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The Situation Room
Top Intel Officials InformeD Trump, Obama of Russian Efforts to Compromise Trump; Senate Questions Trump Attorney General Nominee. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 10, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're following the confirmation hearings of Senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's pick to become the next attorney general. We will get back there momentarily.
But we have more breaking news we're following right now.
I want to get straight to Jake Tapper, who's joining me with a major story we're following right now. We're breaking this story.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's right, Wolf, a CNN exclusive.
CNN has learned that the nation's top intelligence officials gave information to president-elect Donald Trump and President Barack Obama last week about claims of Russian efforts to compromise president- elect Trump.
The information was provided as part of last week's classified intelligence briefings regarding Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 U.S. elections.
I have been working on this story with my colleagues Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez and Carl Bernstein. They all join me now.
Jim, let's walk through the basics here of what we know.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: We will. To be clear, this has been an enormous team effort by my colleagues here and others at CNN.
And this is what we found. Multiple U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN that classified documents on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election presented last week to President Obama and to president-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.
The allegations were part of a two-page synopsis based on memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative whose past work U.S. intelligence officials consider credible. The FBI is now investigating the credibility and accuracy of those allegations, which are based primarily on information from Russian sources, but the FBI has not confirmed many essential details in the memos about Mr. Trump.
The classified briefings last week, I should note, were presented by four of the senior-most U.S. intelligence chiefs, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the FBI director, James Comey, the CIA director, John Brennan, and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers.
This two-page synopsis also included allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, this according to two national security officials.
CNN has confirmed that this synopsis was included in the documents that were presented to Mr. Trump. We cannot confirm if it was also discussed in his meetings with those intelligence chiefs. I should note the Trump transition team has so far declined to comment, as did on the record the office of the director of national intelligence and the FBI.
TAPPER: That's right. We are told by the Trump transition team that they are going to have a statement, they will issue it. And as soon as we get that statement, we will provide that to you.
We should also just note, I just want to underline, this was not actually part of the intelligence community's report on the Russian hacking. This was an addendum, an annex, and only for the highest- level officials who received this briefing.
SCIUTTO: That's exactly right. In a briefing like this, you will often have written materials that you present to the president or whatever official you're briefing, as well as a spoken briefing.
To be clear, the focus of these briefings were on Russian interference in the U.S. election, enormous amount of documents and other data intelligence to back up the intelligence community's assessment that Russia hacked the election and had the intention, they assess, of helping Donald Trump.
This synopsis regarding these allegations about Mr. Trump, personal and financial, was attached to that, but was a separate item, in effect, separate from that final assessment.
TAPPER: And, Evan, let me bring you in here, because we have here two claims made by Russians. One is that they had continuing conversation and exchanging of information with the Trump team, and the other one is that some Russians claim that they have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.
Now, the intelligence community is not saying that either of these claims have been proven and are corroborated.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right.
TAPPER: So why even include this in their presentation to President Obama and president-elect Trump?
PEREZ: Well, Jake, there's a couple of reasons why they did this.
We're told that these senior intelligence officials included the synopsis in part to make the president-elect aware that such allegations involving him were circulating among intelligence agencies, senior members of Congress and other government officials in Washington.
Several officials with knowledge of the briefings tell CNN that the information was also included in part to demonstrate that Russia had compiled information potentially harmful to both political parties, but only released information damaging to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.
This synopsis was not an official part, as you mentioned, of the report that the intelligence community case that they had -- that the Russian hackers had broken into the Democratic Party organizations, but some officials said that it augmented the evidence that Moscow intended to harm Clinton's campaign and to help Donald Trump's.
And let me bring in the legendary Carl Bernstein here, who also worked with the three of us on this story.
And, Carl, this information did not start with U.S. intelligence. It did not start with the FBI or law enforcement. Tell our viewers where it came from.
CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It was developed by a former British MI6 intelligence agent with great experience undercover in Russia and the former Soviet Union who had been hired by a Washington political opposition research firm by clients who were opposed to Donald Trump's candidacy in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
And these Washington researchers had come across business ties of Trump in Russia with Russians that looked questionable to them. They wanted to develop the information further. They hired the former MI6 agent who they knew and had done previous business with.
He began talking to Russian sources from his days in Russia and uncovered this information that's now being considered by the American intelligence community. He found it sufficiently alarming that in August he went to Rome and took the information to the FBI's counterintelligence division stationed in Rome. That then went to Washington.
He continued on the case trying to develop the information that he could, and by the end of the election cycle, when Mr. Trump had been elected, he took the information to a former British ambassador to Russia, who brought it to the attention of Senator John McCain.
It's a circumlocutious tale. McCain looked at these reports, some 35 pages, from Russian sources, developed by the MI6 agent, and immediately thought it needed to go to Director Comey of the FBI because of the nature of the allegations involving president-elect Trump. He took it to Comey. They had a five-minute meeting, Comey and McCain. And that is where it has been since.
And the rest of the intelligence community is now involved as well.
TAPPER: Some of this information, Jim, has been bandied about, shared in certain circles in Washington. There was a "Mother Jones" story that alluded to the former MI6 agent's report, without going into detail.
There was a classified briefing that then-Senator Harry Reid, who was then the Democratic leader, and so he would be part of this gang of eight congressional leaders, where he then sent in October a letter to Director Comey, FBI Director Comey, saying you know of explosive information about collusion between the Trump team and Russia, and he demanded that he release it. He did not release it.
Who else in Washington has been briefed, now that it's at this next level, where intelligence officials have looked at the source, looked at his sources and included it in this report?
SCIUTTO: Let's highlight here you have the intelligence community with this in its possession and now assessing it. You have the FBI with this in its possession and now investigating these claims.
In addition to that, you have a number of people on Capitol Hill, and I should note Democrats and Republicans, who are looking at this. We're told that on the same day that the president-elect was briefed by the intelligence community, the top four congressional leaders and chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the so-called gang of eight, were also provided a summary of the memos regarding Mr. Trump, this according to law enforcement, intelligence and administration sources.
That said, the synopsis was considered so sensitive that it was not included in the classified report about Russian hacking that was more widely distributed, but rather in an annex only shared at the most senior levels of the government, this, of course, including President Obama, the president-elect and those eight congressional leaders.
But, Jake, we should also note that including this in these briefings given to the president and the president-elect, taking the time, while they are not verified, to take the time and include them in those very important meetings is a measure -- gives a measure of at least importance to it, not credence yet because they haven't established it's factual, but you don't put that in there for no reason.
TAPPER: And so the two allegations, uncorroborated as of now, one, the Russians are claiming that they have compromised president-elect Trump with information that is personal and financial in nature, again, no proof of it, but proof, or at least confidence by intelligence officials that the Russians are claiming this.
Second, Russians also claiming, again, no proof established, it's uncorroborated as of now, that Russians are claiming that they had exchanges of information with the Trump team and the Russian government, the Kremlin.
Now, now that you know this information, let's rewind to a few hours ago to the Senate Intelligence Committee having a hearing on the Russian hacks. Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, was talking to FBI
Director Comey, FBI Director Comey earlier had been asked by Senator Ron Wyden, are you looking into reports of collusion between any campaign and the Kremlin? And then he didn't really answer the question.
So here's Angus King asking a follow-up on behalf of his colleague.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Mr. Comey, did you answer Senator Wyden's question that there is an investigation under way as to connections between either of the political campaigns and the Russians?
JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: I didn't say one way or another.
KING: You didn't say that there...
COMEY: That was my intention, at least.
KING: You didn't say one way or another whether even there's an investigation under way?
COMEY: Correct. I don't -- especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation.
KING: The irony of your making that statement here, I cannot avoid, but I will move on.
COMEY: Well, we sometimes think differently about closed investigations.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: That's a little reference there by Angus King to the fact that FBI Director Comey certainly said something about Hillary Clinton and that investigation.
But let's move on to today's news. You cover the FBI for us, Evan. Tell us what's going on. They're looking into this.
PEREZ: No, I think that's exactly what Comey was trying not to say in an open setting. I think he even said to Ron Wyden, I'm willing to answer this question in a classified briefing, in a closed session.
I think what's happening is that this has been going on for some time. They have been looking and people have brought them information that indicated that there were some contacts between their surrogates, perhaps, people who were associated with the Trump campaign, and people who the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community considers to be associates or intermediaries of the Kremlin.
Now, we don't know whether or not that's true. We don't know whether or not this is going to go anywhere. We don't know how high this goes. We do know that the FBI has been looking at this and has been looking at it for some time. And certainly after the election, once the election is out of the way, that frees up the FBI to be able to do, to take overt steps in an investigation, some things that they don't tend to do close to an election.
So I think what Comey was trying to do, Director Comey was trying to do there was not answer the question essentially, but that is exactly what's happening behind the scenes.
SCIUTTO: And to be clear, the fact that not just one, but two senators asked about it, and our own reporting indicates that there are senators, including Republicans on the Hill, who want to look into that very issue, the possibility of communication between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives during the campaign.
They were letting on to it that senators are interested in...
TAPPER: Remember, Ron Wyden is the one that set the trap for James Clapper, director of national intelligence.
PEREZ: Ron Wyden is very good at asking questions that he knows exactly what the answers to.
TAPPER: Yes, no, it's fascinating.
Let me bring in Carl Bernstein.
And, Carl, one of the things that's so fascinating about this is that something has changed about this information since it was floating around Washington last summer. First of all, my sources indicate to me that the FBI has looked into this individual who wrote the underlying memo upon which the synopsis was at least partly based, found him to be credible, found his sources to be credible.
He has apparently a network of sources throughout Europe. And also the intelligence officials now have presented this to the president and the president-elect. It's really quite a shocking turn of events.
BERNSTEIN: Well, it certainly never happened before where you have had a president-elect and an outgoing president who had been presented with information by the chiefs of the intelligence agencies of the United States and said, this is about the incoming president, and there is a claim that we are looking into that he has been compromised. And they are looking to see if there is any real evidence that he has
been compromised. And the one thing that keeps them pushing ahead with their investigations is the fact that the source of it, this former MI6 intelligence agent with great experience in Russia and the former Soviet Union, is known to have terrific sources of information, has a track record with the United States in coordinating with United States intelligence agencies.
So in that respect, they're taking it seriously and they're trying to vet the sources of this MI6 former agent to see if the people he was talking to really know what they're talking about in their claims about Mr. Trump.
TAPPER: So, just to put a button on this, because I know this is a complicated story, and I also know that there are a lot of individuals out there who might be confused by it or also maybe some that want to say what we're not saying.
What we are saying is top intelligence officials in their presentation to President Obama and president-elect Trump, on top of the intelligence community report on the Russian hacking, provided additional information, an annex, if you will, two pages, a synopsis, in which they are saying they have heard that there are Russians saying, Russians claiming, not that they have proof of it, but there are Russians claiming two things, one, repeated exchanges of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin or intermediaries thereof, and, two, that Russians are claiming, again, not that there's proof of it, Russians are claiming that they have compromising information, financial and personal, about the president- elect.
SCIUTTO: That's right.
And then we as a news organization are not reporting those particular allegations of personal and financial compromising information, because we have not independently confirmed the facts of those allegations.
TAPPER: And apparently neither have the intelligence officials.
SCIUTTO: Not yet.
TAPPER: All right, Evan, and Carl, and, Jim, thank you so much -- Wolf Blitzer, back to you.
BLITZER: Great reporting, guys, and I'm sure more to come. And we're still awaiting a statement from the Trump transition. Hopefully, we will get that fairly soon. Guys, thanks very much.
Let's get back to the confirmation hearings now for Donald Trump's attorney general nominee.
Justice correspondent Pamela Brown has been covering all of it for us.
Pamela, familiar turf for Senator Jeff Sessions. Among other things, he happens to be a member of the Judiciary Committee himself.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And right off the bat, Wolf, he aimed to take right on and confront those racism allegations that sunk his confirmation back in 1986, and in his opening statements, he went through each charge one by one and said they were all false.
BROWN (voice-over): Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions facing down allegations he's a racist while testifying in front of the Judiciary Committee.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology.
BROWN: Repeatedly interrupted by protesters, Sessions took head on the race accusations that derailed his confirmation hearing for a judgeship before this same committee in 1986.
SESSIONS: I didn't know how to respond and didn't respond very well. I hope my tenure in this body has shown you that the caricature that was created of me was not accurate.
BROWN: In a day-long hearing, Sessions faced tough questions from Democrats.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: You have referred to Roe v. Wade as -- quote -- "one of the worst, colossally erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time."
BROWN: And praise from Republicans.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: It's hard for me to understand why anybody would be against you.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: And when you're a star, they let you do it.
BROWN: Sessions was pressed on the controversial "Access Hollywood" tape where president-elect Donald Trump was heard bragging about grabbing women's genitals.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?
SESSIONS: Clearly, it would be.
BROWN: And he made clear he not be a rubber stamp for Trump, disavowing some of Trump's campaign promises such as bringing back water-boarding.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does water boarding constitute torture?
SESSIONS: Well, there was a dispute about that when we had the torture definition in our law. The Department of Justice memorandum concluded it did not necessarily prohibit that, but Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use water-boarding.
BROWN: And he said he opposes a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Would you support a law that says you can't come to America because you're a Muslim?
BROWN: Things got tense when Democratic Senator Al Franken accused Sessions of distorting his record.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: So, tell me, did you file 20 or 30 desegregation cases, or is it some other number?
SESSIONS: The records don't show that there were 20 or 30 actually filed cases, so I...
FRANKEN: What do you think would have caused you to say that you filed 20 or 30 desegregation...
SESSIONS: Well, we had cases going throughout my district, and some of them were started before I came and continued after I left.
BROWN: And despite his own personal beliefs, he says that he would follow Roe v. Wade, as well as same-sex marriage, the ruling by the Supreme Court. He says while he believes Roe v. Wade violates the Constitution, it's the law of the land, as well as same-sex marriage -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, he says it's settled law, at least for now.
BLITZER: All right, thanks so much, Pamela Brown reporting.
The biggest fireworks may come tomorrow. Democratic Senator Cory Booker plans to testify against his fellow senator, Jeff Sessions.
Our senior political reporter, Manu Raju, is working this part of the story for us.
Manu, you spoke to Senator Booker. What did he tell you about this truly unprecedented moment?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. He is preparing for this moment. This will be the first time ever in history that a sitting senator has testified against another sitting senator for a Cabinet post in a session tomorrow, probably afternoon.
Three African-American members of Congress will be testifying against Jeff Sessions. Three African-American non-members of Congress will be actually supporting Jeff Sessions. But Cory Booker has a lot of concerns about Jeff Sessions' civil rights record and made that clear earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: I won't give you a preview, but this is one of the more consequential appointments in American history right now, given the state of a lot of challenges we have around policing, a lot of challenges we have around race relations, gay and lesbian issues. It's a very consequential moment.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Now, Wolf, now, Cory Booker does not have to actually answer questions from his fellow senators after he makes his remarks. He can actually step away from the panel, unlike other witnesses who testify before the committee.
But I can tell you, I talked to a number of Republicans about his decision to testify and it's raising a lot of eyebrows, surprise, given how unusual this is, given this is known as the world's most exclusive club. Rarely do you see this kind of effort. And one reason why today's hearing has not been so contentious, a lot of people here are friends with Jeff Sessions -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Manu Raju reporting for us, Manu, thanks very much.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is joining us. He's a key Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: I want to talk to you about today's confirmation hearings, and obviously you were there.
But quickly I wanted to see if you have any reaction to CNN's breaking news about a briefing that the president-elect received about claims that there were Russian efforts to compromise him. What, if anything, can you say about that?
COONS: Well, Wolf, I haven't been specifically briefed on that. I have followed your coverage of it this evening.
And if these allegations are true, allegations of coordination between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence officials, and allegations that the Russians have compromised president-elect Trump's independence, that would be truly shocking. That would be -- that would be explosive.
BLITZER: Yes, we have not corroborated those allegations. The FBI has not corroborated those allegations either.
Were you satisfied with Senator Sessions' answers today at the first part of this confirmation hearing process?
COONS: Well, one thing about Jeff Sessions, Senator Sessions' confirmation hearing today, there's no surprise. He's one of the most conservative members of the Senate and he came out swinging, defending many of his positions and actions.
But there were a few points -- and you just touched on them a few minutes ago, Wolf -- where there were clear differences between what Senator Sessions is saying in his confirmation hearing and what president-elect Trump said on the campaign trail, differences in positions about torture, about a Muslim ban.
And I intend to keep pressing him with questions that -- the confirmation hearing is still continuing this evening, and I look forward to hearing from Congressman John Lewis. He's from Jeff Sessions' hometown of Selma, and he led the signature, most important civil rights march of the 1960s, the Selma march, just over 50 years ago, which led to the Voting Rights Act.
There were very tough questions for Senator Sessions today about his view of the Voting Rights Act and whether he could be counted on as attorney general to protect and enforce voting rights. LGBT rights, civil liberties. And his positions on immigration were just a few that he was pressed on fairly hard.
BLITZER: Your Democratic colleague from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is going to testify against Senator Sessions tomorrow. What's your reaction to this? Is it a good idea, as we pointed out, the first time in American history the that a sitting U.S. Senate has testified against another sitting U.S. senator who's seeking a Cabinet position?
COONS: Well, Wolf, I will wait to hear what Senator Booker has to say tomorrow.
I understand that this is a very consequential nomination and confirmation hearing. Senator Sessions has said and done things as a senator in recent years, his positions on issues that I know are very important to Senator Booker and I think to justice in our country that have moved him to take this unprecedented step.
My hope is that he will be respectful and constructive, yet lay out clearly his reasons for opposing Senator Sessions.
BLITZER: Less than a year ago in a congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring the foot soldiers of the 1965 voting rights marches, Senator Booker said this, and I'm quoting him now, he said: "I feel blessed and honored to have partnered with Senator Sessions in being the Senate sponsors in this important award."
He was very glowing in his praise of Senator Sessions. What has changed? COONS: Well, I will say this. I, too, in my comments earlier today
made a similar remark that Senator Sessions and I worked together on two different bills in my six years, and I was grateful for the ability to partner with him.
And if you quoted me on the days those bills moved forward, I would have said similarly positive things. But over my six years with him, many, many issues, we have significantly disagreed on. And my hunch is on that one day, when a Congressional Gold Medal was being presented, Senator Booker was commenting on that issue and on that partnership.
But in the broader issue of where Senator Sessions has stood on signature issues of Senator Booker's, like criminal justice reform or immigration reform, the fact that Senator Sessions has steadfastly opposed bipartisan progress on those two issues likely motivated him to take the unprecedented step of testifying against him tomorrow.
BLITZER: Have you decided yet, Senator, whether or not you will vote to confirm this nominee?
COONS: I have a lot of questions, and I will listen to all of the witnesses tomorrow.
This has been a very long day. We have been at this since 9:30 this morning. And I spent the weekend reading hundreds of pages of the record of Senator Sessions. I still have some grave concerns.
And I'm trying to keep an open mind, but I will tell you, as the day has gone on, I am more and more persuaded that Senator Sessions holds views really antithetical to mine on a range of issues of grave importance to me.
BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks very much for joining us.
COONS: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, let's get a different perspective right now.
Sarah Isgur Flores is the spokeswoman -- a spokeswoman for the attorney general nominee.
Sarah, thanks very much for joining us.
SARAH ISGUR FLORES, SESSIONS SPOKESWOMAN: Great to be here.
BLITZER: All right, so you heard what's going on. Cory Booker is going to testify against Senator Sessions, John Lewis, Congressman Cedric Richmond. He's the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Has the senator, Senator Sessions, reached out to any of them in advance, do you know?
FLORES: Well, Senator Sessions did meet with Cory Booker earlier this week. Many of the Democrats had meetings scheduled for December. They canceled them. They were moved to this week. He did go to those meetings.
But I do think it's important to point out that, yes, Senator Cory Booker, John Lewis will be testifying against him. They don't know him very well. They haven't had a lot of time with him, aside from this meeting and running into each other in the halls in the last couple years.
On the other hand, we will have three African-American civil rights leaders who have known him, worked with him for decades, understand his record, know the man's character, who will also be testifying for him.
So we will have three people who don't know him very well saying they don't want him and three people who know him extremely well, can inform the American people on his record who will be testifying for him.
BLITZER: Who are the three civil rights leaders who will testify in his favor?
FLORES: Well, for instance, aside from that one panel, tomorrow, Larry Thompson, the former deputy attorney general, will be speaking in his favor. They have known each other for a very long time, actually, which I think many people will be surprised to learn that they have sort of run in the same circles for a long time.
And then on that panel tomorrow, I will tell you the truth, I'm sort of blanking on their names right now, but we have had, for instance, William Smith, who was his chief counsel on the Judiciary Committee who worked with him for about -- I don't want to overstate this, but about the last decade or so, who's been speaking out in his favor as well.
BLITZER: Is he nervous that he potentially could not be confirmed right now, Senator Sessions? You have been speaking with him.
FLORES: Well, you never want to be overconfident, but today's gone extremely well. And I think we're very pleased with how this hearing has gone.
You know, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, had already committed to voting for the senator. I think we may see other Democrats based on today's hearing, based on the answer Senator Sessions gave, his endorsements from law enforcement organizations, victims rights organizations, and, again, the testimony about his record that for the last four decades he's dedicated his career to upholding the law.
So, I do think we could see more Democrats come over.
BLITZER: In addition to Congressman Cedric Richmond, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP, he was protesting in Mobile, Alabama, last week. He got arrested for a sit-in. He's going to testify against him as well.
These are powerful figures in the civil rights community who are saying this man should not be the next attorney general.
FLORES: Right, and they're entitled to their opinion, but they don't actually know the man. And that's why on the pro-Sessions side, we have these law enforcement organizations, civil rights leaders, who've actually worked with him.
And that is a big difference, including Democrats from the state of Alabama. Frankly, I think that what today did more than anything else was really disabuse this character that the left had tried to peddle for the last few weeks. I think people were expecting a boogeyman to show up today and instead they got a man who's dedicated his career to the law, the Constitution.
And I think it's why it was so important that he said he will enforce the law as the attorney general, defend the law as the attorney general, mend relationships with law enforcement, all things that have fallen by the wayside in the last eight years as the Department of Justice has unfortunately turned into a wing of the Obama administration and a political branch.
BLITZER: Sarah Isgur Flores, thanks so much for joining us.
FLORES: Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: I want to go back to the hearing right now.
The senator, in fact, is being asked about the CNN story that we just reported.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Quote: "Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump."
These documents also allegedly stated -- quote -- "There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government."
Now, again, I'm telling you this as it's coming out, so, you know -- but if it's true, it's obviously extremely serious. And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities.
I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.
[18:30:13] FRANKEN: Very well. Without divulging sensitive information, do you know about this or know what compromising personal and financial information the Russians claim to have?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, allegations get made about candidates all the time; and they've been made about President-elect Trump lots of times. Most of them, virtually all of them, have been proven to be exaggerated or untrue.
I would just say to you that I have no information about this matter. I have not been in on the classified briefings, and I'm not a member of the Intelligence Committee. And...
FRANKEN: Totally fair.
SESSIONS: I'm just not able to give you any comment on it at this time.
FRANKEN: Totally fair.
Last week, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, claimed that the Russian government was not the source of the hacked e-mails WikiLeaks published during the -- that they published during the campaign.
Now, Assange did not identify his source. Nor did he say whether his source worked with or received information from the Russians, but, again, American intelligence agencies have concluded the Russian government directed the hacking operation.
Nonetheless, immediately following that interview, president-elect tweeted, "Julian Assange said a 14-year-old could have hacked Podesta. Why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!" --exclamation point.
Senator Sessions, does it concern you that our future commander in chief is so much more willing to accept what Julian Assange says instead of the conclusions of our intelligence agencies? And why do you think President Trump finds Assange trustworthy?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not able to answer that. I've not talked to the president-elect about any of these issues, and it is often inaccurate what gets printed in the papers.
FRANKEN: Back in 2010, back when WikiLeaks was publishing stolen American diplomatic cables and military secrets, you voiced concern about the Obama administration's response. You said that WikiLeaks publishing sensitive documents should be, quote, "pursued with the greatest intensity." You said, quote, "The president from on down should be crystal clear on this, and I haven't seen that. I mean, he comes out of the left. The anti-war left. They've always glorified people who leak sensitive documents. Now he's the commander in chief, so he's got a challenge."
President-elect Trump, by contrast, said, quote, "WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks."
Do you believe that by holding up Julian Assange, who traffics in leaked and stolen documents, often classified documents, as a legitimate source of information, that President-elect Trump is glorifying people who leak sensitive documents?
SESSIONS: Well, I would say this, that if Assange participated in violating the American law, then he is a person subject to prosecution and condemnation. FRANKEN: Well, we know that in regard to what he did in 2010, and yet
the president-elect said, "WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks."
Doesn't it seem like, perhaps, if you're -- you weren't sitting before us today as an attorney general nominee and if President Obama was publicly embracing Julian Assange, that perhaps you might take a more critical view?
SESSIONS: As a member of the Senate, as you and I -- I remain for hopefully not too much longer, depends on you and your colleagues, but we're -- I feel it's a lot easier to be vigorous and outspoken if you begin to think about the awesome responsibility as serving as an attorney general with the possibility of having to handle certain cases, you need to be more cautious about what you say.
So I think it's just not appropriate for me to be the person for you to seek political responses from.
FRANKEN: OK. I'm out of time. I will try to stick around for one more quick round.
GRASSLEY: OK. Senator Cruz.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Sessions, thank you for your endurance today.
SESSIONS: Thank you.
[18:35:03] CRUZ: Let's turn to a different topic, one that's been addressed some in this hearing but one that I know is a particular passion of yours and one on which you built a remarkable record. And that's immigration.
And I want to focus, in particular, on the problem of criminal aliens in the United States and this administration's non-enforcement of the laws. And take a moment just to review some of the numbers which you know very well, but I think it's helpful to review for those watching these hearings.
We have had an administration that consistently refuses to enforce our immigration laws. So in October 2015, ICE admitted that there were 929,684 aliens present in the United States who had been ordered to leave the country but who hadn't done so. And of those over 929,000 aliens with removal orders, 179,027 had criminal convictions.
In addition to the 179,027 criminal aliens with final orders of removal, there were at least 194,791 known criminal aliens who were, at the time, in removal proceedings.
And we also know that 121 criminal aliens released by ICE between fiscal year 2010 and 2014 went on to commit homicides. And between fiscal year 2009 and fiscal year 2015, ICE released 6,151 aliens with sexual offense convictions from its custody. My question for you, Senator Sessions, is can you commit to this
committee and to the American people that, as attorney general, you will enforce the laws, including the federal immigration laws; and you will not be releasing criminal illegal aliens into the public, especially those with violent convictions such as homicide or sexual assault convictions?
SESSIONS: Senator Cruz, you and I have talked about this, and you know that I believe we have failed in dealing with criminal aliens. President Obama set that as a priority, but I don't think they've been as effective as needed. I believe that should be increased and stepped up, the priority of that.
The actual policies, as you know, are Homeland Security policies. The secretary of Homeland Security will determine those policies. There are ways in which the Department of Justice can fulfill a role in it, but the overall policies and priorities would be set by Homeland Security.
I just believe that, as we go forward and we reduce the flow of illegal immigrants into America, then there are few people illegally per investigative officer. And you get a better handle. You're in a virtuous cycle instead of this dangerous cycle that we're in today, where things tend to get worse.
So I believe we can turn that around. This is one of the policies that has to be given priority. Donald Trump has also said that he believes criminal aliens, obviously, should be the top priority. And all of us, I believe this government will work effectively to deal with it. I would -- I would do my part.
CRUZ: You know, there are few issues that frustrate Americans more than the refusal to enforce our immigration laws. And not too long ago, I was down on the border in Texas, visiting with Border Patrol officials, visiting with law enforcement, local sheriffs; and I'll tell you: it was after the election, and there was a palpable sense of relief that, finally, we would have an administration that didn't view the laws as obstacles to be circumvented but rather an administration that would be willing to enforce the laws on the books and stop releasing criminal aliens in communities where the citizens are at risk.
You know, one of the most tragic instances that we're all familiar with is Kate Steinle, beautiful young woman in California who lost her life, who was murdered by a criminal illegal alien who had seven prior felonies. And yet over and over and over again, the system failed; and young Kate Steinle lost her life in her father's arms saying, "Daddy, please save me."
You and I are both the father of daughters; and I cannot think of a more horrific experience than having to hold your daughter at that moment of agony.
Can you share -- this has been an issue you've been leading for so long. Can you share your perspective as to the responsibility of the federal government to keep the American people safe and not to subject the American people to murderers and other repeat felons who are here illegally, not to release them to the public?
[18:40:19] SESSIONS: Senator Cruz, you touch on the right issue here. First and foremost, the immigration policy of the United States should serve the national interest, the people's interests. That's what an immigration system should do.
No. 2, under the laws of world -- world agreements that, if a citizen from a foreign country is admitted by visa to the United States, and they commit a deportable act or otherwise need to be removed, that country has to take them back. And when they cease to do that, then you have a serious breach of collegial relations between the two countries.
And no country, particularly the United States, should ever allow so many individuals who committed crimes here, often when they entered illegally, and not even coming on a lawful visa, and they need to be deported promptly. And reluctance of that to happen is baffling to me. It should have total bipartisan support. It's said that it does, but for somehow, it's never accomplished. So it's very, very frustrating.
So the basic summary of that is it's perfectly proper, decent and correct for this -- this nation not to allow people who've come here on a visa or illegally to remain here after they've committed crimes.
CRUZ: Well, thank you, Senator Sessions. And as you know, I've introduced legislation in the Senate, Kate's Law, which would provide, for those who illegally re-enter with a violent criminal conviction, a mandatory five-year prison sentence. This past Senate that failed to pass. It is my hope that Congress will pass that legislation and give additional tools to the administration to keep the American people safe.
Let me turn to one additional aspect of illegal immigration, which is the national security component of it. Since August of 2015, you and I have joined together to send three separate letters to the departments of Justice, Homeland -- Homeland Security, and State, as well as a letter to the president, seeking information on the immigration histories of individuals who have been convicted or implicated in terrorist attack in the United States. And over and over again, the current administration has stonewalled our efforts as senators to get basic facts that I think the American people are entitled to.
You and I were able to piece together from the public record that at least 40 people who were initially admitted to the United States as refugees were subsequently convicted or implicated in terrorism. And more broadly, of a list of 580 individuals who were convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related offenses between 2001 and 2014, at least 380 were born in foreign countries, many from terror spots in the Middle East and Africa and central Asia, and of the 198 U.S. citizens you and I were able to find on that list, at least 100 were born abroad and subsequently naturalized. As I mentioned, the administration has stonewalled us.
Will you commit to work with this committee to provide the data that we've been seeking that I think the American people are entitled to know of those who are committing terror plots against us, how many are coming in through a broken immigration system, through a broken refugee system; and to working with this committee to prevent that from happening in the future, to keep the people safe?
SESSIONS: I would do that. I do believe that's the Homeland Security primary responsibility, but it was a bit frustrating, because what those numbers tend to indicate, it indicates that it's not true that refugees don't commit terrorist acts. There is a danger even in the refugee population, and good vetting is critical in that process.
CRUZ: Thank you, Senator.
GRASSLEY: Senator Coons.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Senator Sessions, if I might, I'd like to take us to an area I don't think's been explored much today but of grave concern to me, which is disability rights. Another area where, if confirmed as attorney general, you'd be charged with protecting among the most vulnerable Americans and those whose rights have only recently been fully recognized and enforced.
You've previously said that the IDEA, which provides for access to education for those with intellectual disabilities, creates -- and I think I quote here -- "lawsuit after lawsuit, special treatment for certain children and is a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility in classrooms all over America."
[18:45:00] And in a different setting, you were critical of the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins versus Virginia in 2002, which held that executing individuals with intellectual disabilities violates the 8th Amendment. In a floor speech six days later after that ruling, you said that you were, quote, "very troubled" by the court telling states, quote, "they could not execute people who were retarded."
If a state was scheduled to execute someone with intellectual disabilities, would you insist on the Justice Department now taking vigorous action to stop it? And given your previous comments about the IDEA, do you believe it unfairly benefits some children and hurts others?
SESSIONS: We made real reform in IDEA. I led that effort. We ended up having the vote of Hillary Clinton and Dick Durbin, Senator Durbin. We worked on it very hard and I was very pleased with the way it worked out.
It was true that the IDEA community pushed back against the reforms I was proposing, but in the end, I think it worked out fine and the reason was that the burden was on the school systems.
I was in a blue ribbon great little school in Alabama the first day of school and the principal told me, it's now 3:00, at 5:00, I will go to a meeting with lawyers and parents about a child on whether or not they will be in the classroom all day or half a day. And the child had serious disabilities. So, he said, I'm trying to get this school up and running, and I'm having to spend this extraordinary amount of time on this.
So, so, we created a legal system that made it better. And the schools got a little more deference in being able to monitor it and it was a big issue. It was a disruptive force in big city schools in New York and Chicago, in other places like that.
So, on the question of intellectual disabilities, I suppose we can disagree as a matter of policy. Perhaps I was questioning the legal mandate, but it depend -- a person with intellectual disabilities, that should be considered as a factor in the sentencing jury or the judge's opinion before they go forward. But obviously, if a person knows the difference in right and wrong, historically, they would be held to the same standard even though their intellectual ability would be less.
COONS: Let me revisit a question about consent decrees that Senator Hirono was asking about previously, because consent decrees have been used in this area in disability rights to make sure that folks with intellectual disabilities have access to services and education, but also in policing. Police chiefs and elected officials as we've spoken about in communities across country have in some cases invited DOJ to open civil rights investigations of their police departments and have invited them to enter into consent decrees in order to implement reforms to law enforcement in order to make sure that they improve the quality of police/community relations and respect for civil rights.
Do you plan to continue to assist cities with these investigations when asked, if attorney general, and under what circumstances would you commence a civil rights investigation of a law enforcement agency that may have violated federal law?
SESSIONS: Well, those are difficult questions for me to answer explicitly today, but I would note on the consent decrees or the language Senator Hirono quoted, I believe was in a booklet of which I simply wrote the foreword on. I don't believe that was my language.
Consent decrees have been criticized in a number of areas, but with regard to the disabilities community and the police departments, I guess you're asking about, I'm not familiar with how they've worked out in the disabilities arena, but with regard to police departments, I think it's a good thing that a police department might call on federal investigators and a team to work with their police department to identify any problems and to help select remedies that the community might feel were more valid because the Department of Justice validated them and agreed to them.
So, I think you and I talked, it really is important that the people trust the department, police departments, and the police departments have respect from the communities. And when you don't have that, crime is -- people's safety is at risk.
[18:50:01] COONS: Well, I hope we can find ways to continue to work together, to combat violent crime and to improve police/community relations. Let me just briefly ask you about trade secret theft and intellectual
property, something we've also talked about. There is a significant problem for American inventions, companies, entrepreneurs of having their innovation stolen sometimes by cyber hack, by intrusion, sometimes physically through industrial espionage. The Obama administration has made progress in increasing enforcement and going after those who would steal America's inventions.
Is that something you would intend to continue vigorous enforcement to protect American inventions?
SESSIONS: I do. A lot of that might be through the U.S. trade representative. It could be done through commerce and other departments and the Department of Justice may have a role --
COONS: It does.
SESSIONS: -- in criminal activities or civil enforcement.
I would not, excuse me, say for certain what that role would be at this point. But my view as you and I have talked is you're correct about this. When we enter into a trade agreement with a foreign nation, what we have to understand is, that's just a simple contract, and we'll comply, we'll deal with you on this basis, and if your partner to that contract is not acting honorably, then you have every right to push back. And if it ultimately means you have to pull out of the agreement, then you pull out of the agreement if it's serious enough.
I don't think we've been as aggressive as we should have been in those agreements.
COONS: Let me ask one last question, if I may, Mr. Chairman.
I just wanted to reflect on something you said in your opening and something we have talked about. You were born in Selma roughly 70 years ago. I've been to Selma several times with Congressman Lewis and a number of others.
And last year, many of us joined Congressman Lewis for the 50th anniversary of that famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge when he faced violence and the response, the conscience of the nation was stirred by this horrible event. And it spurred Congress to pass the bipartisan Voting Rights Act.
There's been a lot of questioning back and forth about your comments about whether the Voting Rights Act was intrusive and is the Shelby County decision. I just wanted to make sure I come back to an important point, which was that Senator Leahy and I and a number of others tried to hard to find Republican partners to advance the Voting Rights Advancement Act which would have replaced the 50-years old, roughly, preclearance formula with a new one that would be national in scope, would not disadvantage any region and would be simply based on enforcement actions.
Previous questioning by I think Senator Franken and others focused on recent enforcement actions, the fourth circuit finding that North Carolina's post-Shelby voter ID law violated the law because it targeted African-Americans.
You said in your opening statement that you witnessed the civil rights movement as it happened near you, that you witnessed the deprivations of segregation. And in a ceremony last year during the presentation of the congressional gold medal to the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement you said, "I feel I should have stepped forward more."
What more do you think you perhaps could have done or should have done in recent years as a senator to take more active action so that folks from around the country could have confidence in your commitment to continuing the journey of civil rights in this country?
SESSIONS: Well, I don't think we have to agree on everything. Just because you think this is a necessary thing you may be right and if I don't think so, I don't know that I'm wrong, not necessarily wrong.
I would say that I did sponsor the Congressional Gold Medal Act that gave the gold medal to the Selma and Montgomery marches with Senator Cory Booker. We were the two lead sponsors on it. I was at that event and have a wonderful picture I cherish with John Lewis and other people on the bridge celebrating that event.
It changed the whole south. Voting rights were discriminating -- African-Americans were being discriminated against systematically. They were being flat-denied through all kinds of mechanisms and only a very few many -- in many instances were allowed to vote, if any.
So, this was an unacceptable thing. As I said at the hearing in 1986, I was asked about it being intrusive. Please, Senator Coons, do not suggest in any way that that word means that I was hostile to the act. I said then and I say now, it was necessary that the act be intrusive because it had to force change.
[18:55:01] And it wouldn't have happened without the power of the federal government. That is a plain fact.
COONS: Senator, what I'm suggesting is an alternative path forward for the Voting Rights Act that would not have been singling out one region or one state or one history, but that would have allowed the Voting Rights Act to continue to be effective in the face of the recent record showing ongoing discrimination, ongoing denial of the right to vote in different states across the country, now no longer isolated to the South.
When presented with an opportunity to continue and strengthen with Voting Rights Act post-Shelby, you didn't take that step.
SESSIONS: Well --
GRASSLEY: Senator Sessions, if you need to answer that, go ahead and answer it. I want to go to Senator Blumenthal.
SESSIONS: As I said, I supported the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act with Section 5 in it. When the Supreme Court said it was no longer necessary that Section 5 be in it, I did not support the language that you offered that would basically put it back in, you and Senator Leahy. So, I don't apologize for that. I think that was a legitimate decision.
And with regard to the question of voter ID, I'm not sure it's been conclusively settled one way or the other whether they properly conducted voter ID system is improper and discriminatory. Indeed, the Supreme Court has held that voter ID is legitimate, at least under certain circumstances.
BLITZER: We'll continue to monitor the confirmation hearings for Senator Sessions, day one.
I want to dig deeper though with our experts.
Jeffrey Toobin, let me start with you. Button this up for us, day one for Senator Sessions, he wants to be the attorney general of the United States. What's the bottom line?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: In a majority Republican Senate, an attorney general nominee is almost certain to be confirmed, and I don't think anything that happened today is likely to change that.
Two, an interesting points, though, is that Jeff sessions repudiated the position of President-elect Trump on torture and waterboarding. Is waterboarding torture? Should it be prohibited? He said yes.
Also, should there be a religious test, should Muslims be prohibited from immigrating to the United States? He said, under no circumstances. So, on that proposal, which has evolved in the Trump campaign, he seems to be distancing himself from the president-elect.
Other than that, I think it was a good day for the attorney general- designate.
BLITZER: You know, Jeff Zeleny, a lot of people thought he didn't hurt himself at all today.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I don't think he hurt himself at all. And he was so prepared for this moment. He has so much history here, particularly after what happened 30 years ago during the Reagan administration when he was nominated to be a judge.
I think Jeffrey is right. Those are the two big headlines.
What we're going to see through these confirmation hearings I think as they play out over the coming days is not necessarily if he'll be confirmed or not. Most of them will because the math is there. But a big picture look about is really going to fill in some of the blanks of the Trump administration, which we haven't necessarily seen. He also said that abortion rights and same-sex marriage are the law of the land.
And, of course, he is opposed to both of those. He said repeatedly that he would enforce laws that he voted against. He was treated like a U.S. senator up there today with dignity and respect. I find it hard to imagine he wouldn't get confirmed.
BLITZER: Yes, a relatively good day for Senator Sessions today. Yes, he was asked some tough questions but he handled them pretty smoothly.
Rex Tillerson, the incoming -- the nominee to become secretary of state, he's going to go through the same thing tomorrow before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, and it's going to be a challenge for him because like you said, Jeff, Senator Sessions was treated as a senator. Rex Tillerson has never held public office. So, he will be treated respectfully, but maybe questioned more sharply on some of his business ties. And I think he, like Sessions, will be confirmed but it will be an opportunity for Democrats to sort of dig in and challenge him on some tough foreign policy questions.
BLITZER: And we're standing by tonight, the president of the United States, President Obama, his farewell address to the nation. We'll have live coverage of that.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. Certainly, some sort of counterprogramming there, sending a very different message from what we've been hearing on Capitol Hill from the cabinet nominees for Donald Trump and also from Donald Trump himself.
Obama will be hard-pressed tonight to really drive home his legacy, set the tone for what he wants to do after his presidency is over, but also sort of take a victory lap in light of some very harsh rhetoric from Donald Trump --
BLITZER: He's worked hard, Ryan Lizza, on this speech tonight.
RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, even for the president, tough to break through on an incredible news day today.
Just one point on Sessions, I think what we're seeing is the difference between campaigning and governing. Even some of the statements that Sessions made today contradicted what Sessions said in the campaign. For instance, he was asked about the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape, for example, and he admitted today what Trump said on that tape would have been the equivalent of sexual assault.
So, we're seeing the institutional Washington sort of confine some of these grandiose promises that Trump had.
BLITZER: An important day in Washington today. Another important day coming up tomorrow.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.