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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Sessions Recuses Himself from Russia Investigations. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 2, 2017 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[16:31:53] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We've got plenty to talk about with my political panel. But I want to start right now with former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst, Laura Coates.

Laura, my understanding is that perjury is very, very difficult to prove, even though we've heard lots of rhetoric today about whether or not then senator, now Attorney General Sessions committed perjury.

Do you think his step to recuse himself from this matter is going to put an end to that?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it is very difficult because you have the intent provision of perjury. You have to actually intend to mislead and it really implies a nefarious sort of conduct or behavior, and clearly, his statements today were very, very careful to parse words, be very deliberate in his comments to ensure that he was not showing or conveying any intent to mislead and just a basic lost in translation moment.

His statements about being recused is a very, very powerful step for him in trying to give a life line of credibility to the Department of Justice. Remember, just not even a year ago, the same was required of Loretta Lynch for the hint of impropriety for her tarmac conversation with President Clinton. And, of course, you had the same issue, not whether or not there was -- you know, a fully vetted investigation to Russian interference or whether or not there is a hint of impropriety. And that is enough for people to raise their eyebrows and wonder about whether the Justice Department is being led by somebody who can be objective and who can be critical of the administration in a way that they are required to be if they need to be, and also the sort of the fox is not guarding the hen house.

So, his recusal is very powerful but it doesn't alleviate the underlying question here, which is when Senator Leahy asked you a written question and you still answered no, the question of context is not really a powerful excuse, is it?

TAPPER: Well, let me ask you just a technical question. When an attorney general recuses him or herself, who then takes over, the deputy attorney general? COATES: Yes, and that's the person that is going to over see. Right

now, it's Dana Boente over at AGVA (ph) who will take over, because they don't have a sworn in deputy DAG yet. But you ultimately have the line attorneys, the career appointed attorneys whose job it is to be that objective force who will stay the course in and out of different administrations.

And so, really it creates a figure head role for the Department of Justice, attorney general, which is more than anything else, which is why it's questionable as to why he would even choose not to even try to recuse yourself. But the reason is because recusal of the attorney general undermines the overall view that it's an objective force that they can actually oversee anything.

Remember, this is the tip of the iceberg. The question is not whether all of the -- what happened with Russia. It's the tip of the iceberg. So, if there are other things down the road that the campaign will have touched upon, will Jeff Sessions become a lame duck who cannot touch anything, or is it a very nuanced part? And that's the question we all have to ask.

TAPPER: Dan Balz, this is in many ways a brand-new breaking story. In other ways, it's the oldest story in Washington. It's not so much what you did necessarily as the cover up or the refusal to be completely forthcoming with all the information.

Do you think Senator Sessions, Attorney General Sessions has the support in the White House at least right now to last?

[16:35:05] DAN BALZ, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: I don't know the answer to that, Jake. I mean, presidents will say what they have to say at any given moment. And if there is something further that happens, confidence in the attorney general could disappear in an instant as we saw with General Flynn.

So, I think that -- I mean, you say this is part of the oldest story. The other aspect of pt of the older story we've seen before is this kind of drip, drip, drip, drip in the way information comes out and raises questions that are never completely answered or necessarily answered fully to the -- you know, to provide the credibility that any administration needs when they are facing this kind of inquiry. And that's what they have been unable to do over the first 40 x days of their administration.

TAPPER: You know what's interesting, Amanda, is that president Trump has declared several times that Russia is fake news. Anything having to do with Russia is fake news. And he's right in the sense that when it comes to Michael Flynn and now Attorney General Sessions, they have been saying things that were fake news, at least according to their critics. They have been saying things that were not true. Flynn was not honest with Vice President Pence, and now many members of the Senate Judiciary Committee think that Senator Sessions now Attorney General Sessions was not honest with them. That's fake news.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, here's the thing that Republicans on the Hill will have to consider, and I'm asking myself. Is this just sloppy staff work, where they just didn't remember the meeting, or did they not want people to know this meeting occurred?

And I'm worried for Jeff Sessions, because I can't imagine that the staffer, he talked about in this press conference, there were two members of senior staff there. They were approached to have this meeting. Somehow it got on the schedule. If Jeff Sessions didn't remember that meeting which I find shocking given the importance of that person, his staff should have. The red flag should have been pushed and said, yes, we did have that meeting. Let's clean this up with the Senate confirmation hearings.

And if you didn't clean it up then, why didn't you clean it up when "The Washington Post" came calling? Why did we go hours and hours and hours where Jeff Sessions who was approached with the camera, I don't know anything about that, it's false? Why are we getting this information now where it would have helped him so much more 12 hours ago?

Those are the questions I'm asking myself.

TAPPER: And it's interesting because, let's go back to the two meetings that he had with the ambassador. One, he says was at the convention and it was just like a lot of ambassadors coming to him and shaking his hand and he didn't realize that the Russian ambassador was one of them. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt just for the sake of conversation.

Second one, meeting in the office in his Senate office in September, this is deep in the throes of the presidential campaign and Russia is a major, major focus point, president Trump then candidate Trump talking about how the Russians who hack and find the 30,000 e-mails that Hillary did away with, got rid of. The idea of oh, it didn't even occur to me because -- I mean, Russia was a major thing we were talking about all year.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It wasn't a few years ago. There was something about the Russian ambassador that is a little unusual because it seems whenever someone goes and talks to him, they forget about it.

TAPPER: Yes, some sort of contact amnesia.

LIZZA: So -- but you're right. Look, I pointed out before there is nothing unusual about senators meeting with ambassadors, but in the context of that campaign when Russia was the issue -- remember this was after the Republican convention where the Republican platform was changed to be more pro-Russia to take out of the platform the idea we should be arming the Ukrainians, when the relationship with Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman was extremely controversial because of his ties to a pro-Russia party in Ukraine. As you point out, Jake, after the Donald Trump jokingly or not called for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton.

So, you think a sophisticated political operator like Jeff Sessions sitting down with the Russian ambassador in a meeting, he would, one, be very careful about that. And then, two, have a fairly clear memory after it happened.

TAPPER: And, Dan, what's interesting here is Attorney General Sessions keeps talking about he didn't have a meeting to talk about politics. Politics aren't really even necessarily what anybody would think he would be talking about. He would be talking about, are you going to lift sanctions on Russia? What are you going to do about Ukraine? What are you going to do about Crimea? What are we going to go about ISIS in Syria, et cetera?

BALZ: You know, the idea that he was approached by the Russian ambassador because he is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, plausible on the one hand, but not realistic on the other, given the position he had, given as you say the degree to which Russia was all over the news, but also because every country in the world was trying to figure out more about Donald Trump.

TAPPER: Yes.

BALZ: What he thought, what he was like, would he be able to win the election?

So, you go to people who have inside access to that candidate to try to tease out information. The Russian ambassador at a minimum was on an information gathering effort.

[16:40:02] And they didn't have to talk about was Donald Trump going to win Michigan or an Electoral College victory. So, anything he could glean from that about Donald Trump and the direction of the people who were around him and their policies was important.

TAPPER: That's right. And let's not forget for a while there, Senator Jeff Sessions, the only person in the U.S. Senate who had endorsed then candidate Donald Trump, it was a big part of his biography in 2016.

Dan, Ryan, Amanda, Laura, thank you so much.

The president says the raid in Yemen that cost a Navy SEAL his life was, quote, "highly successful" and SEALs were able to gather large amounts of vital intelligence and now we are learning more just about exactly what was collected including, we are told, a list of contacts for al-Qaeda. That story next.

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[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN THE LEAD ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're back with our world lead right now. CNN is learning that the U.S. military is now trying to hunt down hundreds of people who are "contacts" from the January raid on an Al-Qaeda compound in Yemen. This is some of the intelligence collected in that same mission that left Navy Seal Ryan Owens dead. At least 25 Yemenis civilians including several children were also killed according to Yemeni government officials. Let's go straight to CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. And Barbara, despite some reports and politicians suggesting otherwise, your reporting has said valuable intelligence undeniably was seized in the raid and is now being acted upon? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Valuable intelligence, vital intelligence, those are the words we're hearing. And the big question was it actionable. Is it enough for the U.S. military and the U.S. Intelligence Community to take some kind of further action. And the answer we are getting is yes. Nobody is bombing a bunch of targets because of this. There were some raids overnight in Yemen. Not tied to this at all. But the intelligence is proving to be important. They are taking action now, we are told, to try and track down hundreds of contacts, the people - you know, people who might be sympathizers with Al-Qaeda in Yemen whose data was found inside what they seized.

So, now they're looking as a first step at all of that trying to see if they can track these people down. Are they valid contacts, do these people exist, could they be sympathizers involved in potentially plotting future attacks? They also found intelligence that they say is going to lead them to additional Al-Qaeda safe havens that will lead them to additional raids, information on Al-Qaeda in Yemen training, recruiting, explosive manufacturing techniques, -- you know, is any of this in the public arena, can anybody independently verify it? No, it's classified. But officials are saying all of this they believe very strongly, they can begin to act on, they can assess, they can look at it, and that it will take them to further action on the battle field. Jake.

TAPPER: And Barbara, as you mentioned, the U.S. carrier out nearly two dozen airstrikes overnight targeting AQAP. But you're saying they don't have to do with the intelligence that seized in the January raid?

STARR: They don't have to do with intelligence in the raid, but it's very important to note that all of this, these raids overnight and the original raid that killed William Ryan Owens are part of an expanded U.S. military campaign in Yemen, very specifically to go after Al- Qaeda in that country because of the threat it poses.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

From the wall to a massive infrastructure plan and $54 billion more for defense, President Trump has a lot of spending on his to-do list and he wants to do all that spending without adding to the deficit. Is that feasible? We will attempt to do the math next.

Plus, she spoke out on behalf of young undocumented immigrants or dreamers such as herself and moments later she was arrested. Was she targeted because she went public?

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[16:50:00] TAPPER: We're back with more on our "POLITICS LEAD". Just a short while ago, President Trump reaffirmed his pledge to increase spending at the Pentagon, but that's not all. The President said in his Congressional Address earlier this week that he also wants to boost law enforcement and infrastructure spending as well, and, of course, there's the wall at the border. But how much would all this cost us? Us as in tax payers. CNN Correspondent Tom Foreman joins me now to breakdown the numbers. And Tom, the President isn't looking just to spend, but he also - he also wants to cut.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's complicated. There's a lot going on here. The budget the President wants is far reaching and it's ambitious, it fits neatly with many of his campaign promises to roll back regulations, cut waste, disrupt Washington, but now what he wants is going to collide with what congress will give him and the results could be wildly unpredictable.

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FOREMAN: Even for a billionaire President, the budget proposal is a whopper. Starting with the trillion dollars for infrastructure, new bridges, roads, dams, power lines.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Financed through both public and private capital, creating millions of new jobs.

FOREMAN: Also on the wish list, a $54 billion or 10 percent increase for the military, which already accounts for more than half of all discretionary spending. And, of course -

TRUMP: We will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border.

FOREMAN: The President has said Mexico will pay for it. Mexico says no, but for now that's at least another $10 billion in the budget. But this may be the boldest claim about the plan.

MICK MULVANEY, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET DIRECTOR: It does all of that without adding to the currently projected FY 2018 deficit.

FOREMAN: That's right, the administration says it can offset all those costs with savings and spending cuts. For example, up to 25 percent of the money for the Environmental Protection Agency could go away. Eliminating 3,000 jobs. The new administrator,

SCOTT PRUITT, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR: We're going to roll back the regulations that have been an overreach of the past. That's going to be our focus in the near term and the budgeting process will play out.

FOREMAN: The IRS, the Department of Education, and Foreign Aid are also on the chopping block. That aid is just a tiny fraction of overall spending. But,

TRUMP: With a $20 trillion in debt, can you imagine that? The government must learn to tighten its belt.

[16:54:56] FOREMAN: So, what's off limits? Entitlements, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, programs for unemployment and welfare. They are roughly 65 percent of the budget, but for now the White House is refusing to touch most of them. And Congress may hesitate to touch the President's budget at all. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has already suggested it's so loaded with political and real risk, it's dead on arrival. (END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: And he's not the only republican concerned about this. Over the next few weeks, you're going to expect White House official to push Congress very hard to accept this proposal and the President had better hope for some success because what happens with the budget will have profound implications for his upcoming plans for tax cuts. Jake?

TAPPER: Interesting, Tom Foreman, thank you so much. The "NATIONAL LEAD" now, more alarming images showing rather disturbing trend in this country. For the third time in less than two week, a Jewish cemetery in the United States has been vandalized. This morning workers at a gravesite in Rochester, New York, found head stones toppled over. The president of the nonprofit that manages this particular cemetery hesitated calling it a hate crime. He told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, quote, "I don't want to label it anti-Semitism. I don't think there's any proof of that." New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, a State Police Hate Crime Task Force has launched aggressive investigations across the state. This vandalism in New York comes after similar damage to Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and in St. Louis, and that is, of course an addition to more than a hundred bomb threats called into Jewish Community Centers and day schools in recent months.

Now to another flash point, this one in the immigration debate. A woman who tried to speak out on behalf of undocumented immigrants is now in custody herself, arrested by immigrations and customs enforcement. Yesterday in Jackson, Mississippi, Daniela Vargas spoke in a news conference reacting to recent ICE. raids in President Trump's address to congress. She shared a story about her father and brother who are now facing deportation. Shortly thereafter, the 22- year-old found herself in handcuffs. Her case has sparked some outrage as some question whether her arrest is retaliation for speaking publicly. One important note, Vargas is a so-called dreamer brought to the United States when she was only seven years old. President Trump has spoken sympathetically about the dreamers. CNN's Nick Valencia is now Jackson, Mississippi. Nick, officials from ICE say they had good reason to arrest Vargas. What was it?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, technically, she is a dreamer, but that status, deferred action status expired in November. And for the last few months she was living here in the United States illegally. When ICE agents initially came to her family's door in mid-February, they were looking for her brother and her father. They had a warrant according to the local paper because they were in possession of a firearm which is a felony for an undocumented immigrant to do. Daniela Vargas was also briefly detained. But according to her attorney she explained to the ICE field agents that she had DACA before and was in the process of renewing it. So, according to her attorney, she was given quote a "hall pass."

For the next two weeks, she went into hiding only to emerge yesterday to speak out and speak up for her brother and her father. It was a poor decision on Daniela's part because just minutes later as her girlfriend was driving Daniela home, the car was pulled over, ICE agents took her into custody. Daniela Vargas is now in a Louisiana detention center awaiting deportation. The co-counselor for Vargas says that ICE is trying to expedite her case, trying to deport her without putting her in front of a federal immigration judge and, yes, they can do that.

We spoke earlier to the co-counselor here in Jackson, Mississippi who says that he admits that Daniela broke the law by not renewing her DACA status. However for him, it's more of a moral question. Daniela is not a violent criminal. She is a good person in good standing here in Jackson, Mississippi. And up until now, people like Vargas, people who are eligible for DACA and had no violent criminal history thought they would be safe under Trump administration deportation policies. And now seems, Jake, however, that they, too, may be a priority for deportation. Jake?

TAPPER: What's interesting about this is President Trump insists that he's being misconstrued on all this. He only wants the bad ones, in his terminology, to be deported, the people who are violent criminals, who are in gangs, who commit serious offenses and drug offenses.

VALENCIA: Right.

TAPPER: That would not seemingly include Daniela. Does she have other family here who could come to her defense?

VALENCIA: She does, and we spoke to her friend earlier, but her mother, according to her family is also here in the country illegally. They initially immigrated here in early 2000s to work in the chicken processing industry on a Visa that they then overstayed. So, her mother, we tried to get her on camera Jake, but she was unwilling to speak. Her entire - her entire family is in ICE custody. So, obviously she's very concerned about her own safety at this point. Jake?

TAPPER: All right. Nick Valencia, thank you so much. Before we go, we hear that a big fan of THE LEAD, a woman named Goldy Gandelman is under the weather. She is the grandmother of an original member of THE LEAD team here. There she is with her husband of 62 years. Isaac, Goldy, we, at the lead just wanted to let you know that everyone here is thinking about you and pulling for you, and you're in our prayers. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: Happening now. Breaking news. Sessions backs down.