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Senate Confirmation Hearing for Jeff Sessions; Intel Community Speaks about Russian Intentions in Hacking. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired January 10, 2017 - 14:30   ET


SEN. MIKE CRAPO (R), IDAHO: The first one, I'm just going to use as an example of the kind of abusive use of power that I hope you will help stop and prevent from continuing to happen.


It was already -- this example is one that was already referenced by Senator Cruz, Operation Choke Point.

Operation Choke Point, for those that aren't familiar with it, the only appropriate thing about it, in my opinion, is its name, it was named -- it was a program designed by the Department of Justice to help choke financing away from businesses and industries that were politically unacceptable or for whatever reason unacceptable to the administration.

The Justice Department working with, and I think perhaps even pressuring, some of our financial regulatory agencies created this program to give additional scrutiny, indeed such aggressive scrutiny that it pressured them out of their access to finance -- to certain industries.

I don't know how these industries got onto the list, but I'll just read you several that are on the list. Ammunition sales, coin dealers, firearm sales, installment loans, tobacco sales, this list is a list of 30 that was put out by the FDIC. When they -- when they actually realized they shouldn't of put the list out they quickly took it back.

And the FD -- the FDIC says that they're not pursuing this program anymore, but when we tried to de-fund it earlier the administration fought aggressively to make sure we didn't get the votes to defund it.

This program is one where the justification is -- well, the businesses who operate in these industries haven't done anything wrong. But these are industries that might do things wrong more than other industries and therefore we're going to pressure people out of these industries.

It reminds me of a 2002 movie called "Minority Report," it was a Tom Cruise movie and that was one about an advanced police force in the future that had determined -- or had developed the ability to know if you we're going to commit a crime before you commit the crime. And then their job was to go arrest you. It was really good at stopping crime because they arrest you before you even commit it. And then one of them came up on the list and that's the story of that movie. My point is, we can't really tell for sure whether Operation Choke Point is still operating. Although we still have people in these industries who can't get financing. If that kind of thing is going on in the Department of Justice will you assure that it ends?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: I will. At least as you've framed this issue and as I understand the issue from what I -- little I know about it but, fundamentally, a lawful business should not be attacked by having other lawful businesses pressured not to do business with the first business.

That's, to me -- it would be hard to justify. I guess maybe they've got some arguments that would be worth listening to. But fundamentally that seems to me, Senator Crapo, you're a great lawyer and you -- but seems to me that goes beyond what would be legitimate in a great economy like ours.

CRAPO: Well, I would hope the Department of Justice would not be a partner with any of our federal agencies in this kind of conduct.

Another one which I'll throw out as an example is the National Instant Criminal Background Check List, which is now being utilized by the Veteran's Administration and by the Social Security Administration to put people's names on the list so that they can be denied access to owning or purchasing a firearm.

And the way they put their name on the list is to say that they are mentally deficient. If they need a little help on their Social Security benefits, if they're a veteran who put their life on the line for us and goes to war and receives a head injury and so they need a little bit of assistance, then -- then they get their name often put on the list.

I know that these are not the agencies that you supervise, but I know the Department of Justice supervises the NICS list. And I would just encourage your help, whether it's here or anywhere else in our government, as we see agencies using their power to achieve political purposes, or some other discriminatory purpose of the administration I would hope you would stand solidly against it.

SESSIONS: Well, thank you Senator Crapo, I know you've worked on that issue. So I'd be sympathetic and be willing to receive any information that I know you've gathered on -- to form your views about it.

CRAPO: All right I appreciate that.

Let me move on to the question of regulatory overreach. I'll just use one example there. I'm one who believes that today, we have gone -- we talked a lot about this hearing today about the rule of law. In America, statutes are passed by Congress and signed into law by a willing president. But now we have multiple agencies that are doing rule makings that, in my opinion, are going far beyond the legal authority of the laws under which they operate.

[14:35:06] I'll use one example. The Waters of the United States rule that has been implemented, or seeking to be implemented by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

In my opinion that is totally unfounded in law. And often the Department of Justice is partnered up with these agencies as they try to defend their activities in court. And I'm not sure I actually know the proper role there.

Does the Department of Justice simply have to litigate on behalf of these agencies? Or does it have the ability to advise these agencies that they're pursuing activities beyond the bounds of the law?

SESSIONS: It can be that an agency would ask an opinion on the Office of Legal Counsel, the Department of Justice. And as to whether their interpretation is sound or not, that opinion, until reversed at some point, stands for the entire government.

But basically these agencies are oftentimes just set about their own agendas without asking for an opinion. And often they are narrowminded or they're focused only on what they feel are the goals of their agency, and don't give sufficient respect to the rule of law and the propriety of what they're doing.

In particular, did the Congress really intend this? Did this law really cover this? Or is it just something you want to accomplish and you're twisting the law to justify your actions? Those are the kind of things that we do need to guard against.

CRAPO: Well, I appreciate that. And I hope that under your leadership we will have a Justice Department that will give strong advice where it can, and have strong influence where it can across the United States system -- across our agencies in this country, to help encourage and advise that they stay within the bounds of the law.

The last thing, and I'll just finish with this and you can give a quick answer. I'm running out of time here. And that is cooperation with the states.

As I said earlier, our system of government is comprised of 50 states in a union under a Constitution that establishes a federal government. And you and I both know well that the 10th Amendment says that those rights and powers, they're not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution, are reserved to the states and to the people, respectively.

Many of our states feel that that proper respect for their sovereignty is being abused, again, by federal agencies, not just the Department of Justice. But the Justice Department often gets involved in this through providing the legal services that it does to our agencies.

And you know I could go through a ton of more examples and lists of litigation that is ongoing right now with my state and other states around the country where if we simply had a better level of respect for the role of states in this union and under our Constitution, we could work out a lot more of these issues. Rather than having the heavy hand of the federal litigation system come to play into forcing compliance by states.

And so I won't go into any specific details, but would just ask your feelings about that importance of respecting the role of states in this country.

SESSIONS: There's no general federal criminal crimes. So many things like larceny and even murder unconnected to some civil rights connection. These things have traditionally been totally the responsibility of the states.

As a young prosecutor in the 1970s I remember almost all the cases had an interstate commerce nexus. It wasn't the theft of an automobile that you prosecuted. It was interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle.

CRAPO: A lot of...

SESSIONS: So a lot of that is just -- now we've forgotten that distinction, that limitation on federal power.

CRAPO: We have. And a lot of what I'm talking about happens in the environment and natural resource division, and others. There's a lot of litigation out there.

I'd just encourage you -- I see my -- I am out of time.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Let me make a suggestion before I introduce Senator Hirono. And she's welcome back to the committee. She's been off two years.

To make efficient use of our time, when she's done it would be Senator Kennedy's turn. But you probably have to go vote. So if there's somebody back here that can start the second round, do it. And then we'll call on Senator Kennedy to finish the first round.

Senator Hirono?

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It's good to be back on this committee.

And aloha to you, Senator Sessions.


HIRONO: I will do my best to be nice to you.

SESSIONS: Well that won't be hard for you.


HIRONO: Thank you very much.

I know that the attorney general has broad prosecutorial discretion. You noted in some of your responses to questions from Senator Durbin around the issue of what would happened to the 800,000 DACA registered people if the president-elect rescinds that program. And you indicated that I think at that point the A.G.'s office only has so many resources, and that may not be a high priority for you. But you indicated that's why we needed immigration reform.

So my series of questions will center around how you would exercise your prosecutorial discretion, which I think you would acknowledge is wide as attorney general. Wouldn't you?

SESSIONS: In most -- in many cases you do -- the federal prosecutors set discretionary limits. But you have to be careful that it does not exceed a reasonable judgment about what a discretionary...


HIRONO: I agree.

SESSIONS: ... be.

HIRONO: It's not totally unfettered. Wide prosecutorial discretion. So my questions will center around how you would exercise prosecutorial discretion with regard to some specific issues.

You probably know, Senator Sessions, that I am an immigrant. You indicated in one response that you would want immigration reform to center around skills based immigration reform. And if that were the case, my mother, who brought me to this country to escape an abusive marriage would not have been able to come to this country. And she acquired her skills later.

But I just want to let you know that it's one of the reasons that issues relating to immigration are very important, not just to me, but to millions of people in this country. And I have heard from them. I've heard from immigrants in this country, LGBT Americans, women and religious minorities who are terrified that they will have no place in President-Elect Trump's vision of America.

And based on what I've heard since the election, I am deeply concerned that their fears are well founded. I'm hoping that you can address some of these concerns today.

So I mentioned the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. When you came to see me we did talk about whether or not you would support a ban on Muslims coming to this country based on the fact that they were Muslims. And you said that you would not support that.

But you also indicated that you would support basically what would be considered enhanced vetting of people with extreme views. What would characterize an extreme view to you? And how would you go about ferreting out people with extreme views when there are millions of people legally coming into our country?

And also a related question. The fact that you would consider vetting people with extreme views to be a proper use of our governmental authority, there must be a connection in your mind that people with extreme views, which I hope you will describe what you mean by, will do something that would compromise the safety of Americans. Could you respond to my series of questions relating to extreme views? SESSIONS: Well, I do think first of all the vetting process is in the hands of the State Department, the consular offices and those offices that are meeting people abroad and evaluating them for admission to the United States. So the Department of Justice really does not dictate that, as long as it's perhaps -- as long as it's within constitutional order.

I think the approach that's preferable is the approach that is -- would be based on areas where we have an usually high risk of terrorists coming in, people who could be clearly violent criminals. And those certainly justify higher intensity of vetting.

I think that mainly responds to your question. But again, the ultimate decision about that would be done through the State Department and by the president.

HIRONO: I'm sure they would ask for the attorney general's opinion as to the limits of the Constitution in requiring these kinds of questions to be asked of people who come to our country. And you did indicate once that religious views would be a factor in determining whether somebody has extreme views.

Let me turn to...

SESSIONS: Their religious views in...


HIRONO: Not in and of itself...

SESSIONS: ... extremism. Right. Not -- if they -- their interpretation of their religious views encompasses dangerous doctrines and terroristic attacks I think they should certainly deserve more careful scrutiny than someone whose religious views are less problematic.


HIRONO: Yes. Senator Sessions, you did say that one's religious views would be a factor in determining whether one has extreme views that would enable -- that would not enable them to come to our country.

Let me turn to the question of abortion. On Roe v. Wade, you did say quote, "I firmly believe that Roe v. Wade and its descendants represent one of the worst colossally, erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time and it was an activists decision."

My question is do you still hold that view? I believe you answered yes to someone who asked you that question previously. That you believe that Roe v. Wade was a bad decision.

SESSIONS: Well, I do...

HIRONO: Do you still believe that?

SESSIONS: Well, I guess I've said that before, so I'm a pro-life advocate... HIRONO: Thank you.

SESSIONS: ... but fundamentally, the problem, as I see it, with Roe versus Wade is that is denies the people to right to make laws that they might feel appropriate. Did the Supreme Court have that power? I concluded they didn't, because the Constitution didn't answer that question, but...

HIRONO: Well, Senator Sessions...

SESSIONS: ... I respect the...

HIRONO: I hate to interrupt you, but I have less than two minutes. So, I don't want to get into the substance of Roe v. Wade. I realize you still believe that that was a bad decision, although it was based on constitutional privacy protections.

So, we can expect the make up of the Supreme Court to change, and we can very well end up with a Supreme Court that will be very open to overturning Roe v. Wade. And should you be the attorney general, would you direct or advise your solicitor general to weigh in, to -- to weigh in before that Supreme Court, which has an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade? And would your solicitor general go in and weigh in to repeal or to overturn, I should say, Roe v. Wade?

SESSIONS: Well, Roe versus Wade is firmly asconced as the law of the land and I don't know we would see a change in that. You're asking a hypothetical question. Those cases seldom come up on such a clear issue. They come up at the margins. I just would not be able to predict what a well researched, thoughtful response to -- would be to manage it could happen in the future.

HIRONO: I think most of us know that the next opportunity for the Supreme Court to weigh in on whether or not to change Roe v. Wade would be a very close decision and, likely possible a five to four decision. And that it's not just a hypothetical, but it is a real concern to a lot of people.

Let me turn to the Voting Rights Act. While the Supreme Court did eliminate parts of the Voting Rights Act, it still retains Section II, which prohibits states from enacting laws that would have a discriminatory impact.

The Attorney General's Office was a party to challenging two states laws, I believe it was Texas and there was another state, that the Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the attorney general's position that these laws violated the Voting Rights Act, Section II. Would you, should you become the attorney general, just as vigorously prosecute those kinds of state laws that have a discriminatory voting impact?

SESSIONS: Well, this administration's attorney general has intervened when it felt it was appropriate and not intervened when it did not feel it was appropriate. So, I think my responsibility would be to ensure that there's no discriminatory problems with a Voting Rights Act of a state. If there is, if it violates the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution, I think the United States -- the attorney general may well have a responsibility and a duty to intervene. You cannot allow improper erosion of -- of the right of Americans to vote.

HIRONO: Well, we know that since the Supreme Court's decision that did away with major parts of the Voting Rights Act that numerous, perhaps 13 states have already enacted laws that could be deemed contrary to the Voting Rights Act. So I would hope as attorney general, you would vigorously review those kinds of laws and to prosecute and to -- to seek to overturn those state laws just as your predecessors have done.

I want to turn to VAWA. I know that you voted against the most recent iteration --

[14:49:57] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We are live right outside the capitol. I'm Jake Tapper.


We're here in Washington. We've been watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hold these confirmation hearings for Senator Sessions to become the next attorney general. We'll get back to that in a few moments.

But the Intelligence Committee on the Senate side also has been hearing very important testimony in the past hour or so from the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community on the issue of Russia's attempted influence of the 2016 presidential election.

Moments ago, we heard from the head of the National Intelligence community, retired general, James Clapper. He spoke about Russia's governmental motivation and strategy. Listen to this.


GEN. JAMES CLAPPER, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Putin and the Russian government also developed a clear preference for President- elect Trump. Russia aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.


BLITZER: We also heard directly from the FBI Director James Comey, who testified before committee members that Russian hackers penetrated state-level voter registrations.


JAMES COMEY, DIRECTOR, FBI: There were successful penetrations of some groups and campaigns, particularly the state level on the Republican side of the aisle, and in some limited penetration of old Republican National Committee domains.


TAPPER: But FBI Director Comey said there's no evidence that information was used on Election Day or that any Republican presidential campaigns were hacked. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, pushed Director Comey on what

evidence there might be of any collusion between the Russians and any presidential campaigns.


SEN. RON WYDEN, (D), OREGON: My question for you, Director Comey, is, have the FBI investigated these reported relationships? And if so, what are the agencies findings?

COMEY: Thank you, Senator. I would never comment on investigations, whether we have one or not, in an open forum like this. So, I really can't answer it one way or the other.

WYDEN: Can you provide an unclassified response to these questions and release it to the American people prior to January 20th?

COMEY: I'm sorry, you said, "Will I?"

WYDEN: Yes. Will you provide an unclassified response to the question I've asked? And as I've said, it's been reported widely, on Reuters News Service, widely reported. Will you provide a response to question I asked and release it to the American people prior to January 20th?

COMEY: Sir, I'll answer any question you ask but the answer will likely be the same as I just gave you. I can't talk about it.

WYDEN: I will tell you, I think the American people have a right to know this. And if there is delay in declassifying this information and relating it to the American people, releasing it to the American people, and it doesn't happen before January 20th, I'm not sure it's going to happen. And that's why I'm troubled. And I hope that you will make a declassified statement with respect to the questions I've asked.


TAPPER: FBI Director Comey told the Intelligence Committee he would have preferred that the FBI be the ones who examined the Democratic National Committee computers after they had been hacked.

Let's bring in our panel to talk about all this. We have with us, Kim Dozer, CNN global affairs analyst and contributing writer for "The Daily Beast"; associate editor of Real Clear Politics, A.B. Stoddard; CNN senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny; and CNN justice correspondent, Pamela Brown.

One senses, from that exchange with Ron Wyden, that Senator Wyden knows something and is not able to say and is also trying to get the FBI director to say.

Let me play a little bit of sound. This is between Senator Angus King, an Independent Senator from Maine, and he is also talking to Director Comey about any investigation between the Russians and any specific campaign. Let's roll that sound. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ANGUS KING, (I), MAINE: Mr. Comey, did you answer Senator Wyden's question that there is an investigation underway as to connections between either of the political campaigns and the Russian -- Russians?

COMEY: I didn't say one way or the other.

KING: You did say that --

COMEY: That was my intention, at least.

KING: You didn't say one way or another whether even there's an investigation under way?

COMEY: Right. I don't -- especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation.

ANGUS: The irony --

COMEY: I'm not saying --

ANGUS: The irony of your making that statement here, I cannot avoid. But I'll move on from that.

COMEY: Well, we sometimes think differently about closed investigations.


TAPPER: A little note there from Angus King about Comey's comments about the Hillary Clinton investigation.

But moving beyond that, it does seem that as though members of the Select Committee of Intelligence know something and they're trying to get the FBI director to admit what it is, Pamela?

[14:55:13] PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. And they may have access to classified information. Of course, no one explicitly said what that information may be or what the connection might be. But as you saw, Director Comey not wanting to go there, not wanting to answer it and speak in an open forum.


KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: All of these Senators have had access to the classified version of the investigation into Russian hacking since Friday, so they have information that they can't talk about it in open forum, and trying to draw it out. What you saw the Republicans trying to do was getting Director Clapper on record saying, but this didn't affect the results of the elections. Clappers response was, that wasn't our job here, we weren't looking into the minds of the American people, we weren't trying to assess whether this changed minds, changed opinions and, therefore, changed votes, we were just looking into the goals of the Russian government in influencing our polls.

TAPPER: We -- and there --

Go ahead, Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: One thing that is clear, this is going remain an issue on Capitol Hill after Donald Trump is president. So many Republicans don't think that he has taken this seriously enough. And this, of course, leads into sanctions, though. This is going to remain after January 20th.

TAPPER: We're going to squeeze in a quick break. Let's take a quick break. We'll come right back and we'll have much more on the confirmation hearing and, of course, the Intelligence Committee hearing. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, in Washington.

We have been watching the first of many Senate confirmation hearings for a top nominee in the Trump administration, Senator Jeff Sessions, the Republican Senator from Alabama, the president-elect's pick for the U.S. attorney general slot. He faced many of his long-time colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee, most of whom praised him, some of whom, though, talking about the Democrats, confronted him on issues ranging from civil rights, to immigration, to drug sentencing, to chain gangs.

At 3:30 p.m. eastern, about a half an hour or so from now, another confirmation hearing is set to begin. The Senate Homeland Security panel takes up the nomination of retired U.S. Marine Corps General John Kelly to be the next secretary of Homeland Security. We'll have coverage of that as well.

Right now, I want to get back to the Sessions hearings. Earlier, he spoke about the current Attorney General Loretta Lynch's decision not to appoint a special prosecutor in the Hillary Clinton investigation. Listen to this.


SESSIONS: I don't think it's appropriate for the attorney general just to, willy-nilly, create special prosecutors. History has not shown that has always been a smart thing to do. But there are times when objectivity is required and the absolute appearance of objectivity is required.