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INSIDE POLITICS

Jeff Sessions Hearing; Sessions on Conversations with Trump. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 12:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:00:34] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King.

A very busy day here in Washington, including the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, taking questions, some of them very tough, before -- from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A committee on which he once served.

Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asking now. Let's go live to Capitol Hill.

[12:00:50] SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA: Computer that is allegedly going to be housed in the White House. And I just wondered if you have had communication with members of the commission about their effort and what kind of coordination is going on.

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't believe I've ever had a single conversation with any member or staff of the commission directly.

KLOBUCHAR: And have people that worked for you been coordinating with them?

SESSIONS: I don't know that coordinating is the correct -- what we've asked for -- we've been asked for assistance on several issues. I think it's quite appropriate for the president to have a commission to review possible irregularities in elections. But you can be sure that Department of Justice will fairly and objectively enforce the law.

KLOBUCHAR: That -- I believe that to be true. I'm just concerned that this commission is off doing the work, and we just found out that -- this week, from the Washington Post, that one of the employees have been charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.

And so I just ask that you ask the vice president and the vice chair, Kris Kobach, to answer our questions about that; if this staffer that's been charged with this horrendous crime had access to voter data, including data for minors, and what's the hiring process for this commission.

SESSIONS: Well, we would fulfill our responsibility.

KLOBUCHAR: I just continue to be very concerned about... SESSIONS: I think the direction should go to the commission. (CROSSTALK)

KLOBUCHAR: ... OK, they will.

SESSIONS: Not DOJ.

KLOBUCHAR: Thank you. I just thought maybe you could pass it on, so.

SESSIONS: Thank you.

KLOBUCHAR: Along the lines of elections, Senator Warner and I have been working on a bill that we think is really important, and this is more just to bring it to your attention.

And I know you've recused yourself from the Russia investigation. I respect that decision; I truly do. And this is just beyond that, because it's about the ads that were bought during the 2016 campaign.

As we know, 100,000 were bought on Facebook with rubles. But, in (ph) all totaled, the estimates are that $1.4 billion was spent on political ads in 2016. And, unlike ads that are broadcast on TV or radio or printed in the newspaper, there's no requirement on online platforms that they -- any point, register those ads, or have a way of indicating if they're paid for and how much money is spent on them.

And it is a -- it's a international security issue, because of what we've seen now with Russia. But it is also completely absurd that we have some kinds of ads that you can register and check out and are on public file, and then these others are completely dark and hidden from view.

And, given what is going on, do you think that the election laws should be updated, as -- overseeing the department that has jurisdiction over the people's voting rights, to better protect our democracy?

SESSIONS: Well, in this new, fast-paced world, with technology, perhaps there are needs to update it. And I would be pleased to work with you.

KLOBUCHAR: I appreciate that, Attorney General. Thank you very much.

SESSIONS: Thank you.

GRASSLEY: Senator Cruz.

CRUZ: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General Sessions, welcome back.

SESSIONS: Thank you.

CRUZ: We miss you on this side of the dais. We've spent a lot of time in this hearing room together. And thank you for your good and honorable service as attorney general and the many positive things that have happened at the Department of Justice in the last nine months. I want to talk with you about an issue that is near and dear to your heart, which is immigration. And I want to cover a couple of areas. Let's start with DACA. I want to commend you; I want to commend the president. We're doing the right thing, terminating President Obama's illegal executive amnesty program.

It was contrary to federal law. It was contrary to the president's responsibility under Article II of the Constitution, to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. And it directed federal law enforcement officers to disregard binding federal law. So I commend you for announcing the suspension of that program.

As you know, the president has indicated that it is now for Congress to legislate a program addressed to those DACA recipients. And there are, right now, considerable ongoing debates and discussions within Congress about how -- if and whether to do so, and if so, how.

My first question is, does the Department of Justice have a position on whether Congress should legislate a new amnesty program for DACA recipients?

SESSIONS: The department has not taken a position formally on that. The president has certainly left the door wide open and indicated that he would favor something like that. And it certainly would be a lawful and proper thing for Congress to do.

CRUZ: So my understanding is, as of September of 2017, there are 689,800 individuals currently with a DACA registration. There have been estimates done that there are nearly 2 million potentially eligible DACA recipients in the country.

In your personal judgment, should those nearly 2 million people here illegally in this country be eligible for United States citizenship?

SESSIONS: My best judgment that I've expressed over the years -- that someone who enters a country unlawfully, if they're given some sort of legal status -- a normal legal status -- should not get everything that would flow to people who properly wait their time and enter lawfully. So I'm not taking a position that would support citizenship for those who have entered illegally.

CRUZ: Well, certainly, as a senator on the side of the dais, I think you have, multiple times, spoken with great passion on the issue. As attorney general, do you have any view on whether those here illegally should be eligible for U.S. citizenship?

SESSIONS: Well, I haven't changed my view at this point.

CRUZ: Let me ask you, as attorney general, if those some 2 million people here illegally that are potential DACA recipients were granted green cards and, ultimately, U.S. citizenship, do you have concerns about the next step of chain migration of those individuals then bringing in potentially 3, 4, 5 million relatives as the second step of an amnesty program? SESSIONS: Yes. It needs to be evaluated. And when you use the figure 2 million, it just raises the question that we should think carefully about, like, who would qualify for a DACA program, if one were to be carried out.

And the president has made clear, and I think he's -- he's -- he cares about this -- that he cares about young people who came here at a young age, but he also believes that the nation should have a immigration policy that serves the national interest, and that it should not be -- it should be a more merit-based policy, like Canada. And that's something I have believed in for a number of years.

CRUZ: And you -- let me ask a different question. In your personal judgment, should those here illegally be made eligible for public welfare and for billions in both federal and state and local funds to provide for their various needs?

[12:08:58] SESSIONS: If people are here unlawfully, it would -- it strikes me as the last thing you would want to do is subsidize that unlawfulness. And you would not, should not be normally eligible for benefits. And maybe some, the things we do, no doubt about it. But, still, fundamentally, a person should not be attracted to enter the country unlawfully and then demand lawful benefits.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Let me shift to a different --

[12:09:27] KING: You're listening to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. He's on Capitol Hill taking questions from the Senate Judiciary. That last issue there with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas ono the issue with -- the attorney general may have some disagreement with his boss, the president of the United States, who says he's open to some sort of a bipartisan deal to allowed the so-called dreamers, undocumented, brought into this country at a young age, not of their own doing, to somehow give them status and citizenship. Ted Cruz there trying to get the attorney general on record, voicing some skepticism they should be given status or citizenship.

That among the many topics facing the attorney general. With us here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," Rachael Bade of "Politico," Ryan Lizza from "The New Yorker," and CNN's Nia Malika Henderson.

[12:10:06] A busy day here in Washington, including this questioning from the attorney general.

I want to go back very early on in the hearing. He's being questioned by the ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, about the firing of James Comey, which is now part of the special counsel's investigation. Did the president do that to try to shut down the investigation. Was it an attempt at obstruction of justice? The attorney general, even though he had recused himself from the investigation, somehow did take a role in helping to fire the person in charge of the investigation. Dianne Feinstein wanted to know about communications between the president and the attorney general. She didn't have much luck.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Until such time as the president makes a decision with respect to this privilege, I cannot waive that privilege myself or otherwise compromise his ability to assert it. As a result, during today's hearing and under these circumstances today, I will not be able to discuss the content of my conversations with the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Well, good luck.

NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, and in many ways Jeff Sessions was warned about this at the last session, this idea that you can't come before Congress and not answer the questions. A very pointed exchange at the end of the last hearing that he had.

I mean this is sort of the central -- one of the central questions that Bob Mueller is looking at, whether or not the firing of James Comey resulted -- was essentially an obstruction of justice. We know from the president himself that his kind of assessment of why he fired James Comey had to do with the Russia thing. He said so in an interview shortly after the firing. But you imagine that this is a question that Bob Mueller is going to keep digging on and that Democrats are going to keep wondering and questioning about.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, and this is becoming a pattern with Attorney General Sessions, where he's not actually citing executive privilege --

HENDERSON: Right.

DAVIS: But he's reserving the right or reserving the president's right to do so at some future date. And until then, he can't say anything. So, I mean, what I really think it reflects is that there is a pretty vibrant, internal debate going on at the White House right now about just how much information to turn over in this Mueller probe, just how many documents, who should be able to testify and about what. And they haven't really decided yet how forthcoming they want to be. They're worried -- the White House counsel is worried about setting precedents about the White House and the presidency that are going to be hard to walk back in the future for this president or for other presidents. But they also are obviously worried about looking like they're stonewalling and they haven't really made the tough calls and what Jeff Sessions can say is certainly one of those about what they're going to furnish and what they're going to withhold.

RACHAEL BADE, "POLITICO": There was a really interesting moment in this hearing just following this. Senator Klobuchar asked Sessions about preemptive pardons for staff who might have done something potentially that puts them in legal jeopardy. And he said, I don't know whether or not it's an appropriate, basically side-stepping that question.

I have talked to Republican sources on The Hill who think that if the president were to preemptively pardon one of his staff that's in legal jeopardy, that could potentially be it when it comes to The Hill turning on him and potential impeachment hearings actually moving forward. And I think that was --

RYAN LIZZA, "THE NEW YORKER": Even with Republicans in control.

BADE: Absolutely, with Republicans in control. And I think the fact that he didn't answer that shows that President Trump is actually potentially thinking about this. And if he does it, he could find himself in real trouble.

KING: That would be real trouble on Capitol Hill. And we mentioned the special counsel investigation. We do know in recent days Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff, has been questioned. We know that Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, has been questioned. They both said they testified voluntarily to the special counsel. They answered all his questions. So it's clear the special counsel is zeroing in on these questions about the firing of Comey, about other White House involvement, which would lead you to believe at some point he would want to talk to the attorney general of the United States.

But, Patrick Leahy, the Democratic member of the committee, put the question right to Jeff Sessions. It took a little bit, but we got an interesting answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Have you been interviewed, or been requested to be interviewed, by the special counsel, either in connection with Director Comey's firing, the Russia investigation, or your own contact with Russian officials?

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I'd be pleased to answer that. I'm not sure I should without clearing that with the special counsel. What do you think?

LEAHY: I'm just -- have you been interviewed by them?

SESSIONS: No.

LEAHY: You haven't been interviewed by the special counsel in any way, shape or manner?

SESSIONS: The answer is no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The answer is no. We'll see if that holds up as the investigation continues.

Want to take you back up to the hearing right now. Democratic Senator Al Franken questioning the attorney general with whom he has sparred in the past.

[12:14:48] SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: In the course of this campaign, what will you do? That was a simple, straightforward question. What will you do? The implication was, will you recuse yourself.

But rather than answer that question, you replied, quote, I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I didn't have -- did not have communications with the Russians.

That was on January 10th. On January -- on February 8th, you were confirmed, and on March 1st, the Washington Post published a story that you met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, twice during the campaign -- once in July, on the 18th, and once on September 8th. And it was later reported that you met with the Russian ambassador a third time at the Mayflower Hotel in April of 2016.

Confronted with these reports, you subtly changed your story. Your answer under oath before this committee was that you, quote, "did not have communications with the Russians." But, on the morning that the story broke, you said, quote, "I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign."

On Twitter, you said, quote, "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign." So, confronted with the truth, you started to qualify your answer. Later, in a letter you sent to this committee to clarify your testimony and to disclose two of your three meetings, you wrote, quote, "I do not recall any discussions with the Russian ambassador or any other representative of the Russian government regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasions."

But, this summer, the Washington Post reported that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications between the Russian ambassador and Moscow in which he described two of his conversations with you -- the April meeting at the Mayflower Hotel and the July meeting at the Republican national convention -- citing both former and current U.S. officials.

The intercepts reportedly indicate that you had quote, "substantive," unquote, discussions on policy matters important to Moscow. According to officials familiar with Russian intelligence reports, the ambassador was well known for accurately relaying his interactions with U.S. officials back to the Kremlin.

Attorney General Sessions, in response to this report, the Justice Department declined to comment on the veracity of the intelligence intercepts. But DOJ did assert that you did, quote, "not discuss interference in the election," which is also how you describe your communications to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

So, again, the goalpost has been moved. First, it was "I did not have communications with Russians," which was not true. Then, it was "I never met with any Russians to discuss any political campaign," which may or may not be true.

Now, it's "I did not discuss interference in the campaign," which further narrows your initial blanket denial about meeting with the Russians. Since you have qualified your denial to say that you did not, quote, "discuss issues of the campaign with Russians," what, in your view, constitutes issues of the campaign?

SESSIONS: Well, let me just say this without hesitation: that I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country. FRANKEN: OK. How do you know...

SESSIONS: Now, I want to (ph) say that first. That's been the suggestion that you've raised, and others -- that it was (ph) -- somehow we had conversations that were improper, number one.

FRANKEN: May I suggest that -- may I suggest...

SESSIONS: No, no, no. You had a long time, Senator Franken. I'd like to respond. I think I have a...

FRANKEN: OK. We'll (ph) note that Senator Cruz went two minutes over. So I don't want...

SESSIONS: ... well...

FRANKEN: ... they're going to cut me off. And so I want to ask you some questions.

SESSIONS: I -- no, I don't -- Mr. Chairman, I don't have to sit in here and listen to his...

FRANKEN: You're the one who testified.

SESSIONS: ... charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.

GRASSLEY: ... the time that he's taking right now, and I'll give you that additional time.

FRANKEN: OK, thank you. Go ahead, take whatever time.

SESSIONS: It was not a simple question, Senator Franken.

FRANKEN: I'm sorry?

SESSIONS: It was not a simple question. The lead-in to your question was very, very troubling. And I answered to you in a way that I felt was responsive to what you raised in your question.

Let me read it to you. You said, "CNN has just published a story" -- meaning that day, while we were in the hearing, that I -- none of us had heard about...

FRANKEN: Keep reading.

SESSIONS: ... "and I'm telling you this new -- about this news story that's just been published. I'm not expecting you to know whether or not it's true, but CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community" -- that's of the United States of America -- "provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that, quote, 'Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.'"

You went on to say, "These documents also allegedly say, quote, 'There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.' 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's any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?"

So, taken aback by this dramatic statement that I'd never heard before and knew nothing about, I responded this way: "Senator Franken, I'm not aware of those activities. I have been a -- called a surrogate a time or two in this campaign. And I did not have -- I didn't have -- did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it."

I don't think that can fairly be interpreted as saying I never had conversation with any Russians. It was referring directly to the suggestion that there was a continuing exchange of information between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, which did not happen, at least not to my knowledge, and not with me. And that's why I responded the way I do.

And I'm disappointed. Yes, you can say what you want to about the accuracy of it. But I think it was a good-faith response to a dramatic event in -- at the time. And I don't think it's fair for you to suggest otherwise.

GRASSLEY: Is it OK if I give you an additional three minutes, and then finish?

FRANKEN: He took more than three minutes.

GRASSLEY: No, he didn't?

FRANKEN: Yeah.

GRASSLEY: He took about 2 1/2.

FRANKEN: No...

GRASSLEY: Well go -- how much do you want?

FRANKEN: ... that is not true...

GRASSLEY: I -- I don't want to take a lot of time bargaining with you.

SESSIONS: Well, I didn't take as much time as Senator Franken took.

GRASSLEY: Go -- hey, let's -- let me just deal with Senator Franken.

Three more minutes, please.

FRANKEN: OK. First of all, you said, "I didn't have -- did not have communications with the Russians." This was about ongoing communications. You had three communications with Kislyak. And now you can't recall -- answering Senator Leahy, you can't recall whether you discussed -- what you discussed with Kislyak.

SESSIONS: What I would say to you is...

FRANKEN: ... and so -- please.

SESSIONS: OK, go ahead. You go -- make a lot of allegations, Senator. It's hard for me to respond to them in the time I've got.

FRANKEN: I'm not -- I am -- can I have a little bit more time?

(LAUGHTER)

OK.

GRASSLEY: (OFF-MIKE)

FRANKEN: You've said today, in response to Senator Leahy, that you don't recall whether you talked about the campaign. You don't recall whether you talked about issues and Trump's views on issues with Russia.

Those are very, very relevant to the campaign, whether a surrogate from the campaign is talking with the Russian ambassador about the candidate's views on Russian policy, especially at the Republican National Convention at the Mayflower Hotel, the day before Trump is going to give his first -- his maiden speech on foreign policy.

That's very different -- not being able to recall what you discussed with him is very different than saying, "I have not had communications with the Russians." The ambassador for -- from Russia is Russian.

And how your -- or how your responses morphed from "I did not have communications with the Russians," to "I did not discuss substantive -- I did not discuss any -- any -- the political campaign," and then finally going to "I did not discuss interference in the election" -- that, to me, is moving the goalposts every time.

And we're starting off with an extra point (ph), and by the end, we're going to a -- you know, a 75-yard field goal. If it has to be us -- you know, saying "I didn't discuss interfering with the election" is your last -- is your last statement, that's a very different bar than "I can tell you I did not meet with any Russians."

GRASSLEY: (OFF-MIKE) relatively short answer.

SESSIONS: So he gets to do about 10 minutes, improperly framing the subject, and I'm given a short sentence (ph) to respond?

GRASSLEY: No -- proceed, please. But then we're going to call on Senator...

(CROSSTALK) SESSIONS: You're spinning -- first and foremost, Senator Franken, you and I have had a good relationship on this committee. I would tell my colleagues -- I think most of you know, I've committed myself to a high level of public service, to reach the highest standards of ethics and decency in my service, to be honest about things that I say. And so you have now gone through this long talk that I believe is totally unfair to me. It all arose from this question. When you -- when it was charged that these documents allegedly say, quote, "There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates," as if all of them -- "Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government" -- isn't that what you said? You're shaking your head.

(CROSSTALK)

FRANKEN: No, I didn't say all Trump's surrogates.

SESSIONS: It said, "Trump's surrogates." It didn't say "some of." It said his surrogates. And I felt a need to respond. And I responded on the spot. We'd been six hours in the hearing, the end of the day. And I said, I'm not aware of those activities. And I wasn't, and am not. I don't believe they occurred.

And I said, "I have been called a surrogate a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. I'm unable to comment on it." I was talking about -- as a surrogate in the campaign, I didn't have a continuing series -- a continuing exchange of information. So now, everything else -- so now you take that and say, if I ever met with a Russian, I've not been candid with the committee, and I'll reject that.

GRASSLEY: Senator Sasse.

SASSE: General, thanks for being here. There was some drama there. Sorry to have added to the drama and distracted you for a minute. I was paying enough attention there that I dumped a Dr. Pepper on Senator Cruz. So that's what was distracting us on this side of the dais.

I would like to continue talking about the Russians, but in the context of the long-term objectives that Vladimir Putin has to undermine American institutions and the public trust.

Obviously, the 2016 election matters a lot, and there are multiple ongoing investigations about that. I'm trying to talk about something slightly different: the longer-term goal that they have.

Because anybody who reads intelligence -- this isn't through the prism of who you voted for the 2016 election, or what you think happened in the 2016 election, as important as all of that is -- anybody who reads intelligence knows that we face a sophisticated, long-term effort by a foreign adversary to undermine our foreign policy and our ability to lead in the world by trying to undermine confidence in American institutions. There's nobody who's reading intelligence right now that doesn't know the Vladimir Putin has that objective.

[12:29:39] SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: So this shouldn't be a Republican -- this part shouldn't be a Republican versus Democratic issue. Vladimir Putin is an opportunist. He -- which means that any partisan or ideological alignment he has is temporary. He wants to undermine America. And every patriotic American ought to be concerned about that.

You listen to certain news outlets and it sounds like there's a Russian behind everything that's happening in America, and it's laughable. But you listen to other news outlets and it's seemingly the case that Vladimir Putin is somebody that we should trust and he has America's best interests at heart, which is more absurd. So I think we know --