Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Continuing Coverage of Attorney General Testimony at Senate Judiciary Hearing. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired June 13, 2017 - 15:30   ET

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


JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: That's my impression.

[15:30:00]

That's my recollection.

WARNER: ... and you were part of the VIP reception?

SESSIONS: Yes.

WARNER: Yes, sir.

General Sessions (sic), one of the, again, troubling things that -- that I -- I need to sort through is, Mr. Comey's testimony last week was that he felt uncomfortable when the president asked everyone else to leave the room. He left the impression that you lingered, with perhaps a sense that you felt uncomfortable about -- about it as well.

I don't -- I want -- I'm going to allow you to, obviously, answer and correct if that's not the right impression.

After this meeting took place, which -- clearly Director Comey felt -- had some level of uncomfortableness, you never asked Director Comey what took place in that meeting?

SESSIONS: Well, I would just say it this way. We were there, I was standing there, and without repeating (ph) any conversation that took place, what I do recall is that I did depart, I believe everyone else did depart, and Director Comey was sitting in front of the president's desk and they were talking.

So that's what I do remember. I believe it was the next day that he said something, expressed concern about being left alone with the president. But that in itself is not problematic. He did not tell me at that time any details about anything that was said that was improper.

I affirmed his concern that we should be following the proper guidelines of the Department of Justice, and basically backed him up in his concerns, in that he should not carry on any conversation with the president or anyone else about an investigation in a way that was not proper.

I felt he, so long in the department -- former deputy attorney general, as I recall -- knew those policies probably a good deal better than I did.

WARNER: Thank you sir, and I thank you, Mr. Chairman, but it did appear that Mr. Comey felt that the conversation was improper.

SESSIONS: He -- he was concerned about it. And his recollection of what he said to me about his concern, I don't -- is consistent with my recollection. BURR: Senator Risch.

RISCH: Attorney General Sessions, good to hear you talk about how important this Russian interference and active measures in our campaign is. I -- I don't think there's any American who would disagree with the fact that we need to drill down to this, know what happened, get it out in front of the American people and do what we can to stop it again.

And that's what this committee was charged to do, and that's what this committee started to do. As you probably know, on February 14th, the New York Times published an article alleging that there were -- there was constant communications between the Trump campaign and the Russians in collusion regarding the elections. Do you recall that -- that article when it came out?

SESSIONS: Not exactly.

RISCH: Generally.

SESSIONS: But I was (ph) -- generally, I remember those charges.

RISCH: And Mr. Comey told us when he was here last week that -- that he had a very specific recollection. In fact, he chased it down through the intelligence community, and was not able to find a scintilla of evidence to that effect.

Then, he sought out both Republicans and Democrats up here to tell them that this was false, that there was no -- no such facts anywhere that -- that corroborated what the New York Times had reported.

Nonetheless, after that, this committee took that on as one of the things that we've spent, really -- substantially more time on that than we have on the -- on the Russian active measures. We've been through thousands of pages of -- of information, interviewed witnesses and everything else.

We're no -- really no different than where we were when -- when this whole thing started. But -- and -- and there's been no reports, that I know of, of any factual information in that regard. Are you where of any such information of collusion?

SESSIONS: Is that -- arose from the dossier -- so-called dossier, Senator Risch? Is that what you're referring to?

RISCH: Well, where (ph) -- anywhere.

SESSIONS: I believe that's the report that Senator Franken hit me with when I was testifying, and it, I think, has been pretty substantially discredited, but you would know more than I. But it -- what was said that would suggest I participated in continuing communications with Russians over -- as a surrogate is absolutely false.

RISCH: Mr. Sessions, the -- there's been all this talk about conversations, and that you had some conversations with the Russians. Senators up here who are on either foreign relations, intelligence, armed services -- conversations with officers of other governments or -- or ambassadors or what have you are everyday occurrences here -- multiple time occurrences, for most of us. Is that a fair statement?

SESSIONS: I think it is, yes.

RISCH: And, indeed, if you run into one in a grocery store, you're going to have a conversation with them. Is that fair?

SESSIONS: Could very well happen.

(CROSSTALK)

SESSIONS: Nothing (ph) improper.

RISCH: All right. On the other hand, collusion of -- collusion with the Russians, or any other government, for that matter, when it comes to our elections certainly would be improper and -- and illegal. Would that be a fair statement?

SESSIONS: Absolutely.

RISCH: All right. Are you willing to sit here and tell the American people, unfiltered by what the media's going to put out, that you participated in no conversations of any kind where there was collusion between the Trump campaign and any other foreign government?

SESSIONS: I can say that absolutely, and I have no hesitation to do so.

RISCH: Mr. Sessions, you're a former U.S. attorney, former United States senator and the attorney general of the United States. You participated -- as you've described -- in the Trump campaign. And, as such, you traveled with the campaign, I gather?

SESSIONS: I did.

RISCH: You spoke for the campaign, at times?

SESSIONS: Well, on (ph) a number of occasions. I was not continually in -- on the -- travel.

RISCH: Based upon -- upon your experience, and based upon your participation in the campaign, did you hear even a whisper, or a suggestion, or anyone making reference within that campaign that somehow the Russians were involved in that campaign (ph)?

SESSIONS: I did not.

RISCH: OK. SESSIONS: No one ever...

(CROSSTALK)

RISCH: What would you have done if you'd have heard that?

SESSIONS: Well, I would've been shocked, and I would've known it was improper.

RISCH: And headed for the exit, I suppose.

SESSIONS: Well, maybe.

RISCH: All right.

SESSIONS: So this was, you know, a serious -- this is a serious matter, because what you're talking about -- hacking into a private person or DNC computer and obtaining information and spreading that out -- that's just not right. And I believe it's likely that laws were violated if that actually occurred. So it's an improper thing.

RISCH: Mr. Sessions, has any person from the White House or the administration, including the president of the United States, either directed you or asked you to do any unlawful or illegal act since you've been attorney general of the United States?

SESSIONS: No, Senator Risch, they've (ph) not.

RISCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

BURR: Senator Feinstein.

FEINSTEIN: Thanks very much, Mr. Chairman.

Welcome, Attorney General.

SESSIONS: Thank you.

FEINSTEIN: On May 19th, Mr. Rosenstein, in a statement to the House of Representatives, essentially told them that he learned on May 8th that President Trump intended to remove Director Comey.

When you wrote your letter on May 9, did you know that the president had already decided to fire Director Comey?

SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, I would say that I believe it's been made public that the president asked us our opinion, it was given, and he asked us to put that into writing. And I don't know how much more he said about it than that, but I believe he has talked about it. And I would let his words speak for themselves.

FEINSTEIN: Well, on May 11th, on NBC Nightly News, two days later, the president stated he was going to fire Comey regardless of the recommendation.

So I'm puzzled about the recommendation, because the decision had been made. So what was the need for you to write a recommendation?

SESSIONS: Well, we were asked our opinion, and when we expressed it, which was consistent with the memorandum and the letter we wrote, I felt comfortable, and -- and I guess the deputy attorney general did too -- in -- in providing that information in writing.

FEINSTEIN: So do you concur with the president that he was going to fire Comey regardless of recommendation, because the problem was the Russian investigation?

SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, I guess I'll just have to let his words speak for himself. I'm not sure what was in his mind explicitly when we talked with him.

FEINSTEIN: Did you ever discuss Director Comey's FBI handling of the Russia investigations with the president or anyone else?

SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, that would call for a communication between the attorney general and the president...

FEINSTEIN: I understand that.

SESSIONS: ... and I'm not able to comment on that.

FEINSTEIN: You are not able to answer the question here, whether you ever discussed that with him?

SESSIONS: That's correct.

FEINSTEIN: And how do you view that -- since you discussed his termination, why wouldn't you discuss the reasons?

SESSIONS: Well, I -- those were put in writing and sent to the president, and he made those public, so he made that public, not...

(CROSSTALK)

FEINSTEIN: So you'd (ph) had no verbal conversation with him...

SESSIONS: Well...

FEINSTEIN: ... about the firing of Mr. Comey?

SESSIONS: ... I'm not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of private conversations that I may have had with the president on this subject or others.

And I know that -- how this will be discussed, but that's the rule that has been long adhered to...

FEINSTEIN: You know, others (ph)...

SESSIONS: ... by the Department of Justice, as you know, Senator Feinstein.

FEINSTEIN: ... you're a longtime colleague, but we heard Mr. Coats and we heard Admiral Rogers say essentially the same thing when it was easy just to say, if the answer was no, no.

SESSIONS: Well, the easy -- it would've been easier to say, if it was yes, yes. But both would have been improper.

FEINSTEIN: OK. So how exactly were you involved in the termination of Director Comey?

Because I am looking at your letter, dated May 9, and you say, "the director of the FBI must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles, who sets the right example for law enforcement officials. Therefore, I must recommend that you remove Director Comey and identify an experienced and qualified individual to lead the great men and women of the FBI."

Do you really believe that this had to do with Director Comey's performance with the men and women of the FBI?

SESSIONS: There was a clear view, of mine and of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, as he set out at some length in his memoranda, which I adopted and sent forward to the president, that we had problems there (ph).

And it was my best judgment that a fresh start at the FBI was the appropriate thing to do. And when asked, I said that to the president. It's something I had adhered to. Deputy Rosenstein's letter dealt with a number of things.

When the -- Mr. Comey declined the Clinton prosecution, that was really a usurpation of the authority of the federal prosecutors in the Department of Justice. It was a stunning development. The -- the FBI are -- is the investigative team. They don't decide prosecution policies. And so that was a thunderous (ph) thing.

He also commented at some length on the declination of the Clinton prosecution which you should not normally -- you shouldn't do. Policies have been historic -- if you decline, you decline, and you talk about it.

There were other things that had happened that indicated to me a lack of discipline, and it caused controversy on both sides of the aisle, and I'd come to the conclusion that a fresh start was appropriate, and did not mind putting that in writing.

FEINSTEIN: My time is up. Thank you very much.

SESSIONS: Thank you.

BURR: Senator Rubio.

RUBIO: Thank you. Thank you for being here, Attorney General.

I want to go back to February 14th and kind of close the loop on the details. Director Comey was here, provided great detail about that day. So what I've heard so far is there was a meeting in the Oval Office on the 14th. You recall being there along with him. At some point, the meeting concluded. The president -- everyone got up to leave -- the president asked Director Comey to stay behind. Correct?

SESSIONS: Well, that's a communication in the White House that I would not comment on...

RUBIO: All right, look (ph)...

SESSION: I do...

(CROSSTALK)

RUBIO: You remember seeing him stay behind?

SESSIONS: Yes.

RUBIO: OK. And his testimony was that you lingered. And his view of it was you lingered because you knew that you needed to stay -- that was his characterization. Do you remember lingering? Do you remember feeling like you needed to stay?

SESSIONS: I do recall being one of the last ones to leave, yes.

RUBIO: Did you decide to be one of the last ones to leave?

SESSIONS: I don't know how that occurred. We had finished a -- I think a terrorism -- counterterrorism briefing there. A number of people were there, and people were filtering out. And I eventually left, and I do recall that -- I think I was the last, or one of the last two or three to leave.

RUBIO: Would it be fair to say that you felt like perhaps you needed to stay because it involved the FBI Director?

SESSIONS: Well, I -- I don't know that -- how I would characterize that, Senator Rubio. I left. It didn't seem to me to be a major problem. I knew that Director Comey, long-time experienced in the Department of Justice, could handle himself well.

RUBIO: So you saw him after that. He characterized it as he went up to you and said, you know, never leave me alone with the president again, it's not appropriate. And he said -- this is his characterization -- you just kind of shrugged, like -- as if to say, "what am I supposed to do about it?"

SESSIONS: Well, I think I described it more completely, correctly. He raised that issue with me, I believe, the next day. I think that was correct. And he expressed concern to me about that private conversation.

And I agreed with him, essentially, that there are rules on private conversations with the president, but there's not a prohibition on a private discussion with the president, as I believe he's acknowledged six or more, himself, with President Obama and President Trump.

So I didn't feel like that's a -- and he gave me no detail about what it was that he was concerned about.

RUBIO: So what...

(CROSSTALK)

SESSIONS: And so I didn't say I wouldn't be -- be able to respond if he called me. He certainly knew that, with regard -- that -- that he could call his direct supervisor, which, in the Department of Justice, the direct supervisor to the FBI is the deputy attorney general. He could've complained to the deputy or to me at any time if he felt pressured, but I had no doubt that he would not yield to any pressure.

RUBIO: Can I -- do you know if the president records conversations in the Oval Office, or anywhere in the White House?

SESSIONS: I do not.

RUBIO: Let me ask you this: if in fact he -- any president were to record conversations in their official duties in the White House or the like, would there be an obligation to preserve those records?

SESSIONS: I don't know, Senator Rubio. Probably so.

RUBIO: I want to go to the campaign for a moment. As I'm sure you're aware -- that's been widely reported -- you know, Russian intelligence agencies often pose not simply as an official, but in covers as businessmen, a journalist, and the like.

At any point during the campaign, did you have an interaction with anyone who, in hindsight, you look back and say, "they were trying to influence me or gain insight," that in hindsight, you look at and wonder?

SESSIONS: I don't believe, in my conversations with the -- three times...

(CROSSTALK)

RUBIO: Not -- nothing bad (ph), just in general.

SESSIONS: Well, I met with a lot of people, a lot of foreign officials, who wanted to argue their case for their country and to point out things that they thought were important for their countries.

RUBIO: But it never...

SESSIONS: That's -- that's a normal thing, I guess, we talk about.

RUBIO: Right, but, as far as someone who's not an official from another country -- just a businessman or anyone walking down the street who kind of struck you as someone that was trying to find out what you were up to, or what with the campaign was up to -- you never remember any sort of interaction that, in hindsight, appears suspicious?

SESSIONS: Well, I'd have to rack my brain, but I don't recall it now. RUBIO: My last question: you were on the foreign policy team. The platform -- the Republican platform was changed to not provide defensive weapons to Ukraine. Were you involved in that decision? Do you know how that change was made, or who was involved in making the change?

SESSIONS: I was not active in the platform committee, did not participate in that and don't think I had any direct involvement in that.

RUBIO: Do you know who did? Or do you have no recollection of a debate about that issue, internally, in the campaign?

SESSIONS: I never watched the debate, that if -- if it occurred, on the platform committee. I think it did. So I don't recall that, Senator Rubio, I'd have to think about that.

RUBIO: Thank you.

BURR: Senator Wyden?

WYDEN: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for holding this hearing in the open, in full view of the American people, where it belongs. I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling.

Americans don't want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged and off-limits, or that they can't be provided in public, or that it would be, quote, "inappropriate" for witnesses to tell us what they know.

We are talking about an attack on our democratic institutions, and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable. And General (sic) Sessions has acknowledged that there is no legal basis for this stonewalling.

So, now, to questions. Last Thursday, I asked former Director Comey about the FBI's interactions with you, General (sic) Sessions, prior to your stepping aside from the Russian investigation.

Mr. Comey said that your continued engagement with the Russian investigation was, quote, "problematic," and he, Mr. Comey, could not discuss it in public. Mr. Comey also said that FBI personnel had been calling for you to step aside from the investigation at least two weeks before you finally did so.

WYDEN: Now, in your prepared statement, you stated you received only, quote, "limited information necessary to inform your recusal decision." But, given Director Comey's statement, we need to know what that was.

Were you aware of any concerns at the FBI or elsewhere in government about your contacts with the Russians or any other matters relevant to whether you should step aside from the Russian investigation?

SESSIONS: Senator Wyden, I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice. You don't walk into any hearing or committee meeting and reveal confidential communications with the president of the United States who's entitled to receive confidential communications in your best judgment about a host of issues and -- and after -- be accused of stonewalling for not answering them. So I would push back on that.

Secondly, Mr. Comey, perhaps he didn't know, but I basically recused myself the day -- the first day I got into the office because I never accessed files, I never learned the names of investigators, I never met with them; I never asked for any documentation. The documentation, what little I received, was mostly already in the media and was presented by the senior ethics public responsibility -- professional responsibility attorney in the department.

WYDEN: General...

SESSIONS: And I made an honest and proper decision to recuse myself, as I told Senator Feinstein and the members of the committee I would do when they confirmed me.

WYDEN: General Sessions, respectfully, you're not answering the question.

SESSIONS: Well, what is the question?

WYDEN: The question is, Mr. Comey said that there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic and he couldn't talk about them. What are they?

SESSIONS: I -- that -- why don't you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty.

WYDEN: We can -- we can... SESSIONS: You tell -- this is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don't appreciate it, and I've tried to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I've appeared before, and it's really a -- people are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters, and I've tried to be honest.

WYDEN: My time is short. You've made your point that you think Mr. Comey is engaging in innuendo. We're going to keep digging on this...

SESSIONS: Well, Senator Wyden, he did not say that. I don't...

WYDEN: You said it was problematic, and I asked you what was problematic about it.

SESSIONS: The -- the -- some of that leaked out of the committee that he said in closed sessions.

WYDEN: OK.

One more question. I asked former FBI director whether your role in firing him violated your recusal given that President Trump said he fired Comey because of the Russian investigation. Director Comey said this was a reasonable question.

So I want to ask you just point blank -- why did you sign the letter recommending the firing of Director Comey when it violated your recusal?

SESSIONS: It did not violate my recusal. It did not violate my recusal. That would be the answer to that. And the letter that I signed represented my views that it had been formulated for some time.

WYDEN: Mr. Chairman, just if I can finish.

That answer in my view doesn't pass the smell test. The president tweeted repeatedly about his anger at investigations into his associates in Russia. The day before you wrote your letter, he tweeted that the collusion story was a total hoax, and asked when will this taxpayer-funded charade end. I don't think your answer passes the smell test.

SESSIONS: Well, Senator Wyden, I think I should be allowed to briefly respond at least and would cite the letter -- the memorandum on that Senator -- that Deputy Rosenstein wrote, and my letter that accompanied it represented my views of the situation.

WYDEN: I'll ask that in the second round (ph),

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

BURR: Senator Collins.

COLLINS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Attorney General Sessions, I want to clarify who did what with regard to the firing of Mr. Comey.

First of all, let me ask you when did you have your first conversation with Rod Rosenstein about Mr. Comey?

MORe

SESSIONS: We talked about it before either one of us were confirmed. It was a topic of, you know, conversation about -- among people who'd served in the department a long time. They knew that what had happened that fall was pretty dramatically unusual.

Many people felt it was very wrong, and so it was in that context that we discussed it and we both found that we shared a common view that a fresh start would be appropriate.

COLLINS: And this was based on Mr. Comey's handling of the investigation involving Hillary Clinton in which you said that he usurped the authority of prosecutors at the Department of Justice?

SESSIONS: Yes, that was part of it. And the commenting on the investigation in ways that go beyond the proper policies. We need to restore, Senator Collins, I think the classic discipline in the department. On my team, we discussed this. There's been too much leaking and too much talking publicly about investigations.

In the long run, the department's start (ph) rule lets you remain mum about ongoing investigations is the better policy.

COLLINS: Now subsequently, the president asked for you to put your views in writing, you've testified today. And I believe that you were right to recuse yourself from the ongoing Russian investigation.

But then on May 9th, you wrote to the president recommending that Mr. Comey be dismissed, and obviously this went back many months to the earlier conversations you had had with Mr. Rosenstein.

But my question is, why do you believe that your recommendation to fire Director Comey was not inconsistent with your March 2nd recusal?

SESSIONS: Thank you.

The recusal involved -- one case involved in the Department Of Justice and in the FBI. They conduct thousands of investigations. I'm the attorney general of the United States. It's my responsibility to our Judiciary Committee and other committees to ensure that that department is run properly.

I have to make difficult decisions, and I do not believe that it is a sound position to say that if you recuse for a single case involving any one of the great agencies, like DEA our U.S. Marshals or ATF, that are part of the Department of Justice, you can't make a decision about the leadership in that agency.

COLLINS: Now if you had known that the president subsequently was going to go on TV, and, in an interview with Lester Holt of NBC, would say that this Russian thing was the reason for his decision to dismiss the FBI director, would you have felt uncomfortable about the timing of the decision?

SESSIONS: Well, I would just say this, Senator Collins -- I don't think it's appropriate to deal with those kind of hypotheticals. I have to deal in actual issues. And I would respectfully not comment on that.

COLLINS: Well, let me ask you this: In retrospect, do you believe that it would have been better for you to have stayed out of the decision to fire Director Comey?

SESSIONS: I think it's my responsibility. I mean I was appointed to be attorney general. Supervising all the federal agencies is my responsibility. Trying to get the very best people in those agencies at the top of them is my responsibility, and I think I had a duty to do so.

COLLINS: Now, Director Comey testified that he was not comfortable telling you about his one-on-one conversation with the president on February 14th because he believed that you would shortly recuse yourself from the Russian investigation, which you did. Yet Director Comey testified that he told no one else at the department, outside of the senior leadership team at the FBI. Do you believe that the director had an obligation to bring the information about the president saying that he hoped he could let Michael Flynn go to someone else at the Department of Justice?

There are an awful lot of lawyers at the Department of Justice, some 10,000 by last count.

SESSIONS: I think the appropriate thing would've been for Director Comey to talk with

[16:00:00]

the acting deputy attorney general, who is his direct supervisor.