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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Continuing Coverage of Attorney General's Testimony at Senate Judiciary Hearing. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired June 13, 2017 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think the appropriate thing would've been for Director Comey to talk with --
-- the acting deputy attorney general, who is his direct supervisor. That was Dana Boente, who had 33 years in the Department of Justice, and was even then still serving for six years, and continues to serve, as attorney general appointed by President Obama. So he's a man of great integrity, and everybody knows it, a man of decency and judgment. If he had concerns, I think he should've raised it to Deputy Attorney General Boente, who would be the appropriate person in any case, really. But if he had any concern that I might be recusing myself that would be a double reason for him to share it with Deputy Attorney General Boente.
COLLINS: Thank you.
BURR: Senator Heinrich.
HEINRICH: Attorney General Sessions, has the president ever expressed his frustration to you regarding your decision to recuse yourself?
SESSIONS: Senator Heinrich, I'm not able to share with this committee private communications...
HEINRICH: Because you're invoking executive privilege?
SESSIONS: I'm not able to invoke executive privilege. That's the president's prerogative.
HEINRICH: Well, my understanding is that you took an oath, you raised your right hand here today, and you said that you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And now you're not answering questions. You're impeding this investigation. So my understanding of the legal standard is that you either answer the question. That's the best outcome. You say, this is classified. Can't answer it here . I'll answer in closed session. That's bucket number two. Bucket number three is to say, I'm invoking executive privilege. There is no appropriateness bucket. It is not a legal standard.
Can you tell me what are these longstanding DOJ rules that protect conversations made in the executive without invoking executive privilege. SESSIONS: Senator, I'm protecting the president's constitutional right by not giving it away before he has a chance to view it and weight it.
HEINRICH: You're having it both ways.
SESSIONS: And, secondly, I am telling the truth and answering your question in saying it's a long standing policy of the Department of Justice.
HEINRICH: Are those policies written?
SESSIONS: Even and to make sure the president has full opportunity to decide these issues.
HEINRICH: Can you share those policies with us? Are they written down at the Department of Justice?
SESSIONS: I believe they are. Certainly...
HEINRICH: This is the appropriateness legal standard for not answering congressional inquiries?
SESSIONS: It's the judge -- my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversation with the president when he has not had a full opportunity to review the questions and to make a decision on whether or not to approve such an answer. One, there are also other privileges that could be invoked.
One of the things deals with -- can the investigation of the special counsel as...
HEINRICH: We're not asking questions about that investigation. If I wanted to ask questions about that investigation, I'd ask those of Rod Rosenstein. I'm asking about your personal knowledge from this committee, which has a constitutional obligation to get to the bottom of this.
There are two investigations here. There is a special counsel investigation. There is also a congressional investigation, and you are obstructing that congressional delegation -- investigation by not answering these questions and I think your silence, like the silence of Director Coats, like the silence of Admiral Rogers, speaks volumes.
SESSIONS: I would say that I have consulted with senior career attorneys in the departments...
HEINRICH: I suspect you have.
SESSIONS: ... and they believe this is consistent with my duties.
HEINRICH. Senator Risch asked you a question about appropriateness, if you had known that there had been the anything untoward with regard to Russian the campaign would you've headed for the exits. Your response was maybe. Why wasn't it a simple yes? SESSIONS: Well, there was a improper, illegal relationship in an effort to impede or influence this campaign, I absolutely would have departed.
HEINRICH: I think that's a good answer. I'm not sure why it wasn't the answer in the first place.
SESSIONS: I thought I did answer it.
HEINRICH: I find it strange that neither you nor Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein brought up performance issues with Director Comey. And in fact Deputy FBI Director McCabe has directly refuted any assertion that there were performance issues.
This is troubling because it appears that the president decided to fire Director Comey because he was pursuing the Russia investigation, and had asked you to come up with an excuse.
When your assessment of Director Comey didn't hold up to public scrutiny, the president finally admitted that he had fired Director Comey because he was pursuing the Russia investigation, i.e. the Lester Holt interview.
You've claimed that you did not break recusal when participating in Director Comey's firing, but it appears his firing was directly related to Russia, not departmental mismanagement. How do you square those two things?
SESSIONS: Well, you had a lot in that question. Let me say, first, within a week or so -- I believe May 3rd -- Director Comey testified that he believed the handling of the Clinton declination was proper and appropriate, and he would do it again.
I know that was a great concern to both of us, because it did not -- that represented something that I think most professionals in the Department of Justice would totally agree that the FBI investigative agency does not decide whether to prosecute or decline criminal cases, pretty breathtaking usurpation of the responsibility of the attorney general.
So that's how we felt. That was sort of a additional concern that we had, heading the FBI, someone who boldly asserted the right to continue to make such decisions. That was one of the things we discussed.
That was in the memorandum, I believe, and it was also an important factor for us.
BURR: Before I recognize Senator Blunt, I would like the record to show that last night Admiral Rogers spent almost two hours in closed session with the -- almost the full committee, fulfilling his commitment to us in the hearing, that in closed session he would answer the question, and I think it was thoroughly answered, and all members were given an opportunity to ask questions. I just want the record to show that with what Senator Heinrich just stated.
BLUNT: Thank you Chairman.
Attorney General, it's good to see you here. It's good to see Mary. I know that there's probably rather -- other places you'd both rather be today, but you've always looked at public service as something you did together, and it's good to see you here together and -- and know that your family continues to be proud and supportive of what you do.
SESSIONS: Thank you. I've been blessed indeed.
BLUNT: I -- I agree with that. I agree with that.
Let me just get a couple of things clear in my mind here, notes I've taken while people were asking questions, and you were talking.
On the April 27th 2016 event -- I think that's the Mayflower hotel speech that president -- that the presidential candidate gave on foreign policy, you didn't have a room at that even where you had private meetings, did you?
SESSIONS: No, I did not.
BLUNT: And as I -- as I understand it, you went to a reception that was attended by how many people?
SESSIONS: I think two to three dozen.
BLUNT: Two to three dozen people. You went in, heard his speech, and then may have seen people on your way out?
BLUNT: So when you said you possibly had a meeting with Mr. Kislyak, what you -- did you mean you possibly met him? SESSIONS: I didn't have any formal meeting...
BLUNT: As opposed -- I would assume -- I would assume the meeting...
SESSIONS: ...with him, I'm confident of that. But I may have had an encounter during the reception. That's the only thing I cannot say with certain I did not.
That's all I can say.
BLUNT: Well that's what I thought you were saying but I -- sometimes when I hear "I had a meeting" that would mean more to me than I met somebody.
SESSIONS: Right, right.
BLUNT: You might have met him at the reception. Could you have met other ambassadors at that reception as well?
SESSIONS: I could.
I remember one in particular that we had a conversation with. He's -- -- country had an investment in Alabama, and we talked a little length about that. I remember that. But otherwise, I have no recollection of a discussion with the Russian ambassador.
BLUNT: All right. So you were there. You've read since he was there. You may have seen him in your -- but you had no room where you were having meetings with individuals to have discussions at the Mayflower Hotel that day?
SESSIONS: No, that is correct.
BLUNT: Well, on -- whenever you talked to Mr. Comey, after he had had his meeting with the president, do you think that was probably the next day? You didn't stay afterwards and see him after he left the Oval Office that night?
SESSIONS: No. Now I understand his testimony may have suggested that it happened right afterwards. But it was either the next morning, which I think it was, or maybe the morning after that. It was, we had a three times a week on national security briefing with FBI that I undertake. And, so it was after that that we had that conversation.
BLUNT: We had that conversation now, what -- what I'm not quite clear on is, did you respond when he expressed his concern, or not?
SESSIONS: Yes, I did respond. I think he's incorrect. He indicated, I believe, that he was not totally sure of the exact wording of the meeting, but I do recall my chief of staff was with me. And we recall that I did affirm the long-standing written policies of the Department of Justice concerning communications with the White House. We have to follow those rules. And in the long run, you're much better off if you do.
They do not prohibit communications one on one by the FBI director with the president, but if that conversation moves into certain areas, it's the duty -- the rules apply to the Department of Justice, so it's a duty of the FBI agent to say, Mr. President, I can't talk about that. That's the way that should work. And apparently it did, because he says he did not improperly discuss matters with the president.
BLUNT: When Mr. Comey talked to you about that meeting, did he mention Mr. Flynn?
SESSIONS: No, he mentioned no facts of any kind. He did not mention to me that he'd been asked to do something he thought was improper. He just said he was uncomfortable, I believe, with it.
BLUNT: After that discussion with Mr. Comey...
SESSIONS: Actually, I don't know that he said he was uncomfortable. I think he said maybe -- maybe it was what -- what he testified to was perhaps the correct wording. I'm not sure exactly what he said, but I don't dispute it. BLUNT: Well, exactly what I think he's -- what I remember him saying was that you didn't react at all and kind of shrugged, but you're saying you referred him to the normal way these meetings are supposed to be conducted.
SESSIONS: I took it as a concern that he might be asked something that was improper, and I affirmed to him, his willingness to say no, or not go in an improper way, improper direction.
BLUNT: I'll just say finally, I'm assuming you wouldn't talk about this, because it would relate to the May 8th meeting, but my sense is that no decision is final until it's carried out.
My guess is that there are people at this dais who have said they were going to let somebody go or fire somebody that never did that.
So the fact that the president said that on May 8th doesn't mean that the information he got from you on May 9th was not necessary or impactful, and I'm sure you're not going to say how many times the president said, we ought to get rid of that person, but I'm sure that's happened.
And Chairman I'll (OFF-MIKE)
BURR: Senator King?
KING: Mr. Attorney General, thank you for joining us today. I respect...
SESSIONS: Thank you.
KING: ...your willingness to be here.
SESSIONS: Thank you.
KING: You testified a few minutes ago, I'm not able to invoke executive privilege; that's up to the president. Has the president invoked executive privilege in the case of your testimony here today?
SESSIONS: He has not.
KING: Then what is the basis of your refusal to answer these questions?
SESSIONS: Senator King, the president has a constitutional...
KING: I understand that. But the president has been asserted it.
SESSIONS: Well, I...
KING: You said you don't have the power to assert the power of executive privilege, so what is the legal basis for your refusal to answer these questions?
SESSIONS: I am protecting the right of the president to assert it -- assert it if he chooses, and there may be other privileges that could apply in this circumstance.
KING: Well, I don't -- I don't understand how you can have it both ways. The president can't not assert it and your -- you -- you've testified that only the president can assert it, and yet, I -- I just don't understand the legal basis for your -- for your refusal to answer.
SESSIONS: Well, what we try to do -- I think most cabinet officials, others that you questioned recently -- officials are before the committee protect the president's right to do so. If it comes to a point where the issue is clear and there is a dispute about it, at some point the president will either assert the privilege or not, or some other privilege can be --would be asserted. But at this point, I believe it's premature for a...
KING: you're asserting the privilege that the president -- you've testified...
SESSIONS: It would be premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice about executive privilege. That's not necessary at this point.
KING: You testified a few minutes ago that, quote "We were asked for our opinion." Who asked for your opinion?
SESSIONS: You mean...
KING: You just testified, "We were asked for our opinion."
SESSIONS: My understanding is -- I believe I'm correct -- in saying the president has said so, that...
KING: So he didn't ask you directly?
SESSIONS: I thought you were asking about the privilege, senator.
KING: No, no, I'm sorry.
SESSIONS: You want to go back...
KING: I'm saying, you said quote "We were asked for our opinion." You and Mr. Rosenstein. SESSIONS: I believe that was appropriate for me to say that because I think the president...
KING: No, I'm just asking you...
KING: ... asked for your opinion. Who asked you for your opinion?
SESSIONS: Yes, right. The president asked for our opinion.
KING: All right. So you just testified as to the content of a communication to the president.
SESSIONS: That is correct, but I believe he's already revealed that. I -- I believe I'm correct in saying that. That's why I indicated that when I answered that question.
But if he hasn't, and I'm in error I would...
KING: So, can be...
SESSIONS: ... have constricted his constitutional right of privilege. You're correct.
KING: So, you're being -- you're being selective about the use...
SESSIONS: No, I'm not intentionally. I'm doing so only because I believe he made that in...
KING: In any of your discussions with the president about the firing of James Comey, did the question of the Russian investigation ever come up?
SESSIONS: I cannot answer that, because it was -- a communication by the president, or if any such occurred, it would be a communication that he has not waived.
KING: But he has not asserted executive privilege?
SESSIONS: He is not asserted executive privilege.
KING: Do you believe the Russians interfered with the 2016 elections?
SESSIONS: It appears so. The intelligence community seems to be united in that.
But I have to tell you, Senator King, I know nothing but what I've read in the paper. I've never received any detailed briefing on how a hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaign. KING: Well, between the -- between the election, there was a memorandum from the intelligence community on October 9th, that detailed what the Russians were doing. After the election, before the inauguration, you never sought any information about this rather dramatic attack on our country?
SESSIONS: No. I...
KING: You never -- you never asked for a briefing, or attended a briefing or read the intelligence reports?
SESSIONS: You might have been very critical of me if I, as an active part of the campaign, was seeking intelligence relating to our something that might be relevant to the campaign. I'm not sure that would...
HEINRICH: I'm not talking about the campaign; I'm talking about what the Russians did. You received no briefing on the Russian active measures in connection with the 2016 election? SESSIONS: No, I don't believe I ever did.
HEINRICH: Let's go to your letter of May 9th.
You said, "Based upon my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by deputy" -- was that a written evaluation?
SESSIONS: My evaluation was an evaluation that has been going on for some months.
HEINRICH: Is there written evaluation?
SESSIONS: I did not make one. I think you could classify Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's memorandum, as a -- an evaluation. One that -- and he was the direct supervisor of the FBI director.
HEINRICH: And his evaluation was based 100 percent on the handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mails, is that correct?
SESSIONS: Well, and a number of other matters, but -- as I recall, but he did explicitly lay out the errors that he thought had been made in that process by the director of the FBI. I thought they were cogent and accurate, and far more significant than I think a lot of people have understood.
HEINRICH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
BURR: Senator Lankford.
LANKFORD: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Attorney General Sessions, good to see you again.
SESSIONS: Thank you. LANKFORD: You speak as a man eager to set the record straight. You've spoken very bluntly from the very beginning from your opening statement all the way through this time.
I am amazed at the conversations, as if an attorney general has never said there were private conversations with the president and we don't need to discuss those. It seems to be a short memory about some the statements Eric Holder would and would not make to any committee in the House or the Senate. And would or would not turn over documents, even requested. That had to go all the way through the court system to finally the courts having to say, no, the president can't hold back documents, and the attorney general can't do that.
So somehow some accusation that you're not saying every conversation about everything, there's a long history of attorney generals standing beside the president saying there are some conversations that are confidential.
And then can we determine from there? It does seem as well that every unnamed source, story somehow gets a hearing. I was in the hearing this morning with Rod Rosenstein as we dealt with the appropriations requests that originally obviously you were scheduled to be at, that Rod Rosenstein was taking your place to be able to cover. He was very clear -- he was peppered with questions about Russia during that conversation as well. He was very clear that he has never had conversations with you about that, and that you have never requested conversations about that.
He was also peppered with -- with questions of the latest rumor of the day, that is somehow the president is thinking about firing Robert Mueller and getting rid of him. And was very clear that Rosenstein himself said, I'm the only one that could do that, and I'm not contemplating that, nor would I do that. And no one has any idea where the latest unnamed source story of the day is coming from, but somehow it's grabbing all the attention.
I do want to be able to bring up a couple things to specifically. One is to define the word "recuse." And I come back to your e-mail that you sent to Jim Comey and others that day on March the 2nd. This was what you had said during -- in your e-mail: "After careful consideration following meetings with career department officials over the courses of this past several weeks, the attorney general has decided to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States. The attorney general's recusal is not only with respect to such investigations, if any, but also extends to the department responses to congressional and media inquiries related to such investigations."
Is that something you have maintained for March 2nd on?
SESSIONS: Absolutely. Actually, I maintained it from the first day I became attorney general. We discussed those matters and I felt until -- until and if I ever made a decision to not recuse myself I should not, as abundance of caution, involve myself in studying the -- the investigation or evaluating it... LANKFORD: Right.
SESSIONS: ... so I did not.
I also would note that the memorandum from my chief of staff directs these agencies and -- and one of the people directly it was sent to was James B. Comey, the director of the FBI. You should instruct members of your staffs to not debrief the attorney general or any other officials in the office of the attorney general about or otherwise involve the attorney general or other officials in the office of the attorney general in any such matters described above.
LANKFORD: And -- and you have a request...
SESSIONS: So we took the proper, and firm and crystal-clear position that the recusal meant recusal.
LANKFORD: Relating to this April 27th meeting, non-meeting, in the same room at the same time, the National Interest was asked specifically about this as well. He was the host of that event. They -- they stated this in writing, "As the host the Center for National Interest decided whom to invite and then issued the invitations. The Trump campaign did not determine or approve the invitation list. Guests at the event included both Democrats and Republicans, with some among the latter supporting other candidates. Most of the guests were Washington-based foreign policy experts and journalists. The Center for National Interest invited Russian Ambassador Kislyak and several other ambassadors to the speech. We regularly invite ambassadors and other foreign representatives to our events to facilitate dialogue."
And then they stated, "We seated all four in the front row during the speech in deference to their diplomatic status. The Trump campaign had nothing to do with the seating arrangement. The Center for National Interest extended equal treatment to the foreign investors attending the event, and invited each to a short reception prior to the Trump speech. The reception included approximately two dozen guests in a receiving line. The line moved quickly, and any conversations with Mr. Trump in that setting were inherently briefed and could not be private. Our recollection is that the interaction between Mr. Trump and the Ambassador Kislyak was limited to polite exchange of pleasantries, appropriate on such occasions. We're not aware of any conversation between Ambassador Kislyak and Senator Jeff Sessions at the reception. However, in a small group setting like this one, we consider it unlikely that anyone could've engaged in a meaningful, private conversation without drawing attention from others present."
Do you have any reason to disagree with that particular (ph)...
SESSIONS: No, I think that's a very fair description of the reception situation. I appreciate them having made that statement.
LANKFORD: Great. I yield back.
BURR: Senator Manchin?
MANCHIN: Mr. Chairman, thank you.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for being here. It's good to see you again.
SESSIONS: Thank you, Senator Manchin.
MANCHIN: Sir, I want to follow-up a little bit on what Senator King had asked concerning -- you and I are about the same vintage, and we remember back in our lifetime we've never known the Russians to be -- the Russian government or the Russian military to ever be our friend, and wanting the same things we wanted -- we wanted out of life.
With that being said, the seriousness of this Russian hacking is -- is very serious to me and concerning. And you're saying that you had not been briefed on that. October -- I think it was October 9th, when it was known that the ODNI at that time, I think Mr. Clapper, and also Mr. Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security, made that public what was going on.
Then on December 29th, President Obama at that time expelled 35 Russian diplomats, denied access to two Russian compound, and he broadened the existing sanctions.
Sir, I would ask, did you have any discussions at all? Have you had any discussions or sat in on any type of meetings where recommendations were made to remove those sanctions?
SESSIONS: I don't call any such meeting.
MANCHIN: And during the time, not from the president being inaugurated on June -- on January 20th -- prior to that, in the campaign up until through the transition, was there ever any meetings he showed any concern or consideration or -- or just inquisitive of what the Russians were really doing and if they really done it?
SESSIONS: I don't recall any such conversation. I'm -- I'm not sure I understood your question. Maybe I better listen to it again.
MANCHIN: National -- you were part of the national security team.
So if he would have heard something about Russia and with their capabilities, and our concern about what they could do to our election process. Was there ever any conversations concerning that whatsoever?
SESSIONS: I don't recall it, Senator Manchin.
MANCHIN: I know it's been asked of you, the things that you know, your executive privileges and protecting the president, I -- I understand that. But also, when we had Mr. Comey here, you know, he couldn't answer a lot of things in open session. He agreed to go into closed session. Would you be able to go in a closed session? Would it change your answers to us, or your ability to speak more frankly on some things we want to know?
SESSIONS: Senator Manchin, I'm not sure. The executive privilege is not waived by going in camera, or in closed session. It may be that one of the concerns is that when you have an investigation ongoing, as the special counsel does, it's often very problematic to have persons, you know, not cooperating with that counsel in the conduct of the investigation, which may or may not be a factor in going into closed session.
MANCHIN: It -- it would be very helpful, I think. The committee -- there's a lot questions they'd like to ask, and I know that you would like to answer if possible. And maybe we can check into that a little further.
If I could sir, did you have any meetings -- any other means Russian government officials that have not been previously disclosed?
SESSIONS: I do -- I have wracked my brain and I do not believe so.
MANCHIN: Are there any other...
SESSIONS: I can assure you that none of those meetings discussed manipulating a campaign in the United States in any way, shape or form, or any hacking or any such ideas (inaudible).
MANCHIN: I'm going to go quick through this. Are there any other meetings between Russian government officials and any other Trump campaign associates that have not been previously disclosed that you know of? SESSIONS: I don't recall any.
MANCHIN: To the best of your knowledge, did any of the following individuals meet with Russian officials at any point during the campaign? You can just go yes or no as I go down through the list.
SESSIONS: Repeat that now? What...
MANCHIN: To the best -- to the best of your knowledge, sir, did any of these following individuals meet with Russian officials at any point during the campaign? And you can just yes or no of this.
SESSIONS: I don't have any information that he had done so. He served as campaign chairman for a few months.
MANCHIN: Steve Bannon?
SESSION: I have no information that he did.
MANCHIN: General Michael Flynn?
SESSIONS: I don't recall it.
MANCHIN: Reince Priebus?
SESSIONS: I -- I don't recall.
MANCHIN: Steve Miller?
SESSIONS: I don't recall him ever having such a conversation.
MANCHIN: Corey Lewandowski?
SESSIONS: I don't -- not recall any of those individuals having any meeting with Russian officials...
MANCHIN: Carter Page?
SESSIONS: I don't know.
MANCHIN: And I would finally ask this question, because I always think -- we -- we try to get -- you have innate knowledge...
SESSIONS: There -- there was -- there may have been some published accounts of Mr. Page talking with the Russians. I'm not sure.
SESSIONS: I don't recall.
MANCHIN: As a former senator, you bring a unique and holistic perspective to this investigation, because you've been on both sides. SESSIONS: I have indeed.
MANCHIN: If you were...
SESSIONS: All in all, it's better on that side.
MANCHIN: If you were sitting on this side of the dais -- OK, here we...
SESSIONS: Nobody gets to ask you about your private conversations with your staff.
MANCHIN: Well, here we go, you get your chance to give us some advice: If you were sitting on this on the dais, what question would you be asking?
SESSIONS: I would be asking whether or not -- I would be asking questions related to whether not there was an impact on this election.
MANCHIN: And what part of the story do you...
SESSIONS: All by (ph) A foreign power, particularly the Russians, since the intelligence community has -- has suggested and -- and stated that they believe they did, and --
but I do think members of this government have offices to run.