Given the speed with which events overrun, and overwrite, memories, I am going to devote a lot of words to the testimony of Jefferson B. Sessions III, attorney general of the United States, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 13, 2017. This analysis is based on the transcript of the hearing published at http://politi.co/2rtgQJf with correction of obvious typos. A full evaluation is going to require multiple posts, so please bear with me. I think this worth doing because of the gravity of the issues raised.
Note at the outset one unusual feature of the hearing that distinguishes it from normal investigative legal work: both Chairman Burr and Vice Chair Warner go on at some length to detail the areas of inquiry, including specific questions they intend to ask the witness. This is part of the politesse of the political process that deters the kind of relentless interrogation that true investigative work involves. This was well illustrated when Senator McCain leapt into action to alert the Chairman that Senator Kamala Harris was being too aggressive in her very lawyer-like cross-examination of Sessions about the nature of his preparation, or lack of it, for testifying.
Also of special interest was Warner’s commendation of the Chairman about his remark at the end of the Comey hearing the week before that, given the “pattern of administration officials refusing to answer public, unclassified questions about allegations about the president in this investigation,” it was “not acceptable for [witnesses] to come forward without answers.” Later, Sessions would refuse to answer multiple questions on the grounds that the President should be given a prior opportunity to invoke Executive Privilege regarding answers to questions involving conversations with him and any member of the Cabinet and, likely, any member of White House staff.
Sessions’ opening remarks asserted that he did not remember what would in all events have been a casual contact with Russian Ambassador, and known Russian spy, Sergey Kislyak because they were both invited to Trump’s first foreign policy speech preceded by a private reception for perhaps two dozen people. This description is not implausible in the context of Washington political processes, but the question, not asked by any Committee member, was why was the Russian Ambassador invited in the first place to this small private and exclusive gathering that was attended by Trump himself, however briefly?
Sessions then undertook to address his response to Senator Franken during the AG’s confirmation hearing. The exact question posed, after a short recital of current press reports, was
“if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
Sessions never answered that question. Instead, he said:
Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.
During his Intelligence Committee testimony, Sessions entered a sweeping denial of any discussions with anyone about campaign interference, and a flat denial of knowledge of such conversations by anyone else in the Trump campaign organization. This he remembered quite clearly. Then, referring to Senator Franken’s question about then-current press reports, Sessions said:
That was the context in which I was asked the question and in this that context my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it. I was responding to the allegation that surrogates had been meeting with Russians on a regular basis. It simply did not occur to me to go further than the context and to list any conversations that I may have had with Russians in routine situations as I had many routine meetings with other foreign officials.
On its face this is not a completely implausible explanation. However, there are other relevant facts that raise questions about plausibility.
Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General on February 9. His testimony maintained that until his formal recusal on March 2, a period of three full weeks, he received no information or briefings related to the Russia investigation other than discussions related to press reports that might bear on the need to recuse himself.
But, most curiously, Sessions expressly denied that his recusal had anything to do with possible campaign wrongdoing. Instead, he claimed his recusal was based entirely on a federal regulation, 28 CFR § 45.2, that forbids a DOJ employee from participating in a criminal investigation of an organization if the employee had a personal relationship with the target. A waiver is possible if the employee’s superior makes certain findings but there was no chance of a legitimate waiver for Sessions who stated he believed the regulation “required” his recusal. Sessions then declared that such a recusal could nevertheless not be allowed to stop him from running the Department of Justice and, therefore, he acted properly in presenting to the President
my concerns and those of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the ongoing leadership issues at the FBI as stated in my letter recommending the removal of Mr. Comey along with the Deputy Attorney General’s memorandum on that issue…. Those represent a clear statement of my views. I adopted Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s points he made in his memorandum and made my recommendation. It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations.
This statement raises more fundamental questions that were never addressed by the Committee.
First, if, as Sessions claims, the recusal was based solely on the “campaign relationship” issue covered by the regulations, why did it take three full weeks for him to recuse himself? The governing regulation is only a few paragraphs and is very explicit. The President was reportedly furious about Sessions’ recusal and tweeted about it. What went on during that three weeks?
Second, whatever the asserted reason for the recusal was, if the recusal was from the Russia investigation, defined as the question whether there were inappropriate/unlawful contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, being led by FBI Director Comey, how can Sessions, in the guise of managing the Department of Justice, justify recommending the firing of the person heading the investigation? Sessions appears to believe that he is free to do anything he chooses in the Russia investigation because his recusal was based on something other than his interactions with “representatives” of the Russian government. It is difficult to imagine a court accepting such twisted reasoning which effectively vitiates the recusal as regards anything related to the Trump-Russia investigation.
This concludes consideration of Sessions’ direct testimony. In the next installment, I will take up the questioning by the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.