Opinion writer

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday afternoon. Senators came ready to tear into him for untruthful confirmation hearing testimony about Russian conflicts; his post-recusal decision to wade back into the Russia investigation and 2016 campaign issues in the context of the firing of former FBI director James B. Comey; his knowledge of pressure tactics wielded by the president on Comey; and his awareness of any taping system in the White House.

The contrast with Comey was striking. Sessions, grayer and older, looked nervous and shrunken in his seat, growing defensive at times. He weakly complained to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) about her questioning. He sharply objected: “I’m not able to be rushed this fast, it makes me nervous.” Indeed, while Comey was relaxed, confident and expansive, Sessions was evasive and skittish. He repeatedly refused to answer questions, not invoking executive privilege but saying it was Justice Department “policy” not to talk about conversations with the president. Democrats repeatedly challenged him, accusing him of “stonewalling.” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) slammed him: “You are impeding this investigation.” Heinrich told Sessions there’s no “appropriateness” standard that alleviates him from the need to testify under oath fully and completely. Heinrich flat out accused Sessions of “obstructing” the investigation.

Making a far stronger appearance at the hearing than he did during Comey’s appearance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) grilled Sessions on his lack of interest in Russian espionage and chastised him for a lack of transparency. He got Sessions to acknowledge that he did not discuss substantive matters (e.g., Syria) with the Russian ambassador, leaving open the question as to what they were chatting about in multiple encounters. McCain also pointed out that while on the Armed Services Committee Sessions was not particularly focused on Russia.

Sessions at times would relate the contents of conversations with other high government officials (e.g., claiming he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein agreed Comey should go) but refused to say whether he discussed Russia in conjunction with Comey’s firing. Sessions is unlikely to get away with such gamesmanship with the special counsel.

Aside from looking like he had something to hide, Sessions did himself and the president few favors. After decrying the insinuation he had an additional (third) meeting with the Russians, he allowed he couldn’t remember if he met with the Russian ambassador at the Mayflower Hotel. He conceded that after a meeting with President Trump, Comey told Sessions he was uncomfortable being cornered alone with Trump. (Comey suggested Sessions responded with little more than a shrug, but never did anything about this.)

Sessions was exceptionally weak in explaining how his recusal — which covered the Russia investigation and anything coming from the 2016 campaign — allowed him to insert himself into Comey’s firing. Whether you accept that the reason was Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails (as stated in Rosenstein’s letter) or the Russia investigation (as Trump later confessed), Sessions did not abide by the plain wording of the recusal. The reason seems to be that Sessions was convinced he still had to perform all his duties so, reasoning backwards, the recusal couldn’t prevent him from involvement in the Comey firing. This is illogical and just wrong. The recusal was supposed to impose limits on that part of his job he could NOT do; he did not abide by that restriction according to his own, albeit muddled, telling of soliciting the memo from Rosenstein used to fire Comey.

Another problematic bit of testimony came when Sessions said that it would never be appropriate for the president to discuss a specific case with a Cabinet or other high official. According to Comey, Comey’s notes and the media remarks of Donald Trump Jr. that is exactly what Trump did in raising Michael Flynn’s situation with Comey alone in the Oval Office.

Sessions was never able to explain why the reasons stated in Rosenstein’s memo — usurpation of the prosecutorial function and raising the Clinton emails in the campaign — could possibly be the reasons for firing Comey. In the past, Trump and Sessions had praised Comey for precisely this conduct. Unfortunately, Sessions only strengthened the impression that the real reason for firing Comey was concealed until Trump spilled the beans in an interview with Lester Holt. In short, nothing Sessions said undercut the argument that the president fired his chief nemesis in the Russia scandal, in the ultimate act of obstruction.

Even more disturbing, Sessions seemed to confirm that neither he nor the president ever showed any interest in the underlying issue — Russia’s attack on our democratic system and interference with our elections. He doesn’t recall ever getting briefed on it, or Trump ever mentioning it. A more vivid portrait of absolute dereliction of duty would be hard to duplicate.

In sum, Sessions was remarkably unconvincing, defensive and downright snippy. If he is this shaken when questioned by former colleagues imagine how he may wilt under Robert S. Mueller III’s grilling.