The Hill is providing live coverage of Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
The annual Justice Department oversight hearing marks Sessions's first appearance before the panel since his confirmation hearing in January and the first oversight hearing during his tenure at the Department of Justice.
Blumenthal ends hearing with questions on advisers' private emails
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) concluded the proceedings by asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions about media reports that at least six of President Trump’s closest advisers use private emails to discuss White House business, including first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, senior adviser Jared Kushner.
“If Jared Kushner or any of the other individuals I mentioned sent or received classified information using private email accounts, would you prosecute them?” he asked.
“It would have to be evaluated at the time,” Sessions said.
Blumenthal asked Sessions if he’s investigating any individuals for their use of private emails.
“I’m not able to confirm or deny any investigation,” Session said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) called Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s remarks after a Hawaii district judge blocked President Trump’s previous travel ban in April “ignorant.”
“Not that you, you were ignorant, but the remark was ignorant,” she said.
At the time, Sessions said he was “amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his constitutional and statutory power.”
“When a public official like you makes a statement like that it tends to legitimize the views of people who think the great racial and ethnic diversity in my state makes us somehow less American,” Hirono said. “So do you stand by your statement?”
Sessions said he had no idea his remark would be interpreted that way.
“There are 600 federal district judges in American, and the president issues a lawful order that I believe will be upheld by the Supreme Court, and one of those judges happened to be on an island in the Pacific and stopped the entire process,” he said.
“I think these judges need to be careful they are not just setting policy and using their power to block the president’s ability to protect America.”
Cornyn praises Sessions
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) took the opportunity to commend Sessions for his work so far and urge him not to get discouraged.
“You have a tough job to do at the Department of Justice after eight years of mismanagement, where I think the American people lost confidence in the department’s ability to do things in a nonpolitical fashion,” he said. "I know you are the man to help restore the reputation of the department. … Keep up the good work.”
Sessions declines 'blanket' assurance to not jail journalists
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday said he could not make a “blanket commitment” to not put journalists in jail.
During testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked Sessions if he could pledge to not place “reporters in jail for doing their jobs.”
“Well, I don’t know that I can make a blanket commitment to that effect. But I will say this, we have not taken any aggressive action against the media at this point,” Sessions replied.
“But we have matters that involve the most serious national security issues that put our country at risk and we will utilize the authorities that we have legally and constitutionally if we have to.”
The comments from Sessions come after President Trump, unhappy with a story published by NBC News, last week said network licenses should be challenged. While the major networks do not have licenses, local affiliates do have broadcast licenses.
“We always try to find an alternative way, as you probably know, Senator Klobuchar, to directly confronting media ... but that’s not a total blanket protection,” Sessions added.
Klobuchar noted her question stems from concerns over Trump’s comments about the networks.
Sessions: Special counsel has not contacted me about an interview
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the Justice Department's special counsel has not contacted his office about a potential interview as part of its investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“I would just say, Senator Blumenthal, my staff handed me a note that I have not been asked for an interview at this point,” Sessions told Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) several minutes after a heated exchange over the matter.
“My office certainly hasn’t been contacted with regard to that. Maybe you better check your source.”
Earlier in the hearing, Sessions had noted that the special counsel has not conducted an interview with him.
The counsel's probe, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, is looking into Russia’s election interference and any potential ties between President Trump’s campaign staff members and the Kremlin.
Franken and Sessions square off
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions went head-to-head over whether Sessions willingly misled the committee during his confirmation hearing when he claimed he had never met or communicated with Russian officials during the campaign, as Franken has claimed.
It has since been revealed that Sessions did, in fact, meet with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while he was a campaign surrogate for Trump. Franken accused Sessions of trying to qualify his answer.
"First it was 'I did not have communications with Russians,' which is not true," Franken said. "Then it was 'I never met with any Russians to discuss any political campaign,' which may or may not be true. Now it's 'I did not discuss interference in the campaign,' which further narrows your initial blanket denial of meeting with the Russians. ... What, in your view, constitutes issues of the campaign?"
Sessions fired back: "Let me just say this without hesitation that I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.
"I want to say that first. That's been the suggestion that you've raised and others that somehow we had conversations that were improper."
When Franken tried to interject, Sessions cut him off.
"No, no, no. You had a long time, Senator Franken. I would like to respond," he said.
Franken then noted that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went two minutes over his allotted time for questioning. He said the committee chairman was going to cut him off.
"Mr. Chairman, I don't have to sit in here and listen to his charges without having a chance to respond," Sessions said. "Give me a break."
Sessions went on to claim he responded to Franken's questions during his confirmation hearing in good faith.
"Yes, you can say what you want to about the accuracy of it, but I think it was a good-faith response to a dramatic event at the time, and I don't think it's fair for you to suggest otherwise," he said.
Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was forced to intervene when Franken and Sessions started squabbling over how much time they were given to ask and respond to questions.
"He took more than three minutes," Franken said.
"Well, I didn't take as much time as Senator Franken took," Sessions said.
"Hey! Let me just deal with Senator Franken," Grassley said.
Sessions says undocumented immigrants should not get federal subsidies
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) questioned Sessions about his views on whether Congress should pass legislation to create a program that allows people who came to the country illegally as children to remain in the U.S.
Sessions said the Justice Department has not taken a position on legislation following President Trump's decision to rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Cruz then asked if Sessions personally thinks people who are here unlawfully should be made eligible for federal welfare and other subsidies.
"If people are here unlawfully it strikes me as the last thing you would want to do is subsidize that lawfulness," he said. "You should not be normally eligible for benefits. ... Fundamentally, a person should not be attracted to enter the country illegally and then demand lawful benefits."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pushed Attorney General Jeff Sessions on his ability to waive executive privilege and answer committee questions and produce documents about actions taken by the administration.
Reading from an executive order on executive privilege signed by President Ronald Reagan, Whitehouse said the attorney general has the authority to determine on his own that executive privilege shall not be invoked.
"Well, the attorney general does not have the power to invoke it period. Only the president can," Sessions said.
Whitehouse pushed back.
"You have the negative power to allow questions to be answered and documents to be released as not violating executive privilege," he said. "You can make that determination under paragraph three, correct?"
"I'm not sure about that," Sessions said. "I don't think so."
"OK. I'm reading aloud," Whitehouse said.
Durbin slams Sessions for pulling funds from sanctuary cities
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) on Wednesday slammed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for withholding grant funds from so-called sanctuary cities, where local law enforcement does not comply with federal immigration officials.
During testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Department of Justice oversight, Durbin and Sessions participated in a heated exchange over the grant money. Durbin quoted the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, who argued undocumented immigrants are not the source of the city’s violence.
The Illinois senator said that funding is needed for a gun monitoring system in the city that helps police instantly know when a gun is fired.
“You want to cut back these funds because you want the city of Chicago to play the role of immigration police on federal, civil laws,” Durbin told Sessions.
“Mr. Attorney General, you’re not helping us solve the murder problem in the city of Chicago by taking away these federal funds, and the superintendent says that your pursuit of undocumented immigrants has little or nothing to do with gun violence in Chicago.”
But while Sessions said the murder rate in Chicago “is a cloud over the city” and argued “good community based policing” is vital, the head of the Justice Department pushed for the deportation of undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes.
“I think the politicians cannot say that if you remove a violent criminal from America that’s illegally in the country and he’s arrested by Chicago police and put in the Chicago jail, that once they’re released they shouldn’t be turned over to the federal [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers so they can be removed from the country. They were here illegally to begin with, much less commit another crime,” Sessions said.
“How does that make the city of Chicago safer when you don’t remove criminals who are illegally in the country?” he added.
But Durbin alluded to hypocrisy on the part of Sessions for praising local police but disregarding the head of the Chicago police department.
“Mr. Attorney General, 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,” Durbin said.
“You want to cut off federal funds to that city and come here and criticize the murder rate.”
Sessions says he has not been interviewed by Mueller in Russia probe
Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that he hasn't been interviewed by the special counsel handling the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Sessions if he's been interviewed or asked to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller in connection with the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, the Russian investigation or his own contact with Russian officials.
Sessions first told Leahy to ask the special counsel but then relented after Leahy pushed back.
"Well I'd be pleased to answer that," Sessions said. "I'm not sure I should without clearing that with the special counsel. What do you think?"
There were some audible chuckles in the hearing room. Leahy then asked again, "Have you been interviewed by them?"
"No," Sessions said.
"You haven't been interviewed by special counsel in any way shape or matter?" Leahy asked again.
"The answer's no," Sessions said.
Sessions: Significance of Comey's 'error' on 'Clinton matter' not fully understood
Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a Senate hearing on Wednesday criticized James Comey, saying the "significance of the error" the former FBI director made on the "Clinton matter" has not been fully understood.
Sessions made the comments after telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that he cannot discuss the content of the conversations he's had with President Trump. Sessions said the president is entitled to have private, confidential communications with his Cabinet officials.
In opening remarks, committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told Sessions they wanted to know why the president fired Comey in the midst of investigations into whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential race.
Feinstein told Sessions it's important to understand what role he had in this process, including conversations he had with the president and others in the White House.
Sessions, however, made clear he won't be answering such questions. He said he could not waive executive privilege.
Feinstein pressed him during her line of questioning anyway, asking what his designated role was in Comey's firing. Sessions said he was asked to make a recommendation in writing and submitted it to the president.
"I don't think it's been fully understood the significance of the error Mr. Comey made on the Clinton matter," he said, referring to Comey's role in the investigation of former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of State. "For the first time I'm aware of in all of my experience ... a major case in which DOJ prosecutors were involved in an investigation that an investigative agency announced the closure of an investigation."
Sessions noted that Comey said a few weeks later that he would do it again.
"I think that was a basis that called for a fresh start at the FBI," he said.
The annual Department of Justice oversight hearing marked the first time Sessions has appeared before the committee since taking office in February.