Statement of the Honorable John Conyers, Jr. Oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
In the ordinary course of business, any one of a dozen topics related to the Department of Justice would be worthy of its own hearing.
And, to be clear, I would rather spend our time today discussing the upkeep of the criminal justice system, the enforcement of civil rights, and the work we must all do to ensure access to the ballot box.
Instead, we must spend our time debating the troubles of a wayward Administration: how the Attorney General conducts himself before Congress, how President Trump undermines the integrity of the justice system, and how the Department continues to ignore the oversight requests of this Committee.
Although this is the Attorney General’s first appearance before the House, he has already made three visits to our colleagues in the Senate.
At his confirmation hearing, he testified that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
Last month, he testified that “a continuing exchange of information between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government . . . did not happen, at least to my knowledge, and not with me.”
We know now, of course, that neither of those statements is true.
Shortly after the Attorney General made the first comment, the Washington Post reported that he met with the Russian Ambassador at least twice during the campaign.
In the past month, we have also learned that the Attorney General must have been very much aware of a continuing exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
In charging documents unsealed last month, George Papadopoulos—a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign—admits to extensive communications with Russian contacts.
At a March 31, 2016 meeting of the campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee—attended by candidate Trump, and chaired by Senator Sessions—Mr. Papadopoulos stated, “in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.”
It does not matter, as has been reported, that the Attorney General remembers this meeting after the fact—remembers it so vividly, in fact, that two unnamed sources say the Senator “shut George down.”
Under oath, knowing in advance that he would be asked about this subject, the Attorney General gave answers that were, at best, incomplete.
I hope the Attorney General can provide some clarification on this problem in his remarks today.
I also hope that he can assure us that the Department is weathering near-daily attacks on its independence by President Trump—and that no office of the Department is being used to pressure the President’s political enemies.
In recent months, President Trump has attacked the “beleaguered” Attorney General, and criticized his “VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes.”
The President has talked openly about firing the leadership of the Department—including the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the former Acting Director of the FBI, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
He did fire former FBI Director Comey—in his own words, “because of that Russia thing with Trump and Russia”—as well as acting Attorney General Sally Yates and all 46 sitting U.S. Attorneys.
Last year, he denigrated a federal judge because of his “Mexican heritage.” Judge Curiel was born in Indiana, by the way.
Last month, in a radio interview, President Trump said he was “very unhappy” with the Justice Department. Hours later, he proclaimed the military justice system “a complete and total disgrace.”
But the one that sticks with me is the President’s July interview with the New York Times.
In that interview, he begins by, once again, attacking the Attorney General’s credibility. “Sessions never should have recused himself,” the President complains.
Then the conversation takes a sinister turn:
“When Nixon came along . . . out of courtesy, the FBI started reporting to the Department of Justice. But the FBI person really reports directly to the president of the United States.”
He goes on:
“I could have ended [the Flynn investigation] just by saying—they say it can’t be obstruction because you can say, ‘It’s ended. It’s over. Period.’”
As is often the case, the President requires some correction. The Director of the FBI reports directly to the Attorney General, and has since the founding of the Bureau. It can be obstruction of justice, if the President orders an investigation closed with a corrupt motive.
But what strikes me about these comments is the President’s view that the criminal justice system serves him—and not the public.
President Trump seems to believe that, on a whim, he can bring pressure to bear on his enemies, dismiss charges against his allies, and insulate himself and his family from any consequence. I cannot overemphasize the danger this perspective poses to our republic.
I have served on this Committee long enough to remember another President who shared this view. I was, myself, on Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
And although we worked to hold that Administration accountable, our work is not complete. We must all remember our common responsibility to prevent that kind of abuse from happening again.
I will look to the Attorney General’s partnership in this effort—but I have begun to worry about his resolve.
Last night, in a letter sent by the Department to Chairman Goodlatte—without so much as a copy to the Ranking Member, by the way—the Assistant Attorney General seems to leave the door open to appointing a new special counsel to cater to the President’s political needs.
The fact that this letter was sent to the Majority, without the customary and appropriate notice to me, indicates that the charge given to Department officials to evaluate these issues has political motivations.
Now, in his own words, the Attorney General is recused “from any questions involving . . . investigations that involve Secretary Clinton.”
Further, we cannot refer an investigation to a second special counsel if we lack the evidence to predicate a criminal investigation in the first place.
Virtually every Clinton-related matter that President Trump complains about has been well-litigated, carefully examined, and completely debunked.
Still, to quote former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, “putting political opponents in jail for offenses committed in a political setting . . . is something that we don’t do here.” The threat alone resembles, in his words, “a banana republic.”
Finally, there is the matter of routine oversight between hearings.
In the recent history of this Committee, new attorneys general usually come to see us within two or three months of taking office. No attorney general in recent memory has taken more than six months before making an appearance here.
Attorney General Sessions has broken that norm—he has had more than ten months to settle in—making our communications with the Department between hearings that much more important.
To date, my colleagues and I have sent more than forty letters to the Trump Administration asking for information necessary to carry out our oversight responsibilities.
We have sent more than a dozen of these letters directly to the Attorney General. To date, we have not received a single substantive response.
We can disagree on matters of policy, Mr. Attorney General—but you cannot keep us in the dark forever. When we make a reasonable oversight request, we expect you to reply in a prompt and responsive manner.
I hope you can explain why your Department has chosen to ignore these letters.
More importantly, I hope that you will be more forthcoming with your answers—both in your testimony today and in the weeks to come.
I look forward to your testimony, and I yield back the balance of my time.