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Four key takeaways from Jeff Sessions’s memory-lapse-filled congressional hearing

Attorney General Jeff Sessions raises his hand to be sworn in before the House Judiciary Committee. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Meetings he had with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. Campaign-related conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. Shutting down campaign aide George Papadopoulos after Papadopoulos suggested then-candidate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin get together.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he couldn't remember any of these events — that is until the media or Robert S. Mueller III's investigation remembered them for him.

That's the key takeaway from Sessions's hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. What is typically a routine check-in between Congress and the head of the Justice Department got political real fast, largely because of Russia.

Here are four takeaways from Sessions's nearly day-long hearing:

1. Sessions is not helping clear up questions about the Trump campaign's Russian involvement.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke before the House Judiciary Committee Nov. 14. (Video: Reuters)

Here's why Sessions said Tuesday he couldn't remember any of these Russian contacts or conversations: “It was a brilliant campaign in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day . . . Sleep was in short supply.”

It's certainly possible Sessions didn't remember any number of Russia connections that have now come to light until they came to light.

But Sessions has also demonstrated that once his memory gets jogged, he can recall details of events, such as what he spoke about with the Russian ambassador in two separate meetings and the fact he told Papadopoulos not to set up a Trump-Putin meeting. Which opened the door to Democrats to ask: Why haven't you gotten your facts straight about Russia by now?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a heated reply to questions from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Nov. 14. (Video: Reuters)

Sessions didn't really have any answer to that other than even if he did misremember these events, he didn't do anything wrong during them. His meetings with the Russian ambassador were legal and normal, he said. He didn't encourage Papadaopulous to set up a meeting with Putin; he discouraged it. “I pushed back and said you shouldn't do it,” Sessions recalled. “So I don't think it is right to accuse me of doing something wrong.”

At the very least, Sessions's consistent memory lapses before Congress don't help the president's public image. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found 49 percent of Americans think it is likely Trump committed a crime in connection with possible Russia meddling, although more say this view is based on suspicion rather than evidence.

2. Sessions doesn’t seem that keen on a special counsel looking into Hillary Clinton’s affairs.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Nov. 14, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions about a potential probe into the Clinton campaign. (Video: Reuters)

Trump wants one. About two-dozen Republican members of Congress want one. Sessions is entertaining the idea of appointing a special counsel to investigate the Clinton Foundation and the sale of a uranium company to Russia and how the FBI exonerated Hillary Clinton on her emails.

But Sessions himself doesn't seem totally convinced that is necessary.

“ ‘Looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel,” he told Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) after Jordan listed a number of things he thinks Democrats did during the 2016 presidential campaign that he thought looked fishy, such as the Clinton campaign paying for research that ultimately led to a controversial, unproven dossier alleging Trump wrongdoing in Russia.

“It would take a factual basis that meets the standards of a special counsel,” Sessions replied.

So what's that standard? According to The Post's Matt Zapotosky: A special counsel can be appointed when the Justice Department or a U.S. attorney’s office has a conflict of interest, when there are other “extraordinary circumstances” or when it would otherwise be “in the public interest” to do so, according to the federal regulation governing such appointments.

3. Sessions sides with Roy Moore’s accusers.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions about Senate candidate Roy Moore at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Nov. 14. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Bill O'Leary/Reuters)

It's fair to ask if Roy Moore — the GOP Senate candidate trying to fill Sessions's seat in the Senate — has any friends in Washington right now besides Stephen K. Bannon. Sessions is definitely not one of them.

“I have no reason to doubt these young women,” Sessions said when asked whether he believes Moore's five accusers who recently said that Moore had tried to have romantic or sexual relationships with them when he was twice their age.

Other Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have ditched Moore. But the McConnells of the world could arguably boost Moore's appeal in Alabama.

But Sessions is different. He had represented Alabama in the Senate for nearly 20 years before becoming Trump's attorney general. He is one of the most well-known politicians in the state. Does his ditching of Moore change the dynamic of the race? We'll find out in less than a month.

4. Sessions is suspicious of WikiLeaks.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Nov. 14 he's "not able to make a judgment" about Donald Trump Jr. communicating with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. (Video: Reuters)

It now appears that Donald Trump Jr. communicated with WikiLeaks, the organization that published Democratic emails that were allegedly hacked by Russians. The Atlantic reported, and Trump Jr. confirmed, that he exchanged Twitter messages with WikiLeaks during the campaign.

Sessions indicated that if he were Trump Jr., he probably wouldn't have been so trusting of WikiLeaks.