Return to Transcripts main page

INSIDE POLITICS

Sessions Faced Questions on Capitol Hill. Sessions Congressional Hearing. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 14, 2017 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:00] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He is making sure he does not get into any jeopardy by saying I do not believe that I discussed Michael Flynn with Ambassador Kislyak, I do not recall discussions like that happening. I -- and that is an effort to make sure that he does not get trap and says -- say he did not have these conversations and then later it is revealed that he did.

I just asked John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, if he has any concerns about Jeff Sessions' testimony. And he said, well, maybe Jeff Sessions is getting old. That's what John Conyers just told me. He said maybe that he's being candid and does not recall some of these things. So he's giving him the benefit of the doubt. I'm not sure if other Democrats are, though, at this point, Kate.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: The age of defense. All right. That -- we'll see how that plays out with many other senators who are getting up there in age.

Manu, amazing stuff. Thank you so much. We'll be watching this all together.

And that -- that is it for us AT THIS HOUR. This will pick up -- Dana Bash will be picking up right now for us with "INSIDE POLITICS."

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Dana Bash, in for John King.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as you've just been listening, is in the hottest of hot seats on Capitol Hill today facing an unrelenting House Judiciary Committee on the Democratic side, that is, about holes and errors in his previous testimonies. The committee is in a break right now but we'll join it as soon as they come back.

I want to give you all a sense of what Sessions has been up against today. Three times this year the attorney general has neglected to disclose information about Russia, insisting that he was not aware of any campaign contacts with Russia. But we've learned that at least two campaign advisers did tell Sessions about contact with Russia during the campaign. And, today, he vehemently rejected the accusation that he has lied. He stood by previous testimony and he offered this explanation for lapses in his memory.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Most of you have not participated 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 sometimes 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 and what meeting and who said what 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Here to share their reporting and insights, Michael Shear of "The New York Times," Molly Ball with "Time" magazine, "Bloomberg's" Sahil Kapur, and Mary Katharine Ham of "The Federalist."

And I just want to remind everybody, we're waiting for Attorney General Sessions to come back into the committee after a short break.

Wow, what a morning.

MICHAEL SHEAR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes. I mean, you know, you sort of have the sense of these two major forces colliding, right, the kind of collected weight of the reporting that -- that on the Russia story, combined with all of the Mueller revelations, from the guilty plea of Papadopoulos, to the indictments of Manafort. And that's all colliding in a political sense with Jeff Sessions' testimony over the past, you know, six, seven, eight months, which, at times, has been at odds with all of that. And so, you know, this is an attempt, clunky as the political system in Democracy is, to try to reconcile those differences. And essentially what he said is, I kind of forgot. I mean that's -- that's sort of the -- the boiled down, the essence of his testimony is, he just couldn't remember.

BASH: And Jeff Sessions is now seating -- sitting down. We're going to wait for him to start.

As we do, Molly, your thoughts?

MOLLY BALL, "TIME": Well, I think how credible you find Jeff Sessions depends on how many of these contacts come to light. If it does seem like, as he said, he was meeting with a ton of ambassadors, it's been reported that as a senator he hadn't had much involvement in foreign policy, and then in his role with the Trump campaign sort of sought to get up to speed. But when this keeps happens again and again, you have to wonder.

BASH: OK. Stand by. We're going to go back to the hearing room.

[12:04:47] REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: General Sessions, who do you work for? Do you work for the American people or do you work for the president of the United States? JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I'm a member of the executive

branch and I work for the American people.

DEUTCH: And it's with that in mind, your work on behalf of the American people, that I would ask you some questions about facts and public media reports. On February 14th, the president asked FBI director about the Flynn investigation and I quote he said, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He's a good guy. I hope you can let this go", close quote.

Then on May 9th, the president fired Comey. On May 11th, he went on television and announced that he fired Comey because of and I quote again, "The Russia thing with Trump and Russia", close quote.

General Sessions, do you think it would be reasonable for the members of this committee to conclude that the president, by first interfering in one investigation and then interfering in an investigation into himself, committed obstruction of justice?

SESSIONS: I don't believe that's a fair conclusion and I would -- but it's a matter that, I guess, would be in breast of the special counsel.

DEUTCH: And the obstruction of justice being any among other definitions, the most popular one, instead, should any communication that endeavors to influence, obstruct or impede the due administration of justice. That's exactly -- that's exactly what the president did in both of those cases.

And in spite of moving on to the special counsel, you brought up in spite of efforts, bipartisan efforts to protect the special counsel Mr. Mueller, Republican leadership and this committee have refused to take action to ensure that he's protected. Do you believe that the president has the legal authority to fire Special Counsel Mueller?

SESSIONS: I'm not able to express an opinion on that at this point.

DEUTCH: Can he fire members of the special counsel's team?

SESSIONS: I'm not able -- I'm not able to answer that.

DEUTCH: General Sessions, do you believe that the president should have the authority to be able to block investigations into his own campaign?

SESSIONS: Investigations have to be conducted by the appropriate law enforcement officers without fear and favor, without politics or bias.

DEUTCH: Right, and without fear of being dismissed by the president in order to block that investigation because, again, that would certainly appear to represent obstruction of justice and when you fail to acknowledge that, it is, essentially, a green light to the president to go ahead and do that.

I wanted to talk about the special counsel's investigation. Thus far, there have been some indictments, there's a guilty plea. Can you tell me in your opinion, does the president have the power to pardon George Papadopoulos?

SESSIONS: It would be premature for me to comment on that, I believe.

DEUTCH: Because?

SESSIONS: The president has the power to pardon, there's no doubt about that.

DEUTCH: Right. Would you be -- does he have the power to pardon Paul Manafort and Rick Gates ahead of a trial and conviction?

SESSIONS: I would -- I'm not able to comment on that. I haven't researched that question. I think it's set of law -- maybe set of law, but I'm not --

DEUTCH: What do you think the set of law is?

SESSIONS: I don't know.

DEUTCH: And does he have the power to pardon Michael Flynn, any other member of the Trump campaign? Let me ask you this, does the president have the power to pardon his own family member? Could the president today, pardon Donald Trump Junior for, among other things, being in contact with WikiLeaks regarding these e-mails? Can he make those pardons today, before there is anything further that comes from special counsel's investigation?

SESSIONS: I would not be able to answer that, at this moment, with any authority.

DEUTCH: General Sessions, you started by telling us that you're the American people's lawyer. Now, you're not recused from giving us answers on these. You're not comfortable giving us answers on these. But here's the problem that we have, you said when you started your testimony today that there is nothing more important than advancing the rule of law.

And when you answer the way you have, it suggests that the rule of law is crumbling at our feet. You took an oath to uphold the Constitution. We took an oath to uphold the Constitution. And while members of this committee and the majority may choose to abdicate their responsibility with regard to these very important matters, you cannot.

And the interference -- what you've told us today in just this exchange, what we should all be concerned about is another Saturday Night Massacre, if you can't tell us the president shouldn't fire -- or can fire the special counsel and -- and everyone who works for him. We should be worried if you're telling us of the president may be able to pardon, in advance, all of those who are being investigated. We should be worried about the pursuit of the rule of law, General Sessions...

SESSIONS: Let me...

DEUTCH: We -- we may, in this committee...

GOODLATTE: The time of the gentleman has expired. The Attorney General can respond, if he chooses to do so...

SESSIONS: Well -- well, just briefly. One of the things, if you respect the rule of law, is the Attorney General should not be giving legal opinions from the seat of his britches. So you need to be careful about that. And that's what I'm saying to you today...

DEUTCH: I -- I -- I do appreciate that, General Sessions...

GOODLATTE: The time of the gentlemen has expired --

(CROSSTALK)

DEUTCH: These are not new issues that --

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Texas, Mr. Poe. --

DEUTCH: That I would think require you give these opinions from the rule of your britches...

POE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

DEUTCH: I yield back.

POE: Mr. Sessions, I'm over here on this side. If, pursuant to a warrant, there is a wiretap conversation is seized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the one person is a foreign agent, the other person is an American citizen, is the release of the information regarding who the American citizen is and/or the conversation of the American citizen, a violation of federal law?

SESSIONS: I believe it is.

POE: And if somebody releases that information...

SESSIONS: There may be factual distinctions, but I think it -- it -- it...

POE: I know, it's just a hypothetical. Somebody releases the information of the name of that person and or the information contained by that person, that is a federal offense?

SESSIONS: Unacceptable and could be a federal offense.

POE: So has anybody been prosecuted under your regime for doing that, whether it's been in the White House or some other government agency where we hear about leaks of classified information, are you prosecuting anybody for that? SESSIONS: For release of FISA-obtained information?

POE: Release of the information of who the American is and/or the conversation by the American, that's classified information. Is your department investigating anybody for that?

SESSIONS: I cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation...

POE: Are you prosecuting anybody for that?

SESSIONS: Nobody's under indictment, although we've got at least four indictments this year of leaks of classified information...

POE: All right, I want to talk about --

SESSIONS: And we will continue to press those cases.

POE: All right, good.

All right. Good.

We want to talk about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; secret courts issuing secret warrants to get information on terrorists overseas. That's generally the purpose of the FISA law and FISA courts. Will you agree with that?

SESSIONS: Well, that's not a perfect summary, but it's ...

POE: That's the short...

SESSIONS: ... got substance to it.

POE: It's too short.

We know we can't trust the NSA. James Clapper testified before this committee in 2013 that the NSA was not spying on Americans. Then, all of a sudden, this guy name Snowden showed up and we found out -- well, I don't like Snowden at all -- he ought to be prosecuted, I think. But anyway, we learned that the American public was being spied on by the NSA.

Part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gives the NSA authority to seize information like e-mails, text messages, communications, by these bad guys, foreign agents or terrorists overseas, to collect their information to make sure that America is safe.

During that process, as you know, incidentally -- call it incidental information, America -- information on Americans, who they are and what those conversations may be is also seized. The NSA says that's incidental information.

Now, it's my understanding the Justice Department is opposed to the USA Liberty Act, which would require that before government goes into that information on Americans, where they're not the target -- the target's these terrorists -- goes into that information on Americans, that there has to be a warrant signed by a real judge that states probable cause, before that information can be seized.

Now my understanding is, the Justice Department, under your leadership is opposed to that warrant requirement. Is that correct?

SESSIONS: That is absolutely correct.

POE: So you're a former judge.

SESSIONS: A would-be judge.

POE: Pardon?

SESSIONS: A would-be judge.

POE: A wanna-be judge. Yes. I'm a former judge too. You don't think probable cause and a warrant requirement is required to go into that information that is -- first of all, the seizure is done by government without a warrant, so it's seized already. And before it can be then searched, you also don't require or believe that a warrant should be required by any court, to go into that information.

SESSIONS: Well...

POE: I'm just asking the same question.

SESSIONS: The courts have so held.

POE: I'm not asking that question.

SESSIONS: Well, I -- I agree with the courts. Not you.

POE: (Inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)

SESSIONS: Not you, Congressman, on that. You get lawfully obtained records -- documents.

POE: Don't you think -- excuse me -- reclaiming my time.

SESSIONS: All right.

POE: You agree with the courts on that, not me. But let me ask -- let me tell you something. It is the responsibility of Congress to set the privacy standard for Americans.

SESSIONS: That is correct.

POE: My personal opinion, and I think the Constitution supports it, that before government can go in and seize something and then search it, on an American citizen that's incidental to the search on the target, government should get a warrant for that conduct. That's spying on Americans. And we know that we can't trust the NSA to do -- to keep from doing that. Is that data ever, ever destroyed on Americans? Or is it kept forever?

SESSIONS: I believe it has a -- definitely has a limited time span. I think it's five years.

GOODLATTE: The time of the gentleman has expired.

POE: So Americans shouldn't be concerned that information is being collected on them and searched and we don't have any say so about a warrant.

GOODLATTE: The time of the gentleman has expired. The Chair recognizes ...

POE: Thank you.

GOODLATTE: ... the gentleman from Illinois, Mr. Gutierrez, for five minutes.

GUTIERREZ: Mr. Chairman, before I begin, I think I have a solution that could allow the committee to move onto other important national matters, like gun control and immigration.

Your side clearly wants an investigation of Hillary Clinton. And our side has been begging for months to hold hearings and start an investigation of the Trump administration and campaigns and proper ties to Mr. Putin and the Russian government.

My solution would save the American taxpayers a lot of grief and a lot of money by eliminating the need for the investigations. I propose we simply go to the president and the former Secretary of State and ask them both to resign. I'll go to Hillary Clinton, you can go to Donald Trump and we'll say to them both to resign. Then we can move on as a nation from an election that just never seems to end.

Now I did Google organizations that Hillary Clinton leads and it came out zero. So I'm not quite sure what you're going to get her to resign from, because she doesn't appear to be in charge of anything. Last time I checked, she got three million more votes than Donald Trump, but she lost the election. So I don't know why don't we move on and really look at the nation.

So Attorney General, I'd like to ask you -- you said earlier today, it was a brilliant campaign, referring to the Donald Trump campaign. Is that true? You feel that?

SESSIONS: It was a -- a remarkable thing that overcame a lot of obstacles...

GUTIERREZ: A remarkable, brilliant campaign.

SESSIONS: ...couldn't have...

GUTIERREZ: Now, in campaigns -- candidates make promises during campaigns. You think candidates should fulfill the promises they make during campaigns?

SESSIONS: People make a lot of promises and you should strive to...

GUTIERREZ: Do you think they should fulfill those promises? It was a brilliant campaign...

SESSIONS: ...honor your promises.

GUTIERREZ: ...a remarkable campaign. And as a member of the cabinet of -- of -- of President Trump, do you feel an obligation to fulfill those campaign promises? I mean, when he asked you to come on, did you think you should fulfill the campaign promises?

SESSIONS: I believe the Attorney General should enforce the law first and foremost...

GUTIERREZ: I understand enforce the law, but he said he wanted -- you're helping him on the Muslim ban, on immigration issue. I mean, do you think should fulfill those promises?

SESSIONS: The president makes decisions and if it's lawful, we defend it.

GUTIERREZ: If it's lawful. If it's lawful. OK, I like that, that if it's lawful. But you'd said it was a remarkable and brilliant campaign. He said quote, during the second debate, "If I win, I'm going to instruct my Attorney General" -- that would be you, because he chose you -- "to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation" -- referring to Hillary Clinton -- "because there's never been so many lies, so much deception." End quote.

And when Hillary Clinton responded, he said, "Because you'd be in jail." Are you going to fulfill that promise he made during the second debate? Because he did say he'd put her in jail. He said he ask the Attorney General, you, to set a special -- that's what he said. It's a quote. I didn't make it up. What do you say? Are you going to keep that campaign promise?

SESSIONS: I'll fulfill my responsibilities under the law.

GUTIERREZ: Are you going to keep the campaign promise? It's a yes or no. It's a promise that your boss, he hired you, to fulfill. Are you going to fulfill that?

SESSIONS: We will comply with the law with regard to special prosecutor appointments.

GUTIERREZ: You -- are you going to appoint one as he promised during the campaign? He's reminded you a couple of times in a few of his tweets that that's what he wants you to do.

SESSIONS: I'll fulfill my duty as Attorney General.

GUTIERREZ: OK. So the brilliant campaign, remarkable campaign, big smile on your face, you love the campaign, but you're not going to fulfill those campaign promises? I hope you don't, in this particular case. So I'm kind of happy with your answer up to now.

So as -- Mr. Attorney General, I'm going to ask you another series of questions. And I'd like to go back to the beginning of the hearing and get you to answer the following question.

Are you aware that you are under oath and that your answers must be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Mr. Attorney General?

SESSIONS: I'm aware of that.

GUTIERREZ: OK. Good. So I -- I brought this little salt shaker here. And you'll forgive me if I just put a little bit of doubt into that answer. And just to remind myself that I might need this. And I ask unanimous consent that this article from Mother Jones Magazine be entered into the record with the headline, "Three Times Jeff Sessions Made False Statements Under Oath To Congress."

I ask this because I don't want to hear in a few days or in a few weeks, that your answers, Mr. Attorney General, have changed based on newly uncovered evidence that what you told us before was in fact false, misleading, or something other than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I ask unanimous consent.

GOODLATTE: Without objection, that be made part of the record.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you. Under oath, in the Senate, you said as a surrogate, quote, "A time or two for the Trump campaign, you did not have communication with Russians." But in March, it was revealed you did. Did you have campaign communications with the Russians? Because it appears you have had campaign communications with the Russians, Mr. Attorney General.

SESSIONS: That is, I'd like to respond to that. I thought I had the -- a paper right here. And surely, (OFF MIC), here it is. Mr. Chairman, take a couple of minutes...

GOODLATTE: You can respond to the question.

SESSIONS: ...to respond to that. Colleagues, I guess I should say former colleagues...

GUTIERREZ: They left.

SESSIONS: Senator Franken asked this question. OK, CNN has just published a story and I'm telling you about a new story that's just been published. I'm not expecting you to know whether or not it's true. But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community of the United Sates of America. The intelligence community provided documents to the president elect last week that included information that quote, "Russian opportunists claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump", close quote. These documents also allegedly say quote, "There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government", close quote. It goes on to say, now again, I'm telling you this is all coming out. So you know, but if it's true it's obviously extremely serious. And if there is evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do? I was taken aback by this. I'd never heard, this is -- happened while I was testifying, I suppose. And I said, Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called surrogate a time or two in the campaign and I didn't have -- did not have communications with the Russians. I'm unable to comment on it.

GUTIERREZ: And you're not going to correct that today?

SESSIONS: I -- my answer was responsive to his charge about a continuing...

GUTIERREZ: Do you want to correct it or clarify it today for us?

SESSIONS: I'm...

GOODLATTE: The time of the gentleman has expired. The attorney general can answer the question, but but then we're moving on.

SESSIONS: So this is really important and I appreciate the opportunity to share it. So my focus was on responding to the concern that I, as a surrogate, was participating in a continuing serious of meetings with intermediaries for the Russian government. And I certainly didn't mean I'd never met a Russian in the history of my life. So I didn't think to -- didn't think it was responsive, and my response was according to the way I heard the question as honestly, I could give it at the time. I hope you will treat me fairly, when you evaluate that.

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Pennsylvania, Mr. Marino, for five minutes.

MARINO: Thank you, Chairman.

Thank you General for being here, I appreciate it. I'm going to ask you some questions because I am the Chairman of the Regulatory Reform and Anti-Trust Subcommittee on Judiciary. And anti-trust is an issue that is now surfacing moreso than it ever has in the past. And Justice Department's role is very critical in anti-trust issues to determine whether there is an anti-trust violation.

I understand that the Justice Department's position on the AT&T merger will require divestment of some assets. Behavioral conditions have been used in vertical mergers, since they pose a lesser danger to competition than horizontal mergers. Is the structural condition in vertical mergers a policy for DOJ at this point?

SESSIONS: Anti-trust policy is important. I've never been an expert at it. It was one subcommittee of the Judiciary I never chose to be a part of. But we have a experienced team in the Department of Justice. We do try to handle each case professionally. We have a good chief now of the anti-trust division. And I'm not able to announce any new policies at this time,

Congressman.

MARINO: Will there be a discussion concerning vertical and horizontal mergers when it comes to the so-called term, behavioral conditions, where two companies that are merging may have to divest. Could there be future discussion as to when this behavioral condition would be implemented?

SESSIONS: While the vertical horizontal issue is something that has always been part of the discussion, I don't think it's dispositive of any final decision. But I'm really not able, at this time, to comment on anything that would be part of an ongoing matter.

MARINO: I understand.

SESSIONS: And I appreciate you giving me an opportunity to -- not attempt to answer that.

MARINO: I'm going to switch to human trafficking now. When I was a U.S. attorney, we handled some very heartbreaking and very severe situations concerning human trafficking. And I know that you understand, like I understand, the challenges involved there. But what can you -- tell me what DOJ has done in upping the prosecutions and the investigations for anti trafficking?

SESSIONS: We believe strongly that we can do even more. It's been a priority for a number of years. I was recently in the Minnesota United States Attorney's office. They had a major international case and I was surprised how much money was involved. Almost as much as drug dealers may make.

We have a recent report of our people meeting with a child exploitation group. My associate attorney general number three, Rachel Brand, is very interested in this. And I've empowered her to be engaged in advancing our efforts in this regard. And she's enthusiastically responding to that.

MARINO: If I may make a suggestion as well. Several years ago, we in the middle district of Pennsylvania, prosecuted one of the biggest sex trafficking cases on the East Coast, obviously, and for the most part involving women and very young girls.

We had a good conviction. These people want to wait for 30 or 40 years. But one of the areas that we have to help more with the victims is the protection side of things. Of course, during the investigation and during the trial, but subsequent to the convictions that these people aren't, these women aren't, and children aren't forgotten. And there are protections there to keep them from anybody else attempting to do what's been done in the past. And I thank you so very much for your service to us and I yield back.

SESSIONS: Thank you. Thank you for your service.

GOODLATTE: The Chair recognizes the gentlewoman from California, Ms. Bass, for five minutes. BASS: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI ran a counterintelligence program named COINTELPRO that was initiated by J. Edgar Hoover. COINTELPRO mainly targeted civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and it's commonly understood that this was an abuse of its surveillance power in a manner to suppress a peaceful movement. So I would like to ask Mr. Chair, unanimous consent to enter this report into the record, which is Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers. I believe, earlier you said you were not familiar with the report. Is that correct?

SESSIONS: Well, I haven't read it. I know some of the alleged targeting of officers by certain groups...

BASS: OK, so I -- I would like to know -- and I'll ask you about that in a minute. So you are somewhat familiar with it. Who had the power in your department to order a report like this?

SESSIONS: I'm not sure how that report got ordered. I don't believe I explicitly approved it or directed it.

BASS: OK. So you're not -- you haven't necessarily read the report. But you are familiar with the term black identity extremist?

SESSIONS: Well, I think so, yes.

[12:30:01] BASS: So can you tell me what that term means to you? Do you believe that there is a movement of African-Americans that identify themselves as "Black Identity Extremists" and what does that movement do?

SESSION: Well, I'd be interesting to see the conclusions of --