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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Attorney General Jeff Sessions Holds Press Conference. Aired 4- 4:30p ET
Aired March 2, 2017 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: And, of course, what the president is saying comes amid growing calls on Capitol Hill, Jake, for politicians on both sides of the aisle, calling for the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself after news broke from "The Washington Post" last night that he had met with the -- with Russia's ambassador twice during the campaign, even though he denied having any contacts with Russians during that hearing that Jake just pointed to.
And the Department of Justice was swift to react to this news, releasing a statement, Jeff Sessions releasing the statement late last night, saying he never met with any Russian officials to discuss politics, and he echoed that same statement when "The Today Show" caught up with him this morning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign. And those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: And, of course, Jake, all of this comes months after Jeff Sessions called for the recusal of then Attorney General Loretta Lynch after she met with Bill Clinton on the tarmac while the FBI was probing Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server.
So, now clearly he is caught in the middle of this political firestorm. We will have to wait and see what he announces at this press conference coming up shortly at the Department of Justice. Of course, he has repeatedly said, if it is appropriate, he will recuse himself from any investigation. He has not committed to recusing himself yet, if that does happen, from anything involving Russia.
So, we will have to see what happens at DOJ.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Obviously, we're going to bring Attorney General Sessions to you live when he steps before the lectern there. Pamela Brown, stick around.
I want to bring in some of the my panelists now, Amanda Carpenter and Ryan Lizza. Maybe it's just that I'm cynical and I have been in this town a long
time, but I'm hearing a lot of parsing going on: I didn't meet with any Russians to discuss anything having to do with the political campaign.
That doesn't mean he didn't speak to the Russians about Crimea or sanctions or any number of issues that might be relevant.
AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. And that's why it's very important for A.G. Sessions to clarify what the conversation was.
"The Washington Post" describes two conversations, one that was an aside at the RNC. I don't think that is the one that is really being scrutinized. It's the conversation that Jeff Sessions had in his personal Senate office.
There seems to be some dispute whether the ambassador met with Sessions in the office face to face or whether that was over the phone. But the content of that discussion, Sessions seems to be maintaining that it was not related to the campaign. But to have a conversation with this person on September 9 in the midst of the campaign, in the midst of the leaks is sort of -- is unbelievable that something around the campaign was not discussed.
And, so, that's on Sessions to say whether it was Crimea, maybe it had to do with sanctions. We don't know. But that is what he has to discuss. And it's a strange situation, because it's up to the Russians to corroborate that story.
TAPPER: And, Ryan, one of the things I know from that time, around the time that Senator Sessions, Attorney General Sessions first met with the Russian ambassador around the convention was, all of these ambassadors, not just the Russian ambassador, but dozens of ambassadors were trying to figure out who Donald Trump was, what he wanted, what his world view was.
And they were reaching out to all sorts of people in the Trump orbit. Please tell me about this guy. Tell me what's going on. It kind of is -- it's slightly difficult to believe that there wasn't some of that, given that Senator Sessions was the number one endorser and adviser to then candidate Trump in the U.S. Senate.
RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely.
And, look, it's the Russian ambassador's job to do exactly that, to talk to officials from both campaigns, try and figure out what their foreign policy might be. That is totally normal.
And just to take a step back, there is not anything inherently wrong with Jeff Sessions, an important senator on the Armed Services Committee, and a prominent surrogate for one of the major candidates, to talk to the Russian ambassador.
LIZZA: Let's just get that out of the way. Right?
TAPPER: Senators meet with ambassadors all the time.
LIZZA: All the time.
The only reason this has become suspicious or a matter of inquiry is because of all the other issues surrounding the Trump campaign's and Trump associates' links to Russia and the ongoing investigation about the Russians' interference in our election.
So, just like with the Flynn case, this could be completely innocent and explained away, or there could be something much, much nefarious going on. That's why it's so important that Congress and/or the Justice Department do a fair, independent investigation, so we can get all the answers.
CARPENTER: Yes, but one of the reasons why there is more intrigue around this meeting is that, when senators meet with ambassadors, usually, they're very up front about it.
For example, a number of Democratic senators met with Russian ambassadors to discuss the Iran deal back in 2013 while the run-up to that. Nothing wrong with that.
LIZZA: And Kislyak was actually part of that.
CARPENTER: But if there's a one-on-one meeting that was not disclosed, that we don't know the content of, with someone who is recognized as a spy, that is highly problematic. There is a very high bar for Jeff Sessions in this press conference right now.
TAPPER: We just got the two-minute warning for this press conference.
Obviously, we're going to bring that to you live.
Let's go to Sara Murray right now.
And, Sara, I think a lot people are wondering how President Trump would handle the news of this. Obviously, it steps on a news cycle that he was enjoying, where a lot of pundits were giving his presidential address Tuesday night plaudits. What is the response from the White House today?
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
You would assume this would be maybe a moment of frustration for the president. But if that is true, he wasn't letting on when reporters asked him about Sessions earlier. He made it clear that he is standing by his attorney general. Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general? QUESTION: Mr. President, should Sessions recuse himself from the investigations into your campaign in Russia?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think so at all.
QUESTION: When did you first learn that Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador? Did you know during the campaign?
TRUMP: I don't think he should do that at all.
QUESTION: When you were aware that he spoke to the Russian ambassador?
TRUMP: I wasn't aware of that.
QUESTION: When did you find out?
QUESTION: Do you think he should have spoken truthfully about whether he had spoken to the ambassador?
TRUMP: He probably did.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MURRAY: So, today, the president said that Sessions has his total support. He said that he doesn't believe Sessions needs to recuse himself from any inquiries into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
But he also said, Jake, that this is the first time essentially that he learned about these contacts between Sessions and the Russian ambassador. We were told by the administration officials that the White House learned about all of this when it became public in media reports.
But it gives you a sense they are sort of approaching this with a level of defiance, saying what we are hearing from members of Congress calling for Sessions to recuse himself or even resign is politically motivated. That is what Sean Spicer was telling reporters as they were on their way back.
We are expecting the president to return here to the White House any moment, Jake.
TAPPER: Thanks, Sara Murray.
So, President Trump there expressing -- quote -- "total confidence" in Attorney General Sessions, saying he does not believe that the attorney general needs to recuse himself from anything pertaining to the investigation into possible contacts between Trump advisers and Russians known to U.S. intelligence., even though many Republicans on Capitol Hill, including the House chair of the Government Oversight Committee, have said that they think that Attorney General Sessions needs to recuse himself, at the very least. When asked if he believes Senator Sessions, then Senator Sessions told
the truth to the Judiciary Committee, President Trump said -- quote -- "He probably did," which is an interesting statement.
We are awaiting the comment now from Attorney General Sessions himself. He obviously wants to put this episode behind him. He wants to answer questions. This is what Washingtonians do when there is a controversy or a scandal. The advice always is, get out there, give all the information, do it on your own terms, answer as many questions as you can, until reporters run out of questions, and then leave, hopefully putting an end to the controversy itself.
And that is what the attorney general is hoping to do with this event that we are expecting at any moment.
Right now, obviously, this is not the first controversy for the young Trump administration. He has already had to see the resignation of his national security adviser for, interestingly enough, not being honest about a communication with the Russian ambassador.
Here, we have another controversy like this. Attorney General Sessions does not want to be the next one to go. We are awaiting Attorney General Sessions any second now.
And let's go to the panel right now while we wait. We were told he was going to be on time. And he is known for being meticulous. This is another detail about Attorney General Sessions that is interesting, which is he is known by his friends and colleagues as being fastidious, meticulous, precise with his language.
I don't know that he was in this instance in front of the Judiciary Committee, Ryan.
LIZZA: Well, in front of the committee where he actually answered it orally, I think there is a little bit more wiggle room. There was that follow-up.
TAPPER: There he is. Sorry.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It is good to be with you. Welcome to the Department of Justice.
Jody, thank you for being with me. He is my chief of staff. And Jody has been almost 20 years in the Department of Justice.
Let me share a few thoughts, first about the comments that I made to the committee that have been said to be incorrect and false. 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. That is the question that Senator Franken asked me at the hearing.
And that's what got my attention, as he noticed -- noted it was the first, just breaking news. And it got my attention, and that is the question I responded to.
I did not respond by referring to the two meetings, one very brief after a speech, and one with two of my senior staffers, professional staffers, with the Russian ambassador in Washington, where no such things were discussed.
In my reply to the question -- my reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.
I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct.
I will write the Judiciary Committee soon, today or tomorrow, to explain this testimony for the record.
Secondly, at my confirmation hearing, I promised that I would do this. If a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with the department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed -- close quote.
That's what I told him at the confirmation here. I have been here just three weeks today. A lot has been happening in this three-week period. I wish I had more of my staff on board, but we're still waiting for confirmation for them.
Much has been done. Much needs to be done. But I did and have done as I promised. I have met with senior officials shortly after arriving here. We evaluated the rules of ethics and recusal. I have considered the issues at stake.
In fact, on Monday of this week, we set a meeting with -- to a final decision on this question. And on Monday, we set that meeting today. So, this was the day that we planned to have a final discussion about handling this.
I asked for their candid and honest opinion about what I should do about investigations, certain investigations. And my staff recommended recusal. They said that, since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.
I have studied the rules and considered their comments and evaluation. I believe those recommendations are right and just. Therefore, I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.
The exact language of that recusal is in the press release that we will give to you.
Now, I have said this -- quote -- "I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States."
I went on to say, "This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation," because we in the Department of Justice resist confirming or denying the very existence of investigations.
So, in the end, I have followed the right procedure, just as I promised the committee I would, just as I believe any good attorney general should do. And a proper decision, I believe, has been reached.
So, I thank you for the opportunity to make those comments, and would be pleased to take a few questions, OK?
QUESTION: Just to clear up any confusion over this, could you just explain a little bit about the September 8 meeting, who on your staff was there and what was discussed with the Russian ambassador?
SESSIONS: The Russian ambassador apparently sent a staffer to my office, I did not see him, and asked for a meeting, as so many of the ambassadors were doing.
And we set up a time, as we did, as we normally did. And we met with him. Two of my senior staffers were there, and maybe a younger staffer, too. And they -- both retired Army colonels and not politicians. And we had a -- we listened to the ambassador and what his concerns might be.
SESSIONS: Well, it was just normal things, such as, I started off by saying I -- I don't remember a lot of it, but I do remember saying I had gone to Russia with a church group in 1991, and he said he was not a believer himself, but he was glad to have church people come there. Indeed, I thought he was pretty much of an old style Soviet type ambassador.
And, so, we talked about -- a little bit about terrorism, as I recall, and somehow the subject of the Ukraine came up. I had had the Ukrainian ambassador in my office the day before to listen to him. Russia had done nothing that was wrong in any area and everybody else was wrong with regard to the Ukraine.
It got to be a little bit of a testy conversation at that point. It wrapped up. He said something about inviting me to have lunch. I did not accept that, and that never occurred.
SESSIONS: I don't recall, but most of these ambassadors are pretty gossipy, and they like -- this was in the campaign season, but I don't recall any specific political discussions.
Do you recall meeting with Ambassador Kislyak any other times?
SESSIONS: I don't recall having met him. I mean, it's possible. I'm on Armed Services Committee and things happen. But I don't recall having met him before those two meetings.
REPORTER: Thank you. On the question of sanctions, why do you think he sought the meeting with you? Did he consider you a representative of Trump?
SESSIONS: I think ambassadors are always out trying to find out things and advance their agenda. Most of the countries that ambassadors I met with, they would layout the case for Ukraine, would layout his case, Poland laid out its case, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Japan, Canada, Australia. I met with all of those ambassadors over the year and so, I think that's why.
REPORTER: Did you consult with the White House about your decision? And just to follow on the last question, with hindsight, do you believe that this is a coincidence that the Russians asked you for a meeting? Do you believe you were targeted because it came at the height of Russia's interference and at the same time then-candidate Trump was giving an interview to RT saying he didn't believe there was anything to the reported interference?
SESSIONS: I don't recall and don't have a sense of it, any connection whatsoever about that. I'm not sure I even knew when we set up the meeting what was going to be going on in the world at the time. So, I can't speak for what the Russian ambassador may have had in his mind.
REPORTER: Have you met with any other Russian officials or folks connected with the Russian government since you endorsed Donald Trump?
SESSIONS: I don't believe so. We meet a lot of people, so.
REPORTER: From those two meetings you discussed with the ambassador?
SESSIONS: I don't believe so.
REPORTER: The White House press secretary and the president himself today said you should not recuse yourself from these investigations. (INAUDIBLE)
SESSIONS: I did share with White House counsel and my staff has that I intend to recuse myself this afternoon. But I feel like -- they don't know the rules, the ethics rules. Most people don't. But when you evaluate the rules, I feel like that I am -- I should not be involved investigating a campaign I had a role in.
One more question and we'll wrap this up.
REPORTER: Two questions, if I may. One, you were already considering recusal before today, is that correct? And secondly, when you answered Senator Franken's question, were you just not thinking of the meeting with the Russian ambassador or did you not consider it relevant? 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 -- it struck me very hard, and that's what I focused my answer on.
In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, but I did meet one Russian official a couple of times.
[16:20:02] That would be the ambassador.
Thank you all. Take care.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking for about 15 minutes there, taking questions from reporters, recusing himself from any decision having to do with the investigation into possible contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.
He described his meeting on Capitol Hill with the Russian Ambassador Kislyak saying they talked about terrorism, they talked about how he had gone to Russia with a church group and apparently the ambassador is not a believer. They talked about Ukraine and the attorney general described the conversation as a little bit of a testy conversation, but he does not recall any specific political discussion.
Let me bring in Pamela Brown.
And, Pamela, when it came to accusations that he had been misleading in his answers to Senator Al Franken of Minnesota during the judiciary committee hearing on his confirmation, he said that he thought Franken was asking about a story pertaining to continuing communications between Trump advisors during the campaign and Russians and he did not think that his meetings with the Russian ambassador were pertinent to that. And he's going to amend that in writing to the Judiciary Committee.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, and as we know, there was a follow-up question there from Senator Leahy and he continued to say he had no contact with Russians. He said today that he was looking at it in the context of the story that you broke during that time, during his hearing, that President Trump had been briefed about this dossier with some allegations involving, you know, Trump surrogates and the Russians and he said in that context he was sort of taken aback by the news that was just being given to him by Senator Franken and that he didn't in his mind think that his meetings with the ambassador, with Kislyak, had anything to do with this news story and even his follow-up question during the press conference he was still thinking of it in that other framework, not his meetings with Kislyak.
Now, it's still a little unclear if in that moment he recalled those meetings because you will remember last night the Department of Justice initially said that he didn't remember the meeting and through time he's had some more clarity, clearly was able to talk about the fact, they talked about terrorism and other issues. But it's worth pointing out that he is, of course, Russia's ambassador
to the U.S., but also he's considered in the view of the FBI and intelligence agencies to be a top spy for Russia. He's someone to be considered someone who will go back to Russia and share intelligence, what he collects in the United States.
And, so, this isn't just some, you know, ambassador. This is someone that the U.S. views as a spy which could be argued a lot of diplomats are. There is another element there.
It also stuck out to me the decision to recuse himself came from his involvement just with the campaign. It had nothing -- he basically said because he was involved with the campaign, he thinks it is appropriate to recuse himself from any investigations involving the campaign and he didn't say that these conversations with the Russia's ambassador had anything to do with that. I found that interesting.
TAPPER: Joining me for more is Senator Chris Coons. He's a Democrat from Delaware, a member of the Judiciary Committee and also the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, first what's your reaction to the press conference from attorney general sessions and his decision to recuse himself?
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, Jake, the most important issue here for us to continue to be focused on is to have a thorough credible bipartisan investigation into Russian interference in our elections. And the unanswered questions about the connections between senior members of the Trump campaign team and Russian intelligence need to be thoroughly and fairly investigated.
So, I think it is important that Attorney General Sessions took a big step in that direction when he announced just moments ago that he will recuse himself from the ongoing investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign in which he played a senior role and the Russian government and Russian intelligence. So, it's a good first step.
I do think the attorney general should return to the Judiciary Committee to answer the questions that were not answered fully and in a forthright way before. And to make sure that the American people have a chance to have their confidence restored that the attorney general did not mislead the Judiciary Committee in his confirmation hearing.
TAPPER: Well, Senator, as you heard the attorney general, he's going to write to the Judiciary Committee. It doesn't sound like he's eager to return in any sort of hearing setting. What will you do if he refuses to come back and answer your questions in person?
COONS: Well, Jake, I think it's important that we proceed in a bipartisan way. Yesterday, Republican Senator Rubio and I took to the floor to give a joint speech about the importance of pushing back on Russian aggression and to conduct a thorough and fair investigation into meddling in our election. It's my hope that on the Judiciary Committee, we'll have both Republicans and Democrats asking the attorney general to return and to answer the questions that aren't fully answered.
But my hunch is that we'll get answers in writing first and we'll have to see whether they're satisfactory.
[16:25:03] TAPPER: So, Senator, during the press conference right there, the attorney general quoted Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota, your colleague, and he referred to the part of the question where Senator Franken referred to, quote, and he's actually quoting a CNN story, "there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government." That's an allegation made in this Russian -- I'm sorry, in this dossier in which Russians were quoted and the intelligence community presented information, a summary of this dossier to President Trump.
He said he was responding to the question of that, about whether or not he had had any contacts with Russians as part of a, quote, "continuing exchange of information," and that is why he said, no. Is that satisfactory to you? Is that believable to you?
COONS: Well, Jake, my recollection of that moment in the confirmation hearing was that Senator Franken was asking directly if you've had contacts with Russians, with senior Russian officials, to which the answer obviously should have been yes. And then, Senator Sessions could have modified that and said, yes, I've had several meetings with the Russian ambassador, but we talked about issues that were unrelated to the presidential campaign.
So, I don't think it was a forthright and a full answer. That's why I do think it would be helpful, constructive for the attorney general to help restore confidence by giving a complete answer in person in front of the Judiciary Committee.
TAPPER: You're right to quote what Senator Franken said, the actual question he asked was, "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, at which point then senator now Attorney General Sessions said, I did not have communications with the Russians. You think that that was false?
COONS: Well, it's clear that he had communications with the Russian ambassador. I expect that Attorney General Sessions will explain that he understood the question to mean about campaign matters. But it would have been a correct, accurate and forthright answer if he had said, yes, I recently met with the Russian ambassador, and then went on to explain what it was they discussed.
As it was with the national security advisor who had to resign because he was untruthful about conversations that he had with this same Russian ambassador, this continues to raise the level of concern by Americans both Democrats and Republicans about the core issue here, which is a lack of openness and truthfulness about connections and contacts between Russian officials, Russian officials known to American intelligence, and very senior members of the Trump campaign team. We need to get this investigated thoroughly, responsibly, and in a nonpartisan way. TAPPER: Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from the great state of
Delaware -- thank you so much. I appreciate it.
COONS: Thank you, Jake.
TAPPER: Attorney General Jeff Sessions just announced he would recuse himself from the investigation into Russia in the 2016 campaign. We'll have more on this breaking news straight ahead. Stay with us.