Congressional Democrats say they are troubled by new questions about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s contention that he discouraged a former Trump campaign adviser from arranging a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, but there is anxiety on Capitol Hill that challenging Sessions now could hasten his firing and jeopardize the special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Instead, Democrats told The Washington Post, they trust that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, will sort out the discrepancy as part of his wide-ranging probe, which is examining whether any of Trump’s associates conspired with Russians to influence the election’s outcome.
“Bob Mueller is in the possession, at this point, of more evidence than either the House or the Senate,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, adding that “there are other witnesses that I would bring in on this question and others that would be a higher priority for me” than Sessions.
A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
Sessions’s honesty was called into question in a court filing made last week by attorneys representing George Papadopoulos, the former campaign official who suggested Trump meet with the Russian president. His lawyers said Trump “nodded with approval,” and Sessions “appeared to also like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it.”
The statement — part of Papadopoulos’s effort to reduce his sentence for lying to the FBI — challenges what Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee last year, when he said under oath that while he had “no clear recollection of the details” of that conversation, he “wanted to make clear to [Papadopoulos] that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government.”
Democrats have in the past taken issue with Sessions’s testimony to Congress regarding the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian government officials. But this time, there is a distinct sense among them — from leadership to the rank and file — that going after Sessions would play into the hands of the president, who consistently excoriates his attorney general’s leadership of the Justice Department and his recusal from overseeing Mueller’s investigation.
“There’s a lot of reasons Attorney General Sessions should be concerned about his tenure in his current position. Not least of them that the president continues to publicly undermine him and question him and criticize him,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “My hunch is that the attorney general’s tenure may be under much more imminent threat from the president’s unmeasured actions than any accounting for his testimony.”
Trump has dismissed Mueller’s work as a “witch hunt” and suggested it should be ended. Democrats and Republicans in Congress see Sessions as key to protecting the probe, however. Should Trump fire him, any replacement would probably not be subject to the same limitations and thus retain the authority to shut down Mueller’s investigation.
A handful of prominent congressional Republicans, including Reps. Mark Meadows (N.C.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) in the House, and lately Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) in the Senate, have even endorsed the president’s desire to fire Sessions — but for most, attacking the attorney general is off-limits. When asked about the apparent contradiction between Sessions’s testimony and Papadopoulos’s statement, Republican lawmakers approached by The Post said they could not remember what the attorney general told Congress last year, or they questioned Papadopoulos’s integrity.
“I don’t know if Mr. Papadopoulos is telling the truth,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.).
The congressional committees investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia were never able to interview Papadopoulos because he was one of the earliest former campaign officials caught up in Mueller’s probe.
The question of Sessions’s trustworthiness has long bothered Democrats, several of whom recalled that even in closed-door testimony, he refused to answer sensitive questions such as whether Trump instructed him to take actions that would hinder the Russia investigation. For months, Democrats — particularly in the House — have argued with their Republican colleagues over recalling witnesses when there are discrepancies in testimony or when new information comes to light. But with no subpoena power, Democrats have largely been stymied — and now predict that resolving the Sessions-Papadopoulos dispute will be no different.
“Obviously,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, “some people are lying to us because [testimony is] inconsistent. . . . It is one of several examples of where somebody had to have lied to us.”