News Wrap: Spicer defends firing of acting attorney general

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White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas - RTX2Z1CJ

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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump is preparing to take up the next big item on his agenda tonight: revealing his nominee to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. He will address the nation at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time. It is widely reported that two federal appeals court judges, Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman, top the list of candidates.

The announcement comes amid the uproar over Mr. Trump’s immigration moratorium, and a high-level ouster at the Justice Department.

John Yang begins our coverage.

JOHN YANG: A night of political drama at the White House gave way to a day of defending President Trump’s actions.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer:

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: For the attorney general to turn around and say, I’m not going to uphold this lawful executive order, is clearly a dereliction of duty. And she should’ve been removed, and she was.

JOHN YANG: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama appointee, was fired after directing Justice Department lawyers not to defend the president’s immigration order.

“At present,” she wrote them, “I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with my responsibilities, nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.”

Spicer insisted Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel did find the order lawful.

SEAN SPICER: That doesn’t sound like an attorney general that is upholding the duty that she swore to uphold. But at the end of the day, the attorney general either had a problem with her own division approving something, but it wasn’t the president she had a problem with. The president followed the process.

JOHN YANG: Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly dismissed reports that he was kept in the dark about the immigration order.

JOHN KELLY, Homeland Security Secretary: I knew this was under development, and I think we were in pretty good shape in how it was implemented by the work force.

JOHN YANG: The New York Times had reported Kelly wasn’t fully briefed until the order was being signed on Friday, and that Defense Secretary James Mattis wasn’t consulted until just hours earlier.

JOHN KELLY: From day one, in terms of the inauguration, finishing touches, I would have to put it that way, were being put on the executive order. As I say, high-level folks in the government, attorneys as well, were part of that. People on my staff were generally involved.

JOHN YANG: But the acting commissioner of customs and border protection, Kevin McAleenan, conceded today the order’s implementation could have been better.

KEVIN MCALEENAN, Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection: Communications, publicly and interagency, haven’t been the best in the initial rollout of this process. We have communicated with the Department of State now. Again, these guidelines will be on our Web site.

JOHN YANG: McAleenan said his agency had to create a waiver process for holders of green card and special visas after the order took effect.

At the Capitol, House Speaker Paul Ryan said top Republicans weren’t briefed on the executive order was being signed.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: I think it’s regrettable that there was some confusion on the rollout of this. No one wanted to see people with green cards or special immigration visas like translators get caught up in all of this.

JOHN YANG: Press Secretary Spicer dismissed reports that the White House handling of the immigration order had created tensions with congressional Republicans. Throughout it all, Mr. Trump spent most of his day in meetings.

This morning, he urged executives from major pharmaceutical companies to cut prices. Today, the White House also said the president will continue President Obama’s order barring discrimination by federal employers and contractors based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang at the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president also faces another legal challenge tonight. San Francisco has filed suit against his order on so-called sanctuary cities. It cuts off federal aid to cities that shelter undocumented immigrants.

MILES O’BRIEN: In the day’s other news: Senate Democrats forced delays on three of the president’s Cabinet nominees. The Judiciary Committee had planned to vote on Republican Senator Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. Instead, the committee meeting grew contentious in the wake of last night’s firing of the acting attorney general.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: We clearly saw what a truly independent attorney general does. I have no confidence that Senator Sessions will do that. Instead, he has been the fiercest, most dedicated, and most loyal promoter in Congress of the Trump agenda.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: Everyone on this committee, be they Republican or Democrat, knows Senator Sessions to be a man of integrity and a man of his word. Because we know him to be a man of his word, we know that he will uphold and enforce all laws equally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Democrats on the Finance Committee blocked action on the nominee Steve Mnuchin to be treasury secretary and Tom Price for Health and Human Services. The nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, squeaked through the Senate Education Committee. It was 12 to 11, down party lines. But two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, warned that they still have serious concerns.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: I was surprised and concerned about Mrs. DeVos’ apparent lack of familiarity with the landmark 1975 law IDEA that guarantees a free and appropriate education for children with special needs.

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI, R-Alaska: When each of us have the opportunity to vote aye or nay on the floor, I wouldn’t advise that she yet count on my vote.

MILES O’BRIEN: Three more Cabinet nominees advanced to the full Senate today for confirmation votes. The Energy Committee approved Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke as interior secretary, and former Texas Governor Rick Perry as energy secretary. And the Small Business Committee endorsed Linda McMahon to run the Small Business Administration.

Meanwhile, Elaine Chao was sworn in as transportation secretary, shortly after being confirmed by the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our Lisa Desjardins has spent much of the day at the Capitol, watching the to-and-fro over President Trump’s Cabinet choices. And she joins me now.

Lisa, welcome. So what is the strategy behind the Democrats’ tactics in slowing down, delaying these nominations?

LISA DESJARDINS: The truth is, it depends on each committee. As you reported earlier, it seems the ones who are the most indefinitely delayed are treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin and also HHS nominee Tom Price.

We don’t know when they will come up for a vote. Democrats say they want to talk to them again. They want more answers to questions. That’s in limbo right now.

At the same time, attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions looks like he will get a vote tomorrow. But all this delay in the end might not matter. It’s really things like you report on, on Betsy DeVos. Do they have enough Republican votes to be confirmed?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which we’re watching.

So how are the Republicans responding to this?

LISA DESJARDINS: Right. They say that this is bad acting on the part of Democrats. They say this is Democrats being sore losers, in the word of one Republican. But on the other hand, Democrats say they are playing hardball, and that they are reacting to President Trump’s refugee order.

They say that he is now unleashing a new kind of aggressive executive power that they are reacting to in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Lisa, how are the Republicans dealing with that? And does it have implications for the Supreme Court nominee coming?

LISA DESJARDINS: I didn’t get a lot of answers from Republicans tonight as to how can they get these nominees to the Senate floor without going through some of these committees? They say they’re working on it, but the truth is, I don’t know of a way they can do it without Democratic votes. So that’s to be determined.

But I think, in the end, it’s a political calculus on both sides, and the Supreme Court nominee will be a huge factor in this. Republicans are, in a way, daring Democrats to try and block the Supreme Court nominee. Democrats seem to be ready to do it.

We will see if Republicans, as John McCain told me tonight, are willing to change the vote count to only 50 votes for a Supreme Court nominee. They say they’re open to that at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Huh. Well, that would be a story for all of us to cover.

LISA DESJARDINS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

LISA DESJARDINS: Thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: In Eastern Ukraine, heavy new fighting has erupted, with at least eight people killed overnight. Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed rebels dueled with artillery and rockets on the outskirts of Donetsk. It appears to be the worst shelling in many months, and it briefly trapped hundreds of coal miners underground.

Ukraine’s president blamed Moscow.

PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukrainian President (through interpreter): Our servicemen are successfully defending their positions. The only restriction is when criminals, Russian rebels, deploy artillery systems, tanks and multiple missile rocket launchers in residential areas. We have clear evidence of that.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Ukrainian military and Russian-backed rebels each blame the other for launching the offensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in this country, the Boy Scouts of America now says that it will accept transgender children who identify as boys. In a statement last night, the organization said its existing approach is — quote — “no longer sufficient,” as communities and state laws are interpreting gender identity differently. The Girl Scouts organization has accepted transgender members for years.

MILES O’BRIEN: Tonight marks the deadline for Americans to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. It affects 39 states served by healthcare.gov. States with their own insurance Web sites set their own deadlines. President Trump and congressional Republicans have promised to repeal and replace Obamacare.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on Wall Street today, subpar earnings from Goldman Sachs, Boeing and others weighed on stocks. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 107 points to close at 19864. The Nasdaq rose a point, but the S&P 500 slipped two.

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