It was an exchange with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that started Attorney General Jeff Sessions's Russia problems earlier this year. And the bad blood between the two men spilled over in Round 2 on Wednesday.
They got into a testy exchange during Sessions's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Franken accusing Sessions of repeatedly “moving the goal posts” on his denials of contacts with Russians, and Sessions accusing Franken of being “totally unfair.” The normally understated Sessions appeared visibly angry at certain points, at one point exclaiming, “I don’t have to sit here and listen to his charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.”
Let's break down the key points in their exchange:
FRANKEN: First it was, “I did not have communications with Russians,” which was not true. Then it was, “I never met with any Russians to discuss any political campaign,” which may or may not be true. Now it's, “I did not discuss interference in the campaign,” which further narrows your initial blanket denial about meeting with the Russians. Since you have qualified your denial to say that since you did not, quote, “discuss issues of the campaign” with Russians, what in your view constitutes “issues of the campaign?”
SESSIONS: Let me just say this without hesitation: That I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.
At this point, Franken tries to interject, apparently worried that Sessions is about to filibuster until Franken's time is up so that Franken can't ask any more questions. Franken notes that GOP Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) went over his allotted time and assures he has several questions for Sessions. It's amid this exchange that Sessions says, “Give me a break.”
FRANKEN: Go ahead. Take whatever time you want.
SESSIONS: It was not a simple question, Sen. Franken.
FRANKEN: I'm sorry?
SESSIONS: It was not a simple question. The lead-in to your question was very, very troubling. And I answered to you in a way that I felt was responsive to what you raised in your question.
Sessions then details how he was asked in his confirmation hearing about a CNN story that had just published, and he starts reading from the transcript of that hearing. When he adds commentary to the transcript, Franken dryly implores him to “keep reading.”
“You make a lot of allegations, senator; it's hard to respond in the time that I've got,” Sessions says. Franken responds: “That, to me, is moving the goal posts every time. We're starting off with an extra point, and by the end we're going to a 75-yard field goal.”
Franken adds at another point, “The ambassador to Russia is Russian.” Sessions adds toward the end: “You have gone through this long talk, which I believe is totally unfair to me.”
First off, it's completely true that Franken was going at him hard and in very accusatory ways that you usually don't see in these hearings. The “was not true” and “may or may not be true” line were points of emphasis, and they seemed to set Sessions off.
But it's incontrovertibly true that Sessions's answers on his contacts with Russians have shifted. In his confirmation hearings, he told Franken, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.” When it was revealed that he had met with the Russian ambassador, Sessions stressed that it was in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and argued that his confirmation-hearing response was clearly in the context of the campaign.
Eventually he recused himself from the Russia investigation, and now we have special counsel Robert Mueller -- a series of events for which President Trump apparently may never forgive Sessions.
Even if you believe Sessions that he was initially talking in the context of the campaign, though, his denial shifted again in June. At that point, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee the he “never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States.” So suddenly it wasn't just a denial about any campaign discussion, but rather a denial about any discussion of campaign interference. And sure enough, a month later The Washington Post reported that the ambassador, then Sergey Kislyak, had reported to Russia that he and Sessions had discussed the campaign.
Wednesday's denial, on its surface, would seem to broaden the denial from “interference” to anything “improper.” But improper is also such a subjective term. And for all of Franken's efforts over their 15-minute exchange, he didn't really get Sessions to expand upon much.
Not that it wasn't entertaining.