Return to Transcripts main page
Soon: Confirmation Hearing of Trump Nominee Sessions. Aired 9- 9:30a ET
Aired January 10, 2017 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[09:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: -- now with Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jake Tapper live in Washington.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Wolf Blitzer. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. We begin with breaking news in a transformative day in your government. The outgoing President takes stock, and the Trump administration takes shape.
Just minutes from now, the U.S. Senate launches the first of its confirmation hearings on those nominated to Trump's cabinet. Up first, Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General of the United States. Overnight, we learned he faces a historic challenge from a fellow U.S. senator.
Then at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, senior U.S. intelligence officials testify on Russian hacking and alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election. The FBI Director James Comey, he will testify publicly, as will the heads of the CIA and the NSA, the National Security Agency.
Then the confirmation hearing for retired General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security. He'd oversee some of Trump's most controversial campaign promises such as the border wall with Mexico and mass deportations.
And tonight, President Obama bids farewell to the nation. He ditches White House tradition and instead delivers his speech from his adopted hometown of Chicago.
We're covering all the angles as this very busy day here in Washington, D.C. unfolds. Our correspondents are fanned out across Washington to break it all down for you. Let's begin with the confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions scheduled to start right at the bottom of the hour, about half an hour or so from now. CNN's Phil Mattingly is up on Capitol Hill for what promises to be a rather contentious start to the process.
Phil, set the scene.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right, Wolf. And you need only look at the witness list to understand just how almost surreal this moment. Senator Cory Booker, a Democratic Senator, will be testifying against Jeff Sessions. Now, this is an unprecedented move, the first time it's happened in
U.S. Senate history. But, Wolf, what this really underscores are the very real divisions that surround this nomination.
Now, it's important to point out, Jeff Sessions on civil rights issues, this is where Democrats feel like they can attack him, not just for his time as a U.S. attorney first time back practicing law in Alabama but also his belief on how the U.S. Justice Department should handle its civil division. That's where you're going to see Democrats focused a lot, according to Democratic officials I've spoken to.
But, Wolf, it's worth noting, Republicans, they have been preparing behind the scenes with Jeff Sessions, actually, just in a room about 30 or 40 feet away from where the hearing will be held for the last couple of weeks. They are prepared for these questions. They say Jeff Sessions is prepared for these questions, and prepared to defend a record that he, says repeatedly and his team likes to reiterate, is very proud of.
Now, it's worth noting Sessions does have a lot of high-level support. Condoleezza Rice is someone you're hearing the committee tout pretty regularly here. But on civil right issues, obviously, Cory Booker talking. Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon, will also testify against Jeff Sessions here.
One key point that needs to be made, only 51 Republicans need to vote for Jeff Sessions for him to be confirmed. When you talk to Trump transition officials, when you talk to his team, they feel very comfortable that they are in line for that. They might get some Democrats along as well, but it doesn't it's not going to be a contentious next one, potentially two days, Wolf.
BLITZER: And it certainly will be. All right. Thanks very much, Phil Mattingly.
You know, Jake, it's pretty extraordinary, a sitting United States Senator will testify, will appear before colleagues -- I'm talking about Cory Booker of New Jersey -- and testifying against Sessions' confirmation.
TAPPER: Usually, there is deference to a fellow member of the most exclusive club in the world, the U.S. Senate. This might have the effect of bolstering some Democratic opposition. It also could have the effect of uniting Republicans around Jeff Sessions given the fact that this is such an extraordinary step taken by Senator Booker who, a lot of people think, might have presidential aspirations for 2020 or beyond. And they could paint what he is doing in purely partisan, political and personal, ambitious, in that kind of light.
But by the same token, I know Cory Booker, Senator Booker, feels very passionately about these issues and does feel deeply that Senator Sessions would be an inappropriate pick to be Attorney General.
BLITZER: And he'll testify tomorrow together with others who are opposed to the confirmation and others who support the confirmation. That will be a panel that will go throughout the day tomorrow. But today, the focus will be on sitting members of the Senate who will grill him on some of the most sensitive civil rights and other related issues.
TAPPER: And we've already heard from the Senate Democratic Leader, I believe in an interview with Dana Bash, talking about how much they might have a personal relationship and a friendship with Senator Sessions. But at the end of the day, that might not mean much when it comes to Senator Sessions' position on issued such as immigration.
[09:05:00] He is a hardliner. It is one of the reasons that he and Donald Trump are so united, was because of the immigration issue, sealing the border and not only reducing illegal immigration but also reducing the numbers of legal immigrants in this country.
And then also, there are the issues having to do with civil rights, with hate crimes, with same-sex marriage, those issues where Senator Sessions has been on the other side of where the Democratic minority is.
BLITZER: It's going to be very, very intense, I will say that. Just hours from now, President Obama will give his final speech as President of the United States, delivering his farewell address from his adopted home city of Chicago. CNN's Athena Jones is joining us now from the White House with a preview.
What are officials there saying about this important speech tonight, Athena?
ATHENA JONES, CNN REPORTER: Hi, Wolf. Well, it is an important speech and we know the President is still working on it. He has gone through at least four drafts with his chief speechwriter, and you guys know this, he often works up until the last minute on big speeches. And as you mentioned, this is his last speech as President in the city that launched his whole political career, so it's certainly an important speech.
We know he's getting help from some former staffers like his long-time friend and CNN contributor, David Axelrod. And we expect him to touch on some of kinds of themes that we first heard from him more than a decade ago, hope, optimism, the idea that there is more that unites us as Americans than that divides us.
We expect him to review his record, talk about what he sees as some of the successes of his presidency on things like health care and climate change and job growth and bringing troops home from foreign fields of war. And we also expect he's going to talk about his optimistic views for the future, what he believes the country needs to do to confront the challenges that lie ahead.
We're told by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest he is likely to think about things like fairness and justice, diversity as a strength, the idea that if you work hard, you should be able to succeed no matter who you are or what you look like. And those are the kinds of themes that we think could be seen as something of a rebuke to some of what we heard on the campaign trail, Wolf.
BLITZER: Athena Jones at the White House. We'll, of course, have live coverage of the President's farewell speech later tonight.
Jake, we got a great panel with us here today.
TAPPER: Allow me to introduce it to you, Wolf. We have with us CNN Political Analyst and "Washington Post" Reporter Abby Phillip, CNN's Chief National Correspondent John King, Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger, Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, Justice Correspondent Pamela Brown, and joining us from New York, Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
And, Dana, let me start with you because this is a rare moment in politics with Senator Sessions stepping to the plate again before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was in 1986 that he went right before this Committee to get a federal judgeship and was rejected. Now, he gets something of a do-over.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He gets a do-over. And having the benefit of sitting on this Committee for about 20 years, not the full 20 years but about 20 years, as a member of the Committee as a U.S. Senator, and at one-point leading the Committee for the Republicans.
So there is so many strange twists of fate in what we are going to see coming up here, but I think the most fascinating part of it, of course, is the fact that, traditionally as you were talking about, fellow Senators do give their colleagues, especially sitting Senators, a bit of deference. And that is not happening here.
Not only will Cory Booker -- and that's going to be tomorrow, but not only will Cory Booker testify against him. They went to the Senate historian to see whether or not this had happened before. So they sought out to see how big of a deal it was inside Booker's office, and they got the answer known. It has never happened before.
And then on the flip side, you mentioned that this is also uniting Republicans. Within an hour of Cory Booker making his announcement, Tim Scott, the only sitting Black Republican Senator came out and said, no, I'm going to support him with a very strong, very passionate statement, explaining why that he invited Jeff Sessions to his home state of South Carolina, had meetings with Black leaders there, talked about civil rights issues and criminal justice issues, and decided based on that and his own homework, he said, that he did on Sessions' past with regards to civil rights, that he is going to support him.
So there is a lot of emotion here within the people who are going to be deciding his fate, never mind what he's going to do as Attorney General.
TAPPER: And, Abby, what's the calculation going on in Senator Booker's office right now? I mean, is this a play for national prominence, to be a leader in the Democratic Party -- the fact that the Party is rather rudderless right now in terms of leaders -- or does this have more to do with just the issues that Cory Booker cares most deeply about where Senator Sessions is on the other side?
ABBY PHILLIP, REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think it's certainly a little bit of both. You know, Cory Booker is someone who has always kind of gone out and done his own thing. He's kind of kept his own prominent profile by doing things a little differently from his colleagues. But he is also someone who, I think, wants to be among the Democrats who are establishing the sort of, you know, moral line for the Party, like where do they stand on some of these issues of diversity and inclusion and race.
[09:10:20] This is a real debate happening within the Party right now. There are some Democrats who want to make some of those issues less prominent, less important, less front and center. And I think, by doing this, Cory Booker is basically saying, I don't think that's a good idea. I think we have to stand up for this particular set of issues. So it definitely puts him out there within his own party taking a particular road that some Democrats are not all united in saying that they want to do.
TAPPER: And, John, the NAACP actually went as far as to stage a sit- in protest in Senator Sessions' -- I believe it was his Mobile Congressional Office.
JOHN KING, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And so you're going to see now generally Democratic interest groups. The NCAAP would say it's not aligned with the Democrats, but it tends to be with the Democrats more on issues.
This is a defining moment. Most of all these hearings, beginning with Senator Sessions, are going to be about what will the Trump administration be like? And he has been inconsistent at times. He was a Democrat once.
So during the campaign, you come out of the campaign with a lot of questions. Will there really be mass deportations? Can he really get Mexico to pay for the wall? That will be for Senator Sessions. When we get to Homeland Security and General Kelly, what about the Muslim ban and the evolution of that? What now does the President-elect want to do?
But this is also not just the defining moment for the Trump administration, the new administration laying down the policy markers, but for the Democratic Party and interest groups that you would day are left of center, progressive interest groups, for not only what will they stand for and what will they for, as Abby says. There are some Democrats who say let's get back to blue-collar lunch bucket economic issues. That's why we lost Wisconsin. That's why we lost Michigan. And there are others who say, no, we need fight on these diversity issues and plant the flag.
Now, they will do both, but we're going to learn what the Democrats want to fight for and who? Who? President Obama is going to fade from the states. The Clintons are gone. And Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are the only two national leaders of the Democratic Party right now. They don't have many governors if you look across the country, in big states.
And so, who? Is it Cory Booker? Is it Amy Klobuchar? She's also on this Committee. She wants to ask Senator Sessions about his views on sex assaults and women's issues. This is a defining moment, first and foremost, for the new administration but also for the Democrats.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: They're going to try and make Senator Sessions effectively a proxy for Donald Trump, and they're going to say to him, OK, what would you do with the Muslim ban, for example? What are you exactly going to advice on this question of mass deportation? What are you going to do on the rest of the immigration policy?
Are you interested in water boarding? Where do you stand on water boarding? Where do you stand on a special prosecutor even for Hillary Clinton? So they are going to ask him to answer the questions that they could not get Donald Trump to answer very definitively during the campaign.
TAPPER: And, also, Pamela, we should point out they've been running murder boards, they've been running mock rehearsals for these confirmation hearings. I have to say, the last time I interviewed Senator Sessions, I kept pressing as to what Donald Trump's secret plan to go after ISIS was.
TAPPER: I think it had gotten under his skin a little bit. He hasn't done an interview with me since.
TAPPER: I suspect he is in a better position to not let people, at least publicly, get under his skin.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. And I think, you know, he's not taking anything for granted, given the failed judgeship back in 1986. And we're told that he has been preparing for weeks, working over the weekends, doing these mock trials, meeting with Senators, talking to Republicans and Democrats, ahead of the hearing today because they're expecting a lot of tough questions particularly from the Democrats about his civil rights record.
BROWN: And particularly, what he's going to do as the chief law enforcement officer to quell some of these growing tensions in communities between minority groups and between police officers. But I think you're going to hear him today say, look, he is all about law and order but he understands the plight of minorities just by looking at his opening remarks. And I think he's going to strike that balance today.
BLITZER: There's a lot we're waiting forward to see. The questions are going to be intense. Everyone stand by.
Moments from now, Senator Jeff Sessions, he will step up to the microphone for his confirmation hearing. It could get contention. We'll take it, of course, live for our viewers here in the United States and around the world. We'll also speak live with a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and ask why the Congressional Black Caucus is now opposing Sessions' confirmation.
And the controversial painting of a police in the middle of a bitter fight with Republicans. This is CNN's Special live coverage.
[09:17:54] TAPPER: We are just minutes away from Senator Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearing. He wants to become the next U.S. attorney general.
Sessions is expected to be one of the most contentious of any of Trump's nominees, Democrats are planning on interrogating him on a number of fronts, especially his record on race and civil liberties -- this is a concern for many of the Congressional Black Caucus, including New York Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries who joins me now live from Capitol Hill.
Congressman, thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.
As you know, the Trump transition team is very strongly making the argument that when he was a U.S. attorney, Jeff Sessions prosecuted and sought the death penalty successfully for a member of the Klan, that he supported the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. What are your concerns?
REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: Well, I think there are several. First of all, this is a very divided country. It was a very divisive election. Donald Trump in the aftermath promised to bring the country together and putting forth Jeff Sessions who is a very extreme, right wing conservative, who threatens perhaps to turn back the clock, to take the country backward on progress on civil rights is highly problematic.
His statements from 30 years ago trouble a great number of people, and many of us are more concerned about his record on issues today. He's someone who has not supported the reconstitution of the Voting Rights Act in the aftermath of it being decimated by the Supreme Court. He's consistently stood in the way of bipartisan efforts to fix the effort to make sure every American regardless of race or gender or ethnicity can participate in the democratic process.
Jeff Sessions is someone who continues to support the divisive symbol of the Confederate flag in the aftermath of what took place in Charleston with the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel Church, he stood by the notion of keeping the flag up.
He's someone who supports the failed war on drugs. This is a failed war that has led to America being the country that incarcerates more people than any other country in the WORLD.
[09:20:03] So, he stands by mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. On issue after issue, he is the wrong person to move the country forward, and that's why we are opposed to his nomination.
TAPPER: Congressman, the fact that Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey is testifying against Jeff Sessions, we believe this is the first time a sitting U.S. senator has ever testified against a fellow sitting U.S. senator, does that carry extra weight? Does that mean more than the opposition to Sessions by the NAACP and Congressman John Lewis? Or do you view it as just politics?
JEFFRIES: Well, it's certainly not politics. It's principle. And when you have a civil rights icon, for instance, like John Lewis who was going to testify in opposition to his nomination and certainly a colleague like Cory Booker who has a great bipartisan history in his short time in the Senate, it says that we are extremely concerned. People of principle with this nomination.
We understand that a president should have the prerogative of putting forth a cabinet nomination, and that cabinet nomination being given the benefit of the doubt. But we are in a particularly interesting situation and particularly interesting time, we're very divided on issues of the police and community relationship, there has been bipartisan work done to try and reform our criminal justice system.
Cory Booker has worked on that. Jeff Sessions has been in opposition. And so, I think Senator Booker has made the decision that the right thing to do is to stand in opposition to this nomination and I fully support him in that decision.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Congressman, what's wrong with the argument -- we heard it repeatedly over the last few days, give the senator a chance. He's been on the Senate Judiciary Committee for so long, let him testify, ask all the tough questions and hear what he has to say today and then make up your mind whether or not he's qualified to be attorney general of the United States? What do you say to that argument?
JEFFRIES: Well, it's interesting, the people making that argument, many of those refused to give Barack Obama a chance, many of them declared war on Barack Obama on day one, in the midst of two failed wars and the worst economy since the Great Recession, and as recently as last year, when the president, his constitutional prerogative, when there's a vacancy in the Supreme Court, nominated someone who was very qualified and they wouldn't give him a hearing.
And so, to lecture us on presidential etiquette as it relates to any nomination is outrageous, and we'll decide what is appropriate on behalf of the American people.
Now, that's not to say people are not closely evaluating his testimony over the next few days. People can change. But Jeff Sessions has a long record and history of standing in opposition to equality and progress and tolerance and that's highly problematic.
BLITZER: Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Congressman, thanks very much.
Jake, we're looking -- showing our pictures live pictures now of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Moments from now, the confirmation hearing for attorney general of the United States, the nominee, Jeff Sessions, will begin, and we'll, of course, have special live coverage here on CNN.
Let's take a quick break and when we come back, the gavel will come down.
[09:26:45] BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage.
You are looking at live pictures from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Any minute now, the Alabama senator, Jeff Sessions, will face his peers in the confirmation hearing to become the next attorney general will begin.
In a surprise move, one of Sessions' colleagues, Cory Booker of New Jersey will testify against him, It's the first time in the history of the United States Senate that a sitting senator will testify against another sitting senator for a cabinet post during a confirmation, and that will happen, Jake, tomorrow, when Cory Booker testifies against Senator Sessions. It's an extraordinary moment.
TAPPER: We will also be facing the testimony of Congressman John Lewis, a Democrat and civil rights icon from the great state of Georgia. Although you have in one way people like Cory Booker and John Lewis emboldening Democrats to oppose Jeff Sessions, and on another level you have the opposition of Cory Booker and the fact he is doing this unprecedented thing, is, I believe, bringing Republicans around Jeff Sessions saying this is all politics, and Cory Booker hasn't even heard what Jeff Sessions has to say.
BLITZER: It's pretty extraordinary.
Jeffrey Toobin, you studied the attorney general, the Justice Department, the U.S. legal system for a long time. Your analysis?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: This is a moment in civil rights history because Jeff Sessions symbolizes something to Democrats that goes back to the bad old days of Alabama.
And let me just tell you one story. The reason he was turned down for his federal judgeship in 1986 was because he prosecuted a man name Albert Turner for voter fraud. In 1965, Albert Turner led the march in Marion, Alabama, that led directly a few days later to the famous march from Montgomery to -- from Selma to Montgomery where John Lewis was beaten nearly to death on the bridge, so Jeff Sessions is a direct tie to the people that led the march in 1965.
The anger at sessions for prosecutor Albert Turner who later went on to lead the mule at Martin Luther King's funeral is part of why there's so much emotion in the civil rights community about Jeff Sessions because he represents a tie to what the civil rights community says were the bad old days.
TAPPER: If you look right now, you are looking at the images from the hearing you see, there are activist and protesters, and they are from Code Pink with signs and racism signs, "Stop Sessions", and there were a couple on the right side of your screen dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan, an example of the anger and passion.
Let me bring in former Congressman Jack Kingston who represents the Trump side of this. And, Congressman, Sessions, this morning, will be introduced by a moderate new England Republican, Susan Collins, of Maine.