AG Sessions testifies before senate committee Transcript 10/18/17 The Rachel Maddow Show

Guests: Sheldon Whitehouse

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: October 18, 2017 Guest: Sheldon Whitehouse

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, ALL IN: That is "ALL IN" for this evening.

THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now.

Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend.

And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.

In February 1850, Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, they lost their son. His name was Edward Baker Lincoln. They called him Eddie. He was not yet four years old but he died in Illinois, in February of that year, February 1850, died of illness.

Later that same year, in December of 1850, another son was born to the Lincoln`s. His name was William Wallace Lincoln. They called him Willie. He was born in December 1850.

And in February 1862, when Willie was 11-1/2 years old, and by which time Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were the president of the United States and the first lady of the United States, on February 28th 1862, the Lincolns lost yet another son. Willie Lincoln aged 11-1/2 died in the White House while his father was president and his mother was first lady. He also died of childhood illness. He died of typhoid fever.

And the president and the first lady were plunged into just profound grief. Abraham Lincoln is now believed by many modern scholars to have suffered with fairly profound depression during his life and during his presidency but when -- what he and his wife went through in 1862 was something different. They had lost a first son in 1850, and then they had lost a second son who had been born just after they lost their first one, lost both of these little boys in childhood.

And the Lincoln`s had this to deal with on top of everything else that was upon them, right? With the country being in the grips of civil war. And in that dark year in 1862, with everything else that was going on with the country and for the White House and for the Lincoln family, that winter in 1862, after his second son had died, President Lincoln got word that an old friend of his from Illinois, a man named William McCullough had been killed fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War in a battle in Mississippi.

And, you know, one thing that is a real blessing about working in this building, working under the auspices of NBC News, is that I don`t know that many other places where while you`re doing your daily work, you have a presidential historian on standby at all times. But we`ve got that. Whenever it helps to be able to report or understand or contextualize the news, to know whether or not something is unprecedented we can call NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss at any time, to see if there is something that he knows of from presidential history that could help explain what`s going on now in our current life.

So, we contacted Michael Beschloss a couple of days ago for his help in trying to contextualize, trying to figure out if there was something unprecedented about President Trump`s remarks in the Rose Garden on Monday, his sort of flippant remarks, casual asides he made sort of glibly on Monday afternoon in the Rose Garden when he volunteered what turned out to be false information about previous presidents, particularly President Obama and the ways those previous presidents had interacted with the families of soldiers who were killed in action.

The president made those remarks on Monday in the Rose Garden and it caused a great uproar. And we contacted Michael Beschloss to see if the president`s remarks on that subject really were unprecedented or maybe there was something else like this in U.S. history that we should remember at a time like this, when we were talking about what President Trump did that upset so many people.

In response to our query, Michael Beschloss sent us this -- this letter. He told us about the long history of presidents sending letters and making sympathy phone calls and visiting with the families of fallen soldiers and how profoundly that responsibility has affected various presidents over the years. But he said this handwritten letter -- he called this, this letter from Lincoln, quote, what I think is the most eloquent such letter. So, the most eloquent condolence letter that a president has sent.

And in this letter is what Lincoln wrote when he had learned in 1862 about the death of his friend William McCullough fighting in the Civil War. He wrote -- Lincoln wrote this letter to McCullough`s daughter in that dark year of 1862, when he and the country and he and his own family we`re dealing with so much trauma and so much grief.

And some of the power of this is seeing it in hand in its handwritten form, but the words that Lincoln wrote are not just a historical artifact. They`re still important as to what we expected the presidency and what we understand is our moral inheritance as a nation.

The way Michael Beschloss put it, he told us not only does he think this is the most eloquent example of a presidential condolence letter to us the family of a fallen soldier, he told us: I find it so beautiful that I think what Lincoln has written consoles anyone dealing emotionally with significant loss.

So, this is that letter from Lincoln. You can see at the top, it`s on stationery, that says the executive mansion and then they`ve pre-printed in there Washington comma and then you fill in the date by hand and the year. December 23rd, 1862.

The letter says: Dear Fanny, it is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave father. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all and to the young, it comes with bitterest agony because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it.

I`m anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is this not so?

And yet, it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say.

The memory of your dear father instead of an agony will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a pure and holier sort than you have known before.

And then he signs off please, present my kind regards to your afflicted mother. Your sincere friend, A. Lincoln.

One page, that`s how it`s done, right?

And every American president since Lincoln has the unfortunate reality at some point being compared with Lincoln. No other president will ever be him.

But having that, having that document in our history and our public record as the standard of decency and moral generosity from a president, having that in kind of our ethical bank as a country makes it almost impossible to compute what the current news cycle has just revealed, has just dredged up about the behavior of the current occupant of the same office that Abraham Lincoln once held.

The widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David T. Johnson received a phone call from the president yesterday about the loss of her husband in an ISIS ambushed in Niger. We learned about the content of that call late last night. We learned about what the president actually said to that grieving widow, and we learned it from the congresswoman who represents the district for Sergeant Johnson`s family lives, who has known the family for years and who was with Sergeant Johnson`s widow when she received the president`s call.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: You spoke to the widow of La David Johnson`s, Sergeant La David Johnson. Her name is Myeshia. How was she doing tonight?

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA (via telephone): Oh, she`s very distraught. And we were in the car together, in the limousine headed to meet the body at the airport. So I heard what he said because the phone was on speaker.

LEMON: What did he say?

WILSON: Well, basically he said, well, I guess he knew what he signed up for. But I guess it still hurts. That`s what he said. LEMON: The president said to her he knew what he signed up for --

WILSON: He knew what he was signing up for.

LEMON: But when it happens, it hurts anyway.

WILSON: Yes.

LEMON: Yes.

WILSON: So, it`s almost as if this is a young, young woman who has two children who is six months pregnant with a third child. She has just lost her husband. She was just told that he cannot have an open casket funeral, which gives her all kinds of nightmares how his body must look, how his face must look.

And this is what the president of the United States says to her?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: So after that account from the congresswoman last night and again this morning, she reiterated her comments this morning on MSNBC, the president today was asked by reporters if he honestly said that to that grieving widow last night. And this was his response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: Mr. President, what did you say to Sergeant Johnson`s widow on the phone yesterday?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn`t say what that congresswoman said, didn`t say it at all. She knows it and she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said. And I`d like her to make the statement again because I did not say what she said.

I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who has sounded like a lovely woman. I did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren`t too surprised to hear that.

REPORTER: What is the proof, Mr. President?

TRUMP: Let her make her statement again and then you`ll find out.

REPORTER: She`s saying that you said this.

TRUMP: OK, let her make her statement again and then you`ll find out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: So, after the president with his arms folded denied that account about this call to this grieving widow, Congresswoman Wilson said she stood by her account of what the president had said in that conversation. She`s not retracted her account. She stood by it.

And although the president insisted today that he had proof that he had not said any of those things that the congresswoman had quoted him saying, turns out if you`re looking for proof -- well, it wasn`t just the congresswoman who was listening in on that conversation with Sergeant Johnson`s widow. That was a conversation in which the president was on speakerphone and the people who heard his remarks, included not only Sergeant Johnson`s widow and the congresswoman, but another member of Sergeant Johnson`s family, who also confirms that the congresswoman`s account is correct, that that is what the president said.

She told "The Washington Post" today, quote, President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.

Cowanda Jones-Jackson, Sergeant Johnson`s mother, confirmed it again to "The New York Times" tonight. Asked if the president did say he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, she confirmed to "The New York Times" tonight, quote, yes, he did state that comment.

And it is one thing if the president inadvertently spoke in an unintentionally callous manner to somebody he should have prepared better to speak to. That`s one thing. It`s own kind of failure, it`s its own size failure. It is another matter when the president then called on that, chooses to deride the grieving family of a fallen soldier as liars.

Now, in the uproar caused by these revelations today, we then learned that the president had also some time this summer called the father of an Army sergeant named Dillon Baldridge who was killed in Afghanistan in June. In the middle of his call with president, Chris Baldridge, the father, says it says his conversation with the president took an unexpected turn when the president volunteered in the middle of their conversation, quote: I`m going to write you a check out of my personal account for $25,000.

So the president speaking with this grieving father the father`s an American, U.S. Army corporal, who was killed, the president in speaking with him told him he was going to send the father a large personal check. According to the grieving father, this happened in the conversation after the dad said he didn`t expect to benefit from the Pentagon`s death benefit for his son. He thought that would all go to his wife.

And it is -- it`s an unusual, it`s a certainly an interesting thing for the president to have promised, that he would personally make a financial contribution to this father, to Chris Baldridge, to the father, it was reportedly a shocking thing that the president had offered to send him personally some money. It`s all interesting. It`s all unusual.

The part that`s nauseating is "The Washington Post`s" further reporting that president Trump didn`t actually send the check after he told that grieving dad that he would, didn`t send him the check, not apparently until today when the news of him not sending the check ended up being reported in "The Washington Post". After hours of dodging "Washington Post" reporters on this story, "Post" reporters who had spoken to this father had heard about the president`s promise to send him money and had heard the president -- had heard the grieving father say the president`s check never arrived , after hours of trying to check this out with the White House and the White House not responding, and the White House not giving any explanation what happened with the president`s personal financial offer to this grieving father, eventually, this evening, a White House spokeswoman put out an angry statement calling the media disgusting and saying, quote, the check has been sent.

And it has been further reported this evening that what she meant by that was the check was sent tonight -- once the president`s broken promise became national news.

Beyond that, the president`s remarks on this subject this week appeared to have just dragged many of these grieving families through it. President Trump has only been in office for nine months, so anybody who`s been killed in action since he`s been president is -- it`s a relatively recent occurrence. Those families can all be expected to be raw and hurt and actively grieving and in some cases, they may still be actively dealing with the logistics and circumstances and handling of their loved one`s death.

Knowing that circumstance, knowing the fresh grief of these families in terms of what they`re going through right now, it makes reporting like this from "The Washington Post" tonight almost impossible for us to absorb as Americans, given our history as a country and the way we have dealt with these things in the past, it is almost impossible to believe this is real.

But this is quoting from "The Washington Post" tonight. Sergeant Roshain Brooks aged 30 was killed on August 13th in Iraq. His father, Euvince Brooks, has not heard from the White House. The president`s claim this week that he had called every military family to lose a son or daughter since he has been president only upset the Brooks family more.

Brooks said after watching the news on Tuesday night, he wanted to set up a Twitter account to try to get the president`s attention. Quote: I said to my daughter, can you teach me to tweet so I can tweet at the president and tell him he is a liar? You know when you hear people lying and you want to fight, that`s the way I feel. He`s a damn liar.

And nobody wants to live in a country where people can credibly call the leader of the country a damn liar. But when that credible in this case well-founded complaint can be waged by somebody whose son just died in uniform fighting for the United States of America, we just like, we don`t have very many circuits as Americans to process this kind of moral disgrace in our leadership.

I mean, it`s just hard for us as a country to face the loss borne by families of service members anyway even in normal times. Such a tiny proportion of U.S. families have anybody serving in the military while the U.S. Armed Forces have fought the longest war in U.S. history and other wars alongside it, there have been less than percent of American families have got somebody serving while those wars have been happening.

And civilian life has proceeded basically as if those wars are not happening, it`s therefore already hard for us as a country to face the sacrifices and the losses that these patriotic families have gone through, right? They`ve done something we civilians will never do. They`ve incurred a debt from this country that we don`t know how to pay back already.

So, it`s hard in normal times. But it is -- it`s incomprehensible for us as a country to see those families of all people jerked around and lied to and slimed and called liars by the president very shortly after these service members died. And so, this -- I mean -- this just feels like a strange news story to report.

It feels surreal. It just -- it feels so -- it feels so unbelievable. But this is happening.

I want to say though that there is something else that`s happening here too. That isn`t just a moral decency thing. It`s a political tactic that`s at work here, and not a dumb political tactic and that story`s next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Go back to the first week of March this year. On March 1st, "Washington Post", "New York Times", "Wall Street Journal", all reported some very troubling news about the new administration. They reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had in fact met with multiple Russians -- excuse me -- had in fact met multiple times with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, even though he had repeatedly denied that, including it under oath. That was March 1st, those reports came out about Sessions having meetings with Russians.

On March 1st, Sessions came out in response to those reports and insisted that they were inaccurate. He had never, never, never met with Russians during the campaign, March 1st. By March 2nd, Jeff Sessions changed his mind about that and admitted in fact he had taken meetings with Russians.

Then that same day, March 2nd, J.D. Gordon and Carter Page, they also admitted that during the campaign and they too had taken meetings with Russian government officials. Again, that was despite their earlier denials.

Then that same day, March 2nd, "The New York Times" reported that Trumps national security adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner had also taken meetings with Russian officials during the campaign that they had failed to disclose. That was -- that was all in two days. That was March 1st and March 2nd this year.

The White House had previously just been given giving blanket denials than anybody from the campaign, anybody in the transition had been taking meetings with any Russians and March 1st and March 2nd, those denials were just blown out of the water by that reporting.

So, reporting happens March 1st and March 2nd, then on March 4th, do-woop, huh, bright early, 6:35 in the morning March 4th, what`s this? Just found out Obama had my wires tapped in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found.

The president made that remarkable claim before dawn on the fourth day of March, right after that a flurry of damning reporting about the Trump campaign and all their secret contacts with the Russians. And once the president made that wiretapping proclamation, everybody was sort of obliged to play six-year-old soccer and run down the field, chasing that other ball that he kicked down there. So, that became the story of the week.

This is a political tactic. It`s not -- it`s a political tactic. It`s not just distraction. It`s diversion of a difficult line of inquiry.

I mean, so the -- in the first week of March, there`s this cascade of reporting the Trump campaign personnel are meeting with Russian officials during the campaign and then covering it up, right? And it`s a whole litany of them, Page and J.D. Gordon and Flynn and Kushner and Sessions, they`re all caught out, they`re all having to admit it despite their previous denials. It`s a very bad news cycle for the White House.

And so, the White House decision about what to do about that or at least the president`s decision is to divert that line of inquiry don`t just start talking about something else and hope that you can change the subject instead try to harness the energy of that initial damning news story and turn it to something related but different.

So, the president made that diversionary statement on a different issue that was still vaguely related to the question at hand, and the effect of that was to sap the initial story of its punch, right? To divert it, or at least to muddy it up, right?

Once he created that diversionary storyline, now depending on if you like to listen to the White House to get your news or not, you might still be thinking of the intelligence scandal that broke in Washington the first week in March as lots of Trump campaign officials having secret meetings with Russians during the campaign, or you might think that the intelligence scandal that broke in Washington that first week of March was about Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. Either way, it sort of seems like the same thing, we`re all upset about a scandal. Which scandal again?

I mean, President Obama never wiretapped Trump Tower. But saying so at that moment made the previous president a factor in the news cycle, it got Obama administration officials involved in defending the previous president from this outrageous and false allegation. It gave Republican Trump supporters in Congress, and then the conservative media something to exclaim about and to demand the media should start covering because that was the real scandal, right?

It`s not just distraction. This is diversion. The trick is that it`s just barely related enough in terms of the subject matter that it doesn`t just challenge people to talk about something new, it stands in for the real scandal.

It muddies the real stories -- storyline. It diverts attention and energy from that initial news cycle that was so difficult for the White House to deal with in that first week in March. Not just destruction, diversion. That is a political tactic. You can either learn it or you can have it instinctually, but either way, it`s pretty good tactic.

Today, the reason the country is having our hearts torn to bits over the news about how this president has talked to and talked about service members -- the families of service members who were killed overseas is not because the president`s interactions with the families of killed service members was ever brought up this week. That`s storyline, even questions about that, didn`t emerge organically on their own this week. The reason we`re all talking about this is because the president brought it up without being asked.

When the president on Monday made his initial false claims about President Obama not calling the families of service members killed in action, those comments that called us to call Michael Beschloss to find out how presidents have dealt with this in the past, when Trump first made those remarks on Monday, he hadn`t been asked about calling service members families. He hadn`t been asked about condolence practices in his White House or any other. He hadn`t been asked about President Obama.

Now, this conversation we`ve now been having for three days now and all these nauseating revelations it has led to about how President Trump has in fact behaved and spoken towards service members` families, these were nothing anybody else brought up, this what he brought up. This is what he diverted the story to. What the original story was, what he was asked about when he first brought up this topic, what he diverted from was this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: Why haven`t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers who were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The president did not answer that question. Why haven`t we heard anything from you about the soldiers who were killed in Niger? The president didn`t answer that question. Instead, he diverted the discussion into this inflammatory thing that has now taken up three days of news. His inflammatory false assertions about the way he contacts the families of fallen service members and the way other presidents have approached that same issue.

There still has been no answer as to why the president made no public statement about those American soldiers who were killed in Niger. It was four U.S. Army soldiers. They were killed in Niger where most Americans didn`t even know we had a sizeable contingent of troops.

What were they doing when they were killed? What is the nature of the overall American mission in Niger? How dangerous is it? What was the specific operational mission they were engaged in when these four service members were lost? Does the president have any response to their deaths?

When the ambush happened that killed these four soldiers on October 4th, the White House said that day that the president had been briefed on their deaths but there was no word from him personally. The initial word had been that three U.S. soldiers were killed in this ambush in Niger. Two days later, on October 6th, the body of a fourth U.S. soldier, Sergeant La David Johnson, was recovered. But there was still no word from the president.

And even two days into this crisis, it was already starting to be weird that the president was making no public remarks about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: A body of another U.S. soldier has just been discovered by local forces in Niger, which brings to four the total number of Green Berets that were killed on Wednesday in Niger. So far, there`s no response to this by the president, not tweet from the president, no statement from the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Press corps is already asking the White House. That was almost two weeks ago in the White House briefing room. It was strange even two weeks ago that the president had made no public response no public statement about these American soldiers being killed in Niger. It`s now 12 days on from those questions and still no public response from the president.

When he was asked about it on Monday in the Rose Garden, he responded with this diversion about President Obama not calling the families of service members he heard or maybe not. I don`t know.

Even today, the White House still will not explain why the president has made no public remarks on the deaths of these soldiers. Not on his own behavior, not about President Obama, but about what happened in Niger.

Well, late today, Politico.com finally, thoroughly call the question on this matter with a remarkable leaked document out of either the Pentagon or the White House, we`re not sure. Again, these soldiers were killed in Niger, October 4th. On October 4th, the National Security Council drafted a statement for the president to release about it, acknowledging the deaths of these soldiers, mourning their loss. It was this decent, noble, simple statement the kind of statements that presidents typically make when these things happen. It was drafted for the president, October 5th, circulated at the National Security Council, and at the Pentagon.

And for some reason, the president ignored it. He didn`t issue the statement and that had been written for him and cleared by DOD and his National Security Council. He didn`t do it then when they put it together for him on October 5th, still hasn`t done it.

Why?

Nobody knows and somebody inside the process of writing that statement is mad enough about it that they showed the statement to a reporter from "Politico" who was able to report on it today. But still, there`s no explanation for the president`s reticence.

And the Trump administration appears to not even know how to deal with questions about it now. Quote: The statement was circulated among National Security Council officials, as well as DOD officials, but was never released and was not -- it was not immediately clear why.

NSC spokesman Michael Anton declined to comment. The NSC staffer who wrote the original draft statement for the president, quote, hung up on a "Politico" reporter who called to ask about it.

The powers and responsibilities of the presidency are obviously vast. You see how it prematurely ages them, right? It`s hard to know how individual humans get that job done, let alone how they find the energy and the focus and compassion within that job to show the kind of grace that Abraham Lincoln showed in that condolence letter that he sent to his friend`s daughter during the Civil War back in 1862, when he was awash in his own grief.

But being president, getting elected president, staying president doesn`t just require strength and remarkable personal characteristics. It also requires innate political intelligence or at least instinct. And something about what happened in Niger has caused this president apparently instinctually to divert the conversation from what happened to those soldiers, from even acknowledging publicly the deaths of those soldiers and what happened to them, he will not talk about it.

Why were they under armed and under armored in a place where they were potentially subject to a massive, heavily armed ISIS ambush? Was it the French who had to evacuate them out of there once they had killed and wounded soldiers who needed to be taken off the battlefield? Was it U.S. private contractors as has also been reported? Was there an evacuation plan?

If not, is that because the military didn`t expect them to be in danger? Why was that intelligence wrong if that was the basis on which this mission went ahead?

After these reports that La David Johnson was separated from the other soldiers who were killed, that his body was not located until 48 hours after the other ones were found, do we know why that is? Do we know how it is that Sergeant Johnson became separated from those other soldiers? Do we know if he was initially taken alive?

What was the mission? Was it worth it to have them there? What`s the U.S. going to do in response to these deaths?

There is something about what that this president has instinctually diverted the conversation from, to the point that he will not even issue an already prepared statement somebody else has written for him on the matter. He would rather have a national conversation about his own callousness and mistakes and forgetting to send the check to the family members of service members killed in action.

He would rather talk about that than talk about what happened in Niger. That makes me really want to know what happened in Niger.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: It takes nine seconds. Watch this -- nine seconds turns out to be a surprisingly long time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Why did it take so long?

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The investigation?

GRAHAM: No, the firing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Most compelling nine seconds of the news day today.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions maintained vigorously today that the reason the president fired FBI Director James Comey was because of Comey`s handling of the Clinton email investigation in the summer of 2016. OK, then, if that`s what he was fired for, why didn`t he get fired until this May, pause, pause, pause, Senator, are you there?

This was supposed to be a routine oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. It was not. That story is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: The last time Jeff Sessions spent time with his former colleagues on the Judiciary Committee was in January for his confirmation hearing as attorney general, when he pointedly did not tell the truth to his Senate colleagues when he told them he hadn`t talked to anybody in the Russian government during the campaign. He later had to admit that he had, twice.

So, these senators got Jeff Sessions back today, and amid the awkward pauses, it was time to tie up loose ends. And in some cases, to tie up some new knots.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Have you discussed with them Russian interference in our elections?

SESSIONS: No.

LEAHY: Have you discussed anything like sanctions like the Magnitsky Act, but what they call the adoption issue?

SESSIONS: I don`t believe I`ve ever had discussing at any time about the Magnitsky Act.

LEAHY: Have you discussed with him any policies or positions of the campaign or a Trump presidency?

SESSIONS: Yes, I`m not sure about that. It could have been that in that meeting in my office or at the convention that some comment was made about what Trump`s positions were. I think that`s possible.

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Not being able to recall what you discussed with him is very different than saying I have not had communications with the Russians. The ambassador from Russia is Russian. First it was, I did not have communications with Russians, which was not true.

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. That to me is moving the goalposts every time.

You don`t believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians, is that what you`re saying?

SESSIONS: I did not and I`m not aware of anyone else that did and I don`t believe it happened.

FRANKEN: And you don`t believe it now?

SESSIONS: I don`t believe it happened.

FRANKEN: So, let me ask -- that`s what I wanted to ask you.

Do you believe that Michael Flynn was a surrogate for the campaign?

SESSIONS: He could probably have been defined as that.

FRANKEN: Do you believe that Paul Manafort was a surrogate for the campaign?

SESSIONS: Well, for a short time he was a chairman of the committee -- a campaign chairman.

FRANKEN: Do you believe that Jared Kushner was a surrogate for the campaign?

SESSIONS: I really don`t know whether his role. I sort of see -- there`s no clear definition I assume, but I -- a surrogate is someone normally speaking on behalf --

FRANKEN: Do you believe Donald Trump Jr. was a surrogate of the campaign?

SESSIONS: Well, he was his son and he spoke.

FRANKEN: OK.

LEAHY: My concern is you were part of the Russian facade and went along with it. I`m sorry. I`ve known you for years. I`m sorry you do that.

SESSIONS: It did hurt me to say you think I`m part of a fa‡ade. I`m not part of a fa‡ade.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Attorney general says he`s not part of a facade interesting though there, he calls himself today in the hearing a surrogate for the Trump campaign. He also acknowledged what he previously denied, which is that during the Trump campaign, he had contacts with Russian officials, and then he insisted that surrogates for the campaign didn`t have any contacts with Russians.

That`s like saying I`m a penguin I like Slurpees. I don`t know if any penguins that like Slurpees. Like huh? What?

Confronted with names like Flynn and Manafort Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., all of whom did have Russian meetings during the campaign, the attorney general shrugged it off, shrugged it off. It`s enough to make you think that he maybe doesn`t take all that seriously the Russian government running an intel operation against American elections.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: We have heard the intelligence and national security professionals of our country and people who study those issues professionally warned us that campaign and election interference by the Russians is not going away, that we can expect more of it in the 2018 election, that we can expect more of it in the 2020 election.

SESSIONS: I`ll be frank. I don`t know that we`re doing a specific legislative review at this point.

WHITEHOUSE: Don`t you think it would be prudent to do?

SESSIONS: Well, you make --

WHITEHOUSE: We have been warned.

SESSIONS: I take that as a suggestion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Who me? Something-something protect the next election after Russia attacked the last one? I`ll take your suggestion, an interesting point.

You could tell from the way Senator Sheldon Whitehouse questioned the attorney general today that he has -- he at least doesn`t seem satisfied with the response he`s been getting from Attorney General Sessions and the Department of Justice on this issue about whether Russia is doing it again for the 2018 election. Did he in fact get any satisfaction from the attorney general today?

Joining us now is Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who`s on the Judiciary Committee who questioned the attorney-general today.

Senator, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you being here.

WHITEHOUSE: My pleasure.

MADDOW: You were pressuring the attorney general there in that exchange about whether or not the Department of Justice is doing anything to try to head off any future Russian influence in future American elections. Did you ask him that because you know the Justice Department isn`t working on that, or was that -- was that news the way he came back to you today?

WHITEHOUSE: No, I was asking that because I have found no sign of there being any interest within the Department of Justice in addressing this problem legislatively, which is weird because we`ve had a great number of very public hearings with a lot of people including administration officials making this very plain warning that they`re coming at us again, and we`ve had a lot of testimony about the types of things that we could do to close up some of our vulnerabilities.

And it kind of stands out in that context that the Department of Justice which would presumably be leading that kind of an effort has nobody assigned to it, has no plan and that the attorney general at the top of his head doesn`t even really know if there`s anything going on legislatively. Seems unusual.

MADDOW: There`s also this remarkable moment today where the attorney general shrugged and he said that he didn`t believe that any campaign surrogates from the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russians during the campaign. That`s remarkable just as a matter of logic because he`s confirming now that he as a Trump surrogate had contacts with Russian governments during the campaign. There`s obviously now uncontested reporting about a number of other people associated with the campaign having had those contacts.

WHITEHOUSE: Yes, like five.

MADDOW: Like -- yes, a lot of them. And yet he said, he doesn`t think they really happened.

I got to ask what you -- what your take was on that?

WHITEHOUSE: It`s hard for me to figure out what he intended -- if he was just confused, if this is subject he simply wants to close down with a simple an answer as he can even if it`s not fully truthful. But you align that with the failure of the department to undertake any effort to protect against future Russian interference and you align that further with the repeated stonewall of non-assertions of executive privilege. But not providing the answers either, and it`s just very awkward to try to get factual answers, and interest on this subject out of the Department of Justice right now.

MADDOW: And to that point, the one of the issues that I was very interested to see raised today, I didn`t necessarily expect to hear it until it came up was the implication that the Department of Justice has not been forthcoming with documents information and cooperation for the various investigations that are happening into the Russian attack. Is it true that the Justice Department has been holding back in terms of requests for information from you, from your committee and from other investigators?

WHITEHOUSE: Yes, in my opinion, yes. I think they`ve provided a few things, but we have innumerable letters, some of them months old, that have gone unanswered. And over and over again, you see the attorney general and other administration officials do this non-assertion assertion of executive privilege.

There`s a quite distinct pattern that you`re supposed to follow with executive privilege and it has to end in the president actually asserting it. And they`ve never asked the president to assert it on anything and yet, they continue to refuse to answer the questions as if he had, or as if they were in the sort of study period during which they were, you know, teeing up their analysis of whether to assert it or not.

But months have gone by. It`s way past time for that. So, you know, over and over again, whether it`s these statements that don`t seem to add up with what we know the fact to be or the inability unwillingness or incapacity to advise Congress on how to defend our next elections or this non-assertion assertion of executive privilege, it`s a very, very hard screen to penetrate through, and I think that the Senate has the right to a lot more answers than we`re getting.

MADDOW: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, member the Judiciary Committee -- thank you for your time tonight, sir. I really appreciate your being with us.

WHITEHOUSE: My pleasure.

MADDOW: Thank you.

All right. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: We just got some tape into our newsroom. This has just came in. I think we`re the first news outlet to have access to this. Remarks tonight from former CIA Director John Brennan.

Tonight, he did an on-record event at Fordham Law School. This is his first on-the-record public remarks in several months. And he took this question from NBC`s Andrea Mitchell about the 2016 election.

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: Do you think that the Russians could have had developed the expertise in American politics to have micro-targeted areas of Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere? Is it your theory of the case that there was some connection between the campaign and the Russian operations?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Well, it`s hard for me to believe that the Russians, as good as they are, as sophisticated as they are, a program like this, were not able to get some Americans to cooperate with them, either wittingly or unwittingly. I find it implausible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: I find it implausible that no Americans helped the Russians, wittingly or unwittingly, as the Russians targeted their influence operation in the campaign.

Director Brennan also revealed he`s not been asked to testify by special counsel Robert Mueller but he said he would be happy to do so if asked. But again, the top line new that is Andrea Mitchell of NBC News was able to get him to break tonight, the man who was CIA director during the Russian attack on the election says to him it is implausible that the Russians were able to do what they did in our election last year without American help. Implausible.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Today, for the first time since his confirmation hearing in January, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions went back before the same committee that he, well, had to face for his confirmation, famously, he did not tell the truth during that confirmation hearing, during acute questioning from -- in particular Democratic senators. He didn`t tell the truth about whether or not he had personally had contacts with Russians during the campaign while he was a senior figure in the Trump campaign. He said that he hadn`t had those contacts that later turned out that he had.

The senator who nailed him on that was Minnesota Senator Al Franken and Al Franken is the guest of Lawrence O`Donnell on "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."

That does it for me tonight. You should stay right there, because now, "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL" is about to begin and he`s got Al Franken.

Good evening, Lawrence.

END

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