Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday in the latest chapter in the investigation of Russian collusion in the 2016 election.
by Jay Lorenz
A composed Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave steady testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday in his leg of the never-ending search for Russian collusion with Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. The former senate veteran of over two decades appeared, at times, uninterested, frustrated, and indignant at the lines of questioning pursued by the Committee. However, he remained consistent and conservative in his answers, and no incriminating information was brought to light in the nearly three hour ordeal.
Sessions set the tone in his opening statement which plainly and thoroughly denied any wrongdoing. In what would become a point of contention for Democrats, the attorney general said early on that Department of Justice policy allows him to reserve the right to not speak on private communications with the president. This cut off lines of inquiry about the Comey firing, the one-on-one meeting between Trump and Comey in the Oval Office, and directives Sessions may have received from the president. He then refuted suggestions that he met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel at an event in April during which Trump gave a foreign policy speech. That story originated from anonymous leaks by “American officials “stating that American spy agencies have raw intelligence of Kislyak discussing a meeting he had with Sessions at the hotel. The story gained steam after Comey’s private meeting with congress, which senators emerged from talking about the alleged Mayflower occurrence, but there is no public evidence that suggests it occurred.
He also addressed the claim that he lied in his senate confirmation hearing when Senator Al Franken asked Sessions if he was part of a “continuing exchange of information” between the Trump campaign and Russia. Sessions replied that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” Tuesday, Sessions pointed out that he was responding to the allegation that the campaign had consistent, secret contact with the Russian government during the campaign, and he did not feel he was being asked to disclose “routine situations” that had occurred with Russian diplomats, such as the brief greeting he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in July or the meeting he and two senior aides had with Kislyak in Sessions’ office in September. A key to the Democrat’s propaganda on this issue is to insinuate that the “meetings” Sessions had (or may have had) were private, one-on-one meetings. One was a brief handshake, and the Mayflower meeting, if it did occur, would have been of the same nature. The other occurred with aides in the room. Innuendo is key in this investigation; if the Democrats did not use particular language, the story would not be compelling.
Sessions also addressed the decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He reiterated what had previously been released as a statement by the Department of Justice on June 8—his recusal was not due to any wrongdoing, but due to a DOJ regulation which states that any DOJ attorney involved in the investigation of a candidate who was a principle advisor of that candidate should recuse himself. Sessions exposed the ridiculousness of the line of attack, saying, “It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various department of justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations.” He then contradicted Comey’s testimony that he did not reply when Comey confronted him about leaving the former FBI director alone with the president. Sessions again reiterated a press statement which said that he had agreed with Comey that it was important to follow the appropriate polices when contacting the White House.
The lone mistake of the opening statement was Sessions’ concession that the investigation into Russian interference was “critically important.” This affirms the narrative, asserted without evidence, that the Russians meddled in the election, a mistake Republicans, especially those in the administration, should stop making. Although he did well to shield the administration, by opening with this comment, Sessions agreed to have the rhetorical battle on the terms of the Democrats. Only Trump seems to understand the importance of delegitimizing the Russia narrative, repeatedly calling it a “witch hunt” and saying there is “no evidence” for the claims.
Sessions’ answers to the questions of the Committee mostly consisted of rehashing or elaborating on information he provided in the opening statement, but there were still some moments of interest. Multiple Democrats accused Sessions of violating his recusal by recommending the firing of James Comey. When Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) asked Sessions the reason Trump fired Comey, Sessions replied that only Trump could answer that question; Sessions had simply been asked his opinion and put it into writing. When pressed on why he recommended the firing, Sessions discussed the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton, Comey’s inappropriate public comments on Clinton, and Comey’s lack of discipline as FBI director. This led Sessions to believe “a fresh start at the FBI was the appropriate thing to do.”
Sessions was murky on his answers to questions about Comey’s private meeting with Trump which allegedly occurred after a counter-terrorism meeting with several advisors. He refused to answer whether Trump had specifically requested Comey to stay behind after the meeting, but confirmed that Comey had remained in the office after the meeting ended. Sessions made sure to point out that a private conversation itself is not improper, unless rules are broken during the conversation. Democrats are likely to drill down on this moment as a moment when Trump could have obstructed justice by telling by telling Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, as Comey alleges took place. Unless there are tapes to contradict Comey’s testimony, this moment will continue to be a focus of the investigation, especially now that Trump is under investigation for obstruction of justice for the events surrounding the firing of Comey.
Multiple times, Democrats attempted to get Sessions to divulge the content of conversations with the president. Each time, Sessions invoked “long-standing policies of the Department of Justice” which led him to reserve the president’s right to use executive privilege in order to keep private conversations secret. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) accused Sessions of “impeding this investigation,” and Ron Wyden (D-OR)said he was stonewalling, to which Sessions retorted, “I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.” It will be interesting to see if the Democrats push the issue and attempt to pin Trump down on whether or not he in fact does want to exercise executive privilege over these communications. Doing so could force Trump to either invoke the privilege or risk the communications being made public. The legal ramifications of this are unclear, as executive privilege does not have a long legal precedent. During the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon attempted to use executive privilege. However, the Supreme Court ruled that executive privilege cannot be used to suppress evidence in a criminal probe, so it is unclear if Trump will be able to use executive privilege in the future.
Sessions was mostly steady, but there were two heated moments in the hearing. The first occurred after Senator Wyden asked about Comey’s suggestion that there is classified information which would make Sessions’ participation in a Russia investigation “problematic.” Wyden asked, “Mr. Comey said there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic, and he couldn’t talk about them. What are they?” Sessions had had enough of Wyden’s badgering and snapped back, ” “Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden! There are none! I can tell you that for absolute certainty. This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.” The recusal has not been an effective move for Sessions, instead straining his relationship with the president and fueling innuendo that he did so due to being comprised by Russia. The recusal has also enabled Democrats to claim Sessions’ recommendation of the firing of Comey violates the recusal, as Wyden also insisted that it did.
The other contentious exchange was instigated by Kamala Harris (D-California), who went after Sessions aggressively. This was the only time during the testimony that Sessions appeared flustered, even admitting he was nervous from being “rushed this fast” by Harris. Sessions was unprepared for Harris’ demand that he hand over his notes, emails, and other documents from the campaign to the Committee. Sessions replied that he would “respond appropriately,” but acknowledged that he was not aware of how much of that material he was required to hand over. Harris attempted to steamroll over Sessions’ qualified and somewhat clumsy answers. Sessions finally regained his backbone and snapped back, “If I don’t qualify it you’ll accuse me of lying.” Unaffected, she then finished by grilling Sessions on what policy it was that allowed him to avoid divulging conversations he had with the president. Sessions was unable to cite it or even say for certain that such a policy was on the books. This exchange made Sessions look unprepared, though he later was able to legally justify it without giving the exact statute. Sessions claimed he was legally required to reserve the president’s right to use executive privilege.
Sessions displayed a few moments of weakness, but overall performed admirably, removing himself from the focus of the Democrat’s Russia hunt for the time being and protecting the president. However, the Russia hysteria will continue for the foreseeable future, sucking in more associates of the president. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, will testify in September, and the president himself claimed last week that he would eventually testify under oath. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the Russia investigation is being widened to look at whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice, a report which Trump confirmed on Thursday, calling it “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history.” All this ensures that, for months to come, the Russia investigation will be a priority on Capitol Hill.