Update: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from participating in the investigation of the President Donald Trump administration regarding alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. But at this writing, many Democrats continue to call for his resignation and/or the appointment of a special prosecutor. See our previous coverage below.
Original post, 7:18 a.m. March 2: Senator Cory Gardner isn't alone when it comes to a lack of in-person town halls, given that Senator Michael Bennet hasn't held one since 2014. But while Bennet is able to bash President Donald Trump for conflicts of interest, among other things, Gardner, as the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to maintain loyalty to the chief executive even as evidence of alleged improprieties among his cabinet appointees continues to mount, as demonstrated by the grilling he received on National Public Radio this morning in regard to serious questions about Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
As noted by NPR's Rachel Martin in the intro to the conversation, audible below in its entirety, President Trump fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn following reports that he'd lied about having conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Now, as revealed by a Washington Post scoop confirmed by NPR, we've learned that Sessions, who said during his confirmation hearing that he hadn't met with any Russian officials during the campaign, had two ambassadorial sit-downs of his own.
Sessions, who's raised concerns in Colorado over reports that he may crack down on recreational marijuana, insists that the conversations had nothing to do with the election. But plenty of Democrats are calling for his resignation anyway.
Unsurprisingly, Gardner didn't jump on this bandwagon during his NPR chat. Instead, he tried to slow down the bus motoring toward Sessions. He asked that ongoing investigations be allowed to run their course rather than calling for a special prosecutor or recusal from Sessions in regard to an investigation of Russia's election role. And, yes, Sessions's Justice Department is leading that inquiry even though he's currently smack-dab in the middle of it.
Here's the transcript of the conversation, which includes references to a telephone town hall staged by Gardner yesterday. That's followed by the audio from NPR.
Rachel Martin: Does it concern you that Jeff Sessions had these meetings but didn't acknowledge them in his confirmation hearing?
Cory Gardner: I think we need to understand what, exactly, happened, and I hope Senator Sessions, Attorney General Sessions, will come forward and outline exactly what the conversation was, talk about the substance of the meeting and help us understand why it wasn't brought up before the committee. There could be a reason this was not connected to the campaign, but there are questions on whether it was. So let's have full and open transparency and get to the bottom of it.
How is it different from the situation with Mike Flynn, the former National Security Advisor?
I think there was further investigation; I think there was further information on that meeting. I think this was just...a number of senators meet with ambassadors, so we need to know. There's a lot more detail and information on Mike Flynn, and I believe we need more information in this case.
Jeff Sessions runs the Justice Department, which is in charge at this point of investigating Russia's interference in the U.S. election. Some of your Republican colleagues are calling on Sessions to, at the very least, recuse himself from that investigation. Do you think he should?
I think we need to understand what role, if any, he will have in the investigation. I have full confidence in the FBI carrying out an independent investigation, a full and independent investigation. But I do think this does rise to the level of making sure we understand how, exactly, that's going to be carried out.
How do you get to the bottom of those questions if it's Jeff Sessions essentially investigating an issue in which he is now embroiled?
Again, I think the FBI has done, and proved themselves over the years, of doing a good job of making sure they can find an independent investigation and the grounds for it. If we have more information that changes that, then of course I think there will be a call to do something different. But, you know, when you go to a judge, the judge doesn't issue the verdict before the trial. Let's figure out the facts here before the next call for action.
Do you think a special prosecutor should be appointed to take the investigation over?
Again, I think let's get the facts here, let's start and finish the FBI investigation. The Intel committee continues to work on a Russian probe. Let's get the information before we start taking other steps.
So you support the committee finishing its investigation?
Well, the committee should finish its investigation. But if something comes up in the meantime that changes the facts as we know them, we can always make a determination to do something different in this investigation.
Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, has insisted that there's nothing to see here, folks — essentially that there's no need to finish an investigation. Would you disagree on that?
Again, I think the investigation will show us that. If it's the direction the investigation concludes with, then we'll know Sean Spicer was right. If there's different information or a different conclusion from the FBI or the Intel committee, then clearly he was wrong.
You held a call-in town hall back home in Colorado last week [sic]. Did your constituents bring up Russia's interference in the U. S. election?
I hear about Russia issues and interference in the election regularly. People in the town hall yesterday to people I meet with in person are very concerned. We know Russia attempted to interfere with the election. I don't think there's any doubt about that, and it's something I take very seriously. I've called for additional sanctions on Russia, sponsored legislation to add additional sanctions on Russia and even called for the creation of a select cyber-committee to investigate the Russian cyber-hacks along with other cyber-intrusions.
You met with President Trump yesterday, I believe. Did you talk about this? You've suggested the U.S. needs to come down with harder sanctions. Is that something the president supports?
The conversation yesterday with the president was focused primarily on tax relief and health care — repealing and replacing Obamacare. So I did not have a chance to visit with the president about issues other than the two that were on the agenda.
Did you get clarity on what the president's position is? On what he wants to see in a replacement for the Affordable Care Act?
I think we had some very good conversations on making sure we move forward with reconciliation, to create a better system under the Affordable Care Act, moving forward with executive action — and the President is very engaged in terms of assuring Congress that he will be there to work with the executive actions necessary....
I'm sorry to interrupt. To insure a system under the Affordable Care Act? That means not repealing? Of fixing under the ACA?
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I misspoke if I said under the Affordable Care Act. Instead of the Affordable Care Act. Excuse me.
At one point last year, Donald Trump said he wanted all Americans to have health care.... (A clip is played of then-candidate Trump making this statement during an interview on 60 Minutes.) That has not been the Republican line on health care. Do you understand at this point exactly what the president wants in a replacement plan? Are you sure he knows what he wants?
I think we all know what we want, and that's something better than what we have today. Something that works better than the Affordable Care Act, which, as the CEO of Aetna has said, is in a death spiral. And as President Bill Clinton stated during the campaign, the results of the Affordable Care Act are crazy. And so what we need is something that goes beyond just a conversation about coverage, because people can have coverage without actually having access to care, because their insurance premiums and deductibles are too high. The president understands that, we understand that, and we need to make sure we've got a system in place that lowers cost, increases the quality of care, and does so in a way that people can actually access and utilize their insurance instead of just having it, paying for it and then wishing they could go to the doctor.