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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Continuing Coverage of Attorney General Appearance Before Senate Judiciary Committee. Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired June 13, 2017 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: -- and stated that they believe they did, and --
but I do think members of this government have offices to run.
MANCHIN: Is there...
SESSIONS: ... departments to manage, and they -- the questions should be focused on that. MANCHIN: Is there a part of the story we're missing -- I'm so sorry, Mr. Chairman. Is there a part of the story we're missing?
SESSIONS: I don't know because I'm not involved in the campaign and had no information concerning it. I have no idea at what stage it -- it is. You members of this committee know a lot more than I.
MANCHIN: Thank you, General Sessions.
BURR: General Sessions, I will assure you we are very much focused on Russia's involvement and our...
SESSIONS: Doesn't seem like it.
BURR: ... our hope is that as we complete this process, we will lay those facts out for the American people so they can make their own determinations as well. We're grateful for what you've done.
COTTON: Well, I am on this side of the dais, so I can say a very simple question that should be asked. I am on the side of the dais, so a very simple question that should be asked is, did Donald Trump or any of his associates in the campaign collude with Russia in hacking those e-mails and releasing them to the public? That's where we started six months ago. We've now heard six of the eight Democrats on this committee, and to my knowledge I don't think a single one of them asked that question? They've gone down lots of other rabbit trails, but not that question.
Maybe that is because Jim Comey said last week, as he said to Donald Trump, told him three times, he assured him he was not under investigation. Maybe it's because multiple Democrats on this committee have stated that they have seen no evidence thus far after six months of our investigation and 10 months -- or 11 months of an FBI investigation of any such collusion.
I just suggest. what do we think happened at the Mayflower? Mr. Sessions, are -- are you familiar with what spies called tradecraft?
SESSIONS: A little bit.
COTTON: That involves things like covert communications and dead drops and brush passes, right?
SESSIONS: That is part of it.
COTTON: Do you like spy fiction, John le Carre, Daniel Silva, Jason Matthews?
SESSIONS: Yeah, Alan Furst, David Ignatius. Just finished Ignatius' book.
COTTON: Do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond movies?
SESSIONS: No. (LAUGHTER)
SESSIONS: Yes. I do.
COTTON: Have -- have you ever in any of these fantastical situations hear of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States Senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of (inaudible)?
SESSIONS: Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton. It's just like "Through the Looking Glass." I mean, what is this? I explained how, in good faith, I said I had not met with Russians because they were suggesting I as a surrogate had been meeting continuously with Russians. I said I didn't meet with them.
And now the next thing you know, I'm accused of some reception, plotting some sort of influence campaign for the American election. It's just beyond my capability to understand, and I really appreciate, Mr. Chairman, the opportunity to at least, to be able to say publicly, I didn't participate in that and know nothing about it.
COTTON: And I -- and I -- I gather that's one reason why you want to testify today in public. Last week, Mr. Comey in characteristic dramatic and theatrical fashion alluded ominously to what you call innuendo, that there was some kind of classified intelligence that suggested you might have colluded with Russia, or that you might've otherwise acted improperly. You've addressed those allegations here today. Do you understand why he made that allusion?
SESSIONS: Actually, I do not. Nobody has provided me any information.
COTTON: Thank you, but my time is limited and I have a lot of questions.
Mr. Blunt asked you if you had spoken in response to Mr. Comey's statement to you after his private meeting with the President on February 14th or February 15th. You said that you did respond Mr. Comey. Mr. Comey's testimony said that you did not know. Do you know why Mr. Comey would've said that you did not respond him on that conversation with you February 14th or 15th?
SESSIONS: I do not. There was a little conversation, not very long, but there was a conversation and I did respond to him. Perhaps not to everything he asked, but he I did respond to him, I think in an appropriate way.
COTTON: Do you know why Mr. Comey mistrusted President Trump from their first meeting on January 6th? He stated last week that he did, but didn't state anything from that meeting that caused him to have such mistrust.
SESSIONS: I -- I'm not able to speculate on that.
COTTON: Let's turn to the potential crimes that we know have happened, leaks of certain information. Here's a short list of what I have. The contents of alleged transcripts of alleged conversations between Mr. Flynn and Mr. Kisselyak, the contents of President Trump's phone calls with Australian and Mexican leaders, the content of Mr. Trump's meetings with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, the leak of Manchester bombing -- the Manchester bombing suspect's identity and crime scene photos. And last week within 20 minutes of this committee meeting in a classified setting with Jim Comey, the leak of what -- the basis of Mr. Comey's innuendo was.
Are these leaks serious threats to our national security? And is the Department of Justice taking them with the appropriate degree of seriousness in investigating and ultimately going to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law?
SESSIONS: Thank you, Senator Cotton.
We have had one successful case very recently in Georgia. That person has been denied bail, I believe, and is being held in custody.
But some of these leaks as you well know, are extraordinarily damaging to the United States' security, and we have got to restore a regular order principle. We cannot have persons in our intelligence agencies, our investigative agencies, or in Congress leaking sensitive matters on staff. So this is -- I'm afraid will result in -- is already resulting in investigations, and I fear that some people may find that they wish they hadn't have leaked.
COTTON: Thank you. My time has expired.
But for the record, it was stated earlier, that the Republican platform was weakened on the point of arms to Ukraine. That is incorrect. The platform was actually strengthened. And I would note that it was the Democratic president who refused repeated bipartisan request of this Congress to supply those arms to Ukraine. BURR: Senator Harris.
HARRIS: Attorney General Sessions, you have several times this afternoon prefaced your responses by saying "to the best of your recollection." Just on the first page of your three pages of written testimony, you wrote, "nor do I recall, do not have recollection, do not remember it."
So my question is for any of your testimony today, did you refresh your memory with any written documents, be they your calendar, written correspondence, e-mails, notes of any sort?
SESSIONS: I attempted to refresh my recollection, but so much of this is in a -- in a wholesale campaign of extraordinary nature that you're moving so fast that you don't keep notes. You meet people -- I didn't keep notes of my conversation with the Russian ambassador at the the Republican convention, but you...
HARRIS: Sir, I'd like to just talk about what you did keep notes...
SESSIONS: You know, I was just saying, I didn't keep notes on most of these things. And there's nothing...
HARRIS: Will you provide this committee with the notes that you did maintain?
SESSIONS: As appropriate, I will supply the committee with documents.
HARRIS: Can you please tell me what you mean when you say "appropriate?"
SESSIONS: I would have to consult with the lawyers in the department who know the proper procedure to -- before disclosing documents that are held within the Department of Justice.
HARRIS: Attorney General...
SESSIONS: I'm not able to make that opinion today.
HARRIS: Sir, I'm sure you prepared for this hearing today, and most of the questions that have been presented to you were at predictable. So my question to you is did you then, review with the lawyers of your department? If you was the top layer are unaware what the law is regarding what you can share with us, and what you cannot share with us, what is privileged and what is not privileged?
SESSIONS: We discussed the basic parameters of testimony. I, frankly, have not discussed documentary disclosure rules. Will you make a commitment to this committee that you will share any written correspondence, be they your calendars, records, notes, e-mails or anything that has been reduced at any point in time in writing, to this committee where legally, you actually have an obligation to do so.
SESSIONS: I will commit to reviewing the rules of the department, and as -- and when that issue is raised to respond appropriately. HARRIS: Did you have any communications with Russian officials for any reason during the campaign that have not been disclosed in public or to this committee?
SESSIONS: I don't recall it.
But I have to tell you, I cannot testify to what was said as we were standing at the Republican convention before the podium where I spoke.
HARRIS: My -- my question only...
SESSIONS: I don't have a detailed memory of that...
HARRIS: OK, as it relates to your knowledge, did you have any communication with any Russian businessman or any Russian nationals?
SESSIONS: I don't believe I had any conversation with a Russian businessmen or Russian nationals. HARRIS: Are you aware of any communication...
SESSIONS: A lot of people were at the convention. It's conceivable that somebody can...
HARRIS: Sir, I have just a few...
SESSIONS: Will you let me qualify it?
SESSIONS: If I don't qualify it, you'll accuse me of lying; so I need to be correct as best I can.
HARRIS: I do want you want to be honest.
SESSIONS: And I'm not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.
HARRIS: Are you aware of any communications with other Trump campaign officials and associates that they had with Russian officials or any Russian nationals?
SESSIONS: I don't recall that.
HARRIS: And are you aware...
SESSIONS: At this moment.
HARRIS: Are you aware of any communications with any Trump officials, or did you have any communications with any officials about Russia or Russian interests in the United States before January 20th?
SESSIONS: No. I may have had some conversations -- and I think I did -- with the general strategic concept of the possibility of whether or not Russia and the United States could get on a more harmonious relationship and move off the hostility. The Soviet Union did, in fact, collapse. It's really a tragic...
HARRIS: Thank you.
SESSIONS: ...strategic event that we are not able to get along better than we are today.
HARRIS: Before -- before being sworn in as attorney general, how did you typically communicate with then candidate or President-elect Trump?
SESSIONS: Would you repeat that?
HARRIS: Before you were sworn in as attorney general, how did you typically communicate with then candidate or President-elect Trump?
SESSIONS: I did not submit memoranda.
HARRIS: Did you communicate in writing?
SESSIONS: I did not make formal presentations.
HARRIS: Did you ever communicate with him in writing?
SESSIONS: I don't believe so.
HARRIS: And you referred to a long-standing DOJ policy. Can you tell us what policy it is you're talking about?
SESSIONS: Well, I think most cabinet people, as the witnesses you had before you earlier, those individuals declined to comment because we're all about conversations with the president...
HARRIS: Sir, I'm just asking you about the DOJ policy you referred...
SESSIONS: ... because that's longstanding policy that goes beyond just the attorney general.
HARRIS: Is that policy in writing somewhere?
SESSIONS: I -- I think so.
HARRIS: So did you not consult it before you came before this committee, knowing we would ask you questions about it?
SESSIONS: Well we -- we talked about it. The policy is based...
HARRIS: Did you ask that it would be shown to you?
SESSIONS: The policy is based on the principle that the president...
HARRIS: Sir, I'm not asking about the principle. I am asking...
SESSIONS: Well, I'm unable to answer the question.
(CROSSTALK) HARRIS: ...asking these questions and you would rely on that policy. Did you not ask your staff to show you the policy that would be the basis for your refusing to answer the majority of questions that been asked of you?
(UNKNOWN): Mr. Chairman, the witness should be allowed to answer the question.
BURR: Senators will allow the chair to control the hearing.
Senator Harris, let him answer.
HARRIS: Please do. Thank you. SESSIONS: We talked about it, and we talked about the real principle that's at stake. It's one that I have some appreciation for, as having spent 15 years in the Department of Justice, 12 as United States attorney, and that principle is that the Constitution provides the head of the executive branch certain privileges, and that members -- one of them is confidentiality of communications. And it is improper for agents of any of the department of -- of -- any departments in the executive branch to waive that privilege without a clear approval of the president.
HARRIS: Mr. Chairman, I have asked...
SESSIONS: And that's the situation we're in.
HARRIS: Mr. Sessions, yes or no? Did you ask...
SESSIONS: So the answer is yes, I consulted.
BURR: The senator's time has expired.
HARRIS: Apparently not.
BURR: Senator Cornyn.
CORNYN: Attorney General Sessions, former Director Comey in his letter to FBI employees when he was terminated started this way. He said, "I've long believe a president can fire an FBI director for any reason or no reason at all." Do you agree with that?
SESSIONS: Yes, and I think that was good for him to say, because I believe we're going to have a new and excellent FBI director, a person who is a smart, disciplined with integrity and proven judgment that would be good for the Bureau, and I think that statement probably was a valuable thing for Director Comey to say, and I appreciate that he did.
CORNYN: Just to reiterate. The timeline of your recusal and the Rosenstein memo and your letter to the president recommending the termination of Director Comey. You recused from the Russian investigation on March 2nd, correct?
SESSIONS: The formal recusal took place on that day. CORNYN: The letter that you wrote, forwarding the Rosenstein memo to
the president as a basis for Director Comey's termination was dated May 9th, a couple months after you recused from the Russian investigation, correct?
SESSIONS: I believe that's correct.
CORNYN: So isn't it true that the Russian investigation did not factor into the -- your recommendation to fire Director Comey?
SESSIONS: That is correct.
CORNYN: The memorandum written by the deputy attorney general, your letter to the president forwarding that recommendation, didn't mention Russia at all. Is that your recollection?
SESSIONS: That is correct.
CORNYN: So let's review what the basis was of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's recommendation. He wrote in his memo on May 9th -- he said, "I cannot defend the director's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's e-mails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken." And of course he's talking about Director Comey.
He went on to say, "The director" -- that was Director Comey at the time -- "was wrong to usurp the attorney general's authority on July 5th, 2016." You'll recall that was the date of the press conference he held. He went on to say, that "The FBI director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department."
Finally, he said, "Compounding the error, the director ignored another long-standing principle, that we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation."
In fact, there is written policy from the Department of Justice, is there not, entitled "election-year sensitivities." Are you familiar with the -- with the prohibition of the Justice Department making announcements or taking other actions that might interfere with the normal election?
SESSIONS: I am generally familiar with that. On some of those hold them (ph) memoranda after my time in the department.
CORNYN: Let me -- let me...
SESSIONS: There's always been rules about it though.
CORNYN: Well, let me read -- just an excerpt from a memo from the attorney general. March 9th, 2012, entitled "election-year sensitivities." It says, "Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party. Such a purpose is inconsistent with the department's mission and with the principles of federal prosecution."
Do you agree with that?
SESSIONS: Essentially, yes.
CORNYN: So what -- essentially the deputy attorney general said, is that former Director Comey violated Department of Justice directives when he held a press conference on July 5th, 2016. He announced that Secretary Clinton was extremely careless with classified e-mail and went on to release other derogatory information including his conclusion that she was extremely careless.
But yet went on to say that no reasonable prosecutor would prosecute her. That is not the role of the FBI director, is it? That is a job for the prosecutors at the Department of Justice. That's what was meant by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein when he said that Director Comey usurped the role of the Department of Justice prosecutors. Is that right?
SESSIONS: That is correct. And former Attorney General Bill Barr wrote an op-ed recently in which he said he had assumed that Attorney General Lynch had urged Mr. Comey to make this announcement, so she wouldn't have to do it. But in fact it appears he did it without her approval totally, and that is a pretty stunning thing -- not -- it is a stunning thing. And it violates fundamental powers.
And then when he reaffirmed that the rightness he believed of his decision on May 3rd, I think it was, that was additional confirmation that the director's thinking was not clear.
BURR: Senator Reed.
REED: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
First, a point, attorney general. Senator Heinrich and others raised the issue of longstanding rules. If -- if there are written rules to this effect, would you provide them to the committee please?
SESSIONS: I will.
REED: Thank you very much.
Now Senator Cornyn has made the point that the whole substance of your recommendation to the president to dismiss Director Comey was his unprofessional conduct with respect to the Clinton administration. Is that correct?
SESSIONS: I supported everything that the deputy attorney general put in his memoranda as good and important factors to use in determining whether or not he had conducted himself in a way that justified continuing in office. I think it pretty well speaks for itself. And I believe most of it did deal with that. The discussion about his performance was a bipartisan discussion. It began during the election time. Democrats were very unhappy about the way he conducted himself. And in retrospect, in looking at it, I think it was more egregious than I may have even understood at the time. (CROSSTALK)
REED: General -- General, if I may. I don't want to cut you off.
SESSIONS: OK. I'll let you go. I'm sorry.
REED: Excuse me, sir, but on July 7th, when Mr. Comey made his first announcement about the case, you were on Fox News and you said first of all, Director Comey is a skilled former prosecutor, and then you concluded by saying essentially that it's not his problem, it's Hillary Clinton's problem.
Then in November, on November 6th, after Mr. Comey again made news in late October by reopening, if you will, the investigation, you said again on Fox News, "You know, FBI Director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence. He had no choice but to report it to the American Congress, where he had under oath testified. The investigation was over. He had to correct that and say this investigation is ongoing now; I'm sure it's significant or else he wouldn't have announced that."
So, in July and November, Director Comey was doing exactly the right thing. You had no criticism of him. You felt that in fact he was a skilled professional prosecutor. You felt that his last statement in October was fully justified. So how can you go from those statements to agreeing with Mr. Rosenstein and then asking the president, or recommending he be fired?
SESSIONS: I think, in retrospect, as all of us begin to look at that clearly and talk about it, as perspectives of the Department of Justice, once the director had first got involved and embroiled in a public discussion of this investigation, which would have been better never to have been discussed publicly, and said he -- it was over. Then when he found new evidence that came up, I think he probably was required to tell Congress that it wasn't over, that new evidence had been developed.
It probably would have been better and would have been consistent with the rules of the Department of Justice to never have talked about the investigation to begin with. Once you get down that road, that's the kind of thing that you get into. That went against classical prosecuting policies that I learned and was taught when I was a United States attorney and assistant United States attorney.
REED: If I may ask another question. Your whole premise in recommending to the president was the actions in October involving Secretary of State Clinton, the whole Clinton controversy. Did you feel misled when the president announced that his real reason for dismissing Mr. Comey was the Russia investigation? SESSIONS: I don't have -- I'm not able to characterize...
SESSIONS: ... so I wouldn't try to comment on that.
REED: So you had no inkling that there was anything to do with Russia until the president of the United States basically declared not only on TV, but in the Oval Office to the Russian foreign minister saying the pressure is off now, I got rid of that nut-job. That came to you as a complete surprise?
SESSIONS: Well, all I can say is, Senator Reed, that our recommendation was put in writing. And I believe it was correct. And I believe the president valued it, but how he made his decision is -- was his -- his process.
REED: And you had no inkling that he was considering the Russian investigation?
SESSIONS: Well, I'm not going to try to guess what I...
REED: No, that's fair. I just -- there is -- there is a scenario in which this whole recapitulation of Clinton was a story, basically, a cover story that the president sort of tried to put out, and that he quickly abandoned. And his real reason was the Russian investigation, which if it had been the case, I would suspect you in principle would have recused yourself from any involvement.
BURR: Senator McCain?
MCCAIN: Over the last few weeks, the administration has characterized your previously undisclosed meetings with Russian Ambassador Kislyak as meeting you took in your official capacity as U.S. senator and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As chairman of that committee, let me ask you a few questions about that.
At these meetings, did you raise concerns about Russian invasion of Ukraine or annexation of Crimea?
SESSIONS: I did, Senator McCain. And I would like to follow up a little bit on that. That's one of the meetings that I -- that's one of the issues that I recall explicitly. The day before my meeting with the Russian ambassador, I had met with the Ukrainian ambassador, and I heard his concerns about Russia.
And so I raised those with Mr. Kislyak, and he gave, as you can imagine, not one inch. Everything they did -- the Russians had done according to him was correct. And I remember pushing back on it, and it was a bit testy on that subject. MCCAIN: Knowing you on the committee, I can't imagine that.
Did you raise concerns about Russia's support for President Bashar Assad and his campaign of indiscriminate violence against his own citizens, including his use of chemical weapons?
SESSIONS: I don't recall whether that was discussed or not.
MCCAIN: Did you raise concerns about Russia's interference in our electoral process or its interference in electoral processes of our allies?
SESSIONS: I don't recall that being discussed.
MCCAIN: At those meetings, if you spoke with Ambassador Kislyak in your capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee, you presumably talked with him about Russia-related security issues that you have demonstrated as important to you as a member of the committee?
SESSIONS: Did I discuss security issues?
MCCAIN: I don't -- I don't recall you as being particularly vocal on such issues.
SESSIONS: Repeat that, Senator McCain. I'm sorry.
MCCAIN: Did -- the whole Russia-related security issues that you demonstrated you as important to you as a member of the committee -- did you raise those with him?
SESSIONS: You mean, such issues as nuclear issues or...
MCCAIN: Yes. In other words, Russia-related security issues, in your capacity as the chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, what Russia-related security issues did you hold hearings on and other demonstrate a keen interest in?
SESSIONS: We may have discussed that. I just don't have a real recall of the meeting. I may -- I was not making a report about it to anyone. I just was basically willing to meet and see what he discussed.
MCCAIN: And his response was?
SESSIONS: I don't recall.
MCCAIN: During the 2016 campaign season, did you have any contacts with any representative, including any American lobbyist or agent of any Russian company within or outside your capacity as a member of Congress or a member of the Armed Services Committee?
SESSIONS: I don't believe so. MCCAIN: Politico recently reported that in the middle of the 2016 elections, the FBI found that Russian diplomats whose travel the State Department was supposed to track, had gone missing. Some turned up wandering around the desert or driving around Kansas. Reportedly, intelligence sources conclude that after about a year of inattention, these movements indicate, one, that U.S. -- Moscow's espionage ground game has grown stronger and more brazen, and that quietly the Kremlin has been trying to map the United States telecommunications infrastructure.
What do you know about this development? And how the Justice Department and other relevant U.S. government agencies are responding to it?
SESSIONS: We need to do more, Senator McCain. I am worried about it. We also see that from other nations with these kind of technological skills like China and some of the other nations that are penetrating our business interests, our national security interests. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I did support and advocate and I think you supported legislation that would -- and it's ongoing now -- that requires the Defense Department to identify weaknesses in our system and how we can fix them.
But I would say to you, Senator McCain, that in my short tenure here in the Department of Justice, I've been more concerned about
computer hacking and those issues than I was at the -- in the Senate.