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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Interview With Tennessee Senator Bob Corker; Senate Questions Trump's Attorney General Pick. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired January 10, 2017 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kind of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton that were raised during the campaign, or could be otherwise connected to it.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sessions also confronted accusations he's a racist, something that derailed his confirmation hearings for a judgeship before the same committee in 1986.
SESSIONS: It was very painful. I didn't know how to respond and didn't respond very well. I hope my tenure in this body has shown you that the caricature that was created of me was not accurate.
BROWN: The hearing periodically interrupted by protesters who oppose his confirmation. And things got tense when Democratic Senator Al Franken accused Sessions of distorting his record.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: So, tell me, did you file 20 or 30 desegregation cases, or is it some other number?
SESSIONS: The records don't show that there were 20 or 30 actually filed cases, so I...
FRANKEN: What do you think would have caused you to say that you filed 20 or 30 desegregation...
SESSIONS: Well, we had cases going throughout my district, and some of them were started before I came and continued after I left.
BROWN: Sessions also weighed in on president-elect Donald Trump's highly controversial early campaign promise to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Would you support a law that says you can't come to America because you're a Muslim?
BROWN: Sessions' colleagues also pressed him on the issue of water- boarding.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does water boarding constitute torture?
SESSIONS: Well, there was a dispute about that when we had the torture definition in our law. The Department of Justice memorandum concluded it did not necessarily prohibit that, but Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use water-boarding.
BROWN: And Senator Sessions was also asked about the Russian hack and whether he accepts the intelligence community's findings that Russians hacked during the election and the intent was to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. He says he couldn't really answer. He hasn't really studied it.
And then when further pressed by Senator Graham, he says that he has no reason not to accept the FBI and intelligence community's findings.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: In general, Pamela, I think it's fair to say that the senators, as they tend to be, were rather deferential. There were moments, as you point out, of some real challenging of Senator Sessions.
You saw the one. You noted the one in your piece with Senator Al Franken, who is only one of a couple non-lawyers on the committee, talking about whether or not he inflated his role in some school desegregation prosecutions.
TAPPER: But then also there was this issue of what to do about the so-called dreamers, these individuals who were brought to this country illegally when they were children through no fault of their own, given some sort of temporary legal standing by President Obama.
And Senator Dick Durbin really made it very clear that he so strongly disagreed with Senator Sessions on this issue. It sounded to me as though that was not a vote he was going to get.
BROWN: I agree, and not only on that issue, but also when it comes to clemency. We know that the two worked on a bill together to reduce sentences for inmates who were convicted for crack cocaine. They reduced the sentences.
And then, of course, the issue of clemency came up later on, and that's been a big initiative under President Obama granting petitions, clemency petitions for some of these inmates. And it came up during the hearing today with Senator Durbin. And Senator Sessions basically said, I understand your point. It's an honorable debate, but that's not something that he is looking to adopt.
So, I think that also. And then you saw with Senator Leahy the issue come up with the hate crimes legislation and why he didn't vote to expand it to protect gays and lesbians. And that was another sort of contentious part of the hearing today, if you want to call it that.
And Senator Sessions defended himself, saying he was focused on another provision under that legislation about tribal courts. He didn't really address the fact that he didn't get on board to expand those protections to gays and lesbians.
So, there were some contentious parts. This is an unusual situation where you have a sitting senator going in front of a committee that he was once on not long ago.
BROWN: But he was clearly prepared and was expecting some tough questions.
TAPPER: Yes, absolutely. Senator Sessions is taking a break right now at the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. attorney general.
Let's go live now to the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, where they are questioning Trump's pick, retired Marine General John Kelly, to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Let's listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
GEN. JOHN KELLY (RET.), HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY NOMINEE: ... have not receded in any way.
The challenges to our way of life have not diminished. As I solemnly swore before my God when I entered the Marine Corps, if confirmed, I will faithfully support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, every second of every day.
I believe in America and the principles upon which our country and way of life are guaranteed. I believe and respect tolerance and diversity of opinion. I have a profound respect for the law and will always strive to uphold it.
I have never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations.
I also value people that work for me speaking truth to power. I love my country, and I will do everything within my power to preserve our liberty, enforce our laws and protect our citizens.
I recognize the many challenges facing the department. And should I be confirmed, I look forward to partnering with you to protect the homeland. Sir, I look forward to discussing the future of the department and answering the committee's questions.
Thanks very much.
SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Thank you, General Kelly.
Again, I want it remind the members I'm going to limit questions to seven minutes. And I'm going to be very disciplined in maintaining the seven minutes.
There are questions that I will ask, and then I will reserve the rest of my time and defer to Senator McCain, or Chair McCain, who I know has limited time. But let me start with three questions.
General Kelly, is there anything you are aware of in your background that might present a conflict of interest for the duties to which you have been nominated?
KELLY: There is nothing, sir.
JOHNSON: Do you know of anything personally or otherwise that would in any way prevent you from fully and honorably discharging the responsibilities of the office to which you have been nominated?
KELLY: There is nothing, Senator.
JOHNSON: Do you agree without reservation to comply with any request or summons to appear and testify before any duly constituted committee of Congress...
TAPPER: All right, the comments, the opening remarks by Senate -- by the nominee to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine General John Kelly.
He has finished his opening remarks. There is some questioning going on.
But let's talk more about this day and all the news coming from Capitol Hill, including that Intelligence Committee hearing.
Let's bring in the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Jake, good to be with you. Thank you.
TAPPER: So, as you know, in that Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today, on Russian intelligence activities, FBI Director Comey confirmed their assessment that Russia did hack Republican targets during the campaign, although they didn't successfully get into anything new of the Republican National Committee.
But they did get into some Republican targets, but didn't release any of the hacked information. What do you make of that? Does this not bolster the argument that Russia was trying to sway the election and hurt Democrats and Hillary Clinton, while not releasing anything that could potentially be damaging against the Republicans and Donald Trump?
CORKER: Yes, I think they probably -- they didn't get into the RNC, which was the treasure trove that they got out of the DNC when they got in.
But, look, regardless of that, I think that based on the intelligence reporting I have read, there seems to be certainly a desire by Russia to undermine Secretary Clinton. Obviously, they felt that she had intervened in their election in 2011 and tried to make it so that Putin was not elected in an appropriate way, and there was an attitude there.
TAPPER: Russia and the Russian leaders may look at the results of the U.S. election and think they succeeded, they achieved what they wanted to achieve.
What do you think going forward the U.S. should do to deter them from interfering like this in the future, beyond obviously improving our cyber-security?
CORKER: Well, obviously, that's it. We have got to protect ourselves.
But, look, you have no -- Jake, we have talked about scenarios as far as where this can go. And, again, it's all about hardening. You can think about a case, for instance, where Jake Tapper, reporter, happens to be giving an individual a hard time, and so they get into your computer, which is easily done, and put materials in there that discredit you and cause you all of a sudden not to be someone that people want to listen to anymore, or your reputation is -- there's all kinds of directions that this could go.
And, Jake, you know that sophisticated governments use hacking to get information. That happens all around the world, and happens every day, probably 24/7, where people are trying to gain intelligence. What has been different about this is the offensive use of that in the way that you're describing.
But this could take on generations of expansion and really affect all kinds of things. And so, yes, I mean, we as a nation, every nation, every individual, every company has to protect itself against this occurring.
TAPPER: Obviously, there are a lot of members of your committee and senators talking about potentially imposing greater sanctions on Russia because of the hacking.
Is that something that you're willing to be a part of? You have been hawkish on Russia in favor of putting more sanctions on them in the past because of their incursions into neighboring countries. What do you think?
CORKER: Well, again, I haven't seen any of the bills. Some of them may come through the Foreign Relations Committee. Others will likely go through the Banking Committee, where I also serve, which is typically where sanctions legislation reside.
But, you know, you have got to make sure what you're sanctioning against. I mean, take two countries -- let's take us out of the picture -- that may be doing certain things. One country doesn't want to sanction another country for doing something that it itself is doing, right?
So, again, I want to look at legislation and to see what it is, what it is we're sanctioning and why. Straight hacking, again, sophisticated countries around the world use that. I mean, you remember the Angela Merkel incident relative to her cell phone.
You can imagine the efficacy, if you will, of getting into people's computer systems to gain intelligence and information. I mean, that's what is done. What is different in many countries around the world, what is different about this is what they did with it, and that's what we ought to focus on and figure out the best way to counter it.
TAPPER: Tomorrow, you're going to be chairing -- as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you're going to be chairing the confirmation hearing for president-elect Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
You have spoken with Mr. Tillerson. Are he and the president-elect, are they in agreement in their approach to Russia?
CORKER: So, I don't know that anybody right now could speak for president-elect Trump on his views. I think every day that goes by, all of us have been through a transition. New things are evolved.
But what is important for us is to focus on Tillerson's views. I mean, he's going to be somebody up under the hood. At the end of the day, Jake, he's going to have to implement the president's policies.
But we want to know, how is he going to try to influence the president? What is his view? At the end of the day, when they walk away from the table, he's going to do what president-elect Trump wishes for him to do.
But because there have been some concerns, because there has been some unorthodox statements that have been made, because, you know, the world has been what it is, I mean, the United States' leadership and the world has been much lesser than it's been in the past, there's been a lot of consternation about a lot of things, the current administration, where does the future administration go, how do they feel about alliances around the world.
What people are going to be looking for is how is he going to influence the president, even though, at the end of the day, he may not win the case.
TAPPER: Senator, are you at all concerned that Mr. Tillerson, as a former executive of a major oil company, has not been one to view the world in terms of the issues that you care about a great deal when it comes to sovereignty, democracy, human rights? I don't mean that as a criticism of him. It just hasn't been his job.
And, obviously, that doesn't seem to play a major role in the world view of president-elect Trump. He seems to be looking more at anti- terrorism, and he seems to have a fondness for strongmen, if you will permit me that generalization.
Does that concern you at all?
CORKER: So, look, I have followed behind numbers of meetings that he's had with people on both sides of the aisle. It's part of my job to understand where things sit.
And I do think there have been some senators that have been concerned that the corporate approach doesn't take into account some of the things you mentioned.
As I talk with him in the office, look, you know, Rex Tillerson has unbelievable relationships with people around the world that most people coming into the secretary of state job don't have. He understands how they think.
And what I have said to him is, look, there are things that you know that I don't. On the other hand, there are some things that myself and others on the committee know and have thought about that you haven't.
And, so, you know, to me what needs to happen is a relationship created where those things that you mentioned that are important become a part of what they're thinking about at the State Department. That's obviously our job, but the hearing, no doubt, will press on that, no question.
I have talked to several senators today that plan to make that a big part of what they talk about tomorrow.
TAPPER: All right, Senator, we will be watching tomorrow. Thank you so much for joining us, as always. We always appreciate it.
Let's go back now to the confirmation hearing
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSE: That's obviously our job. But the hearing, no doubt, will press on that, no question.
[16:15:02] I've talked to several senators today that plan to make that a big part of what they talk about tomorrow.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Senator. We'll be watching tomorrow. Thank you so much for joining us as always. We always appreciate it.
Let's go back now to the confirmation hearing for Senator Jeff Sessions.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Career attorneys to follow the policy dictates of other administrations and not holding the career people responsible for that. I'm wondering how you would react to this. Do you have a problem with career attorneys if their private religious beliefs are secular ones? And do you -- will you support the career attorneys against the pressure from the from these right wing organizations seeking to wash them out like filth, to paraphrase the Heritage Foundation?
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: The Department of Justice is composed primarily of career professionals. As you know, Senator Whitehouse, you served there ably as the United States attorney. And I give them the highest respect. Most of those attorneys reach high standards and they are willing to follow lawful orders and directions from their superiors even if they might have a different philosophy.
I do think it's often they are put into non-career spots and can go back to career spots, but I don't know how exactly that works. But, so, you would normally expect -- and I'm sure the Obama administration made changes in the leadership of the department. They put career people in positions that they thought would be most advantageous for them to advance the causes they believed in. And that's sort of within the rules of the game.
But the target people and to anyway demean them, if they were fine public servants and they were following the law and carrying out a legitimate policy of their supervisors would be wrong. And I think you should respect them. I would do that.
WHITEHOUSE: Does a secular attorney have anything to fear from an Attorney General Sessions and Department of Justice?
SESSIONS: Well, no. And I use that word in the 90,000-foot level. A little concern I have that we as a nation, I believe, are reaching a level in which truth is not sufficiently respected, that the very ideal, the idea of truth is not believed to be real, and that all of life is just a matter of your perspective and my perspective, which I think is contrary to the American heritage.
Let's just say kind of a criticism -- we are not a theocracy. Nobody should be required to believe anything. I share Thomas Jefferson's words on the memorial over here. I swear eternal hostility over any domination of the mind of man. And I think we should respect people's views and not demand any kind of religious test for holding office.
WHITEHOUSE: And a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?
SESSIONS: Well, I'm not sure. In what method? Is it less objectively committed to --
WHITEHOUSE: In methods that an attorney would bring to bear --
SESSIONS: Well, let me just say, we're going to treat anybody with different views fairly and objectively. And the ideal of truth and trying to achieve the right solution to me is an important goal of the American jurisprudential system, actually the legislative system. What is the right thing, what is true and let's act on it, and do the right thing. (CROSSTALK)
WHITEHOUSE: On the subject of what is truth, you may --
SESSIONS: The age-old question.
WHITEHOUSE: You may be in a position as attorney general to either enforce laws or bring actions that relate to the problem of carbon emissions and the changes that are taking place both physically and chemically in our atmosphere and oceans as a result of the flood of carbon emissions that we've had.
It is the political position of the Republican Party in the Senate, as I have seen it, that this is not a problem, that we don't need to do anything about it, that the facts aren't real, and that we should all do nothing whatsoever. That's the Senate.
You as attorney general of the United States may be asked to make decisions for our nation that require a factual predicate that you determine as the basis for making your decision. In making a decision about the facts of climate change, to whom will you turn? Will you, for instance, trust the military, all of whose branches agree that climate change is a serious problem of real import for them?
[16:20:08] Will you trust our national laboratories, all of whom say the same? Will you trust our national science agencies -- by the way, NASA is driving a rover around on the surface of mars right now. So, they're scientists, I think, are pretty good.
I don't think there is a single scientific society, I don't think there is a single credited university, I don't think there is a single nation that denies this basic set of facts.
And, so, if that situation is presented to you and you have to make a decision based on the facts, what can give us any assurance that you will make those facts based on real facts and real science?
SESSIONS: That's a good and fair question, and honesty and integrity in that process is required. And if the facts justify a position on one side or the other on a case, I would try to utilize those facts in an honest and appropriate way.
I've not -- I don't deny that we have global warming. In fact, the theory of it always struck me as plausible, and it's the question of how much is happening and what the reaction would be to it. So, that's what I would hope we could see occur.
WHITEHOUSE: Indeed, I'll bet you dollars against those lovely Krispy Kreme donuts we have out back that if you went down to the University of Alabama and if you talked to the people who fish out of mobile, they had already seen the changes in the ocean. They'd be able to measure the PH changes and they'd know the acidification is happening, and there's no actual dispute about that except in the politics of Washington, D.C.
SESSIONS: I recognize the great interest in time and you've committed to the issue and I value your opinion.
WHITEHOUSE: I do come from an ocean state, and we do measure the rise in the sea level and we measure the warming of Narragansett Bay and we measure the change in PH. It's serious for us, Senator.
Thank you. My time has expired.
SESSIONS: Thank you.
CHAIRMAN: Now it looks like it will be senator from Texas.
And senator from Texas, I'm going to step out for a minute. And when your eight minutes are up, would you call on Senator Klobuchar?
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Sure. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Senator Sessions, I want to congratulate you on making it through a lengthy hearing and then performing admirably. And I think your performance today has reassured this committee and even more importantly has given comfort to the American people that you will be an attorney general who will faithfully apply the law without partiality, without partisan lens, but with fidelity to the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
I also want to do something I don't do very often, which is I want to commend the Democrats on this committee for, I think, showing admirable restraint. At the beginning of this hearing I had concerns that it would turn ugly with accusations that don't belong in this hearing. And I think my friends on the Democratic side of the aisle have largely restrained from that, and I commend them for that.
You know, I would note that in the recesses of the Internet and in some of the groups that are speaking on this nomination and, indeed, in the view of some of the protesters who have made their voices heard today, there have been racial charges raised and, indeed, some of the protesters have chanted "KKK". And you and I have both talked about this a number of times. That is one of the easiest charges for someone to make when they don't have an argument on the merits when they don't have the facts behind them. And it is a particularly hurtful argument that can be directed at someone particularly when it's countered by the facts.
And what I want to focus on principally in this round is spending a little bit of time highlighting an aspect of your record, which is your involvement in the prosecution of Henry Hayes, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, because I suspected it's something that very few people watching this hearing have ever heard of. And it is striking and I think highly revealing.
So, I'd like to walk through some of the facts. I know you're very familiar with them but I suspect some of the folks at home watching this hearing may not be.
In 1981 in Mobile, Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan ordered the murder of a random African-American man, Michael Duncan (ph). KKK members Henry Hays and James Tiger Knowles abducted afternoon 19-year-old American Michael Duncan. They beat him, they strangled him, they cut his throat and they hung him from a tree, absolutely shameful and disgraceful.
You were U.S. attorney at the time. Your office along with the FBI, along with the local district attorney investigated the murder. Department of Justice attorneys Barry Kowalski and Bert Glenn worked on the case.
When asked about your work on this case, Mr. Glenn testified that, quote, "during the entire course of the investigations, he," meaning Sessions, "has provided unqualified support and cooperation to us and independently as an individual who absolutely wanted to see that crime solved and prosecuted."
Is that accurate, Senator Sessions?
SESSIONS: I think it is, yes. That's exactly what I intended to do. It actually occurred before I became United States attorney.
Wrong group of people had been indicted in state court that complicated matters. Case was not making the kind of progress it needed to make. And, so, we had a discussion. And we invited civil rights division attorneys, Bert Glenn and Barry Kowalski, both of which were exceptionally fine, and along with Assistant Thomas Figures (ph) in my office, broke that case and I thought they deserve a great deal of credit.
But I was with them. I was in the grand jury with them. I called the grand jury at their convenience whenever they wanted to come to the state, actually used and impaneled a special grand jury so they could be called when they desired it. It had already been called for another special purpose, but we add that had to their purpose, so they had the flexibility. And it was I thought a brilliantly conducted investigation. I guess Barry Kowalski was the lead attorney in it.
CRUZ: Now, Bobby Eddy, who is the chief investigator for the Mobile County District Attorney's Office, he testified, quote, "Without his, meaning Sessions' cooperation, the state could not have proceed against Henry Hays on the capital murder charge."
Chris Galanos who is the mobile county district attorney in 1981 stated, quote, "We needed some horsepower which the feds through Jeff Sessions provided. Specifically, we needed the investigative power of the FBI and the power of the federal grand jury. I reached out to him, Sessions, and he responded, quote, 'tell me what you need and you'll have it.'"
And, indeed, your office prosecuted Hays' accomplice in federal court where he pleaded guilty. And Mr. Eddy testified that Tiger Knowles, the accomplice, pled guilty on a civil rights violation and received a life sentence, the highest sentence he could receive under federal law in federal prison.
And he continued to say, "Henry Hays was tried in state court by Mr. Galanos' office and found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. And this made Hays the first white man executed in Alabama for murdering a black person since 1913.
When you were the attorney general of Alabama, you later argued to uphold Hays' death penalty and in 1997, five months after you joined this body as a senator, Hays died in Alabama's electric chair. And I would note not only that, not only did you assist in the prosecution of the face of evil, the Ku Klux Klan murderer who saw ultimate justice, but as it so happened, you also prosecuted Hays' father, KKK grand titan, Benny "Jack" Hays, who ordered his son to kill an African-American and you prosecuted him for attempting to defraud his home insurer in order to collect money to pay for his son's legal defense.
Is that correct?
SESSIONS: That is correct.
CRUZ: And beyond that, your office cooperated with Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center to bring a civil suit against the KKK and Galanos explained, quote, "After the criminal case was over, the Southern Poverty Law Center took the evidence we developed and gave to them and they sued civilly and got a $7 million verdict on behalf of Ms. Donald."
And the $7 million civil judgment against the KKK in Alabama bankrupted the Klan, leading to its demise in the state. Is that correct?
SESSIONS: That's essentially correct, yes. In fact, they sold the Klan headquarters to help satisfy the judgment.
CRUZ: Well, I would say, Senator Sessions, it's easy for people reading things on the Internet to believe whatever is raised and passions get hot.