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Attorney General Jeff Sessions Testifies on Capitol Hill. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 10:30   ET


[10:30:00] JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: There can be no doubt, colleagues, we need much stricter accountability in the manufacture and the prescribing and the distribution of addicted opioids. We do not need to delay this any longer. It does often lead to death through other drugs.

We know that most of the heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and Fentanyl that is fueling the drug crisis was brought across our southern border by powerful drug cartels, bringing violence, addiction, and death.

An important factor in our long-term success requires securing our borders. For decades, the American people have asked for a just, lawful system of immigration. They are right in their demands. We can end the illegality.

President Trump has sent an unambiguous message to the world. And the illegal flow has been reduced by almost half. But there is more to do. We can end the lawlessness. Legislation is essential.

The president has set out a reasonable and effective plan with numerous immigration priorities for this body to consider, including a border wall, significant asylum reform, swift border returns, and enhanced interior enforcement.

With the progress already achieved, our country is on its way. And whether it's an end to sanctuary city policies or an e-verification system to ensure lawful employment, they are supported by the vast majority of Americans.

There has been, I'm afraid, an erosion in the respect for the rule of law. Too often, advancing political agendas has been substituted for following the law. This Department of Justice respects Congress and the Constitution and we intend to enforce the laws, as you've written them.

The DACA policy produced by the last administration could not be sustained. It was unlawful and contrary to the laws passed by this Constitution -- this institution. In Congress, you now have the ability to act on this issue.

I would just note, the president has said he wants to work with Congress. He has a heart for young people. But we have got to have more than just an amnesty, friends. We need a good improvement in the illegality that's going on, and there is an opportunity right now. I'm telling you, an opportunity now to do something historic. So the

department is also directing taxpayers' dollars to the overwhelming number of cities and states that cooperate with federal enforcement, but grant funding is not an entitlement, it's an allocation of taxpayers' dollars by the department to advance the goals set by Congress and the Department of Justice.

So we urge our jurisdictions to cooperate with federal officials, stop letting criminal aliens back on their streets, that further victimize your communities. It does not make sense. We are grateful that the -- that overwhelmingly, most cities and jurisdictions cooperate fully and to those who have heard our message and are now cooperating.

So after 20 years in this body I understand the responsiveness, Mr. Chairman. Something you have been vocal about ever since I've been on this committee. And we're going to do so.

We inherited a very significant backlog of unanswered congressional inquiries, Chairman Grassley, dating back to 2015. And we have already reduced it by half. You can be sure we'll continue to reduce that backlog. And it will remain a priority of ours.

Finally, I want to address a letter I received last week from the minority members of this committee. That letter demanded that I determine by today whether the president will invoke executive privilege about issues on which I may be asked about today.

I have considered this request very respectfully. It's an important matter. But consistent with the longstanding policy and practice of the Executive Branch, I can neither assert executive privilege nor can I disclose today the content of my confidential conversations with the president.

Under the administration of both parties, 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.

[10:35:09] And that such communications are within the core of executive privilege. 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, during today's hearing and under these circumstances today, I will not be able to discuss the content of my conversations with the president.

Now I understand you have an important oversight responsibility today and hope you will respect this longstanding practice and respect the duty that I feel and that I face.

Mr. Chairman, thank you, and I would be prepared to do my best to answer your questions.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I would like to make two points before I start to ask questions. Number one, would be you -- and only because you mentioned the backlog of letters, remember that in January, the president put out an advisory that they would only answer questions for chairman of committees? That leaves out about 35 Republicans. That leaves out 48 Democrats.

I wrote to the White House. He's rewritten that advisory or whatever it was with the understanding that he would answer questions for any member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, chairman or not.

The other thing is, for the benefit of the committees and the long oversight hearing we're going to have today, I thank you for your cooperation on a request I made last time that if you get at the end of your seven minutes and you start before the last second hits and you ask a question, go ahead and ask that question.

You go ahead and answer it, General Sessions. But don't have dialogue after the time has run out. Some of you noticed, I think, that there was special consideration given to Senator Leahy and Senator Hatch and Ranking Member Feinstein. I think they deserve that courtesy as former chairman of this committee and as ranking member. So if they run over a little bit, I hope just a little bit, then that's OK with me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's a little bit?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's a little bit?



GRASSLEY: I'm -- the only one I paid much attention to is Mrs. Feinstein, and she was going a couple of minutes. So don't crow about that.


GRASSLEY: You and Director Coates wrote a letter to the leadership about the importance of 702. FISA. You said that reauthorization of Section 702 is the department's top legislative priority.

Question, if Section 702 were not reauthorized, can you tell us what impact that would have on the Intelligence Community and our national security interest?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, having been involved since I've been in the department with many of the day-to-day impacts of Section 702, I believe it would have a detrimental impact of significance. It would -- and it reduced our ability to identify terrorist acts and potential acts before they happen. That was one of the goals that we had when we passed the Patriot Act. And I know that -- I guess, Senator Hatch and Senator Leahy worked very hard on that.

It was -- one of the most intense times I've ever seen this committee do. 702 has proven its worth. Courts have upheld it. It has one of the most rigorous oversight procedures that -- of any act I think in existence today. And it enables us to focus on terrorists abroad and to identify those who could be threats to s us. GRASSLEY: Now that we have that in place, the FBI, for example, is

able to search limited 702 collections subject to minimumization procedures using U.S. person data to help connect the dots.

Question, if Congress were to impose a warrant requirement on assessing information obtained through so-called U.S. person queries, how would that affect the FBI's ability to do its job?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, it's just not practical and it's not legally required, in my opinion, to have a warrant requirement for this information.

[10:40:02] It originates abroad by people who are not protected by the U.S. Constitution, and I do not believe that we could carry out the responsibilities that we're expected to do with a warrant requirement for any of the 702-type material.

GRASSLEY: There will be some talk of reforms in Congress, I'm sure. Are there any reforms that can be made that would help provide more transparency into the amount of information that the intelligence agencies collect or the amount of searches conducted, especially with respect to U.S. persons?

SESSIONS: I think we're certainly open to discussing that with the members of this committee. A number of you have proposed ideas and we would be pleased to provide our suggestions, our support, our concern as appropriate.

GRASSLEY: Yes. I want to ask a question that looks like history, but it was in the news recently, yesterday, I believe. According to government documents and recent news reports, the Justice Department had an ongoing criminal investigation for bribery, extortion, and money laundering into officials for the Russian company making the purchase of Uranium One. That purchase was approved during the previous administration and resulted in the Russians owning 20 percent of the America's uranium mining capacity.

What are you doing to find out how the Russian takeover of the American uranium was allowed to occur despite criminal conduct by the Russian company that the Obama administration approved to make the purchase?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, we will hear your concerns. The Department of Justice will take such actions, as is appropriate, I know. And I would -- would offer that some people have gone to jail in that transaction already, but the article talked about other issues. So without confirming or denying the existence of any particular investigation, I would say I hear your concerns and they will be reviewed.

GRASSLEY: I think I know why you're probably reluctant to go into some detail on that, but I would like to remind you that Deputy Attorney Rosenstein directly supervised a criminal case when he was U.S. attorney in Maryland. I don't think it would be proper for him to supervise a review of his own conduct, do you? SESSIONS: It would be his decision. He's a man of integrity and

ability. If he feels that he has an inability to proceed with any investigation, it would be his responsibility to make that determination and should consult, as I've told you I would, and as I have done, with the senior ethics people at the department.

GRASSLEY: Reports suggest that the Clinton Foundation received millions of dollars from interested parties of that transaction. Bill Clinton received $500,000 for a speech in Moscow, June 2010, from the Russian government aligned bank. The same month as a speech Russia began the uranium acquisition process. This fact pattern raises serious concerns about improper political influence on the process by the previous -- by the Clintons during the Obama administration.

Has the Justice Department fully investigated whether the Russians compromised the Obama administration's decisions to smooth away for transactions? And if not, why not?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, we're working hard to maintain discipline in the department. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on any ongoing investigation.

GRASSLEY: OK, then let me move on to another issue. 2016, last year -- well, I mean, December last year, this committee published a majority staff report and criminal referrals regarding payments in connection with transferring human fetal tissue. The report referral outlined evidence from the organization's own financial records that they profited from the sale of fetal tissue, which is in violation of the law.

No one from the department or the FBI replied to my criminal referrals or sought unredacted copies of the evidence outlined in the report. Seven months after the report referral, there is no indication that anyone from the FBI or Justice Department has actually read the referrals and the full reports.

I hope you will commit to providing the committee written confirmation when the relevant Justice Department-FBI personnel have completed their review of both the referral and the majority staff report. That's my question and that will be the last one. I'll go to Senator Feinstein.

[10:45:03] SESSIONS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We will -- I will evaluate your request personally and make sure it's promptly and properly handled.

GRASSLEY: OK. Senator Feinstein?


I wanted to ask you a question or two about the firing of the FBI director, specifically, I have your letter dated May 9th to the president.

Specifically, what was your designated role in the decision to fire Director Comey?

SESSIONS: It is -- it's a matter that I can share some information about because the president himself has talked about it and revealed or -- that letter. He asked that Deputy Rosenstein and I make our recommendations in writing. We prepared those recommendations and submitted it to the president.

Senator Feinstein, I don't think it's been fully understood the significance on the error that Mr. Comey made on the Clinton matter. For the first time I'm aware of, and all of my experience, and I don't think I've heard of any situation in which a major case in which the Department of Justice prosecutors were involved in an investigation, that the investigative agency announces the closure of the investigation.

And then a few weeks before this happened, he was testifying on -- before the Congress, Mr. Comey was, and he said he thought he did the right thing and would do it again. So the Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, who's got, what, 27 years in the Department of Justice, Harvard graduate, served for eight years, as U.S. attorney under President Obama and four years under President Bush, he said that was a usurpation of the position of the Department of Justice -- the attorney general's position.

And particularly we were concerned that he reaffirmed that he would do it again. So I think that was a basis that called for a fresh start at the FBI. Mr. Comey had many talents. There's no doubt about it. I have no hard feeling about that. But I am really excited about the new director, Chris Wray, who you've confirmed with an overwhelming vote and I believe he's going to be able to do the job of FBI director with great skill and integrity.

FEINSTEIN: What exactly did President Trump tell you was his reason for firing Director Comey? I know he has said he thought the department was a mess and he asked you and Mr. Rosenstein to take a look at it and my understanding was these two letters were presented, the letter from you, dated May 9th, and the letter from Rosenstein, dated the same date, a response to that request, to take a look at the department.

SESSIONS: That's what I can tell you. He did ask for our written opinion and we submitted that to him. It did not represent any change in either one of our's opinion as Deputy Rosenstein has also indicated, I believe. And we were asked to provide it and we did.

FEINSTEIN: Did the president ever mention to you his concern about lifting the cloud on the Russia investigation?

SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, that calls for a communication that I've had with the president and I believe it remains confidential.

FEINSTEIN: But you don't deny that there was a communication?

SESSIONS: I do not confirm or deny the existence of any communication between the president that I consider to be confidential.

FEINSTEIN: When did you first speak with the president about firing Director Comey? What date?

SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, I think that's also covered by my opening statement. I believe the president has the right and I have a duty to meet with him on proper occasions and provide such advice, legal or otherwise, as I'm called upon to do. I have done that. And I believe he has a right to protect that confidentiality until appropriate circumstances exist that he might choose to waive that privilege.

[10:50:06] FEINSTEIN: All right. Let me go to another aspect. And that's emoluments lawsuits. The president is facing three different lawsuits alleging he is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution. In these cases, strangely, to me at least, the Justice Department is defending the president.

What did the department do to determine that it was appropriate to represent the president? Was the Office of Legal Counsel consulted?

SESSIONS: I believe so. And I would say that it is the responsibility of the Department of Justice to defend the Office of the Presidency in carrying on his activities against charges that are not deemed meritorious.

FEINSTEIN: And you believe that emoluments is part of that charge? Emoluments --

SESSIONS: Well, it's -- you know, Senator Feinstein, I guess I'm not able to discuss legally all the case law and the history of it, except to say we believe that this is defensible and we've taken the position that our top lawyers believe is justified.

FEINSTEIN: Well, let me go to another subject. And that's the pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. President Trump pardoned the former Maricopa County sheriff, who was convicted of criminal contempt for defying a court order to stop racially profiling and detaining Latino motorists based solely on suspicion they were undocumented immigrants.

"The Washington Post" reported that before he decided to pardon Arpaio, the president asked you to drop the criminal case against Arpaio. Did the president ask you whether the case against Arpaio could be dropped?

SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, I cannot comment on the private conversations I may have had with the president. I would just say that attorneys in the Department of Justice at the request of a judge prosecuted that case. A federal judge found the defendant guilty of a misdemeanor and -- for his actions and the president decided to issue a pardon.

FEINSTEIN: Well, let me ask you this. What was the process then by which the decision was made to pardon Arpaio?

SESSIONS: I'm not aware of the details of it. To the extent to which I can provide you in writing, I would be pleased to do so.

FEINSTEIN: Well -- SESSIONS: But -- the president has the power to issue pardons with or

without the Department of Justice involved. And that has been done in the past in some very dramatic-type pardons. This pardon, I think, was well within the power of the president to do.

FEINSTEIN: Well, my understanding is that pardon requests usually go through the office of the pardon attorney in the Department of Justice. And decisions are made according to certain standards set out in that office's rules governing petitions for executive clemency.

It has been reported that the process was not followed here, as you so indicate. So what you are saying, in fact, that there was no process. That the president simply made the decision to pardon Arpaio, who had been convicted.

SESSIONS: I'm not intending to say that at all. I'm just saying to you that I am not -- personally at this moment, not prepared to give you an accurate answer because I don't know that I remember or know it precisely. Let me get you something in writing that would be accurate. I think I would prefer to do that.

FEINSTEIN: All right.

GRASSLEY: Are you done?

FEINSTEIN: I'm over. I'm sorry. Thank you.

GRASSLEY: Senator Hatch?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Well, welcome back to the committee. We appreciate the service that you've given and both on this committee and in your current position, as well as others.

Before getting to my questions, I just want to set the record straight on something. Over the weekend, "The Washington Post" ran an article accusing Congress of passing a bill last year that "The Post" claims gutted DEA's enforcement authority.

Now the article insinuates that I, Senator Whitehouse, and the other bill's sponsors put one over on Congress by sneaking through a bill that no one knew anything about.

[10:55:04] Now, Mr. Chairman and General Sessions, and Ranking Member Feinstein, these allegations are complete baloney and we all know it.

The committee -- this committee reported the bill out by voice vote. The full Senate agreed to the bill by unanimous consent. Every member of this committee supported the bill twice, first in committee and then on the floor. So I don't want to hear anyone claim they didn't know anything about the bill.

The bill was seven pages long. It took all five minutes to read. If the Senate minority leader wants to take to the floor and decry this bill is unconscionable and as grounds of withdrawing the president's chosen nominee, he should remember that he himself supported the bill twice, once in committee when he was a member of this committee and again on the floor. We all supported this legislation. Every one of us. We all voted for it twice.

I've asked "The Post" to allow me to publish a response to their 10,000-word hit piece, maligning me and my colleagues. I hope they'll do so and I believe I deserve an opportunity to respond.

Now, moving on, I have a few questions, and I would appreciate it, Mr. Attorney General, if you would keep your answers brief.

First, I'd like to discuss a substance which is often offered as a substitute for opioids. Many states across the nation have adopted laws to legalize marijuana for medicinal use based on research suggesting there is some medicinal benefit or value to be found in it.

To be clear, I remain opposed to the broad legalization of marijuana. However, I introduced along with Senator Cassidy a bipartisan Marijuana Effect of Drug Studies Act of 2017, or the Meds Act, because I believe that scientists need -- they need to study the potential benefits and dangers of marijuana.

And I'm very concerned about recent reports that DOJ and DEA are at odds on marijuana research, particularly when it comes to granting applications to grow marijuana for further research.

Can you clarify the position of the Justice Department regarding these applications?

SESSIONS: I'd be pleased, Senator Hatch. And thank you for your leadership. And I've been honored to serve under your chairmanship.

This -- we have a marijuana research system working now. But there's one supplier of the marijuana for that research. People have asked that there'd be multiple sources of the marijuana, from medicinal research and have asked that it be approved.

I believe there are now 26 applications for approval of suppliers who would provide marijuana for medicinal research. Each one of those has to be supervised by the DEA, and I have raised questions about how many and let's be sure we're doing this in the right way because it cost a lot of money to supervise these events.

So I think it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply, but I don't -- I'm sure we don't need 26 new suppliers.

HATCH: Well, thank you. On another topic, I remain firmly convinced that we need to revisit the original intent requirements in our law. Because of the lack of mens rea requirements in our laws, I believe that many Americans may be unwittingly breaking the law while not having the slightest idea that their behavior may be illegal.

To address this problem, I recently introduced the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017, which sets a default mens rea requirement, unless a statute explicitly states that an offense is intended to be a strict liability offense.

General Sessions, would you agree that mens rea reform needs to be a part of our conversation on criminal justice reform? SESSIONS: Well, it should a part of our conversation, it has to be,

and you've made sure that it is over a number of years. You've raised it and discussed it and I've heard you articulate your concerns.

So yes, I think it should be a part of what we do. And we'd be pleased to work with you to evaluate what kind of legislation might be appropriate.

HATCH: Well, thank you, and I with you.

Just two weeks ago, you issued a memorandum detailing 20 principles of religious liberty, as well as guidance for executive departments and agencies in implementing those principles. 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 the status of religious liberty as a fundamental and paramount right --