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Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., joins Judy Woodruff to react to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ first public testimony on the Russia investigation. Schiff says what was most notable to him was what he saw as Sessions corroborating former FBI Director James Comey on details of meetings with President Trump, as well as Sessions’ refusal to answer many of the senators’ questions.
And for more on the attorney general's testimony, I'm now joined by the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
He is Representative Adam Schiff of California.
Congressman Schiff, thank you for joining us.
I know you paid close attention to what was said today by the attorney general. Did you come away with a better understanding of what has happened over the last year?
REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-Calif.:
And what was notable to me was the degree to which the attorney general really corroborated what is, I think, the most significant of the meetings that James Comey testified. And that is, he did corroborate that there was a meeting of many people in the Oval Office. And although he didn't say it was at the president's instruction, it was pretty clear that it was.
Everyone left the room, except for James Comey and the president. And the attorney general acknowledged that he did linger, that he was one of the last, if not the last, to leave the room, and also corroborated the fact that, the following day, Director Comey told him he was essentially uncomfortable with something that took place in that meeting.
That tells me that James Comey's testimony about that meeting is far more accurate than the president's statements about that meeting, because, if there wasn't something uncomfortable about it, then why did the director go the next day to the attorney general and say, don't leave me alone again with the president?
The other point I would make, Judy, is the one that you have been discussing. And that is, we cannot accept this non-invocation of privilege as a reason to prohibit the Congress from finding out whether the attorney general wrote a memo or wrote a letter along with the deputy attorney general to provide cover or pretext for a decision they knew was made on other grounds.
Now, I don't know if that's the case, because he wouldn't answer, but as it goes to the very heart of whether the president sought to interfere or obstruct the Russia investigation, we need to use whatever compulsory process is necessary to get those answers.
And we heard at the end of the meeting — of the hearing, rather, the chairman, Richard Burr, Senator Burr, asked the attorney general to go back to the White House to see if there's more of his communications with the president and with anyone in the White House that they can share.
Is that something that you think is likely to produce some answers?
REP. ADAM SCHIFF:
Well, I don't know. I would certainly hope so.
I will say this, in light of the conversation that you just had with Walter Dellinger and Mr. Terwilliger, a couple things. First is, the questions that were asked of the attorney general were all easily anticipated, so there were no surprise questions here.
There was no reason why the White House could not have instructed the attorney general whether they were going to invoke privilege or not. So I don't buy the idea that the attorney general couldn't know in advance whether he needed to invoke the privilege. They didn't want him to. They didn't want the optic of it. And that's not a good reason for refusing to answer the questions.
But, more than that, if the attorney general allowed himself to be used as a pretext to give justification for a firing that was made on other grounds, that not only violates his recusal. It also potentially violates the law or is a highly unethical practice, and we need to find out whether that's the case.
We don't know, but we have an obligation in our investigation, Bob Mueller will in his, to get the answer.
Well, how do you get beyond his refusal to answer, though? If he's saying these were privileged communications that I had that stand on precedent at the Department of Justice, whether they're written down or not, how do you get through that?
Well, I think the process, if we're going to live up with our institutional responsibility in Congress, is to go back to the White House and say, we want answers to these questions. Are you invoking the privilege?
And, if they're not, we need to bring the attorney general back before either our committee in the House or before the Senate committee and demand answers to those questions.
If they do invoke privilege, then we may need to litigate the contours of that privilege. The privilege cannot be used as a shield to protect or hide potential impropriety or illegality. So, we may have to go to court to pierce that privilege, but we do need to get to the bottom of this. We have the powers and institution to do it, and I think we have an ethical obligation and a responsibility to the country to do it.
Congressman, were you struck by, were you surprised when the attorney general said that he had not had, had not sought any sort of briefing on attempts by the Russians to interfere in the election last year?
I was struck by it. Certainly, during his time in the Senate and as a member of the Armed Services Committee, when we have a hostile power, Russia, interfering in our internal affairs, you would think he would have an interest in that.
But, more than that, it was an echo of Director Comey's testimony also that the president showed no curiosity, no interest, no concern over the Russia hack. The only element of it that concerned him was how it might impact him personally.
That says, I think, a lot about where the president is coming from, but it was quite jarring given this was an attack on our democracy by a foreign power.
Congressman, another thing I saw late this afternoon after the hearing concluded that the — that Senator Dick Durbin, who, of course, is in the leadership among Democrats in the Senate, was saying that the attorney general should step down based on his testimony today, his — and his performance in office.
Are you — would you go that far?
Well, I would want to pursue two things before I would be prepared to go that far.
And the first is to do whatever investigation we need to do to find out whether his testimony today about what happened or didn't happen at the Mayflower is accurate and can be corroborated, or wasn't accurate, in which case, we do need to consider the remedies that Dick Durbin talked about.
But, also, we need to get answers to the questions about what went into the firing of Director Comey. And if he refuses and doesn't have a legal basis to do so, then, again, I think we may end up where Senator Durbin is.
At this point, just quickly, Congressman, are you optimistic that Congress, that your committee, the Senate committee, are eventually going to get to the bottom of this?
Well, you know, I certainly hope so.
I think we have the look at this in a very nonpartisan way and try to, as best we can, divorce ourselves of the consequences. But what is at stake here is really our system of checks and balances and whether we're going to allow an administration not to invoke privilege, but just to say it's inconvenient for us to tell you the answers. It wouldn't reflect well on us, so we're going to invoke some inchoate privilege that doesn't exist.
We can't tolerate that. We can't stand for that. And at the end of the day, I don't think Bob Mueller will, and Congress shouldn't either.
Congressman Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, thank you very much.
Thank you, Judy.
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