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Sessions Faces Grilling at Capitol Hill Hearing; Sessions: Trump's Travel Ban "Lawful. Necessary". Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired October 18, 2017 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow, top of the hour, 10:00 a.m. Eastern. We do have breaking news. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the hot seat, literally, about to sit down for this Senate Judiciary Committee, you're looking at live pictures of Capitol Hill, where at any moment, his former colleagues in the Senate will likely deliver a grilling. And they really want answers, actual answers this time, from Sessions.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. This is a big deal, especially after Jeff Sessions avoided testifying before this committee last spring. I want to go up to Capitol Hill right now. Our Manu Raju speaking with the Senate Whip Dick Durbin, right now, who will be part of this today, let's just dip in.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: -- spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He actually did not -- he said he didn't have any contacts with Russian officials. And it turns out that he actually did, with Sergey Kislyak. How much do you think that the committee, the Democrats are going focus on this? Are you going to focus on this new line of questioning today?
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), MINORITY WHIP: Well, of course that investigation is underway. He's recused himself from the Russia investigation. Bob Mueller and the deputy attorney general working on that aspect of it, but I can guarantee you, after that exchange between the attorney general, then nominee and Senator Franken, people will be very careful with the questions that they ask and he'll be very careful on how he answers.
RAJU: And what about - how much do you want to know about the conversations that Attorney General Sessions had with the president of the United States about firing of James Comey?
DURBIN: Well, of course, that's a legitimate question, but not likely he'll answer.
RAJU: Is that something you're going to focus on as well?
DURBIN: I'm working on DACA Dreamers. I may get to that.
RAJU: Thank you, Senator. Thank you, sir.
There you heard Senator Dick Durbin right there, talking a little bit about his line of questions right now. He did want to focus a lot about the issue of Dreamers. That is, of course, Jeff Sessions has been a hard line immigration hawk. So that's one of the topics of questions that we're going to hear. But interestingly, though, this is the first time that Senator Sessions, former Senator Sessions, the current attorney general, has come before the Senate Judiciary Committee since January. That was when his confirmation hearings took place. He did not disclose at the time he had campaign contacts during the campaign season with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
That's something that led to a big dustup between Al Franken, the member of this committee, and Jeff Sessions. They will have another chance to have an exchange later today. Sessions did speak to a separate committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee in the spring. And said that he really didn't do anything wrong. He didn't mislead the Senate Judiciary Committee. He did not collude with the Russians in any way, but clearly those questions are not satisfying Democrats.
Expect them to push some pretty hard on those issues. But Republicans, too, watch for them to come back and ask Jeff Sessions about whether or not James Comey handled the Clinton e-mail investigation properly, particularly in light of the president's own tweets from this morning, even suggesting that the Justice Department should open up an investigation into James Comey and the e-mail investigation, whether he exonerated Hillary Clinton prematurely. Major questions about it, we'll see here in the coming minutes here, guys.
BERMAN: Manu, one interesting point, you can see it right there. But what we just saw was very interesting as Jeff Sessions sits down right there. He was wandering back there, talking to each senator, as only a former member of this committee would do, perhaps trying to remind them of his former relationship. Here's the committee chairman, Chuck Grassley.
HARLOW: All right. We're waiting to hear from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa there. He'll make his opening remarks and then followed by the ranking member, Dianne Feinstein. Let's listen in.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: For all the people in the audience, we welcome you, as well. I thank the General Sessions for being here, for this oversight hearing. Oversight is just one of the critical functions and constitutional responsibilities of our branch. It's an opportunity for Congress to investigate and question the policies and actions of any executive branch. It's an opportunity for the executive branch to take responsibility for any of those policies and actions. And it's an opportunity for Congress to defend its constitutional powers and check any abuses by an overreaching executive branch, and it's been that way for 230 years.
Some have complained that we haven't had an oversight hearing with this attorney general earlier. My reason for deferring was that the attorney general should have his team in place before appearing before us. Certainly, Attorney General Holder and Attorney General Lynch did have their respective teams well in place by the time they appeared here, as you are now here. [10:05:03] The other side has been blocking executive nomination for the past ten months, significantly delaying the Department of Justice ability to get management in place and things in order. But we're here now and ready to do our oversight.
The Department of Justice is an incredibly important part of the executive branch, enforcing laws and ensuring public safety against foreign and domestic threats among a lot of other responsibilities. Our citizens look to the Department of Justice to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime. We rely on the department to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice. The department currently faces many difficult issues.
Our country is challenged with the overgrowing threat of foreign or homegrown terrorism. We've seen terrorist incidents involving -- evolving around the world, especially impacting Europe. In the UK alone, there have been at least a half a dozen major terrorist incidents in the past nine months. And I have a couple of paragraphs here of other things that have gone on, both in Europe and the United States, that to save time, I'm going to skip over. But there have been a lot of people killed and terrorist attacks in the western world are something that we ought to be very concerned about. They are real, and we must protect our country by lawful means.
Congress has tried to do so by providing lawful authorities, such as section 702 to have the FISA Amendment Act. Congress passed the legislation, and President Bush signed it into law in 2008. After more debate and President Obama's support, Congress reauthorized the law in 2012 unchanged. The law is again up for reauthorization. Section 702 is scheduled to expire at the end of this year. It's up to Congress to reauthorize this important national security tool, while preserving privacy and civil liberties and increasing transparency for the American public.
General Sessions, I am interested in hearing your thoughts on that important legislation. In September, the FBI released its annual crime data, for the second year in a row, violent crime increased across the United States. Homicides, 8 .6 percent increase cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri, have seen massive increases in homicide. Baltimore is on pace to top the number of homicides in New York City, even though the population is almost 8 million less. And this country continues to be mired in a national epidemic of overdose, death, and abuse of opioid drugs. Over 47,000 people died in 2014, 50,000 died 2015, and last year, 64,000 people.
Now that we have a new administration, I want to know what the Department of Justice is doing to reduce violent crime, to help ensure that the citizens around the country are safe. I also want to find out what the department is doing to combat opioid crisis. And we all care deeply about this issue. The abuse of prescription pain killers, heroin, synthetic opioids, fentanyl, as an example, is destroying lives and communities across Iowa and the nation as a whole. I know that it's a national issue.
I co-sponsored the comprehensive addiction and recovery act known as CARA. It passed through this committee, signed into law last year. CARA addresses the opioid crisis in a comprehensive way, by authorizing almost $900 million over five years for prevention, education, recovery, and law enforcement. Just this past weekend, reports suggested that the Congress gave a pass to big drug companies making prescription opioids, by enacting the -- quote, "the ensuring patient access and effective drug enforcement act," end of quote. DOJ and DEA, last year, signed off on this bill.
[10:10:05] Now former DEA employees are railing against the law, pointing fingers at lawmakers. If DEA had problems with this bill, they were the ones that could have given -- had the expertise to warn Congress. And they didn't. The Obama administration actually provided language for the bill and signed it into law. I'm planning on having an oversight hearing that will include your department, General Sessions, to see what, if anything, needs changing.
October 1, this country suffered through the deadliest mass shooting. And I don't need to go through the history of that, but it will be in my printed statement. And AFT has recently, recently briefed judiciary staff on the addition to guns called bump stocks. We'll be looking more at that issue.
In September, the president announced a wind-down of the deferred action against childhood rival programs, DACA, for short, with a six- month extension. My office received preliminary data showing 2,021 individuals who had DACA status terminated for criminal and gang activity. We want to know who these criminals are, what kinds of crimes they're committing, and if they're with any gangs.
Separately, General Sessions, you announced earlier this year DOJ's recommitment to criminal investigation enforcement. 50 more immigration judges were supposed to be added to the bench this year and 75 more next year. We need to know what steps DOJ has taken and what still needs to be done to reduce this immigration court's backlog.
There's another issue that I want to address that came up in the news just yesterday. In June 2015 and again last week, I wrote to the Justice Department about Russia's acquisition of uranium one, which was approved during the last administration. That transaction resulted in Russians owning 20 percent of America's uranium mining capacity. It turns out during the transaction the Justice Department had ongoing criminal investigation for bribery, extortion, money laundering into officials for the Russian company making the purchase. Russians involved in the conspiracy were reportedly coordinating with high- level officials, some close to Vladimir Putin.
While all of this was going on, the Clinton Foundation reportedly received millions of dollars from interested parties in the transaction. Then Secretary Clinton's State Department was one of the agencies that gave thumbs up to the takeover. Somehow, despite all of this, the previous administration approved a transaction. In my letter, I asked the agencies involved in approving the transaction if they were aware of the criminal probe and the intelligence operation examining Russian activity. This committee has an obligation to get to the bottom of this issue. The committee is also waiting for responses to 11 oversight letters sent to the Justice Department on matters from which the attorney general is not recused. There are more letters that haven't been answered. The letters date back to January 2016. I expect these letters will be answered, including most importantly, those from the previous administration.
I also want to ask you about the firing of former director James Comey. It was an important moment for the Department of Justice and for this country. The American people have a right to know why he was fired, especially in the middle of so many high-profile issues going on, including the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. So thank you, General Sessions, for being here and for your continued service to the country. Senator Feinstein?
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thanks very much, Mr. Chairman. Good morning, Mr. Attorney General. This is the first time you've appeared before this committee and I want to say welcome, but as a former member, you know well the oversight authority that we hold.
As I mentioned, at your confirmation hearing, I've got a deep belief of the independence of the attorney general. Although we've had attorney generals who view their job as serving the president and as an extension of the White House, I do not believe that's the job of the attorney general.
[10:15:02] For the attorney general's master is the people and the law, importantly, his job is to enforce federal law fairly and equally for all Americans. Which is why I was surprised that in April you declared that the Justice Department, quote, "is in a new area. This is the Trump era," end quote.
I want for a moment to explore with a few issues what you mean by that. And let me begin with voting rights. During your confirmation hearing, you testified, and I quote, "the aggressive enforcement of laws to ensure access to the ballot for every eligible voter without hindrance or discrimination," end quote, would be a, quote, "special priority," end quote. I was really very pleased to hear that.
However, this year, the Justice Department discarded its long-standing position on a Texas voter ID law. For nearly six years, the Department of Justice had argued that the Texas law was unconstitutional, and intended to discriminate against minority voters. Based on evidence that shows voter ID laws, quote, "have a disproportionate effect on minorities." Despite this, just two weeks after you were confirmed, the department dropped its opposition to the Texas law.
The department also changed its position on another key voting rights case, this one involving Ohio's purge of voters. Under Ohio's procedure, voters who hadn't cast a ballot in six years and failed to return a postcard were removed from state voting rolls. This process, reportedly, resulted in the removal of 40,000 voters in one county alone, Cuyahoga County, which covers Cleveland, and its surrounding suburbs. Civil rights organizations challenge the process, arguing that the National Voter Registration Act forbids the state from removing individuals for failing to vote. In July 2016, the Justice Department told the court it opposed Ohio's purge and in September 2016, the Sixth Circuit agreed that Ohio's process for removing voters from its rolls was illegal. This ruling cleared the way for thousands of Ohioans to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. However, that decision is being appealed to the Supreme Court. And now the Department of Justice is taking the side of removing voters from the rolls, even though the last election clearly demonstrated how this policy harms eligible voters.
I would now like to turn to LBGT rights. Throughout my career, I've worked to ensure LBGT Americans have equal rights and protections under the law. And it's important to me that we preserve these protections. And this committee should not tolerate efforts to undermine the progress that's been made.
At your confirmation hearing, you testified, and I quote, "We must continue to move forward and never back. I will ensure the statutes protecting the LBGT community's civil rights and their safety are fully enforced," end quote. So, I was very pleased to learn that the department is sending a top hate crimes lawyer to Iowa to assist with prosecution of the case of a transgender teenager murdered last year. According to "The Times," this decision was personally initiated by you. However, I was also surprised and concerned to learn that this summer the Justice Department switched its position on Title VII, and is now arguing that the law does not protect LBGT workers.
Then on October 5th, just two weeks ago, you issued a memorandum to all U.S. attorneys and agency heads, instructing them that the department must now take the position that Title VII does not protect transgender employees in all cases. In other words, it appears that your department is urging the courts to allow employers to discriminate against all LBGT workers, across the country. I hope you'll clear that up in your testimony.
[10:20:05] There are other controversial policies being implemented at justice, the president's travel ban, for example. Multiple federal courts found the Muslim ban unconstitutional, including another court in Hawaii just yesterday. These travel ban efforts are an affront to our nation's commitment to religious liberty, yet the Justice Department staunchly defends the ban.
On DACA, you recommended in September that the program be terminated. And I think we believe these young people have placed their trust in the government. They have come out of the shadows. They have provided all their information to authorities. They seek the opportunity to get right with the law. And I think most of us believe these Dreamers embody the American spirit and have made positive contributions to the country, so we should stand by them.
Finally, we will also want to hear about the firing of FBI director James Comey. President Trump initially said he fired director Comey based on your recommendation and that of deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. Within days, however, the president admitted to Lester Holt on NBC News that he actually fired Comey because of, quote, "the Russia thing," end quote.
It's also been reported that the day before he fired director Comey, President Trump summoned his top advisers and told them that he had prepared a termination letter. It's important, I believe, to understand what role you had in this process, including conversations with the president and others in the White House.
Last week, the Democratic members of this committee sent a letter, making it clear we would be asking about director Comey's firing at this hearing. And that we expected answers or the assertion of a valid claim of executive privilege, by the president.
In conclusion, Attorney General, your department, as you know, is incredibly important, and you are, as well. Our country depends on a department that's independent, committed to protecting the rights and freedoms of all Americans. It's not just some. So we look forward to hearing from you on these and other important issues. I thank you, Mr. Chairman.
GRASSLEY: General Sessions, I would like to swear you at this point.
Do you affirm that the testimony you're about to give before the committee will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you god?
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Yes.
GRASSLEY: Before you speak, I would like to -- we have a long session ahead of us here, probably with you, I don't -- because there's going to be a lot of questions. Since we did not get a copy of your opening remarks, I was wondering if it would be possible for you to submit your longer remarks and maybe summarize so we can get to questions sooner. But I'll defer to you, but that's my request, but whatever time you need, take it.
SESSIONS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate the opportunity to be with all of you. Ranking member Feinstein and distinguished members of the committee, former colleagues and friends, I appreciate this opportunity. It's an honor of a lifetime. You have to know, for me to serve as attorney general of the United States of America. You can understand and know that with my 15 years in that department, and my 20 years in this committee, with oversight of that department, I understand the responsibilities that I have, the duties I have to undertake, and I'll do my best every day to be worthy of the trust you've placed in me.
Every single day, the men and women of the Department of Justice work to protect our national security against terrorist threats, defend our civil rights, reduce violent crime, stop deadly drug dealers, and strengthen the rule of law. Today, I would like to share some thoughts about what we are doing, give you insight into the exciting activities that are ongoing.
The Department of Justice is resolutely focused on dealing with the terrorism threats that we face. They are real, the military tells us they can expect not a reduction after ISIS is defeated, but maybe even an increase in attacks.
[10:25:09] The president's executive order is an important step to ensuring that we know who is coming into our country. It's a lawful, necessary, order that we are proud to defend. And indeed, most may not know, the Supreme Court has already vacated one court's injunction against that order, and we're confident we will prevail as time goes by in the Supreme Court.
We know, colleagues, that violent crime is rising after almost 30 years of decline. For two years in a row, we've seen the fastest overall increase in violent crime in 25 years. The homicide rate increased 20 percent in two years. That's the -- and in 2015, the increase was the greatest in 49 years. I believe it's a trend we must confront.
The president understands this in one of his first executive orders, he directed us in simple terms to reduce crime in America. We have heard that challenge. We embrace it. And we are setting about to do something about it.
At the Department of Justice, we understand a key fact. And we all need to understand this. 85 percent of law enforcement officers in America are state and local. They are better trained and more professional than ever. It's a huge factor in the decline in crime in my opinion that we've seen previously. And we know crime in America will never be reduced without a partnership between federal and state officers.
There's no doubt that federal state, local and tribal resources professionally applied and in accord with scientifically proven policies can positively impact the crime rate. If you look at our cities, as Mr. Chairman, you noted, New York has dedicated itself over decades to highly effective, proactive, community-based policing. They saw 334 homicides last year. Chicago, on the other hand, while only a third of the size of New York, logged more than twice as many murders.
So our professionals in the department have been intensely studying how research-based, proven crime reduction techniques can reverse increases in crime. They produced, in my opinion, a brilliant set of initiatives. I was very pleased with their plan. Whatever the violent crime might be, have been in the next few years, it will be lower if these policies are followed. I can assure you of that.
Our aim is not to see how many people can be incarcerated, but to focus on the most dangerous repeat offenders and actually reduce crime and violence in America. An effective crime reduction strategy also means starving criminal enterprises of their profits, the assets seizure and forfeiture program is one of the most effective tools Congress has provided. I know a number of you are concerned about the operations of that program. I hear your concerns. I have established an asset forfeiture accountability director to oversee the entirety of this forfeiture program and to ensure it operates in an accountable and responsible way, and be able to report to you at any time you need information about it.
This department is committed to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans and to prosecuting hate crime violence. Every American, regardless of race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation must be safe from violence and criminality. We will not shy away from defending First Amendment rights. We stand ready to enforce federal law, to protect the right to speak and to assemble peacefully and to defend the free exercise of religion.
We're in the midst of the deadliest drug epidemic this country has ever seen. We've seen nothing like it. Our availability of drugs, lower prices, increased purity, along with a deadly substance, fentanyl, has resulted in climbing death tolls across this country. It was 52,000 last year died of overdoses. 64 in '15 and 64,000 died in '16. Many of these deaths resulted from opioid overdoses that began with prescription drug addiction and then moved to heroin and fentanyl. There can be no doubt, colleagues we need much stricter accountability in the manufacture and the prescribing and the distribution of addicted opioids. We do not need to delay this any longer.