Thursday , February 15, 2018 - 9:50 AM
(c) 2018, Bloomberg.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley blasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions after Sessions criticized his criminal justice overhaul a day before a committee vote.
Sessions wrote a letter charging that the legislation that the Judiciary panel is scheduled to act on Thursday could let the “very worst criminals” and gang members out of prison early. Grassley accused the attorney general of being ungrateful, saying that he had supported Sessions when President Donald Trump wanted to fire him and protected him from repeated Democratic demands for public hearings on Sessions’s contacts with Russians in 2016.
“I think it’s legitimate to be incensed and I resent it, because of what I’ve done for him. He had a tough nomination, a tough hearing in my committee,” Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in an interview Wednesday in his Capitol Hill office.
“They wanted to call him back every other day for additional hearings about his Russian connection, and I shut them off of that until we had the normal oversight hearing in October I believe it was, see? And the president was going to fire him, and I backed him, you know? So why wouldn’t I be irritated?”
Grassley’s remarks came after repeated accusations by Trump and some of his allies of anti-Trump political bias at the Justice Department. The president was angry when Sessions last year recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That helped lead to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Grassley said that when Sessions’ job was in trouble, he told reporters he didn’t have time to hold a hearing for a new nominee for attorney general. Grassley also rejected calls by Democrats to bring Sessions before the committee to face questions about his failure to disclose his contacts with Russians, including then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, in response to questions at his confirmation hearing. Democrats on the committee had to wait until the regular committee oversight hearing with the attorney general to confront him publicly.
Taking his grievance over the letter to Twitter on Wednesday, Grassley said Sessions was acting like he was still a senator instead of a member of the executive branch with the responsibility of implementing the laws, not making them.
Asked if he wanted Sessions to apologize, Grassley said, “I don’t much care.”
And asked if the dispute could spill over into other issues, Grassley hinted it might. “He will find out, won’t he?”
Grassley on Thursday also indicated frustration with the Trump administration more broadly, saying he’d heard Sessions’s letter was approved by the White House. “For the very same reasons that I’ve done things trying to help an administration to be successful, if they’re involved in this letter, that also irritates me,” Grassley said at a committee meeting in which the prison plan is being considered.
Separately, the chairman said he hasn’t yet decided whether to call Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law, to a public hearing.
“I’m still puzzling about that. What would we accomplish?” Grassley said. “It’s a lot of work to put a public hearing together.”
He said he plans to release transcripts from his committee’s private interviews, including with Trump Jr., in the coming weeks after they’ve been vetted by lawyers.
The Justice Department said on Wednesday night that it would have no further comment beyond the attorney general’s letter.
The criminal justice legislation covers a broad range of categories. It would give judges more leeway to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, including retroactively reducing sentences for prisoners sentenced under harsher laws than those now on the books. It would get rid of the so-called three strikes law with its mandatory life sentences. Yet it would also stiffen penalties for some gun crimes and interstate domestic violence, as well as make changes to how prisons are run in an effort to reduce recidivism.
Grassley said he had met administration officials multiple times in his office and at the White House on the issue in hopes of getting Trump’s support for the legislation.
“I’ve got people in the White House sympathetic to it but feel corralled by Sessions and a president that hasn’t dug into it,” Grassley said, declining to say who he has talked with.
Sessions, he added, didn’t give him a warning before firing his broadside against the bill. Grassley said he had pitched Sessions on the legislation almost a year ago.
“You ought to be for our bill and you can still be tough on crime,” Grassley said he told Sessions. “Obviously, I wasted my breath.”
Grassley also said that his overhaul limits the circumstances under which prisoners could get a reduced sentence.
“I said all our bill does is when you have mandatory minimums, you have some unfairness in it, and we give another bite at the apple,” Grassley said. “A lot of people think we’re going to open up the prison doors. We aren’t.”
His bill has a broad coalition of support ranging from conservative groups hoping to save money and improve outcomes in the prison system, and liberals decrying multi-decade mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes.
Grassley said states like Texas have saved billions of dollars with similar efforts.
It’s similar to an effort Grassley led two years ago which made it out of the Judiciary Committee but didn’t get to the Senate floor.
Grassley, who is in his seventh term, said the politics are more opportune within the Republican Party than they were in 2016.
“The argument that was used inside the Republican caucus was you had five or six senators had a tough race and if you wanted to keep control of the Senate you had to help these people out,” by putting the bill on a shelf.
“We don’t have that problem this time, and this time we’ve got a Republican president that needs some bipartisan victories and for sure this would be a big bipartisan victory for him,” Grassley said.
Bloomberg’s Chris Strohm contributed.
Sign up for e-mail news updates.