Attorney General Jeff Sessions must be feeling like a tattered Keelber elf piñata after being smacked around so beautifully during his appearance Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Speaking loudly and sternly, Sessions denied ever personally colluding with any Russian officials during the 2016 campaign whilst serving as a surrogate to then-candidate Donald Trump. Obviously, that’s great to hear, but ultimately it has fuck-all to do with why the former senator from Alabama was called to testify in the first place.
Many questions lingered after ex-FBI Director James Comey testified last week that Sessions was dismissed from the Oval Office so that President Trump could try to persuade Comey to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, his disgraced former national security advisor. Not too surprisingly, certain aspects of Sessions’ story align perfectly with Comey’s.
Sessions certified, for example, that Comey had approached him the day after the Oval Office meeting, which ended with Trump dismissing everyone except for Comey, including Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. Comey testified that the president used this one-on-one to try to convince him to drop the FBI’s investigation into Flynn, who has since offered the FBI his testimony in exchange for immunity.
Sessions said Comey did, in fact, approach him to express “concern about proper communications protocol with the White House and the president.” He also confirmed that Comey did not explicitly detail what provoked his worry—Comey testified that the FBI leadership concluded it was best to leave Sessions in the dark about the president’s request (re: Flynn) as the Bureau saw Sessions’ recusal on the horizon.
Sessions asserted that nothing is “problematic” about Trump pulling the FBI director into a private meeting amid an investigation involving the president’s campaign. Yet, somehow, that was hardly the most astonishing thing to be said. More remarkable was how Sessions refused to say whether he’d been a part of any discussions about Comey’s firing—but also how he failed to clearly describe under what authority he was refusing to provide an answer.
During a heated exchange with Sen. Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, Sessions would not deny discussed Comey’s ouster with the president. He also refused to say whether Trump had ever expressed frustration with Session’s decision to recuse himself. He declined to pinpoint the legal standard under which he was refusing to answer, except to dubiously assert some Justice Department policy has long existed in which attorneys general are expected to stay silent about the president’s conduct—which is decidedly false.
Heinrich: “Attorney General Sessions, has the president ever expressed his frustration to you regarding your decision to recuse yourself?”
Sessions: “Senator Heinrich, I’m not, um, able to share with this committee private communications...”
Heinrich: “Because you’re invoking executive privilege?”
Sessions: “I’m not able to invoke executive privilege. That’s the president’s prerogative.”
Heinrich immediately tore into Sessions accusing him of “impeding” the panel’s investigation. “My understanding of the legal standard is that you either answer the question—that’s the best outcome—or you say, ‘This is classified. Can’t answer it here. I’ll answer in closed session.’”
After Heinrich noted that Sessions had no legal obligation to remain silent and that the president had not himself exerted executive privilege, Sessions admitted his unwillingness to respond was an attempt to protect the president.
“Senator, I’m protecting the president’s constitutional right by not giving it away before he has a chance to,” Sessions said. “It is my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the president when he is [sic] not had a full opportunity to review the questions and to make a decision on whether or not to approve such an answer.”
Heinrich fired back, again accusing Sessions of “impeding” the panel’s investigation. His silence spoke volumes, Heinrich said.
Sessions’ responses were equally aloof earlier in the hearing when Senator Mark Warner, the panel’s ranking Democrat, asked whether he had knowledge of any discussions at DOJ about potentially pardoning Trump associates. Sessions simply declined to respond—likewise, he did not explain specifically under what legal authority he felt it was necessary to do so.
A spokesperson for Sen. Ron Wyden, who also had a testy exchange with Sessions, told Gizmodo he agreed with Heinrich’s assessment that the attorney general was impeding the panel’s investigation.