Washington, D.C. – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) today delivered the following remarks during the House Judiciary Committee’s oversight hearing on the U.S. Department of Justice.
Chairman Goodlatte: Good Morning. Today, we welcome Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Judiciary Committee’s annual Department of Justice oversight hearing.
Mr. Attorney General, you have a long and distinguished career in public service. You’ve continued that service by leading the Department of Justice, an agency that, by its very nature, is prone to controversy because of the public’s varied opinions on what it means to seek and obtain justice. However, you clearly understand that the Department you lead must have the confidence of the American people, even when your decisions are not always well-received.
Your first year leading the DOJ has not been without difficulty, which is expected at the outset of a new administration. While much has been done to correct the improper political engagement by the Department of Justice under the Obama Administration, more work must be done to ensure the Department is operating to impartially administer justice.
Our last DOJ oversight hearing was beyond disappointing. Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave the least fulsome and least transparent testimony that I can recall in my time in Congress. It was, plainly, a disservice to the American people. Ms. Lynch failed to respond substantively to nearly every question posed by members of this Committee. Before Ms. Lynch, former Attorney General Eric Holder became the first Attorney General in history to be held in contempt by the House of Representatives for his own stonewalling, with regard to documents connected to the reckless Operation Fast and Furious. I expect, Mr. Attorney General, that you will be more willing to candidly answer questions from Members on both sides of the aisle.
You are going to hear question after question today concerning your knowledge of or involvement with Russia, and its alleged efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Whether it concerns your work on behalf of now-President Trump during the campaign, or your service in the Senate, I suspect this theme will be a constant refrain from my friends on the other side of the aisle.
While I understand your decision to recuse yourself was an effort by you to do the right thing, I believe you, as a person of integrity, would have been impartial and fair in following the facts wherever they led.
I have chosen, as Chairman of this Committee, to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller do his job, free from undue political influence. At the same time, however, this Committee will do its duty and conduct oversight of DOJ. To that end, we sent two letters to you, one in July and another in September, calling on you to name a second special counsel to restore the public’s confidence in our justice system. Numerous matters connected to the 2016 election remain unresolved. To date, the Department has not appointed a second Special Counsel.
Consequently, this Committee had no choice but to open our own joint investigation, with the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, to review DOJ and FBI’s handling of the investigation into former Secretary Hillary Clinton and her mishandling of classified information. As we said earlier this year, it is “incumbent on this Committee, in our oversight capacity, to ensure that the agencies we oversee are above reproach and that the Justice Department, in particular, remains immune to accusations of politicization.” Whoever is Attorney General, the Justice Department must evenhandedly administer justice.
You have recused yourself from matters stemming from the 2016 election, but there are significant concerns that the partisanship of the FBI and the Department has weakened the ability of each to act objectively. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this and what steps you are taking to remove politics from law enforcement.
However, these investigations are but a few of the many important issues we need to discuss today. For instance, we just overwhelmingly reported the USA Liberty Act out of committee last week. This bipartisan legislation would reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Administration has chosen to oppose any reform of the law. I understand the desire for a clean reauthorization of this vital program. However, I believe this stance is a miscalculation that risks further eroding trust in our intelligence apparatus. We hope we can work with you now that the USA Liberty Act, which reauthorizes a law that is vital to our nation’s battle against terrorism while protecting Americans’ civil liberties, has been reported out of Committee.
This is especially important given the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks in the United States. As we all know, not two weeks ago, eight people were killed and almost a dozen injured when an ISIS-inspired jihadist drove a rented pickup truck into a crowded bicycle path near the World Trade Center in New York. The terrorist threat is real and ongoing. We cannot afford to play politics with national security.
I also look forward to continuing to work with you on efforts to reform our nation’s criminal justice system. There is bipartisan support to do this in Congress and with your help we can make changes that crack down on violent offenders, while also doing more to rehabilitate federal prisoners and curb abuses in the system, as well as excessive punishments.
To your credit, since you assumed leadership of the DOJ, there has been a significant increase in the prosecution of firearms offenses in the United States. For years, I have criticized lax enforcement of the gun laws already on the books. Enforcing these laws is the most effective way to combat violent crime in our cities and neighborhoods. Under your leadership, the number of defendants charged with unlawful possession of a firearm has increased by nearly 25 percent. The number of defendants charged with armed drug trafficking has increased 10 percent. I commend you for your focus on these prosecutions because they will help make our streets safer.
There are many other matters on which we share common ground, especially when it comes to rectifying the failures of the Obama Administration. For example, earlier this year the House passed legislation to ban settlement payments to non-victim third parties, following your policy directive to shut down the use of such mandatory donations. These reform initiatives followed a concerted effort by the Obama Administration to use settlements to benefit its political allies.
We commend your efforts to combat illegal immigration, protect our citizens from criminal aliens, and to fight back against so-called “sanctuary cities.” More than two years have passed since Kate Steinle was murdered by an illegal immigrant who had been deported five times. We have addressed this issue head-on, by moving legislation to combat sanctuary cities, and find and remove criminal gang members.
Mr. Attorney General, our country is at a crossroads. Our constituents are gravely concerned that our justice system does not work for them. Under your leadership, the Justice Department has taken strides to mitigate the harms done in the prior Administration. I implore you to work with us to continue that trend. Thank you, sincerely, for your appearance today.