The attorney general’s got jokes.
Three days after the top U.S. law enforcement official was grilled on Capitol Hill over his knowledge of Trump campaign dealings with Russians, Jeff Sessions opened a speech at the National Lawyers Convention in Washington on Friday by asking whether Russia's former ambassador was in attendance — or anyone at all who had visited his country.
“Is Ambassador Kislyak in the room?” Sessions said, drawing laughter from a standing-room-only crowd. “Any Russians? Anybody been to Russia? Got a cousin in Russia, so . . .”
Sessions has been under fire in recent weeks for his shifting account of his and other Trump campaign aides’ dealings with Russia. On Tuesday, he spent more than five hours before the House Judiciary Committee answering questions about the matter.
Sergey Kislyak, Russia's former ambassador to the United States, is a key figure because Sessions had long ago denied having any communications with Russians, only to have The Washington Post reveal he had twice met with Kislyak during the campaign.
The crowd at the lawyers convention, hosted at the Mayflower Hotel by the conservative legal group the Federalist Society, was decidedly more friendly than Democrats in Congress. Attendees greeted the attorney general with a standing ovation and laughed vigorously as he joked about Russia and other topics.
In his speech, Sessions revealed that he was directing Justice Department officials to no longer issue guidance documents that try “to impose new obligations on any party outside the executive branch” and would “review and repeal existing guidance documents that violate this common-sense principle.”
Sessions’s department already had revoked the Obama-era guidance on federal protections for transgender students, and it is possible others could now be in the crosshairs. Sessions similarly said he was ending a practice known as “sue and settle” — where the federal government would agree to change a regulation to resolve a lawsuit.
Sessions took aim at the judiciary, complaining in particular about a federal judge in Brooklyn who recently declared "heartless" the Trump administration's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which offered a reprieve from deportation to people who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children.
“Not unlawful. ‘Heartless,’ ” Sessions said. “With respect, it is the province and duty of courts to say what the law is.”
Sessions complained about federal judges’ issuing nationwide injunctions to block President Trump’s policies. Such injunctions have effectively stopped the administration from implementing the president’s controversial travel bans.
“The judicial branch is a coequal branch. It is not a superior or a policy-setting branch,” Sessions said. “It needs to know its role. Those who ignore this duty and seek to advance their own policy views erode the entire rule of law, they set bad precedents and, importantly, undermine public respect that’s necessary for the courts to function properly.”
Just as Sessions began with a joke, he ended his speech with one — though it was somewhat more subtle. Seeming to refer to his recusal from the investigation of Kremlin connections to the Trump campaign — a decision that reportedly so upset Trump that he has flirted with firing his attorney general — Sessions said: “And recusals? Well, recusals happen all the time, throughout the Department of Justice and in private practice, just because we follow the rules. That furthers confidence in justice, doesn’t erode it. So I believe that when the history is written about this department, it will reflect that President Trump appointed one of the finest teams ever assembled in the Department of Justice.”
The crowd laughed, then clapped.
“The man at the top,” Sessions quipped, “not in the group.”