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Sessions Defends Previous Answers On Meetings With Russians. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 11:00   ET


HATCH: The very first principle is, I think, the most important: Quote, "The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance," unquote. And it, quote, "is not a mere policy preference to be traded against other policy preferences. It is a fundamental right."

Now, General Sessions, would you say this status of religious liberty as a fundamental and paramount right imposes the same obligation on the legislative branch as it does on the executive branch?

SESSIONS: I think it does. I would just say this, Senator Hatch: your legislation that you work so hard and passed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was a big part of the foundation of the principles we set out in that religious freedom guidance that we produced at the request of the president.

We believe that there is an (ph) -- a lack of appreciation that -- of the rights of Americans not only to have private religious thoughts, but to exercise their religious freedom. That's what the Constitution says. You should have a right to -- Congress shall make no law to establish a religion, nor prohibit the free exercise thereof.

You have raised that in the past, and it was a big part of what we did that -- the legislation you and Congress passed was a big part of what we were able to...

HATCH: Well, thank you....

SESSIONS: ... do.

HATCH: ... I'd like to just make a couple of comments. First, a comment on the Supreme Court's recent decision to grant cert in the Microsoft Ireland case.

Now, I know the department and I have different views on this case, and the topic remains controversial. That's why I introduced the International Communications Privacy Act, or ICPA, to create a clear framework for determining when law enforcement may access an individual's electronic communications, regardless of where those communications are stored.

No matter which way the court rules, I believe this is a policy question that Congress needs to decide. Congress, not the court, should be the body that determines our data privacy laws. But I'm grateful to the Department for its work thus far with me on

ICPA, and I hope you'll continue working with me and others on this committee to refine the bill so it can be enacted into law.

I know my time has run, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate that time.

GRASSLEY: Senator Leahy.

LEAHY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And welcome, Attorney General, and...

SESSIONS: Thank you, Senator Leahy.

LEAHY: ... I hope -- look forward to you also coming to the Appropriations Committee to talk about your budget.

When you appeared before the committee in January, after your testimony, I was concerned about it, and I asked you in writing whether you had been in contact with anyone connected to the Russian government about the 2016 election. You answered, emphatically, no.

We later learned about several meetings between you and Russian Ambassador Kislyak. We didn't hear this from you; we got from the press. During the height of the 2016 campaign, you reportedly met with Kislyak at a Trump campaign event on foreign policy at a Republican National Convention event and in your Senate office, all while serving as chairman of then-Candidate Trump's national security team.

Now, I've never accused you of colluding with Russians, but you clearly -- in your answer of no, you concealed your own contact with Russian officials at a time when such contacts were of great interest to the committee.

So, now, one thing I do know -- we've known each other for decades. We've worked together on many issues. If Senator -- if Senator Jeff Sessions was in my shoes, and he asked the questions, he wouldn't tolerate being misled.

So do you understand why members of this committee believe your answer, "no," was false testimony?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about that. I believe my answer was correct. Your -- I have the question you asked. You started off, in the preamble -- by the way, was -- that said, "The intelligence community has concluded that Russia intervened in the 2016 election in an effort to help elect Donald Trump. The report is available. A Russian interference in our elections is larger than any candidate or political party. It's about protecting our democracy," and I agree with that.

And then you asked a series of sub-parts, A, B, C, D...

LEAHY: Basically (ph), the question I'm referring to is I asked you if you'd had any contact with the Russians. And you answered, emphatically, no.

SESSIONS: Well, I just wanted to say that the entire context of all your questions dealt with interference in the campaign by the Russian officials...


LEAHY: ... specifically, did you meet with any Russians?

SESSIONS: And so the last -- the question you're referring to is subparagraph E, and it says, "Several of President-Elect's nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day?"

And I took that to mean -- as not any casual conversation, but did I participate with Russians about the 2016 election, that something was wrong. Every one of your previous questions talk about improper involvement, and I felt the answer was no.

LEAHY: OK, so your answer...

SESSIONS: And I answered "no," and I did not meet with them, anyway, about the election.

LEAHY: ... then let me ask you about that, because, later in March, when you did disclose such meetings, you said you did not recall what was said at the meetings. Now, your answer to my question was an emphatic "no." It wasn't "I don't recall."

Now, you're a lawyer. I'm a lawyer. You're, in fact, our nation's top lawyer. Is there a difference between responding "no" and "I do not recall?"


LEAHY: Is that legally significant?

SESSION: ... yes, but on...

LEAHY: Thank you.

SESSIONS: ... certainly, it is...


SESSIONS: ... Senator Leahy.

LEAHY: So, then, if you could not recall, then you could not have answered my question -- my first question yes or no, if later you said you don't recall what was discussed.

Now, the reason I asked that: U.S. intelligence intercepts reported in July appear to reveal that you did, in fact, discuss campaign issues with the Russian ambassador, including Candidate Trump's position on Russian-related issues.

So let me ask you this: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian-connected official any of the following: e-mails, Russian interference, sanctions like the Magnitsky Act -- you know, the so-called adoption issue -- or any policies or positions of the campaign or Trump presidency? This is since the 2016 campaign.

SESSIONS: Senator Leahy, I want to be accurate, so I don't want to have any ambiguity about your questions, but that's a lot of questions. So let's think about this.

I have never had a meeting with any Russian officials to discuss any kind of coordinating campaign efforts.

LEAHY: Not my question.

SESSIONS: I know you're shaking your head. So I want to first say...

LEAHY: Let's take it separate by -- piece by piece.

SESSIONS: ... all right.

LEAHY: Did you discuss any of the following: e-mails?

SESSIONS: Repeat the question again about e-mails.

LEAHY: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian- connected official anything about e-mails?

SESSIONS: Discuss with them? I don't recall having done any such thing.

LEAHY: Have you discussed with them Russian interference in our elections?


LEAHY: Have you discussion -- discussed anything like sanctions like the Magnitsky Act -- what they call the adoption issue?

SESSIONS: I don't believe I've ever had any discussion at any time about the Magnitsky Act.

LEAHY: Have you discussed with them any policies or positions of the campaign or Trump presidency?

SESSIONS: On -- I -- I'm not sure about that. If -- I met with the Russian ambassador after I gave a speech at the Republican convention. He was right in front of the speakerphone, and we had a few -- we had an encounter there. And that -- he came -- he asked for an appointment in my office later.

I met with 26 ambassadors in the last year, and he was one of them. He came into my office with two of my senior defense specialists and met with me for a while. And I don't recall any conversation about -- what was this last subject? Let me get it right. You asked me...

GRASSLEY: I think he wants you to repeat something.

SESSIONS: ... yeah. LEAHY: Any policies or positions of the campaign or the Trump presidency. SESSIONS: I don't think there was any discussion of -- about the details of the campaign, other than -- it could've been that, in that meeting in my office, or at the convention -- that some comment was made about what Trump's positions were. I think that's possible (ph).

LEAHY: Were you requested -- have you been interviewed, or have you been requested to be interviewed by the special counsel, either in connection with Director Comey's firing, the Russian investigation or your own contact with the Russian officials?

SESSIONS: You'll have to ask the special counsel.

LEAHY: No, I'm asking you.

SESSION: Repeat the question, then.

LEAHY: Have you been interviewed or been requested to be interviewed by the special counsel, either in connection with Director Comey's firing, the Russian investigation or your own contact with Russian officials?

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

LEAHY: I'm just saying (ph), have you been interviewed by them?


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

SESSIONS: The answer's no.

LEAHY: Thank you. OK.

Mr. Chairman, I've gone over my time. I appreciate the courtesy, and I -- but I do have a lot more questions along this line.

GRASSLEY: Senator Lee.

LEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, attorney general service -- Attorney General Sessions, for your service and for being here today.

In May, you implemented a new charging policy for federal prosecutors. The policy requires, as I understand it, that prosecutors must be required to, quote, "pursue the most serious readily provable offense."

The policy does permit prosecutors, in some circumstances, to apply for approval to charge something less than the most serious offense that is readily provable. Can you tell me, Attorney General Sessions, what factors the department will be considering in deciding whether or not to grant approval to those prosecutors in those instances, who want to charge something less than the most serious readily approvable (ph) offense? SESSIONS: Senator Leahy, the decision -- that memo's decision reestablishes the long-held position of the Department of Justice that a prosecutor should charge the most readily provable -- serious readily provable offense.

It was altered by under (ph) our previous Obama Department of Justice -- I believe, Attorney General Holder, in which he declared that you should not, and even directed you should not charge what Congress has set as a serious offense that carries a minimum sentence.

LEE: So you were restoring what was previously known, I think, as the Ashcroft policy?

SESSIONS: I was (ph) restoring what was previously set. And it was -- I was determined to have a simple directive to our capable assistant United States attorneys, not have a long six-page memorandum. We submit a one-page -- slightly over one-page memo to them. And it said, if you think that's not just and you clear it with your U.S. attorney or the designee of the U.S. attorney, you can charge less than the most serious readily approvable (ph) offense.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining us. We've obviously been listening in right here to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He is back in the hot seat before his former Senate colleagues.

It's his first trip back to Capitol Hill since June. A lot has happened since then. He's been questioned before the Senate Judiciary Committee before. In June, he was being questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Since then, a few things have happened. President Trump, of course, publicly raking him over the coals for recusing himself from the Russian meddling investigations. Sessions, reportedly, even offering his resignation.

That Russia investigation, though, of course, ramping up a lot since that June hearing, as well and we've been hearing just some of it so far in this hearing. Donald Trump Jr.'s e-mails, the revelation of that now infamous 2016 meeting with the Russian attorney at Trump Tower with the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Also since that June hearing, the last time Sessions was on the Hill, Russian-linked Facebook ads have come to light. That's to name a few of the developments. Democrats have been grilling Sessions on his meeting with the Russian ambassador and about his role in the firing of former FBI director, James Comey.

And already today, asking about his conversations with the president about all of the above. Attorney General Sessions making very clear in his opening statement, he's not going there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: It is well established that a president is entitled to have private, confidential communications with his cabinet officials, his secretary of state, his secretary of defense, his secretary of treasury, and certainly, his counsel and the attorney general of the United States, who provides counsel.

[11:15:06] And that such communications are within the core of executive privilege, until such time as the president makes a decision with respect to this privilege, I cannot waive that privilege myself, or otherwise compromise his ability to assert it.

As a result, during today's hearing and under these circumstances today, I will not be able to discuss the content of my conversations with the president.


BOLDUAN: That is almost word for word, for what Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee when he was before them back in June.

A lot to get to. Let me bring first in the panel, CNN justice correspondent, Evan Perez, he is here. CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger is here as well. CNN legal analyst, Michael Zeldin, who is also Bob Mueller, who is the special counsel, a former special assistant at DOJ in the past, and CNN political analyst, Kirstin Powers.

Joining us in a little bit, Manu Raju, will be because he's been watching this hearing very closely from inside on the Hill. Gloria, first to you, what just played out actually between Senator Leahy and Senator Sessions?

When Senator Leahy asked very specifically, have you been interviewed or has there been a request to interview you by the special prosecutor, special counsel, Bob Mueller. And Sessions, after kind of this awkward moment, he said, no, but -- he said, no.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, he did say no. He seemed to be unsure about whether he should actually answer that question, but then Leahy asked it again and sort of made the case, either you have or you haven't. He said no.

I think we can -- that doesn't mean that at some point in the future perhaps he wouldn't be interviewed, but I think that was kind of the news that came out of this morning, that he has not been interviewed by the special counsel.

As we know, the special counsel has been interviewing people like former White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and former White House communications director, Sean Spicer.

And at this point, he has not -- he has not interviewed the attorney general, who as we know, gave the president legal advice about Comey, as he testified that he was asked to write a memo.

Rod Rosenstein was asked to write a memo. He would not talk, however, about his conversations with the president regarding this matter, saying that the president has the right to invoke executive privilege.

One point here, we know from our reporting that at this point, the president's attorneys have not done so, at any point. They reserve the right to do so, to redact documents, et, but at this point, they've given us no indication that they intend to invoke executive privilege, regarding the Mueller investigation.

BOLDUAN: And I want to get to executive privilege in just one second. But Evan, to you, on the Mueller investigation, is it -- where -- what have you -- obviously, they're very tight lipped, understandably so on their list of all who has been interviewed. Does it surprise you that Jeff Sessions has not been interviewed? Do you think that's on the list?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It is surprising, we know that Rod Rosenstein has already had a conversation with Robert Mueller. We don't know whether it's something that hays going to come back to, whether Rod Rosenstein is going to be formally interviewed a second time by the special counsel's team.

So, just the fact that -- the fact that the attorney was involved in the firing of Comey and the fact that he was a big part of the campaign. Remember, he was one of the first major members of Congress who gave his backing to then Candidate Trump.

So, he was an important part of the campaign and as you noted, he had those meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador. So, it is surprising that they haven't interviewed him, but we fully expect that before this is all said and done, he will be.

But I got to tell you, if you watched the body language from Jeff Sessions, you see a lot more confidence, you see him actually standing up to a lot of the criticisms and the questions from Democrats.

This is a man who the president has called him beleaguered, he's called him weak. He's called him names we can't say on television. But behind the scenes, he's actually been very consequential for this Justice Department.

He's been behind the immigration decisions, the LGBT religious freedom decisions, the health care law, the reinterpretation of whether or not those subsidies are legal. There's a lot that Jeff Sessions has been doing behind the scenes that I think a lot of people have not been paying attention to. And so, what you see there at this hearing is a very confident attorney general.

[11:20:00] The problem is, of course, that none of this will matter to Donald Trump if Bob Mueller and this cloud of the Russia investigation continues to sort of loom over the president because he blames Jeff Sessions for the appointment of Mueller.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and getting to things like DACA, I mean, that will come in this hearing and we'll be listening to it and bring everyone all the important moments that play out. Dick Durbin has been on the forefront of the cause of Dreamers. That is where he has said his line of questioning is going to be. So, there's a lot more fireworks to come. We're going to be -- we're listening in and going to bring us these big moments as they play out, but Michael, as we are sitting here together, you said, there's actually knew answer as to how Jeff Sessions answered the question on has he been interviewed by Bob Mueller.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's right. Leahy said, have you been asked to be interviewed and have you been interviewed, and ultimately Sessions after back and forth said, I haven't been interviewed. But Leahy didn't follow up by asking, well, have you been asked to be interviewed.

And so, we don't know that. But in the concentric circles around an investigation like this, you work your way in and I still think that Sessions is a few circles in before Mueller gets to him.

BOLDUAN: Do you think ultimately he has to be interviewed?


BOLDUAN: As part of this investigation?

ZELDIN: I think he has to be because of the Comey firing and that oval office meeting where Sessions was sort of asked to leave. And Comey complained to the attorney general, that, please don't do that, don't leave me there alone.

So, I think, yes, that has to be answered, just as I think the president has to be interviewed. I just don't see how you close an investigation, whichever way it turns out, without interviewing those guys.

BOLDUAN: Kirstin, stand by. I want to go back to Capitol Hill really quickly, though. Manu Raju is there. Manu, you've been listening into all of this. You were actually able to catch up with Patrick Leahy.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right. In fact, I just talked to him about some of the early developments in this hearing, particularly Jeff Sessions saying that he could not disclose some of these conversations because they're confidential.

Not invoking executive privilege, but also what it seems to have raised some concerns with Senator Leahy is how Attorney General Sessions discussed his private discussions with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and whether or not he was forthright in his initial testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. Here's what Leahy said.


SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: There's no executive privilege. I'm concerned. My specific question was, answered earlier under oath, no question about the Russian conversation. Now he says I don't recall. Well, it's one or the other and that seemed to concern him, to say which it was. RAJU: Do you think he misled the committee?

LEAHY: Well, I said that earlier and I've tried to give him a chance to correct what had happened before, but we'll see what further questions come.

RAJU: And is it OK for him not to reveal these private discussions with the president by saying they're confidential?

LEAHY: It depends what we're talking about. If we're talking about things that the president was talking about publicly, we should be able to talk about it. But I was talking about him with the president and the Russian officials. And that he earlier said emphatically, it hasn't happened, he answered no, and now he says, I don't recall.


RAJU: So Leahy and the Democrats sensing some discrepancy from what Jeff Sessions said initially, when he said he did not have these contacts with the Russians during the campaign season. Jeff Sessions said there was no inconsistency.

He said that you were talking about campaign-related issues, there was no coordination with the Russians during the campaign season, but Leahy does not see it that way, sees an equivocation of sorts from Jeff Sessions.

But Sessions also said that he does not remember having discussions about the Magnitsky Act, that Russian sanctions legislation that went into effect here in the United States, which was a big push by Kislyak and the Russians to try to gut and repeal.

He says he does not believe they discussed that issue or any campaign issues for that matter. That's something that some Democrats here don't quite believe. We'll see, you know, we expect a lot more questions about those discussions, particularly in light of what Leahy says is some equivocation here from the attorney general, the first time they've had a chance to ask him questions since that first testimony back in January, before this same committee -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: And it doesn't seem like Pat Leahy is satisfied there. That more questions will be coming. Manu is on the ground there. We'll get back to you.

Dick Durbin just beginning his questioning with Jeff Sessions right now. Kirsten, to continue one of the things that Manu was talking about, not just kind of this discrepancy in what Sessions had told Senator Leahy.

But also on this key question of, is he going to answer questions about his conversations with the president at all? Almost word for word, Senator Sessions saying, until such -- I love -- got to love the legalese. Might as well read it again.

[11:25:10] Until such time that the president makes a decision with respect to this privilege, I cannot waive that privilege myself or otherwise compromise his ability to assert it. As a result, he says he will not be discussing any of his private conversations with the president. Does that surprise you?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, it doesn't surprise me, but the Democrats did send him a letter in advance of this hearing saying, please don't do this again. You did it last time, but we're putting you on notice, if you're going to invoke executive prim, you need to invoke executive privilege.

So, you need to find out whether the president wants you to do that and then he comes back and he does predictably exactly what he did before. The question for me is more of a legal question, which is what is the difference between invoking executive privilege and just saying it's confidential? It seems like hays saying, that's confidential, I can't talk about it, so why isn't the president invoking --

BOLDUAN: Exactly. It becomes that -- the president hasn't invoked executive privilege. Here's kind of --

POWERS: The legal question is, can he do that? He's -- I get it with a reporter. But if he's in a hearing, can he continue to say this when the president hasn't invoked executive privilege?

BOLDUAN: The Democratic senators, Michael, they're not saying that's not good enough yet. I will say, Democratic senators in their letter to Sessions before the hearing, it was a week ago, they made very clear, we heard what you said to the Intelligence Committee.

You should have had sufficient time for the president to determine, by now, if this is worthy to be protected under executive privilege or not. Do you agree with that? There's a lot of questions here, but from your background, do you believe that he should have been able to answer this, rather than say, I still don't know.

ZELDIN: Right. I think yes is the answer, simply. What he's doing is relying on what he says is a Justice Department memorandum from the office of legal counsel that says, he doesn't have to answer questions of that sort. He can essentially rely on past practice to say, this is confidential, I'm not going to answer it.

If you read that 1982 memorandum, it doesn't really say that. It says, this is in the context of executive privilege and has to be asserted as such. In June, we asked you about this and said, I'm not going to answer it until the president makes a decision.

Then they write him a letter saying, you're coming up October 18th to testify. Please get an answer from the president. He doesn't have an answer from the president and he defaults to the memorandum and I am not going to take the chance of ruining the possibility of his assertion of executive privilege, he, the president. And I don't think that's really availing.

POWERS: What's the standards for holding someone in contempt, right? If they're not answering the questions, what is the standard? Can he do this? Like you said, if the memorandum doesn't say that, can he continue to do this?

ZELDIN: They can pursue that, yes. They can assert that he has no legal basis and that he cannot sort of prospectively say, there may be an assertion, and there I'm not going answer. They can say, you know --

BOLDUAN: They can say that's not good enough and you could be held in contempt of --

ZELDIN: That's right. So, answer or not answer.

BOLDUAN: But again this is a former member -- a former of not only of the Senate, a former member of this committee and a Republican member of this committee, that's who is leading the charge. Let's get back to the hearing for just a second. I think Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat from Illinois is questioning Jeff Sessions right now.

SESSIONS: -- you remove a violent criminal from America that's illegally in the country and he's arrested by Chicago police and put in a Chicago jail, that once they're released, they shouldn't be turned over to the federal ICE officers so they can be removed from the country.

They were here illegally to begin with. Much less commit another crime and then should not be -- how does that make the city of Chicago safer when you don't remove criminals who are illegally in the country.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: You can't give an opening statement throwing a bouquet to local police and then ignore what the superintendent of police in Chicago tells you has nothing to do with gun violence. You want to cut off federal funds to that city and come here and criticize the murder rate. You can't have it both ways.

SESSIONS: I have increased the number of ATF agents to prosecute gun crimes in Chicago by 12, which is quite a large number, more than any other city --

DURBIN: Twelve, 12?

SESSIONS: Yes. The United States government can't take over law enforcement for the city of Chicago. We're not doing it for New York. We're not doing it for a lot of other places.

DURBIN: Nor can the city of Chicago --

SESSIONS: We have had a surge of ATF agents to Chicago and we'll continue to work with you. I do not want to not have grants go to Chicago, but we need their support. When somebody is arrested in the jail that's due to be deported, we just simply ask that they call us. So, we can come by and pick them up if they need to be removed. That's not happening and we've got to work through it some way.


SENATOR JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General Sessions, thank you -- welcome back. Thank you for your service.

SESSIONS: Thank you.

KENNEDY: Did you conspire with Russia --