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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Live Coverage of the Senate Confirmation Hearing for Sen. Jeff Sessions. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired January 10, 2017 - 11:30   ET

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


SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: I do, Senator. Just -- I don't see how we could see it otherwise.

[11:30:03]

And it's a responsibility of the military to protect the United States from people who attack us.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Do you believe the treats to the homeland are growing or lessening?

SESSIONS: I believe they are growing and we're seeing that now in Europe and we're also seeing it right here in America.

GRAHAM: Do you support the continuation of Gitmo as a confinement facility for foreign terrorists?

SESSIONS: Senator Graham, I think it's designed for that purpose, it fits that purpose marvelously well, it's a safe place to keep prisoners, we've invested a lot of money in that and I believe it could be -- it should be utilized in that fashion and have opposed the closing of it. But as attorney general...

PROTESTER: No! In the name of humanity (ph)...

GRAHAM: I just wanted to see if they were still listening.

PROTESTER: (OFF-MIKE)

GRAHAM: I think they're on the fence about Gitmo, but I'm not sure.

(LAUGHTER)

Let me tell you, I support this administration's effort to make sure we prosecute terrorism as a military action, not a law enforcement action. They're not trying to steal our cars or rob your bank account, they're trying to destroy our way of life and I hope you'll go after them without apology, apply the law, and the law is the law of war, not domestic criminal law. You'll have a friend in Senator Graham if you intend to do that.

Cyber attacks, do you think the Russians were behind hacking into our election?

SESSIONS: I have done no research into that. I know just what the media says about it.

GRAHAM: Do you think you could get briefed any time soon?

SESSIONS: Well, I'll need to.

GRAHAM: I think you do too. You like the FBI?

SESSIONS: Do I like them?

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM: Yeah.

SESSIONS: Some of my best friends are FBI...

GRAHAM: Do you -- do you generally trust them?

SESSIONS: Yes.

GRAHAM: Are you aware of the fact that the FBI has concluded that it was the Russian intelligence services who hacked into the DNC and Podesta's e-mails?

SESSIONS: I do understand that.

GRAHAM: From your point of...

SESSIONS: At least that's what's been reported and I've not been briefed by them...

GRAHAM: Right.

SESSIONS: ... on the subject.

GRAHAM: From your point of view, there's no reason for us to be suspicious of them?

SESSIONS: Of their decision?

GRAHAM: Yeah.

SESSIONS: I'm sure it was honorably reached.

GRAHAM: How do you feel about a foreign entity trying to interfere in our election? I'm not saying they changed the outcome but it's pretty clear to me they did? How do you feel about it, what should we do?

SESSIONS: Senator Graham, I think it's a significant event. We have penetration apparently throughout our government by foreign entities. We know the Chinese revealed millions of background information on millions of people in the United States and these, I suppose, ultimately are part of international, big-power politics.

But it -- when a nation uses their improperly gained or intelligence- wise gained information to take policy positions that impact another nation's Democracy or their approach to any issue, then that raises real serious matters.

It's -- really, I suppose, goes in many ways to the State Department, our Defense Department, in how we as a nation have to react to that which would include developing some protocols where when people breach our systems that a price is paid even if we can't prove the exact person who did it.

GRAHAM: I agree, I've got 20 seconds left. I've known you for, I guess, 15 years now and we've had a lot of contests on the floor and sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't.

I'm from South Carolina so I know what it's like sometimes to be accused of being a conservative from the South, that means something other than you're a conservative from the South. In your case, people have fairly promptly tried to label you as a racist or a bigot or whatever you want to say.

How does that make you feel? And this is your chance to say something to those people.

[11:35:00]

SESSIONS: Well, that does not feel good.

PROTESTER: (OFF-MIKE)

GRAHAM: If nothing else, I'm clearing the room for you.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM: And I would suggest that the freedom of speech also has some courtesy to listen.

So what's your answer?

SESSIONS: Senator Graham, I appreciate the question.

You have a Southern name, you come from South Alabama; that sounds worse to some people, South Alabama. And when I came up as a United States attorney, I had no real support group. I didn't prepare myself well in 1986 and there was an organized effort to caricature me as something that wasn't true. It was very painful. 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. It wasn't accurate then and it's not accurate now.

And I just wanted you to know that as a Southerner who actually saw discrimination and have no doubt it existed in a systematic and powerful and negative way to the people -- great millions of people in the South particularly of our country, I know that was wrong. I know we need to do better. We can never go back. I am totally committed to maintain the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen and I will assure you that that's how I will approach it. SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Senator Durbin.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Senator Sessions, let me first say it's -- I'm glad that you brought your family with you today. It's a beautiful family with your wife and your son and daughters and those four beautiful little granddaughters. You kept them as quiet as you could for as long as you could, so thank you so much for being here today. I'm sure it was great moral support and part of your effort here today.

When you came by my office last week, I talked to you about a man named Alton Mills, and with permission of the chair, I'd like to -- he's my guest today -- ask Mr. Mills if he'd please stand up. Alton, thank you for being here today. I'd like to tell you story so you can understand my question a little better. When Alton Mills was 22-years- old, unemployed, he made a bad decision; he started selling crack- cocaine on the streets of Chicago.

He was arrested twice for possession of small amounts of crack- cocaine. The third time that he was arrested, the kingpins who had employed him turned on him, and as a consequence, he ended up being prosecuted under the three strikes and you're out law. At the age of 22 -- pardon me -- the age of 24, he was sentenced to life without parole.

He had never been in prison before, and as I mentioned, there were no allegations made against him other than possession and sale. No violence, no guns, nothing of that nature.

Alton Mills ended up, despite the sentencing judge's admonition that he believed this was fundamentally unfair and his hands were tied, Alton Mills ended up spending 22 years in federal prison until December 2015 when President Obama commuted his sentence. He was finally able to go home to his family.

Senator Sessions, seven years ago, you and I co-sponsored a bill known as The Fair Sentencing Act, which Senator Collins referenced earlier, and that reduced the brutal sentencing disparity for crack-cocaine crimes over powder cocaine. It was originally 100 to 1. We agreed, in the Senate gym I might add, to bring that down to 18 to 1.

Inmates, overwhelmingly African-American, were spared thousands of prison years because of our joint effort to end this injustice, yet when I asked you to join me in appealing to the sentence commission -- sentencing commission to follow our law and when I asked you to join Senator Grassley and me in permitting the almost 5,000 still serving under this unfair 100 to one standard to petition individually for leniency, you refused.

And you said of President Obama's pardoning of people like Alton Mills. and I quote, "President Obama continues to abuse executive power in an unprecedented reckless manner to systemically release high-level drug traffickers and firearms felons. So-called low-level non-violent offenders simply do not exist in the federal system," you said. [11:40:10]

DURBIN: Senator Sessions, Alton Mills and many more just like him do exist. So if you refuse to even acknowledge the fundamental injustice of many of our sentencing laws, why should you be entrusted with the most important criminal prosecution office in America?

SESSIONS: Senator Durbin, I think that's rather unfair, based on our relationship and how we work together.

In 2001, I introduced legislation very similar to the bill that you and I successfully made law. It would have reduced it to 20 to 1, our bill went to 18 to 1. A little better, but fundamentally that I was criticized by the Bush Department of Justice. My legislation was opposed by them. It was seven years later or so or really longer before our bill ever passed.

So I stepped out against my own Republican administration and said openly on the floor of the Senate that I believe that these crack cocaine laws were too harsh, with -- and particularly it was disadvantageous to the African-American community where most of the punishments were falling and it was not fair and we ought to fix it.

So, I just want to say, I took a strong stand on that and I did not agree. You and I did not agree on the retroactivity because a lot of these were plea bargain cases and may not have been totally driven by the mandatory minimums. But, so -- I thought the court had basically now agreed that it is retroactive. I don't know what group is not being covered by it, but a large group was covered by a court decision. We sort of left it open, as I remember.

DURBIN: We did.

SESSIONS: You and I discussed...

DURBIN: Let me see, in the -- on the issue of fairness, I will acknowledge you stepped out on this issue and you and I both recognize the brutal injustice of 100 to 1 and we agreed on 18 to 1. That's how laws are made.

And now, we have 5,000 prisoners sitting in federal prison still there under this brutal unjust 100 to 1, and all I've asked and all Senator Grassley's asked, allow them as individuals to petition to the judge, to the prosecutor, to the Department of Justice so that their sentences can be considered. That's something you've opposed.

So in fairness, tell me why you still oppose that.

SESSIONS: Well, first, I would tell you with absolute certainty that if -- it is a decision of this body. It's not the attorney general's decision about when and where a mandatory minimum is imposed and whether it can be retroactively be altered. So I will follow any law that you pass, number one.

Number two, I understood the sincere belief you had on that issue and it was a difficult call and that's why we really never worked it out. So I understand what you're saying, but I did believe that you are upsetting finality in the justice system, that you are suggesting that these kind of factors were not considered when the plea bargaining went down. So it's an honorable debate to have and I respect your position on it.

DURBIN: Senator, you have been outspoken on another issue and I would like to address it, if I could. I have invited here today Sergeant Oscar Vazquez, if he would be kind enough to stand up and be recognized. Sergeant, thank you for being here.

I'll tell you his incredible story in the short form. Brought to the United States as a child, in high school, he and three other DREAMers started a robotics club and won a college-level robotics competition -- they made a movie out of his story. He graduated from Arizona State University with an engineering degree. The Obama administration granted him a waiver and allowed him to become a citizen and enlist in the United States Army where he served in combat in Afghanistan.

Senator Sessions, since joining the Senate in 1997, you've voted against every immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for the undocumented. You described the DREAM Act, which I introduced 15 years ago to spare children who are undocumented through no fault of their own, as quote, "a reckless proposal for mass amnesty."

You opposed the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate four years ago. You've objected to immigrants volunteering to serve in our armed forces, saying, quote, "In terms of who's going most likely to be a spy, somebody from Coleman, Alabama or somebody from Kenya."

[11:45:00]

DURBIN: When I asked what you would do to address the almost 800,000 DREAMers, like Oscar Vasquez, who would be subject to deportation if President Obama's executive order was repealed,

[11:45:05]

you said, quote, "I believe in following the law. There is too much focus on people who are here illegally and not enough on the law."

Senator Sessions, there's not a spot of evidence in your public career to suggest that as attorney general, you would use the authority of that office to resolve the challenges of our broken immigration system in a fair and humane manner. Tell me I'm wrong.

SESSIONS: Well, you are wrong, Senator Durbin. I'm going to follow the laws passed by Congress.

As a man of policy, we disagreed on some of those issues. I do believe that if you continually go through a cycle of amnesty, that you undermine the respect for the law and encourage more illegal immigration into America.

I believe the American people spoke clearly in this election. I believe they agreed with my basic view, and I think it's a good view, a decent view, a solid legal view for the United States of America that we create a lawful system of immigration that allows people to apply to this country, and if they're accepted they get it, if they're not accepted they don't get in. And I believe that's right and just and the American people are right to ask for it. We have not delivered that for them.

DURBIN: Senator Graham asked this question and I listened to your answer. When he asked you what would happen to those 800,000 currently protected by President Obama's executive order, known as DACA, who cannot be deported for two years -- it's renewable -- and can work for two years, and you said, "Let Congress pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill."

You opposed the only bipartisan effort that we've had on the Senate floor in modern memory. And what's going to happen to those 800,000 if you revoke that order and they are subject to deportation tomorrow? What is going to happen to them? What is the humane legal answer to that?

SESSIONS: Well, the first thing I would say is that my response to Senator Graham dealt with whose responsibility this is. I had a responsibility as a member of this body to express my view and vote as I believed was correct on dealing with issues of immigration. That's not the attorney general's role, the attorney general's role is to enforce the law.

And as you know, Senator Durbin, we're not able financially or any other way to seek out and remove everybody that's in the country illegally.

President Trump (sic) has indicated that criminal aliens, like President Obama indicated, certainly are the top group of people, and so I would think that the best thing for us to do, and I would urge colleagues that we understand this, let's fix this system. And then we can work together after this lawlessness has ended and then we can ask the American people and enter into a dialogue about how to compassionately treat people who've been here a long time.

DURBIN: That does not answer the question about 800,000 that would left in the lurch, whose lives would be ruined while you're waiting on Congress for a bill that you opposed.

SESSIONS: Well, I thought it did answer it pretty closely (inaudible) what you ask and I understand your concerns.

GRASSLEY: Senator Cornyn.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Senator Sessions, congratulations to you and your family on this once in a lifetime honor to serve as the head of the Department of Justice.

You know, sitting here listening to the questions and some of the comments that have been made, both by the protesters and others, it strikes me that many people have been surprised to learn more about your record, your outstanding record as a prosecutor, as somebody who treated that responsibility to uphold enforce the law in the Constitution without fear or favor. I think some people here listening today have been somewhat surprised by your record in complete context.

Those of us who have served with you in this Senate, some as many as 20 years, like Senator Shelby and Senator Collins, testified to your character. But I'd like to think that those of us who served with you most closely in the Senate, particularly here on the Judiciary Committee, know more about you than just your record and your character, we know your heart. We know what kind of person you are.

CORNYN: You're a good and decent and honorable man. You've got an outstanding record that you should be proud of, and I know you are and you should be.

[11:50:00]

For example, when somebody says when you unfairly prosecuted some African-Americans for voter fraud in Alabama, it strikes me as incomplete is the most charitable thing I can say, when they leave out the fact that the very compliance in that case were also African- Americans.

In other words, the people you prosecuted were African-Americans, but the people whose voting rights you were trying to vindicate were African-Americans, isn't that correct?

SESSIONS: That is correct.

CORNYN: Does that strike you as a fair characterization of your approach toward enforcing the law that people would leave that important factor out?

SESSIONS: It's not, Senator Cornyn and it's been out there for a long time. If you ask people who casually follow the news, they probably saw it otherwise.

And these were good people who had tried -- asked me to get involved this case in 2002. A majority African-American Grand Jury, with African-American foreman, asked the federal government to investigate the 1982 election.

I declined, I hope that that investigation would've stopped the problem. But two years later, the same thing was happening again. We had African-American incumbent officials pleading with us to take some action. We approached the Department of Justice in Washington.

The vote -- the public integrity voting sanction, they approved an investigation and it developed into a legitimate case involving charges of vote fraud, taking absentee ballots from voters, opening them up and changing their vote and casting them for somebody they did not intend the vote to be cast for.

It was a voting rights case. And I just feel like we tried to conduct ourselves in the right way. I never got in the argument of race or other matters. I just tried to defend myself as best I could.

I would note colleagues, in just in the last few days, the son of Albert (sic) Turner has written a letter and said I was just doing my job and he understood the reason and justification for the prosecution and that that would be a good attorney general. So I was -- that was gratifying to me and that's the real truth to the matter.

CORNYN: Senator Sessions, I know the nature of these confirmation hearings is that people pick out issues that they're concerned about or where there may be some good faith disagreement on policy. And that's what they focus on.

But lemme just ask you maybe it's not a great analogy, but lemme try any way. You have been married to your wife Mary, almost 50 years, right?

SESSIONS: Well, it hadn't gotten to 50 yet, 47...

(CROSSTALK)

CORNYN: OK. Well, that's a good run. Let me just ask you...

SESSIONS: Let it continue, I've been blessed.

CORNYN: Are there occasion where you and your wife disagree?

SESSIONS: No Senator.

(LAUGHTER)

(UNKNOWN): You're under oath.

SESSIONS: Wait a minute, I'm under oath. On occasion we do, yes.

CORNYN: Would you think it would be fair to characterize the nature of your relationship with your wife based upon those handful of disagreements that you've had with her over -- over time?

SESSIONS: That's a good point. Thank you for making it. No I don't.

CORNYN: Well, and to your original point, your wife is always right, correct?

SESSIONS: That is correct.

CORNYN: You are under oath.

(LAUGHTER)

Well, so this is the nature of this -- these confirmation hearings, people are identifying specific issues where there are policy differences. But my point is, that does not characterize your entire record of 20 years in the United States Senate or how you've conducted yourself as a prosecutor, representing the United States government in our Article III courts.

Let me get to a specific issue, a couple in the time I have remaining. I was really, really pleased to hear you say in your opening statement, that many in law enforcement feel that our political leaders have on occasion, abandoned them. You said police ought to be held accountable. But do you believe it is ever, under any circumstances, appropriate for somebody to assault a police officer, for example?

SESSIONS: Adversely, no on defense for that kind of action. And I do believe that we are failing to appreciate police officers who place their lives at risk, as this sergeant was just killed yesterday trying to deal with a violent criminal and vindicate the law and she was killed.

That is the kind of thing that too often happens. We need to be sure that when we criticize law officers, it is narrowly focused on the right basis for criticism and to smear whole departments, places those officers at greater risk.

[11:55:09]

And we are seeing an increase in murder of police officers, it was up 10 percent last year. So I could just say, I could feel -- I could feel in my bones, how it was going to play out in the real world when we had, what I thought often times, was legitimate criticism of a perhaps, wrong doing by an officer. But spilling over to a condemnation of our entire police force and morale has been affected.

And its impacted the crime rates in Baltimore and crime rates in Chicago. I don't think there's any doubt about it. I regret that's happening, I think it can be restored. But we need to understand the requirement that the police work with the community and be respectful of their community, but we as a nation, need to respect our law officers too.

CORNYN: Well, I for one, appreciate your -- your comments because we ought to hold our police and law enforcement officers up in the high regard to which they deserve based on their service to the communities.

And your comments remind me to some extent of Chief David Brown's comments, the Dallas police chief, following the tragic killing of five Dallas police officers recently.

Where he said that police ought to be held accountable, but under no circumstances could any assault against a police officer be justified based on what somebody else did, somewhere at some time. So, I for one, appreciate that very much.

You mentioned Baltimore and Chicago. And we've seen an -- an incredible number of people, frequently in minority communities, who've been killed as results of crimes related to felons who perhaps are in possession of guns that they have no legal right to be in possession of.

Earlier, you talked about prosecuting gun crimes and I'm glad to hear you say that. Project Exile, which originated I think in Richmond, Virginia which targeted felons and other people who cannot legally own or possess firearms, was enormously effective. And when I look at the record of the last five and 10 years as the Justice Department, prosecution of those kinds of crimes down 15.5 percent, in the last five years. Down 34.8 percent in the last 10 years.

Can you assure us that you will make prosecuting those people who cannot legally posses or use firearms a priority again in the Department of Justice? And help break back of this crime wave that's affecting so many people in our local communities, like Chicago or Baltimore and particularly minority communities?

SESSIONS: I can, Senator Cornyn. I'm familiar with how that plays out in the real world. My best judgment colleagues, is that properly enforced, the federal gun laws can reduce crime and violence in our cities and communities.

It was highlighted in Richmond in Project Exile. But I have to tell you, I've always believed that. When I was the United States attorney in the '80s and into the early '90s, we had a -- we produced a news letter that went out to all local law enforcement called Project Triggerlock. It went to federal law enforcement, too.

And it highlighted the progress that was being made by prosecuting criminals who use guns to carry out their crimes. Criminals are most likely the kind of person that will shoot somebody when they go about their business. And if those people are not carrying guns because they believe they might go federal court, be sent to a federal jail for five years, perhaps they'll stop carrying those guns during that drug dealing and their other activities that are criminal.

Fewer people get killed. Fewer people get killed. So I truly believe, that we need to step that up. It's a compassionate thing. If one of these individuals carrying a gun shoots somebody, not only is there a victim, they end up with hammering senates in jail for interminable periods. The culture, the communities are safer with fewer guns in the hands of criminals.

CORNYN: Thank you.

GRASSLEY: Before we go to Senator Whitehouse, people have asked -- members have asked me about our break. And if it's OK with Senator Sessions, it would work out about 1:00, if we have three on this side and three on this side, for the one hour because it's noon right now. Is that OK with you, Senator Sessions?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I'm at your disposal.

GRASSLEY: And so this will give my colleagues an opportunity that want to go to the respective political party caucuses to go and we would take a recess of about 30 to 40 minutes.

[12:00:04]

SESSIONS: That's very fair.

GRASSLEY: OK. Thank you, Senator. So then, now Senator Whitehouse?

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Senator Sessions, hello.