Return to Transcripts main page

WOLF

Senate Confirmation Hearings; Trump On Russia Hacking; Testifying Against Jeff Sessions. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 11, 2017 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Any in a moment now, in an unprecedented move, Senator Cory Booker and Representative John Lewis will testify against his nomination. We will bring you that live once it happens.

The president-elect's pick for secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, also on Capitol Hill today, as well as the former ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, who's been nominated by the president-elect to take over John Kerry's post as secretary of state.

He's faced some tough questioning from both sides this morning. His hearing is set to pick up a little bit later this hour after a short break. We'll have live coverage of that as well.

The president-elect finally says Russia was behind the hacking during the 2016 election. In his first news conference, in some six months, the president-elect was asked about new allegations, allegations that Russian operatives claimed to have compromising information about him.

Multiple sources tell CNN the allegations were presented to Mr. Trump in a two-page summary along with the intelligence report on Russian hacking. The president-elect dismissed this as, quote, "fake news."

Here are some of the highlights of what he said about that and a wide range of issues during his news conference.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's a disgrace that information would be let out. I saw the information. I read the information outside of that meeting. It's all fake news. It's phony stuff. It didn't happen.

And it was gotten by opponents of ours, as you know, because you reported it and so did many of the other people. It was a group of opponents that got together, sick people, and they put that crap together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) clear whether during your visit to either Moscow or St. Petersburg, you engaged in conduct that you now regret and that a reasonable observer -- a reasonable observer say you are potentially vulnerable to blackmail by Russia or by its intelligence agencies?

TRUMP: What I do? Let me tell you what I do. When I leave our country, I'm a very high profile person, wouldn't you say? I am extremely careful. I'm surrounded by bodyguards. I'm surrounded by people. And I always tell them -- anywhere. But I always tell them, if I'm leaving this country, be very careful because in your hotel rooms, and no matter where you go, you are going to probably have cameras.

I'm not referring just to Russia, but I would certainly put them in that category. And, number one, I hope you are going to be good anyway. But in those rooms, you have cameras in the strangest places. Cameras that are so small, with modern technology, that you can't see them and you won't know. You better be careful or you'll be watching yourself on nightly television.

I tell this to people all the time. Somebody released it. It should never have been -- number one, it shouldn't even have entered paper. But it should never have been released. But I read what was released and I think it's a disgrace. I think it's an absolute disgrace.

As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people. Hacking is bad and it shouldn't be done. But look at the things that were hacked. Look at what was learned from that hacking. That Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn't report it. That's a horrible thing. That's a horrible thing.

Can you imagine that if Donald Trump got the questions to the debate? It would have been the biggest story in the history of stories. And they would have said, immediately, you have to get out of the race. Nobody even talked about it.

If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia could help us fight ISIS which, by the way, is, number one, tricky. I mean, if you look, this administration created ISIS by leaving at the wrong time. The void was created. ISIS was formed.

If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset not a liability. Now, I don't know that I'm going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there's a good chance I won't. And if I don't, do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me? Does anybody in this room really believe that? Give me a break.

We're going to create jobs. I said that I will be the greatest jobs' producer that god ever created. And I mean that. I really -- I'm going to work very hard on that. We need certain amounts of other things, including a little bit of luck. But I think we're going to do a real job and I'm very proud of what we've done.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our panel. A lot to assess, based on what we just heard. Our CNN Political Analyst David Gregory is with us, our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto, April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks, our CNN Political Commentator, the former spokeswoman for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, Simone Sanders, and our CNN Political Commentator, the former communications director for the Republican National Committee, Doug Heye.

[13:05:17] David Gregory, let me get your thoughts. This has been a pretty remarkable day. The breadth that -- the tone, the substance of what we heard from the president-elect.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, we heard a first definitive statement from that he thinks Russia was behind the hacking and he still wants to have some kind of reset. And it -- there is still this naivete that because he is Donald Trump and is a big businessman, that Vladimir Putin is going to respect him. I don't know what the basis for that is for real.

It's also very interesting to put in a little context. Does President-elect Trump, who thinks that the intelligence agency heads have politicized this information, this man who suggested that our current president of the United States was not born an American citizen and demanded he produce a birth certificate. If the roles were reversed and there was an incoming President Obama, who was potentially compromised by a foreign power, would he not want that information shared and briefed?

I mean, I think it's such hypocrisy. And I think it has been said here throughout the morning, it is a very difficult way for him to start a relationship with the intelligence community for something that is complex and is difficult, and that, I think, should be treated with due care and restraint, as CNN has, when you are dealing with this kind of information.

Nevertheless, the intelligence committee did what he did, in terms of briefing him.

BLITZER: And, Dana, take a look at the live pictures coming in from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Cory Booker is now in the room. He's a senator who is going to testify against the sitting senator who has been nominated to become the attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions.

John Lewis, the civil rights icon, a member of the House of Representatives, he's there as well. He will be testifying against Senator Sessions as well. We're going to have live coverage of that coming up.

But it's pretty extraordinary for one sitting senator to testify against another sitting senator who's been nominated for a cabinet position.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And not just extraordinary, unprecedented. And the reason we can say that is because Cory Booker's own staff went to the Senate Historian's Office to check on whether or not a sitting senator has testified in an open session like this against a colleague, somebody who is a current senator. And the answer they got from the Senate historian was no. So, just even the fact that they sought out that information tells us that that is part of why he wants to do this. To make a splash in a way that we haven't seen before.

And, look, there are lots of quotes that are, sort of, out there that a lot of Jeff Sessions' supporters are reminding people of nice things that Cory Booker has said about Jeff Sessions. Not just as a colleague, but with regard to the specific thing he's going to talk about today. His civil rights record, his voting rights record and so forth.

Regardless of that, this is going to be extraordinary. And it will be highly, highly partisan. The attorney general role has been partisan before. The confirmation process, I remember sitting in that room for John Ashcroft's confirmation process back in the George W. Bush administration.

But this takes it to a new level. It just does. And it's definitely about policy differences. But when you are talking about a member of the club speaking out so vocally about another member, it is -- it's going to be really striking to watch.

BLITZER: You know, April, as you know, there's also going to be testimony going Senator Sessions from Congressman Cedric Richmond, who's the new chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as Cornell Brooks, the President and CEO of the NAACP. He was arrested in Mobile, Alabama, at -- in this -- in the Alabama offices of Senator Sessions, protesting his nomination.

APRIL RYAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: And, also, Congressman John Lewis. The CBC looking into that room. Those members are there rallying.

BLITZER: The Congressional Black Caucus.

RYAN: The Congressional Black Caucus members. They are very concerned about the civil rights record, or lack thereof, when it comes to Senator Sessions.

They're very concerned with the issue of voting rights. This is the first time in 50 years that we had an election without the full enforcement of voting rights. They're very concerned about that.

They're also concerned, and you'd mentioned Cornell brooks, about the issue of the fact that even though Sessions said he did not do it, the fact that it is on the record that he said the words un-American about the NAACP and the ACLU. So, there, the NAACP is very concerned about that.

But when I talked to some people who are in the room, who are surrounding those who are in the room, they're saying this has to happen.

And people in the room yesterday, someone who actually -- a Democrat who actually questioned Sessions, he said, basically, there are land mines that Sessions was talking about and there are misstatements.

And I believe the CBC is going to try to correct those misstatements today in their testimony.

[13:10:03] BLITZER: The word, un-American, about the NAACP, that was uttered, supposedly, what, --

RYAN: Right.

BLITZER: -- 30 years ago.

RYAN: Right.

BLITZER: Sessions strongly denies that he ever --

RYAN: And they are --

BLITZER: -- said that.

RYAN: -- very upset. They are saying what happened yesterday still pertains to today. It's about consistency or lack thereof.

BLITZER: In the end, Doug, the Republicans probably will have the votes in the Senate to get him confirmed.

DOUG HEYE, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, RNC: Yes, the fact that Susan Collins, who's usually one of the Republicans people look to peel away from controversial or conservative Republicans who are nominated, was there introducing him, says that he'll probably get the votes from Republicans.

But we also need to look at Cory Booker, not just with the policy differences. This is the start of the 2020 campaign. And by coming out so forcefully against Jeff Sessions, obviously Republicans have had not just over the past election cycle.

But over the past eight years a lot of ugly rhetoric on race, specifically about the president and the first lady. These are stains on the party's soul.

But where we can have policy differences and find out where there are places of agreement where Jeff sessions wants to do, that's a place to move forward. This is a political move by Cory Booker. I think it's a smart political move. But it's a political move.

BASH: And just to put a point on that. You're absolutely right. I mean, there's no way that this is not political. And it has to be -- in addition to genuinely policy differences. I'm not taking that away from him, because he has been a leader on these issues. His parents were civil rights leaders. I get that.

But, also, looking forward at where the Democratic Party goes and how they pick up the pieces. And the kind of focus that they have. He is trying to be an early leader in that -- with this move.

RYAN: You know, you're absolutely right. But I -- excuse me. But I will say this. You have to remember that if Sessions is confirmed, and he probably will be, and he will be the next A.G., he is also going to vet the next -- he's going to be part of the vetting group of the next Supreme Court Justice. Maybe three of them.

So, if you have a history of -- or a thought of being someone who's not inclusive, that is a concern. That is a real concern beyond politics.

HEYE: I think more interesting is Cedric Richmond. Remember, when Steve Scalise, from Louisiana, got in some trouble over some past racial rhetoric and visits he made, Cedric Richmond stood up and stood behind Steve Scalise. That he's coming out against Jeff Sessions makes his appearance, I think more interesting than Senator -- than Cory Booker which is more political.

BLITZER: There's some criticism, Dana, and I want you to remind our viewers. Cory Booker, what, about a year or so ago, worked closely with Senator Jeff Sessions on civil rights legislation and was very praise worthy of him.

BASH: Absolutely. They worked together on Rosa Parks legislation and others. And I believe that they were this together in Selma as part of that, and that is where he praised Jeff Sessions, on this particular issue of civil rights.

BLITZER: All right. Senator Grassley is the chairman. He's convened this next session. I want to listen in.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE (live): -- fairly. We will hear from each witness for five minutes. We've agreed that we won't ask any questions of the witness. And we'll adjourn when we've heard the last witness. And now, I would like to introduce the witnesses.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: (INAUDIBLE) I have about a 30-second --

GRASSLEY: Go ahead right now then.

LEAHY: That's OK?

GRASSLEY: Yes.

LEAHY: Mr. Chairman, I'm -- we know that the attorney general is responsible for protecting civil and human rights of Americans. And that's why many are worried, as you see in these hearings.

Senator Booker and Congressman Lewis, Congressman Richmond, brings the discussion in an important perspective, about the basic rights enshrined in the Constitution. And how we try to form a more perfect union that continues with every generation.

Congressman Lewis has been a friend of mine for decades. We served together. He nearly gave his life for that effort.

I invited Congressman Lewis's committee before for important conversations about marriage equality, voting rights. The steaks are just as high.

I'm sorry we've broken the committee tradition and made these members of Congress wait until the very end of the hearing to speak. That's not the way I, as chairman, would do it and other chairman have but that's what we have.

But I commend Senator Booker and Representative Lewis, Representative Richmond for their courage. I'm proud to serve with them. I thank them for being here.

GRASSLEY: Thank you, Senator Leahy.

My colleague, Senator Booker is from New Jersey. I know him well. And we all know him. And we appreciate your coming over to testify.

We will hear from Mr. Willie Huntley. Mr. Huntley is a former assistant U.S. attorney in the southern district of Alabama who worked under Senator Sessions, when he served as U.S. attorney there. And he has known Senator Sessions for nearly 30 years.

[13:15:04] Then, we will hear from a well-known civil rights leader, Representative John Lewis, who represents Georgia's fifth district.

Welcome back to the committee, Congressman Lewis. It's always good to have you here.

After Representative Lewis, we will hear from the honorable Jesse Seroyer who served as U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Alabama, 2002 to 2011. He first got to know Senator Sessions in 1995 when he worked for him in the Alabama Attorney General's Office.

Next we will hear from Representative Cedric Richmond who serves the people of Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District and is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Welcome to the committee, Congressman Richmond.

Finally, we will hear from Mr. William Smith. Mr. Smith worked for Senator Sessions as the first African-American general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has known Senator Sessions for 20 years and we know him because of that service as a staff person here as well.

Welcome to all of you and we'll start with Senator Booker.

BOOKER: Thank you, Chairman Grassley.

I want to thank Senator Leahy as well, as well as the distinguished members of this committee.

I know it is exceptional for a senator to testify against another senator nominated for a Cabinet position. And I appreciate the opportunity you have given me today.

I've worked closely with many of you on this panel on both sides of the dais on matters related to criminal justice reform, and you know just how deeply motivated I am by the many issues our next attorney general will heavily influence, especially the crisis of mass incarceration.

I know that some of my many colleagues are unhappy that I am breaking with Senate tradition to testify on the nomination of one of my colleagues, but I believe, like perhaps all of my colleagues in the Senate, that in the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country.

While Senator Sessions and I have consistently disagreed on the issues, he and I have always exercised a collegiality and a mutual respect between us. Perhaps the best example of this is the legislation we cosponsored to award the Congressional Gold Medal to those foot soldiers who marched at Selma. One of the foot soldiers is setting next to me now. This was a blessing and an honor to me because in 2015, a retired judge, who was white, told me that it was those brave marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge who inspired him as a young lawyer in the 1960s to seek justice for all in New Jersey and begin representing black families looking to integrate white neighborhoods, black families who were turned away and denied housing.

One of those families was mine. I am literally sitting here because of people, marchers in Alabama and volunteer lawyers in New Jersey, who saw it as their affirmative duty to pursue justice, to fight discrimination, to stand up for those who are marginalized. But the march for justice in our country still continues, it is still urgent.

I know also, though, of the urgency for law and order. I imagine that no sitting senator has lived in the last 20 years in higher-crime neighborhoods than I have. I have seen unimaginable violence on American streets. I know the tremendous courage of law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every single day to fight crime in America. I want an attorney general who is committed to supporting law enforcement and securing law and order, but that is not enough.

America was founded heralding not law and order, but justice for all. And critical to that is equal justice under the law. Law and order without justice is unobtainable. They are inextricably tied together. If there is no justice, there is no peace. The Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were seeking law and order. The marchers were seeking justice and, ultimately, a greater peace.

One of the victories of the modern civil rights movement was the 1957 Civil Rights Act which, in effect, made the attorney general not only the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, but also vested in that office the responsibility to pursue civil rights and equal protection for all of America.

[13:30:11]