Attorney General Jeff Sessions rebuffed repeated requests from Democratic lawmakers Wednesday to detail his conversations with President Trump on the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey in May.
At a contentious oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic senators peppered the nation’s top law enforcement officer with questions on Comey, Trump and the ongoing investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race. But for the most part, Sessions declined to say anything of real substance.
Despite advanced warning from committee Democrats, Sessions played the same game as he and other witnesses have before. He wouldn’t answer, but neither would he invoke executive privilege. “Contrary to Department of Justice Department policy, Attorney General Sessions doubled down on his non-assertion assertion of executive privilege,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in a written statement provided to Right Turn. “It has been four months since he refused to answer questions before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. How much time does he need to get a response from the White House as to whether the President asserts executive privilege?” The former prosecutor explained, ” The Attorney General had months to approach the President about whether he’d make such a claim, and we gave him plenty of warning that he’d need to address this today. This is a stonewall, plain and simple, and it undermines the credibility of the Committee and the Attorney General to allow it to happen.”
In a telephone interview, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told me, “He has stretched the concept of privilege beyond all legal recognition.” If the privilege is to be invoked, Blumenthal pointed out, it is up to the president. “But the president has waived the privilege by tweets and public statements,” he said.
Indeed, Republicans could put a stop to this rigmarole if they subpoenaed him and demanded he answer direct questions, with the threat of contempt of Congress hovering over his head. That doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon. As Blumenthal wryly observed, Republicans evidence “no real appetite to precipitate a confrontation” with the administration. That’s putting it mildly.
Nevertheless, we got some snippets of intriguing information, none of which are particularly helpful to the president or to Sessions.
First, he has not yet been interviewed by the special counsel. This confirms that Robert S. Mueller III and his attorneys are following a methodical path — first request documents, then interview lesser figures (e.g. former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former press secretary Sean Spicer) and only then get to the main players. As one could tell from the unanswered questions raised by Democrats, Mueller will want to know what information Sessions has about firing former FBI Director James B. Comey, concocting a phony cover story, being on the receiving end of retaliation for recusing himself and possibly the president’s interfering with the prosecution of former sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Second, he is on shaky ground with regard to past denials that he had any contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. The Post reports:
Sessions offered a slightly new wrinkle Wednesday, asserting that he may have discussed Trump campaign policy positions in his 2016 conversations with [then Russia’s ambassador to the United States Sergey] Kislyak. The attorney general said it was “possible” that “some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were,” though he also said, “I don’t think there was any discussion about the details of the campaign.”
The Post reported in July that Kislyak reported back to his superiors in the Kremlin that the two had discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow. Sessions has previously said he did not “recall any specific political discussions,” though he allowed that most ambassadors are “pretty gossipy” and that it was “campaign season” when he and Kislyak talked.
In one of the testiest exchanges of the hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who had asked Sessions about Trump campaign and Russia contacts at the confirmation hearing, accused the attorney general of changing his story over time.
While Sessions first asserted he “did not have communications with the Russians,” he now seemed to be only denying that he had inappropriate discussions about election interference, Franken said.
The chances Sessions might be prosecuted for testifying incompletely to Congress, let alone for perjury, seem slight. In that sense, his confused answers and shaky memory on a number of topics may be his best defense.
Matthew Miller, former head of Justice Department communications told Right Turn, “Honestly, it was how confused and uninformed he seemed about some basic things that you would expect him to either know well, or at least have prepared for in advance of the hearing. For example, he couldn’t remember if he was involved in the U.S. attorney firings and wasn’t aware of whether Mueller had asked him for an interview yet, and in both instances had to ask his staff.” In addition, Miller pointed out that when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) “asked him about the department’s determination that some people with open arrest warrants should be able to purchase a firearm, a fairly high-profile issue, he seemed completely unaware of what she was referring to. And it went on and on like that.”
At a couple of points in Blumenthal’s questioning, the Connecticut senator recalled, “He asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I had to tell me ‘With all due respect, I’m not the one answering the questions.'” Sessions plead ignorance on whether the president could pardon others who might be charged with obstruction of justice to protect himself. Blumenthal found the testimony “blatantly evasive.”
Likewise, Sessions, got slapped down for fencing with another Democrat on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as CNN reported:
Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, though, who has pursued legislation that would offer DACA-like protections for nearly two decades, pressed Sessions on how he could recommend to Trump that the program is unconstitutional and would be found the same in the courts when the Justice Department still maintains a 2014 Office of Legal Counsel memo on its website that found DACA would be constitutional.
“I believe this is accurate, that the so-called approval of DACA by OLC, Office of Legal Counsel, was based on the caveat or the requirement that any action that’s taken be done on an individual basis,” Sessions said, then appeared to mix up court precedent on the issue.
Sessions said a court had struck down the program because individual decisions were not made, but was seemingly referring to a decision made about an expansion of the program to parents. Courts have not found DACA to be unconstitutional to date.
Durbin noted that each DACA applicant is evaluated individually. All go through background checks before receiving the two-year permits. Growing frustrated at Session’s answers, Durbin referenced his former colleague’s past on the other side of the dais. “I believe this is just about the moment that Sen. Sessions would have blown up,” Durbin said.
Sessions hardly seems like a conniving AG in the mold of John Mitchell. Rather he reminds one of Alberto Gonzales, a political pal of his president who certainly would not qualify as the keenest legal mind or have gotten the job from any other president. He may not have been sharp enough to protect himself or the president from an obstruction charge; simply by being a go-alonger, Sessions may have to lawyer up before long.
Unfortunately, Sessions’s testimony reminds us that there is no one in Trump’s inner circle willing to tell him no and explain the limits and obligations of his office. It shows these days.