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CNN NEWSROOM

FBI Nominee to Testifies Amid Russia Firestorm. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired July 12, 2017 - 09:30   ET

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


[09:30:00] PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Quality person. Wow. My son is a carbon based life form with 23 pairs of chromosomes. That's the weakest defense I've ever heard a father give a son. And I think he's sending a message which is they're going to throw Don Junior under the limo before Jared.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Santorum, you were trying to jump in a moment ago. Just so people know, we're looking at live pictures right now from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Christopher Wray, the man the president has picked to lead the FBI. He will face questions any moment. And just to remind people there is a vacancy at the FBI because the president fired former director James Comey over, in his own words, how he was handling the Russia investigation.

Now, Senator, I think you have a point on the agenda, but before you get to the agenda, you know, look, you said this is problematic because it's distracting but isn't it more problematic than just a distraction? You have the son of the president of the United States saying, I love it, to the idea of holding a meeting with someone whom he was promised would deliver information from the Russian government?

In and of itself, you know, as someone who served this country, you did as an elected official for a number of years, doesn't that bother you?

(CROSSTALK)

RICK SANTORUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure. Sure. He should not have taken the meeting. I mean, it was absolutely improper for him to take that meeting if there was a cover of some sort of Russian government communication. So that's what I said. It was a foolish -- it was a foolish move. I believe a naive move. I don't think this man is well-schooled in these types of things.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: And likewise --

SANTORUM: My final --

BERMAN: You have to wait on that point. Likewise, how do you know -- everything Donald Trump Jr. has said in the last year, when he's attacked anyone and everyone who suggested any questions about possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, when he sat in a meeting after being promised information from the Russia government, what do you make of that?

SANTORUM: Again, it's hard to reconcile those two to be honest with you. I mean, if he did, per the e-mail, walk into this meeting expecting some sort of information from the Russian government, it's hard to reconcile it. But the only way you reconcile it is that actually there wasn't any information provided by the Russian government and this was a meeting about -- you know, adoption, and so I guess maybe that's the only way I can sort of try to put these two things together that the meeting that was, quote, promised to be that never really occurred so maybe in his mind there wasn't a meeting with the Russian government. That's the only thing I can draw from that.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're watching Senator Grassley walk in. You see Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top ranking Democrat in this committee as they get ready.

Senator, we'll let you make your policy point now.

SANTORUM: Yes. I want to make my point. Look, the fact of the matter is that the White House is working on health care right now. They're very, very engaged in health care and, yes, this is a distraction from the standpoint of what's being covered by the media. But I can tell you that they are fully engaged behind the scenes trying to save this health care bill and working with the Senate to do so.

So while it is at least appears that they're distracted from doing this and certainly the president is not focused from a public relations standpoint on health care, I can assure you that the White House is very, very engaged in trying to save this bill and trying to get something passed next week.

HARLOW: Nia --

(CROSSTALK)

SANTORUM: I will just say, though, the missing element there is the president's unique ability to rally his voters and there is an element of public relations that comes with the presidency that often is the X factor. So I do not mean to imply the White House wasn't working on this, but the president's ability to do this in public could be very valuable.

HARLOW: Nia, to you. How -- as we wait for this hearing to get underway, how do you believe what has transpired in the last 24 hours will change how senators approach their questioning of Christopher Wray? I believe just sat down, he did. Especially Republican senators' questioning of him. How does this change things?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, we'll see. I mean, we have seen Republicans in these hearings so far involving Russia essentially play some interference for the White House and run cover for them. We'll see if that changes here. We'll see what Chuck Grassley has to say. I think you're going to see these senators particularly the Democrats

obviously really try to look at the relationship that Donald Trump had with James Comey and get this nominee, Christopher Wray, to comment on that, this idea of, you know, what would you do if the president asked you to pledge your loyalty, what would you do if the president asked you to drop an investigation as he apparently did with James Comey?

What do you think of your relationship with the attorney general? How do you see that relationship playing out? Because we of course we know James Comey in some ways had an odd relationship with his attorney general, not only Jeff Sessions but Loretta Lynch before that. So I think there's going to be some sort of looking backward at what happened with James Comey as a way to try to look forward and see how he sees things.

[09:35:03] BERMAN: OK. You're looking at Chuck Grassley now, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, beginning this hearing.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Today -- first of all, I should say welcome to everyone, particularly our former colleague and -- and our nominee, and all the families and friends and other citizens here for a very important nominee hearing.

You're welcome.

The committee is considering, as you know, the nomination of Christopher Wray to be the eighth director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Wray, congratulations to you and your family on your nomination. This is an important day for you, your family, and most importantly, this is an important day for the country considering the importance of the FBI in law enforcement in America. So, I welcome you, Mr. Wray, and your family to the committee.

The ranking member and I will give opening statements. Then Senator Nunn will introduce the nominee. Mr. Wray will then give his opening statement and introduce anybody that he wants to that's here to support him, and people that aren't here supporting him as well.

And then, after his opening statement, we will turn to questions.

As an accommodation to the minority's request, we will have 10- minute rounds for questions during the first round, rather than the normal seven.

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is charged with running a vast agency with tremendous power. This power, if used appropriately, could threaten the civil liberties of every American -- if it's used inappropriately, I should have said. However, when used appropriately and subject to rigorous oversight by Congress, it protects the nation from terrorists, from spies and from hardened criminals.

The attorney general is commonly referred to as the top law enforcement officer in our country. The FBI director serves the attorney general as the top cop on the street. It is a very demanding job that requires keen understanding of the law, sound management skills, calm -- calmness under significant pressure, and a very level head.

From what I've seen so far from meetings with Mr. Wray and from looking at his record, he appears to possess these qualifications. He has an impressive legal career, graduating from Yale University and Yale Law School, and clerked for a judge of the 4th Circuit. Also spending many years as an assistant U.S. attorney, and was on the front lines in cases involving violent crime, drug trafficking, public corruption and fraud. During his time as a prosecutor, he often worked closely with the FBI. While there, in that position, Mr. Wray received the department's highest award for public service and leadership.

In 2003, Mr. Wray was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate to lead the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice as assistant attorney general. In that role, he led and managed over 400 prosecutors and 900 total employees in nearly all areas of federal criminal law. There, too, he worked closely with federal law enforcement partners and key senior officials at the FBI.

Of course, it's vitally important for the FBI director to be independent. In reviewing his record, I've seen Mr. Wray's commitment to this independence. He prosecuted little guys and big guys, as we tend to separate people in our society, including a Major League Baseball player, gun traffickers and RICO violators. He prosecuted folks on both sides of the political spectrum, including folks working a Republican campaign.

While at the Department of Justice, he oversaw the task force that investigated Enron. This investigation led to convictions to several of our -- several Enron executives.

Mr. Wray has earned the strong bipartisan support of over 100 former U.S. attorneys across the country, including former Attorney General Eric Holder and other appointees of President Clinton and President Obama.

And I'll enter at the end of my statement, without objection, letters of support for Mr. Wray.

The top priority of the FBI is to protect the national security of the United States. The director of the FBI needs to be effective, needs to be accountable when practicing -- protecting our nation from terrorism, against foreign intelligence threats, and against cyber attacks and high-technology crimes.

The gravity of this responsibility is clear when we remember the scores of Americans and others killed or wounded in many terrorist events in -- on U.S. soil following the tragic event, September 11, 2001.

ISIS and other international terror groups have directed or inspired terrorist attacks in Fort Hood, Boston, San Bernardino, Orlando, St. Cloud, New York City, Columbus, and, I suppose, other places that we tend to, and shouldn't, forget -- tend to forget, but shouldn't forget.

Uniformly, these terrorist attacks on the United States' soil show the FBI must have the tools it needs to protect against and investigate terrorism and other serious, violent crimes in the homeland. And these tools must preserve civil liberties while being adapted to changing threat streams (ph) and advances in technology.

Chief among these tools is the (ph) FISA's Section 702 authority. This authority provides the government the ability to collect the electronic communications of approved foreign intelligence targets outside the United States with the compelled assistance of American companies. Section 702 received the strong support of Bush, Obama and now the Trump administration, and it's up for reauthorization at the end of the year.

Many federal courts -- the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board have found that (ph) -- have found Section 702 constitutional and consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

But the FBI does face questions about its queries of Section 702 information and the impact on privacy and civil liberties. In -- in addition, the FBI must also have the tools it needs to navigate the "going dark" problem, as more and more terrorist and criminals use encryption.

I look forward to hearing how Mr. Wray plans to handle these national security issues and protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States, in keeping with the FBI's mission. Of course, everyone here knows that I care about whistleblowers and whistleblower protections. In December, President Obama signed the FBI whistleblower protection bill that Senator Leahy and I worked together to pass. The law clarifies that FBI employees who make disclosures to supervisors are protected.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of problems with the whistleblower protection process. Unlike other law enforcement agencies, the Justice Department doesn't allow FBI agents to get an independent judicial review of retaliation claims.

It concerns me that the department and the FBI hasn't worked with us on the legislation to fix that. FBI whistleblowers need the support of their leadership to ensure that there is a speedy and effective way to resolve their cases. I'd like the assurance from Mr. Wray that whistleblowers will not face retaliation. Some of his predecessors have done a poor job of protecting whistleblowers.

At the -- at the FBI oversight hearing on May 3, I said that a cloud of doubt hangs over the FBI's objectivity. The previous director, James Comey, said that the people at the FBI don't give a rip about politics. But Mr. Comey installed as his deputy director a man whose wife ran for the Virginia state senate, accepted almost $1 million from the Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe's political machine. That's a lot of money for one state senate seat.

Governor McAuliffe is a longtime friend and fund-raiser for the Clintons and the Democratic Party. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe met in person with Governor McAuliffe about his wife's political plans. His official FBI biography was used in setting up the meeting and the goals, and the goal was for McAuliffe to close the deal and get his wife to run for office.

The Office of Special Counsel is reviewing whether that coordination was a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits partisan political coordination by FBI officials. The inspector general is reviewing whether Mr. McCabe should've been recused from the Clinton investigation based upon Mr. McCabe's financial ties to the Clinton political network.

[09:45:08] Mr. McCabe was also named in a sex discrimination lawsuit by a female FBI agent who alleged retaliation.

Just last week it was reported that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn wrote a letter in support of the female agent. That means Lieutenant General Flynn is an adverse witness to Mr. McCabe in a pending proceeding. Yet Mr. McCabe supervised the criminal investigation of Flynn and alleged -- and allegedly wanted it perused very aggressively.

According to press reports, three FBI employees personally witnessed McCabe making disparaging remarks about Flynn before and during the Russian investigation. Yet Mr. McCabe never recused himself from Flynn investigation. His failure to do so calls into question whether he has handled that investigation fairly and objectively.

I have asked the inspector general to add this to their ongoing review.

The director of the FBI is entrusted with a tremendous amount of power. That power is subject to appropriate checks against the abuse of our civil liberties. The director is accountable to his leadership and to the people (sic) elected representatives.

That's why the FBI director has a 10-year term limit and why there are no restrictions on the ability of any president to fire any director, as President Trump did former Director James Comey.

The term limit is a ceiling not a floor, and while independence from partisan influence is critical and this committee intends to closely examine the circumstances of Mr. Comey's firing, history shows that the 10-year term limit isn't there to protect the FBI director from politicians or politics. It's there to protect -- to help prevent the FBI director from overreaching or abusing power.

For more than 50 years the FBI was run by J. Edgar Hoover, arguably the most independent FBI director in history. The very people charged with constraining his power were targets of his secret files, so were the Americans whose civil liberties were trampled by the COINTELPRO program and Hoover's own illegal abuses. Yet the FBI building still bears his name, just as the bureau bears the weight of his ugly legacy.

But in America the people rule, not the police or the military. Vigorously -- vigorous oversight by elected officials is both -- the executive -- of both the executive and legislative branches is essential to protect that liberty.

I've been doing vigorous oversight work of the FBI for my entire career on this committee. As long as I'm chairman I will continue to ask important questions and expect honest answers on behalf of the American people.

Just yesterday we had a hearing in the Crime Subcommittee that illustrated the long history of Congress exercising its constitutional authority to do oversight, including ongoing criminal and intelligence matters. Sometimes we cannot talk public (sic) about all the details of our work, although we strive to be as open as possible.

Some people have argued that oversight of ongoing investigations is somehow interference. This ignores the important work of our -- the importance of our work to ensure transparency and accountability and, of course, it ignores history.

This committee has received detailed information about ongoing criminal matters and foreign intelligence surveillance activity in the past and we will continue to seek that information. That's what oversight and accountabilities are all about.

In the past, the FBI has resisted accountability to Congress and has been unresponsive to our letters. And I know for sure about my letters.

Mr. Wray, you and I have spoken about this problem and I expect you to change this practice at the FBI. I would like an assurance from you that you will be responsive to my oversight work and that my questions and document requests will be taken seriously and answered in a timely and complete manner.

And some of my questions with you in my 10 minutes will pursue this point.

So once again, I thank Mr. Wray for his willingness to reach -- return to public service. And I look forward to a full and candid conversation with him today.

Now Senator Feinstein.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Thanks very much, Mr. Chairman.

I'd like to begin, also, by welcoming the nominee's family to this hearing. I want them to enjoy the day. This is probably as good as it gets, so enjoy it.

(LAUGHTER)

[09:50:02] I'd also like to recognize my former colleague and present good friend Sam Nunn.

It's great to welcome you back, Sam. You were a beacon of integrity and scrutiny and good logic and strong positions while you served in the Senate. It was a great treat for those of us that were able to work with you to do so. So, welcome back.

The position of FBI Director is currently vacant because of the situation, and I want to speak about that. On May 9th of this year, President Trump fired James Comey. Although we're still sorting out all of the circumstances and details surrounding the president's decision, it does not appear that Mr. Comey was fired because the bureau was a mess, as originally stated, nor is there evidence that Mr. Comey was dismissed because rank and file FBI agents had either lost confidence in him or because of his handling of the Clinton administration investigation.

Rather, we find that rank and file agents of the FBI did, and continue to, overwhelmingly support James Comey. In addition, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein told members of Congress that when he wrote his memo, President Trump had already decided to remove Mr. Comey as FBI Director.

Based on press reports and the president's own words, the reason Mr. Comey was dismissed was because he would not pledge his loyalty to the president and he would not lift the cloud of the Russia investigation. President Trump said in a televised interview, for example, I was going to fire Comey regardless of recommendation.

And quote, "When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, you know, this Russian thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story", end quote. As the FBI's investigation into Russian election interference and possible coordination with the Trump campaign progressed, it appears the president became more and more concerned with Director Comey's unwillingness to cooperate in the Flynn matter, as well as the Russian matter.

All of this raises important questions for the next FBI head and particularly for his independence. First and foremost, the FBI is, and must remain, an independent law enforcement organization free from political influence. And this starts at the very top.

The FBI Director does not serve the president, he serves the constitution, the law and the American people. As such, the Director of the FBI must be a leader who has the integrity and strength that will enable him to withstand any attempts at political interference. Today, the Judiciary Committee will fully examine the qualifications, integrity and independence of the nominee before us. Will Mr. Wray and the FBI pursue investigations with independence and vigor regardless of who may be implicated? Will he stand up for what is right and lawful? Will he tell the president no if improperly directed to pursue certain or end certain investigations? These are not abstract questions, or hypotheticals, and the committee but consider how Mr. Wray has handled such situations in the past.

According to one press account, for example, Mr. Wray expressed his readiness to resign alongside then Deputy Attorney General Comey, and FBI Director Mueller, in a standoff with the Bush White House about the legality of the NSA's warrantless surveillance program, yet John Yo -- Yoo, excuse me -- has testified that just a year earlier, Mr. Wray was part of the senior leadership in the Justice Department that may have refused an Office of Legal Counsel memo -- excuse me, reviewed an Office of Legal Counsel memo justifying the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.

This is significant, not only because of what it says about Mr. Wray's views and independence at the time, but we know there are those who would bring back torture if they could. And so, how he will handle this as the FBI director is important.

[09:55:03] In 2009, this committee heard important testimony stating that FBI interrogators have traditionally used the informed interrogation approach.

Ali Soufan, who many of us know, an FBI agent who was a key FBI interrogator for several major terrorism investigations, testified to us directly about the contrast between the FBI's techniques and the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA during the Bush administration. Specifically, he testified that these enhanced techniques were operationally ineffective, slow and unreliable and ultimately harmful to counterterrorism efforts.

In fact, we learned that back in 2002, then-FBI Director Bob Mueller ended the FBI's participation in the interrogation of Zubaydah and other CIA detainees because of the harsh torture methods being used and because they were undermining the investigation. In fact, he pulled his people out.

This is important. The issue of interrogation techniques is not just something of the past. In February of this past year, then- candidate Trump claimed that torture works, and has said that he would, quote, "immediately," end quote, bring back waterboarding, and quote, "much worse," end quote.

So I am particularly interested in hearing more about the nominee's knowledge of the Justice Department's legal justification for the CIA's use of torture during the Bush administration, as well as his knowledge of detainee abuse by the military in Iraq.

I have said before that the CIA's use of torture as part of its detention and interrogation program are a stain on our nation's values and our nation's history. The Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report was issued in December of 2014 when I was chairman of that committee. It outlined in specifics the horrific abuses of detainees, as well as the flimsy legal reasoning used to justify such practices.

Mr. Wray was the principal associate deputy attorney general at the Justice Department when the Office of Legal Counsel issued the so- called "torture memos" in 2002 and 2003. One of the authors of these memos, John Yoo, testified that OLC would not have issued such opinions without the approval of the Office of the Attorney General or the Office of Deputy Attorney General.

In fact, in his testimony, John Yoo specifically referenced Mr. Wray as one of the individuals who would have received drafts of OLC memos. So this raises the question of what exactly was Mr. Wray's role in reviewing and approving these memos. And I'd like Mr. Wray to clear this up this morning. I've had an opportunity to talk with him. I think this should go on the record. And I think that he should respond directly to the full committee. I'm also concerned by reports that Mr. Wray was alerted early on to the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I'd like to know more about what the nominee knew and when and what he did in response.

This committee is charged with considering Mr. Wray's qualifications and experience with criminal and counterterrorism investigations. But we must also expand -- examine his independence, his integrity, and his willingness to stand up in the face of political pressure because it will most certainly come.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing, and I look forward to hearing from the nominee.

GRASSLEY: Thank you.

We now go to a former colleague of ours, a senator from Georgia, Sam Nunn, for an introduction of our nominee. Senator Feinstein used a lot of adjectives about you that I would associate myself with, but I also had the privilege of serving with you for at least more than a decade- and-a-half and maybe two decades. And I know well how you were a determined senator to get things done and represent your people well.

[10:00:00] So welcome to the committee, and you may proceed.

FMR. SEN. SAM NUNN (D), GEORGIA: Thank you very much, Chairman Grassley and Senator Feinstein, and my former colleagues Senator Hatch and Senator Leahy and other members of the Judiciary Committee.