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Interview with Representative James Clyburn; Senate Judiciary Hearing on Jeff Sessions; Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired February 1, 2017 - 10:30   ET

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


[10:30:00] REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D), SOUTH CAROLINA: Maybe. But I would hope he would just recognize that a lot of what has taken place today came out of the Republican playbook. Republicans had the same thing going on with Obama in the first year of his administration. We have seen --

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: So wait a minute. So wait a minute. Is that the Democrats' goal, to, you know --

CLYBURN: No, it's our goal to remind Republicans that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. That is all this is. Slow this process down, bring the paperwork in, when these questions arise, "The Wall Street Journal" is writing about stuff that was falsified in their testimonies. So if someone gives what looks like false testimony, bring them back to the committee and let's answer questions about what this is all about, clear this up.

COSTELLO: Could I interrupt you just for a moment, sir? And I apologize.

CLYBURN: Sure.

COSTELLO: This is Judge Gorsuch who Mr. Trump nominated for a position on the U.S. Supreme Court. He's going to meet with the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, and then I assume he will make his way and talk to lawmakers. I know that you mentioned Gorsuch, and you're not a big fan, but would you be interested in listening to what he has to say?

CLYBURN: I always want to listen to what anyone has to say. This is not about whether or not we listen. This is about whether or not we have the chance to ask questions and get some answers, whether or not we get a chance to highlight what has taken place in this person's record. And if extreme vetting is good for refugees, I think extreme vetting is good for nominees to the United States Supreme Court. So I think he should be subjected to some extreme vetting to see what he meant by some of these decisions that he has written about.

You know, I love people with good, smooth personalities, great writing skills. But I want to know the subject matter that they write about, whether or not that subject matter is something that I can buy into and would love to see passed on to my children and my grandchildren. But just because you write smoothly doesn't mean you're writing good.

COSTELLO: All right. Congressman James Clyburn, thank you so much for your time, I do appreciate it.

Coming up in the NEWSROOM, any minute now the Senate Judiciary Committee gets set to vote on the attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions. We're watching both. Please stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: All right. We're going to take you now to the Senate Judiciary Committee where Jeff Sessions we suppose will answer questions from Republicans at least. So let's listen in.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: So, Senator Whitehouse, would you start?

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Thank you, Chairman. The attorney general of the United States holds a vital and somewhat unique position in the federal government, tasked with significant responsibilities that must be executed independently. Sometimes even in defiance of the White House's wishes and interests. The attorney general is tasked with enforcing our laws fairly, justly and even handedly, as well as with protecting the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans.

[10:35:05] The attorney general does not work for the president so much as for the people and does not serve the administration so much as the law.

I have served in the Department of Justice and I have felt its esprit de corps and its pride as exemplified when Attorney General Ashcroft resisted White House pressure on warrantless wiretaps.

The Department of Justice is well aware of the importance of its independence. And a successful attorney general must be stalwart in protecting the department from political meddling by the administration or Congress. We need only look back to Attorney General Gonzales' resignation to recall what can happen when an attorney general yields to political pressure.

The attorney general also makes policy decisions about where and how to direct the department's $27 billion budget and when and how to advise Congress to recommend new laws and modify existing policies.

Policy choices an attorney general makes can have a profound effect on individuals, communities, and the fabric of our nation. And they allow the attorney general wide discretion. This is not just a matter of saying that he will follow the law.

Americans should be able to trust that their attorney general will not only enforce the laws with integrity and impartiality but stand up for Americans of all stripes and fight on behalf of their rights.

That's the prism through which I evaluate Senator Sessions' nomination. I have known the senator for a decade and I've enjoyed working with him on legislation. But the standard by which I evaluate an attorney general nominee is whether Rhode Islanders can trust that his commitment to doing justice and ensuring equal protection of all Americans will be real and lasting and not just a matter of nomination etiquette.

I have reviewed Senator Sessions' career as an attorney and as a senator as well as his testimony before the Judiciary Committee. I have reflected on my duties and experience as attorney general and U.S. attorney in Rhode Island. I've also listened closely to very strong and serious concerns from Rhode Islanders who have made it plain that they fear what Senator Sessions would do as head of the Justice Department.

For every constituent of mine who has expressed sport of his nomination, 15 have expressed opposition. Senator Sessions' record is clear. He fought against fixing our immigration system as the leading opponent of bipartisan legislation which, had it passed, would have spared us the current debate over an ineffectual $16 billion wall.

Senator Sessions fought against our bipartisan criminal justice and sentencing reform. Senator Sessions opposed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, a bill which is so important to the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office and the anti-domestic violence groups in our state.

I suspect that Senator Sessions' opposition related to the bill's inclusion of protections for gay and lesbian couples and his record on support of gay and lesbian Americans is alarming to many Rhode Islanders.

Public statements and confirmation testimony by Senator Sessions suggested he brings a religious preference to the department. That secular attorneys would be to him a suspect class compared to Christian attorneys. From the state of Roger Williams, founded on freedom of conscience, this is an alarming consideration.

He has on numerous occasions used racially charged or downright offensive rhetoric to belittle broad groups of Americans residents including, for instance, Rhode Island's wonderful Dominican community, saying that Dominicans come to this country basically to sponge and be useful. Well, tell that to Big Papi David Ortiz and the Red Sox fans of New England.

He walked those back statements back a bit in the nominations process, but again one must wonder if this represents a true conversion rather than a nod to nomination etiquette akin to Justice Roberts' holler about being a neutral judge who would just call balls and strikes. We have been burned by nomination etiquette before.

Senator Sessions has a long history of demonstrated open hostility for bedrock civil rights laws and failed repeatedly to vigorously distance himself from extremist hate groups that hold him up as a champion of their perverse ideologies.

Senator Sessions has called Breitbart News a bright spot. Breitbart has published countless, baseless and inflammatory articles with titles like "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy." "There is No Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews." And "Gabby Giffords, The Gun Control Movement's Human Shield." Senator Sessions has promised that as attorney general he would work

diligently to ensure that all Americans receive equal protection under our laws but his record creates justifiable alarm among many Rhode Islanders that has promised as more a product of nomination etiquette than a nomination epiphany. In fairness I should disclose that Senator Sessions' nomination carries additional baggage with me as the nominee of this president and this White House.

[10:40:07] On the campaign trail the American people witnessed Donald Trump glorify sexual misconduct, mock a disabled reporter and make disparaging remarks about immigrants and minorities, all with no push back from Senator Sessions.

We all witnessed chants of "lock her up" which Senator Sessions did not push back against and even excused in his hearing as a, quote, "humorously done." In mass rallies that also featured beatings and the press caged and vilified, this didn't seem very humorous to many Americans. Americans know that the good guys in the movie are not the ones in the mob. The good guy is the lawman who stands on the jailhouse porch and sends the mob home. That chant was un-American and across the country it made honest prosecutors' stomachs turn.

Not surprisingly many Americans are fearful of what the Trump administration will mean for them, their families, and for their country. Senator Sessions had so many opportunities to push back and he availed himself prior to his nomination of none.

The problems did not end with the campaign. President Trump and his family have brought more conflicts of interest to the White House than all other modern presidents and families combined. The proposed Trump domestic Cabinet is an unprecedented swamp of conflicts of interest, failures of disclosure and divestment, and dark money secrets.

The Trump White House traffics on alternate facts, operates vindictively and is a haven for special interest influence and they're just getting started. None of this is good. All of this suggests that there will be more or less constant occasion for investigation and even prosecution of this administration.

In recent history, only attorneys general Gonzales, Meese, and Mitchell have been as politically close to their president as Senator Sessions would be. And the Gonzales, Meese, and Mitchell tenures did not end well.

I fear that unless publicly boxed in Attorney General Sessions' default position would be to protect the administration. The department's public corruption work is ordinarily done within the secrecy of investigative privilege, particularly in the early stages where the faithful go, no-go decisions are made. So the pressure of publicity will ordinarily not be available.

Let me add a word about climate change which is a matter of grave concern to me and to Rhode Island, our ocean state. Climate change presents readily discernible truths on one side and a massive polluting industry that wants to deny them on the other side. Senator Sessions has persistently refused to discern those readily discernible truths and unfailingly lined up with that massive polluting industry.

As a signal about how as attorney general he would handle conflicts between truth and power, this is an ominous one. Recent events put these concerns into particularly sharp focus. The refugee order that the president has issued highlights the problems we face over Senator Sessions' nomination. On a bipartisan basis experts have concluded this will harm our national security.

As has been reported in the media, a group of more than 100 former national security heavyweights from both political parties protested President Donald Trump's executive order on refugees in a letter last Monday. This order not only jeopardizes tens of thousands of lives, they wrote, it has caused a crisis right here in America and will do long term damage to our national security. Simply put, they concluded, this order will harm our national security.

In addition to being a substantive backfire, the order was a procedural botch. As reporters have disclosed, Trump and his aides kept GOP congressional leaders almost completely in the dark about the most consequential act of his young presidency, a temporary ban on refugees and on anyone from seven majority Muslim nations. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly fumed privately to associates over the weekend because they have been caught unaware.

It became evident that the rollout of the executive order, ordered between clumsy and dysfunctional. Even on "Morning Joe," host Joe Scarborough said the weekend was a disgrace. On Capitol Hill many Republicans close to leadership were frustrated that they received little to no guidance or advance notice about Trump's immigration and refugee directive.

The opening days of this administration have been a gong show, but a gong show with a nuclear button. This dangerous state of affairs puts all of President trump's nominees in a new light. As conservative columnist David Brooks has written, many Republican members of Congress have made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. They don't particularly admire him as a man, they don't trust him as an administrator, they don't agree with him on major issues, but they respect the grip he has on their voters.

[10:45:04] But if the last 10 days have made anything clearer, it's this. The Republican Fausts are in an untenable position. The deal they've struck with the devil comes at too high a price. It really will cost them their soul.

Even if Trump's ideology were not noxious, his incompetence is a threat to all around him. To say that it is amateur hour at the White House is to slander amateurs. The recent executive orders were drafted and signed without any normal agency review or even semi- coherent legal advice, filled with elemental errors that any nursery school student would have caught.

I'm continuing with David Brooks' words here. It seems that the Trump administration is less a government than a small click of bloggers and tweeters who are in communicado with the people who actually helped them get things done. Things will get really hairy when the world's problems are incoming.

Third, it's become increasingly clear that the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation and anybody who aligns too closely will end up sharing in the stench. Fourth, it is hard to think of any administration in recent memory on any level whose identity is so tainted by cruelty.

The Trump administration is often harsh and never kind. It is quick to inflict suffering on the 8-year-old Syrian girl who's been bombed and strafed and lost her dad. Its deportation vows mean that in the years ahead, TV screens will be filled with weeping families being pulled apart. None of these traits will improve with time.

As former Bush administration official Elliott Cohen wrote in "The Atlantic," quote, "Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse as power intoxicates Trump and those around him, it will probably end in calamity.

David Brooks concludes, Trump's first 10 days in office have made clear that this is not a normal administration. It is a problem that demands a response. It is a callous, bumbling group that demands either personal loyalty or the axe. With most administration --

[10:46:59] MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Again, we're grateful for the warm hospitality of Leader McConnell today.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Some Democrats are already saying Judge Gorsuch is out of the mainstream. (INAUDIBLE)?

PENCE: OK. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate your time.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Print press followed by TV.

PENCE: Thanks, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Paul. Paul, can you please turn?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bills haven't gone yet.

COSTELLO: All right. A little confusing there, but we left the Senate Judiciary hearing committee where the Democratic lawmaker from Rhode Island was excoriating the Trump administration. And then we switched to Mitch McConnell's office, Senator Mitch McConnell's office where Vice President Mike Pence had brought Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Gorsuch, in to meet everyone. They're having a meet and greet on Capitol Hill today.

OK. We're going to go back to the hearing now. Where do we go? It's a rock and rolling morning here, so back to the Senate Judiciary hearing and Jeff Sessions. SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Borrow a moment -- a minute or two of

his time if I run over the 22 minutes. I join my Democratic colleagues in expressing my strong opposition to Senator Sessions' nomination. In my view it's important that every member of this committee fully understands Senator Sessions' views on matters that he stands to influence as attorney general.

So once he was nominated, I spent a good deal of time reviewing the information he submitted. His questionnaire, his supporting documents and materials. And the records of his -- the record of his previous confirmation hearing before the committee back in 1986.

I know Senator Sessions. We served together since I joined this body and the committee back in 2009. And while I enjoy a good relationship with him and I respect him as a colleague, Senator Sessions and I have very different views about most of the issues that come before this committee, particularly on matters of equal justice. So when I started reviewing his materials, I paid special attention to how he described his work on civil rights. And I noticed some discrepancies in the way he had described his involvement in civil rights cases filed during the time -- his time as a U.S. attorney.

I asked Senator Sessions about these discrepancies during his hearing. I asked him about his claim that he had filed 20 or 30 desegregation cases, a claim he made in a 2009 interview with "The National Review." In response, Senator Sessions said, quote, "The records do not show that there were 20 or 30 actually filed cases." He said of the claim, quote, "The record does not justify it."

I then moved on to question him about four cases that he listed on his questionnaire which asked him to list the, quote, "Ten most significant litigated matters he personally handled."

[10:50:06] Among those 10 cases that he listed on his questionnaire were three voting rights cases and a desegregation case. Now that surprised me. And that's because I know Senator Sessions and I know his record on voting rights. He's no champion of voting rights. He called the Voting Rights Act intrusive and complained about states with a history of discrimination being subject to preclearance.

But here he seemed to be trumpeting his personal involvement in three voting rights cases and one school desegregation case. And I guess it just seemed to me that given his previous experience before this committee, and given the concerns civil rights advocates had expressed about his nomination, that perhaps Senator Sessions or the transition team was attempting to revise some of that history and to recast him as a civil rights champion.

And as it turns out that's exactly what was going on. Three attorneys who worked on three of those four cases wrote an op-ed stating that Senator Sessions had no substantive involvement in the cases that he listed as being among the top 10 that he had personally handled during his entire career. And two of those attorneys also submitted testimony to that effect. One of them, Jerry Hebert, spent 21 years in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. During time which he litigated cases in Alabama and met Senator Sessions. Mister Hebert also provided testimony to this committee in 1986, and

much of it served as a basis for Republicans on that committee choosing to reject Senator Sessions' nomination to the federal bench.

Now after I questioned Senator Sessions about his claim of personally handling these four civil rights cases, Senator Cruz decided to weigh in on my line of questioning. He said that I intended -- that I had intended to undermine the nominee's character and integrity and that my questioning was, quote, not backed by the facts. Senator Cruz then proceed to mischaracterize and attack Mr. Hebert whom he described as, quote, "An individual who testified falsely before this committee."

Let's talk about that. Back in 1986, Mr. Hebert and his supervisor at DOJ were called to the Hill, without advance warning, to be deposed. Mr. Hebert's supervisor incorrectly stated that when he was a U.S. attorney, Senator Sessions pressured the FBI to stop a voting rights investigation. That was not the case. It wasn't Senator Sessions who did that. Mr. Hebert's supervisor got it wrong, he misremembered.

When committee staff next deposed Mr. Hebert, he was asked whether he observed Senator Sessions interfere with DOJ cases. And Mr. Hebert replied, quote, "I only know what happened with our Conecuh County case but my supervisor is in a better position to talk about that than I am." Mr. Hebert continued, "He and I both have a very fuzzy recollection about Conecuh County. It was my supervisor's case primarily."

Then Senator Biden asked Mr. Hebert about this testimony the next day, and Mr. Hebert repeated the error. But after they testified, which again happened on very short notice, Mr. Hebert and his supervisor returned to DOJ and pulled the records from the case, from those cases. They themselves discovered their error and they both immediately filed sworn declarations making clear that they were mistaken and that Senator Sessions did not interfere, it was Senator Sessions' predecessor who had interfered.

Mr. Hebert and his supervisor did not recant their testimony, they simply corrected their testimony in writing, in advance of the committee's vote on Senator Sessions. In Mr. Hebert's case, that meant he submitted a declaration in which he corrected three lines of testimony in what was a 24-page deposition. Three lines.

The rest of the testimony in Mr. Hebert's 24-page deposition was unaffected. But just to be safe, just to make sure that the committee didn't misunderstand the purpose of his declaration, Mr. Hebert made it crystal clear. He wrote, quote, "This revelation concerning the noninvolvement of Mr. Jefferson Sessions in interfering in any voting rights investigations in the southern district of Alabama does not affect in any way my other testimony rendered before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 13th, 1986."

[10:55:12] Mr. Hebert's supervisor, who was the one responsible for originally getting the facts wrong, also testified in person to correct the record. That's what happened. Those are the facts. But when describing this history, Senator Cruz misrepresented what happened. So I'd like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Mr. Chairman, I object to -- I object to the senator disparaging a fellow member of the committee here in his absence. I would think --

FRANKEN: Well, he should be here, first of all. And secondly, he disparaged me, Senator.

CORNYN: -- to his face.

GRASSLEY: Let him make his case and then we'll go back to you.

FRANKEN: Sure.

CORNYN: I object to the -- we're here to talk about the president's nominee, not a colleague and I object to --

FRANKEN: Don't take this from my time.

CORNYN: Disparaging a colleague on this committee, and particularly in the colleague's absence. It's just not -- it's untoward and it's inappropriate and I object.

FRANKEN: Can I speak to that?

GRASSLEY: You can speak to it, but I think that we'd be better off if we just let it go at this point.

FRANKEN: You mean let me continue my speech?

GRASSLEY: Yes. Would you do that, please?

FRANKEN: I will, thank you. But just to be safe, just to make sure that -- OK, I did that paragraph. This is what happened. Those are the facts. But when describing this history, Senator Cruz misrepresented what happened. So I'd like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

CORNYN: Mr. Chairman, I object again. The senator apparently can't get the message from the chairman that this is -- this is over the top and inappropriate.

FRANKEN: I think the senator from Texas doesn't get the message from the chairman.

GRASSLEY: You put the chairman in an awful bad position at this point, because I'm not sure that I know --

FRANKEN: Where I'm going?

GRASSLEY: I don't disagree with anything Senator Cornyn said, but I'm not sure I want to rule anybody out of order but could you please leave personalities out of it?

FRANKEN: Can I explain what I'm doing here? Because Senator Cruz did the very thing that Senator Cornyn is accusing me of doing. In my absence, he misrepresented me, he misrepresented Mr. Hebert. He personally went after me. He personally impugned my integrity/ You didn't object then, did you?

CORNYN: I'm not sure I was here. And I'm not sure --

FRANKEN: I wasn't here either. Let me continue, sir?

CORNYN: It would be a decent and honorable thing to do to do it in the senator's presence and not --

FRANKEN: Well, get him here. But he'll have a tape of it. OK. Allow me to read from the hearing transcript. This is Senator Cruz talking to Senator Sessions. And what I'm doing here is I'm clarifying Senator Sessions' record.

GRASSLEY: Proceed.

FRANKEN: Senator Cruz, "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 impugn the integrity of a fellow senator with whom we have served for years. It is particularly unfortunate when that attack is not backed up by the facts."

Now let's talk about who is trying to impugn the integrity of another senator. I would suggest that Senator Cruz was trying to impugn mine. But if you take the time to really examine the evidence, you will see that he's not making his case at all, and instead he deliberately elides the truth. And this is about Senator Sessions.

Let's go back to the transcript. Senator Cruz, "Senator Sessions based his tact 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 the 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 on this committee by my prior testimony. So an individual who has testified falsely once before this committee, his op-ed is now the basis for Senator Franken's attack on you."

Let's unpack this. Mr. Hebert was not, quote, "forced to recant his testimony," he voluntarily corrected an error that he discovered himself. The committee did not catch him in a lie. He did not try to pull one over on the United States Senate. That's not what happened. As I noted, Mr. Hebert originally testified that he had, quote, "a fuzzy recollection" about the incident in question. Upon refreshing his recollection he immediately and voluntarily corrected the record. But if you didn't know better --