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Continuing Coverage of House Judiciary Committee Hearing with Attorney General Sessions. Aired 2:20-3p ET

Aired November 14, 2017 - 14:30   ET

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


[14:30:00]

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The emoluments clause has not subject of a great deal of litigation. It -- the Department of Justice has long standing rules about standing and raise the defense of standing against congress, against private parties, against groups, and it's pretty well established law. I'd have to get you information on the standing question.

RASKIN: Would you clarify that for us -- thank you. So as Attorney General you'd said you'd be a defender of the voting rights of the people. And America faces a number of voting rights crises today. We got millions of people that are disenfranchised in Puerto Rico and the other territories.

We have 650,000 right here in Washington, D.C. who have no voting representation in Congress. We've got continuing voter purges and suppression at the state level. And we've got warnings from our intelligence community that there will be further attempts at cyber sabotage of our elections. What do you consider the most serious threat to our voting rights and what are you doing at the moment? (ph).

SESSIONS: Well, we will not accept suppression and illegal activities against voters. So if you have any, I'd appreciate you sending it to me.

RASKIN: We absolutely will.

SESSIONS: We will make sure it's investigated by career attorneys in a civil rights division.

RASKIN: And on the cyber security side, what are you doing to protect us from another hacking of our election, attempt to infiltrate with political sabotage, essentially.

SESSIONS: I believe that this is a danger. That I believe investigations have been ongoing and is being considered. But I -- Congressman, I have to say I'm not up to date on the latest of that. I would be pleased to try to get you something in writing as to what we need to do -- or at least what we are doing and what we may need to do to protect the integrity of our elections.

RASKIN: Thank you. I yield back, Mr. (inaudible).

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Arizona, Mr. Biggs, for five minutes. Please, turn on your microphone.

BIGGS: There (ph). Thanks -- thank you, Mr. Attorney General. Appreciate you being here today. Appreciate your frank testimony. And I'm going to try to go over some ground that's been covered without plowing it too much deeper, but I -- please, help me understand, what's Rod Rosenstein's role at the Department?

SESSIONS: The Department of Justice has a number of key positions. The deputy attorney general has supervisory control -- responsibility for all of our investigative agencies and basically, the most -- well, the entire Department. The associate handles a part of that, and the deputy and the associate reports through the deputy to the attorney general and the deputy -- the FBI director, for example, reports through the and to the deputy -- not directly to the attorney general.

BIGGS: OK, and so what's Andrew McCabe's responsibility and role?

SESSIONS: I think he's classified as a number two guy at the FBI.

BIGGS: OK, and in their positions, for instance, Mr. Comey's position was terminated. Mr. McCabe was acting director, I think for a period of time until a new director was nominated. And -- and Mr. Rosenstein's been serving with you and has served previously. Was anything done to question or vet any potential conflicts those two gentlemen might have had with things like the Mueller investigation or the Russian investigation or anything like that?

SESSIONS: It's the responsibility, I guess, of the person involved in an investigation to be sure that nothing they do has a conflict of interest or that should require recusal.

BIGGS: So, I appreciate that that's an individual responsibility, but so -- I guess, nothing formally or from the Department was done to vet and say, you, know, we've got this going on, there's potential questions, particularly with regard to Mr. Rosenstein, Mr. McCabe's roles all the way back to the Fusion One investigations and continuing on for that period of 10 years. I suppose -- if I understand you correctly, there was nothing done there to formally to -- to vet them?

SESSIONS: I think I understand you correctly, and I think that's correct.

BIGGS: OK. And I know that you've answered this, so I'm going to go very quickly with these. With regard to the Fusion GPS dossier, it's been reported widely in the media that the FBI at least paid for some portion or reversed some expenses for that document. Do you know whether that's accurate or not? An accurate report in the media?

SESSIONS: I do not.

BIGGS: And I guess it's also been widely reported in the media that the FBI at some point reviewed that dossier, particularly under Mr. Comey. So, do you know if that ever occurred?

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

BIGGS: OK. When you say you're not able to comment, that means...

SESSIONS: Well, I don't...

BIGGS: That you may not know, or -- or -- or...

SESSIONS: I have not been involved in that investigation and I don't even read the newspapers that closely.

BIGGS: Good for you, I must say. And then, we had an exchange earlier today with you and the representative from Ohio -- gentleman from Ohio, Mr. Jordan, and he was talking -- he said, seems like this, seems like that, seems like this.

And at the end of that, you -- you made a comment, and I don't want to -- I can only paraphrase, because I didn't write down the exact -- my note just says seems like you were saying, well, you can't base a case on something that seems like something. But, in essence, the notion -- the very notion of probable cause indicates that something seems like something and it seems that person probably committed that act, which seems like it's in violation of the law. And so, I -- I guess I'm -- I'm trying to get clarification of that.

SESSIONS: This Congress has a right to ask for information and you have the right to express its opinion about whether special counsel should be appointed, but it's my responsibility to evaluate it, and I would have to feel, or in some cases, the deputy would have to feel that they're the kind of circumstances that would justify. And we just have to know that -- I want you all to know that if a special counsel is required, I, or I'm sure anyone else in the department would -- that had the responsibility, would name one. If not, we have to say, it's not required.

I would say that our department would -- Chris Wray at the FBI and our team at the Department of Justice, I feel like we can do work, but there's some cases that get so significant and has such a level, it becomes a public interest question that has to be evaluated. So I have no prejudgment. The reason I hope you give me -- the chairman might have to give you a second. I did not mean to suggest I was taking a side one way or the other on that subject. I was simply responding that we would have to have a full and effective and detailed factual evaluation before we make a decision on whether or not a special counsel is required. And no, I'm not -- have made no prejudgment.

BIGGS: And I appreciate that, but I guess what I'm getting at, in particular, is that so even with the idea that many people are questioning the impartiality of Mr. Rosenstein, who is -- would be -- ostensibly in the line to help make that decision on special counsel?

SESSIONS: I'm not aware that he has a problem in that regard, but if so, we have senior counsels in the Department who would give advice on that. So -- and we all have to be sure that we're not crossing that line.

BIGGS: Thank you, and thank you, Mr. Chairman, for indulging.

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes the gentlewoman from Washington, Ms. Jayapal for five minutes.

JAYAPAL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you Mr. Attorney General for being with us.

I'd like to go back to some of your testimony on contacts with Russia. At the beginning in your opening statement, you said, "My testimony has not changed." Later, in response to some questions, you said, I do now recall. And Mr. Attorney General, with all due respects, it's difficult to take your assurances under oath when you seem to change your testimony each time new evidence emerges, and specifically, you denied contact with Russians under oath during your confirmation hearing, that was revealed to be untrue given multiple meetings with an ambassador.

Later, you refined your response to more narrowly focus on discussion of campaigned related matters, but you denied that campaign surrogates communicated with Russian agents, that was revealed to be untrue, given the sworn statement offered by George Papadopoulos. You later again refined your answer, saying you didn't remember Papadopoulos raising the issue in the March, 2016 meeting, but once you remembered the meeting, you then remember telling Papadopoulos to cease those conversations.

You say that you cannot be expected to remember the details of what happened a year ago, but you are in fact, a very seasoned prosecutor and a 20 year member of the United States Senate -- United States Congress who is presumably capable of mind and memory. So, Attorney General Sessions, did you, as a prosecutor, accept a defense of lack of recall?

SESSIONS: Well, absolutely, people have a lack of recall.

JAYAPAL: Thank you. Would you...

SESSIONS: We're in an -- the environment that we were operating in with so much happening and meetings occurring, you assume a lot of matters that aren't accurate...

JAYAPAL : Thank you, Mr. Sessions.

Would you instruct the -- would you instruct the attorneys who work for you at the Department of Justice to take at face value a defense of "I don't recall"?

SESSIONS: If a person says they don't recall and has a justified reason for it, I certainly do.

JAYAPAL: And that was not the case in the situation of the police officer that Mr. Jeffries referred to. Let me move on to another matter. On November 11th, President Trump not only trusted the word of Vladimir Putin over the brave men and women who serve in our intelligence community.

He proceeded to trash the reputations of its leaders, and I quote here, he said "give me a break, they are political hacks." The President went on to say that he believes that Vladimir -- he believes Vladimir Putin when Putin says he absolutely did not meddle in our elections.

Mr. Sessions, do you consider the leaders of our intelligence community past and present as political hacks?

SESSIONS: I would say the President speaks his mind as he chooses.

JAYAPAL: Is that a yes or a no?

SESSIONS: He also says he ...

JAYAPAL: Is that a yes or a no?

SESSIONS: ... accepts their position ...

JAYAPAL: I'm not asking about the ...

SESSIONS: I'm not giving a yes or no, I'm giving you my answer.

JAYAPAL: So you -- so you have no opinion on whether they're political hacks or not.

SESSIONS: I'm saying to you I respect and value our intelligence community.

JAYAPAL: Great, that's good to hear. And when President Trump said that he believes Vladimir Putin when Putin says he absolutely did not meddle in our election, help me refresh my memory.

In January of this year, was it the unanimous opinion of our intelligence community that the Russian government did in fact meddle in our election?

SESSIONS: I believe an opinion was expressed.

JAYAPAL: That was a yes?

SESSIONS: I'm not aware of any dissent from that.

JAYAPAL: OK, and to your knowledge, in the months since the intelligence community in any way changed its conclusion?

SESSIONS: I'm not aware of it.

JAYAPAL: And on October 18th, when testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Sasse asked you if the department had taken adequate action to prevent election meddling in the future, you just said in response to some questions that you do believe this is a danger.

Have you requested a review of what laws need to be updated in order to protect our elections from foreign interference?

SESSIONS: I have not and would be pleased to work with you to deal with the deficiencies we have.

JAYAPAL: That's great. SESSIONS: Think Congress would have to deal with that, not the -- have to pass the laws.

JAYAPAL: You would want to appoint a special counsel on that issue?

SESSIONS: On what -- maybe I misunderstood your question. What special counsel? I thought you was asking should we have laws, new laws to deal with ...

JAYAPAL: Well I'm asking if you're going to investigate what has happened with the meddling in our elections.

SESSIONS: Well that's part of the special prosecutor.

JAYAPAL: Great.

SESSIONS: It's not -- I'm -- I'm not participating in that. He has the responsibility for it.

JAYAPAL: Let me move on to Mr. Miller, because I just have a few seconds here. Considering your prominent role in the Trump campaign, did you work closely with and communicate with Stephen Miller when he worked on the campaign?

SESSIONS: I worked with him, he'd work with me previously.

JAYAPAL: Thank you. And did Mr. Miller tell you that he was working on a letter with President Trump which detailed the President's reasons for firing then-FBI Director Comey?

SESSIONS: Mr. Miller is a -- a high government official close to the President of the United States. And I'm not at liberty to reveal in that nature of any conversations we may have had.

JAYAPAL: Are you claiming executive privilege?

SESSIONS: I'm not claiming executive privilege.

JAYAPAL: So you're not ...

SESSIONS: I'm following the law established policies of the Department of Justice.

JAYAPAL: The President has not invoked executive privilege and so I understand your ...

GOODLATTE: Time of the gentlewoman has expired.

JAYAPAL: ... to answer the question.

(UNKNOWN): Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Chairman.

GOODLATTE: The gentleman instates (ph) parliamentary inquiry.

(UNKNOWN): Is it -- is there authority in this committee to permit a witness to refuse to answer a question without properly invoking a privilege?

GOODLATTE: The ...

(UNKNOWN): And if not, what is the appropriate response from the Chairman to enforce the committee's ability to do proper oversight?

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes that senior officials from both administrations, current and past and long-standing before that have long stated their ability to not answer questions regarding communications at the highest level of our government.

(UNKNOWN): But Mr. Chairman, if I may be heard, I do not believe there is any such privilege, or any right to assert a refusal to answer a question simply because ...

GOODLATTE: The gentleman -- the gentleman is not stating a parliamentary inquiry.

(UNKNOWN): Well I'm asking the Chairman the rules so we can appeal the ruling of the Chair. You're going to prevent us from getting answers to these questions.

GOODLATTE: There is -- there is no ruling of the Chair, and the gentleman ...

(UNKNOWN): Well then I would ask that the witness be directed to answer the gentlelady from Washington's questions.

GOODLATTE: The -- that is not a parliamentary inquiry, the gentlewoman from Georgia, Ms. Handel is recognized for five minutes.

HANDEL: Thank you Mr. Chairman, and thank you Attorney General Sessions for being here. And I want to say a special thank you to Mrs. Sessions for being here as well and for frankly your patience and commitment through the many chapters of the General Sessions' distinguished career, so thank you.

SESSIONS: Thank you for those comments.

HANDEL: I wanted to ask a pretty direct question, because there's been so much said here today about Russia and what you've testified to and not testified to and a great deal of parsing of words along with what I would call not so veiled comments that frankly are an attempt to impute your candor, your integrity, and your reputation.

So I will ask very bluntly. Have you ever deliberately lied or sought to deliberately mislead the United States Senate or this body here today?

SESSIONS: No I have not.

HANDEL: Thank you. Let the record show that it was a direct yes or no on that, and it was an emphatic no. I want to ask about civil asset forfeiture program. As you know, under your leadership the program was reinstated back in July. And you started some additional practices there. In March, the Inspector General had a report and offered several different suggestions that might be put in place, recommendations put in place for the program. Can you give an update on that?

Or if you don't have it today, you can send it to me in writing.

SESSIONS: Well thank you. I can. We spent considerable time evaluating the program. We recognized the concerns expressed in Congress, and I've been well aware of that having seen it come up in judiciary committees in the Senate.

So we work hard to produce a policy that -- reproduce I guess the policy that it had been in place for as much as 40 years. But only recently in the last three or four years, two or three years been reversed.

The law enforcement community was very concerned about the reversal of the sharing and the partnership that we have established. Every federal agency and every U.S. Attorney has to work closely every day with our state and local law enforcement.

85 percent of all law enforcement in America is state and local. This has been one of the glues that hold that team together.

So I would say that we've -- also, when we reinstated it, I -- I appointed -- directed the appointment which will occur soon of an individual to be an accountability officer for the whole forfeiture process. To receive any complaints we get from Congress or judges or lawyers or victims that claim victimhood.

And make sure we are doing it in a right way. We've added -- we've shortened the time for the government to respond. We've said that we won't partner with a local law enforcement agency if they don't undergo training from the federal government to ensure they know how to handle forfeitures.

And I've cautioned against seizing of homes and -- and real estate unless people know -- have clear proof.

HANDEL: Super, thank you. Moving to a different topic, as you probably know there was a recent media firestorm around what was a bipartisan piece of legislation, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2017.

As I said had a great bipartisanship. It raised the standard for DEA to issue immediate suspension orders against pharmacies and prescription drug distributions who might be contributing to the opioid epidemic.

From your viewpoint, however, have you seen -- what have been the actual effects on prosecution and administrative actions around the drug distributors? And has the DEA been negatively impacted by that particular law?

SESSIONS: First, we would use the laws we have aggressively, both as to physicians and pharmacies and also distribution companies for big pharma. And we will hold them to account. Congress will establish the laws.

So this bill passed with both DEA and Department of Justice acknowledgement or -- or acquiescence. And I'm not sure to what extent it may have had a negative impact. I would have to get back with you, make sure I'm accurate in my statements.

HANDEL: Thank you very much. Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Illinois, Mr. Schneider for five minutes.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you, Chairman, thank you to the Attorney General, to General Sessions for coming here today. I wish you had been here earlier, but we're glad you're here. I appreciate your patience in giving us all the opportunity to speak very much.

As I sat listening to the hearing today, there were a number of things I was looking to hear or better understand. First, this was I believe an opportunity for you to set the record straight on context between the Trump campaign and Russia.

As has been noted by others, we continue to learn new evidence that demonstrates previous answers have been at best incomplete, at worst inaccurate. And I think there's still some questions around that.

Second, I'm looking to understand what steps the Department of Justice is taking to prevent our elections from foreign interference in the future. 2016 wasn't the first time, it won't be the last time that Russians and others will try to interfere in our elections.

And we have to take steps to make sure that the integrity of our elections remains solid and that we thwart any efforts, regardless of where they're coming from, from foreign entities to undermine our elections.

And third, I've been looking for answers on policies pursued by this Department of Justice that I believe are taking aims at the rights of Americans, from undermining voting rights to restricting LGBTQ rights to targeting immigrants.

We've talked about a lot of things. I would really like to turn my attention though to the idea of ensuring the integrity of our elections, protecting them from foreign influence.

You've been asked a couple of times today I believe, what steps you've taken since you spoke in -- a couple weeks ago, October 18th in the Senate Judiciary Committee, what you were doing. Senator Sasse asked you there if the Department is doing enough to prevent foreign interference in our elections.

Just to repeat what you've said, and I'll quote, "Probably not. We're not, and the matter is so complex that for most of us, we're not able to grasp the technical dangers that are out there. These are real dangers to our elections, and our elections are the foundations of our democracy."

You also said, at that time, several weeks ago, it requires a real review. But today, you said, there is no review taking place. So my first question is, I'm very concerned. With the 2018 elections less than one year away, and given your acknowledgment that this is serious complex matter that's deserving of a real review, specifically, what steps have you taken to protect our elections next year?

SESSIONS: You raise a good point. I have not followed through to see where we are on that. And I will personally take action to do so.

There's a lot of things that have been happening. We're working on a lot of great agenda items. But this one is important and I acknowledge that, and I'm not -- I should be able to give you better information today than I am.

SCHNEIDER: And I appreciate that there are many things that are important, but they are -- I would hazard to state nothing more important to our Democracy than the integrity of our elections. And as the Head of the Department of Justice is important, that as a nation, as others have said, that justice remained blind carrying the -- the balance scale without a finger on the scale. We need to do that.

But protecting our elections is important. What steps does the Department need to do to address these issues? What can we be looking forward as the next steps?

SESSIONS: Well, one of the things that needs to be done is states need to review their own vulnerabilities. I would say our FBI has extraordinary capabilities when it comes to hacking and those kinds of issues. We probably need to work on that with them. They should have a very important role. They're highly sophisticated in that.

And then our intelligence communities also, to the extent that this is driven by some foreign power, then we're dealing with international -- potential international involvement. So all of those agencies and the states need to be involved, I would think.

SCHNEIDER: And then that...

SESSIONS: And Congress. I appreciate your interest, because if we need legislation it'll take some aggressive push to get any...

SCHNEIDER: Hold that. I'm going to come back...

SESSIONS: ...thing through. At least through the Senate, I know you can never have any -

SCHNEIDER: ...with another question. But you said earlier that other's have touched on this, that the intelligence community has said Russia has tried -- did try to interfere in our elections in 2016. Do you feel that that is still a statement of truth or is it open for question later (ph)?

SESSIONS: I have no basis to dispute that. I do think they've said that they don't believe the votes were changed.

SCHNEIDER: All right. As I see, I am about to run out of time. My last question -- I'll jump to the end, is to what you were just touching on. Can I ask for your commitment to provide a briefing to those of us on this committee that are interested in addressing this problem, making sure, irrespective of whether it's a Democratic or Republican state, community, that we have safe, sound, elections with integrity? Will you meet with us?

SESSIONS: I would be glad to.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you.

SESSIONS: I think that would be valuable.

SCHNEIDER: With that, I yield back.

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Idaho, Mr. Labrador, for five minutes.

LABRADOR: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Attorney General Sessions, thank you for appearing before our committee today. It's always great to talk to you, and it's always great to have the opportunity to communicate.

As a foundational principle of our great American experimennt enshrined in our Constitution, religious liberty ought to be protected at every turn in our nation's history, under every administration. Last month, you issued a memo, which focused on ensuring first amendment protections for religious groups and individuals. The last two Congresses, Senator Lee and I introduced the first amendment defense act, which you were a co-sponsor of.

As you know, this legislation ensures the fundamental right to exercise one's religion by prohibiting the federal government from denying or excluding a person from receiving a federal grant contract, loan license, certification, accreditation of employment or other similar position or status based on their religious belief in marriage. Can you explain to us what inspired your October 6th memo and why you think it is important for the Department of Justice to issue such guidelines?

SESSIONS: Well, I've cared about this for a long time and there's a lot of work has been done. I felt that there are some abuses that have occurred pretty clearly. And we've had to settle some lawsuits because of government overreach.

And I would say what we need to understand at the most fundamental level is the first amendment allows the free exercise of religion. It doesn't just allow you to think what you want to thank -- to meet in a closet somewhere and never express yourself. It allows the free exercise -- and I think to a degree we've not respected that in recent years.

And our opinion is based on the law. We believe it's based on the Constitution -- and it's a guidance to ensure that the agencies of our government know what the fundamental principles are when they issue regulations and cite people for wrongdoing.

LABRADOR: So, what more could Congress do to protect the First Amendment and religious liberty?

SESSIONS: Repeat that.

LABRADOR: What more could Congress do to protect the First Amendment and religious liberty?

SESSIONS: Thank you. We've got the religious liberty and also in the First Amendment is speech.

LABRADOR: Yes.

SESSIONS: And I think it's time for us to take seriously the erosion it seems of the fundamental respect for the right of people to express different views that's occurring today. We've seen it on the college campuses. We believe that free speech is a civil right and the Department of Justice will not stand idly by if federal constitutional rights are being constricted by unwise activities limiting speech.

LABRADOR: So, just as important to me as the First Amendment is also the Fifth amendment to our Constitution, which prohibits the government from depriving the people of their property without due process.

I'm concerned that the practice of civil asset forfeiture is increasingly threatening rights guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment to every American. While forfeiture can be an important tool for law enforcement it has been abused.

Unfortunately, in Idaho and throughout the country a number of cases where the practice of civil asset forfeiture has been used to improperly deprive individuals of their homes, their cash and their property.

Because of this I have supported several pieces of legislation and floor amendments that make reforms to the federal civil asset forfeiture.

In light of the mounting evidence that civil asset forfeiture is being used improperly, how do you think we can strike the proper balance between justice and making sure criminal laws are being followed and preventing harm to innocent Americans?

SESSIONS: I know you care about that, Congressman Labrador, and other members of Congress have expressed concerns to me. I do not take them lightly.

I truly believe that if there's probable cause to believe that an item of value -- often for police officers it's a stash of cash that they may catch in an automobile. If there's probable cause to believe it's connected to a drug enterprise they have a right to seize it, then we need to give the person who claims it a prompt and fair hearing. [15:00:00] You can arrest a person on probable cause and put them in jail. I think it's appropriate to hold proceeds of a drug deal at least for trial.