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Sessions to Testify, May Claim Executive Privilege; Trump's Cabinet Meets, Offers Him Effusive Praise. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired June 12, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Open Sessions. Attorney General Jeff Sessions prepares to testify publicly before a Senate panel amid questions about his contacts with Russia and the firing of the FBI director, James Comey. Will the White House use executive privilege to limit his testimony? And when will the president reveal if he recorded conversations with Comey?
[17:00:22] Another court defeat. Using the president's own tweets to make the case against him, a federal appeals court rules against the president's revised travel ban, saying he exceeded his authority in limiting travel from six mostly Muslim countries.
Suing the president. Maryland and D.C., they are taking President Trump to court, charging that he's violating a constitutional ban on accepting payments from foreign governments. Do Trump hotels and golf courses have an unfair advantage?
And cabinet flattery. President Trump's first full cabinet meeting turns into a rather bizarre praise session as the president pats himself on the back and then has his cabinet secretaries go around the table, paying tribute to his leadership.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news: the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will testify publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow. He's certain to be asked about his contacts with Russia and the firing of FBI director James Comey, but the White House suggests Sessions may claim executive privilege on some questions, even as it indicates the president is no closer to revealing if he recorded any conversations ahead of Comey's firing.
Sessions, who couldn't get a clear vote of confidence from the White House last week, was present for the first full meeting of the president's cabinet today and joined colleagues around the table, heaping extravagant praise upon the president after the president extravagantly praised himself.
That comes as the president once again suffers a major legal defeat, a federal appeals court ruling against his revised travel ban and citing his own tweets, and declaring that he exceeded his authority in restricting travel from half a dozen Muslim majority nations. And another court case looms, as Maryland and the District of Columbia file a lawsuit, charging that the president is violating a constitutional ban on accepting payments from foreign governments. They allege that Trump hotels and golf courses are drawing money from abroad meant to gain influence to the detriment of businesses in Maryland and D.C.
I'll talk to Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
But let's begin with the investigation into Russia's election meddling and contacts with Trump associates. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow in what will now be a public hearing.
Up first, let's gets to our senior Washington correspondent, Brianna Keilar. Brianna, what can we expect?
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, so many outstanding questions for Attorney General Sessions, Wolf, and we expect they will be asked if not answered. What role did he have in FBI Director Comey's firing? And why did he leave the room in mid- February. letting the president talk to then-FBI Director Comey alone, an action that Sessions must have known was inappropriate?
KEILAR (voice-over): What was expected to be a closed-door congressional grilling of Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now take place in full view of the cameras, and senators have pressing questions about the president's meeting with him and the former FBI director.
SEN. DIANNE WEINSTEIN (D-CA): The president asked that the room be cleared. The attorney general apparently hung back. I thought the attorney general should have said something: "This man works for me. I think I should be here, too, Mr. President." But the FBI director ended up alone. And that's kind of where this began.
KEILAR: Trump's penchant for ditching protocol to speak with Comey one on one appears to include other independent officials. Fired U.S. attorney Preet Bharara said this weekend he received similar calls.
PREET BHARARA, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: So they're very unusual phone calls and sort of -- when I've been reading the stories about how the president has been contacting Jim Comey over time. Feels a little bit like deja vu.
KEILAR: Senators will also ask Sessions about this testimony during during his confirmation in January.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I didn't have -- not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it.
KEILAR: It was later revealed that Sessions, in fact, had two meetings, one of them a private audience in his congressional office with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and perhaps a third encounter at a Washington hotel. The Justice Department has denied the hotel meeting, but will Sessions who today met with the president?
Trump has been seething that the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation three months ago.
SESSIONS: It's an honor to be able to serve you.
[17:05:07] KEILAR: Meanwhile...
DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: We were vindicated.
KEILAR: ... the president's son seeming to back Comey's account of Trump's controversial conversation with the former FBI chief, where Comey alleged Trump directed him to stop investigating now-ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
TRUMP JR.: When he tells you to do something...
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Yes.
TRUMP JR.: ... guess what? There's no ambiguity in it. There's no, "Hey, I'm hoping. You and I are friends. Hey, I hope this happens, but you've got to do your job." That's what he told Comey.
And for this guy as a politician to then go back and write a memo, "Oh, I felt threatened." He felt so threatened, he felt -- but he didn't do anything.
KEILAR: The problem with this explanation, President Trump says that's not what he told Comey.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He did say under oath that you told him to let the Flynn -- you said you hoped the Flynn investigation, you could let...
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't say that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So he lied about that?
TRUMP: Well, I didn't say that. I mean, I will tell you I didn't say that.
KEILAR: It's become a huge nuisance for Republicans on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham suggesting the obstruction of justice charge is now a bigger problem for the problem than anything that happened during the campaign.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't think what was said amounts to obstruction of justice. Now what the president did was inappropriate, but here's what's so frustrating for Republicans like me. You may be the first president in history to go down because you can't stop inappropriately talking about an investigation that, if you just were quiet, would clear you. (END VIDEOTAPE)
KEILAR: Senator Graham also had some more advice for President Trump: focus on the American people, not Jim Comey.
This affair has become such a problem for Republicans on Capitol Hill, Wolf. They have a lot to focus on: tax reform, the Obamacare repeal. They do not want to be dealing with this.
BLITZER: Infrastructure bill. They've got a lot of issues they'd like to get to, but this clearly is dominating the subject right now.
Brianna, thank you very, very much.
The upcoming testimony by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, could pose new problems for President Trump as his administration continues to dig in its heels against the Russia investigation.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, what's the latest over there?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House and its allies are still on the attack, still trying to undermine the Russia probe by questioning the motives of the investigators, from former FBI director James Comey to special prosecutor Robert Mueller. And aides to the president still refuse to answer the question, where are the tapes?
TRUMP: You won a championship victory for the ages.
ACOSTA: As the president welcomed the Clemson Tigers college football champions to the White House, Mr. Trump and his top aides were playing a very different sport, dodgeball.
TRUMP: Thank you, everybody.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, are there tapes of you and James Comey in the Oval Office?
TRUMP: Thank you.
ACOSTA: Once again dodging the question, is the president recording his conversations at the White House, and if so, where are the tapes?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president made clear in the Rose Garden last week that he would have an announcement shortly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any sort of time line on when that announcement will be?
SPICER: When the president is ready to make it. He's not waiting for anything. When he's ready to further discuss it he will. But I think he laid out his position very clearly. ACOSTA: The White House would also not say whether the administration
would invoke executive privilege to block Attorney General Jeff Sessions from answering questions when he testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday.
SPICER: I think it depends on the scope of the questions and it would be -- to get into hypotheticals at this point would be premature.
SESSIONS: Mr. President, it's great to be here and celebrate this group.
ACOSTA: The president did take full advantage of one privilege as he met with Sessions today, soliciting compliments from his cabinet secretaries.
TRUMP: Never has there been a president, with few exceptions -- the case of FDR, he had a major depression to handle -- who's passed more legislation, who's done more things than what we've done.
RICK PERRY, ENERGY SECRETARY: My hat's off to you.
TOM PRICE, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Can't thank you enough for the -- the privilege that you've given me.
REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Mr. President, thank you for the honor to serve. It's a great privilege you've given me.
ELAINE CHAO, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: Thank you for getting this country moving again.
REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda.
ACOSTA: The cabinet kumbaya presented a trolling opportunity for Democrats that was too much to resist.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: How did we do on the Sunday show yesterday?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your tone was perfect. You were right on message.
SCHUMER: Michelle, how did my hair look coming out of the gym this morning?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have great hair. Nobody has better hair.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before we go any further, I just want to say thank you.
ACOSTA: The president lashed out once again at James Comey over the former FBI director's orchestrated release of his personal memos, tweeting "I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible, totally illegal. Very cowardly." A line of attack echoed by top officials. KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: It made him feel, quote,
"queasy," but he had no problem doing that. This is a man who admitted he leaked a memo to hurt this president.
IVANKA TRUMP, TRUMP'S DAUGHTER: Thank you all so much.
ACOSTA: Still, the president's daughter, Ivanka, complains the attacks on her father are getting too personal.
[17:10:03] I. TRUMP: It is hard, and there's a level of viciousness that I was not expecting. I was not expecting the intensity of this experience, but this isn't supposed to be easy.
ACOSTA: But some of the president's allies have a new target in their sights: Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. Only weeks after Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich praised the Mueller selection as a superb choice, the former House speaker is now tweeting, "Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair."
The president's take on that? The White House dodged that one, too.
(on camera): Does the president have confidence in Mr. Mueller, Sean?
ACOSTA: Once again, no answer. And when asked if the president has any tapes of his meetings, one of Mr. Trump's personal lawyers, Michael Cohen, told CNN, quote, "Ask him." That's something, of course, we've already done, Wolf. And it's anybody's guess as to how long it will take to get an answer to that question, though the president did say he would hold a news conference in two weeks. We'll have to see if we wait that long, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much. Jim Acosta, over at the White House.
Joining us now, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He's the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, it's good to be with you. Thanks.
BLITZER: If this reported third undisclosed meeting between the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, is confirmed, would you agree with some of your Democratic colleagues that Sessions would be guilty of perjury?
CARDIN: Well, clearly, he has stated on previous occasions about the contacts he's had with the Russian ambassador; there was no third contact. That would be different than what he has said.
Clearly, we're going to get clarification of that when he appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. So Senator Sessions -- Secretary -- Attorney General Sessions has an explanation that he needs to give. BLITZER: So do you think it would be perjury, or would you call on
him to resign if he acknowledges, "Yes, I did have that third meeting at the Mayflower Hotel here in Washington, D.C., and I failed to report it"?
CARDIN: It would not be the first time that he has not reported information that should have been reported. I think it's an extremely serious matter. The attorney general needs to come clear as to what contacts he had and why he did not report them earlier when asked a specific question. So I think it's a very serious matter.
BLITZER: Very serious matter. But you're at least not yet ready to say it would be perjury, and he should resign? Is that right?
CARDIN: Have me back after he testifies before the Intelligence Committee. I might be ready by then.
BLITZER: All right. Let's see what he says tomorrow afternoon.
What responsibility, Senator, did the attorney general have to ensure the independence of the former FBI director, James Comey, and prevent those one-on-one meetings, those very controversial meetings that Comey had with President Trump?
CARDIN: Well, that was clearly wrong. What the president did was absolutely wrong. Whether it's obstruction of justice, we'll find out from the Mueller investigation.
But the attorney general should be there to protect the integrity of the FBI and the Department of Justice. The attorney general should have interceded and said, "No, Mr. President, that type of meeting can't take place when there's an active investigation involving associates of yours with the FBI director." So he should have interceded to stop that.
BLITZER: But do you agree with -- with a lot of Republicans and even some Democrats who say Comey himself should have uttered those same words to the president and told him, "Mr. President, it's not appropriate to be raising these matters with me the way you're doing it"?
CARDIN: Well, you know, I clearly think that Mr. Comey understood that this was wrong. Yes, I would have hoped he would have been more articulate in making sure that compromising circumstance did not take place.
So, yes, I think he could have done a more effective job to make sure that conversation never took place.
BLITZER: The press secretary, Sean Spicer, said today that the president is not waiting for anything to either confirm or deny existence of any recordings of his conversations with Comey and that President Trump will make an anointment when he's, quote, "ready."
Is that appropriate, to leave this question unanswered since that original tweet by the president -- what, that was back on May 12 -- when he himself raised the possibility of, quote, "tapes"?
CARDIN: No, it's not -- it's not right. This is not a matter that you have to investigate to see whether there are tapes or not. They know whether there are tapes or not. If there are tapes, the president needs to acknowledge it and make it available to the investigators. If there's no tapes, he has an explanation as to why he raised this particular issue.
BLITZER: Why haven't any Senate committees, at least not yet, formally subpoenaed those tapes, if they exist?
CARDIN: Well, my guess is you're going to see subpoenas come pretty quickly if the president doesn't give a full explanation. I think that you will see subpoenas.
BLITZER: President Trump, as you know, he's accusing the former FBI director of lying under oath. That's perjury. You can go to jail if convicted.
And also dangling the prospect of those recordings, if there are recordings, to prove it. How does that refusal to release those tapes impact from your perspective, Senator, the president's credibility?
[17:15:10] CARDIN: Well, the president's credibility has suffered a great deal. I mean, Mr. Comey has directly contradicted the president, some of the pings that the president has said have been absolutely shown to be false.
So I think the president's credibility has been impacted, not just by this investigation but other statements that he's made that just aren't true. I mean, what he said about the London mayor is just not true. What he said on so many different occasions have been absolutely wrong.
So his credibility has already been affected by how he's handled the office of the presidency, which is -- which is very compromising to Americans' interests.
BLITZER: You're the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Do you worry how people all over the world -- they're watching this as closely as we are -- how they're seeing this?
CARDIN: Oh, absolutely. I have meetings with foreign leaders all the time, and, yes, many times they're diplomatic in their first conversations, but after you talk for a while, this matter is very much on the minds of world leaders as to the integrity of the president and whether what he says can be believed.
BLITZER: Do you think they're worried about, when they meet with the president, about being taped?
CARDIN: Well, that's also a concern. I mean, that is outrageous that that question mark now looms on meetings with the president. You don't know whether you're being taped or not, because he's at least opened up the issue as to whether he is recording conversations in the White House. BLITZER: Yes, my gut tells me a lot of those foreign leaders simply
assume they're being taped when they have meetings over at the White House.
All right, Senator. We've got a lot more to discuss. I need to take a quick break. We'll resume all the late-breaking developments right after this.
[17:21:16] BLITZER: We're talking to Senator Ben Cardin. Senator, stand by. There's some more breaking news that we're following as a federal appeals court rules against the president's revised travel ban, using his tweets to make the case against him.
Let's bring in our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett. Another major loss in the courts for the president and his revised version of the travel ban.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. This is now the second time a federal appeals court has ruled against the Trump administration, but, Wolf, the courts are doing something a little bit different here.
In the past, they had looked at the constitutional analysis, and they looked at Trump's campaign statements and said, "I think that this is fueled by some sort of discriminatory intent."
This time, for the first time, the court is looking at the statutory analysis, the statute that the president so often invokes for his power here, and saying even under that, the president hasn't justified the national security interest justifying this travel ban.
We haven't heard anything from the Justice Department, but the White House says that they are reviewing this decision, and they feel confident that they will ultimately prevail in the Supreme Court.
BLITZER: We'll see what happens in the Supreme Court.
Another major legal challenge, though, to the president today. The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, they filed a lawsuit against the president, saying he was violating the so-called Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by accepting money from foreign governments through his business empire, specifically his hotels.
JARRETT: Exactly. And so this all stems from the fact that the president refused to divest his business interests before he took office. And so now the states are saying, "Well, wait a minute. Every time a foreign dignitary stays at the Trump International Hotel here in D.C. or even plays at his golf course, that is money flowing directly into his pocket, in violation of the federal Emoluments Clause, which prohibits payments from foreign dignitaries."
Let's take a little bit of a listen to what the attorney general from D.C. had to say earlier today, laying out his case.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KARL RACINE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: I can tell you that, as I look out the window and see the tower of the Trump International Hotel, we know exactly what's going on every single day. We know that foreign governments are spending money there in order to curry favor with the president of the United States.
Just one example: the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose government has important business and policy before the president of the United States, has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the Trump International Hotel.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JARRETT: Now the Justice Department has said fair market transactions like the one the attorney general is describing, can't possibly violate the Constitution. And Sean Spicer today also addressed this lawsuit calling it pure partisan gamesmanship. Take a listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president's interests, as previously discussed, do not violate the Emoluments Clause. It's not hard to conclude that partisan politics may be one of the motivations behind the set. The suit was filed by two Democratic attorney generals. The lawyers driving the suit are an advocacy group with partisan ties.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JARRETT: At the end of the day, the states say what they want is a court order telling Trump to stop accepting these foreign payments, but it also appears what they are driving towards is his financial information and the president's taxes, Wolf.
BLITZER: That's what they would clearly like to get, his tax returns which he is refused to make public. All right. Thanks very much, Laura Jarrett, for that report.
We're back Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
On the issue of the travel ban, Senator the White House says it's confident that this executive order will be upheld by the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. What's your reaction to that?
CARDIN: Well, every court decision is holding the president exceeded his authority, that this was a veiled effort to impose a travel ban based upon religion, based upon being Muslim, that it was not in keeping with the values of America or the powers the president has; and he hasn't made a case that America will be safer as a result of the travel ban.
[07:25:09] So I think in all those cases, the president has lost in the courts. I don't see why we would expect a different decision from the Supreme Court.
BLITZER: Will the lawsuit brought -- brought forth today by the attorneys general of D.C. and Maryland, and you're from Maryland, do you believe they will eventually lead to the release of the president's tax returns?
CARDIN: Well, I think that's an interesting point, because there's going to be discovery; and discovery will involve that type of information.
But I think the real issue is what you just heard in that clip, and that is it's impossible to determine whether the Saudis or any foreign government that uses Trump Towers or uses the Trump Organization properties is doing that in order to curry favor with the president.
We also know that Trump Enterprises has business interests in Saudi Arabia. They have business interests in many foreign countries.
What the attorney generals are saying is not only violates the Constitution; it presents a competition issue with American companies.
If you own a hotel in Washington, D.C., and you're in competition with Trump Towers, you're at an unfair advantage, because foreign governments are trying to curry favors with the president of the United States.
So I think it's a very important lawsuit, one in which I hope will not only disclose President Trump's financial holdings which should have been disclosed well before that, but the president is required to take steps to divest of his holdings to avoid this conflict.
BLITZER: And very quickly, Senator, where does your effort stand to enact more sanctions on Russia?
CARDIN: We are negotiating. As this program is going on, we're very close to reaching an agreement between the leadership on the Banking Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There are three issues that we're trying to get done with Russia.
One is new mandatory sanctions. The other is to review any attempt by President Trump to take sanctions off of Russia in exchange for any type of an agreement, and, third, to -- to authorize democracy initiatives between the United States and our European allies to fight against the attacks that Russia is making to our Democratic institutions. We're very close to working out an agreement.
BLITZER: All right, senator, thanks very much. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. Still ahead Herman Cain the White House press secretary Sean Spicer once again dodges questions about whether President Trump taped his conversations with the FBI director James Comey.
But take a look at Donald Trump's past, and it provides some rather intriguing clues.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including the White House hinting the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, may not be able to answer some questions tomorrow when he testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee because of executive privilege.
Let's bring in our political and legal specialists. And Chris Cillizza, we know the testimony that Comey gave before Congress on May 3 certainly rankled President Trump. I guess it's certainly one of the factors that led to the president's firing Comey. It will be on Attorney General Sessions' mind tomorrow when he testifies before the Senate.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: I think that's an understatement that that will be on his mind, absolutely. Yes, absolutely, Wolf.
Look, what we know is that Donald Trump consumes lots and lots of television, cable and otherwise, and watches these things, whether it's Sean Spicer's press conference or whether it's testimony like this, very, very closely.
I actually think that Jeff Sessions' decision as it relates to, whether forced or he accepted the decision to do it an open hearing, as opposed to a closed one, is smart in this regard. There would be leaks. Breaking news, there would be leaks out of a closed hearing about what Sessions said, people characterizing it and that sort of thing. Trump would seize on those, particularly if it was anything that he deemed to be not a full-throated defense of him, which is what he's already not thrilled about Sessions with.
To me, Sessions in this setting, what he says, how he looks, how he acts is all right out there. Now, Trump can interpret it how he wants, as can anyone else watching it, but there's no way to sort of have it be mischaracterized in the room. So I think that that is a move clearly designed knowing the president is watching and Sessions is on thin nice.
BLITZER: You know, it's very intriguing today. At the White House briefing, Sean Spicer, he raised the possibility that, potentially, there could be executive privilege exerted by Sessions. It depends on the scope of the questions. That's what Sean Spicer said. So how does that influence what the public is going to learn tomorrow?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, sure. I think it means, Wolf, that we're going to see a hearing that looks a lot more like the one we saw last week, featuring Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, and Admiral Mike Rogers, where they were asked directly to sort of characterize these conversations they had had with President Trump, and they declined to do so. They didn't explicitly invoke executive privilege, but they were essentially doing that.
And compare that to what we saw from James Comey the very next day. He was very forthcoming. He had a story he wanted to tell. I think we're likely going to see from Jeff Sessions a lot more similar -- a hearing that's a lot more similar, has much more in common with the Coats/Rogers hearing, and, I mean, the common denominator here is he works for the president.
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Rather remarkable. A rather remarkable precedent that the committee allowed them not to answer the questions without explicitly invoking the executive privilege.
BERG: And Burr -- Burr chided (ph) the answer to that.
BROWNSTEIN: I was thinking back to the Henry Waxman, the great -- the famous Henry Waxman with all the tobacco executives lined up, and if they said, "I do not think it's appropriate to answer these questions in open session," what do you think the response would have been? Just try to imagine what just happened in terms of allowing that to go forward in that manner.
[18:35:11] BERG: And it's worth noting that Chairman Burr, at the conclusion of that hearing, did chide those witnesses. He said, "If you're coming before in committee, you need to have answers." I wonder if Sessions will be held to the same standard.
BLITZER: Well, let's let Jeffrey weigh in. Go ahead, Jeffrey.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: But -- but I mean, I just think, as a practical matter, if Jeff Sessions refuses to answer questions tomorrow, he's going to refuse to answer questions. They can't go to court tomorrow and get -- and get some sort of court order, and, you know -- you know, Senator Burr says, you know, "Bad on you." I mean, so what? I mean, it's just like -- it's really under Sessions' control tomorrow which questions he wants to answer...
BLITZER: But if he says...
TOOBIN: ... and that's up to him.
BLITZER: If he says, Jeffrey, "You know what? These are confidential private conversations I, as the attorney general, am having with the president of the United States, and I don't want to talk about that publicly," what, if anything, can the senators do?
TOOBIN: The senators can move to hold them in contempt, and then they can litigate question by question whether those -- the answers to those questions are covered by executive privilege. That would take, at a minimum, months.
So, you know, I think we can have an interesting discussion...
TOOBIN: ... over the merits of executive privilege and the extent of it, but as a practical matter, Jeff Sessions is going to say what he wants tomorrow; and that's what everybody is going to have to live with.
BROWNSTEIN: And also as a practical matter, the most important question may not be the attorney general's conversations with the president but whether he had additional conversations with the Russia ambassador, which presumably would not be in the scope...
BLITZER: That's right.
BROWNSTEIN: ... of privileged communications or executive privilege with the president.
TOOBIN: And I think the peril to Sessions is a great deal more regarding those conversations with the Russians, because he -- he made sworn statements...
TOOBIN: ... on his security clearances that appear to be contradictory to his actual record of contacts with Russia. That relates to his personal liability, and that's what I think he's going to be considerably worried about. He's going to have some explanation. We'll see if people find it credible.
CILLIZZA: To Jeff's point, I think you always have to remember in this administration -- and the legal process is going to be longer -- in terms of the political process, you always have to remember that these people are performing for an audience of one. I've said it before; I'll say it again.
This is like Sean Spicer a few weeks back, that his performances were panned as he took very few questions essentially said this is a false narrative that you media types are saying, and then he got out. I -- and I and many other people said this was a terrible performance. My guess is Donald Trump liked it.
So, look, Jeff Sessions probably wants to keep his job. Now obviously, he wants to keep himself out of significant legal peril. There's no question there. But I think that there is a performance aspect to all of these hearings that's even more so with Donald Trump in the White House.
BROWNSTEIN: Do you think the president is a Nielsen household?
CILLIZZA: Is the White House a Nielsen household?
BROWNSTEIN: Is the white -- is the White House a Nielsen household?
CILLIZZA: Again, this is -- you know he is going to be watching.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, right.
CILLIZZA: You know he is going to be parsing your words. That who he is. It's who he is and always been. And he will be looking for perceived slights.
BROWNSTEIN: Although in this case, he may have bigger problems in terms of who's parsing his words.
CILLIZZA: Yes, have bigger problems to what he pays attention to or clearly not. Yes, he has bigger problems. That does not mean...
BROWNSTEIN: I meant Attorney General Sessions. Attorney General Sessions.
CILLIZZA: Oh, OK.
BLITZER: All of us remember during the campaign when he was asked "Where do you get your information?" And he said, "I watch the shows."
CILLIZZA: From the shows.
BLITZER: "I watch the shows."
CILLIZZA: And that was about the military, Wolf.
BLITZER: National security issues. That's right.
All right. Everybody stand by. There's a lot more we're following. We'll be right back.
[17:43:11] BLITZER: Before we get back to our political and legal specialists, I want to show you part of today's rather bizarre meeting of the president's full cabinet. The president went around the table soliciting praise, sometimes effusive praise from every cabinet member.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you, Mr. President, and just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve of as vice president to a president who's keeping his word to the American people.
ALEXANDER ACOSTA, LABOR SECRETARY: Mr. President, I am privileged to be here, deeply honored, and I want to thank you for keeping your commitment to the American workers.
DR. TOM PRICE, HHS SECRETARY: Mr. President, what an incredible honor it is to -- to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this pivotal time under your leadership. I can't thank you enough for privilege that you've given me and the leadership that you've shown.
REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Mr. President, thank you for the honor to serve the country. It's a great privilege you've given me.
REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people.
SONNY PERDUE, AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: I want to congratulate you on the men and women you've placed around this table. This is a team you've assembled that's working hand in glove with -- for the betterment of America and I want to thank you for that. These are great team members, and we're on your team. STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: Thank you, Mr. President. It was
a great honor traveling with you around the country for the last year and an even greater honor to be here serving in your cabinet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Chris, how unusual is that?
CILLIZZA: OK. So I'm watching it on CNN, of course, and I -- I think that he's -- he makes a statement which, you know, is typical of these things and usually a reporter then shouts a question. They ignore it. The photographers take their picture and that's the end.
So then he starts going to some of his newer cabinet members, so Sonny Purdue, the secretary of agriculture, had been relatively recently confirmed, and they say some nice things. Well, OK, a little odd. But then it goes on and on and on. It's very, very strange.
TOOBIN: Wolf, can I say something.
BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.
TOOBIN: Can I say I just want to thank you for having me on THE SITUATION ROOM.
CILLIZZA: I knew that was coming, Toobin. Classic Toobin.
TOOBIN: And I think you're doing such a great job in general...
BLITZER: Thank you.
TOOBIN: ... but especially today, and it's just an honor to be here with you.
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Yes.
CILLIZZA: I'm surprised Jeff didn't mention your suit, which is a nice fit on you.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, really.
CILLIZZA: It's an oversight by Jeff, but I want you to know that I mentioned your suit.
BROWNSTEIN: Beside all the strange third world tin pot dictator elements of this meeting --
BROWNSTEIN: -- there is something else about it, which is kind of the circle, the insularity. I mean, kind of the sense. I mean, yes, it was flowery and effusive and overwrought, but it is
their sense about where things are going at a moment when, today, in the Gallup tracking poll, his approval rating tied its all-time high at 59 percent. And you see in polling about 2018, at this point, Democrats having a significant lead on the generic ballot.
They believe they are moving forward. They are, you know, mobilizing their base. They're speaking to their base with things like the climate decision or like the Senate motoring toward repealing the Affordable Care Act entirely in secret, with no public hearings, no disclosure of the bill.
But there is a whole other world out there. If you look at polling of people who are uneasy from both the policy and kind of an operational perspective on how this presidency is unfolding, none of that. He has really almost completely given up on the idea of speaking to a majority of the country. He's focusing almost entirely on his base.
BLITZER: All right. Jeffrey, thank you very much for your kind words.
BLITZER: I deeply appreciate it.
TOOBIN: Well, I mean that.
BLITZER: On a very serious note, though, this lawsuit that the Attorneys General of Maryland and the District of Columbia filed against the President, saying he's violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, what do you think?
TOOBIN: I'm extremely skeptical that this will lead to anything serious in terms of an impact on President Trump. You know, the Emoluments Clause has never been applied, at least, in the modern world. And I just think this is a political attempt to interfere and damage the presidency. I don't think it's going to lead to anything significant.
And, remember, even the discovery process which is, you know, where they might get the tax returns, that's only going to take place after the administration moves to dismiss the lawsuit just on standing grounds, on the grounds that it doesn't state a claim for which relief can be granted. I just think if Donald Trump is going to be damaged politically, it's going to come through other sources.
BLITZER: But there may be some opportunities, though, even if they fail in the end, Rebecca, to get maybe the tax returns as part of discovery.
REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: That is possible. And certainly, that's going to be the gold ring for any opponents of the President and, even if these court cases fail to produce, something that Democrats will be going after if they take control of the House. You can bet on that.
BLITZER: You didn't mention, Rebecca, I got a nice haircut over the weekend.
CILLIZZA: It's an oversight.
BERG: Looking very good, Wolf.
CILLIZZA: I was going to tell you that off air, Wolf.
CILLIZZA: I like your haircut a lot.
BLITZER: I just want to make sure.
BERG: I thought it could on set.
BLITZER: Thank you.
BLITZER: All right, guys. There's a lot more news coming up, including some very, very surprising breaking news out of North Korea.
Get ready. Kim Jong-un may be about to get a special visitor. We have details. That's coming up.
[17:52:47] BLITZER: We're getting some breaking news. CNN has learned the former NBA star, Dennis Rodman, is heading to North Korea again. Let's bring in Brian Todd.
Brian, what are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, learning that, just a short time ago, that Dennis Rodman is on his way to North Korea. Two North Korean officials tell CNN he is expected to arrive in Pyongyang on Tuesday, but they gave no other details.
CNN spotted Rodman today at Beijing International Airport. He declined to answer questions, but a member of his entourage mouthed the words, "See you Thursday." Now, it's not clear what may happen on Thursday. And the purpose of Rodman's visit is not clear at the moment, but he arrives at a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and North Korea.
Kim Jong-un's regime has test fired 16 ballistic missiles this year. And the regime is detaining four Americans -- businessman Kim Dong Chul, University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier, and two academics who worked at a University in Pyongyang.
Rodman is one of the only Americans who have ever met with Kim Jong-un face-to-face. He has visited that country at least four times, the last visit coming in 2014 when he and other former NBA players took part in an exhibition basketball game, which was a birthday gift for Kim.
Wolf, a U.S. official telling CNN tonight that the State Department was aware of Rodman's plans to travel to North Korea, but they stress here that he is not going in any official capacity with the U.S. government.
BLITZER: Yes, it's interesting that we spotted him.
BLITZER: We have that video of him in Beijing at the international airport. If you want to go to Pyongyang, you got to fly to Beijing first, then get a visa in Beijing, and then you'll fly into North Korea, Pyongyang.
BLITZER: A lot of us remember the very negative reaction he got, the publicity he got, for that last visit.
TODD: That's right, Wolf. He was heavily criticized for ignoring North Korea's human rights record and for not bringing up the case of American, Kenneth Bae, who spent more than two years in North Korean custody before being released in 2014.
Rodman had an expletive-laden outburst while he was interviewed by CNN during the trip. He did say after he returned that he was sorry for what was going on in North Korea and that he meant that trip to be an instance of, quote, "basketball diplomacy."
Now, a key question tonight, does this trip have anything to do with the four detained Americans? We're going to see how this plays out over the next few days, Wolf.
[17:55:03] You know, who knows? There are four guys being held there, a couple of them for quite some time. Now, is Rodman going to do anything regarding their custody? That's going to be a key thing to watch.
BLITZER: It certainly will also be important to see if he meets with Kim Jong-un himself.
BLITZER: I think he's the only American that has met with the North Korean leader.
TODD: That's right.
BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much. TODD: Sure.
BLITZER: Breaking news here in the situation room, Brian Todd reporting it.
Coming up. The Attorney General Jeff Sessions prepares to testify publicly before a Senate panel amid serious questions about his contacts with Russia and the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Will he claim executive privilege to duck some of the toughest questions?