Return to Transcripts main page


Jeff Sessions as Attorney General; Senate Judiciary Confirmation Hearing. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired January 10, 2017 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: By a moderate New England Republican, Susan Collins of Maine.

JACK KINGSTON, (R) FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE, GEORGIA: Well, I just don't think that the case is truly there. I understand the rhetoric. But here's somebody who's been in the Senate for decades. If he was a racist, we would see it. The charges against him when he was up for confirmation last time were made by somebody who was later indicted for bribing jurors, Thomas Figer (ph) of Alabama. Jeff Sessions, as a member of the U.S. Senate, has voted for a 30-year extension on the Voting Rights Act. He has voted to give the Gold Medal to Rosa Parks. He has works for a sentence (ph) in equity in terms of cocaine. John Lewis has a picture with him on the Pettis Bridge in 2015 holding hands in a victorious way. This is not somebody who has this sorted history of racism. If he did have it, if he was, in fact, a racist, we would know this because there's plenty of time for him to show his card. But the case is absolutely not there.

TAPPER: Symone Sanders.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, so this is a side of these rigged cabinet hearings, if you will, and folks are calling it a rigged cabinet because everything from corruption to questions about where some of these folks stand on policy, and that is where Senator Sessions comes in.

Look, I don't doubt that he's probably a really nice man. Everybody in the Senate has said that. But just because you're a sitting United States senator, just because, you know, you have great relationships does not absolve you from a tough -- from a tough hearing and answering tough questions.

I think Senator Sessions has done -- has done some very questionable things when it comes to voting against LGBTQ rights, voting against the Violence of Women Act. He has definitely -- I mean the fact that he couldn't get confirmed 30 years ago as a judge doesn't say that he is racist, but definitely says that there is some questionable -- questionably probably racist things colored (ph) up in there --

KINGSTON: But -- but those are --

SANDERS: And that makes a difference. So, again, I think we have to hear from him today, hear from these folks that are testifying tomorrow, but folks should just not let Senator Sessions skate through here.

KINGSTON: And they won't and they should not. Tough questions are welcome from all sides. But there are philosophical differences which the left should have, but that doesn't make somebody a racist. Here's the guy who has prosecuted the first white man since 1913 in the state of Alabama, the death penalty for killing a black man. He lead to a $7 million --

SANDERS: But Senator Sessions also has fought against voting rights and the next attorney general --

KINGSTON: But he voted for extending the Voting Rights Act.

SANDERS: But he has -- he has one -- he has vote -- he has one vote voting to extend the voting right, and then he has a history of fighting against voting rights.

KINGSTON: And -- and -- Symone, as somebody --

SANDERS: All I'm saying is the next attorney general of the United States of America, voting rights is going to be front and center. The person has to put together a department and -- that protects all people. The attorney general has to be someone that stands on their own feet, not just for the president-elect.

KINGSTON: And so the left -- and the left and people like Condoleezza Rice and J.C. Watts and former Congressman Gary Franks support Jeff Sessions because of his 30 -- his 30 year --

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Guys, all right, hold on a moment. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who's the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, looks like they want to start this hearing.

[09:33:05] SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: The Senate Judiciary Committee convenes for the first time in the 115th Congress. An historic moment in the committee's 200-year history. Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein was named the committee's ranking member. The first time in American history that a woman has served in this capacity, and having been either chairman or ranking member for the past 20 years, I can't think of anybody better.

It is striking that 352 members have served on the committee and only five of those happened to be Democrats, have been women. Three of those five women are proudly serving on this important committee today; Senator Feinstein, Senator Klobuchar, Senator Hirono. So, after my at least 20 years, I -- I welcome Senator Feinstein. We grapple (ph) with some of the most pressing issues facing our country.

We Americans can be proud that she's here. And I applaud you for this.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you. Thank you (inaudible).

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Thank you, Senator Leahy.

Good morning. I welcome everyone to this very important hearing to consider the nomination of our colleague, Senator Sessions, to serve as the 84th attorney general of the United States.


GRASSLEY: First, I want to set out a couple of ground rules. I want to handle this hearing the same way that I handled the hearing for Attorney General Lynch's nomination and it's also the same way that Chairman Leahy handled previous hearings. I want everyone to be able to watch the hearing without obstruction. If people stand up and block the views of those behind them or speak out of turn, it's simply not fair, it's simply not considerate to others, so officers will immediately remove those individuals.

Now, before my opening statement, let me explain how we will proceed. Senators Feinstein and I will give our opening remarks. Then, Senators Shelby and Collins will introduce the nominee. Following Senator Sessions' opening remarks, we'll begin our first round of questions.

Each Senator will have an initial 10 minute rounds for questions. After the first round, we're going to do eight minute rounds of question. I want everyone to know that I'm prepared to stay here as long as members have questions that they'd like to ask. Again, that's the way I handled Attorney General Lynch's nomination. I think that's the most fair way to proceed for both members as well as our distinguished nominee.

I welcome our new members to this committee. I look forward to working with all of the new members as well as the ones that are repeating serving on this committee. I'd also like to recognize and welcome a number of important audience members; Former Attorney General Meese and Mukasey and also our former colleague Senator Kyl, a former member of this committee and I see the attorney general for Ohio's here as well, a former colleague of ours.

Finally, before my opening remarks, I congratulate Senator Feinstein on your appointment to the -- and the decision to take over the ranking membership. We've always had a good working relationship through several things we've done both legislatively and as leaders of the drug caucus and I appreciate very much the opportunity to work with you. Thank you.

With that, I'll now start my opening comments. Our hearing today hardly introduces Senator Sessions to the committee. No. We're here today to review the character and the qualifications of a colleague who has served alongside us in the Senate for 20 years. That includes his time as a ranking member of this committee. We know him well. We know the policy positions he's taken as a legislator. I've been on both sides of debates with this distinguished Senator Sessions.

Having served with him for so long, we pretty well know whether he supports your policy positions or oppose them. He tells us so with his usual thoughtfulness, humility, and more importantly, respect. As a former chairman of this committee has put it, Senator Sessions is quote, unquote, "wonderful to work with." We know him to be as -- as another senior Democrat on this committee described him, quote, unquote, "a man of his word." As a third senior colleague put it, a Democrat as well, he is always a gentleman. He is straightforward and fair. Most of all, the members of this committee know him to be a leader who has served the people of Alabama and all Americans with integrity, with dedication, and with courage. That describes how I know the nominee for the 20 years that I've served with him.

As Former Chairman Leahy observed the last time a new president took office, it's, quote, "important that the Justice Department have a senior leadership in place without delay. We need the Justice Department to be at its best," end of quote.

Perhaps my good friend Senator Schumer said it best when he observed that we should, quote, "move to a vote hopefully sooner rather than later," end of quote. And when we do as he said, we, quote, "won't be voting for or against the president's policies. We'll be voting" -- or in summary, Senator Schumer said "we'll be voting for a colleague with a first-rate legal mind, whose record proves his commitment to just law enforcement and eminently qualified to lead the Department of Justice."


GRASSLEY: I've been encouraged by the initial support many of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle have expressed for Senator Sessions nomination. So I look forward to hearing from Senator Sessions and moving to his appointment without delay.

Senator Sessions' record is a life of public service, and so we know his story. He was raised on a small town of Hybart, Alabama, where his father owned and ran a small country store. He then studied at Huntington College and the University of Alabama before practicing law in Russellville and Mobile.

Senator Sessions has always been an active member of his community. He taught school before attending law school and taught Sunday school at Ashland Place Methodist Church. He served our nation in the Army Reserve, attaining the rank of captain. After his time in private practice, Senator Sessions served as an assistant U.S. attorney -- attorney in the Southern district of Alabama.

He then headed that office after the Senate confirmed him for United --- U.S. Attorney, a post he held for a dozen years. So all told, this Senator, colleague of ours, has served 15 years as a federal prosecutor in the department that he will soon head.

It was during that time that he oversaw the investigation of klansman Francis Hays for the brutal abduction and murder of a black teenager Michael Donald. He made sure that case was brought to state court, where the defendant was eligible for and received the punishment that he justly deserved, the death penalty.

His office then successfully prosecuted that murderer's accomplice in federal court. Based on his prosecutorial record, the people of Alabama elected him their attorney general and then their senator. He has served with us since 1997. And as our former chairman of (inaudible), this committee has relied on him for his prosecutorial experience during the course of his Senate service.

Throughout his public service, both within the department, outside of the department, he has raised his hand and served when called upon. He has done his duty, enforced the law fairly and let the chips fall where they may. Reflecting on this record of service, it's no surprise then, that Senator Sessions was also an Eagle Scout. Other members of this committee know as I do, that the Scout's motto, "be prepared", sets on his desk in his Senate office.

Senator Sessions' entire life of dedicated public service has prepared him for this day. If he's confirmed, and I expect that he will be, Senator Sessions will shed his role as a legislator who writes law and he'll take on the task of enforcing the laws Congress has written.

He has made this transition before when the people of Alabama elected him their Senator based on his record of service as U.S. attorney and Alabama attorney general. As one member of this committee observed about a lawyer's transition into the role of a judge, quote, "there are turning points in a person's life, when they put away things of the past and move into new responsibilities." end of quote.

Serving as our nation's attorney general will mark another such turning point in Senator Sessions' distinguished career. And very member of this committee knows from experience, in his new role, Senator Sessions will be a leader for law and order administered without regard to person. Leadership to that end is exactly what the department now needs.

It should go without saying, that the department is tasked with the responsibility of enforcing our laws -- all of our laws, in a dispassionate and even handed way. We write the laws. The executive enforces them faithfully. This is simple, but very foundational principle.

Unfortunately for the last several years, the department has simply declined to enforce some laws the executive branch found obnoxious. The department's failure to enforce the law has run the gambit of issues from criminal law to our nation's duly enacted immigration laws. It's true that each branch of government has an independent duty to assess the Constitution -- constitutionality of the laws it writes, it administers and it adjudicates.


GRASSLEY: But it's equally true that the executive has a constitutional responsibility to, as we all know, take care that the laws be faithfully executed. I know our colleague, this Senator Sessions, respects the legislative process and the prerogative of Congress to write the law. As he explained during the confirmation hearing that we offered (ph) John Ashcroft's nomination to serve as attorney general. Quote, "the attorney general is a law enforcer. There is a big different between a politician and a senator where we vote on policy and -- and executing that policy," end of quote.

I look forward to hearing from Senator Sessions on how he will transition from voting on policy matters, to enforcing the laws he has labored so long to improve and to sustain. Just as he respects Congress's dually enacted laws, Senator Sessions knows and respects the importance of an independent attorney general at the department's helm.

When he has questioned other candidates for the Office of Attorney General, he has made plain the priorities of an attorney general's independence. He sought assurances on this account during the confirmation hearing for Attorney General Eric Holder, a nominee -- a nominee that happens Senator Sessions and I both supported, despite policy disagreements with Eric Holder.

Senator Sessions asked at that time, quote, "you are not threatening and not guaranteeing you are going to prosecute people until you fairly evaluate all the facts and the evidence and the law they thought they were dealing with at the time," end of quote.

During this committee's hearing on the confirmation of another Attorney General, Senator Sessions reflected on the obligations of the people as he knew them from his service in Alabama, quote, "you speak for the legal interest of the state," end of quote.

As a result, he said quoting again, "there are times when the attorney general represents a state. He has an obligation and a duty regardless of what the parties, to a litigation may say, including when one of those parties is the government to ensure that it is fair for all the people of this state."

This firm grasp of the separation of powers equips this Senator Sessions to provide the department with independent leadership of the highest priority. He knows the department's obligations well, not only because he knows the department, but because he has seen those obligations observed in the breach from his seat beside us, in the Senate.

To this legislator, the department's failure in the just enforcement of laws isn't just a policy disappointment on a particular issue, it's an front to the very separation of powers that defines our role and the voice of the people that warns our votes.

I imagine Senator Sessions may have thoughts on that question as well and I hope to hear those points. On this committee, we don't always agree on the right way to handle the complex policy issues we consider.

And when you have served in the Senate as long as Senator Sessions and I have, you're bound to find at least a few points of disagreement with even the most like-minded colleagues. But Senator Sessions, two decades of service beside me, testified without question, to this he is a man of honor and integrity, dedicated to the faithful and fair enforcement of the law who knows well and deeply respects the Department of Justice and its constitutional role.

I look forward to hearing from him about this vision and plans for the department and now, it is Senator Feinstein's turn for her words.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, very much Mr. Chairman. And I'd like to thank Senator Leahy also for his words.

If I may, I would like to begin by just quickly introducing some Californians in the audience. Congresswoman Maxine Waters from Los Angeles, Congresswoman Barbara Lee from the Bay Area, also Denise Rojas (ph) who is a DREAMer, who has been enormously successful. I had the privilege of writing an article about her.

And also, the Reverend Dr. Amos Brown, whom I've known for 40 years and the Reverend Dr. Frederick Haynes, they are part of the ministerial delegation here, today.

[09:50:003] The senator before us this morning, is someone that many of us on this committee has worked with for some 20 years. And that makes this very difficult for me. I committed to Senator Sessions in our private meeting and I'll say it again here.

The process is going to be fair and thorough. But today, we're not being asked to evaluate him as a senator. We're being asked to evaluate him for the attorney general of the United States, the chief law enforcement for the largest and best democracy in the world.

As attorney general, his job will not be to advocate for his beliefs, rather, the job of the attorney general is to enforce federal law, even if he voted against the law. Even if he spoke against it before it passed, even if he disagrees with the president, saying that the law is constitutional.

Most importantly, his job will be to enforce federal law equally, equally, for all Americans. And this job requires service to the people and the law, not to the president. The president-elect said to his opponent during a debate and I quote, "if I win, I'm going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look at your situation," end quote.

Mr. Chairman, that's not what an attorney general. An attorney general does not investigate or prosecute at the direction of the president. Nor do attorney generals wear two hats; one, as the president's lawyer and one as the presidents -- as the people's lawyer.

That model has failed. Rather, the attorney general must put aside loyalty to the president. He must ensure that the law and the Constitution come first and foremost, period. President Lincoln's attorney general, Edward Bates, I think said it best when he said this and I quote, "the office I hold is not properly political, but strictly legal. And it is my duty, above all other ministers of State, to uphold the law and to resist all encroachments from whatever quarter," end quote.

That is the job of the attorney general. If confirmed, Senator Sessions will be the top official charged with faithfully and impartially, enforcing all federal law and protecting our fundamental right to vote from all incursions, whether they be foreign or domestic.

His duty will be to enforce and protect our civil rights and constitutional freedoms, including a woman's right to choose. He will run the department that ensures those who commit hate crimes are held accountable. And he will be charged with protecting consumers and taxpayers from fraud and making sure that corrupt public officials are held accountable.

He will prosecute polluters based on federal law. And it is the attorney general who must ensure that this government follows the law, does not ever torture again. This is an awesome responsibility and an enormous job. What we must do now in these hearings is determine what type of attorney general Senator Sessions will be if confirmed.

And let me express a deep concern. There is so much fear in this country. I see it, I hear it -- particularly in the African American community; from preachers, from politicians, from everyday Americans.

As Mrs. Evelyn Turner of the Marion Three said in her passionate letter to this committee, and I quote, "I am very troubled by his stance against civil rights in the more recent past. As a U.S. senator, he supported no laws or causes, which suggest that he has changed," end quote.

Throughout his Senate career, Senator Sessions has advocated an extremely conservative agenda. For example, he voted no and spoke for nearly 30 minutes in this committee against the Leahy Amendment two years ago, that express the sense of the Senate that the United States would not bar people from entering this country based on their religion.


FEINSTEIN: He voted against each of three bipartisan comprehensive immigration bills in 2006, 2007, and 2013. Twice he voted against the DREAM Act, the bill for undocumented youth known as DREAMers, who were brought here as children through no choice of their own, calling it a, quote, "reckless proposal for mass amnesty," end quote.

He voted against efforts to prohibit the use of waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, calling them lawful, and praising Attorney General Mukasey in 2008 for refusing to rule out the use of waterboarding in the future. These interrogation techniques are and were at the time illegal. And thanks to a provision Senator McCain placed in the defense authorization bill this past year, they are now prohibited from use.

In addition, Senator Sessions voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Act, which among other things expanded the hate crimes law to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Arguing against the hate crimes law in 2009, he said this, "Today, I'm not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. I just don't see it," end quote.

Well, this senator, regretfully, sees it. Hate crimes are happening. The Department of Justice must see it, must investigate it, and prosecute it appropriately. Those are votes that are deeply concerning. They are recent. They are important and they clearly show this senator's point of view.

Now, for all these reasons, this hearing must determine clearly whether this senator will enforce laws he voted against. We, the American people, want to know how he intends to use this awesome power of the attorney general if he is confirmed. Will he use it fairly? Will he use it in a way that respects law and the Constitution? Will he use it in a way that eases tensions among our communities and our law enforcement officers? Will he be independent of the White House? Will he tell the president no when necessary, and faithfully enforce ethics laws and constitutional restrictions?

So we will ask questions and we will press for answers. Ultimately, we must determine whether Senator Sessions can be the attorney general for all of our people.

Mr. Chairman, I'd like to conclude with one final point. We cannot ignore that there are deep concerns and anxieties throughout America. There is a deep fear about what a Trump administration will bring in many places. And this is the context in which we must consider Senator Sessions's record and nomination to become the chief law enforcement of America.

Communities across this country are concerned about whether they will be able to rely on the Department of Justice to protect their rights and freedoms. These freedoms are so cherished. They are what make us unique among nations. There have been sit-ins, protests and writings. And the committee has received letters of opposition from 400 different civil rights organizations, 1,400 law professors, 1,000 law students, a broad task force of organizations that oppose domestic violence, 70 reproductive health organizations, and many, many others.

All these letters express deep anxiety about the direction of this country and whether this nominee will enforce the law fairly, evenly, without personal bias.

So I hope today's questions are probing and the answers are fulsome. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the only way we have to know whether this man can dispatch (sic) himself from the president and from his record and vote in full according to the laws of the United States of America.

[10:00:02] Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.