Jeff Sessions did exactly what he needed to do Tuesday — help himself in the eyes of his boss, President Trump, and, in turn, help Trump.
But the attorney general, an early Trump supporter, revealed little in the congressional hearing about the ongoing Russia saga or Trump’s role in possibly trying to quash the investigation looking into it.
Using vague legal justification, Sessions shut down potentially important lines of investigative questioning — and that may be exactly how the White House wants it.
Sessions showed flashes of anger rarely seen from the 70-year-old Alabamian, calling any suggestion that he colluded with Russia to interfere in the U.S. presidential election a “detestable lie.”
The tactic — combined with the earlier testimony of high-ranking Trump administration officials, who also deemed it inappropriate to divulge conversations with the president — may have given a road map for the White House to keep its secrets without the public-relations blowback of invoking executive privilege.
Sessions wanted this open hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee so he could respond to fired FBI Director James Comey. Comey — a man whom, it was revealed Tuesday, Sessions wanted gone before Day 1 — intimated in testimony last week that Sessions’ potential conflicts went deeper than were originally known.
Sessions denied all of it and shielded his boss from any potential damage.
Silence is golden?
It became obvious from the get-go Tuesday that Sessions would not disclose conversations between himself and the president. That cut off lines of inquiry about the exact circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing, what may have happened in the Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting in which Sessions was asked to leave so Trump could speak one-on-one with Comey, as well as Trump’s reaction to Sessions’ recusal.
Sessions’ legal rationale for his silence was muddled, at best, and deliberate interference at worst, something Democrats accused him of.
“My understanding is that you took an oath,” said New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich in some of the sharpest questioning of the day. “You raised your right hand here today, and you said that you would solemnly tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And now you’re not answering questions. You’re impeding this investigation.”
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon was even more blunt. “I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling,” he said.
Sessions shot back: “I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice. You don’t walk into hearing or committee meeting and reveal confidential communications with the president of the United States, who is entitled to receive conventional communications in your best judgment about a host of issues, and have to be accused of stonewalling them.”
Sessions did not invoke “executive privilege.” As he acknowledged to Heinrich, “I’m not able to invoke executive privilege. That’s the president’s prerogative.”
And yet, he told Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who asked if Sessions could “speak more frankly” in a closed session with senators, as Comey did: “I’m not sure. The executive privilege is not waived by going in camera or in closed session.”
Sessions repeatedly clung to vague reasoning for not answering many of the senators’ questions. He could not point to specific Justice Department language, even though Sessions said he had consulted with department attorneys before the hearing.
Senators got just five minutes each to ask questions (the chairman and vice chairman got 10). When Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked about Sessions’ recollection of meetings with Russian officials or businessmen, he complained, “I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.”
When Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina interjected and noted that “the senator’s time has expired,” a wide grin swept across Sessions’ face, as he looked up at the chairman and former colleague.
Round and round it went. And all of it probably made Sessions’ boss very happy.
“He thought that Attorney General Sessions did a very good job,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, including NPR’s Tamara Keith, traveling on Air Force One on Tuesday night. She added that Sessions “in particular was very strong on the point that there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.”
Sessions’ silence kept a lid on important details that could have illuminated much more of the Russia story. He said he couldn’t “recall” 18 times. It reminded Washington of another attorney general who testified 10 years ago, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales said that he couldn’t “recall” some 60 times in a hearing about the dismissal of federal prosecutors, accusations of coordination with the White House and overall Justice Department leadership.
Ironically, Sessions was one of the senators questioning Gonzales that day and expressed frustration with Gonzales’ faulty memory.
“Well, I guess I’m concerned about your recollection, really, because it’s not that long ago,” Sessions said. “It was an important issue. And that’s troubling to me, I’ve got to tell you.”
Other attorneys general, of course, have evaded congressional questions. Eric Holder, President Barack Obama’s attorney general, was held in contempt of Congress for invoking executive privilege and not turning over documents related to the “Fast and Furious” investigation.
But if questions coming into Tuesday’s hearing were, “How would Sessions respond to fired FBI Director James Comey’s intimation that there was something else — something classified — about Sessions to be concerned about?” or “What more do we know about President Trump’s role in firing Comey or putting pressure on officials to drop the Russia investigation?” there wasn’t much light shed on them.
Having it in for Comey from the beginning
What was learned, though, was that Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, now deputy attorney general, may have always been looking for a reason to fire Comey — and so was Trump.
Sessions revealed that he and Rosenstein discussed before they were even confirmed getting rid of Comey. They wanted a “fresh start,” Sessions said.
But Comey was kept on for months after they were both confirmed. And, like Trump, Sessions didn’t exactly criticize Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation during the presidential campaign. When Comey came forward saying he was reopening the investigation in October of last year, Sessions praised him.
“Now, he’s received new evidence,” Sessions said on Fox Business. “He had an absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has and let the American people know that, too.”
He added that Comey, after being uncomfortable with the airplane meeting between former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton, had “stepped up and done what his duty is, I think.”
Sessions was critical of the investigation, but seemingly only because it didn’t “get to the bottom” of what happened.
“I think it should have used a grand jury,” he said. Sessions wanted people put under oath. “So you have to grill them, and people will surprise you how sometimes they’ll just spill the beans when they’re under oath like that.” He then pointed out that with the “new evidence,” Sessions thought the investigation was “back on track again.”
All that seems to undermine the rationale for Comey’s firing that Sessions says he relied on — Rosenstein’s memo that charged Comey acted inappropriately in the handling of the Clinton email investigation.
It wasn’t until the stars aligned, as the Russia investigation was heating up, that Sessions and Rosenstein could pull the plug, with at least Trump’s blessing. Sessions also admitted that neither he nor Rosenstein, Comey’s direct supervisor, ever talked to Comey about his job performance.
And Trump himself undercut the reasoning for firing Comey that Sessions and Rosenstein had presented, saying he was going to fire Comey anyway “regardless of recommendation.”
In Mueller’s court
The questions will continue, especially of everyone who steps before Congress, but Trump allies have proved that even going under oath won’t shed light on the full details surrounding the Russia investigation and whether Trump pressured high-ranking officials to drop it.
That is something that may have to be determined by Special Counsel Robert Mueller when he eventually releases his findings.
And Trump allies have already been trying to insulate themselves and the president by attempting to delegitimize whatever Mueller comes up with.
The irony, of course, is that if the president has done nothing wrong, as he has insisted all along, Mueller is the one guy in Washington who has the credibility to clear him.