In the previous post, I began reviewing the questioning by the Committee following Sessions’ opening statement. While this is “old news” in one sense, I believe Sessions will yet come to play an important role in the Trump-Russia saga; it is, therefore, appropriate to fully consider the issues raised by his testimony under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
We left off the last post with a brief discussion of the inexplicable reality that Sessions claimed to have agreed with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in discussions prior to Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General that Comey’s conduct as FBI Director was unacceptable, yet he never discussed the issue with Comey. Instead he, allegedly, waited until President Trump asked for recommendations from Rosenstein and Sessions regarding Comey’s status.
Of course, Trump subsequently stated in the Lester Holt interview that he had already decided to fire Comey because of the Russia investigation. One interpretation of this is that Trump set up Rosenstein and Sessions by asking for their recommendation when he didn’t need it, then used it as a cover which he subsequently blew due to his obsession with being seen as the all-powerful leader who needs no help from underlings in making important decisions.
Returning to the hearing, Senator Warner asked whether Sessions ever discussed with Comey what happened in the Comey-Trump meeting from which all others were asked to leave the room. Sessions never answered the question but did confirm that Comey was concerned about the meeting and that Comey’s recall of what he, Comey, said to Sessions about the meeting was consistent with Sessions’ recall.
This episode is concerning because it illustrates that these Senators, who have a critically important role to play as investigators, are perhaps not being properly supported by staff who should be passing them notes or whispering in their ear to assure that complete follow-up questions are pursued. Not all Senators are equally equipped to engage in effective cross-examination of evasive witnesses and should have some professional and timely legal help when it matters most.
One of the most interesting parts of the questioning related to Sessions’ justification for having recused himself from the Russia investigation but nevertheless participating in the firing of Comey. Sessions said the Russia investigation was just one of thousands underway and that he had a responsibility to manage the leadership of the Department of Justice and thus could, in effect, disregard the Russia investigation when making the leadership call.
There was considerable sparring between Senator Heinrich and Sessions regarding the latter’s refusal to answer questions about conversations with President Trump, to the point at which Heinrich flatly accused Sessions of impeding the Committee’s investigation:
you are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering these questions, and I think your silence, like the silence of Director Coats, like the silence of Admiral Rogers speaks volumes.
Sessions then sought refuge in advice he claimed to have received from DOJ lawyers that Sessions’ preservation of Trump’s later ability to assert Executive Privilege was proper. Heinrich accepted that claim at face value without further exploration, wondering aloud why Sessions had not said that initially. Heinrich ended his examination with this statement:
I find it strange that neither you nor deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein brought up performance issues with director Comey, and, in fact, deputy FBI director McCabe has directly refuted any assertion that there were performance issues.
It is worth noting that after Heinrich implicated Coats and Rogers, Chairman Burr came to their defense, pointing out that Rogers had testified in closed session for two hours and that all questions could then have been asked of him. It appears that political kinship counts for more than truth seeking in these proceedings.
I am going to close this post with a long quotation of the Q&A between Senator King and Sessions, interspersed with my “English translation” of Sessions’ responses. The quote mainly speaks for itself.
SESSIONS: What we try to do, I think most cabinet officials, others that you questioned recently, officials before the committee, protect the president’s right to do so [assert Executive Privilege]. If it comes to a point where the issue is clear and there’s a dispute about it, at some point the president will either assert the privilege or not or some other privilege would be asserted, but at this point I believe it’s premature. [emphasis added]
KING: You’re asserting a privilege.
SESSIONS: It would be premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice about executive privilege. That’s not necessary at this point.
In English, Sessions is saying that he is not going to answer, now or in the future, questions that might reveal anything about the President’s statements or statement made to the President unless and until two conditions are met: (1) “the issue is clear and there’s a dispute about it,” and (2) the President asserts some privilege related to it. Until then, Sessions rather than the Intelligence Committee will decide whether it is necessary to take the questions to the President and right now it’s “not necessary” so let’s move on.” And he gets away with it again.
King then asked Sessions for his view about Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Sessions’ answer is astounding for someone who had previously claimed he was responsible for managing the Department of Justice:
KING: Do you believe the Russians interfered with the 2016 elections?
SESSIONS: It appears so. The intelligence community seems to be united in that, but I have to tell you, senator king, I know nothing but what I’ve read in the paper. I’ve never received any details, briefing on how hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaigns.
KING: Between the election, there was a memorandum from the intelligence community on October 9th, that detailed what the Russians were doing after the election, before the inauguration. You never sought any information about this rather dramatic attack on our country?
KING: You never asked for a briefing or attended a briefing or ruled are the intelligence reports?
SESSIONS: You might have been very critical if I as an active part of the campaign was seeking intelligence related to something that might be relevant to the campaign. I’m not sure —
KING: I’m not talking about the campaign. I’m talking about what the Russians did. You received no briefing on the Russian active measures in connection with the 2016 election.
SESSIONS: No, I don’t believe I ever did.