Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Continuing Live Coverage of Sen. Jeff Sessions' Confirmation Hearing. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 10, 2017 - 14:00   ET

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


[14:00:06] SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Now, there may be circumstances when somehow, proof and other issues could justify that, but I just would say, as a principle, you've got to be careful about it.

Finally, colleagues, sentencing guidelines are within the breast of the Congress, they're mandated by law. I was concerned about what we're seeing as a -- beginning to see a rising crime, and the same time, a decline in sentences.

Sentences are down 19 percent already, as a based on (inaudible) and guidelines changes. So that's a matter of interest, and I felt we should slow down a bit before we go further...

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well if I might...

SESSIONS: ... and make sure we're not making a mistake, Senator Coons.

COONS: It is my hope that if you are confirmed, and we do make progress on bipartisan criminal justice reform, that as attorney general, you will carry out whatever legislative decisions might be made by this body.

But last, let me just say that in my six years here, in addition to not working with us on a number of bipartisan proposals on criminal justice reform, you've been one of the few senators to repeatedly and steadfastly vote against congressional attempts to prohibit torture in the military context or in the interrogation context and to repeatedly defend enhanced interrogation practices.

Are you clear now that our statutes prohibit torture and if the president were to attempt to override that clear legal authority, what actions would you take?

SESSIONS: On your previous question, I would note that federal prison population has already dropped 10 or more percent, and will drop another 10,000 this year. So what's happening now is reducing the federal population. This law only dealt with the federal prison population and that represents the most serious offenders. Our federal DEA and U.S. attorneys are prosecuting more serious cases.

With regard to the torture issues, I watched them for some time and have been concerned about what we should do about it. This bill that passed last time was a major step. I thought it was really not the right step. Senator Graham, I know has been an opponent of torture steadfastly and supported a lot of different things, opposed it.

It basically took what I was teaching, these -- the young soldiers at the Army Reserve Unit as a lecturer, as a teacher, the fet (ph) -- Army Field Manual, and it made that the law for the entire government, including the intelligence agencies and other departments. I thought that was an unwise step, to take something that directs even the lowest private to do, to make that the rule for higher ups.

COONS: Well, Senator...

SESSIONS: But (inaudible) the law, it is a law, and it needs to be enforced, absolutely.

COONS: As we both know, there was a bipartisan effort to review the -- our experience with enhanced interrogation...

SESSIONS: It was...

COONS: ... and concluded it was not effective.

SESSIONS: Yeah, it was, and of course Senator Graham and JAG officers -- I was for a little bit.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: (inaudible).

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Senator Sessions, congratulations on your nomination.

SESSIONS: Thank you.

CRUZ: You are a friend, you are a man of integrity. You and I have worked closely together on this committee, on the Armed Services Committee, and I have every confidence you are going to make a superb attorney general.

You know, this has been an interesting day at this hearing, listening to Democratic senator after Democratic senator give speeches in praise of the rule of law. And I am heartened by that, I am encouraged by that, because for eight years, it's been absent.

For eight years we've seen a Department of Justice consistently disregarding the rule of law. When Eric Holder's Department of Justice allowed illegal gun transactions, illegally sold guns to Mexican gun traffickers as part of Fast and Furious, guns that were later used to murder border patrol agent Brian Terry, the Democratic members of this committee were silent.

When Eric Holder was found in contempt of Congress, for refusing to cooperate with Congress' investigation into Fast and Furious, once again the Democratic members of this committee were silent. When the IRS illegally targeted United States citizens for exercising the First Amendment views, for exercising their roles in the political process, Democratic members of this committee were silent.

When the Department of Justice refused to fairly investigate the IRS targeting citizens and indeed assigned the investigation to a liberal partisan Democrat who had given over $6,000 to President Obama and Democrats, Democrats on this committee were silent.

[14:05:11]

When numerous members of this committee called on the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to ensure that justice was done in the IRS case, Democrats on this committee were silent. When the Justice Department began using Operation Choke Point to target law-abiding citizens that they disagreed with politically...

PROTESTER: (inaudible) you are racist. You have tried to (inaudible). You are -- you caused (inaudible) organization. Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.

PROTESTER: (inaudible) deportation.

PROTESTER: (inaudible) white nationalist. Black lives matter.

PROTESTER: (inaudible) do not protect the rights of African-Americans, Muslims, or immigrants. Senator, (inaudible). Senator, (inaudible). Senator, (inaudible).

CRUZ: You know, free speech is a wonderful thing.

When the Department of Justice used Operation Choke Point to target legal businesses because they disagreed politically with those businesses, the Democrats on this committee were silent.

When the Obama Justice Department sent millions of dollars of taxpayer money to sanctuary cities that were defying federal immigration law, the Democrats on this committee were silent. When the Obama administration refused to enforce federal immigration laws and unilaterally rewrote those laws, the Democrats on this committee were silent.

When the Obama administration released tens of thousands of criminal illegal aliens, including rapists and murderers, into the general population, Democrats on this committee were silent. When the Department of Justice signed off on the Obama administration paying a nearly $2 billion ransom to Iran contrary to federal law, the Democrats on this committee were silent.

When the Obama administration ignored and rewrote provision after provision of Obamacare, contrary to the text of the law, the Democrats on this committee were silent. When the Obama administration signed off on illegal recess appointments that the Supreme Court had to strike down unanimously, the Democrats on this committee were silent.

And when the Obama administration released five Guantanamo terrorists without the required notification of Congress, the Democrats on this committee were silent. That pattern has been dismaying for eight years, but I take today as a moment of celebration. If once again this committee has a bipartisan commitment to rule of law, to following the law, that is a wonderful thing, and it is consistent with the tradition of this committee going back centuries. Now, if we were to play a game of tit for tat, if what was good for the goose were good for the gander, then a Republican attorney general should be equally partisan, should disregard the law, should advance political preferences favored by the Republican party.

Senator Sessions, do you believe that would be appropriate for an attorney general to do?

SESSIONS: No, I do not. I believe you -- and I think we do have to be aware that when something like this is done, and some of the things I'm familiar with enough to agree with you, that I thought were improper, I do believe it has a corrosive effect on public confidence in the constitutional republic of which we are sworn to uphold.

CRUZ: I think you are exactly right. You and I are both alumni of the Department of Justice, and it has a long, bipartisan tradition of staying outside of partisan politics, of simply and fairly enforcing the law. I will say right now, if I believed that you would implement policies, even policies I agreed with, contrary to law, I would vote against your confirmation.

And the reason I am so enthusiastically supporting your confirmation, is I have every degree of confidence you will follow the law faithfully and honestly. And that is the first and most important obligation of the attorney general.

Now earlier in this hearing, Senator Franken, engaged you in a discussion that I think was intended to try to undermine your character and integrity. And in particular, Senator Franken suggested that you had somehow misrepresented your record.

It is unfortunate to see members of this body impune the integrity of a fellow senator with whom we have served for years.

[14:10:03]

It is particularly unfortunate when that attack is not backed up by the facts. Senator Franken based his attack primarily on an op-ed written by an attorney, Gerald Hebert.

There is an irony in relying on Mr. Hebert because, as you well know, in 1986, during your confirmation hearing, Mr. Hebert testified then and attacked you then, making false charges against you and, indeed, I would note in the 1986 hearing two days later, Mr. Hebert was forced to recant his testimony to say that he had given false testimony to this committee and, indeed, to say quote, "I apologize for any inconvenience caused Mr. Sessions or this committee by my prior testimony."

So, an individual who's testified falsely once before this committee, his op-ed is now the basis for Senator Franken's attack on you. And, indeed, the basis of Senator Franken's attack, is he claims you were uninvolved in several civil rights cases that were listed on your questionnaire. In 1986 Mr. Hebert testified -- this is a quote from him, "I have needed Mr. Session's help in those cases, and he had provided that help every step of the way." Is that correct that that's what Mr. Hebert testified?

SESSIONS: Yes, that's correct.

CRUZ: Now, in the four cases Senator Franken referred to, you reported all four of them in your supplement to the Judiciary Committee, is that right?

SESSIONS: That is correct.

CRUZ: Mr. Franken didn't mention that and let me point out here's how you described your involvement in your written submission to this -- to this committee.

Quote, "for the cases described in two, four, eight, and nine, my role, like most U.S. Attorneys in the nation and not with non-criminal civil rights cases, was to provide support for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division's attorneys."

"I reviewed, supported, and co-signed complaints, motions, and other pleadings and briefs that were filed during my tenure as U.S. Attorney. I provided assistance and guidance to the civil rights attorneys, had an open-door policy with them, and cooperated with them on these cases. For the cases described in six, I supervised litigation and signed the pleadings."

Now that is consistent with the 1986 testimony that you provided help every step of the way. Is that correct?

SESSIONS: Well, I think so, yes.

CRUZ: There's no question you've been forthright with this committee and I would note that members of this committee don't have to search far and wide to know who Jeff Sessions is. We've known every day sitting at this bench alongside you.

I want to shift to a different topic, and it's the topic I opened with, which is the politicization of the Department of Justice. The Office of Legal Counsel has a critical role of providing sound legal and constitutional advice, both to the attorney general and the president. And in the last eight years we have seen a highly- politicized OLC.

An OLC that has given politically convenient rulings, whether on recess appointments, whether on executive amnesty and early on perhaps that was started by 2009 Attorney General Holder overruling OLC concerning legislation trying to grant the District of Columbia representation in Congress. And it may well be that that sent a message to OLC that it's opinions were to be political and not legal in nature.

Tell me, Senator Sessions, what will you do as attorney general to restore professionalism and fidelity to law to the Office of Legal Counsel?

SESSIONS: Senator Cruz, I think any short-term political agenda gains that come from the abuse of the -- the law-making processes and requirements of the Department of Justice just don't make sense.

It will always in the long run be more damaging than the short-term gain that one might have. The Office of Legal Counsel, all of us who've served in the Department know, is a big-time position. You need a mature, smart, experienced person who understands this government, who understands the laws and is principled and consistent in their application of the laws.

That will help the president, it will help the Congress and it will help the American people. I do believe we need to work hard to have that and I will do my best to ensure we do have it.

CRUZ: One final question. In the last eight years, the Department of Justice's Solicitor General's Office has also, I believe, been unfortunately politicized and it sustained an unprecedented number of unanimous losses before the United States Supreme Court.

Indeed, President Obama's Justice Department won less than half of its total cases before the Supreme Court which is the lowest presidential win rate since Harry Truman. And the average historically for the last 50 years has been about 70 percent.

Numerous of those cases were unanimous with indeed both Obama Supreme Court appointees voting against the lawless positions of this Justice Department, including their assertion that the government has the authority to supervise and direct the appointment and the hiring and firing of clergy in the church.

[14:15:13]

What will you do as attorney general to ensure the integrity of the Office of Solicitor General? That it is faithful to the law and not advancing extreme political positions like the Obama Justice Department did that have been rejected over and over again by the Supreme Court?

SESSIONS: I think the problem there is a desire to achieve a result. Sometimes it overrides a commitment to the law. In the long run, this country will be stronger if we adhere to the law, even though somebody might be frustrated in the short term of not achieving an agenda.

The Solicitor General should not advocate to alter the meaning of words to advance an agenda. That is an abuse of office and I would try to seek to have a Solicitor General who is faithful to the Constitution, serves under the Constitution, does not feel that it has the power to rise above it and make it say what it wants it to say.

CRUZ: Thank you, Senator Sessions.

GRASSLEY: Mr. Blumental goes.

I think we have votes still scheduled for 2:45. It's my idea that we would continue this going. Like I'll go with the end of the first vote and then vote and come back. And I hope other people will preside and keep asking questions while the two votes are going on, so we can finish at a reasonable time today. (UNKNOWN): (inaudible) about Session voting.

GRASSLEY: What?

(UNKNOWN): He's not voting.

GRASSLEY: OK. Well, that's right, I -- did we get a decision? You're -- you can stay here during that voting time.

Senator Blumenthal.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Thanks, Mr. Chairman and thank you for conducting this hearing in such a fair-minded and deliberate way. And I want to join you in thanking Senator Sessions for his public service over so many years and his family who have shared in the sacrifices that you have made. So, I am sure that my colleagues and I appreciate your service and your friendship.

This experience for us is a difficult one, not only because you're a colleague, but I consider you to be a friend and someone who is well- liked and respected in this body, understandably. And I know, if you were sitting here, you'd be pretty tough on me, maybe tougher than I'm going to be on you. But it's not personal, as you understand, because we have an obligation to advise and consent to ask those kinds of tough questions.

And you and I have shared some experiences. Both of us have been United States attorneys and attorneys general of our state and I want to thank you as well for thanking our law enforcement community, which is so important to this nation. And it makes sacrifices and those sacrifices often are not only in time and foregone income, but also in lives and I join you in respecting the law enforcement officers who were victims most recently of gun violence.

I want to begin just by asking you a question which I asked in a letter. Will you recuse yourself from voting on your own nomination and the nominations of other cabinet secretaries?

SESSIONS: I do not have plans on to vote on my nomination. I have not thoroughly examined all the issues, but I think there could be a conflict of interest or a violation of ethics rules and I would comply with the rules.

BLUMENTHAL: I believe it would be a conflict of interest for you to vote on other cabinet secretaries as they are nominated by the president, who is also your boss and I think that I hope you will consider recusing yourself from those votes as well because I think it will set a tone for what you will do in cases of conflicts of interest.

And I want to talk a little bit about conflicts of interest because I think that the Attorney General of the United States has a unique and special role, especially at this point in our history. He should be a champion, a zealous advocate of rights and liberties that are increasingly under threat in this country. And he's not just another government lawyer or another cabinet secretary. He is the nation's lawyer. And so any appearance of conflict of interest or compromising positions because of political involvement, I think, is a real danger to the rule of law and respect and credibility of the rule of law.

[14:20:10]

So I would hope that you would consider appointing special counsel in cases where there may be a conflict of interest involving the president, and one of those cases involves Deutsche Bank. The president of the United States owes the Deutsche Bank several hundreds of millions of dollars, it's currently under ongoing investigation.

Will you appoint a independent counsel to continue the investigation of Deutsche Bank?

SESSIONS: Well, Senator Blumenthal, I have not -- I'm not aware of that case, I'm not in any way -- have no researched it or even read some of the public's articles about it. So I'm totally uninformed about the merits or lack of it of the case. I don't know that the president is implicated simply because he's borrowed (ph) from a bank.

But I would say that as Senator Lee, I think, raised in his questioning, you just want -- you don't want to be in a position where every time an issue comes up, the attorney general recuses himself. But at the same time, serious questions, when they arise, the attorney general should refuse himself under appropriate circumstances and I guess that goes with -- or the appointment of a special counsel, which is a somewhat different issue.

BLUMENTHAL: Would you...

SESSIONS: There have been a lot of criticisms of that, but I think it's a useful tool in the appropriate circumstances.

BLUMENTHAL: Would you agree with me that the emoluments clause applies to the president of the United States?

SESSIONS: Well, the emoluments clause applies, I guess the dispute is and the discussion is is -- and to what extent does it apply and how does it apply in concrete situations, which I have not studied.

BLUMENTHAL: If there's evidence that the president of the United States has violated or may be violating the emoluments clause, will you appoint a special counsel?

SESSIONS: We would have to examine that. I would not commit to this day -- at this time appointing a special counsel when I'm not aware of a precise factual situation that would be in play.

BLUMENTHAL: If there is a violation by the president's family of the STOCK Act, which prohibits the use of private or insider information for personal gain, will you apply special counsel?

SESSIONS: Well, we'll have to evaluate that if such a (ph) circumstance occurs and I would do my duty as I -- as I believe I should do it at the time.

BLUMENTHAL: I would suggest that in those cases, an independent counsel is not only advisable, but required to avoid a conflict of interest and I would hope that you would be sensitive to those concerns.

SESSIONS: Well, there are reasonable arguments to be made for that. I suggested that Attorney General Lynch should appoint a special counsel in the Clinton matter. I don't know whether you supported that or not.

BLUMENTHAL: One reason I'm asking the question is that you have advocated a special counsel in other instances where in fact the argument for it was weaker than it would be in these cases and I think it would be appropriate.

SESSIONS: Well, I will suggest that during a campaign, sometimes we get excited, but as attorney general, you have to follow the law, you have to be consistent and you have to be honorable in your decision making. And I respect the question you're raising.

BLUMENTHAL: Let me ask you about another group. I welcome your condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan. You may be familiar with a group called Operation Rescue, and Operation Rescue endorsed you. In fact, Troy Newman, the head of Operation Rescue, said, quote, "We could not be happier about the selection of Senator Jeff Sessions as the next Attorney General."

Operation Rescue has in fact advocated, quote, "execution," end quote, of abortion providers. And as an example of its work, this poster was circulated widely in the 1990s and early 2000s about a Dr. George Tiller who subsequently was murdered. After his murder, Operation Rescue said that his alleged murderer should be treated as a political prisoner. Dr. Tiller was murdered in 2009 and I'm sure you're familiar with is case.

[14:25:03]

Will you disavow their endorsement of you?

SESSIONS: I disavow any activity like that, absolutely and a group that would even suggest that is unacceptable and I will enforce the laws that make clear that a person who wants to receive a lawful abortion cannot be blocked by protesters and disruption of a doctor's practice.

I might not favor of that. I am pro life as you know, but we've settled on some laws that are clearly effective and as attorney general you can be sure we would follow them.

BLUMENTHAL: You would use the FACE statute, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act to empower and mobilize the FBI, the Federal Marshal service or the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to protect clinics if there were harassment or intimidation.

SESSIONS: I would use the appropriate federal agencies and I do believe it is in violation of the law to excessively or improperly hinder even the access to an abortion clinic.

BLUMENTHAL: Will you rigorously enforce statues that prohibit purchase of guns by felons or domestic abusers or drug addicts and use the statues that exist right now on the books to ban those individuals from purchasing guns?

SESSIONS: Well, Congress has passed those laws, they remain the bread and butter enforcement mechanisms throughout our country today to enforce guns laws. The first and foremost goal I think of law enforcement would be to identify persons who are dangerous, who have a tendency or have been proven to be law breakers an been convicted and those who are caught carrying guns during the commission of a crime.

Both of those require mandatory sentences as United States attorney in Alabama it was a high priority of mine. I calculated a number of years, we were one of the top, even though a small office, on a percentage basis, we were one of the top prosecutors of those cases. I think it saves lives Senator Blumenthal. I (inaudible) as a matter -- my judgment at least is experience tells me it can help make -- create a more peaceful community.

BLUMENTHAL: Will you support laws necessary to effectively apply those laws including universal back ground checks that are necessary to know whether the purchaser is a felon or a drug addict or a domestic abuser?

SESSIONS: Well, I believe in background check laws and many of them are appropriate. But, in every instance -- there's some instances when it's not practical let's say. For example somebody inherited a gun from their grandfather. Those transactions I'm not sure should require that kind of universal background check.

GRASSLEY: (OFF-MIKE) member of this committee.

Senator Crapo, welcome to the committee and you may proceed.

SEN. MIKE CRAPO (R), IDAHO: Thank you Mr. Chairman and I too want to thank you for the way you are handling this hearing and appreciate your service here in the committee.

And, Senator Sessions I also want to join those who have congratulated you on your nomination to be the attorney general of the United States.

I am one of those who has had the opportunity to work with you for years and know you very well. I consider you well qualified and look forward to your service as the Attorney General of the United States, if you are confirmed and I expect you will be. I know you to be a man of your word. I know that you're committed to the Constitution of the United States of America and you are committed to enforcing the law of this country as you have said multiple times here in this committee. So, I thank you for that.

I want to go on my question into just a couple of other areas. Beyond just the notion of the enforcement of the law, but the manner in which the Department of Justice enforces the law, three basic carries (ph). One the abuse of the power or discriminatory enforcement of the law. Two the regulatory over reach that we're seeing across this country and what role the Department of Justice plays in trying to deal with that. And, then finally the cooperation of the states.

We live in a Union of 50 states and under our Constitution there are appropriate rules for the federal government and the states and the Department of Justice has a very powerful influence on that. So if I could get into those three areas.

The first one, I'm just going to use as an example of the kind of abusive use of power that I hope you will help stop and prevent from continuing to happen.

[14:30:03]

It was already -- this example is one that was already referenced by Senator Cruz, Operation Choke Point.