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Contiuing Coverage of Senate Judiciary Hearing. Aired 3-3:30

Aired June 13, 2017 - 15:00   ET




And it was only in March, after my confirmation hearing, that a reporter asked my spokesperson whether I had ever met with any Russian officials. This was the first time that question had squarely been posed to me.

On the same day, we provided that reporter with the information related to the meeting that I and my staff had held in my Senate office with Ambassador Kislyak, as well as the brief encounter in July, after a speech that I had given during the convention in Cleveland, Ohio. I also provided the reporter with a list of 25 foreign ambassador meetings that I'd had during 2016.

In addition, I provided supplemental testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain this event. So I ready -- readily acknowledged these two meetings and certainly not one thing happened that was improper in any one of those meetings.

Let me also explain clearly the circumstances of my recusal from the investigation into the Russian interference with the 2016 election. Please, colleagues, hear me on this.

I was sworn in as attorney general on Thursday, February 9th. The very next day, as I had promised to the judiciary committee I would do, at least at an early date, I met with career department officials, including senior -- a senior ethics official, to discuss some things publicly reported in the press that might have some bearing on whether or not I should recuse myself in this case.

From that point, February 10th, until I announced my formal recusal on March 2nd, I was never briefed on any investigative details, did not access any information about the investigation. I received only the limited information that the department's career officials determined was necessary for me to form and make a recusal decision.

As such, I have no knowledge about this investigation, as it is ongoing today, beyond what has been publicly reported. I don't even read that carefully. And I have taken no action whatsoever with regard to any such investigation.

On the date of my formal recusal, my chief of staff sent an e- mail to the heads of relevant departments, including, by name, to Director Comey of the FBI, to instruct them to inform their staffs of this recusal and to advise them not to brief me or involve me in any way in any such matters. And, in fact, they have not.

Importantly, I recused myself not because of any asserted wrongdoing, or any belief that I may have been involved in any wrongdoing in the campaign, but because a Department of Justice regulation, 28 CFR 45.2, I felt, required it.

That regulation states, in effect, that department employees should not participate in investigations of a campaign if they served as a campaign adviser.

So the scope of my recusal, however, does not and cannot interfere with my ability to oversee the Department of Justice, including the FBI, which has an $8 billion budget and 35,000 employees. I presented to the president my concerns and those of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the ongoing leadership issues at the FBI, as stated in my letter recommending the removal of Mr. Comey, along with the Deputy Attorney General's memorandum on that issue, which had been released publicly by the White House.

Those represent a clear statement of my views. I adopted Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's points that he made in his memorandum, and made my recommendation.

It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations.

Finally, during his testimony, Mr. Comey discussed a conversation that he and I had about the meeting Mr. Comey had with the president. I'm happy to share with the committee my recollection of that conversation that I had with Mr. Comey.

SESSIONS: Following a routine morning threat briefing, Mr. Comey spoke to me and my chief of staff. While he did not provide me with any of the substance of his conversation with the president, apparently the day before, Mr. Comey expressed concern about proper communications protocol with the White House and with the president.

I responded -- he didn't recall this, but I will -- I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.

Mr. Comey had served in the department for better than two decades, and I was confident that he understood and would abide by the well- established rules limiting communications with the White House, especially about ongoing investigations. That's what's so important to control.

My comments encouraged him to do just that, and indeed, as I understand it, he in fact did that. Our Department of Justice rules on proper communications between the department and the White House have been in place for years. Mr. Comey well knew them. I thought and assumed, correctly, that he complied with them. So I'll finish with this. I recused myself from any investigation into the campaign for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations.

At all times, throughout the course of the campaign, the confirmation process and since becoming attorney general, I have dedicated myself to the highest standards. I've earned a reputation for that, at home and in this body, I believe, over decades of performance.

The people of this country expect an honest and transparent government, and that's what we're giving them. This president wants to focus on the people of this country, to ensure they are treated fairly and kept safe.

The Trump agenda is to improve the lives of the American people. I know some have different ways of achieving this and different agendas, but that is his agenda, and it's one I share.

Importantly, as attorney general, I have a responsibility to enforce the laws of this nation, to protect this country from its enemies and to ensure the fair administration of justice. And I intend to work every day with our fine team and the superb professionals in the Department of Justice to advance the important work we have to do.

These false attacks, the innuendoes, the leaks, you can be sure, will not intimidate me. In fact, these events have only strengthened my resolve to fulfill my duty -- my duty to reduce crime, to support our federal, state and local law enforcement officers who work on our streets every day.

Just last week, it was reported that overdose death in this country are rising faster than ever recorded. Last year was 52,000. The New York Times just estimated next year will be 62,000 overdose deaths. The murder rate is up over 10 percent, the largest increase since 1968.

Together, we are telling the gangs, the cartels, the fraudsters and the terrorists, we are coming after you. Every one of our citizens, no matter who they are or where they live, has the right to be safe in their homes and communities. And I will not be deterred. I will not allow this great department to be deterred from its vital mission.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Warner. I have a great honor to appear before you today, and I will do my best to answer your questions.

BURR: (OFF-MIKE) General Sessions, thank you. Thank you for that testimony.

I'd like to note for members, the chair and the vice chairman will be recognized for 10 minutes, members will be recognized for five minutes, and I'd like to remind our members that we are in open session. No references to classified or committee-sensitive materials should be used relative to your questions.

With that, I recognize myself, at this time, for ten minutes. BURR: Joe Sessions, you talked about the Mayflower Hotel, where the

president gave his first foreign policy speech, and it's been covered in the press that the president was there, you were there, others were there. From your testimony, you said you don't remember whether Ambassador Kislyak was there, the Russian Ambassador. Is that correct?

SESSIONS: I did not remember that -- I did not remember that, but I understand he was there. And so I -- I don't doubt that he was. I believe that representations are correct. In fact, I recently saw a video of him coming in to the room.

BURR: But you never remember having a conversation or a meeting with Ambassador Kislyak?

SESSIONS: I do not.

BURR: And there was -- in that event, was there ever a private room setting that you were involved in?


BURR: With any...


SESSIONS: ... other than the reception area that was shut off from, I guess, the main crowd. A couple of dozen -- two to three dozen people.

BURR: I would take for granted, at an event like this, the president shook some hands.

SESSIONS: Yes, he came in and shook hands in the group.

BURR: OK. All right (ph), you mentioned that there were some staff that were with you at that event.

SESSIONS: My legislative director at the time...


BURR: ... your Senate staff?

SESSIONS: ... Senate legislative director, who was a retired U.S. Army colonel, who'd served on the Armed Services staff with Senator John Warner (ph) before she joined my staff, was with me in the reception area, and throughout the rest of the events.

BURR: Would you say that you were there as a United States Senator, or as a surrogate of the campaign for this event?

SESSIONS: I came there as a interested person, very anxious to see how President Trump would do in his first major foreign policy address. I believe he'd only given one major speech before, that one, maybe, at the Jewish AIPAC event. So it was an interesting time to -- for me to observe his delivery and

the message he would make. That was my main purpose of being there.

BURR: Now, you reported two other meetings with Ambassador Kislyak -- one in July, on the sidelines of the Republican Convention, I believe, and one in September in your Senate office.

Have you had any other interactions with government officials, over the year, in a campaign capacity? I'm not -- I'm not asking you from the standpoint of your Senate life...

SESSIONS: Yeah. Yeah.

BURR: ... but in a campaign capacity.

SESSIONS: I'm -- no, Mr. Chairman. I've stretched my -- racked my brain to make sure I could answer any of those questions correctly, and -- and I did not.

I would just offer for you that the -- when asked about whether I had had any meetings with Russians by the reporter in March, we immediately recalled the conversation, the encounter I had at the convention and the meeting in my office, and made that public.

I never intended not to include that. I would have -- gladly have reported the meeting, the encounter that may have occurred -- that some say occurred in the Mayflower, if I had remembered it, or if it actually occurred, which I don't remember that it did.

BURR: General Sessions, on March 2nd, 2017, you formally recused yourself from any involvement in the Russian investigation being conducted by the FBI and the Department of Justice. What are the specific reasons that you chose to recuse yourself?

SESSIONS: Well the specific reason, Mr. Chairman, is a CFR, a -- Code of Federal Regulations, put out by the Department of Justice, part of the Department of Justice rules. And it says this -- I'll read from it: 28 CFR 45.2, "Unless authorized, no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person involved in the conduct of an investigation." It goes on to say, for political, a -- in a political campaign.

And it says, "If you have a close identification with an elected official or a candidate arising from service as a principal adviser, you should not -- you should not participate in an investigation of that campaign."

BURR: So would you...


SESSIONS: So many have suggested that my recusal is because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself, that I may have done something wrong, but this is the reason I recused myself. I felt I was required to, under the rules of the Department of Justice. And as a leader of the Department of Justice, I should comply with the rules, obviously.

BURR: So did your legal counsel basically know, from day one, you would have to recuse yourself of this investigation because of the current statute?

SESSIONS: Well, I do have a timeline of what occurred. I was sworn in on the 9th, I believe, of February. I then, on the 10th, had my first meeting to generally discuss this issue, where the CFR was not discussed.

We had several other meetings, and -- and it became clear to me over time that I qualified as a significant -- a principal adviser type person to the campaign, and it was the appropriate and right thing for me...

BURR: So this could...

SESSIONS: ... to recuse myself.

BURR: ... this -- this could explain Director Comey's comments that he knew that -- that there was a likelihood you would recuse yourself, because he was probably familiar with the same statute?

SESSIONS: Well, I think -- I -- probably so. I'm sure that the -- the attorneys in the Department of Justice probably communicated with him, because, Mr. Chairman, let me say this to you clearly -- in effect, as a matter of fact, I recused myself that date. I never received any information about the campaign (sic).

I thought there was a problem with me being able to serve as attorney general over this issue, and I felt I would possibly have to recuse myself, and I took the position -- correctly, I believe -- not to involve myself in the campaign (sic) in any way, and I did not.

BURR: You made a reference to your chief of staff sending out an -- an e-mail, immediately notifying internally of your decision to recuse. Would you -- would you ask your chief of staff to make that e-mail available?

SESSIONS: We would be pleased to do -- do so...

BURR: Thank -- thank you.

SESSIONS: ... and I think I have it with me now.

BURR: Thank you, General (sic) Sessions.

Have you had any interactions with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, since his appointment?

SESSIONS: I have not.

With regard to the e-mail we sent out, Mr. Comey -- Director Comey indicated that he did not know that -- when I recused myself, I (ph) did not receive notice. One of those e-mails went to him by name.

So a lot happens in our offices. I'm not accusing him of any wrongdoing, but in fact it was sent to him, and to his name.

BURR: OK. General (sic) Sessions, as you said, Mr. Comey testified at length before the committee about his interactions with the president, in some cases, highlighting your presence at those meetings. And you addressed the meeting where all were asked to leave except for Director Comey and he had a private meeting with the -- the -- the president.

And you said that he did inform you of how uncomfortable that was, and your recommendation was that the FBI and DOJ needed to follow the rules limiting further correspondence.

Did Director Comey ever express additional discomfort with conversations that the president might have had with him? Because he had two additional meetings and, I think, a total of six phone calls.

SESSIONS: That is correct. There's nothing wrong with the president having a communication with the FBI director.

What is problematic, for any Department of Justice employee, is to talk to any cabinet persons or White House officials -- high officials about ongoing investigations that are not properly cleared through the top levels of the Department of Justice.

And so it was a -- regulation, I think, is healthy. I thought we needed, and strongly believed, we needed to restore discipline within our department, to adhere to just those kind of rules, plus (ph) leaking rules and some of the other things that I think are a bit lax and need to be restored.

BURR: You couldn't have had a conversation with the president about the investigation, because you were never briefed on the investigation...


SESSIONS: That is correct.

The -- I do -- would note that, with regard to the private meeting that Director Comey had, by his own admission, I believe, there are as many as six such meetings. Several of them, he had with President Trump. I think he had two with President Obama. So it's not improper per se. But it would not be justified for department official to share information about an ongoing investigation without prior review and clearance from above.

BURR: General (sic) Sessions, just one last question. You were the chair of this foreign policy team for the Trump -- Trump campaign. To the best your knowledge, did that team ever meet?


SESSIONS: We met a couple of times, maybe. Some of the people did. But we never functioned, frankly, Mr. Chairman, as a coherent team. We had various meetings...


BURR: Were there any members -- were there any members of that team you never met?


BURR: OK. Vice chairman.

WARNER: Thank you, General (sic) Sessions.

As I mentioned in my opening statement, we appreciate your appearance here, but we do see this as the first step, and I would just like to get your commitment that you will agree to make yourself available as the committee needs in the weeks and months ahead.

SESSIONS: Senator Warner, I will -- I will commit to appear before this committee and other committees as appropriate. I don't think it's good policy to continually bring cabinet members or the attorney general before multiple committees, going over the same things over and over...


WARNER: I know other members of the Judiciary Committee or Appropriations Committee may want...

SESSIONS: Well, they -- I'm sure...


WARNER: ... raise those issues. But let me just ask about this committee.

SESSIONS: I just gave you my answer, Mr. (inaudible).

WARNER: Thank you.

What about -- can we also get your commitment, since there will be questions about some of these meetings that took place or not, that we could get access to documents or memoranda, your daybook or something, so we can...

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, we will be glad to provide appropriate responses to your questions and review them carefully...

WARNER: Thank you.

SESSIONS: ... and -- and try to be responsive (ph).


WARNER: Yesterday -- yesterday, a friend of the president was reported to -- suggesting that President Trump was considering removing Director Mueller as special counsel. Do you have confidence in Director Mueller's ability to conduct his investigation fair -- fairly and impartially? SESSIONS: Well, first, I don't know about these reports, and have basis to -- to ascertain their...

WARNER: But I'm asking you, sir -- I'm asking -- do you...


SESSIONS: ... validity. I have known Mr. Mueller over the years. He served 12 years as FBI director. He -- I knew him before that. And I have confidence in Mr. Mueller...

WARNER: So you have confidence he can do his job (ph)?

SESSIONS: ... but I am not going to discuss any hypotheticals or what might be a factual situation in the future that I'm not aware of today, because I know nothing about the investigation and...

WARNER: Do you believe...


SESSIONS: ... fully recuse myself from (inaudible).

WARNER: I've got a series of questions, sir. Could you believe the president has confidence in Director Mueller?

SESSIONS: I have no idea. I've not talked to him about it.

WARNER: Now, if the -- will you commit to this committee not to take any personal actions that might result in Director Mueller's firing or dismissal?

SESSIONS: Well, I think I could probably say that with confidence, because I'm recused...


WARNER: You said (ph) -- you're recused (ph).

SESSIONS: ... from the investigation. In fact, the way it works, Senator Warner, is that the acting attorney general...

WARNER: I'm -- I'm aware of the...

SESSIONS: ... for (ph) this investigation...


WARNER: ... process (ph), but I just wanted to get you on the record that you would not...

SESSIONS: ... is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein...

WARNER: ... with your recusal, you would not -- you would not take any actions to try to have director -- Special Investigator Mueller removed. SESSIONS: I wouldn't think that would be appropriate for me to do.

WARNER: Yes, sir, I agree.

To your knowledge, have any Department of Justice officials been involved with conversations about any possibility of presidential pardons about any of the individuals involved with the Russia investigation?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I'm not able to comment on conversations with high officials within the White House. That would be a violation of the communications rule that I -- I have to...


WARNER: Would -- is that -- just so I can understand, is the basis of that unwillingness to answer based on executive privilege, or what?

SESSIONS: My -- it's a longstanding policy of the Department of Justice not to comment on conversations that the attorney general has had with the president of the United States, for confidential reasons that, really, are founded in the coequal branch powers in the Constitution of the United States.

WARNER: But that -- so -- but, just so I'm understanding, does that mean -- are you claiming executive privilege here today, sir?


SESSIONS: I'm not claiming executive privilege, because that's the president's power, and I have no power to claim executive privilege. WARNER: What about -- what about conversations with other Department of Justice or other White House officials about potential pardons, not the president, sir?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, without in any way suggesting that I have had any conversations concerning pardons, totally apart from that, there are privileges of communication within the Department of Justice that we share -- all of us do.

We have a right to have full and robust debate within the Department of Justice. We encourage people to speak up and argue cases on different sides. And those arguments are not...

WARNER: I would -- I would hope, though (ph)...

SESSIONS: ... to be revealed. Historically, we've seen that they shouldn't be revealed.

WARNER: ... I would hope that the -- you would agree that, since you've recused yourself from this investigation, that if the president or others would pardon someone during the midst of this investigation, while -- our investigation or Director Mueller's investigation -- that would be a -- I would think, problematic.

Let me -- I want to -- one of the comments you made in your -- in your testimony was that you'd reached this conclusion about the performance of then Director Comey's ability to lead the FBI, that you agreed with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's memo -- the fact that you'd worked with Director Comey for some time -- did you ever have a conversation, as a superior of Director Comey, with -- his failure to perform, or some of these accusations that he wasn't running the FBI in a good way, or that somehow the FBI was -- is in turmoil?

Did you have any conversations with Director Comey about those subjects?

SESSIONS: I did not.

WARNER: So you were his -- his superior, and there were some fairly harsh things said about Director Comey. You never thought it was appropriate to raise those concerns before he was actually terminated by the president?

SESSIONS: I did not do so. A memorandum was prepared by the deputy attorney general, who evaluated his performance and noted some serious problems with it. One of...

WARNER: And you agreed with those evaluations (ph)?

SESSIONS: I agreed with those. In fact, Senator Warner, we had talked about it even before I was confirmed and before he was confirmed. It's something that we both agreed to, that a fresh start at the FBI was probably the best...

(CROSSTALK) WARNER: It just, again, seems a little -- I could understand it, if you talked about that before you came on. You had a chance for a fresh start. There was no fresh start. Suddenly, we're in the midst of the investigation, and with timing that seems a little peculiar, the -- what kind of -- at least to me -- was out of the blue, the president fires the FBI director.

And if there are all these problems of disarray and a lack of -- of esprit de corps at the FBI -- all things that the acting director of the FBI denied is the case -- I would've thought that somebody would've had that kind of conversation with Director Comey. He was -- at least been owed that.

Let's go to the May -- or the April 27th meeting -- has been brought up, and I think the chairman brought it up. By the time April 27th came around, you'd already been named as the chair of -- of then Candidate Trump's national security advisory. So showing up -- that meeting would be appropriate, not only...


SESSIONS: That was the Mayflower Hotel?

WARNER: ... right. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

And you -- my understanding was that the president's son-in-law, Gerald (ph) -- Jared Kushner was at that -- was at that meeting, as well? SESSIONS: I believe he was, yes.

WARNER: And you don't recollect whether Mr. Kushner had any conversations with Ambassador Kislyak at that session?

SESSIONS: I do not.

WARNER: OK. And, to the best of your memory, you had no conversation with Ambassador Kislyak at that meeting?

SESSIONS: I don't recall it, Senator Warner. It would've been (ph) -- certainly, I can assure you, nothing improper, if I'd had a conversation with him. And it's conceivable that that occurred. I just don't remember it.

WARNER: But there was nothing in your notes or memory so that, when you had a chance -- and you did, and I appreciate -- correct the record about the other two sessions, in response to Senator Franken and Senator Leahy, this one didn't pop into your memory -- that, maybe, in the overabundance of -- of caution, that you ought to report that this session, as well?

SESSIONS: Well, I guess I could say that I possibly had a meeting, but I still do not recall it. And I did not in any way fail to record something on -- in my testimony or in my subsequent letter -- intentionally false. WARNER: I understand -- I understand that, sir. I'm just trying to understand, when we -- when you corrected the record, and clearly, by the time you had a chance to correct the record, I would've thought that you would've known that Ambassador Kislyak was at that April 27th session. It received some -- quite a bit of press notoriety.

And, again, echoing what the chairman has said, just again for the record, there was no other meeting with any other officials of the Russian government during the campaign season?

SESSIONS: Not to my recollection. And I would just say, with regard to the -- to encounters, one at the Mayflower Hotel that you referred to...

WARNER: Yes, sir.

SESSIONS: ... I came there not knowing he was going to be there. I don't have any recollection of even knowing he would be there. I didn't have any communications with him before or after that event.

And likewise, at the event at the convention, I went off the convention grounds to a college campus for an event that had been set up...

WARNER: But at -- at the -- at the Mayflower -- at the Mayflower events (ph)...


SESSIONS: Let me just follow this up on that one. I didn't know he would be in the audience and had no...


WARNER: So, at the Mayflower...


WARNER: ... there was -- there was this, I guess, kind of VIP reception first, and then people went in to the speech. Is that -- just so I get a...

SESSIONS: That's my impression.


That's my recollection.