Jeff Sessions repeatedly declined to answer senators’ questions in testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee — particularly on the question of his conversations with President Trump.
He has given two reasons for doing so. First, he has said the Justice Department encourages robust debates, and revealing internal conversations might chill those conversations. Second, he maintained it would be inappropriate for him to reveal details of his talks with the president, because those conversations could infringe on the notion of executive privilege.
That did not sit well with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).
“There is no appropriateness bucket,” Heinrich said. “It is not a legal standard.”
Whether Sessions can be compelled to discuss his conversations with other Justice Department officials or the president is somewhat murky, though it’s highly unlikely that Congress has any legal tools to force Sessions to answer its questions.
Sessions said that executive privilege is the president’s to assert and Trump had not done so yet. But Sessions said he was essentially protecting the president’s right to assert privilege if he wanted to in the future. That is not an illegitimate assertion. It is possible Trump would be all right with Sessions discussing some conversations between the two of them but not others, and he would not be able to communicate those decisions to Sessions in real time.
“It’s my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the president when he has not had an opportunity to review the questions and make a decision on whether to approve such an answer,” Sessions said.
Sessions cited Justice Department rules as informing his decision. The department does have policies on stopping the release of information on internal deliberations to the public, “to encourage open, frank discussions on matters of policy between subordinates and superiors,” among other things.
Sessions has, though, revealed some details of the president’s deliberations, particularly on the subject of James B. Comey’s firing. Sessions said he felt free to do so there because the president already had made the matter public. Sessions still did not answer all the senators’ questions on the topic.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pressed Sessions to explain how he could decline to answer questions about his talks with the president without the White House asserting executive privilege.
“I am protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses, and there may be other privileges that apply,’’ Sessions responded. “At this point, I believe it’s premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice about executive privilege.’’
King noted that Sessions was willing to say that Trump asked him and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, to write up their concerns about Comey’s perceived flaws as leader of the FBI.
Sessions said that was different, because the president had already disclosed that discussion.
“You’re being selective,’’ King said.
“No, I’m not intentionally,’’ Sessions said.
King tried once more to get Sessions to say whether the president discussed the Russia probe with him.
“I cannot answer that,’’ Sessions replied, adding that he never got any briefing about the probe and didn’t know much about it beyond what was in the newspapers.