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Soon: A.G. Sessions to Speak about Trump/Russia Probe; A.G. Sessions Testifies before Senate Intel Committee. Aired 2:30-3p ET
Aired June 13, 2017 - 14:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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[14:30:00] NEWT GINGRICH, (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: And when I watch these paid hacks on television, to be quite honest, I am sickened by how unpatriotically they undermine.
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JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Interesting words, in retrospect.
Gloria, we have seen this play out with Democrats attacking the independent prosecutor, in t case, even a counsel. And now we see paid hacks on the other side going after Bob Mueller.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah. In fact, it was Newt Gingrich who said the president could and should fire Bob Mueller. So this act is complicated and it was changed in 1999.
TAPPER: The act of creating a special counsel?
BORGER: Special Counsel, after Ken Starr. There was a sense that if you give someone too much independence, there's no accountability. And there has to be a way for someone to be accountable to someone after Ken Starr. So they came up with this compromised solution, which is that the president can actually fire Mueller and Ken Starr could not be fired at that point so I think they were looking for a middle ground here. The question is, that nobody can answer, nothing is perfect here. Would it be a great solution for the president of the United States to ask Rod Rosenstein, who would then resign, so ask somebody else, to fire the independent counsel? No. But can he do it? Absolutely.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: All of these structures, independent counsel, are designed, at least in a general way, to try to take politics out and make people independent. The story of Washington, though, is that politics is never out. And even if people are independent and even if they have as impeccable credentials as Robert Mueller does, they are going to be attacked politically. I don't have a great problem with that. The idea that politics can be sealed off, even from the legal process, you know, is a dream that's not worth having.
BORGER: But this law was written so that you wouldn't have any accountability to anybody, that you couldn't run wild. MATTHEW WHITAKER, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: And along the same lines that
Jeff is talking about, remember, politics means it's responsive to the people. That's where anytime I talk to somebody about setting up a truly independent law enforcement or prosecutorial agency not accountable to the politicians and, therefore, the people, I think that scares all of us. Someone who had an inability to ruin people with a crime before you have a trial, that's an awesome power and why it's limited and subject to hiring and firing by the president.
TAPPER: And when we go over the testimony, that James Comey gave last week and we can see him giving demonstrations, if you believe his testimony, as to why having a special prosecutor might be a better idea or at least some sort of independent judicial branch because the attorney general is not necessarily that. He testified that he felt queasy when then Attorney General Loretta Lynch, President Obama's attorney general, told him to call the Hillary Clinton investigation into her private e-mail server, called it "a matter" instead of an investigation. And then, of course, there was what he felt was a directive from President Trump. And with a lack of support from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. I suspect Jeff Sessions, Jeff, will be asked about that today, why weren't you there for your FBI director who was feeling the heat.
TOOBIN: I would not hold my breath for a lot of discussion from Jeff Sessions about his dealings with President Trump. Whether he recites executive privilege or refuses to discuss those sorts of issues, I think he'll be very wary of discussing that. I don't know if he has a legal right to do it but in the real world here, there's no judge that is going to force him to answer a question. Yes, theoretically, if he doesn't answer some questions, the committee could try to hold him in contempt. But in the real world in a practical sense, he's going to answer the questions he wants to answer and not answer the ones he doesn't and my guess he won't answer a lot.
TAPPER: Matthew, I may push back on James Comey's description of how he asked Jeff Sessions, don't leave me alone with President Trump and Jeff Sessions didn't really give him much of a response and certainly not support.
WHITAKER: We're going to find out pretty quickly whether James Comey's testimony was credible and how credible it is based on what Jeff Sessions' recollection is, but we'll see how many times executive privilege is exerted and things that he can't talk about in an open session. This is where Jeff Sessions may appear, like, he told his story but at the same time, we don't know much more than before.
BORGER: You know, Comey left a lot of bread crumbs out there about Sessions, saying that we knew a couple weeks before he was likely to recuse himself, but there was something I know that was problematic about Sessions that I can't tell you in an open session. So the question is, is that about extra meetings that the attorney general might have had with Kislyak. There is also --
[14:35:14] TAPPER: The ambassador, the Russian ambassador. BORGER: The Russian ambassador. And also, the question that maybe he
can answer without going to executive privilege about what was your thinking about why you didn't recuse yourself in the firing of James Comey since you had recused yourself in the Russia investigation?
TAPPER: That will be a big part.
TOOBIN: Yes, but can I say one thing about executive privilege? We're slipping into the shorthand here of Jeff Sessions citing the executive privilege. Jeff Sessions has no executive privilege. Donald Trump has executive privilege. Any time he refers to executive privilege will privilege, I expect Democrats will say, did the president or counsel or someone instruct you to cite executive privilege because if the answer is no, he has no right to cite executive privilege. Only the president has that right to protect.
TAPPER: And another big topic is, if Jeff Sessions recused himself, as he announced he was going to do because he had not been fully accountable and transparent about his meetings with Russian officials, then explain how he made the recommendation to President Trump to fire James Comey.
WHITAKER: The whole reason is the president has explained why he fired James Comey. Jeff Sessions has not necessarily. We've seen the Rosenstein memo so we have a sense of what he didn't do appropriately. Jeff Sessions could have had different reasons to fire Jim Comey.
TAPPER: In fact, the Rosenstein memo didn't mention how he dealt with the Hillary Clinton investigation.
I've got to send it back to my friend and colleague, Wolf Blitzer, in D.C. -- Wolf?
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jake.
I just saw Jim Risch, of Idaho, walking in. There's Ron Wyden. The Senators are coming in. We saw Jack Reed, Kamala Harris, of California, the newest member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. They are there as well.
We are waiting, John King, for Richard Burr, the chairman, to show up, and Mark Warner, the vice chairman. This is the committee. We'll let our viewers know, they will make opening statements. The attorney general will have an opportunity, and then the rounds. The Republicans and Democratic members will all have a chance to start asking serious questions.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT & CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: You're politely saying that the Senate will be the Senate. You mentioned Chairman Burr. Often the witnesses meet with the chairman and co-chairman beforehand. Senator Burr is critical here. He's a Republican, but he owes his job to Donald Trump, many people say, and you saw --
(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Senator McCain is showing up. He's the chairman of the Armed Services Committee but ex officio, he's automatically, like Senator Reed, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, they are also members of this committee.
KING: Richard Burr got quite exasperated and said, you shouldn't come before Congress unless you're willing to answer questions. He's a friend, former Senator. And they tend to get more deference, but I would put the emphasis on little. The attorney general has every right -- the president has a right to talk to his chief advisers in private. How broad is that right? That, to me, is the most interesting part here. How aggressive is Chairman Burr in challenging Jeff Sessions if he tries to hold back?
BLITZER: Senator Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, as well.
DAVID GREGORY, CNN SENIOR POLTICAL ANALYST: It's really interesting to me, the tenor of questions and firing Jim Comey after he recused himself from the Russia investigation, that becomes quite important. Listening to the House speaker, for example, gently chiding the president is an example that Republicans are still on board with this president and, therefore, Capitol Hill Republicans are going to remain cautious. They will not call the president out beyond a certain point. To John's point, in these hearings, we get a window into where that patience level is right now among these Republicans.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLTICAL REPORTER: And some of the splits. There are some moderates on this committee. People like Susan Collins have been more critical. Rubio, for instance, was seen from the hearing before with Comey as running interference in many ways and he got some -- and he pushed back on that notion. It will be interesting to see some of the splits in the Republican Party, people who are much more pro Trump, people like Tom Cotton, who we saw walking in with John McCain, at some point, and then people who are much more moderate to see if there are any changes.
GREGORY: And McCain is a question mark because they thought he was going to be tough and ask tough questions. We'll see where he is today. He had a line of questions that seemed confused at best. He had to clarify it later to Jim Comey. So we'll see where he is today.
[14:40:08] BLITZER: I've always, Angela, been fascinated by this committee when they have an open session like this. This is the Senate Intelligence Committee -- and there you see the Attorney General of the United States Jeff Sessions walking in now. He's going to be greeted by various Senators. And photographers who are going to take pictures. You can see his family members and staff behind him.
He'll be sworn in, Angela, but this is a committee where the members get access to the most sensitive intelligence information, classified information that they can't really discuss publicly but they know about it, and sometimes that shapes their questions. ANGELA RYE, CNN POLTIICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. There are things
that the American people are not privy to. They have to walk a delicate balance of asking questions that are digestible to the American people without telling the full story and running afoul of the rule.
BLITZER: There's the chairman and vice chairman, Senator Burr and Senator Mark Warner, of Virginia, shaking hands with the attorney general. As I said before, I assume he'll be sworn in. He will have testimony under oath.
ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALSYT: That's a tough part for the attorney general, trying to be responsive but -- still answering questions but not violating any sensitive information that might be a part of this Russia probe in front of this committee.
I heard Jeff Toobin, a few minutes ago, said he's going to have to walk a fine line and look like he's not obstructing and not answering.
BLITZER: Because the attorney general, also, is the recipient of enormously classified information.
BLITZER: So, John King, they have to be very sensitive how far they go in an open public session.
KING: And David's point about how aggressive are the Republicans, number one, and a lot of Republicans are frustrated at the White House because those who serve well Jeff Sessions, do they think that they are in cahoots with the Russians? So they are wondering why aren't you getting ahead of this and spilling everything that you know. If you did nothing wrong, spill it all out. If you made a couple of silly mistakes, went to a meeting, in hindsight, get over -- if it's a couple of embarrassing things, get it out and get it over with. It's the fact that it's dragging out so long. They take time but a lot of Republicans --
BLITZER: All right. Here we go. There's the chairman, Richard Burr, of North Carolina.
SEN. RICHARD BURR, R-NORTH CAROLINA: I call the hearing to order please.
Attorney General Sessions, appreciate your willingness to appear before the committee today. I thank you for your years of dedicated service as a member of this body and your recent leadership at the Department of Justice.
As I mentioned when Director Comey appeared before us last week, this committee's role is to be the eyes and ears for the other 85 members of the United States Senate, and for the American people, ensuring that the intelligence community is operating lawfully and has the necessary tools to keep America safe.
BURR: The community is a large and diverse place. We recognize the gravity of our investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. But I remind our constituents that, while we investigate Russia, we are scrutinizing CIA's budget -- while we're investigating Russia, we are still scrutinizing CIA's budget, NSA's 702 program, our nation's satellite program and the entire I.C. effort to recruit and retain the best talent we can find in the world.
More often than not, the committee conducts its work behind closed doors, a necessary step to ensure that our most sensitive sources and methods are protected. The sanctity of these sources and methods are at the heart of the intelligence community's ability to keep us safe and to keep our allies safe from those who seek to harm us.
I've said repeatedly that I do not believe any committee -- that the committee does should be done in public. But I also recognize the gravity of the committee's current investigation and the need for the American people to be presented the facts, so that they might make their own judgments.
It is for that reason that this committee has now held its 10th open hearing of 2017, more than double that of the committee in recent years, and the fifth on the topic of Russian interference.
Attorney General Sessions, this venue is your opportunity to separate fact from fiction, and to set the record straight on a number of allegations reported in the press.
BURR: For example, there are several issues that I'm hopeful we will address today. One: did you have any meetings with Russian officials or their proxies on behalf of the Trump campaign or during your time as attorney general?
Two: what was your involvement with Candidate Trump's foreign policy team, and what were their possible interactions with Russians? Three: why did you decide to recuse yourself from the government's Russia investigation? And fourth: what role, if any, did you play in the removal of then FBI Director Comey?
I look forward to a candid and honest discussion as we continue to pursue the truth behind Russia's interference in the 2016 elections. The committee's experienced staff is interviewing the relevant parties, having (ph) spoken to more than 35 individuals to date, to include, just yesterday, an interview of former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
We also continue to review some of the most sensitive intelligence in our country's possession. As I've said previously, we'll -- we will establish the facts, separate from rampant speculation, and lay them out for the American people to make their own judgment.
Only then will we as a nation be able to put this episode to rest and look to the future. I'm hopeful that members will focus their questions today on the Russia investigation, and not squander the opportunity by taking political or partisan shots.
The vice chairman and I continue to lead this investigation together on what is a highly charged political issue. We may disagree at times, but we remain a unified team with a dedicated, focused and professional staff working tirelessly on behalf of the American people to find the truth.
The committee has made much progress as the political winds blow forcefully around us, and I think all members would agree that, despite a torrent of public debate on who and what committee might be best suited to lead on this issue, the intelligence committee has lived up to its obligation to move forward with purpose and above politics.
Mr. Attorney General, it's good to have you back.
I would now turn to the vice chairman for any remarks he might have. WARNER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I want to also thank -- the way that we are preceding on this investigation.
Mr. Attorney General, it's good to see you again. And we appreciate your appearance on the heels of Mr. Comey's revealing testimony last week.
I do, though, want to take a moment on the outset and first express some concern with the process by which we are seeing you, the Attorney General, today. It's my understanding that you were originally scheduled to testify in front of the House and Senate appropriations committees today. I know those appearances have been canceled to come here instead.
While we appreciate his testimony before our committee, I believe, and I speak -- I believe I speak for many of my colleagues that I believe he should also answer questions from members of those committees and the Judiciary Committee, as well. Mr. Attorney General, it's my hope that you will reschedule those appearances as soon as possible.
In addition, I want to say at the outset that, while we consider your appearance today as just the beginning of our interaction with you and your department, Mr. Attorney General, we had always expected to talk to you as part of our investigation. We believed it would be, actually, later in the process.
We're glad to accommodate your request to speak to us today. But we also expect to have your commitment to cooperate with all future requests, and make yourself available, as necessary, to this committee for, as the chairman has indicated, this very important investigation.
Now let's move to the subject of today's discussion. Let's start with the campaign. You were an early and ardent supporter of Mr. Trump. In March, you were named as chairman of the Trump campaign's National Security Advisory Committee.
You were much more than a surrogate. You were a strategic adviser, who helped shape much of the campaign's national security strategy. No doubt, you will have key insights about some of the key Trump associates that we're seeking to hear from in the weeks ahead.
Questions have also been raised about some of your own interactions with Russian officials during the campaign. During your confirmation hearing in January, you said, quote, you "did not have communications with Russians." Senator Leahy later asked you in writing whether you'd been in contact with anyone connected to any part of of Russian government about the 2016 election. You answered, I believe, with a definitive no.
Despite that fact -- despite that, the fact is, as we discovered later, that you did have interactions with Russian government officials during the course of the campaign. In March, you acknowledged two meetings with the Russian Ambassador. Yet there's also been some public reports of a possible third meeting at the Mayflower Hotel on April 27th.
WARNER: I hope that, today, you will help clear up those discrepancies.
We also expect and hope (ph) -- this is very important -- that you will be willing to provide the committee with any documents that we'd need to shed light on this issue, such as e-mails or calendars.
Then there's the topic of the firing of former FBI Director Comey. Last Thursday, we -- we received testimony from Mr. Comey. Under oath, he outlined his very troubling interactions with the president, as well as the circumstances of his firing. A few disturbing points stood out.
First, Mr. Comey, who has decades of experience at the Department of Justice and at the FBI, serving under presidents of both parties, was so unnerved by the actions of the president that he felt, quote, "compelled to fully document every interaction they had."
Mr. Comey sat where you are sitting today and testified that he was concerned that the president of the United States might lie about the nature of their meetings. That's a shocking statement from one of our nation's top law enforcement officials.
We also heard that Director Comey took it as a direction from the president that he was to drop the FBI's investigation into former National Security Adviser General Mike Flynn.
Finally, we heard from Mr. Comey that he believes he was fired over his handling of the Russia investigation. The president himself confirmed this in statements to the media. This is deeply troubling for all of us who believe, on both sides of the aisle, in preserving the independence of the FBI.
We have a lot of work in order to follow up on these alarming disclosures. Mr. Attorney General, your testimony today is an opportunity to begin the process of asking those questions.
For instance, again -- I know others will ask about this -- you recused yourself from the Russia investigation, yet you participated in the firing of Mr. Comey over the handling of that same investigation. We want to ask you about how you view your recusal and whether you believe you've complied it -- with -- fully.
In addition, we heard from Mr. Comey last week that the president asked you to leave the Oval Office so that he could speak one on one with Mr. Comey. Again, a very conserving -- concerning action. We will need to hear from you about how you reviewed -- how you viewed the president's request, and whether you thought it was appropriate.
We will also want to know if you are aware of any attempts by the president to enlist leaders in the Intelligence Committee to undermine this very same Russia investigation.
Most importantly, our committee will want to hear what you are doing to ensure that the Russians or any other foreign adversaries cannot attack our democratic process like this ever again.
I'm concerned that the president still does not recognize the severity of the threat. He, to date, I believe, has not even acknowledged the unanimous conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia massively intervened in our elections.
The threat we face is real, and it's not limited to us. The recent events in France are, again, a stark reminder that all Western democracies must take steps to protect themselves. I believe the United States can and must be a leader in this effort, but all -- would (ph) require our administration to get serious about this matter.
Finally, in the past several weeks, we've seen a concerning pattern of administration officials refusing to answer public, unclassified (ph) questions about allegations about the president in this investigation.
We had a hearing with this subject last week. I want to commend the chairman, who, at the end of that hearing, made very clear that our witnesses -- it was not acceptable for our witnesses to come before Congress without answers. The American people deserve to know what's going on here.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I look forward to the witness's testimony.
BURR: Thank you, Vice Chairman.
Attorney General Sessions, if you would stand, I will administer the oath to you. Raise your right hand, if you would, please.
Do you solemnly swear to tell the whole -- the truth, and the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
SESSIONS: I do.
BURR: Please, be seated.
Thank you, Attorney General Sessions. The floor is yours. SESSIONS: Thank you much -- thank you very much, Chairman Burr and Ranking Member Warner, for allowing me to publicly appear before your committee today.
I appreciate the committee's critically important efforts to investigate Russian interference with our democratic processes. Such interference can never be tolerated, and I encourage every effort to get to the bottom of any such allegations.
As you know, the deputy attorney general has appointed a special counsel to investigate the matters related to the Russian interference in the 2016 election. I'm here today to address several issues that have been specifically raised before this committee, and I appreciate the opportunity to respond to questions as fully as the Lord enables me to do so.
But, as I advise you, Mr. Chairman, and consistent with longstanding Department of Justice practice, I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I have with the president. Now, let me address some issues directly.
I did not have any private meetings, nor I -- do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel. I did not attend any meetings at that event separate.
Prior to the speech I attended by the president today, I attended a reception with my staff that included at least two dozen people and President Trump.
Though I do recall several conversations that I had during that free speech reception, I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials. If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it.
After the speech, I was interviewed by the news media -- there was an area for that in a different room -- and then I left the hotel. But whether I ever attended a reception where I -- where the Russian ambassador was also present is entirely beside the point of this investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Let me state this clearly, colleagues. I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.
SESSIONS: I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you, and I -- and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion -- that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.
Relatedly, there is the assertion that I -- that I did not answer Senator Franken's question honestly at my confirmation hearing. Colleagues, that is false -- I can't say colleagues, now. I'm no longer a part of this body -- but, former colleagues, that is false. This is what happened.
Senator Franken asked me a rambling question, after some six hours of testimony that included dramatic new allegations that the United States intelligence community -- the U.S. intelligence community -- had advised President-Elect Trump, quote, "that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government," close quote.
I was taken aback by that explosive allegation, which, he said, was being reported as breaking news that very day, and which I had not heard. I wanted to refute that immediately -- any suggestion that I was part of such an activity.
I replied, quote -- I replied to Senator Franken this way: quote, "Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate a time or two in that campaign, and I did not -- didn't have -- did not have communications with the Russians, and -- and I'm unable to comment on it," close quote.
That was the context in which I was asked the question. And in that context, my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it. I was responding to this allegation that we had met -- surrogates had been meeting with the Russians on a regular basis.
It simply did not occur to me to go further than the context of the question, and to list any conversations that I may have had with Russians in routine situations, as I had had many routine meetings with other foreign officials.
So please hear me now.