Full Episode: AG Jeff Sessions under fire amid new questions about Trump administration ties to Russia

Mar. 03, 2017 AT 9:29 p.m. EST

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into Russia's communication with Trump campaign officials during the 2016 election. Sessions had two conversations with Russia's ambassador last year, which he did not disclose in his confirmation hearing. Can the White House turn the page from the ongoing questions about Russia meddling in the election and focus on the ambitious domestic agenda Trump discussed in his first address to Congress?

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA : It is complicated. Attorney General Jeff Sessions steps away from all probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. I’m Robert Costa. We explain where the investigations go from here , t onight on Washington Week .

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: (From video.) Let me be clear: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.

MR. COSTA: President Trump stands by his attorney general, saying he is an honest man, and calling the controversy over his meeting s with a Russian diplomat a politically motivated witch hunt.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) The fact that the attorney general, the top cop in our country, lied under oath to the American people is grounds for him to resign.

MR. COSTA: But a leading Republican and Trump supporter has joined with Democrats, calling for an independent prosecutor to investigate potential ties between Trump associates and Russia.

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA (R-CA) : (From video.) You’re going to need to use the special prosecutors statute.

MR. COSTA: Are the investigations into Russia stalling President Trump’s ambitious agenda?

We get answers and analysis from Dan Balz of The Washington Post , Alexis Simending er of Real Clear Politics, Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times , and Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post .

ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, t his is Washington Week .

Once again, from Washington, Robert Costa of The Washington Post .

M R . COSTA : Good evening. The stock market soared to a record-setting high following President Trump’s confident speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. But it was news about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russia that dominated the week. The Washington Post , my newspaper, broke the story that Sessions met at least twice with the same Russian diplomat whose interactions with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn led to Flynn’s resignation. Sessions denied having any meetings with any Russian envoys during his confirmation hearing last month.

On the same day, on the front page, The New York Times broke another story, that officials in the Obama administration actively worked to preserve intelligence about Russia’s interference in the presidential election.

Joining me on the latest on Russia and the investigations are Ellen Nakashima, my colleague at the Post , and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times . Ellen, where exactly do these investigations go from here, in particular with regard to the Justice Department?

ELLEN NAKA SHIMA: Well, right now, with Jeff Sessions having recused himself, the oversight of the investigation falls to his deputy. Acting deputy attorney general is Dana Boente , who’s a 33-year career prosecutor from the Eastern District of Virginia who was appointed by President Obama. He’s an Obama holdover, confirmed by the Senate, and he’s widely respected within the – within the Justice Department.

Now, we’re expecting a new deputy, Rod Rosenstein, to be the next deputy attorney general. His confirmation hearing is up for next week. He, too, is a holdover from the Obama administration, and not only that, was – is the longest-serving U.S. attorney, having been appointed U.S. attorney first by George W. Bush.

I think the Justice Department is going to argue that they can handle the investigation without the need of a special prosecutor or appointing someone outside the department.

MR. COSTA: Ellen, what’s the likelihood, though, of a special prosecutor? What could make it happen inside of the Justice Department?

MS. NAKASHIMA: Well, in fact, it is up to the Justice Department and the attorney general – and then I guess in this case would be the deputy attorney general – to decide whether or not to appoint a special prosecutor. It’s not up to Congress. And there is just a lot of institutional pressure here or prerogative to keep the investigation within the department, where they feel that they have the career attorneys with the independence to conduct an impartial investigation free from any conflict of interest.

MR. COSTA: Mark, you’ve done a lot of deep reporting this week on how it’s not just the Justice Department that’s looking into this issue about Russia and interference and connections to the Trump campaign. It’s foreign governments. What have we seen from them?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, one of the things we reported this week was that in the months – the final months of the Obama administration, officials were receiving reports from allied governments in Europe talking about contacts between Trump associates and Russians. And these reports were kind of coming in in a stream over time, and they were adding to what the United States intelligence community and law enforcement had already – had already collected. And there was this sort of scramble in the final days of the Obama administration to preserve some of this information because they weren’t sure what was going to happen after January 20 th , once the Trump administration took over.

One of the interesting things is also there’s this lag time, where the reports may have come in over the summer – there are communications, there’s information to sift through – but it may be weeks or months before some of this is looked at. So even in the final days of the Obama administration, people were still seeing some of these new reports, which sort of added to a little bit of the hysteria about what might be out there in terms of the connections.

MR. COSTA: Mark, when I was reading your story in the Times , I kept wondering who are these other Trump campaign associates that may be under scrutiny. Is it Paul Manafort , the former campaign chairman for the president? Is it Carter Page, a former foreign policy advisor? Who’s really on the radar right now of these investigations?

MR. MAZZETTI: Well, we are still trying to learn more. We’ve reported in the past that Paul Manafort , Carter Page and a few others are under scrutiny, and it is – it is – you know, we’re trying to find as much as possible out about the FBI and Se nate investigations. There are, you know, a growing number of as we’re learning this week, of contacts that we are now reporting on publicly between Trump advisors, Trump campaign surrogates, et cetera, and Russians. So we’re trying to sort of figure out how much of what we’re learning this week on some of these public contacts are adding to what the FBI and the Senate are already looking at, but it’s still at this point a little bit hard to figure out.

MR. COSTA: Ellen, it’s not just the investigators who are trying to find out more; it’s the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, he’s pushing FBI Director James Comey for more information. A lot of lawmakers feel like they’re flying blind.

MS. NAKASHIMA: Yeah, that’ s right. A lot of lawmakers, and in particular the Democrats, are feeling frustrated that they’re not getting as much information from the director, from Comey , as they feel they should, given that they are members of the oversight committee, the House Intelligence Committee in particular. And I think part of it is, you know, maybe Comey feeling that when he briefs the committee and if he briefs them fully, some of this information will leak out into the public domain, and so there is that sort of tension there. Nonetheless, I think committee members feel that they – in particular the rank and file – that they’re not getting as much information as they’re owed.

MR. COSTA: Mark, just a quick – to finish, is – the congressional side of this is a little bit complicated. The Republicans control the committees in the Senate and the House. What can we expect, especially from the Senate Intelligence Committee?

MR. MAZZETTI: I mean, it seems right at the moment that the Senate side is where the more serious investigation is going on. There seems to be greater bipartisan commitment to getting to the bottom of this, and there’s greater commitment on both Republicans and Democrats. What we saw this week was a war of words, a sort of public spat between the two leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, and it just sort of signaled that they’re not on the same page, although they did subsequently come out and say that they are going to be investigating it. But it does appear that the Senate is farther along on this.

MR. COSTA: Really appreciate your reporting. Thanks so much, Ellen Nakashima, my colleague, and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times .

Speaking of the congressional side of this, I just got off the phone about an hour ago with the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes , and I’m telling you it’s a war of words from some of these Republicans and Trump allies. They think they’ re under siege from what they call the deep state, the embedded bureaucrats they put it, inside of th e State Department or the CIA or the FBI. As the whole administration feels under siege, Alexis, how can they ever get out from this shadow, politically and within the administration?

ALEXIS SIMEND INGER: Well, listening to Mark and Ellen, I think we all, you know, can figure out why the administration is so concerned. Because they don’t control the narrative, they don’t control the information, there are investigations now in the executive branch and in the legislative branch, there are international governments and intelligence communities assisting. And as you point out, the intelligence is coming out from within the U.S. government to a fourth estate that the president can denounce, but cannot control.

So what seems to be the case, based on the way the White House is reacting, is that they would like to use denial. They would like to use politics. They would like to use distraction and are trying to do all of those things, and point to hypocrisy, for instance, on Capitol Hill. But one of the things that has unnerved folks inside the White House is that there are advisors to the president who don’t – were not aware of some of this information. The White House today repeated that the bottom line is that Donald Trump had zero contact with the Russians, and they are trying to just stick to that. If the narrative changes, then all bets are off.

M ICHAEL SCHERER: What’s interesting is those tactics of denying, attacking the messenger, work in a political space where – actually worked pretty well for Trump during the campaign, when he was able to take all kinds of incoming and then turn it around on Twitter and throw it back in his opponents faces. He started that strategy during the campaign. Right after the campaign, in an interview with TIME , he said he didn’t believe that the intelligence community was being honest about who had leaked the emails – with the Russian involvement with the emails. He said he thought they were politically motivated. He was declaring war in December on this community.

And he’s been losing the war. I mean, the fact that Sessions now has to recuse himself, the fact that he lost Mike Flynn, his national security advisor. And so I think there is a limit to that tactic. You can – you can – if you’re going up against a dark organization, basically – we don’t know the names of who’s speaking here – who have facts that can incriminate your people and contradict what you have said, you are in the weaker position. And it’ll be interesting to see how the White House deals with this in the coming weeks.

MR. COSTA: But it’s not just leaks, right, Dan? I mean, you have an attorney general who was then a senator, Jeff Sessions, meeting with the ambassador from Russia, choosing to do so, and then fumbling, in some ways, during his testimony. And then you had Jared Kushner, the son-in-law, meet with then-incoming National Security Advisor Flynn in December with the Russian ambassador. So it seems like the administration is not just being leaked on, it’s making conscious choices.

DAN BALZ: Well, I mean, a couple of things. Let me pick up on something that Alexis said, which is this administration doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. And so it gets surprised and therefore it’s reactive. They need, in some way or another, to do their own internal inventory and investigation, and put it out. It will be – it will be greeted skeptically because it will look like an inside job, but nonetheless, it would allow them to know more about what’s going on.

The fact that then-Senator Sessions met with the Russian ambassador, there’s nothing particular nefarious about that on its face. Ambassadors in the middle of a presidential campaign are trying to learn everything they can about the possible next president. And so Jeff Sessions was the highest elected official in the United States who was close to Donald Trump. He is a natural person for any ambassador to go to, to try to get a sense of Trump’s worldview, his worldview. The idea that Sessions fumbled that question so badly when he was asked about it in his confirmation hearings is inexplicable. He can try to explain it away now, but for whatever reason he either didn’t think on his feet or he felt that there was something that they wanted to hide.

MR. COSTA: Is Sessions in deep trouble here? Some Democra ts are calling on him to resign.

MR. SCHERER: I think for the time being, without further information coming out, it’s very unlikely that he’ll be forced to resign. I think we’re in a political environment where it’s not surprising that the opposition party is calling on a wounded Cabinet official to resign. That said, the fact that he has had to pull himself back from what is one of the most central jobs of the agency he runs means he’s been weakened. And, you know, again, it’s what we don’t know that will get them. I think, you know, what Dan said is right. These kinds of contacts – you know, the idea that intelligence assets of Russia are having contacts with the Trump administration could be very nefarious.

We could be talking about actual spies having secret conversations about things they don’t want out. It’s also true that there are a lot of intelligence assets of Russia who are basically above board. You know, they live in the United States. We know who they are. They work for think tanks. They work for the embassy. And they go around schmoozing. They make contacts. They gather information. They build relationships. We do the same thing in other countries. And I think the question we’re going to have to find out – go ahead.

MR. COSTA: And it wasn’t just – it wasn’t really the meeting that was political trouble for the Trump administration, it was the fact – because Kislyak , the Russian ambassador, he meets with people in Washington all of the time. It’s the testimony for Sessions. I mean, do you feel like they have any strategy moving forward, Alexis? Bannon stayed behind, the chief strategist, to work with Reince Priebus on Thursday to try to figure something out. What’s their strategy moving forward?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the strategy is containment, at least for the time being. But I want to pick up on what Dan was saying, because inside the White House, their argument is, this makes no sense. We’ve denied this. We have conceded that Russia has been meddling and did that in 2016, in the election. But if we were trying to do something or create a deal, the Russians have gotten nothing out of it. That’s the argument to reporters and publicly. But what Dan is suggesting is, if that’s your argument why is everyone forgetting this prominent diplomat, forgetting their meetings, not mentioning meeting in Trump Tower, trying to wall the president off? So the containment can only work as long as the story doesn’t change. And what we’ve seen for months – for months, and definitely in the last six weeks – is that it’s almost changing every day.

MR. BALZ: I think another aspect of this is, you know, on the one hand you have a very big story – which is that the Russian interfered in the U.S. election. There’s an investigation that’s going to try to get to the bottom of that – a public investigation in one form or another. Then you have the overlay on that of what role, if any, did Trump campaign officials, associates, hangers-on, whoever, have in terms of conversations with the Russians? We know there were contacts. We don’t know what was said. We don’t know exactly who all was involved in that. I mean, there are so many unanswered questions that will have to get answered.

MR. COSTA: And unanswered questions about even how the investigations are going to move forward. Is there a special prosecutor or not? It almost feels like a month ago, but let’s not forget the big news earlier this week. The president delivered his mission statement to a joint session of Congress. He laid out an ambitious agenda, including a major boost in military spending and a push to quickly repeal and replace Obamacare.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for our country. (Cheers, applause.) The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance. And that is what we are going to do.

MR. COSTA: Dan, a lot of Republicans came into Statuary Hall following that speech, and they say they like what they heard. But on health care, the big issue for Republicans, there just doesn’t seem a clear consensus. Yes, tax credits. Yes, Tom Price is taking the lead. But the big – the big idea on it seems to be a little muddled.

MR. BALZ: Well, it’s been muddled for quite a while, and they haven’t been able to resolve that, frankly. And what the president did on Tuesday night was something that certainly the Republican leadership wanted to hear. He embraced essentially the – kind of the establishment Republican plan. But as you know, there are conservative Republicans who are not happy with this plan, who are desperate to find more details. We know that governors on the Republican side are split between those states that expanded Medicaid and those that didn’t. And they’re wary of one another.

And who’s going to lead – who’s going to lead them out of this quandary? Is it going to be President Trump, which I suspect some Republicans would like to see? On the other hand, he seems to be more anxious to have the House leaders or the Senate leaders take the – take the lead on this. So there’s just so much work that has to be done to get to the starting line of the legislative process.

MR. SCHERER: The other thing that – the other thing that Trump was able to successfully showcase Tuesday night was that he could embody the office of the president in a normal and unifying way. That speech was very much Trump in terms of policy. A lot of Americans didn’t agree with it. But almost everyone who watched that speech recognized a president speaking before a joint session of Congress. And after the speech, when they went back to the White House, the staff was truly delighted. And I think the president, I’ve heard, was also delighted, because he’s realizing the levers of his own power, his own ability to control his office.

And it’s not by breaking the rules. In that case, he wasn’t breaking the rules. He was following the rules, following what you do in a speech like that. And then immediately we get off on this Russia thing the following day. And now we’re back in a space where he’s tweeting about investigations of Chuck Schumer for a public meeting with, you know, Putin 13 years ago. I mean, we’re back in sort of the silly part of the Trump campaign. And I think one of the other decisions they’re going to have to make – not just with the Russia stuff, not just with the legislative agenda they have – but is how much they decide to abandon what they’ve seen as their strength in the past, which is their ability to break these rules, and the power they have if they follow the rules.

MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things that I thought, listening to this speech, was that it was the beginning of translating a campaign agenda to a governing agenda. And President Trump is heading into the toughest part of his year. It’s easy to give a speech and it’s easy to improve on a speech, but it’s really hard to lead, as we’ve seen, on the toughest issues. Wh ether it’s health care or tax reform or overhauling the bank regulations or getting anyone to buy on to a trillion dollars in infrastructure, that’s tough. But I was listening, and still the president doesn’t like the idea that there are tradeoffs and pain, and he was not setting the stage for that. And there are lawmakers who are – they don’t want to be the ones to walk the point and take that, they want him to do it. So we’ll – you know, we’re entering into a phase where we’re going to see something different from him.

MR. COSTA: Where’s the bill, though? You had Democrats taunting House Republicans, trying to search for this bill. And it wasn’t just Democrats; Senator Rand Paul came over to the other side of the Capitol trying to find this health care bill. It seems like, Dan, even though the president is letting Congress fill in the details, no one really knows the details.

MR. BALZ: No, nobody – well, everybody knows principles; nobody knows the details. And as we saw with President Obama when they went through the health care effort eight years ago, it’s the nitty-gritty aspect. Those tradeoffs that you’re talking about, what are the choices you have to make? And nobody quite wants to bit e the bullet on that, and the president certainly in that speech didn’t come close to doing that.

MR. SCHERER: There’s two big legislative things he’s trying to push this year. First is Obamacare repeal and replace. The second is a big business tax cut and a re-envisioning, if House Republicans have their way, of the whole way we do corporate taxation. In both cases, if you just trie d to count the votes right now among Republicans – and they control both the House and Senate – they don’t really have it. Now, that doesn’t mean they won’t get there, but what it does mean is that it looks like the leadership in the House, maybe also in the Senate and the White House, are going to create some sort of a binary crisis moment for their own party in which they will present a take-or-leave-it bill. And it is possible, I mean, that it passes, everything goes great, he has a successful first term. But it’s also very possible that, you know, a Republican president with a Republican House and Senate ends this year without real legislative accomplishment.

MR. COSTA: Alexis, do you really think this is going to be the case, that even with Republicans having majorities in both the House and the Senate, Trump – President Trump may have to govern by crisis?

MS. SIMENDINGER: In the reporting that I’ve done there are suggestions that this is actually potentially more likely than getting really comprehensive health care reform, repeal and replace, and tax reform in the same year. Maybe the president could get all the way to the summer and all he’s got is a Supreme Court seat filled.

MR. COSTA: T hanks, everybody. We’re all watching with anticipation.

We have a short show tonight so we can give you the opportunity to support the stations that support Washington Week , but our conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra , where we will tell you about the Evangelical pastor who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration and is now offering a, quote, “safe haven” for undocumented immigrants. You can find that later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/ WashingtonWeek .

I’m Robert Costa . Good night.


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