U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is under fire over an exchange he had in January with Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., in which he offered apparently inaccurate information about meetings he’d had with the Russian ambassador.
The exchange took place during Sessions’ confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to become attorney general. At the time, he was a Republican senator from Alabama. Sessions’ testimony was under oath.
This is a transcript of that exchange, prepared by CQ-Roll Call.
FRANKEN: Senator, last Friday the Director of National Intelligence – we covered this a little – representing 16 agencies, released a declassified intelligence report stating, in quotes, “We assessed Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” unquote. And yet despite the consensus among our intelligence agencies, President-elect Trump has remained persistently skeptical during the first presidential debate. He wondered aloud whether the responsible party could be China or, quote, “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Last month he called reports of Russian hacking quote, “ridiculous,” and quote “another excuse” for the democratic loss. He said, quote, “it could be somebody sitting on -- in a bed some place. Again, I mean, they have no idea.” And even after the release of the declassified report, the president has really yet to acknowledge Russia’s role in the hacking. You said earlier that you accept the FBI’s conclusion. To my mind, it’s absolutely extraordinary to see a president-elect so publicly refuting and without evidence, so far as I can tell, the assessment of our intelligence agencies. Why do you think president-elect Trump has been so unwilling to acknowledge Russian involvement in the hacking?
SESSIONS: I did mean to indicate I respect the FBI and I respect the fact that if they give a conclusion they believe is accurate, but I’m not able to comment on the president-elect’s comments about it.
FRANKEN: OK. CNN has just published a story and I’m telling you this about a news story that’s just been published. I’m not expecting you to know whether or not it’s true or not. But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say, quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have – did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.
FRANKEN: Very well. Without divulging sensitive information, do you know about this or know what compromising personal and financial information the Russians claim to have?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, allegations get made about candidates all the time and they’ve been made about president-elect Trump, a lot sometimes. Most of them, virtually all of them, have been proven to be exaggerated and untrue. I would just say to you that I have no information about this matter. I have not been in on the classified briefings and I’m not a member of the intelligence committee, and I’m just not able to give you any comment on it at this time.
FRANKEN: OK. Totally fair.
Last week, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, claimed that the Russian government was not the source of the hacked e-mails WikiLeaks published during the, that they published during the campaign. Now, Assange did not identify his source nor did he say whether his source worked with or received information from the Russians. But again, American intelligence agencies have concluded the Russian government directed the hacking operation. Nonetheless, immediately following that interview, president-elect tweeted, quote, “Julian Assange said a 14-year-old could have hacked Podesta. Why was DNC so careless. Also said Russians did not give him the info exclamation point.”
Senator Sessions, does it concern you that our future commander in chief is so much more willing to accept what Julian Assange says instead of the conclusions of our intelligence agencies and why do you think President Trump finds Assange trustworthy?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not able to answer that. I have not talked to the president-elect about any of these issues and it is often inaccurate what gets printed in them papers.
FRANKEN: Well, back in 2010, back when WikiLeaks was publishing stolen American diplomatic cables and military secrets, you voiced concern about the Obama administration’s response. You said that WikiLeaks publishing sensitive documents should be quote, “pursued with the greatest intensity.” You said quote, “the president from on down should be crystal clear on this, and I haven’t seen that, I mean, he comes out of the left, the anti-war left. They have always glorified people who leak sensitive documents. Now he’s the commander in chief so he’s got a challenge.”
President-elect Trump, by contrast, said quote, “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.” Do you believe that by holding up Julian Assange, who traffics in leaked in stolen documents, often classified documents, as a legitimate source of information, that president-elect Trump is glorifying people who leak sensitive documents?
SESSIONS: Well, I would say this, that if Assange participated in violating American law, then he is a person subject to prosecution and condemnation.
FRANKEN: Well, we know that in regard to what he did in 2010 and yet the president-elect said WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks. Doesn’t it seem like perhaps if you weren’t sitting before us today as an attorney general nominee and if President Obama was publicly embracing Julian Assange, that perhaps you might take a more critical view?
SESSIONS: As a member of the Senate, as you and I remain for, hopefully not too much longer, depends on you and your colleagues, but we’re – I feel a lot – it’s a lot easier to be vigorous and outspoken. If you begin to think about the awesome responsibility of serving as an attorney general with the possibility of having to handle certain cases, you need to be more cautious about what you say. So, I think it’s just not appropriate for me to be the person for you to seek political responses from.