Return to Transcripts main page
Sessions Speaks Out On Conversations With Russian Ambassador; More Trump Advisers Disclose Meetings With Russia's Ambassador; Sessions Recuses Himself From Russia Investigations; President Trump: Sessions "Did Not Say Anything Wrong"; Sessions Recuses Himself From Russia Investigation. Aired 11p-Midnight ET
Aired March 2, 2017 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news, Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks out. This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon. Sessions telling Fox News he does not believe anything he said in his pre-election meeting with Russia's ambassador was improper or unwise.
That's in the wake of the attorney general's announcement today that he will recuse himself from any investigation related to the Trump campaign. President Trump defending Sessions tonight and charging that Democrats are quote, "overplaying their hand."
I want you to listen to this moment from the attorney general's interview with Fox tonight.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't believe there's anything wrong with United States senator meeting with ambassador from Russia.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
SESSIONS: I see you're asking questions about it, that's fine. But I think it was a perfectly reasonable meeting. I had professional nonpolitical staffers with me and we discussed some important international issues. I learned something perhaps in that meeting. I usually did. So that's the -- what happened. People were -- ambassadors were coming by to see me pretty often.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: Here with more on the Sessions firestorm and what it means for Trump administration is CNN senior White House correspondent, Sara Murray -- Sara.
SARA MURRAY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, tonight the administration had hoped they would still be riding high on the glow of President Trump's speech to Congress, which they feel was very successful, but instead they are facing yet another firestorm over Russia.
We saw Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, tried recuse himself today from any potential probe about interactions between Donald Trump's campaign advisers and suspected Russian operatives throughout the presidential campaign.
Now the president today says he has total confidence in Jeff Sessions. So for now his job could be secure, but just as this was happening a whole new set of questions arose about just exactly who in Donald Trump's circle was talking to campaign advisers.
A senior administration official confirms what the "New York Times" first reported that there was actually an in-person meeting in December between the Russian ambassador and Michael Flynn, the ousted national security adviser as well as Donald Trump's son-in-law, now a senior adviser at White House, Jared Kushner.
This is not a meeting that was disclosed throughout the transition process when there were so many questions about Michael Flynn's discussions with the Russian ambassador.
This administration official tell me they weren't aware of this at the time. It wasn't brought to their attention until later. And we are also learning there was in fact a conversation between Donald Trump's national security advisers on the campaign and the Russian ambassador right around that Republican convention last summer.
That's just an indication, Don, that this story is not going to end here that even though Jeff Sessions explained his contact with the Russian ambassador, even though, he recused himself, it's clear that the Russian story and shadow it's casting over this White House is going to continue.
LEMON: Sara Murray, thank you so much. I appreciate that.
I want to bring in now Robert Ray, a former federal prosecutor and an independent counsel for the Whitewater investigation. Also John Flannery, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, and Attorney Stuart Kaplan, a former special agent with the FBI.
Good evening. Thank you all for coming on this evening. Robert, I want to play another clip from the attorney general's interview on Fox tonight. Here it is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SESSIONS: I have not had any such meetings. It was not meeting with Russian officials on a continuing basis to advance any campaign agenda. Sometime before that I had met in my office in official way with the Russian ambassador and so that was the answer I gave. I think it was an honest answer, Tucker.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
SESSIONS: I thought I was responding exactly to that question and really became a big brouhaha.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: Robert, what do you think?
ROBERT RAY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, INDEPENDENT COUNSEL FOR THE WHITEWATER INVESTIGATION: Look, I think again a lot of this stuff gets to what are we really asking people here about what happened? If they had meetings, I don't think meetings by themselves really amount to a whole lot. I mean, really the question is, was there complicity with the Russians, anything to suggest that there were promises made about what would be done after the election.
[23:10:05]LEMON: That wasn't what he was questioned about in this confirmation hearing, he was asked did you meet with any Russians? Did you have conversations?
RAY: But that's reason the question is being asked and he's trying to explain, well, I understood the question to be in my capacity as a surrogate for the campaign as you basically have accused me of. You know, did I do something untoward or improper with regard to Russians.
And that answer that came back, and he's acknowledged and the president has acknowledged that language could have been more careful, and it would have been better obviously in retrospect to have disclosed it. I think we're all in agreement about that now.
LEMON: John, what do you think? Do you think he committed perjury? What do you think about the question? Robert says the question is what happened during the meetings and what was discussed.
JOHN FLANNERY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Well, I think that like most politicians they're very dangerous in the sense that they can't keep their mouth shut. And so they often compromise their own best defense. So if just said he was going to recuse himself today, it would have been be better off than what he said.
But now we finally know what the motive was. It's all about sanctions. When he met with the ambassador at the Republican convention, they were gutting a plank to have sanctions against Russia. And the thing that he remembered today in his press conference was he came in really upset about Ukraine. Sanctions.
And what was the meeting with Flynn about? Sanctions, and what was the meeting in early December about, I'll bet you it was about sanctions. We have --
LEMON: He's not saying that explicitly though, John. That's not what he's saying. You're inferring that from his conversation about the Ukraine that they weren't happy, and so on.
FLANNERY: Yes. They weren't happy, but I think they were more than not just happy. He said a couple of other things. He said I should have identified my meeting with the ambassador. And when asked about the campaign said two things.
One is he says, you know, they're so gossipy, these ambassadors, and he also said I think he came to my office because of the fact that I held this position in the campaign, which was that he headed National Security Advisory Committee for Trump.
You put those things together and you have the hypothesis to test in a real investigation with subpoenas by a special prosecutor. If we are going to have an invertebrate Republican Congress that isn't going to do its duty by the country and we can't trust the Justice Department, we have a constitutional crisis. If we can't appoint an independent counsel to do what nobody else seems ready to do.
LEMON: Are you saying perjury?
FLANNERY: I'm saying perjury, yes. I'm saying it's stronger today. There are other prosecutors who see the facts as they are unfolding and I'm sure they are saying now that his general statement that he didn't talk to any Russian representatives when you take into account what he said today on Fox and at press conference as reported by "Washington Post." That was a side bar report on the things that he said that weren't in the transcript that "The Washington Post" reported.
LEMON: All right, so I want (inaudible), John is saying with his explanation and the more he keeps talking, I think he's saying backing himself into a corner here and letting on more than he probably wants the general public to know or anyone who might investigate it.
FLANNERY: Yes, he should be debriefing his staffers immediately.
LEMON: Stuart, do you agree with that?
STUART KAPLAN, FOUNDING PARTNER OF KAPLAN SCONZO AND PARKER, P.A.: Well, certainly, you know, Don, you have to look at the statute. The statute requires that notwithstanding the statement is false. We know today based upon his statement, his own admission that he made a false statement.
But the statute requires that the statement was made willfully. Meaning in his mind he had the intent to mislead the person who was asking the question. That's going to be a very difficult if not an impossible hurdle to overcome. Also understand that --
RAY: It's not going to happen.
LEMON: Go ahead, Robert?
RAY: Well, because perjury cases are difficult to prove. That's not really what is going on here. I don't think any reasonable, responsible person given even what we know in the 24 hours that this issue has been a story that the attorney general was intending to intentionally mislead the Senate with regard to this issue.
FLANNERY: He said I should have told them about the ambassador.
RAY: That's a retrospect. That's not perjury.
FLANNERY: That's intent.
RAY: That's not even close to perjury. LEMON: Go ahead, Stuart.
KAPLAN: Don, I wasn't implying by any stretch of the imagination that the attorney general in fact made a willful misleading statement. What I was saying is that investigation would require to establish and in fact the statement he made was made willfully.
Keep in mind also, Don, that the statute and law requires that they would have to have established corroborating evidence. It's not just the fact that there was a false statement. They are also going to have to establish other evidence outside the context of the statement itself.
I don't think that this in any way is a chargeable offense. I think it's a red herring, a big distraction. It's certainly not the way I would --
FLANNERY: No. Just not true.
[23:10:09]KAPLAN: I don't think it's the way that someone wants to start their career three weeks into the job.
LEMON: John, go ahead.
FLANNERY: That's how he got the job. Why do you think people lie about things? Because they are conscious of the guilt of something they did wrong. Shakespeare said guilt spills itself for fear of being spilt. That's what happened today at the press conference.
He gave us his motive for misleading us and the underlying offense that we are investigating is what are the Russians doing to interfere in our election and why would the Trump campaign cooperate?
It's about the sanctions. It was about the sanctions that President Obama put in in late December. It was about the sanctions that were put in earlier about Crimea. That's what this is about. That's the trade-off.
That's a hypothesis you test in an investigation, is this the motive for allowing the interference in our presidential election by foreign state.
RAY: That's a whole lot of inferences piled on top of inferences.
FLANNERY: No, that's not. Certainly not.
RAY: That's why we have investigations.
FLANNERY: Why did Flynn leave office?
LEMON: Let him answer, John.
RAY: This investigation will not be led as a perjury investigation of the attorney general. The key news today is not whether he testified and the facts were either false or true or what they were. The key issue today is that he made the decision to recuse himself and he did it in the best interest of the country. The Department of Justice is perfectly capable of handling this.
FLANNERY: No, they are not.
RAY: Yes, they are. The deputy attorney general was retained by President Obama. He's a career prosecutor. He's going to have a hearing next week. He'll be confirmed and the Department of Justice will go on just fine with the attorney general recused in order to look into this issue with the assistance of the FBI to fully and fairly investigate it.
FLANNERY: That's a Pollyannaish scenario if I ever heard one.
RAY: That's the way the system works.
FLANNERY: That is the system doesn't work when the subject of an investigation heads the entire department.
RAY: He's not the subject of the investigation.
FLANNERY: "Wall Street Journal" said he was subject of an investigation. Not a target meaning they didn't have enough to indict him, but he was subject of investigation according to today's "Wall Street Journal." That's a critical thing to consider for an entire department that bills itself as the law enforcement officer of the nation.
RAY: It's a big department.
LEMON: You don't think the deputy attorney general considers herself -- Jeff Sessions his or her boss?
RAY: Not in recusal situation. I mean, the boss will be walled off. With regard to this investigation is going to be the deputy attorney general.
FLANNERY: There is no way to repair the fact that the head of the entire department -- you have to believe even by appearances has nothing to do with anything going on in the department.
RAY: Ask Jim Comey.
FLANNERY: I've been on this very show criticizing Comey for how he conducts an investigation. I don't know where he is.
LEMON: All right. Thank you, Gentlemen. Stuart, you got to jump in. We'll see you soon.
KAPLAN: That's all right, Don.
LEMON: We'll get you back soon. Thank you, Gentlemen. I appreciate it.
When we come right back, Russian's ambassador in the spotlight tonight over revelations of multiple meetings with members of President Trump's team. But what do we know about the ambassador and what is he trying to achieve.
LEMON: Breaking news, more Trump campaign advisers disclosing tonight that they met with Russia's ambassador to the United States before and after the November election. So who is this man? CNN senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski reports now.
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak has spent a dozen of his 66 years living and working as diplomat in the United States. He and wife, Natalia, often seen out and about and joining parties and events around Washington, D.C.
SERGEY KISLYAK, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: I personally have been working in 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 suit. He's blunt and stands out.
KOSINSKI: Trained as engineer in Russia and described as highly intelligent. Kislyak joined the Foreign Ministry at 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: Most probably we are leading into the worst orient in our relations after the end of the cold war.
KOSINSKI (on camera): 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 with Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a second time in weeks the ambassador finds himself at that center of a storm regarding the Trump White House.
(voice-over): Then incoming national security advisor, 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 captured and recorded according to U.S. intelligence officials because Russian diplomats' calls routinely are and some of the content raised flags. Kislyak has not responded to the latest flap over Attorney General Sessions. His spokesman saying they have 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 lie and false news.
KOSINSKI: Echoing a now familiar refrain.
DOZIER: Something I've heard from former spies is that the Russians really stepped up their spy game in recent years. You can see that by looking at their embassy in Washington, D.C. They estimate that 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 hacking, spying or just talking. Michelle Kosinski, CNN, State Department.
[23:20:05]LEMON: I want to bring in now CNN contributor, Michael Weiss, co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror," and Jill Dougherty of the Evans School at the University of Washington, who is a former CNN Moscow bureau chief.
This is so fascinating here. Jill, the attorney general is in trouble tonight for saying that he never met with Russians when he did. He met with him twice with the Russian ambassador. I want to play with you what he said about the meetings just a short time ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SESSIONS: He talked about a number of issues. One of them was the Ukraine and we had disagreement over that. Ukrainian ambassador had been into my office for a meeting the day before and so we had a little bit disagreement over the Ukrainian issue.
So we had number of discussions like that, Tucker, but I don't recall any discussion of the campaign in any significant way. It was in no way some sort of coordinating of an effort by doing anything improper, and I don't believe anybody that was in that meeting would have seen or believed I said one thing that was improper or unwise.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
SESSIONS: It was really a sad thing to be attacked like that, but I think we've explained it and we intend to move forward.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: So Jill, the meeting took place four months ago. He says he doesn't recall discussing the campaign I think quoted in any significant way. Is that plausible? JILL DOUGHERTY, FORMER CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Look, the problem here is we don't know. I mean, yes, sure, it's plausible. Other things could be plausible too. That there were other people in that room and if we could hear from them, if there were notes and information, maybe we could judge more.
But I think right now this is a common problem in a lot of these reports because ultimately it's very important to get to the bottom of it and to get the facts, and what we have is drip and drab and incomplete information.
You know, talking to somebody could have a benign purpose or it could have a very malign purpose. And until we can really understand what they were talking about, and not only they, Sessions, but other people. It's going to be a monstrous situation and really --
DOUGHERTY: -- I was thinking don, Russians are probably ruing the day that they thought this would be a good idea to get involved in the election. Other than make it chaotic, et cetera, but this is turning into really a mess --
LEMON: I was just wondering --
DOUGHERTY: -- Donald Trump wanted.
LEMON: Go on.
DOUGHERTY: Go ahead.
LEMON: You know this ambassador, don't you?
DOUGHERTY: Well, pretty much. As much as -- I've met him many times, socially, directly, interviews, et cetera. Yes.
LEMON: What did you think of him? Is it easy to forget him?
DOUGHERTY: You know, I don't think so. Yes. You might say he's kidn of rumpled, you know, gray hair, yes. I suppose people might say that, but then they said that about Putin too. But I think he is an experienced diplomat. He used to be the deputy foreign minister of Russia, who is their representative to NATO.
Now is he a spy? I guess, that's probably what you want to ask. I don't think -- let's define spy, but I do not think that the Russian ambassador is running around putting microphones in people's bedrooms in Washington, D.C.
I mean, his job -- there are people in the embassy who do that, but his job is to collect information. So that information, who did you have lunch with, what did they say? What did they say in passing?
Mr. Sessions mentioned lot of rumors and gossip. Gossips can be very useful too. All of this gets collected and is sent back to Moscow as we send information back to Washington and it's used many times for intelligence.
LEMON: I want to get Michael -- I want to bring you in here to help us make sense of this ambassador, we're trying to figure out -- I mean, of course, he should try to figure out who the incoming president is and figure out as much information and get to know people. But he's met with then-Candidate Trump, Senator Sessions, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, is this normal? What's going on here?
MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: How many people from the Trump campaign or the incoming administration need to meet with this one ambassador, right? Here's the thing, Al Franken asked Jeff Sessions in no uncertain terms did you have contact with Russian officials?
All Jeff Sessions had to do was say, yes, sure, I did. I met Kislyak in my office. I met him at the GOP convention. We talked about a variety of issues. We disagreed on Ukraine. We talked about Syria. We disagreed on that. There is no fire there. There is no controversy. Nobody is going to attack Jeff Sessions --
LEMON: In my capacity as senator, right.
WEISS: But he lied or he misremembered. Michael Flynn lied to the vice president of the United States about the nature of his communication with Kislyak, which was, by the way, done on the telephone.
[23:25:10]Mike Flynn was the former head of the DIA. He himself is a spy, not knowing that the NSA would be listening to what the Russian ambassador is talking to Americans about on the telephone, big mistake there.
This is the thing. This is the only question I have at this point, why are they covering up, misremembering or so promiscuous with the facts when it comes to their interactions with Russian officials?
Now as to the question of whether or not Kislyak is a spy, look, people in the KGB didn't just cultivate and run agents or assets, they also cultivated information or garnered information. That's way a lot of the KGB officers during the cold war were posing as journalists for TASS, the soviet news agency.
There is almost a distinction without a difference here because as somebody pointed out to me today. When you're the ambassador of any embassy but particularly the Russian embassy, where a lot of the people under political or diplomatic cover are in fact intelligence officers.
You are the top of the pyramid of what's known as the residentura, which is where the FSB, the SBR, and the GRU military intelligence guys are. You are aware. You have an intimate knowledge of what Russian intelligence officers are doing. So you can be tasked or seconded to gather information on behalf of the checkers.
LEMON: As we were watching the Michelle Kosinski report, you made a very good point about oral testimony and there's written testimony as well speaking of Jeff Sessions. WEISS: Yes. I haven't checked the written testimony, but it stands to reason that they would have put the same question before him. So if he's answered no, I didn't have any contact or communications with Russians.
LEMON: Senator Leahy did and he answered no.
WEISS: So he answered no so then he misremembered twice. One in a written statement and then one orally. But listen to what he just said to Tucker Carlson, yes, we met in my office and we disagreed. You're telling me that this guy, this roly-poly charming rotund soviet style apparatchik looking ambassador that you've met during sanctions regime, Russian intervention in Syria, annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine, you have an argument with about geo-politics and you forget about it? It absolutely makes no sense.
LEMON: Jill, I want to play -- this is a little bit more of the interview with Tucker Carlson tonight on Fox. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX ANCHOR: A little over two weeks later, the national security adviser has to resign because of conversations that he had also his capacity as non-surrogate for the campaign with the very same ambassador. So did anyone on your staff say to you, perhaps we should clarify this because you could see how it could be a problem.
SESSIONS: No, I never gave that a thought, and never considered it, I don't believe anyone ever mentioned that to me. Quite different circumstances to me, Tucker. Unrelated.
CARLSON: OK what was --
SESSIONS: Go ahead.
CARLSON: What --
SESSIONS: So I had a meeting in my office with two senior staffers, both retired military people, nonpolitical, and we had a meeting with some 25 ambassadors in recent months while I was senator and the Russian ambassador was just one of them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: OK, in the oral testimony and the written testimony, they are making a distinction, Jill, that they never talked about the election and he was not working as a surrogate when he met with these folks or with this ambassador.
DOUGHERTY: But -- but the issue could have been obviously Ukraine, immediately think not only of the war in Ukraine, sanctions -- Ukraine is a very sensitive subject. So whether he was acting in capacity just on the committee or whether actually in some capacity working or -- being representative -- he was wearing both hats and ambassador knew that. So if he got a straight answer that in Jeff Session's mind came from the mind of person on the intelligence committee, it still has resonance in a different platform, which is what does the Donald Trump's campaign going to do once they get into office.
LEMON: Michael, you think that that response that he gave Tucker Carlson was nonsensical?
WEISS: They didn't make any sense. You know, again, nobody advised him, you should tell the truth to Congress during confirmation hearing because you run the risk of perjury and losing your position once you're confirmed and found to have been lying?
Either lack of IQ or horrible judgment or I don't know what. I mean, look, there is another side to this too. If you look at what Jeff Sessions has said about Russia in 2015, here is a conventional standard foreign policy Republican.
Condemns Russia for the invasion of Ukraine and talks about Baltic States being very nervous and (inaudible) about the possible invasion of their territory, the recommitment that's needed for NATO, et cetera.
Then in March, he gets appointed to Trump campaign, I think he's the chairman of the National Security Advisory Committee or something -- February, and then his tone begins to soften. Well, it would be nice if we had better relations with Russia.
Then he gives an interview to Real Clear World, in which he says, this is ridiculous. There should be no hostility between our two countries. We have to work together.
[23:30:00] So he essentially adopts Donald Trump's very pro- rapprochement or conciliatory tone with respect to Putin and Russia. Now you can say, well, he's just doing that to currying favor with his new bosses, right, or something has happened. And by the way, in the midst of all of this, he's meeting with Kislyak.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.
WEISS: You know, fake news right? I mean, just look at chronology. These are just facts.
LEMON: Thank you all. Thank you, Jill. Thank you, Michael. I appreciate it.
Up next, President Trump standing by his attorney general and accusing Democrats in Congress of overplaying their hand in calling for Jeff Session's resignation, is he right?
LEMON: The president standing by his attorney general tonight in a statement insisting Jeff Sessions did not say anything wrong. I want to bring in now, CNN political commentator, Peter Beinart, political contributor, Hilary Rosen, political commentator, Paris Dennard, and Republican strategist, Ron Nehring. Good evening to all of you.
Let's play exactly what the attorney general, Attorney General Sessions said during his confirmation hearing back in January.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[23:35:09]UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians and I'm unable to comment on it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: And here's what he said earlier tonight on Fox News.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SESSIONS: Well, Tucker, the question that came to me was from Senator Franken and he went into at great length saying that day some new story had come out and said that various Trump surrogates were meeting continually with Russian officials as part of the campaign.
And he raised that question with me and my answer went straight to that. It was first time I had heard that. So I focused on that I had not had any such meetings, not meeting with Russian officials on continuing basis to advance any campaign agenda.
Sometime before that, I had met in my office in official way with the Russian ambassador and so that was the answer I gave and I think it was honest answer, Tucker.
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS: Right.
SESSIONS: I thought I was responding exactly to that question and really became a big brouhaha.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: Ron, what do you think of the explanation?
RON NEHRING, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think it's sound. I really think that -- look, if you're a sitting United States senator, you are not calling the shots day to day on how the Trump campaign is being executed and so on and so forth, that's not your role.
You show up at events and so on and so forth, but you're not an operative on behalf of the campaign. So I take Jeff Sessions at his word on this. I really think that in terms of his meeting with him in the Senate capacity, just wasn't on his mind when he responded to the question.
LEMON: Hilary, why are you laughing? HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, because first of all, we don't know what those conversations were and you know, I think there's a bigger picture here. Look, you've had experts on tonight and experts have been on TV all day today, who know a lot more about global affairs than I do, talking about how Russia is the most significant global relationship the United States has.
So this is an important issue. But here's I think the bigger issuer I think for viewers and Americans, which is who holds this president accountable? For actions of his -- his own actions and for his political appointees' actions?
We do not have an investigative body in the Justice Department right now that is neutral. We have it run by political appointees. We do not -- we have a Republican Party dominating on Capitol Hill looking for their own agenda. Who is going to hold these folks accountable? It is going to take some, you know --
LEMON: I had Max (inaudible) earlier and he said --
ROSEN: -- reach back in history, some, you know, John Dean like figure or something.
LEMON: He said -- he said a special prosecutor is the only one who can hold someone whether if the Democrats or Republicans were in the majority. They just happen to be in the majority now. A special prosecutor is the only one who can do it because that special prosecutor would have subpoena power and then they would have to tell the truth with that.
ROSEN: Instead of President Trump constantly saying that, you know, there's nothing there. He would do well to say we have nothing to hide so I'm OK with at an independent investigation.
LEMON: I want to bring Paris in. Paris, what do you think? Did Sessions mislead, misspeak, flat-out commit perjury, misremember, what did he do in front of the Senate committee?
PARIS DENNARD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, Don, I don't think that he committed perjury at all. I believe that what he did was respond honestly to the question that was being asked of him by Senator Franken. I believe he interpreted it as did you have these meetings in your capacity as a surrogate for the campaign?
Were you meeting as a surrogate, doing something in your capacity for the Trump campaign? And I believe like the president said he could have answered it differently or said more accurately to reflect the true nature of all of the meetings that he had or what they talked about. But I think in his response he felt he was responding accurately because he was saying in my capacity as United States senator.
PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's not what --
LEMON: OK, Peter, I know where you're going but let me just say this. It wasn't just the exchange with Franken. Sessions was also asked in written questionnaire roughly the same question by Patrick Leahy and here it is.
[02:40:06]He said, "Several of the president-elect's nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day? Sessions says no. That's a pretty straightforward question.
BEINART: Can I jump in, all of the defenders of Sessions like Paris here keep on saying, no, he was only referring to himself as a senator, not a surrogate. He's the one who said I was a surrogate. I was called a surrogate for the campaign and I never met with the Russians.
LEMON: He's brought in as adviser in February.
BEINART: It wasn't Franken who used word surrogate, Sessions used it to describe himself and then said I never met the Russians. I agree perjury is very difficult to prove because you don't know whether he intentionally was lying or not and we don't know. I have no idea how nefarious these meetings were with the Russians or not.
But on the substance, it's undeniable that what he said was not true and this claim, trying to parse it between he thought he was only referring to Senate meetings, not borne out by the transcript.
DENNARD: The transcript --
LEMON: Paris, I got to get to break. Stand by. We'll be right back.
LEMON: All right. So we're back now with my panel. Paris, you wanted to weigh in. You were going to dispute something that Peter said.
DENNARD: No. I just want to go back to the quote that you put up from the Leahy question.
LEMON: Put it up so the audience can see it. Go ahead, Paris.
DENNARD: Yes, it's important because it says, "Did you have any contact with anyone connected to any part of the campaign --
LEMON: Here it is. What does it say? He said, "Several of the president-elect's nominees and senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election either before or after election day?
DENNARD: The key point in that question was about the 2016 election. He responded no because I believe at the time the senator was saying meetings he had and reminder, he had over 25 meetings with different ambassadors throughout that time frame. And that meeting that he referred to was not about the 2016 election, but in his capacity as senior member of the Armed Services Committee. So he answered accurately.
BEINART: Even if you can make that claim based on the response to Leahy, you can't on a response to Franken where he specifically says I was a surrogate and I had no contacts with the Russians.
LEMON: Yes, and he also said -- there was also a meeting at the Republican convention. Paris, if I see you at the Super Bowl and then I say I saw Paris at Super Bowl, but we didn't talk about football, I think people would say what were you guys talking about at the Super Bowl? I mean, it says --
DENNARD: That is the same thing that Attorney General Lynch said when she met with President Clinton right before that issue with Secretary Clinton and the leaked --
LEMON: You know what happened? She let Comey lead the investigation. Go on.
LEMON: She should not have done that. Not under oath either.
ROSEN: She did not say she didn't remember what they discussed. They actually went through line by line what she discussed with him as opposed to what Jeff Sessions is saying, I don't really remember. Here's the problem is that Trump surrogates are now parsing individual meetings.
But now we've had Carter Paige (ph), Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, campaign manager, Don Jr. getting paid $50,000 in December by a Russian businessman for a speech. There's just been this consistent connection with Russia.
And instead of Jeff Sessions getting on TV today and saying yes, there ought to be a thoughtful look at this, we understand why the American people might be concerned, instead of the president doing that, we have them parsing this back and back and back.
LEMON: Let's say maybe they didn't talk -- talked about grandkids, who knows. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt, who knows, but the question here is that he said something that wasn't true, whether it was intentional or not, when he was under oath in an oral and written statement.
And just today after that Ron, we hear that White House disclosed that Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, met with Kislyak at Trump Tower. So why all these connections? Why all these meetings, Ron?
NEHRING: Well, let's be really clear on this, and that is that the Russians were involved in information warfare campaign that directly affected U.S. elections. That's been well-established.
And it's not helpful to the White House to have this constant, you know, what's been now a couple of days, which is unfortunate for the White House because president had a good speech and good response to that and now we are back talking about Russia and so on. Someone internally really needs to get a hold of this issue and have all of this information completely come out at one time and put the issue behind them. The House and Senate intelligence committees are looking into this. They do have subpoena power. Not mentioned so far.
And the Democrats and the Republicans on the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees get the same information. So it shouldn't be overlooked that's the case.
At the same time no one has accused anyone in terms of a crime that's been committed, other than the fact that the Russians did commit -- what is in effect a crime, which is that they are messing around in our elections.
And they continue to do it, they are doing it in France, throughout Europe right now. Three big important elections coming up in the Western Europe over the course of the next couple of months and the Russians are actively involved there. That needs to be exposed.
LEMON: I want to ask you because I've been posing the question all night. I have seen almost every Democratic and Russian to the (inaudible) a statement on Twitter saying, he has to step down.
[23:50:09]Doesn't it seem like they are overplaying their hands? Shouldn't they call for the investigation instead of saying the man has to step down? This is just unfolding.
BEINART: If it weren't a former senator who had so much credibility with his colleague and someone who is so close to Donald Trump, who is some other nominee who know (inaudible), I think he might actually have to step down for lying under oath.
But I agree with you that the larger issue is not what Jeff Sessions said. The larger issue is was there any complicity by the Trump campaign in the Russian effort to undermine the election.
And you know, everyone keeps on saying the best thing for Donald Trump would be to get it out on the table. Maybe that's not the best thing for Donald Trump. That assumes actually that what is there is not sewed in and we don't know, but there may be a reason they don't want to get everything out.
LEMON: We'll continue, Paris. We will talk about it next time. I really have to go. Thank you. We'll be right back.
LEMON: Sunday CNN's original series, "Finding Jesus" returns with its season premier, a look at the role of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea at the time of Jesus's death.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[23:55:02]UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): In the bible, Pilate infamous as the man who tries Jesus. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pilate is a fascinating character in Christian history. He does seem tormented about whether or not Jesus is guilty and whether or not he should condemn him.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Pilate at the gospels is uncertain. He seems deeply concerned with Jesus's innocence.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not firm and decisive about what he wants to do.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The discovery of his name in stone was groundbreaking.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The significance of the Pilate stone is that it actually gives us hard evidence of the central figure from the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Pilate really existed and live and really was the prefect of Judea. We actually have a literal touch stone of connection between the story of the crucifixion of Jesus from the Bible and actual Roman history.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: Don't miss the season premiere of "Finding Jesus," Sunday night at 9:00 Eastern. That's it for us tonight. Thanks for watching. I'll see you right back here tomorrow.