Confirmation hearings set table for politics going forward

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," January 10, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-CALIF.: Will he be independent of the White House? Will he tell the president "no" when necessary?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: The attorney general must everyone, no matter how powerful, accountable. No one is above the law and no American will be beneath its protection. No powerful special interests will cower this department.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-UTAH: Some of the far left will stop at nothing to defeat this nomination.

SESSIONS: This caricature of me in 1986 was not correct. I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based determination ideas that I was accused of. I did not.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: A very forceful response by Senator Jeff Sessions, the attorney general nominee by president-elect Trump, facing some tough questions today, but largely most people believe came out unscathed. Another person unscathed in the hearing today, General Kelly, who is up for Homeland Security in part because he has the former defense secretary of the Obama administration saying this.


ROBERT GATES, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: He is one of the finest people I have ever known. I would trust him with my life, and indeed many others, mainly young marines, literally have done so. How often is it that a tough commander genuinely is beloved by his troops?


BAIER: He is up for Homeland Security.

Let's bring in our panel and see where we are: Jason Riley, columnist with the Wall Street Journal; editor in chief of Lifezette, Laura Ingraham, and Caitlin Huey-Burns, national political reporter for Real Clear Politics. OK, Laura, your assessment of these two hearings today as kind of being indicative of where we are.

LAURA INGRAHAM, LIFEZETTE.COM: All the drama that was anticipated about Senator Sessions especially. I think the Golden Globes were more interesting at this point. He was so well prepared. He had a great team of people helping him get prepped of this hearing.

But his breadth of knowledge of all the hot button issues, obviously immigration being one of them, even the attempt by Dianne Feinstein to bring up the abortion question where he was asked about Roe versus Wade and do you stand by your view that Roe versus Wade was one of the most outrageously bad decisions ever? And he said yes, I do. And then he also said as attorney general, it is currently the law of the land, and obviously allocating the right power to the executive branch versus what the judicial branch may or may not do with Roe Versus Wade.

But they tried. They had Al Franken out there taking some swings. But I think he's going to get confirmed. What this is about is not whether Jeff is going to get confirmed or not, Senator Sessions. It's about power. It's about the Democrats playing to their aggrieved base. It's about fundraising. It's about 2018 and 2020. And that's in the end what most of these confirmation hearings are going to be about.

BAIER: Speaking of which, Jason his Democratic colleague Senator Cory Booker is testifying against Senator Sessions, which is unprecedented in the Senate.

JASON RILEY, WALL STREET JOURNAL: I think they are going to play the race card hard here. Democrats are calling Sessions a racist. It is hearsay. It's an old charge. And they play the race card so often. They cry wolf on race so often. I think we need more than hearsay. When Sessions was attorney general, or U.S. attorney, I should say. He prosecuted a capital case against the Ku Klux Klan. He helps public schools in Alabama. So I think they need to bring more to the table than that.

By the way, Bret, Attorney General Eric Holder under President Obama spent years trying to shut down school voucher programs for poor, minority children. I don't think anything Jeff Sessions has been accused of races of the level of harming blacks to the extent that policies like that do.

BAIER: In fact, Cory Booker was granting an award in Selma, a gold medal two foot soldiers, Caitlyn, who had participated in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. And he said "I'm humbled to participate here pay tribute to some of the extraordinary Americans whose footsteps paved the way for me and my generation. I feel blessed and honored to have partnered with Senator Sessions in being the Senate sponsors of this important award." Bottom line is how much of this is, to Laura's point, about setting the table for politics going forward?

CAITLYN HUEY-BURNS, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: I think that's really the framework that you have to look at this nomination process, confirmation process with, because Democrats do not have an avenue to block these nominees either, right, because they are the ones that changed the filibuster rules. They just need 51 votes to get these people confirmed. So you're seeing Democrats trying to leverage what little power they have.

Also you are looking at someone like Cory Booker perhaps having ambitions beyond the Senate, kind of using these platforms to advance their own causes. And I think Democrats are trying to do whatever they can to kind of hold some of this up.

But I will say you are going to have some Democrats supportive of these nominees, particularly those up for reelection in 2018 in states that Donald Trump did very well in. People like Joe Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia.

BAIER: Joe Donnelly from Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp, they're facing some tough leverage there.

RILEY: Senator Warren earlier who suggested that the Democrats are slow walking this because all the paperwork wasn't in. I've been told when it comes to secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos, her paperwork was in a month early. So I think this is political theater.

INGRAHAM: The base of the Democratic Party is livid. They are so angry. A list just came out of nominees that Hillary might have chosen for her cabinet. They are mad about that list because they thought some of the people on the list were too conservative. The natives are restless in the Democrat Party. They have to be fed something here.

And there is little drama. I think you are exactly right. They are thinking Cory Booker is the next Barack Obama. And this is setting him up perhaps to take the lead in the future of the Democratic Party and a really meaningful way. I think it's a big mistake for Cory. He's a smart guy and he has taken a turn here to the left that I think he's going to regret having done.

BAIER: Is there a nominee, though, in the crosshairs that is potentially in trouble?

INGRAHAM: They'll think Tillerson will be the nominee perhaps that they can wound most grievously because of the Russia connection. Some new developments today on Russia that maybe they will be talking about later. But that's what they think they can I think most smear Trump with. They're staying on this Russia hacking story, perhaps future conflicts with Trump business entities. And if they can say that Trump put in someone who had very cozy business dealings with the Kremlin, maybe they think they can get some traction, but I don't think it's going to work. I think people see him as a fairly competent CEO and atraight shooter.

BAIER: There are Democrats, and I've tried to press Senator Warren on this, who say this is illegitimate, that Donald Trump should not be president. That somehow they hacking affected the election to the point where he shouldn't win.

HUEY-BURNS: Right. You are not seeing Democrats jump at the opportunity to say, look, this election was fair and square. You are not seeing them draw the clear distinction that someone like Paul Ryan, for example, has been doing, saying we are not challenging the results of the outcome. We do want to investigate what happened. You are not really seeing Democrats do that because some are arguing, you know, that in a race this close that they say came down to 80,000, 90,000 votes they say in the Midwest, little things matter here and there. But I do think when you are making this argument you have to make clear what happened and what did not.

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