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Report: Sessions Testifies Before Senate Judiciary Committee; Sessions Says Would Recuse Self Per Clinton Probe

Aired January 10, 2017 - 15:30   ET

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


[15:30:00] ORRIN HATCH, SENATOR, UTAH: I've watched you work diligently on the judiciary committee and on your other committees as well. You're an honest, decent man and you have tremendous abilities in law enforcement and you are proving it here today and showing it here today. It's hard for me to understand why anybody would be against you. I want to emphasize that you have wide support for your appointment among law enforcement including the National Sheriff's Association, National District Attorneys Association, the National Association of Police Organizations, National Organization of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, National Narcotic Officers' Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officer Association, the International Union of Police Associations and the associations of major county sheriffs and major city chiefs of police.

I'm not sure I've seen anybody that had all that kind of massive support for this position. Now I draw attention to this for an important reason. This disagreement about political or policy positions are one thing. But, accusations about your commitment to fairness or suggestions that you're not sensitive to race is another. Would these law enforcement organizations enthusiastically support someone who is biased? Of course, not. Would they endorse someone who fail to be impartial? Of course, not.

Such accusations, especially, without any evidence to support them whatsoever are not simply attacks on Senator Sessions they are also smears against organizations like these which have similarly examined the record and found Senator Sessions worthy of support so I'm grateful to you and for your willingness to take this on. Knowing that you might be smeared by certain organizations. It takes some guts to do this, but we all know you have guts. We all know that you believe in what you are doing. We all know that you have a tremendous integrity. We all know that you have tremendous intellectual ability as well.

And even though you and I have disagreed on issues that are important to both of us, you have always acted with distinction and fairness and decency and I would expect you to do the same thing as attorney general of the United States. One thing I know, you would be giving it's everything you have and that's a lot. You have a lot to give. Let me just say this morning one of my Democratic colleagues said that the standard for evaluating your nomination is whether you will "enforce the law fairly, evenly, without personal bias" do you agree that the attorney general has a duty to do that?

JEFF SESSIONS, SENATOR, ALABAMA: As a core responsibility of attorney general absolutely.

HATCH: I have no doubt you will live up to that. No doubt whatsoever. I think everybody should have to agree with that. The real question is how we can be confident that you will fulfill that responsibility and most of the comments this morning were about comments you made, positions you took or cast as senator on legislative issues and some of these questions suggested that you could not enforce a law that you had not voted for or you would not enforce a law or policy that you might have questioned or personally disagreed with. I personally categorically reject that and you have too, is that correct?

SESSIONS: That is correct.

HATCH: You're right it is. Some of my friends would also reject the suggestion that a liberal could not be impartial. I think liberals can be impartial.

SESSIONS: I do too, Senator Hatch. And some people -- I don't think it would be hard for me to be impartial and to enforce laws that I didn't vote for. I just don't think that's going to be -- I think I can separate my personal votes of maybe years ago, from what my responsibility is today and I hope that my colleagues can believe that.

[15:35:00] HATCH: Well the answer to the question whether you can as attorney general enforce the laws fairly, evenly and without personal bias it's a resounding yes, you can and anybody who disagrees with that hasn't been listening, observed you over the last twenty years or any time over the last 20 years, there's not a shred of evidence of your entire record to undermine that conclusion. The fact that you have already served in both the executive and legislative branches strengthen even further your commitment to the duty of fairness and impartiality. Seems to me it does. Am I right?

SESSIONS: Well, thank you, yes. I do believe I've conducted myself according to principles that I think are valid and try to be consistent and honest in my evaluation of the many complex issues that we have here. Sometimes good people can certainly disagree on them.

HATCH: Anybody should know that's true. Now the justice department has a duty to defend in court the laws enacted by Congress. As a member of this committee for 20 years you had heard attorney general nominees profess their commitment to fulfill that duty regardless of politics, in my opinion the justice department under the outgoing administration reneged and made decisions rather than legal grounds. How important is it to commit to legal statutes even as a legislature you would oppose those?

SESSIONS: Senator Hatch, you have been through many of these issues and I certainly do respect your judgment but I do believe that the lawyer for the Congress, the lawyer for the United States that represents the United States government in court should be the lawyer that defends an act lawfully passed in Congress wherever it's reasonable argument can be made and I commit to you I will do that. HATCH: I believe you and I know that's true. And I have a rough time

seeing why anybody would find any real flaws or fault with your nomination. I just want to personally thank you for being willing to go through this, were your willingness to be able to do this and for your integrity that you have shown and exhibited and demonstrated over the last 20 years. I can personally testify about you and about what a fine really good person you are. And we've differed on some pretty important issues from time to time. I have respect for you because you stand up for what you believe however wrong you may have been.

SESSIONS: I heard my wife laugh.

HATCH: Well, I have a lot of respect for you and I hope that the rest of this proceeding goes really well and that we can get you confirmed as soon as possible because I know you will do a terrific job and I'm very proud of you for being willing to do this.

SESSIONS: I'm honored to have your support.

HATCH: You have it.

CHUCK GRASSLEY, SENATOR, IOWA: Senator Feinstein.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN, SENATOR, CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. To begin I would like to ask unanimous consent that all statements sent to the committee concerning Senator Sessions be made part of the record and I have testimony and letters.

GRASSLEY: Without objection, so ordered.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much. Senator Sessions, when I was a small child it was during world war two and my father took me to a racetrack south of San Francisco called Tanforan, and had become a detention camp for Japanese citizens. Thousands of families were held in this compound. And we checked with CRS who says no Japanese American was ever convicted of any sabotage in the United States during that time. Senator Lee, Cruz and I have tried together to enact a bill together to ensure that no American citizen or lawful permanent residence detained in the United States could be held without charge or trial. Do you believe that the government can pursuant to a general authorization to use military force indefinitely detain Americans in the United States without charge or trial?

[15:40:00] SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, that's an important question, classically, the answer is yes, classically if you captured a German soldier they could be held until the war ended.

FEINSTEIN: I'm talking about an American.

SESSIONS: I hear you, so then the question is we're in a war like we have now that's gone on multiple years and I would think the principal of law certainly would appear to be valid but as reality dawns on us and wars might be even longer, you know, it's honest to discuss those issues, so I respect your willingness to think about that would appear to be valid but as reality dawns on us and wars might be even longer, you know, it's honest to discuss those issues, so I respect your willingness to think about that and what we should do, but in general I do believe as Senator Graham as argued forcefully for many years that we are in a war and when members who unlike the Japanese who were never proven to be associated with a military regime like the Japanese government, these individuals would have to be proven to be connected to an enemy on a designated enemy of the United States, so I am probably explained more than I should, but that's basically the arguments and the issues we're facing. I respect your concerns and I'm sure they will continue to be debated the future.

FEINSTEIN: Well, let me just say a few things about that. I've served on the intelligence committee for 15 years. I read all of it. I think I know as much as anybody about what's happening in the United States and this is not -- these are Americans that we're talking about that can be picked up and detained and held without --

SESSIONS: You're talking about American citizens -- and that should not be the case. I understand your point and citizens of the United States have certain important rights they cannot be aggregated. They cannot be detained without undergoing a habeas review and the government surely has to prove that they are indeed connected sufficiently with an enemy action against the United States or they couldn't be detained.

FEINSTEIN: Well, I appreciate that. Let me go into another subject. You were one of nine senators to vote against the detainee treatment act of 2005. It prohibited the imposition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of any person in the custody or control of U.S. personnel. You also voted against an amendment sponsored by Senator McCain in the 2016 defense authorization bill to limit interrogations to the techniques provided by the army field manual which does not include waterboarding. Do you agree that the CIA's former enhanced interrogation techniques including waterboarding are prohibited by this provision of law as now codified?

SESSIONS: It does appear to be clear that the last act McCain amendment would prohibit waterboarding.

FEINSTEIN: And you would enforce that?

SESSIONS: I would enforce the law, yes.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you. And my third question is -- and this was in the "Washington Post," a report last night that you failed to disclose to this committee and to the office of government ethics subsurface rights to oil or other minerals on more than 600 acres in your home state some of which I gather are adjacent to a federal wildlife preserve. Apparently, Alabama records -- and this is a quote, show that the senator leased undivided mineral interests to Chief Capital, a Texas firm, in 2015, do you in fact own these interests?

[15:45:00] SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein I believe that is so, and the way it happened was that many years ago, at least 50 or more years ago, my family, ancestors sold some land and reserved mineral rights. Later there was a dam built on the river and desire to take land that was going to be flooded and add additional land for duck preserve and they negotiated and the family sold land to the government and retained the mineral rights per the agreement. At least that's my understanding, so by a series of events, it fell to me. I never reviewed the deeds, I don't know how much land is out there that I own mineral rights on although oil companies are pretty good about contacting owners before they drill a well, so you are correct that we reported the income on my return --

FEINSTEIN: I saw that.

SESSIONS: -- as coming from the property that I own and the property where the oil well is. I did not note in that report specifically that it was oil income because the blank said royalties, but maybe -- so I would just say to you this, we absolutely -- this is something I've taken no affirmative action in, it's something I'm going to take affirmative action in. I have one of the simplest, clearest financial reports you can see. My assets and my wife's assets are most entirely vanguard funds and municipal bonds, I don't own any individual stocks, we're going to find out what we did or didn't do and correct it.

FEINSTEIN: Good. Thank you.

GRASSLEY: I welcome Senator John Neely Kennedy not only to this committee but to the Senate as well. Senator Kennedy, you're allowed ten minutes now.

JOHN NEELY KENNEDY, SENATOR, LOUISIANA: Good afternoon, senator.

SESSIONS: Good afternoon.

KENNEDY: My name is John Kennedy. And that's really my name. Just so you know I used to have a law partner named Jose Canseco. Caused a lot of confusion when we would go to meetings together.

SESSIONS: I guess.

KENNEDY: I have been impressed in preparing for the hearings with the deep support you enjoy from law enforcement. In fact, one of my sheriffs from Louisiana, I don't know if Greg is still here, Sheriff Greg Shampomp came up with other sheriff's on your behalf. And I have noticed other organizations that have not always agreed on the issues. And that impressed me. I wanted to read an excerpt from the Sergeants Benevolent Association from the NYPD, about as far as away from Mobile you can get, as a union representing law enforcement officers over the years the SBA, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, has worked as both an ally and respectful opponent of senator sessions. This experience has shown us that senator sessions is a man of unquestionable integrity and devoted to the rule of law. It is for this reason and many others that we believe senator session s is the absolute right choice to serve as America's chief law enforcement officer and that impressed me. I would like to know what you as attorney general intend to do to partner with state and local law enforcement?

SESSIONS: That is so important and the United States attorneys throughout the country as in Louisiana and Alabama are key players in this. All United States attorneys, colleagues are funded to have law enforcement coordinating officers. I had two in my small office. We had regular meetings. In the early 80s this is when it started. The first time. So instead of having a law enforcement plan, produced in Washington D.C., the U.S. attorneys were directed to get all the federal agencies and all the state and local agencies to sit down and identify what the re -- their main threats are and direct their resources to deal with the real threats and they would be different in different districts around the country.

[15:50:00] I sense that's been eroded somewhat so we need to get back to that. The department of justice has great resources for identifying tactics and strategies that work on crime. We ought to be able to always help the state and local police officers have the best data on what works and how to create safer and better communities, the federal government cannot dictate to these agencies. It would be a disaster. They wouldn't accept it number one in any influence you might have would be eliminated.

We need to be partners of federal government through its power nationally and internationally, can help local investigative agencies solve a complex criminal case that they don't have the subpoena power or Louisiana U.S. attorney or sheriff doesn't have power to have investigations conducted in Texas or Denver. So, these are the things that are all important. And I truly believe that from a matter of public police we need to see the big picture. And we're all in it together. We're all in it together. And 90 percent of the law officers in America are state and local. And they're the ones that are the eyes and ears of law enforcement so I really think Senator Kennedy, you are correct that we need to do this. I think there's a feeling among law enforcement that that's not been happening sufficiently.

KENNEDY: You know, when a radical Islamic terrorist drives a truck into a group of people and kills them, we're told that we should not judge all Muslims by the act of a few, and I agree with that. Don't you think the same rule ought to apply when one or two law enforcement officers make the mistake -- don't you think that same rule ought to apply to all the other 99.9 percent law enforcement officials out there who just get up every day and go to work and try to protect us?

SESSIONS: I really do. And I think those of us in high public office do need to be cautious about demeaning whole departments and whole groups of people because within those, most any department you can find in America, surely most of the people are just wonderful servants, public servants trying to do the right thing. So, when we say these thing, we can increase risk for them. We can make it harder for them to have relationships with the constituents where they are serving and actually result in an increase in crime in effect I have witnessed in law enforcement. These issues, we cannot miss these issues. We cannot make a big mistake like we may be making now. So, I commit to doing my best as a law officer to engender the kind of unity and comprehensive effort, state, local, federal, that would be the most effective engine to fight crime and make our communities safer.

KENNEDY: In Louisiana, senator, we believe that love is the answer, but we also believe that we have the right under the constitution to own a gun just in case. Could you share with me your thoughts on the second amendment?

SESSIONS: Well, I do believe the second amendment is a personal right. It's a historic right of the American people and the constitution protects it. And explicitly states it. It's just as much a part of the constitution as any of the other great rights and liberties that we value. So, my record is pretty clear on that. However, if a person -- people can forfeit their right to have a gun and it can be a factor in receiving sentences and being prosecuted if you carry a gun, for example, during a commission of a crime. That can add penalty and convictions to you. I think that's a legitimate and responsible restraint on the second amendment right to keep and bear arms.

[15:55:00] KENNEDY: I think they believe this in Alabama, too, but Louisiana, we also believe that nothing makes it easier to resist temptation than a good upbringing, a strong set of values, and witnesses. I'd like to know your thoughts on the freedom of information act.

SESSIONS: Well, the freedom of information act is law and I would see it's carried out and the policies of the country need to be followed.

KENNEDY: I've got one final question. I read the inspector general's report about the department of justice. I think it came out in about the middle of 2016, last year. They talked about -- the inspector general talked about problems with the department's massive grant programs. And the inspector general said approximately $100 million over the last five years went for, quote, questionable expenditures or funds that, quote, could have been put to better use. Now, this is taxpayer money. It didn't just fall from heaven. We thank heaven for it, but it came out of people's pockets. What do you plan to do once you're confirmed -- and I believe you will be confirmed -- to help our friends at justice department prioritize their spending a little bit?

SESSIONS: Thank you, Senator Kennedy. That report is -- raises real concerns. I believe that any responsible public official should recognize that when they obtain an IG, their own inspector general, and saying their department is not performing to high standards should listen to that report and take action and review what's happening and make sure it does not continue. The American people have no desire, and they absolutely should not have their money sent to Washington and then be wasted. We can do a lot more with the money that we have, having been ranking member of the budget committee, and I know that -- how difficult it is. But one way to get extra money, free money is to use the money you've got wisely for things that are valuable.

KENNEDY: Senator, I don't know you well, but I've followed your career with respect and admiration for a lot of years and I just wanted to tell you that. You would be a great attorney general.

SESSIONS: Thank you. Thank you very much.

GRASSLEY: Senator Sessions, you asked for a short break, so, I hope maybe 15 minutes would be adequate.

SESSIONS: That would be adequate, absolutely. GRASSLEY: So, when he comes back, yes, go ahead. Senator, take your

time. We stand in recess.

JAKE TAPPER: Welcome to the lead. I'm Jake Tapper. The Senate judiciary committee taking a little break there and we're going to begin with the politics lead. You've been listening to the first day of confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump's nominees on Capitol Hill in the hot seat today Trump's pick for attorney general. Republican senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. He's been defending his resume as he tries to become the nation's next chief law enforcement officer. Also, taking questions this afternoon, Trump's pick to be secretary of the department of home land security. That's retired general John Kelly.

In the Sessions hearing, the senator seemed to remain composed as protester after protester interrupted today's questioning. Each time the judiciary committee paused as police escorted demonstrators, some dressed up as members of the Ku Klux Klan before he asked about it. Senator Sessions addressed accusations of racial insensitive that have haunted his career. In questioning he said he opposed the proposed Muslim ban, insisted he is ready to take on immigration as an issue and he even responded to a conversation about that now infamous Access Hollywood tape. CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown joins me now live here. Pamela, there have been some really contentious moments just in the last few minutes.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. As particularly with the Democratic Senator Leahy that Access Hollywood tape came up as you recall that came out during the campaign. At the time, Senator Sessions says that calling that sexual assault was a stretch. Here's what he had to say today during the hearing about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEAHY: Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?

SESSIONS: Clearly, it would be.

LEAHY: If he's sitting as President or any other high federal official is accused of committing what the President-elect described in a context in which it could be federally prosecuted, would you be able to prosecute and investigate?

SESSIONS: The President is subject to certain lawful restrictions and they would be required to be applied by the appropriate law enforcement official.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: And he sought to confront head on allegations of racism in his opening statement. He talked about how he would be as attorney general, what he would prosecute and what he wouldn't prosecute.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRASSLEY: Do you swear that the testimony you are about to give --

BROWN: Attorney General Nominee Jeff Sessions testifying before the Senate judiciary committee, vowing to recuse himself from any further investigations related to Hillary Clinton.

GRASSLEY: Some have expressed concern about whether you can approach the Clinton matter impartially in both fact and appearance. How do you plan to address those concerns?

SESSIONS: I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse.