HARI SREENIVASAN: The reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement late this afternoon was swift. Critics say his decision to recuse himself from any current and future investigations into the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia doesn’t go far enough.
One of those critics, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, he serves on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committee and joins us now.
Senator Blumenthal, why isn’t it far enough?
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D-Conn: It is nowhere near far enough, because he owes an explanation to the Judiciary Committee. He should be brought back to the Judiciary Committee and give an explanation as to why he omitted and denied key relevant facts in the course of our hearing on his nomination.
If he fails to provide a credible explanation, he should resign. And it’s also nowhere near enough, because the scope of his recusal is still somewhat undefined. He referred to the campaign, but really the investigation from which he should recuse himself relates to the entire cyber-attack and act of cyber-warfare on our democratic institutions and the potential complicity, connection, contact between the Trump transition, as well as the campaign, and the administration since the inaugural with the Russians.
And, as more news develops, the Jared Kushner meeting, for example, the need for that broader recusal becomes all the more necessary.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Senator, if you can get the attorney general back in front of your committee, what more do you hope to learn from him?
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: First and foremost, why he denied meetings that clearly he recalled and that were relevant to the investigation. What was said during those meetings? What does his staff recall, and what do their notes reflect, and what connection was to the Russians involving those conversations involving the cyber-attack on the United States, our democratic institutions?
Make no mistake. This cyber-attack was an act of warfare on the United States. And the potential complicity of Trump Organization or campaign or administration officials is very, very serious. And the American people deserve the truth. It needs to be uncovered. The cover-up, if there is one, would be as bad or worse than the crime itself, because we need to deter this kind of attack going forward.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the attorney general’s defense that he was answering the question that he was asked and nothing more?
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Looking at the record, he was asked that question not just once, but several times during his testimony. He was asked that question not just once, but several times in writing.
And to say that he may have misunderstood the question, when, in fact, everybody knows he had to have been prepped for that question, it was an obvious and challenging question that had to be briefed to him, and he had to go through that preparation.
And remember also Jeff Sessions is a prosecutor, as I was United States attorney for Connecticut, the chief federal prosecutor, state attorney general of Connecticut. We know the importance of every word under oath. And so I find that explanation inadequate.
HARI SREENIVASAN: If the recusal is not enough, is a special counsel necessary?
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: A special prosecutor is absolutely necessary.
And that raises another question: How will that special counsel or prosecutor be chosen? And it should be someone who is completely independent, impartial, objective, a professional who can uncover the truth and follow the facts and the evidence wherever they lead.
And they may lead to the attorney general. They could lead higher and to other administration officials. That appointment or designation will be critical to the trust and credibility of the Department of Justice. Remember, the attorney general of the United States and the Department of Justice are not just any Cabinet position or agency in the government. They are responsible for law enforcement.
They are the legal conscience and moral compass of our federal enforcement establishment and even of the nation in many respects. And they need to be beyond doubt or reproach.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Should there be an investigation into perjury of your former colleague?
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: The investigation should be into any violation of law that has occurred by anyone. And it should be by a special prosecutor who will uncover the truth, so that the American people know about the cyber-attacks on this nation and know about any cooperation or complicity or support the Russians received from anybody in the United States.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The attorney general today, along with Speaker Ryan and others, said, listen, this is part of the job as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They meet with ambassadors all the time.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: This ambassador was from Russia at the height of the political campaign and of the Russian interference and cyber-attack on this nation, through not only hacking into the Democratic and Republican National Committees, but also the campaign propaganda and misinformation and fake news.
So, the contacts with the ambassador in terms of timing, who it was, what country and what was going on is certainly more than just routine. I have never met with the Russian ambassador. And the meeting here is certainly more than just a passing occurrence.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But how do you fix this in the future? If members of Congress should be meeting with diplomats or foreign dignitaries when they’re interested or in the interest of their constituents, should there be a public record of every one of these meetings?
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: The safer course might have been to have a public record or to postpone the meeting.
One of the questions to be asked of Attorney General Sessions is, why then, what was discussed? If it was as a member of the Armed Services Committee, what purpose was there in the discussion? Was it to discuss the Russians’ violation of the 1987 ballistic missile treaty, which they are doing now?
Was it to discuss other acts of aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world? What was discussed? We have a right to those explanations.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thank you very much.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.