A tense moment erupted Tuesday between Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, leading Grassley to bang his gavel and abruptly end an argument over recent comments by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Grassley, the chairman of the committee, accused Franken of asking Sessions a “gotcha” question during his confirmation hearing in January. Franken insisted he did no such thing.
“It was not a gotcha question, sir,” Franken said.
“It was, from the standpoint — he didn’t know what you were asking about,” replied Grassley. Then, Grassley banged his gavel and called on Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). Franken was not finished presenting his perspective.
“Look at the tape,” he told Grassley.
The exchange was the most explosive at the closely watched confirmation hearing of Rod J. Rosenstein, President Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general, and Rachel Brand, his pick for associate attorney general. If confirmed, Rosenstein would assume responsibility for any investigations involving the Trump campaign — including any ties between Trump and Russia — after Sessions recused himself from such matters last week.
Sessions’s recusal came after The Washington Post reported that he met twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States last year, but did not disclose those interactions under questioning by Franken.
“If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?” Franken asked Sessions at his January confirmation hearing.
Sessions replied: “Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Grassley argued Tuesday that Franken’s question did not give Sessions adequate time to prepare to answer, since Franken had cited a news report in his question.
“CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week, that included information that ‘Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say ‘there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’ Again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so, you know,” Franken said in his question.
A few minutes before Tuesday’s fiery exchange, tensions were already building as Franken questioned Rosenstein about Sessions and other matters.
“I think Senator Sessions should come back. I think he owes it to this committee to come back and explain himself,” said Franken, pointing his forefinger for emphasis.
He then proceeded to cite a letter Sessions sent to the committee Monday supplementing his testimony but not admitting fault. Franken paused as he looked at his notes.
“If you are making a statement to me, make it to me very quickly,” said Grassley, his patience for Franken’s comments appearing to wear thin.
“He answered a question I didn’t ask,” Franken said of Sessions. “And for him to put this in his letter as a response is insulting.”
“I’ve bent over backward not to say that he lied. He needs to come back,” Franken added.
Rosenstein soon interjected to say he did not know anything about investigations the Justice Department was undertaking beyond what he had read in press accounts. “I don’t know anything but what I’ve read in the newspapers at this point,” he said.
Then Grassley reasserted himself.
“I would like to comment on what Senator Franken just said. And I don’t expect Senator Franken to act like I would toward our witnesses,” he said.
As the hearing neared its end, Grassley and Franken reengaged. This time, Franken started on a conciliatory note.
“I just want to say something about the chairman,” he said. “I have incredible respect and regard for the chairman and dare I say affection. The chairman has co-sponsored my legislation more than any other Republican.”
“Be quiet about that,” quipped Grassley, prompting laughter in the room.
“Okay, hopefully this doesn’t go to Iowa,” jested Franken.
Then, Franken once again argued that he did not ask Sessions a “gotcha question.”
“It can’t be a gotcha question if he didn’t answer the question,” he said.
Franken added: “I couldn’t have been sweeter.”