other bit of information that we learned this evening, and that is Jared Kushner, the president's son- in-law, and Michael Flynn, the resigned national security adviser, had an undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador at Trump Tower in December. That was not disclosed to reporters during the transition, John. BERMAN: No, we didn't know about that meeting. We didn't know about
the August meeting. We didn't know about the attorney general's meetings.
ACOSTA: That's right.
BERMAN: And now, we do. This is a lot of new information we are getting all at once, Jim Acosta.
Does the White House know one week ago they hadn't told us any of that?
ACOSTA: That's right and that's why we have gone back to the president repeatedly and asked him this question. This was the question I tried to ask at back in January.
John, you'll recall we tried to ask the question, did associates have contacts with the Russians. He did not answer that question from me, ended up answering from somebody else. He said, no, not yet.
And then he sort of answered the question again at this press conference we had. That press conference we had a couple of weeks ago, where he was asked this question once again. He's just sort of dances around, offering a definitive answer on this. I think the reason why is because so many of his associates, even his son-in-law, were having contacts and meetings with this Russian ambassador that were previously undisclosed. It just begs the question, why not get all this information out now? It seems like it would serve them from a PR standpoint at the very least, John.
BERMAN: Again, just to remind you, he said, "I have nothing to do with Russia", the president said. "To the best of my knowledge, no person I deal with does."
But the list of people who have now had with contacts with Russia keeps on growing.
Jim Acosta at the White House, great work. Thanks so much for being with us.
Joining us, CNN "INSIDE POLITICS" anchor and chief national correspondent, John King, CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and Carl Bernstein, legendary investigative reporter, also a CNN political analyst.
[20:10:10] You know, John King, here -- you know, Jim Acosta just talked about the drip, drip, drip that we have seen. You know, first, it was the attorney general. Then it was these meetings in August we just learned about today. Then the meeting with Jared Kushner.
A lot of meetings with Russians, specifically with the Russian ambassador.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, there's a serious case of jitters among Republicans because of this. Number one, they got surprised by the man who was supposed to be their friend, Jeff Sessions, the now attorney general, the former Republican senator.
Number two, you understand this town. There's a playbook for dealing with these things. Everybody knows, and the Trump administration knows, for his blaming Democrats about this -- yes, that makes sense. It follows the political playbook, try to rally your political supporters by trying to make this all political.
But Democrats didn't invite the Russian ambassador to the Republican convention. They didn't invite the Russian ambassador to Trump Tower. Democrats didn't set up all these meetings we are learning about after the fact. So, the president's statement doesn't quite add up or address the facts involved.
Here is why Republicans are worried. They are happy the attorney general decides to recuse himself. They think that turns the temperature down momentarily.
But there's a basic politics 101 playbook in this town. Bill Clinton used it during Monica Lewinsky. Other presidents did use it during trouble. If you know there's information out there that is going to kick you in the teeth at some point and that other people know about it, especially at a time you are fighting with the intelligence community and you know they know about it, you find a venue, you do an interview with a friendly media outlet. You find some venue to get it out yourself.
And Republicans are nervous. They find out about this about Jeff Sessions' testimony. They're finding out tonight about these other meetings and they're wondering either this is amateur hour in the Trump White House, or they're not getting this out on their own proactively for some other reason.
BERMAN: And, Gloria, every little thing we hear seems to be different than we were told initially by the Trump team. With Michael Flynn, first, oh, they didn't talk sanctions, well, he ended up resigning because they did sanctions and he lied to the vice president about it.
With the attorney general, oh, I didn't meet with any Russians. Well, now, it turns out he did. And now, we're just learning about this new meeting at the convention with Trump associates. There's something different about the reality from what we are hearing at the beginning.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it seems to be a changing story. And I think what we need is for the White House and to John's point, they should have done it a while ago, to put out a list of everybody who's had contact with the Russian ambassador.
It seems that the only person doing his job here is the Russian ambassador who is actually trying to infiltrate the administration. He's like Zelig, showing up everywhere, in the front row, at this speech, at the Republican convention.
And I think that, you know, Jeff Sessions tried to explain his memory lapse today by saying, you know, I was taken aback because it was a news story that Senator Franken was telling me about. I had a hard problem processing that. And then he said, you know, looking back on it, I guess I should have slowed down and said that I did meet with one official.
And then, he recalled his meeting with that official in great detail today, saying that it got kind of testy. And they were talking about Ukraine and the Russians said everybody else was to blame. Well, if he remembers it in that detail, he should have said it at the hearing or amended the record afterwards.
BERMAN: He remembered getting invited to lunch and declining for lunch, yes, a lot of details that he seems to know there.
BORGER: All of that.
BERMAN: Carl Bernstein, the meeting that happened in August between Trump associates, Carter Page, Walid Phares, J.D. Gordon, there were some content, at least at the convention that happened after that meeting that was of note. The Republican platform was watered down on the issue of Ukraine and Russia, the idea of saying the United States would support arming the Ukrainians, you know, against the battle of Russian separatists. That changed.
George Stephanopoulos asked Donald Trump about this around that time. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Why did you soften the platform on Ukraine?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wasn't involved in that. Honestly, I wasn't involved.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Your people were.
TRUMP: Yes, I was not involved in that. I'd like to -- I would have to take a look at it. But I was not involved.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you know what they did?
TRUMP: They softened it, I heard. But I was not involved.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: So, he says "I was not involved."
J.D. Gordon told Jim Acosta that it was -- you know, he requested that it'd be softened, and he pushed for it, and it was based off of a meeting that he had with Donald Trump in March. Again, a lot more to the story than Donald Trump first told George Stephanopoulos.
CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, part of this whole story is about lies from the beginning. That we need to look at Attorney General Sessions' appointment as Donald Trump's chief national security adviser for the campaign back in March of 2016. He was in charge of all this. And then he became the attorney general of the United States and became in charge of the investigation that is ongoing in the federal government. [20:15:01] We have got a situation that calls for a special prosecutor
or a select committee of the Senate of the United States to get to the bottom of all of this. It is very clear that Sessions has lied. Whether or not he's guilty of perjury, technically, that's another question. He's lied to the Senate. He's lied to the American people.
The president has lied about those in his campaign and about his own actions and this is an ongoing story, particularly how did Donald Trump come to his positions about Russia, do this reset, what is behind it, where his financial holdings have anything to do with it. We know nothing really in terms of the real story, except it keeps dripping out and it's going to take some serious investigating to get to the bottom of it. And it's not going to go away.
BERMAN: And it does change it seems from day-to-day.
All right. Carl Bernstein, Gloria Borger, John King, don't go far.
There's a lot more to discuss tonight as new details continue to emerge about what amounts to a giant question mark over the White House tonight. We are going to speak to a Democratic member of the bipartisan committee that's seeking answers.
And later, we've heard so much about him. So, who is Russia's ambassador to Washington that keeps on having so many meetings that so many people don't remember the content?
That's coming up on 360.
BERMAN: All right. Tonight's breaking news, a whole host of revelations and repercussions about contact between Russia and associates of candidate Trump and then later President-elect Trump. The attorney general's recusal, word that Trump advisers met with Russia's ambassador at the Republican convention in July, meetings at Trump Tower and more. Most or all of it may end up in front of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating.
Joining us is a committee member, Texas Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro, who also serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Congressman, thank you so much for being with us.
First off, I want to get your reaction to the latest news from tonight. Jim Acosta just reported that Trump campaign associate advisers, including J.D. Gordon and Carter Page, met with the Russian ambassador during the convention. Again, ambassadors do meet with politicians and people connected to politics all the time.
Is there anything about that meeting that concerns you?
REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Well, certainly, if all those reports are true, then this becomes more and more disturbing and most especially why the president and the administration have not been more honest and open about the extent of their meetings and interactions with the Russians.
And with respect to Attorney General Sessions, I'm glad, first of all, that he's decided to recuse himself from any investigation between the campaign and the Russians, specifically those who may have interfered with our presidential election in 2016. But like many folks today, I believe that for the good of the country, he should resign.
[20:20:05] BERMAN: Resign, why, exactly? Meeting with ambassadors -- again, that is nothing unusual. So, was it his testimony to Congress?
CASTRO: Sure. It was his testimony to Congress and whether he was fully honest with the U.S. Senate while he was under oath. But, also, there was something very strange about his reaction yesterday when news broke about those meetings. You think about the timing on this. By the time he met with the Russian ambassador in September, the news about the hacking came out at the DNC around July or August.
So, it would be very odd to meet with the Russian ambassador in your Senate office and not think that a remarkable meeting you should be able to recall. Also, I noted yesterday, when you meet with an ambassador, first of all, there's usually someone's staff, the senator's staff, certainly the embassy staff who takes notes about the meeting. So, there should be a record of what happened.
I would understand if somebody said, look, I met with him four, five, six years ago and I just -- I don't have that information anymore or I can't recall specifically what happened.
The other point to think about is that when you meet with ambassadors of a certain country, there's usually a set of issues that you are discussing. So, for example, I'm co-chair of the U.S.-Japan caucus. I meet with the Japanese ambassador fairly regularly. So, if you're going to meet with the Japanese ambassador, you're probably going to talk about the South China Sea, about the threat of North Korea, about China, about the relationship with South Korea, et cetera.
So, it's not only that he didn't tell the truth when he was under oath with the Senate, but I also find it hard to believe that he didn't recall and he also can't point to any staff member who may have recalled what happened.
BERMAN: Well, he said there were as many as three people in that room. And today, he did say his recollection was they discussed terrorism, and also Ukraine, and then it got testy after a while. And then he was invited to lunch and he said no. And he actually ended up today remembering quite a bit.
But I want to move on to your role in the House Intelligence Committee, because the ranking member of the committee, Adam Schiff, today made a bit of pretty surprising statement. The committee has been briefed now by the FBI Director James Comey. And Congressman Schiff essentially said he's not satisfied with how much the FBI director is telling the committee right now.
Do you know what he means by that? CASTRO: I just had a chance to look over Adam's statement. And I
think he's expressing, quite honestly, a frustration that many of us feel. First of all, I agree with him that Director Comey was more forthright today than I think we've seen before. He did share a good bit of information.
But, like Adam, I agree, there seems to be much more that the committee doesn't know that we feel is vitally important for this oversight committee to have an understanding about. And we are just not there at this point.
BERMAN: It's confusing, though, I think when people hear that. Is it just that Democrats aren't being told what they want to hear? That the FBI director is not providing incrimination that you hope -- incriminating information that you hope is there?
CASTRO: No, that's not it at all. It's basically, you know, the FBI is conducting its investigation and there is a sense among committee members that it's much further along than the information we are getting. So, there's a big gap between basically what they know and what we know.
BERMAN: All right. Congressman Castro, thank you so much for being with us. I appreciate your time.
I want to bring in our panel, New York 1 political anchor Errol Lewis, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers, Donald Trump supporter and contributor to "The Hill", Kayleigh McEnany. Also here, Democratic strategists Paul Begala and Maria Cardona.
Errol, I want to start with you with where we are tonight. And it's 8:23 Eastern Time, who knows where we will be at 9:23 Eastern Time, because, you know, there are contacts now between Trump associates in the Russian campaign that we didn't know about three days ago. More of them.
ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's exactly right. And so, the question from earlier today, which seems like a lifetime ago now is, are we talking recusal or are we talking about resignation? Well, we had a discussion about recusal, the attorney general is wisely taking himself out of the crosshairs of what most reasonable people would say is a clear problem, a clear conflict of interest.
But now, we've got this question of resignation which is still hanging out there to this extent: the question of what he said under oath and whether or not Congress, members of Congress really, really want to step on the gas and say push that and say, listen, you are not being forthright with us, this constitutes some form of contempt or a perjury, and we're not going to just look the other way and let it happen.
To the extent they want to push that, we're going to be talking about this for quite a while.
BERMAN: So, as soon as Errol Louis said questions about recusal and resignation, Matt Schlapp, you nodded your head vigorously no.
[20:25:00] MATT SCHLAPP, FORMER POLITICAL DIRECTOR FOR PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: I love these Democrats. We finally have a cabinet that's been confirmed, and now, they are going one a time going to ask them to resign.
We have one politico over at the Department of Justice, Jeff Sessions. I think he made the right decision to recuse himself from any investigations of the Trump campaign.
But this is an investigation in search of a crime. I can admit to you there might be some malpractice of communication strategy here. But I went to the Republican convention. I talk to all kind of ambassadors. I can't tell you what countries they were all from. Some of them had funny accents. I'm not exactly sure. This is kind of absurd.
BERMAN: You were completely honest about it to the six of us sitting here. And Jeff Sessions, before the Judiciary Committee, well --
SCHLAPP: I don't think there's any question about whether he's honest. I listened to the tape five or six times today. What he said was as an emissary of the Trump campaign, he did not have contact with the Russian government.
You know, he knows, because you've been watching all on social media today, there were 30 Democratic senators who had contact with this Russian ambassador. What are they -- are they going through impeachment? This is getting silly. Your job as a senator is to meet with dignitaries from foreign governments. They should do that.
As a matter of fact, if they don't, then they should be in trouble.
BERMAN: In fact, he did not say he did not meet with him as a surrogate. He did say he had been a surrogate, but then completely unrelated, he said --
SCHLAPP: It's pronoun --
BERMAN: He said I had never met him.
No, it's not, Maria Cardona?
MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: No. In fact, he said, and I quote, "I did not have any communication with the Russians, period."
SCHLAPP: As a surrogate.
CARDONA: No, he did not say as a surrogate I had no communication with the Russians. He said, "I had no communication with the Russians, period."
That is a lie and he did it under oath. Michael Flynn lost his job for just lying to the vice president. This man lied under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the American people.
And, by the way, I'm sorry, but I don't buy it when he says, oh, I didn't remember. I didn't know what the question was. He knows he is smack in the middle of this investigation having to do with perhaps treasonous activities by --
BERMAN: Hang on, hang on.
CARDONA: This is what is being investigated.
BERMAN: Hold the thoughts.
CARDONA: Come on.
BERMAN: Did the White House move past this scandal today? We will raise that question when we come back. I think there are people who think no. Stay with us.
BERMAN: All right. Quite a night, the breaking news keeps oncoming. Here is the headline up tonight on "The Indianapolis Star" site. Exclusive, as Mike Pence routinely used a private e-mail account for state business and was hacked.
Joining us now on the phone, the reporter who broke this, Tony Cook.
Tony, give us the nuts and bolts here. Vice President Pence, while governor of Indiana, used a private e-mail account to do official government business?
TONY COOK. REPORTER, INDYSTAR (via telephone): That's right. He used a personal AOL account to correspondent with top advisers on issues related to homeland security and other sensitive issues.
BERMAN: All right. And you were actually able to obtain some of these e-mails. Did they contain sensitive material?
COOK: That's right. We obtained about 30 e-mails through a public records request. And, the e-mails themselves that we received don't contain too much in the way of sensitive information, although, there are e-mails where Pence requests updates on investigations and in one case, his Homeland Security Adviser relays an update from the FBI regarding the arrest of several people on federal terror related charges.
BERMAN: And this was on his private e-mail account?
COOK: That's right, an AOL account. But cyber security experts told us, you know, can be vulnerable to attacks from hackers. In fact, e- mail was hacked. The e-mail account was hacked by apparently a scammer who, you know, sent an e-mail out to his contacts claiming that Pence was stuck in the Philippines and needed some money wired to him.
BERMAN: OK, so the account was hacked. What has the vice president said about it?
COOK: Well, Pence hasn't spoken about it yet. His office did send us a statement regarding this. And he says he fully complied with Indiana law regarding these, regarding these e-mails and the way they need to be used and retained. And, you know, his spokesman also down played any comparisons to Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server an e-mail account saying that any comparisons are absurd.
BERMAN: All right, Tony Cook of the Indianapolis Star, thanks so much for being with us. I appreciate your time. Interesting report.
We're back with the panel. And joining us by phone is Brian Fallon, who was the former press secretary for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Brian, your reaction?
BRIAN FALLON, FORMER PRESS SECY. FOR CLINTON CAMPAIGN: Well, it just makes me shake my head. All during the campaign, we were trying to convey that we thought the discussion and outrage about Hillary Clinton's e-mail use was completely overblown considering how common the practice was among other government officials. You know, during those months as a biggest critics of Hillary Clinton was House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz. And if you ever receive his official taxpayer funded business card, it actually lists a G-mail address. So we know that members of Congress use personal e-mails all the time.
And, in the opening days of a Trump administration we learned that they are using RNC addresses which is not technically illegal, but who is to say whether they are doing government business on that political account.
And so, to learn that the vice president himself was using the same practice is just another indication of how hypercritical all the attacks were against Hillary Clinton for a year and a half.
BERMAN: All right, Kirsten Powers, there is a difference between a governor and secretary of state, correct? I mean the Secretary of State deals in things that are classified and I don't want to go relitigate this. But there were e-mails that were classified with whether or not they are marked exactly classified in a way (inaudible) another thing with Hillary Clinton, but there was a difference, yes?
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there's another big difference was she had a server that she used. And that really the much bigger issue other than the e-mail. So, this isn't similar in that way. This is a private e-mail based on my very quick research here. Indiana law apparently does allow for the public officials to use personal e-mails as long as they retain the records. So the question is whether or not he retained the record was. The federal law, you're not supposed to be using personal e-mail accounts even though I guess people do it all the time.
BERMAN: The regulations change over time ... POWERS: Right.
BERMAN: ... for the Secretary of State.
POWERS: So, I think there is a difference. And the big question is if Gov. Pence was retaining the information. But I think the fact that it was hacked shows exactly why you should avoid using personal e-mail. Because, I assume was sensitive information that was now open to, you know, people getting hold of and putting on a public domain.
BERMAN: Kayleigh McEnany, you know people are going to look at this and say there is more than a hint of irony in this. I mean, look, Mike pence, the Trump campaign, just incredibly critical, scaldingly critical of Hillary Clinton, the whole campaign. And it turns out that he was doing private e-mails and got hacked.
KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, they'll be reassured when they see a very different factual scenario here. One, Kirsten accurately points out Indiana Law permits you to use a private e-mail account. Secondly, the outrage with Hillary Clinton was not just the server, it's the fact she deleted 30,000 e-mails, the fact that she changed her story four times on whether she sent or received classified information, she violated the federal records act in deleting state document that should have been kept and maintained. So there's not a comparison here. But what I think the story showcases is that this is what the Trump administration is up against. They're up against a hostile press in many cases who are going to any length to drown his presidency.
[20:35:00] Case and point, this article from the Indy Star, which buried six lines down, six, seven (inaudible) down you find out that this actually isn't a violation of state law at all. So the Trump administration is going to have to learn how to navigate hostile reporters like this Indy Star reporter who discredit their own story.
BERMAN: Well, I don't know if its -- news is news. If the guy was using two accounts and was sending e-mails and receiving e-mails that had to do with Homeland Security and FBI, it's just news. And learning those facts may be important to the voters of Indiana. I'm not sure that makes them a hostile reporter.
Paul Begala, to you, I do want to get back to the stories out of the White House today. You've been sort of smirking.
PAUL BEGAL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm trying to choke down the vomit. I'm sickened. I'm sorry. The hypocrisy is just -- it's too spectacular. Irony has just not only died, I already (ph) first drank a gallon of antifreeze, climb to the top of Washington Monument and threw yourself off. There is no more irony in America.
Look, by the way, Hillary's use for a private server, on the day that story broke, I said, all government employees should use government e- mail. I still think that's right. It didn't violating federal laws, apparently Gov. Pence at that time didn't violate any state laws.
But their principle attack on Hillary, the Republicans, was because she used a private e-mail. It was certainly not a crime. Even right wing Republican Jim Comey called the press conference and said no reasonable prosecutor would take this case. So we know she didn't.
I trust Gov. Pence didn't. I don't want to hound him. The hypocrisy here is just staggering. And I -- words fail me.
BERMAN: ... you called him right wing.
BEGALA: Sure and Republican. A Republican which is ...
BEGALA: That's not a dirty word.
BERMAN: It's not right.
BERMAN: Just heard you say, you say there are times when Democrats were (inaudible) was going to do the investigation. I do want to let that slide. Brian Fallon ...
BEGALA: He's a white water staff trying to get Hillary back then.
BERMAN: Brian Fallon, if we still have you on the phone, I want to switch gears back to where we started tonight.
FALLON: Can I just jump in?
BERMAN: OK, Brian.
FALLON: ... to one point. We should not be so quick to say that Gov. Pence did not violate any state laws. It is true that the story says that Indiana state law permits the use of personal e-mail for work purposes, but the story also indicates that you are required, if you are going to do that, to turn over all your personal e-mails. And according to the story, the governor did not do that until he left office. And when he did so, it was his own personal attorney that reviewed what to turn over. Those are the exact thing circumstances that happened with Hillary Clinton. And everyone said how can we trust that her lawyers turned everything over? And so those same questions should now be asked about Gov. Pence before we deeming him as being fully in compliance ...
BERMAN: Well, did Hillary Clinton break the law?
BERMAN: OK, so.
FALLON: But, look ...
BERMAN: ... right, if, you know, if Mike Pence ... FALLON: All I'm saying, let's ask the same follow up questions about
Mike Pence's deletions as we did about Hillary Clinton. All of that stuff was litigated, it turn out that some e-mails was deleted in realtime in Hillary Clinton's case, and that was inappropriate. But it may well be case that Gov. Pence deleted some e-mails in realtime since he never turned the personal once over until the end according to the story.
So, let's just ask the same question to Gov. Pence.
MCENANY: We can ask him if he used bleach bed or sledgehammers to bust up his Blackberries and I'm pretty sure the answer will be no. That is highly usual with secretary (inaudible) did, particularly with the bleached (ph) software. So I really think that you're searching ...
FALLON: We don't know. Let the ...
MCENANY: Let's ask him. I'm happily asking that ...
FALLON: It's also immaterial. You know, it's always a red herring to bring up the fact she used a personal server. Personal e-mail is personal e-mail. If it's wrong to use personal e-mail for work related purposes, then it really doesn't matter from a legal standpoint whether it's a G-mail, Yahoo or some domain server that you buy on Godaddy.com.
And so, if you want to argue, well, (inaudible) server let's face in this case we know that actually Gov. Pence's e-mail were hacked and Hillary Clinton (inaudible). So what does that tell you?
We should be so quick.
POWERS: I just have to disagree with that. I think her having a server was actually very significant. And I think that -- and the fact, the way that she responded to it and the way the Clinton campaign down played it, I think had a lot to do with people not having a lot of trust in Hillary Clinton.
And so, to hear Brian Fallon continue to defend this, where I really think that she was completely out of line in what she did and the way she responded to it when she was caught.
So, look, you know, If Mike Pence did the same thing that Hillary Clinton did, he should be held accountable in the same way. There should be exactly the same standard. I completely agree with that. But I don't think -- but we shouldn't ...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By the way it's not a national security.
POWERS: But we shouldn't down play what Hillary Clinton did. I think, you know, if he violated a law, if he wasn't retaining records, that is a problem. You are supposed to retain the records. That's a very serious offense.
BERMAN: All right, guys, we're just learning about this tonight. Obviously, we're going to hear more details over the next few minutes. And who know, knows what is else will break over the next few minutes.
Up next, a Russian ambassador, a man (inaudible) in Washington or both. What we know about this man in his many, many, many meetings? The Russian ambassador.
[20:42:24] BERMAN: The Russian ambassador, the center of controversy over meetings with members of Pres. Trump's team. He's not new to Washington. Current and former senior U.S. government officials say U.S. intelligence considers him one of Russia's top spies and spy recruiters.
Meanwhile, the ambassador seems to just consider himself (inaudible). Michelle Kosinski reports.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPODENT: Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak has spent a dozen of his 66 years living and working as a diplomat in the United States. He and his wife, Nathalia (ph) is often seen out and about enjoying parties and events around Washington, D.C.
SERGEY KISLYAK, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR: I personally have been working from the United States so long, that I know almost everybody.
KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: He's straight out of central casting, perfect English, heavy Russian accent, immaculate suits, he's blunt and stands out.
KOSINSKI: Trained as an engineer in Russia and described as highly intelligent. Kislyak joined the foreign ministry at a height of the Cold War in 1977. He's been ambassador to the U.S. for more than eight years running. But some U.S. intelligence officials believe he's more than that, far more. They believe he has very close ties to Russian intelligence according to current and former senior U.S. government officials. Speaking at Stanford, he described the U.S./Russia relationship just after Donald Trump was elected president.
KISLYAK: We are living in -- to the worst point in our relations at the end of the cold war.
KOSINSKI: He expressed optimism things would get better. This week, he attended the president's address to Congress.
Now, though, the controversy over Kislyak's meetings Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions is the second time in weeks the ambassador finds himself at the center of a storm regarding the Trump White House.
Then, incoming National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn had told top members of the administration that when he spoke to Kislyak by phone, prior to the inauguration, he did not discuss sanctions against Russia. Later, though, admitting he did not remember whether they had talked about that. Flynn was forced to resign. Those conversations had been captured and recorded, according to U.S. intelligence officials because Russian diplomat calls routinely are and some of the content raised flags.
Kislyak has not responded to the latest flop over Atty. Gen. Sessions. His spokesman saying they had nothing to add to this, from the Russian foreign ministry responding to questions over whether he, himself, is a spy.
MARIA ZAKHAROVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESWOMAN: Stop spreading lies and false news.
KOSINSKI: Echoing a now familiar refrain.
[20:45:2] DOZIER: Something I've heard from former spies is that the Russians have really stepped up their spy game in recent years. And you can see that by looking at their embassy in Washington, D.C. they estimate something like half the personnel in there are related to intelligence.
KOSINSKI: As Russia continues to figure into the political controversy in America right now, whether it's hacking, spying or just talking. Michelle Kosinski, CNN, the state department.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: All right, joining us now, Steven Hall, former Russian operations officer at the CIA, also and former Michigan Republican Congressman Mike Rogers. He chair the House Intelligence Committee before he decided, wisely, I might add to become a CNN national Security Commentator.
With us, as well, former Obama White House Communications Director, Jen Psaki, also a wise choice to come over here.
Mike, Steven, actually, let me start with you. You know, these questions about whether the ambassador is recruiting spies or not. Is that pertinent or is it enough that this ambassador is the eyes and ears of Vladimir Putin here in the United States?
STEVEN HALL, FORMER CIA RUSSIAN OPERATION OFFICER: I actually think it's pretty unlikely that he's actually Ambassador Kislyak is actually a staff, you know, FPR or FSB officer. I would doubt that.
But, I would also argue that you're right, it doesn't really matter. He is, indeed the eyes and ears of Vladimir Putin. Here along with other members of his mission. And each of them has their role. And it does appear that he's been aggressive in going out and doing exactly what they pay him to do, which is obtain as much information as he can, however he can do it, primarily overtly about the U.S. government and of course his meetings with then Sen. Sessions would have been particularly attractive because of Sessions position on the armed services committee, a very interesting topic for the Russians and perhaps even more important because of his allegiance with then candidate Donald Trump. So these have been very important collection requirements for Moscow regardless of whether if it was service by an intelligence officer or by a very aggressive ambassador. BERMAN: And Jeff Sessions was the first and for long time the only U.S senator supporting Donald Trump for a while. He was chairman of his National Security during the campaign, and then of course, you know, Gen. Rogers, the ambassador met not just with Jeff Sessions but also have frequent contact with Michael Flynn, at least during the transition, and now we learn tonight, had meetings with Trump campaign advisers at the convention itself. This is a very busy ambassador.
MIKE ROGERS, (R) FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE CMTE. CHAIRMAN: It is. But, I just one point of caution here, if it weren't for leaping to a conclusion, this town would get no exercise at all. The ambassador's job is to meet with senior officials so they met with senior officials in the Obama administration, in the Bush administration, in the Clinton administration before that. That in and of itself is not unusual.
When I was a member of Congress, on the intelligence committee, I met with the ambassador on two different occasions on issues that we are trying to find some common ground on. It happened to be a drug issue in Northern Afghanistan where we're trying to solicit, hopefully, a joint effort between Russians and the United States some kind of drug efforts.
So, that, in and of itself, that a member of the United States Senate would meet with an ambassador, not unusual. Member of Congress, senior officials, that in and of itself is really the mission and definition of diplomacy. They have to have those conduits. The ambassador was there to do it.
I think what they have here is just an interesting time line that they're going to have to explain. I just don't think the administration has done a great job explaining this timeline. They're just going to have to explain it. I would not leak to the conclusion that, I have heard things like treason and other crimes. As an old FBI guy, I don't see any of that. You're going to have to go a long way with evidence to show that. But there is a timeline question and they should get that out on the table, they should clear it up and move on. There's a lot of important issues for them to deal with.
BERMAN: ... one of the issues, as recently as two weeks ago, they said that timeline it didn't exist, that there were no meetings at all. And now we learn there were multiple meetings with Jeff Sessions, at least one meeting at the convention. And we don't know if there are others as well.
Jen Psaki, you worked in the Obama White House with the State Department. What was the view from inside, you know, the Obama administration of Ambassador Kislyak?
JEN PSAKI, FORMER WH COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR PRES. OBAMA: Well, he's been a long known diplomat in circles around the world for many, many years. He served at NATO and he's been in the United States for quite some time. I think it's important for people to remember that no government, including the United States confirms a role of any diplomat in intelligence gathering. So, that's not something the Russian government -- we shouldn't hold our breath and except them to say more about that, but it's also important to remember that intelligence gathering has been a long, valued quality of diplomats in Russia. Remember, Putin came up through the KGB.
So I think -- when I was in the White House working for Pres. Obama, obviously, we didn't know a lot of what we know now, the drip, drip, drip of many of these meetings. I think some of the important questions to ask here are about the timing of the meeting at the Republican convention then we also, immediately after that, we saw a weakening of the platform. There was also some questions about a meeting you had in his office. And then we saw that when we kicked out 35 diplomats who had ties to intelligence gathering, the Russians didn't do anything in return.
So, at a minimum there are some big questions that the Trump administration and even the Attorney General should be answering here.
[20:50:26] BERMAN: You know, Steve, you know, there are things that the ambassador might want that don't necessarily get into the world of espionage or intrigue. There are things that the Russians would legitimately want to know about someone who might be president.
PSAKI: That's absolutely true. And intelligence gathering can have a range of purposes, but it also can be what is the new Trump administration going to do if he wins about sanctions related to Ukraine? What are they going to do related to cooperation in Syria? There are significant foreign policy decisions that Russia wants to know where the United States is, where the intelligence committee is, where the National Security team is and that also can take the form of intelligence gathering.
BERMAN: Steve, can you tell what the Russians were after based on the pattern of meetings we have now seen between the ambassador and various Trump campaign associates?
HALL: You know, it's a classic counter intelligence question and from my previous career, we spent a lot of time especially when you're talking about Russia on counter intelligence matter.
So it's difficult to determine precisely, not difficult to imagine perhaps some of those topics we were just talking about in terms of Crimea, Ukraine, things like that, those positions.
But, let's not forget what's really the counter intelligence issue here and that is we're just talking about a drip, drip, drip of information. In counter intelligence terms what you're doing is you're looking for those threads, you're looking for those indicators that something is going on. And make no mistake about how serious this is because if indeed, there was some sort of co-operation prior to the election, if the counter intelligence's track and drip leads us back in that direction, they're really talking about questioning the entire outcome of the election, which is why in such a partisan in such a difficult issue. And that's the real -- from a counter intelligence perspective, I'm really interested as to all the drips that just keep coming out and what's behind them.
BERMAN: Mike, last question to you, you did advice the Trump transition for awhile. If you could advice them now, what would that advice be?
ROGERS: First of all, you have to take Russia, who they are and their interests do not align with the United States on probably 95 percent of all our issues, number one. Number two, I would get out ahead of this problem. It is not wrong to meet (inaudible) and I think it's really dangerous to try to say that diplomats are somehow all engaged in an intelligence operation.
We have diplomats overseas who are diplomats doing real important diplomatic service to the United States of America and they should never be labeled as part of some collection opportunity.
Now, what they will do in diplomacy, by the way, and this is important, is try to understand intentions of different nations. So the Russians are going to try to really understand the Trump campaign, by the way, so as every other diplomatic mission in this town is trying to figure out what the Trump administration is.
ROGERS: My advice to them is take Russia as serious a threat as it is and get out in front of this thing and then just start laying out the case of how you're going to be tough on Russia and I think this thing goes away. The longer they play this footsie game with this thing, the longer it's going to go. I think that's a serious mistake.
BERMAN: Footsie is never good in politics. Steve Hall, Mike Rogers, Jen Psaki, thanks so much.
All right, the recusal from the attorney general came just hours after Pres. Trump said he didn't think a recusal was necessary. President Trump said so while visiting a soon to be commissioned aircraft carrier in Virginia. He was there to talk about his plans to boos the defense budget by some $54 billion.
He presumed he wasn't planning on a brush fire that erupted over Atty. Gen. Session. And tonight's America uncovered, Randi Kaye gets reaction from some of the people who are at the shipyard to see the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RANDI KAYE, CNN INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: On board the USS Gerald Ford, sailors and shipbuilders packed the belly of the aircraft carrier anxious to see their new commander-in-chief.
DONALD TRUMP, (R) U.S. PRESIDENT: I agree. I agree.
KAYE: Many in the crowd hadn't yet heard that newly minted Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions was under fire for failing to share during his confirmation hearings that he had met with a Russian ambassador twice during the campaign.
Many members of Congress including Republicans are saying that he misled the committee during his confirmation hearings. Does that concern you? QUENTIN CAVANAUGH, ATTENDED TRUMP RALLY: It does. It does concern me. So I hope that's not true.
KAYE: Should he resign?
CAVANAUGH: No, I don't think so. I think we need to find out more about him first.
KAYE: Do you think it's a big deal?
LANCE HALL, ATTENDED TRUMP RALLY: Yeah, probably. I mean, he's talking with the Russians and we don't know exactly what is going on, I mean not sure exactly.
TOM EAMAN, ATTENDED TRUMP RALLY: They said he was doing it because his job at the time, not because of Mr. Trump or anything else.
[20:55:05] KAYE: So you believe he met with him as a senator and a member of the armed services committee, not as a Trump surrogate?
EAMAN: Why would he not? I mean, you have take (ph) man of his word, right?
KAYE: So, all the questions about him lying under oath, do you believe he told the truth?
EAMAN: I do not know all the questions but there is no upside to lying.
CAVANAUGH: I hope if he's done something illegal, that's taken care of.
KAYE: When we told this Trump supporter that the man then Sen. Jeff Sessions met with is considered by U.S. intelligence to be a top Russian spy, she refused to even talk about the situation.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You better get somebody else because I'm -- that really pisses me off.
KAYE: Some in the crowd thought Sessions deserved a break suggesting it was memory lapse or that he was possibly being coached.
EAMAN: It's part of his job and normal routine. You don't know what he do every single day.
KAYE: Are you at all concerned that perhaps then Sen. Sessions lied under oath?
ABBY PRUET, ATTENDED TRUMP RALLY: No. I think that time he was probably told that he should not say anything, so I don't think he was lying under oath.
KAYE: And about those appeals for him to step down.
What do you make of the calls for the attorney general to resign? Is it too soon? MATTHEW HAYES, ATTENDED TRUMP RALLY: I think maybe too soon. Maybe wait a little while for more facts to come out and wait some more time just to see what happens, you know, let the whole due process continue.
KAYE: Do you think he'll make a good attorney general?
PRUET: I think he will.
KAYE: So does this man who was quick to point out all senators talk to foreign nations, that it's part of the job. Does that bother you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. It doesn't.
KAYE: Why not?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It doesn't. He's a patriot, God Bless America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: All right, Randi Kaye joins me now live from Virginia. It was after the rally there that Atty. Gen. Sessions recused himself for many investigation into Russia and the U.S. campaign. Had you talked to folks about that?
KAYE: We had talked to them about that but of course, that was before he did recuse himself, but many of them told us that they just weren't ready to weigh in on it anyway, they needed more facts. I mean these are folks whore sailors and shipbuilders and they have been at work on that aircraft carrier much of the day. They weren't following the news as closely as the rest of us.
But there were many there also, John, who are quick to say absolutely he should recuse himself. They felt that the investigation was already compromised, they were also already concerned about what he might have learned in his short time involved in that investigation.
But the main thing, John, that we heard over and over again from people is that they are very concerned that this whole mess, right or wrong on Jeff Session's part is just going to bog down the Trump administration to slow down the president's agenda, that he's not going to be able to accomplish anything.
They're also worried he's going to continue to lose cabinet members, which they say won't be good for the country. They would like this all to just go away, John.
BERMAN: All right, interesting, Randi Kaye in Virginia, thanks so much.
Meetings between the Russian ambassador and several members of the Trump team just one part of the story tonight. The latest ahead in another hour of "360."