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CNN NEWSROOM

Continuing Live Coverage of Sen. Jeff Sessions' Confirmation Hearing. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired January 10, 2017 - 10:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:30:00] SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: Senator Graham, congratulations on your football victory last night.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We'll talk (ph) about that later.

(LAUGHTER)

SESSIONS: I want to assure all of my colleagues that I have given your concerns earnest reflection and will bear them in mind. As I move forward, I will sincerely endeavor to keep these lines of communications open and hope that we can continue our collegiality and friendships.

In that regard, if I'm to be -- if I'm confirmed, I commit to all of you that the Department of Justice will be responsive, Mr. Chairman, to Congress and will work with you on your priorities, all of you, and provide you with guidance and views where appropriate. The department will respect your constitutional duties, your oversight role and the particularly critically important separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Let me address another issue straight on. I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African-Americans by presenting the Perry County case, the voter fraud case, and of condemning civil rights advocates and organizations and even harboring, amazingly, sympathies for the KKK.

These (inaudible) false charges. The voter fraud case my office prosecuted was in response to pleas from African-American incumbent elected officials who claimed that the absentee ballot process involved a situation in which ballots cast for them were stolen, altered and cast for their opponents. The prosecution sought to protect the integrity of the ballot, not to block voting. It was a voting rights case.

As to the KKK, I invited civil rights attorneys from Washington, D.C. to help us solve a very difficult investigation into the unconscionable, horrendous death of a young African-American coming home from the 7-Eleven store at night simply because he was black. His -- Michael O'Donnell -- and actively backed the attorneys throughout the case and they broke that case.

That effort led to a guilty plea and a life sentence in court for one defendant and his testimony against this other defendant. There was no federal death penalty at the time. I felt the death penalty was appropriate in this case and I pushed to have it tried in state court, which was done. That defendant was indeed convicted and sentenced to death.

And 10 years later, ironically, as Alabama's attorney general, my staff participated in the defense of that verdict and sentence, and a few months after, I became a United States senator and that murdering klansman was indeed executed.

I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology. I insisted Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and his lawsuit that led to the successful collapse of the Klan at least in Alabama, the seizure of their building, at least for that period of time.

As civil rights division attorneys have testified before the committee, I supported fully their historic cases that the Justice Department filed to advance civil rights and that I supported, including cases to desegregate schools, abolish at-large elections for cities, county commissions and school boards.

These at-large elections were a mechanism used to block African- American candidates from being able to be elected to boards and commissions. It was deliberate and part of a systemic plan to reduce the ability of African-Americans to have influence in the election and governing process.

I never declared the NAACP was un-American or that a civil rights attorney was a disgrace to his race. There is nothing I am more proud of than my 14 years of service in the Department of Justice. I love and venerate that great institution. I hold dear its highest ideals. As God gives me the ability, I will work every day to be worthy of the demands of this august office.

You can be absolutely sure that I understand the immense responsibility I would have. I am not naive. I know the threat that our rising crime and addiction rates pose to the health and safety of our country. I know the threat of terrorism. I deeply understand the history of civil rights in our country and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters. I have witnessed it.

[10:35:00]

SESSIONS: We must continue to move forward and never back. I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community. I will ensure that the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are fully enforced.

I understand the lifelong scars worn by women who are victims of assault and abuse. And if I am so fortunate to be confirmed as your attorney general, you can know that I understand the absolute necessity, that all my actions must fall within the bounds of the Constitution and the laws of the United States. While all humans must recognize the limits of their abilities, and I certainly do, I am ready for this job. We will do it right. Your input will be valued. Local law enforcement will be our partners. Many friends in federal government that I've had in law enforcement will be respected.

I've always loved the law. It is the very foundation of this country. It is the exceptional foundation of America. I have an abiding commitment to pursuing and achieving justice and a record of doing that. And if confirmed, I will give all my efforts to this goal. I only ask that you do your duty as God gives you the ability to see that duty as your charge by the Constitution.

Thank you for your courtesies. I look forward to -- to further hearing.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.

GRASSLEY: Before I ask questions, I want to thank you Senator Sessions for your service in the Senate, but more importantly taking on this responsibility you've been nominated for, and to thank you for your opening statement.

I'm glad that you were able to mention the names of a lot of your family that are with you and there's a lot of other people that we may not have their name. And I would ask the staff to put in the record the names of all the other people who are accompanying you today as well, if they're willing to give us that name. And, it's -- it's a proud day for you, your wife, son and daughters and their families. I welcome all of you very much. Now to the questioning.

The attorney general, I'll take 10 minutes, then Senator Feinstein will go back and forth as we usually do. The attorney general of the United States is, of course, the nation's chief law enforcement officer. He or she is not the president's lawyer nor is he the president's wingman, as attorney general Holder described himself.

Rather, he or she has an independent obligation to the Constitution and to the American people. Now I know you care deeply about this foundational principle. So I'm going to ask you a question. I've heard you ask other nominees for attorney general.

Occasionally, you'll be called upon to offer an opinion to the president, who appointed you. You'll have to tell him, yes or no. And sometimes presidents don't like to be told no. So I'd like to know, would you be able to stand up and say no to the president of the United States, if in your judgment the law and your duty demands it? And the reason I ask that, is because I know you work very hard for the president-elect.

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I understand the importance of your question. I understand the responsibility of the attorney general, and I will do so. You simply have to help the president do things that he might desire in a lawful way and have to be able to say no, both for the country, for the legal system and for the president, to avoid situations that are not acceptable. I understand that duty. I've observed it through my years here and I will fulfill that responsibility.

GRASSLEY: Say just so my colleagues don't think I'm taking advantage of time, somebody didn't start the clock. Oh you got -- OK. It is the light isn't working. I'm sorry. I can read it now. So, I heard what you said, but just to emphasize, let me follow up.

Well, if you disagree with the president's chosen course of action, and you told him so and he intends to pursue that course of action anyway. What are your options at that point?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I think an attorney general should first, work with the President. Hopefully that attorney general would have the confidence of the president and avoid a situation that would be unacceptable.

[10:40:06]

I do believe that if an attorney general is asked to do something that's plainly unlawful, he cannot participate in that --- he or she -- and that person would have to resign ultimately before agreeing to execute a policy that the attorney general believes would be an unlawful or unconstitutional.

GRASSLEY: You sir...

SESSIONS: I would say Mr. Chairman, if there are areas that are brightly clear and right, there are areas that may be gray and there are areas that are unacceptable, and a good attorney general needs to know where those lines are to help the president where possible and to resist improper, unacceptable actions.

GRASSLEY: OK. You served in this department for 14 or 15 years. You served as your state's attorney general. And of course, you've served on this committee for a long time. And we have oversight over the department that you might head, and you've done that all for 20 years.

I've had my share of disagreements with the department's leadership over the last few years. Some of those were purely policy disagreements, but some issues were especially troubling to me in that department -- in that the department failed to perform fundamental functions to enforce the law.

As attorney general, day in and day out, you'll be faced with difficult and sometimes thorny legal problems. What will your approach be to ensuring that the department enforces the law? And more broadly, what is your vision for the department?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, the ultimate responsibility of the attorney general and the Department of Justice is to execute the laws passed by this Congress and to follow the Constitution in that process and carry its principles out. So you can be sure I understand that. We may have had disagreements here about whether a law should be empassed -- should be passed, but once passed I will do my dead level best to ensure its properly and fairly -- excuse me -- enforced.

I do believe that we have a crime problem. I won't perhaps in time now, unless you want me to, to describe what we can do to address that and there are other challenges this country faces. I would be pleased to recognize the influence of the legislative branch and to welcome the insights that you might have.

GRASSLEY: Since that's a very important issue with me and I suppose every colleague here, let me emphasize by saying, is it fair to say then, that regardless of what your position may have been as a legislator, your approach as attorney general will be to enforce the law, regardless of policy differences.

SESSIONS: Absolutely Mr. Chairman. That's a -- I don't think I have any hesitation, or any lack of the inability to separate the roles that I have had, to go from the executive -- legislative branch to the executive branch is a transfer of, not only position, but of the way you approach issues. I would be an executive function, an enforcement function of the laws this great legislative body might pass.

GRASSLEY: During the course of the presidential campaign, you made a number of statements about the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, relating to her handling of sensitive e-mails and regarding certain actions of the Clinton Foundation. You weren't alone in that criticism.

I was certainly critical in the same way as were millions of Americans on those matters, but now, you've been nominated to serve as attorney general. In light of those comments that you made, some have expressed concerns about whether you can approach the Clinton matter impartially in both fact and appearance. How do you plan to address those concerns?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, it was a highly contentious campaign. I, like a lot of people, made comments about the issues in that campaign. With regard to Secretary Clinton and some of the comments I made, I do believe that that could place me objectivity in question. I've given that thought.

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 and that were raised during the campaign or to be otherwise connected to it.

[10:45:00]

GRASSLEY: OK. I think, that's -- let me emphasize then with a follow up question. To be very clear, you intend to recuse yourself from both the Clinton e-mail investigation and any matters involving the Clinton Foundation, if there are any?

SESSIONS: Yes.

GRASSLEY: Let me follow up again, because it's important. When you say you'll recuse, you mean that you'll actually recuse and the decision will therefore fall to, I assume, a deputy attorney general? I ask because after Attorney General Lynch met with President Clinton in Phoenix, she said she would, quote/unquote, "defer to the FBI," but she never officially recused. SESSIONS: No, she did not officially recuse. And there is a procedure for that, which I would follow. And I believe that would be the best approach for the country because we can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute. That's not in any way that would suggest anything other than absolute objectivity. This country does not punish its political enemies, but this country ensures that no one is above the law.

GRASSLEY: You touched on something that's very dear to me, and that's working with -- having executive branch people work with members of Congress. And you also mentioned working with us on oversight. But since that's very important to me, let me say that the executive branch has always been one of my top priorities regardless of who occupies the White House. I've often said I'm an equal opportunity overseer.

Now, over the years I've asked quite a few executive nominees, both Republican and Democrat, to make commitments to respond to oversight. You said you would, but in my experience, nominees are usually pretty receptive to oversight requests during these type of hearings, but after they've been confirmed, oversight doesn't seem to be a high priority for them.

As I told you when we met privately in my office, sometimes I think nominees should go ahead and be a little more straightforward during their hearings. And instead of saying yes to everything we ask about oversight, it would be more honest to say maybe when asked if they would respond to our questions.

Now, because you've served on this committee, and understand the importance of oversight, I'm hoping you'll be different than your predecessors in response to oversight questions. And so, I have with me that I'll give to one of your staff a whole bunch of letters that haven't been answered yes. One of them even you signed with me to the Department of Justice.

And I hope that you would go to great lengths to see that these get answered so the next May or June, if I'm contacting you that they haven't been answered, then, you know, the Trump administration might be blamed for it. And these are all a result of not getting answers from the last administration.

So I hope you'll help me get answers to these, at least the one you helped me write.

(LAUGHTER)

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, you are correct that this committee has oversight, but it goes beyond that. This committee and the Congress funds the various branches of the executive branch, the various departments. And you have every right before you fund our agencies and departments to get responsive answers to questions that are proper.

Sometimes the department -- the Congress has asked for issues that maybe there's legitimate reason to object to, but they should object and state why. Mr. Chairman, I will be responsive to your request, and I understand your history perhaps more than anyone in this Congress to advance the idea that the executive branch needs to be held accountable, and I salute you for it.

GRASSLEY: And if Senator Feinstein contacts you, don't use this excuse, as so many people use it, if you aren't chairman of a committee, you don't have to answer the question. I want her questions answered just like you'd answer mine.

SESSIONS: I understand that.

GRASSLEY: Senator Feinstein?

FEINSTEIN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

That was above and beyond the call. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

FEINSTEIN: I would like to begin with a -- it's the second-largest criminal industry in this country, which is now, believe it or not, by revenues produced, human sex trafficking. And trafficking victims are among the most vulnerable in our society. The average age is 12 to 14. They are beaten, raped, abused; at times, handcuffed at night so they can't escape, and often moved from place to place, forced to have sex with multiple men each night.

[10:50:12]

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act signed into law in 2015, created a domestic trafficking victims fund for victim services to be administered by the Department of Justice. Part of that fund contains up to 30 million for health care or medical items or services to trafficking victims. These funds are subject to the Hyde Amendment, which says no appropriate -- appropriated funding can be used to pay for abortion, however, the Hyde Amendment does not apply in cases of rape.

On the Senate floor, Senator Cornyn discussed the Hyde language and said, and I quote "everyone knows the Hyde Amendment language contains an exception for rape and health of the mother, so under this act, these limitations on spending wouldn't have anything to do with the services available to help those victims of human trafficking.

In short, Senator Cornyn asserted that had the Hyde Amendment, which contains an exception for rape, would not affect the availability of services for these victims. The domestic trafficking victims fund will be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice.

Here's the question. Will you ensure that these grant funds are not denied to service providers who will assist victims of human trafficking in obtaining comprehensive services they need, including abortion if that is what is required for a young girl impregnated during this horrific abuse? SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, I appreciate that question, and I do appreciate the fact our country has been talking and I believe taking action for a number of years to deal with sex trafficking more effectively. I don't know that we've reached a level of actual effectiveness we need to, but Congress and you and other have been very, very out spoken about this and there are all kinds of citizens groups that are focused on it. So it's a very important issue.

I was not aware of how the language for this grant program has been established. I do appreciate your concerns on it. It's a matter that I have not thought through, but ultimately, it's a matter for this United States Congress, not so much a matter for the attorney general. We need to put our money out to assist in this activity according to the rules established by the Congress.

FEINSTEIN: Well I'm delighted that Senator Cornyn is here. I quoted him directly from the floor, that the Hyde Amendment would not prevent the distribution of these funds and so I hope you would agree to that and that's certainly most important to me, because Congress has spoken and the bill is law.

SESSIONS: I understand that and we would follow the law.

FEINSTEIN: OK. As you know, the Constitution also protects a woman's right to access to health care and determine whether to terminate her pregnancy, in consultation with her family and her doctor. I'm old enough to remember what it was like before, when I was a student at Stanford and there after. And the early 1960s, I actually sentenced women in California convicted of felony abortion to state prison for a maximum sentence of up to 10 years and they still went back to it because the need was so great. So was the morbidity and so was the mortality.

This right passed now by the Constitution, as recognized in Roe, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and the Supreme Court's recent decision, in whole women's health, and (inaudible). In fact, the court recently struck down honors regulations imposed by Texas on women's health clinics. You have referred to Roe v. Wade as, quote "one of the worst closely erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time," end quote.

Is that still your view?

SESSIONS: It is. I believe it's a -- it violated the Constitution and really attempted to set policy and not follow law. It is the law of the land. It is been so established and settled for a long time and it deserves respect and I would respect it and follow it.

FEINSTEIN: On November 14th, 2016, appearing on the TV show "60 Minutes," the president-elect said that the issue of same-sex was, quote "already settled. It's law.

[10:55:08]

It was settled in the Supreme Court, it's done, and I'm fine with that."

Do you agree that the issue of same sex marriage is settled law?

SESSIONS: The Supreme Court has ruled on that, the dissents dissented vigorously, but it was five to four and five justices on the Supreme Court, the majority of the court, has established the definition of marriage for the entire United States of America and I will follow that decision.

FEINSTEIN: Here's another question. If you believe same sex marriage is settle law but a women's right to choose is not, what is the difference?

SESSIONS: Well, I haven't said that the woman's right to choose or the -- Roe v. Wade and its progeny is not the law of the land or not clear today. So I would follow that law.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you.

I would like to ask one question based on the letter that we received from 1,400 law professors. They're from 49 states, only Alaska's left out. I inquired why and they said because Alaska doesn't have a law school. So it's a pretty comprehensive list representing law professors in every state that has a law school.

What they said, and this is what I want you to respond to, "Nothing in Senator Sessions public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a Federal District Court Judge," excuse me, "All of us believe it's unacceptable for someone with Senator Sessions' record to lead the Department of Justice."

So I want your response to this and answer to the question, how do intend to put behind you what are strongly felt personal views, take off the political hat and be an attorney general who fairly enforces the law and the Constitution for all?

SESSIONS: Well, Senator Feinstein, I would direct their attention to first the remarks of Senator Spector, who in his entire career said he made one vote that he would regret and that was the vote against me. He indicated he thought I was an egalitarian, a person who treated people equally and respected people equally.

This caricature of me in 1986 was not correct. I had become United States attorney. I supported, as the civil rights attorney said, major civil rights cases in my district that integrated schools, that prosecuted the Klan, that ended single-member districts that denied African-Americans the right to hold office.

I did everything I was required to do. And the complaints about the voter fraud case and the complaints about the Klan case that I vigorously prosecuted and supported are false. And I do hope this hearing today will show that I conducted myself honorably and properly at that time and that I am the same person, perhaps wiser and maybe a little better, I hope so, today than I was then.

But I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that were -- I was accused of. I did not. FEINSTEIN: Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

GRASSLEY: OK.

Senator Hatch and then Senator Leahy.

HATCH: Well, thank you Mr. Chairman...

GRASSLEY: Before your time starts...

HATCH: Yeah, sure.

GRASSLEY: ... I'd like to mention that the committee received a letter in support of Senator Sessions' nomination from Attorneys General Ashcroft, Barr, Gonzales, Meese and Mukasey, as well as a number of former deputy attorney generals.

They wrote in part as follows a sentence from that letter. "Based on our collective and extensive experience, we also know him to a person of unwavering dedication to the mission of the department to assure that our country is governed by a fair and even-handed rule of law."

I ask consent to put that letter in the record.

Senator Hatch.

HATCH: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman. I first want to thank you for your fair approach to this, our first hearing of the 115th Congress. You've scheduled and you've structured this hearing in time -- in line with this committee's precedents. In fact, you're including more witnesses in this hearing than the past average for attorney general nominees.

Senator Sessions has provided this committee with more than 150,000 pages of material relevant to his nomination.

[11:00:05]

That is 100 times what Attorney General Lynch (INAUDIBLE) and almost 30 times what Attorney General Holder provided.