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Sessions on 1986 Hearings; Sessions Faces Hearing with Peers; Franken Accuses Session of Inflating Record; Durbin and Sessions Disagree on Immigration; Sessions on Abortion and Marriage; Chris Coons Talks about Sessions Hearings. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 10, 2017 - 13:00   ET


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA (live_: -- consent to submit a column written by our own attorney general in Arizona, Mark Brnovich, for "The Hill" newspaper this week.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, ALABAMA: Without objection, it will be included.

FLAKE: He's supporting your nomination.

Let me talk to you about an aspect of immigration that's important in Arizona.

As you know, we have a large border with Mexico. We have a program called operation streamline that has, over the years, been tremendously effective in cutting down recidivism, in terms of border crossers.

What it is, basically, it's intended to reduce border crossing by expeditiously prosecuting those who enter the country illegally over a no tolerance or zero tolerance policy. It's credited with being instrumental in achieving better border security, specifically in the Yuma sector along the western side of Arizona's border with Mexico.

Nevertheless, in recent years, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the district of Arizona adopted a policy that ended prosecutions for those who cross but for -- or without criminal history, other than simply crossing the border.

I've asked attorney general Holder and attorney general Lynch, as well as secretary Johnson at Homeland Security, on what is being done here, and I haven't gotten a straight answer. No many -- no matter how many times I ask the question, so I'm looking forward to a little more candor here, as attorney general, if you will confirmed what steps will you take to restore operation streamline to a zero-tolerance approach that's been so successful in Arizona. In a portion of Arizona's border.

SESSIONS: Thank you. Senator Flake, I have enjoyed working with you. And I know the integrity with which you bring your views on the immigration system.

Like you, I believe that streamline was very effective, and it was really a surprise that it's been undermined and significantly.

The reports I got initially, some years ago, maybe a decade or more ago, was it was dramatically effective.

And so, I would absolutely review that, and my inclination would be -- at least at this stage, think it should be restored and even refined and made sure it's lawful and effective.

But I think it has great positive potential to improve legality at the -- at the border.

FLAKE: Well, thank you. It's been effective at Yuma. And, I can tell you, there's concern there among the sheriff's office, Sheriff Wilmot and others, concerned that we're seeing an increase in border crossings simply because of the cartels understand very well what -- where there's a zero-tolerance policy and where there is not. Word spreads.

And we could quickly get to a situation where we have a problem in the Yuma sector, like we do in the Tucson sector. Is there any reason why we haven't expanded this program to the Tucson sector if it's been successful elsewhere?

SESSIONS: I do not know what reason that might be. It seems to me that we should examine the successes and see if they can't be replicated throughout the border.

FLAKE: All right. Well, thank you. I look forward to working with you on that.

SESSIONS: I appreciate that opportunity to work with you on that, because I have long felt it's the right direction for us to go.

FLAKE: Thank you. When we have a successful program, it's difficult to see it scrapped and to see the progress that's been made in certain parts of the border done away with.

Let me get to another subject here. Victims' rights. This is an area of the law that you have shown particularly interest in over your time as a senator.

I have with me letters of support for your nomination from various victims' groups and advocates. The victims of crime and leniency. Verna Watt, victims of -- and friends united, op ed by professors Paul Cassell and Steve Twist, all in support of your nomination. I would ask that these documents be placed for part of the record.

As attorney general, what steps will you take to insure that victims' rights are protected?

SESSIONS: We cannot forget victims' rights. We have a victim witness legislation that creates, within each United States attorney's office, a victim witness coordinator.

And the job of that person is to make sure that concerns of the victims are heard. If they have to come to court, to help them get there, to make sure they don't feel threatened and are protected.

That's a direct responsibility of the Department of Justice in the criminal justice system as directed by Congress. So, I really think that's one step.

[13:05:02] And that's the fundamental mechanism. I think Senator Kyle was a strong advocate for that. And it helped really improve the treatment of victims in federal criminal cases. There's just no doubt about it.

FLAKE: Well, thank you. I was going to note the presence of former Senator Kyle, my predecessor in this office who did so much work in this area, partnering with you. So, thank you for that answer.

SESSIONS: I'm honored that he's giving of his time to assist me in this effort. Honored very greatly.

FLAKE: Thank you.

Let's talk about Prison Rape Elimination Act. It was mentioned previously, I think by Senator Collins.

As attorney general, you not only led the Department of Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Officers, but also the Bureau of -- you will lead not only Department of Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Officials, but also the Bureau of Prisons.

You'll be responsible for 190,000 federal inmates currently in custody. This is an often overlooked part of the attorney general's role, but it's an important part of the position that you're being nominated for.

I believe one of the highlights in your record in the Senate is your leadership in passing the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, or PRIA, which passed both chambers without objection and was signed into law by George W. Bush.

This was a bipartisan bill. You worked across the aisle with the late Senator Kennedy as well as with Republican representative Frank Wolf, Democrat Representative Bobby Scott in the House.

And I have letters of support from anti-prison rape activists that I'd also like as part of the record, without objection if I could.


FLAKE: Thank you. Thank you. With the law approaching its 15th anniversary, 11 states have certified that they're in compliance with the national standards. Another 41 states and territories have provided assurances that they're working towards compliance. Only four states and territories have chosen not to participate.

Is PRIA meeting the expectations you had for it when you introduced the bill in 2003?

SESSIONS: I don't think there's any doubt that it's improved the situation. As to whether it's reached its full potential, I don't think I'm able to tell you, with certainty, but I certainly think it's made a positive difference.

You know, it was a special time for me. Senator Kennedy was a strong critic of me in 1986. And he said -- you know, we were working on this. He said, I've wanted to work with you on legislation like this. And I think it was sort of a reconciliation moment.

We also worked on another major piece of legislation for several years. It would have been rather historic. But it was private savings accounts for lower wage workers in America that I guess the financial crisis of 2007 or somewhere, something happened to end that prospect.

But I believe that it's important for American people to know that when an individual is sentenced to prison, they're not subjected to cruel and inhuman punishment, under the Constitution at a minimum.

And I -- the idea that was so widely spread that there's routine sexual abuse and assaults in prisons, and other kind of unacceptable activities, was widespread in our media and widespread among the American people.

One of our goals was to establish just how big it was to require reporting, to -- and creates circumstances that help insure that a person who should be prosecuted for violence in the prison, actually do get prosecuted, was a real step forward. We do not need to subject prisoners to any more punishment than the law requires.

FLAKE: Thank you. In the just remaining seconds I have, let me just say there's another area that we have worked on, and hopefully we can continue to work on, and that's the area of duplicative DOJ grants.

As you know, the department awarded approximately $17 billion in grants over the years. OIG reports, GAO reports have all shown that there's duplication and waste and sometimes fraud and abuse.

Will you continue to commit to work to root out this kind of duplicative action there?

SESSIONS: Well, I know you've had a history of being a staunch defender of the treasury against those who would abuse it. And I believe the same way. It's the taxpayer's money. Every dollar, that's extracted from an American citizen that goes into the government, needs to get to productive valuable activities.

And any of it that's delivered for political and insufficient reasons is a cause of great concern. I will make it a priority of mine to make sure that the dollars we have are actually getting to the purposes they're supposed to go for.

[13:10:08] It's one thing to say, I did a great thing. I got more money for this good purpose. But did it really efficiently and effectively go there? Did it really make a positive difference?

So, I think the Department of Justice can utilize those grant programs to help valuable activities, and it needs to guard against improper activities.

FLAKE: Thank you, Senator Sessions. Thank you.

CHUCK GRASSLEY, CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We'll break for about 30 minutes and we'll reconvene at 1:40. Senator Coons would be next up, and he's indicated he'll be here on time. So, adjourn, recess for now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Senate Judiciary Committee now in recess. A 30-minute lunch, we just heard from the chairman, Chuck Grassley, make that announcement.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Jake Tapper. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington D.C. Wherever you are watching from around the world, thank you for joining us.

BLITZER: It's been a very, very intriguing, important several hours, Jake, that we've been listening to Jeff Sessions, the Senator from Alabama, who has been nominated to become the attorney general of the United States.

I want to start off, quickly, and play this little clip. He announced that if there were any legal proceedings to go against the former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, he would recuse himself. Listen to this.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: In light of those comments that you made, 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 do believe that that could place my 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 that were raised during the campaign or could be otherwise connected to it.

This country does not punish its political enemies, but this country insures that no one is above of the law.


BLITZER: Very intriguing, the way he said that. And it was a bold moment.

TAPPER: He said he would recuse himself. Some of the other things that he tried to make clear were that even if he opposed laws that had been passed, he would abide by them.

Whatever his personal feelings, he thinks that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, as President-elect Trump has said. And talked about how he would protect the rights of LGBT Americans going forward. BLITZER: And Roe V. Wade he said also is the law of the land, and he

would enforce that law.

TAPPER: Well, it's the law of the land as of right now. We don't know what the next Supreme Court will do. But, absolutely.

Although, he did say, when asked about the dreamers and the executive action taken by President Obama, these are the children brought here when they were -- individuals who were brought here illegally who were children when they were brought here and they were given some sort of path to citizenship, legal status.

He did say that he would not have an objection to abandoning that order by President Obama. He thought it was questionable constitutionality.

BLITZER: He said, but that was not a priority. The priority was to go after undocumented immigrants here who had committed serious crimes. That was going to be the focus of their immediate attention.

He clearly was well prepared. He had gone through a lot of rehearsals coming into this testimony.

TAPPER: Yes, and there was a -- he almost had an instinctive reaction whenever there was a protester from code pink or any of the other organizations there shouting him down. He would immediately pour some water and have a calm face.

They've been preparing for this, staging little mock confirmation hearings at the Trump transition office.

BLITZER: We've got an excellent panel here that's going to help us better appreciate what we just heard. Associate editor of Real Clear Politics, A.B. Stoddard; our Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny; Justice Correspondent Pamela Brown; April Ryan, White House Correspondent, Washington Bureau Chief for American Urban Radio Networks; CNN Political Commentators Chuck Hyde and Simone Sanders.

Pamela Brown, you cover the Justice Department for us. Your immediate thoughts?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, a couple of things stick out to me. First, when it comes to torture, he was asked about waterboarding, which, of course, we heard Trump talk about on the trail, saying that he wanted to bring that back.

And Sessions did not mince words. He said it's illegal. It is improper. That is the way that Congress has voted.

And so, that presents an interesting situation there, depending on what Trump wants to do once he takes the White House, that his top law enforcement officer and attorney general views it that way.

We talked about the Muslim ban. Again, something that Trump talked about on the trail. He says that he opposes that. And it's clear that he is taking a very pro-law enforcement approach which I think that's notable.

When you look at the civil rights division under President Obama, it has investigated more than two dozen police departments across the country. I wouldn't be surprised if you see a shift with that when Sessions takes over. If he is confirmed.

[13:15:03] BLITZER: I want to play this other clip. This is Sessions discussing what derailed his confirmation back in 1986 for a federal judgeship, allegations of racism. Listen to this exchange.


SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: And I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African-Americans by presenting (ph) the (INAUDIBLE) county case, the voter fraud case, and of condemning civil rights advocates and organizations and even harboring, amazingly, sympathies for the KKK. These are damneralby (ph) false charges.

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.


BLITZER: That was in his opening statement. He clearly came prepared to try to diffuse what had hurt him so badly back in 1986.

BROWN: He did. And what's so interesting is that, that initially was not in his opening statements. And we're told from a source that this morning he woke up and he felt very compelled to confront what happened in 1986 with the failed judgeship. He felt like it was important to make it clear to the people and to the people there in that room that he is not a racist, that this was a caricature of him and that it was false. And so he added those comments -- some of those comments about that back in this morning, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Jeff, when you -- when you take a look at the bottom line, it's very, very hard for a United States senator, a sitting colleague of Senator Sessions, to come out against them, but some will.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Some will, without a doubt, and I would not be surprised, at the end of the day, if this may be largely on party lines. But I think one of the biggest differences here is, if he was not a sitting United States senator, this hearing would be entirely different. The proceedings would be different.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, of course, the ranking Democrat on the committee, pointed out that, you know, he is the candidate for attorney general. We're not talking about his Senate record here. But the reality here is that those strong relationships that he has with Republicans, and some Democrats, is going to play a key role in virtually all of this. They are giving him the benefit of the doubt.

You saw Susan Collins introducing him and basically saying what happened 30 years ago isn't as relevant as right now. So, yes, he's going to have tough questions. More tomorrow probably than today. One other -- people are sort of giving their sides of this, but he's a U.S. senator and that helps him immensely.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: It's interesting. Maybe Senator Al Franken, the one non-lawyer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, basically accused Senator Sessions of inflating his pro-civil rights record, suggesting that desegregation -- school desegregation cases that he had claimed to have been in charge of, that there were -- that he first overstated how many there were and then basically he was taking credit for work that he really didn't have much to do with, other than he was the U.S. attorney or the attorney general of the state of Alabama. It was kind of a -- kind of a strong charge to make.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Yes, it was interesting. And Sessions actually did back down a bit. He said that he wasn't as involved, but -- and their number wasn't as high as it was originally stated, but that he didn't do anything wrong.

And I think what's interesting, as Franken went after sort of his character, most everyone else was sticking to policy differences. Democrats have huge policy contrasts with Senator Sessions and the Department of Justice will change radically from the Obama Department of Justice. And so I think it was shrewd of him to come out this morning and so strongly defend himself against the 1986 event when he was passed over for the judgeship, to defend himself against charges of being racially insensitive, so that they can move on to policy differences and not be in a -- in a, you know -- so that he's not vulnerable to character attacks.

I think Democrats waste their time if they go after him on this. There's so much on sentencing, on immigration, on voting rights, on civil rights, for them to actually question him about and create contrast with him about, that they should probably stay away from the issues of 30 years ago.

And you saw, just as Jeff was saying, you saw their -- those senators just in such a deferential crouch. They would -- the Democrats would start by saying, well, we brought -- we talked about this in our meeting together, so I'll just throw that question out there first. He had done a great job of talking them through these issues long before the lights were on.

[13:20:00] TAPPER: Yes, and, no -- and, Doug, let me ask you, one of the things that seemed pretty clear to me is, I don't think he's getting Dick Durbin's vote. Dick Durbin made it very clear that the -- that their -- the chasm between the two, when it came to immigration reform, specifically what you do with the so-called dreamers, the 800,000 people brought here illegally when they were children through the no fault of their own, Durbin wants them to be given citizenship ultimately. And Sessions, it sounded like, has stayed with a fairly hard line position on it. DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, look, Jeff Sessions was

Donald Trump's first adviser on immigration policy, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he's reacted in this way very consistent with what he is. But it also shows how well prepared in his answering on this, in his answering on the personal issues that were brought up with him from his '86 hearings. How well prepared he is. And it's not just in Trump Tower where they've been practicing for this. It's also in the -- in the Senate buildings. It's also at the Republican National Committee, private organizations like America Rising. They are all preparing, not just Jeff Sessions for this, but a team to move his nomination forward. Democrats are obviously doing the same on the opposite side. What we're seeing is the tip of the iceberg on this.

BLITZER: April, it looked as if he was prepared, anticipating almost, every question that came up.

APRIL RYAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: He was anticipating every question. But the issue is, he's giving answers, but there's more to get into the weeds about, particularly when it came to issues of voting rights. Thirty years ago does matter. To hear some people in Congress, in -- and some senators wanting to testify against him about things that he said that the NAACP is un- American, that is a real issue.

BLITZER: He denies that.

RYAN: He denies it, but he also says he abhors the Klan -- the KKK. But at the same time, let's go back to voting rights because he --

BLITZER: He said he does abhor the KKK.

RYAN: Yes, he did -- he said that.

BLITZER: And he did put to death, under his watch, a leader of the KKK.

RYAN: Right. Now, here -- let's go into this piece, the voting rights piece, which is very interesting. His state right now is in the middle of this voting rights issue. Many of the Alabama motor vehicle offices were moved out of urban areas where people had to go to get driver's licenses to go to the polls. And here he's saying, oh, he believes in voter ID, and then they just came up with an agreement with the Department of Transportation to fix this problem.

And the devil is in the details. This is the first time in 50 years that people have not seen the full enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. And there is still a problem. So if they get into that piece, that is a big piece.

And then criminal justice. It almost sounds like he was in a different stand than President-elect Donald Trump. Donald Trump says, you know, he's putting more of a focus on supporting the police. But now we heard Sessions say, yes, we support police, but also -- and he supports community policing, which is a big piece in the urban community to help stop much of this tension, which is considered, once the tension happens, it's considered a national security issue from Jeh Johnson, the head of Homeland Security. But the issue is, Donald Trump really has put a focus on supporting police and now he's talking about community policing and also making police more responsible if there is something that happened. So it's a very interesting dynamic today.

TAPPER: Symone, when you -- when you watch this hearing and, obviously, Jeff pointed out, if this were just Alabama Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions, and not U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, probably there would be more hostility, more aggressiveness towards him. But what's your response? How do you think he handled himself understanding that you disagree with a lot of his positions?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, I think he handled himself well. I think some of the questioning was soft, if you will, in a lot of instances. But this was just the first half. We have a whole nother afternoon of this. And then tomorrow we'll see testimony from folks like Cornell Brooks, the current president of the NAACP, the oldest and boldest civil rights organization in America. We'll hear -- we will hear testimony from Cory Booker, Senator Booker. Lots of folks who will offer some color and some additional details to what we heard Senator Sessions say today.

I was shocked when Senator Sessions said that he basically thought that voter ID was OK if the laws were written well, but also noted that, oh, but as attorney general, if he was, you know, to be confirmed as attorney general, he would have to look at all the legal aspects, but personally that's how he feels.

I am shocked that no one pressed him to allude that he's saying that he wouldn't take his personal feelings about voter ID into the office as attorney general. So, I -- again, I think he had some soft questioning. I think folks really like Jeff Sessions and they -- this is their colleague. If he's not confirmed, guess what, he's coming back to the Senate, and nobody wants to make an enemy. He's co- sponsored lots of help -- some helpful legislation. But the fact of the matter is, we have to question on the merits of his policy and, you know, what he stands for and what kind of department he would put together. And I don't think that's all the way broken through.

BLITZER: Here's an exchange Senator Sessions had with Senator Dianne Feinstein, who's the new ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, the issue of abortion and same-sex marriage. Listen to this. I think we have that clip ready to go right now.

[13:25:15] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: You have referred to Roe v. Wade as, quote, "one of the worst colossally erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time," end quote. Is that still your view?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: 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 has been so established and settled for quite a long time. And it deserves respect. And I would respect it and follow it. Five justices on the Supreme Court, a majority of the court, has established the definition of marriage for the entire United States of America, and I will follow that decision.


BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin's our senior legal analyst.

I thought it was significant someone who's opposed to Roe v. Wade, very strongly, Jeffrey, says Roe v. Wade, it is the law of the land. It has been so established. It has been settled for quite a long time. And then he said, it deserves respect. Similar words as far as same- sex marriage are concerned. That was significant coming from Senator Sessions.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It is significant, but it also leaves a lot of room for the Justice Department to take and support steps that restrict the right to abortion. The Obama administration Justice Department was very aggressive in saying to states that, you know, you -- we do not believe under the Constitution you can establish barriers to abortion rights in setting up rules for clinics, rules for doctors that make it difficult. This administration is going to be very different.

So it is true that the ultimate decision will not be challenged yet by this administration, but, remember, there is already one Supreme Court vacancy. One of the leading candidates for this vacancy is the attorney general of Alabama, who followed Jeff Sessions as attorney general of Alabama, now a federal judge, Bill Pryor. He, too, thinks Roe v. Wade was a terrible decision, and if he is nominated and confirmed, he can actually do something about it.

So, yes, this attorney general, if he's confirmed, will not directly attack it, but the federal government can do a lot to restrict abortion rights and President-elect Trump has made clear that's a priority for his administration.

BLITZER: We have more analysis coming up from Jeffrey Toobin. I want you to stand by for a moment though.

Our senior political reporter, Manu Raju, is up on Capitol Hill, just outside the room where Senator Sessions has been testifying in his confirmation hearing. Manu has a special guest with him.


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Thanks. I'm here with Chris -- Senator Chris Coons from Delaware.

You're about to ask questions of Jeff Sessions just momentarily from now. What do you want to hear from Senator Sessions?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: What I want to hear from Senator Sessions, clear and concise answers to a number of questions I've got about his actions as Alabama's attorney general, about his actions as a U.S. senator, blocking bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts, blocking bipartisan efforts to outlaw the use of torture, and some of his historic involvement in the civil rights movement, both in his home state of Alabama and what he's done as a senator and what he might or might not do as attorney general.

We've had a very full morning. It's been many hours since we started at 9:30. He's answered a lot of questions. But, in my view, the American people deserve a really full and fair hearing for their next -- potential next attorney general.

RAJU: Now this morning he also said that his critics, especially back in the 1980s, were trying to paint a caricature of him on the issue of race. Do you buy that? Do you think his critics were trying to paint a caricature of him back in the '80s, and do you believe that he has a strong civil rights record?

COONS: What matters to me is his voting record as a senator and the things I've been able to work with him and not been able to work with him on in the six years we've served together in the Senate. There were two issues we worked well together on, and I appreciate that. There were many, many others where we weren't and where our values and priorities are quite different. You've heard many different senators ask questions about immigration, about civil liberties, about civil rights, about Russian cyber hacking, and about some of the claims made in the Trump campaign. I look forward to continuing that line of questioning.

RAJU: And before I let you go, are you leaning yes or no on Jeff Sessions right now if you were to vote for him, yes or no?

COONS: Well, the whole point of having a hearing that's going to last all day today and another hearing that will last all day tomorrow is to make up my mind after I've heard all the evidence. I've got a number of questions based on his record. And based on some of the things he said today, I have more questions, not fewer.

RAJU: OK. Senator Coons, thanks for talking with us.

Back to you.

[13:30:05] TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju and Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, up on Capitol Hill.

Still to come, we're going to have much more on the confirmation hearing of Senator Jeff Sessions.