Return to Transcripts main page
Sessions Grilled on Knowledge of Russia Contacts. Aired 10- 10:30a ET
Aired November 14, 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: Evan, now we know his last testimony was October 18th. Now it's November 12th.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Something like that, maybe the 14th.
HARLOW: Thank you.
But a lot has changed. I mean you have these two foreign policy advisors to the Trump team, George Papadopoulos and Carter Page coming forward and saying yes, we had contact with Russia and by the way, we told Attorney General Jeff Sessions about them and that runs directly counter to what he testified under oath less than a month ago.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, exactly. Some of the big question I think Democrats are going to be raising is whether or not Jeff Sessions lied especially in that October hearing. Let's take a listen to what he was asked and how he answered it. Take a listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: You don't believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians. Is that what you're saying?
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I did not and I'm not aware of anyone else that did and I don't believe it happened.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PEREZ: I don't believe it happened. That's the answer he gave. And look, I've got to tell you, I think this is more of a political problem for Jeff Sessions. He wasn't up front and perhaps he just didn't remember these interactions with Carter Page and with George Papadopoulos. He was in a meeting where George Papadopoulos, according to court documents that have been released by the special counsel Robert Mueller.
Papadopoulos raised the prospect of arranging a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. So he seems to not have remembered that. So the question is did he lie? I don't think you can make the case really that he lied, but he certainly didn't disclose something that a Democrat said should have stuck in his mind, should have been remembered and I think that's what you're going to see a lot of questions about today.
BERMAN: Well, he's forgotten more meetings with Russians than most people have had in their lives, which is interesting but not impossible. Evan Perez, thank you so much. Manu, stick around as well.
Joining us now to discuss Mark Preston, CNN senior political analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, CNN chief legal analyst and former federal prosecutor and Caitlin Huey Burns, national political reporter for "RealClearPolitics."
This hearing will get started in any second. We're going to talk more about that. We just heard from Evan and Manu. But Jeffrey, I want to get back to "WikiLeaks" for a second which he could very well be asked about "WikiLeaks" because Donald Trump, Jr. Had contact with "WikiLeaks" during the campaign. "WikiLeaks" of course, working in some cases practically as an agent for Russia. That new revelation overnight, how much does that change the overall scope of the entire Russia matter, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it just intensifies the questions that already exist because after all, the core of Robert Mueller's investigation is about whether there were improper contacts between the Trump administration, the Trump campaign, and Russia and its affiliates. And if you recall, the party line among Trump campaign and into the Trump administration was that which Vice President Mike Pence said in October, which was there were no contacts. There's nothing here.
Now, the story has changed because the facts have changed and the facts are, there have been a lot of contacts disclosed between the Trump campaign, whether it's Papadopoulos, or Sessions or Carter Page. All of them had contacts with Russia. Now the question is -- and Donald Trump, Jr., and so the question is, was any of that a violation of the law, but clearly there were contacts and the question now is how can they be explained.
HARLOW: We see Attorney General Jeff Sessions walking in, was shaking hands of former fellow members of Congress patting one on the back as he gets ready to take a seat here. What are you listening for, Caitlin, most closely in this line of questioning, which, you know, one of the Democrats questioning him told us earlier in the show will span a lot of different areas, but Russia at the fore.
CAITLIN HUEY BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "REALCLEARPOLITICS": Right, exactly. Remember, these hearings are kind of routine oversight hearings that have really attracted the national spotlight just because of Jeff Sessions' previous testimonies in front of these committees. Remember he doesn't have a reservoir of credibility really of lawmakers at this point given the two times he has had to go back and revisit statements.
I think Democrats are certainly going to go hard after the Russia issue, these contacts that have been relayed. I am also curious whether they try to turn the news of Sessions' calling for some investigations into the Clinton interactions turn that on its head and raise questions about the independence of the judiciary. And remember, the president is returning from his overseas trip today, tonight, this is certainly going to be frustrating for him as it has been for several.
BERMAN: House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
REP. BOB GOODLATTE, R-VA, CHMN, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: (In progress) -- recognizing myself for an opening statement.
Good morning. Today we welcome Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Judiciary Committee's Annual Department of Justice oversight hearing. Mr. Attorney General, you have a long and distinguished career in public service. You've continued that service by leading the Department of Justice, an agency that by its very nature is prone to controversy because of the public's varied opinions on what it seeks to see -- what it means to seek and obtain justice.
[10:05:11] However, you clearly understand that the department you lead must have the confidence of the American people even when your decisions are not always well received. Your first year leading the Department of Justice has not been without difficulty, which is expected at the outset of a new administration. While much has been done to correct the improper political engagement by the Department of Justice under the Obama administration, more work must be done to ensure the department is operating to impartially administer justice. Our last DOJ oversight hearing was beyond disappointing.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave the least fulsome and least transparent testimony that I can recall in my time in Congress. It was plainly a disservice to the American people. Miss Lynch failed to respond substantively to nearly every question posed by members of this committee. Before Miss Lynch former Attorney General Eric Holder became the first attorney general in history to be held in contempt by the House of Representatives for his own stonewalling with regards to documents connected to the reckless operation fast and furious. I expect, Mr. Attorney General, that you will be more willing to candidly answer questions from members on best sides of the aisle.
You're going to hear question after question today concerning your knowledge of or involvement with Russia and its alleged efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Whether it concerns your work on behalf of now President Trump, during the campaign or your service in the Senate, I suspect this theme will be a constant refrain from my friends on the other side of the aisle. While I understand your decision to recuse yourself was an effort by you to do the right thing, I believe you, as a person of integrity, would have been impartial and fair in following the facts wherever they led.
I have chosen as chairman of this committee to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller do his job, free from undue political influence. At the same time, however, this committee will do its duty and conduct oversight of the Department of Justice. To that end we sent two letters to you, one in July and another in September, calling on you to name a second special counsel to restore the public's confidence in our justice system.
Numerous matters connected to the 2016 election remain unresolved. To date, the department has not appointed a second special counsel. Consequently this committee had no choice but to open our own joint investigation with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to review DOJ and FBI's handling of the investigation into former secretary Hillary Clinton and her mishandling of classified information.
As we said earlier this year, it is incumbent on this committee, in oversight capacity, to ensure that the agencies we oversee, are above reproach and that the Justice Department, in particular, remains immune to accusations of politicization. Whoever is attorney general, the Justice Department must even handily administer justice. You have recused yourself from matters stemming from the 2016 election, but there are significant concerns that the partisanship of the FBI and the department has weakened the ability of each to act objectively.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this and what steps you are taking to remove politics from law enforcement. However, these investigations are but a few of the many important issues we need to discuss today. For instance, we just overwhelmingly reported that the USA Liberty Act out of committee last week. This bipartisan legislation would reauthorize section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The administration has chosen to oppose any reform of the law.
I understand the desire for a clean reauthorization of this vital program. However, I believe this stance is a miscalculation that risks further eroding trust in our intelligence apparatus. We hope we can work with you now that the USA Liberty Act, which reauthorizes a law that is vital to our nation's battle against terrorism, while protecting Americans' civil liberties, has been reported out of the committee. This is especially important given the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks in the United States.
As we all know, not two weeks ago, eight people were killed and almost a dozen injured when an ISIS-inspired jihadist drove a rented pick-up truck into a crowded bicycle path near the World Trade Center in New York. The terrorist threat is real and ongoing. We cannot afford to play politics with national security. I also look forward to continuing to work with you on efforts to reform our nation's criminal justice system.
[10:10:02] There is bipartisan support to do this in Congress and with your help, we can make changes that crack down on violent offenders while also doing more to rehabilitate federal prisons and curb abuses in the system as well as excessive punishments. To your credit, since you assumed leadership of the Department of Justice, there has been a significant increase in the prosecution of firearms offenses in the United States. For years I have criticized lax enforcement of the gun laws already on the books. Enforcing these laws is the most effective way to combat violent crime in our cities and neighborhoods. Under your leadership, the number of defendants charged with unlawful possession of a firearm has increased by nearly 25 percent. The number of defendants charged with armed drug trafficking has increased 10 percent.
I commend you for your focus on these prosecutions because they will help make our streets safer. There are many other matters on which we share common ground, especially when it comes to rectifying the failures of the Obama administration. For example, earlier this year, the House passed legislation to ban settlement payments to non-victim third parties following your policy directive to shut down the use of such mandatory donations. These reform initiatives followed a concerted effort by the Obama administration to use settlements to benefit its political allies.
We commend your efforts to combat illegal immigration, protect our citizens from criminal aliens and to fight back against so-called sanctuary cities. More than two years have passed since Kate Steinle was murdered by an illegal immigrant who had been deported five times. We have addressed this issue head-on by moving legislation to combat sanctuary cities and find and remove criminal gang members.
Mr. Attorney General, our country is at a crossroads. Our constituents are gravely concerned that our justice system does not work for them. Under your leadership the Justice Department has taken strides to mitigate the harms done in the prior administration. I implore you to work with us to continue that trend and I thank you sincerely for your appearance here today.
I now recognize the ranking member of the committee, the gentleman from Michigan, Mr. Conners, for his opening statement.
REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), RANKING MEMBER, RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Top of the morning, in the ordinary course of business, any one of a dozen topics related to the Department of Justice would be worthy of its own hearing. And to be clear, I would rather spend our time today discussing the upkeep of the criminal justice system, the enforcement of civil rights and the work we must all do to ensure access to the ballot box.
Instead, we must spend our time debating the troubles of a wayward administration. How the attorney general conducts himself before Congress. How President Trump undermines the integrity of the justice system and how the department continues to ignore the oversight requests of this committee. Although this is the attorney general's first appearance before the House, he's already made three visits to our colleagues in the Senate.
At his confirmation hearing, he testified that he did not have communications with the Russians. Last month, he testified that a continuing exchange of information between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government did not happen, at least to my knowledge, and not with me. We now know, of course, that neither of these statements is true. Shortly after the attorney general made the first comment, "The Washington Post" reported that he met with the Russian ambassador at least twice during the campaign. In the past month we've also learned that the attorney general must have been very much aware of a continuing exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And charging documents unsealed last month, George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, admits to extensive communications with Russian contacts.
[10:15:04] At a March 31st, 2016, meeting of the campaign's national security advisory committee, attended by candidate Trump, and chaired by Senator Sessions, Mr. Papadopoulos stated in sum and substance that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then candidate Trump and president Putin. It does not matter and has been reported that the attorney general remembers this meeting after the fact. Remembers it so vividly, in fact, that two unnamed sources say the senator shot George down.
Under oath, knowing in advance that he would be asked about this subject, attorney general gave answers that were, at best, incomplete. I hope the attorney general can provide some clarification on this problem in his remarks today. I also hope that he can assure us that the department is weathering near daily attacks on its independence by President Trump. And that no office of the department is being used to pressure the president's political enemies.
In recent months, President Trump has attacked the beleaguered attorney general and criticized his very weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes, in quotation. The president has talked openly about firing the leadership of the department, including the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, the former acting director of the FBI, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He did fire former FBI director Comey. In his own words, quote, "because of that Russia thing with Trump and Russia," end quotation as well as acting Attorney General Sally Yates and all 46 sitting United States attorneys.
Last year, he denigrated a federal judge because of his, quote, "Mexican Heritage," unquote. And Judge Cure Rio (ph) was born in Indiana, by the way. Last month, in a radio interview, President Trump said he was very unhappy with the Justice Department. Hours later he proclaimed the military justice system a complete and total disgrace.
But the one that sticks with me is the president's July interview with "the New York times." In that interview, he begins by once again attacking the attorney general's credibility. Sessions never should have recused himself, the president complains. Then the conversation takes a sinister turn. When Nixon came along, out of courtesy, the FBI started reporting to the Department of Justice, but the FBI person really reports directly to the president of the United States. He goes on, I could have ended the Flynn investigation just by saying they say it can't be obstruction because you can say it's ended. It has over, period.
As is often the case, the president requires some correction. The director of the FBI reports directly to the attorney general and has since the founding of the bureau, it can be obstruction of justice if the president orders an investigation closed with a corrupt motive. But what strikes me about these comments, is the president's view that the criminal justice system serves him and not the public.
President Trump seems to believe that on a whim, he can bring pressure to bear on his enemies, dismiss charges against his allies, and insulate himself and his family from any consequence.
[10:20:12]I cannot over emphasize the danger of this perspective poses to our Republic and I have served on this committee long enough to remember another president who shared this view. I was myself on Richard Nixon's enemies' list and although we worked to hold that administration accountable, our work is not complete. We must all remember our common responsibility to prevent that kind of abuse from happening again. I will look to the attorney general's partnership if this effort, but I've begun to worry about his resolve.
Last night, in a letter sent by the department to Chairman Goodlatte, without so much as a copy to the ranking member, by the way, the assistant attorney general seems to leave the door open to appointing a new special counsel to cater to the president's political needs. The fact that this letter was sent to the majority without the customary and appropriate notice it to me indicates that the charge given to the department of officials to evaluate these issues has political motivations. Now, in his own words, the attorney general is recused from any questions involving investigations that involve Secretary Clinton.
Further, we cannot refer an investigation to a second counsel if we lack the evidence to predicate a criminal investigation in the first place. Virtually every Clinton related matter that President Trump complains about has been well litigated, carefully examined and completely debunked. Still, to quote former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, putting political opponents in jail for offenses committed in a political setting is something that we don't do here. The threat alone resembles, in his words, a banana republic.
Finally there is the matter of routine oversight between hearings. In the recent history of this committee, new attorneys generally usually come to see us within two or three months of taking office. No attorney general in recent memory has taken more than six months before making an appearance here. Attorney General Sessions has broken that norm, he has had more than 10 months to settle in, making our communications with the department between hearings that much more important.
To date, my colleagues and I have sent more than 40 letters to the Trump administration asking for information necessary to carry out our oversight responsibilities. We've sent more than a dozen of these letters directly to the attorney general. To date, we have not received a single substantive response. We can disagree on matters of policy, Mr. Attorney General, but you cannot keep us in the dark forever. When we make a reasonable oversight request, we expect you to reply in a prompt and responsive manner, and I hope you can explain why your department has chosen to ignore these letters. More importantly, I hope that you will be more forthcoming with your answers both in your testimony today and in the weeks to come, and I look forward to your testimony.
And Mr. Chairman, I thank you, and yield back the balance of my time.
GOODLATTE: Thank you, Mr. Conyers, without objection all other member opening statements will be made a part of the record. We welcome our distinguished witness if you would please rise, I will begin by swearing you in. Please raise your right hand.
[10:25:11] Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you god?
SESSIONS: I do.
GOODLATTE: Thank you.
Let the record show that witness answered in the affirmative. Mr. Jeff Sessions was sworn in as the 84th attorney general of the United States on February 9, 2017. From 1996 to his confirmation to lead the Department of Justice, Mr. Sessions served as the United States senator for Alabama. Previously, Attorney General Sessions served as an assistant United States attorney and United States attorney for the southern district of Alabama, Alabama attorney general and captain in the United Statees Army Reserve. Attorney General Sessions is a graduate of Huntington College and the University of Alabama law school.
Welcome, Attorney General Sessions. Your entire written statement will be entered into the record and we ask that you summarize your testimony in five minutes by noted that the ranking member took a few more minutes than that, if you find that necessary please feel free to do that as well. Welcome.
SESSIONS: Thank you, very much. Mr. Chairman, it's an honor to be before this distinguished committee, having served 20 years on your counterpart in the Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Chairman, I must note that I note with regret your announcement of retirement and I know that our relationship has been good in the past and I hope it will continue to be good as you serve here. You've done a fabulous job in leading this committee.
On my first day as attorney general I spoke about, quote, "The critical role we at the department play in maintaining and strengthening the rule of law, which formed the foundation of our liberty, our safety, and our prosperity." In this rule of law, we are blessed beyond all nations. So I truly believe that. And at this department, we must do all we can to ensure that it is preserved and advanced, such ideals, transcend politics.
From that day to today, we at the Department of Justice have worked to be faithful to that mission. Let me share some things we've done initially.
The president sent us an order to reduce crime, not to allow crime to continue to increase, and we embrace that mission. The violent crime rate has risen and the homicide rate has risen by more than 20 percent in just two years, really, after 30 years of decline in violent crime. After a careful review, we have established a reinvigorated project safe neighborhood program as the foundational policy for public safety. It has been proven to get results in its first seven years of implementation, PSN reduced violent crime by 4.1 percent, with case studies showing reductions in certain areas where it was intentionally applied of up to 42 percent.
We're also focusing on criminals with guns, as you mentioned, Mr. Chairman, and we've seen a 23 percent increase in gun prosecutions in the second quarter of this fiscal year, my first year. And I'm honored to lead the superb men and women of the FBI, the drug enforcement administration, ATF and the United States Marshal Service, who work together every day with our state and local partners in this core crime fighting mission that is the responsibility of the department.
Last year we saw a staggering 61 percent increase in the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty because of a felony. And on average more than 150 officers were assaulted every single day. These numbers are unacceptable.
Fortunately, the president understand this, he's directed us at the beginning of my administration to back our men and women in blue. We are making it clear that we stand with our law enforcement partners 100 percent. They are the solution to crime, not the problem.
We've also protected the rule of law in our own department. We prohibited so-called third-party settlements that were being used to bankroll special interest groups. We've settled civil cases regarding the Affordable Care Act's birth control mandate, settled the cases of many groups of tax exempt on groups whose status was significantly and wrongfully delayed by the internal revenue service. We've also provided legal counsel to this administration in favor of ending several other unlawful policies.
[10:30:00] This includes President Trump's order ending billions in funding --