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Continuing Coverage of House Judiciary Hearing. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired November 14, 2017 - 10:30   ET

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


[10:30:00]

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: This includes President Trump's order ending billions in funding for insurance companies that were non-appropriated by Congress under the Affordable Care Act. This action, which the House had filed a lawsuit to stop -- put an end to one of the most dramatic erosions of the congressional appropriations power in our history. House members, you are correct to challenge that. You won in the district court. We believe you are correct, and we had that -- we reversed the policy and had that matter withdrawn -- the policy withdrawn.

We put an end to the actions by the previous administration to circumvent Congress's duly path to immigration laws on the DACA. The policy gave individuals that were here illegally certificates of lawful status, work permits, and the right to participate in Social Security. We withdrew that unlawful policy and now the issue is in the hands of Congress, really where it belongs. We have filed briefs defending properly-enacted state voter identification laws, lawful re- districting plans, religious liberty, and free speech on college campuses.

In short, it is our mission through the report -- to restore the American people's confidence in the Department of Justice by defending the rule of law and enforcing the laws as you have passed them. And it is a mission we are honored to undertake.

In response to the letters from this committee and others, I've directed Senior Federal Prosecutors to make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be open. Whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources and whether any matters under consideration may merit the appointment of a special counsel.

On -- and as you are aware, the Department's inspector general has an active review of allegations that FBI policies and procedures were not followed, last year, in a number of matters that you have addressed.

And, Mr. Chairman, the letter was addressed to you because it was a response to your letter and that's how it was sent. We will make such decisions without regard, hear me, without regard to politics, ideology or bias.

As many of you know, the Department has a long-standing policy not to confirm or deny the existence of investigations. This policy can be frustrating, I understand, especially when there is great public interest about a matter, but it enhances justice when we act under the law, with professionalism and discipline.

This policy necessarily precludes any discussion on cases I may be recused from because to do so would confirm the existence of underlying investigations. To the extent a matter comes to the attention of my office, that may warrant consideration of recusal, I review the issue, consult with the appropriate Department of Ethics officials and make my decision as I promised the Senate committee, when I was confirmed.

Lastly, I would like to address the false charges made about my previous testimony. My answers have not changed. I've always told the truth and I have answered every question as I understood them to the best of my recollection as I will continue to do today. I would like to address recent news reports regarding meetings during the campaign, attended by Joyce Papadopoulos and Carter Page, among others.

Frankly, I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports. I do now recall that the March 2016 meeting at the Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I've no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting.

After reading his account and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he would not authorize to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government for that matter.

But I did not recall this event which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago and I would gladly have reported it had I remembered it because I pushed back against his suggestion that I thought may have been improper.

As for Mr. Page, while I do not challenge his recollection, I have no memory of his presence at a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club or any passing conversation he may have had with me as he left the dinner. All of you have been in campaigns, let me just suggest, but most of you have not been displayed in a presidential campaign and none of you had a part in the Trump campaign.

And it was a brilliant campaign, I think, in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day from day one. We traveled some times to several places in one day. Sleep was in short supply and I was still a full-time Senator at a very -- with a very full schedule. During this year, I've spent close to 20 hours testifying before Congress -- before today.

I have been asked to remember details from a year ago, such as who I saw on what day, in what meeting and who said what to when? In all of my testimony, I can only do my best to answer your questions as I understand them and to the best of my memory. But I will not accept, and reject accusations, that I have ever lied. That is a lie. Let me be clear, I have, at all times, conducted myself honorably and in a manner consistent with the high standards and responsibilities of the Office of Attorney General which I revere. I spent 15 years in that department. I love that department. I honor that department and will do my dead-level best to be worthy of your attorney general. As I said before, my story has never changed. I've always told the truth and I've answered every question to the best of my recollection and I will continue to do so today.

With that, Mr. Chairman, I'm honored take your questions.

GOODLATTE: Well, thank you, General Sessions. We'll now proceed under the five-minute rule with questions and I'll begin by recognizing myself. Under your leadership, the prosecution of firearms offenses have increased 23 percent over the same period of the previous year. Furthermore, the number of defendants charged with using a firearm and violent crimes of drug trafficking rose 10 percent over the previous year.

We have a slide, which shows the increase as compared to the Obama era numbers. What do these increased prosecutions of firearms offenses indicate about the Department of Justice's commitment to fighting violent crime, particularly with the use of firearms in this country?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, as a formal federal prosecutor who emphasized gun prosecutions, I've long believed that they have a significant impact in reducing violent crime. Professors, earlier this year, have explained that they share that view based on scientific analysis. It will be a high priority of ours. You are correct that prosecutions fell. One incident that was raised during the Texas -- terrific, horrible shooting at the church there in South Sutherland, Texas, was the ability of an individual to get a firearm and whether or not they filed correctly their form before you get one that's -- it requires questions about criminal convictions and court-martials.

Those prosecutions, I've noticed, have dropped by over 50 percent in the last three or four years. I think those are worthy prosecutions. And when a criminal is carrying a gun during a criminal act of some other kind, that is a clear and present danger to the public. And those cases are important and they impact reduction of crime.

GOODLATTE: As you're aware, I and a majority of the members of this committee have, on multiple occasions, requested a special counsel to investigate Former Secretary Hillary Clinton's mishandling of classified information, and the actions of Former Attorney General Lynch with respect to former FBI Director Comey's decision not to prosecute Former Secretary Clinton.

I'm in receipt of the Department's letter from yesterday, stating that, senior federal prosecutors will review our letters and make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be open, require further resources or merit the appointment of a special counsel.

Do I have your assurance that these matters will proceed fairly and expeditiously?

SESSIONS: Yes, you can, Mr. Chairman. And you can be sure that they will be done without political influence, and they'll be done correctly and properly.

GOODLATTE: You also reference an ongoing Inspector General investigation into many of the matters we have raised. Will you ensure that the I.G. briefs this committee on his findings in closed session if necessary?

SESSIONS: I will do my best to comply with that. The Inspector General is able to announce investigations in a way that we do not on the normal criminal process side of Department of Justice and I assume he would be able to do that.

GOODLATTE: Over the past year, we have seen numerous apparent disclosures of unmasked names of U.S. citizens in the context of intelligence reports. Which crimes are violated when these unmasked names are disclosed? For example, to the press. How does the Department of Justice investigate such unauthorized disclosures?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I could implicate a number of legal prohibitions and it could be, clearly, a release of classified information contrary to law, and it's a very grave offense and certainly goes against the core policies of this government to protect those matters from disclosure.

And the second part of your question was?

GOODLATTE: How the department investigates such unauthorized disclosures?

SESSIONS: We have members of the committee -- we had about nine open investigations of classified leaks in the last three years, we have 27 investigations open today. We intend to get to the bottom of these leaks. I think it reached -- has reached epidemic proportions. It cannot be allowed to continue and we will do our best effort to ensure that it does not continue.

GOODLATTE: And on April 11th, you issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors requesting that they make prosecution of certain immigration offenses a higher priority. To your knowledge, have the number have federal prosecutions increased nationwide, for offenses, such as harboring aliens, improper entry and illegal reentry?

SESSIONS: I do not have the statistics on that, but I believe there has been some increases in those cases. One thing we've seen is a reduction of attempts to enter the country illegally and that is good news and should result in some decline in some prosecutions.

GOODLATTE: And finally, as you know, this committee did a great deal of work to enact criminal justice reform legislation last Congress. Will you continue to work in good faith with me and the members of this committee, on both sides of the aisle, to identify and craft responsible reforms?

SESSIONS: I certainly will, Mr. Chairman.

GOODLATTE: Thank you General Sessions. I now recognize the ranking member of the committee, Mr. Conyers, for five minutes. CONYERS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And welcome again, Mr. Attorney General. I'd like to begin by putting a few statements by the president up on the screen. The first from July 24th, 2017. "So why aren't the committees and investigators, and of course, our beleaguered Attorney General looking into crooked Hillary crimes and Russia relations?"

The second, from November the 3rd. "Everybody's asking why the Justice Department and the FBI isn't looking at all of the dishonesty going on with crooked Hillary and the Dems", in quotation.

The third, also from November 3rd. "Pocahontas just stated that the Democrats lead by the -- lead by the legendary crooked Hillary Clinton rigged the primaries. Let's go to the FBI and Justice Department." I believe he is referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren in that last one. When Richard Nixon spoke about us that way at least he had the courtesy to do it behind closed doors.

Mr. Attorney General, a few questions for you yes or no, please. In a functioning democracy is it common for the leader of the country to order the criminal justice system to retaliate against his political opponents?

SESSIONS: Is that a question?

CONYERS: Yes, that's the question.

SESSIONS: Is it proper? Is that what you're ...

CONYERS: No, you answer to me whether it is yes or no, your response.

SESSIONS: But, I didn't quite catch the beginning of the question. I'm sorry.

CONYERS: All right. In a functioning democracy, is it common for the leader of the country to order the criminal justice system to retaliate against his political opponents?

SESSIONS: Mr. Conyers, I would say that it's -- the Department of Justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents and that would be wrong.

CONYERS: I interpret that as no. You...

SESSIONS: The answer stands for itself, I guess.

CONYERS: Well, I would -- just that would make it a little easier if you just responded yes or no, if you can. Here's another. Should the President of the United States make public comments that might influence a pending criminal investigation?

SESSIONS: Should he take great care in those issues.

CONYERS: Could you respond yes or no? SESSIONS: Well, I don't know exactly the facts of what you're raising and what amounts to the concern you have. I would say it's improper to influence -- it would be -- a president cannot improperly influence an investigation.

CONYERS: OK.

SESSIONS: And I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced. The president speaks his mind. He's bold and direct about what he says, but people elected him. But we do our duty every day based on the law and the facts.

CONYERS: Reclaiming my time. I'm not -- I'm not impugning these comments to you or what you would do in advance. Last night, sir, the assistant attorney general sent the chairman a letter suggesting that the attorney general has directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate certain issues like the sale of Uranium One in 2010.

Now, at your confirmation hearing, you said, "I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kinds of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton and that were raised during the campaign or to be otherwise connected to it." Now, for my yes or no question. Are you recused from investigations that involve Secretary Clinton?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, it's -- I cannot answer that yes or no because under the policies of the Department of Justice, to announce recusal in any investigation would reveal the existence of that investigation. And the top ethics officials have advised me I should not do so.

GOODLATTE: The time of the gentleman has expired. The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Wisconsin, Mr. Sensenbrenner, for five minutes.

SENSENBRENNER: Thank you very much.

Welcome, Mr. Attorney General. We're debating whether Section 702 should be reauthorized and I want to talk about that issue. At the beginning, let me show you a poster that my campaign committee put up on the University of Whitewater campus in the 2014 election, during the debate on the USA Liberty Act.

And it says, "The government knows what you did last night. The NSA has grabbed your phone calls, texts, Facebook posts and e-mails. Jim Sensenbrenner thinks that that's an outrageous invasion of your privacy", and it shows that I passed the bill and asked the students to vote for me. It worked. My percentage on that campus went up 20 points from the previous election.

Now, we're talking about many of the same issues in terms of Section 702. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was designed to collect foreign intelligence, not domestic intelligence. But in reality, we know that a vast number of Americans' communications are also collected. The committee took a great step in trying to balance security and privacy last week when we reported about the USA Liberty Act, which made significant changes to the program. Notably, this legislation specifies two ways the government can query the information under Section 702, either foreign intelligence or evidence of a crime. USA Liberty Act ensures that the government does not abuse 702 by requiring that a warrant be issued to access content after querying information for evidence of a crime.

Now, Attorney General Sessions, you have stated on several occasions that you believe that a warrant requirement would hinder the government's ability to detect and stop terrorists, yet this bill already provides the government to move forward without a warrant on foreign intelligence in emergency situation.

Why can't the USA Liberty Act be the compromise? Can't we allow the intelligence community to stop terrorists while protecting the constitutional rights of Americans?

SESSION: Well, we can and constitutional rights of Americans should be protected. And I know you worked on the Patriot Act when it came up with Senator Hatch and Senator Leahy and others. And I know you're a champion of civil liberties. So I would just say that we can do that. The act, as written, as in law today, has been approved by the courts and has not been found to be in violation of the law. And so, that's first and foremost. I know the committee has decided to put some additional restrictions on the way the act is conducted.

We did not think that was lawfully required. Congress can make its own decisions and we'll continue to be able to share our thoughts about how the legislation should be crafted.

SENSENBRENNER: Well, Mr. Attorney General, the day before the committee marked up this bill, the Justice Department was actively lobbying members of the committee to oppose the measure, stating that it would dismantle Section 702.

Now, this is a huge gamble because 702 expires at the end of the year. We have a very short timeline and I want to ask you whether yes or no, following my friend from Michigan, you want to risk the real possibility that this program will expire by insisting upon a clean reauthorization without a sunset?

SESSIONS: No, we don't want to take that risk.

SENSEBRENNER: Will you commit to working with Congress and not against us to make sure that Section 702 is reauthorized, either the way you want it or the way we want it?

SESSIONS: Mr. -- I almost said Mr. Chairman. I know you've held that office. Congress gets to dispose, we get to give our opinion. I believe the act, as passed, and has been reauthorized with an even larger vote last time, is constitutional.

I believe it works and I am worried about additional burdens, particularly a warrant requirement which could be exceedingly damaging to the effectiveness of the act. We're willing to talk to you about some of the concerns that exist out there. Hopefully we can work our way through it and accept the concerns and fix the concerns you have without going too far.

SENSENBRENNER: With all due respect, there is an emergency exemption in the USA Liberty Act, as reported from the committee, and that should take care of the problem. And yet, people in your Department were saying this was no good.

I take your offer at face value and I will let you know if I hear of members of your Department actively lobbying to defeat the bill rather than to work something out. Yield back the balance of my time.

SESSIONS: I know you'll let us know, Mr. Sensenbrenner.

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes the gentleman from New York, Mr. Nadler, for five minutes.

NADLER: Thank you.

Mr. Attorney General, following up on the questions from Mr. Conyers, at your confirmation hearing you said, "I believe the proper thing for me to do would be recuse myself from any questions involving these kinds of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton and that were raised during the campaign to be otherwise connected to it." Close quote. Do you stand by that statement? Yes or no?

SESSIONS: Yes.

NADLER: Thank you. Now I want to show you an image from March 31st, 2016, of the meeting of the Trump campaign National Security Advisory Committee, which you chaired, with yourself in attendance along with then-candidate Donald Trump and Mr. George Papadopoulos.

Mr. Papadopoulos pled guilty in October 5th to making false statements the FBI. The charging papers filed by Special Counsel Mueller describe the March 31st meeting with the Papadopoulos told the group that he had connections and could help arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

After the meeting, Mr. Papadopoulos continued to communicate with the Russian government on behalf of the Trump campaign and appears have told several senior campaign officials about.

Now here's the problem, on October 18th of this year, you said under oath in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee quote, a continuing exchange of information between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government did not happen.

At least not to my knowledge and not with me. Senator Franken asked, you don't believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians? To which you responded, "I did not them not aware of anyone else that did." Unquote.

Now, we now know, that one, the campaign had communication with the Russians through Mr. Papadopoulos and others, and two, you seem to have been aware of the fact at the time. So, let's try and correct the earlier testimony now for the record.

Yes or no, did you chair the March 31, 2016, meeting of the National Security Advisory Committee?

SESSION: I did chair that meeting.

NADLER: Thank you. Yes or no. Did Mr. Papadopoulos mention his outreach to the Russian government during that meeting?

SESSIONS: He made some comment to that effect as I remember after having read in a newspaper.

NADLER: I asked for yes or no. I don't have time.

SESSIONS: All right.

NADLER: There are reports that you shut George down, unquote, when he proposed that meeting with Putin. Is this correct yes or no?

SESSIONS: Yes, I pushed back. I'll just say it that way because it was --

NADLER: Yes. Your answer is yes. So, you are obviously concerned by Mr. Papadopoulos's connections and his possibly arranging a meeting with Putin. Now, again, yes or no, did anyone else at that meeting, including Then-Candidate Trump react in any way to what Mr. Papadopoulos had presented.

SESSIONS: I don't recall.

NADLER: OK. So your testimony is that neither Donald Trump nor anyone else at the meeting expressed any interest in meeting the Russian president or had any concerns about communications between the campaign and the Russians?

SESSIONS: I don't recall it.

NADLER: OK. Now we know from multiple sources, including the Papadopoulos guilty plea, Carter Page's interview with Intelligence and Donald Trump, Jr.'s e-mails, among others, that contrary to your earlier testimony there were continued efforts to communicate with the Russians on behalf of the Trump campaign.

We've established that you knew about at least some of these efforts, they caused you such concern that you quote, "shut George down". I want to know what you did with this information. Yes or no. After the March 31st meeting, did you take any steps to prevent Trump campaign officials, advisers or employees from further outreach to the Russians?

SESSIONS: Mr. Nadler, let me just say it this way, I pushed back at that. You made statements that he did in fact -- at the meeting I pushed back...

NADLER: We know that, but did you after the meeting...

SESSIONS: No, I'm not. I have to be able to answer. I can't -- I can't be able to put into a position where I can't explain.

NADLER: I only have five minutes. I'm asking you...

SESSIONS: I'm not going to be able to answer if I can't answer completely.

NADLER: Well, you said you pushed back, we accept that. After the meeting, did you take any further steps to prevent Trump campaign officials, advisers or employees form further outreach the Russians after you stop it or push back at that meeting?

SESSIONS: What I want to say to you is, you alleged there was some further contacts later. I don't believe I had any knowledge of any further contacts and I was not in regular contact with Mr. Papadopoulos.

NADLER: So your answer is no because you don't think there were any such contacts. So...

SESSIONS: I'm not aware of it.

NADLER: OK. So I was going ask you a question of did you raise the issue with various people but your answer is no.

SESSIONS: To the best of my recollection.

NADLER: OK. So, your testimony today is that you communicated with nobody in the campaign about this matter after the March 31st meeting because nothing happened.

SESSIONS: Repeat that.

NADLER: Your testimony, therefore, is that you communicated with nobody in the campaign about this matter after the March 31st meeting.

SESSIONS: I don't recall it.

NADLER: You don't recall. At some point, you became aware that the FBI was investigating potential links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. After you became aware of the investigation, did you ever discuss Mr. Papadopoulos's effort with anybody at the FBI?

SESSIONS: Did I discuss the matter with the FBI?

NADLER: Yes.

SESSIONS: ...to ask them questions about what they may have found?

NADLER: Did you discuss the Papadopoulos question with the FBI?

SESSIONS: I have not had any discussions with Mr. Mueller or his team or the FBI concerning any factors with regard to this investigation.

NADLER: Nobody else at the FBI either?

SESSIONS: No.

NADLER: And, at the Department of Justice?

SESSIONS: No.

NADLER: At the White House?

SESSIONS: No.

NADLER: Any member of Congress?

SESSIONS: Well, I don't know if these conversations may have come up at some time, but not to obtain information in any...

NADLER: OK.

SESSIONS: With regard to your broad question, I don't recall, at this moment, sitting here any such discussion. It's important for me to say that.

NADLER: I have one more ...

GOODLATTE: The time of the gentlemen has expired. We've got a lot of people waiting to ask questions. And the chair recognizes the gentlemen from Ohio, Mr. Chabot, for five minutes.

CHABOT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Attorney General, does your recusal from investigations related to the interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign apply to any investigations regarding efforts by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign to secretly fund a scurrilous and widely discredit that dossier on candidate Donald Trump.

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, anything that arises in this --

[11:00:00]

-- nature, that may be or may not be connected to the -- my recusal on the --