Tag Archives: Intelligence Committee

Sessions’ Testimony Evaluated – Part 1

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.

Voice from the Past Trying to Tip the Scale?

Call me paranoid if you like, but the publication of a think-piece by Kenneth Starr leaves me more than a little disturbed. The article is entitled “Believe in the process” in the published Washington Post of June 16, 2017 and as “Firing Mueller would be an insult to the Founding Fathers” in the online version of the Post. http://wapo.st/2rDNAja

Starr, you may recall, was U.S. Solicitor General for President Bush (41) and served as independent counsel investigating various aspects of the Clinton presidency. His story can be seen at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Starr.

Starr’s observations in the Post start off well enough, arguing that “the process, untidy and rancorous as ever, is actually working well” and that we need to “step back” and let the government finish its work. Referring to the present special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, Starr states the obvious: “the president would be singularly ill-advised to threaten, much less order, Mueller’s firing.” Starr adds that “Wisdom counsels strongly against unleashing a 21st-century version of the Saturday Night Massacre of Watergate-era infamy.”

Then, a funny thing happens. In what looks to me like a subtle attempt at gas-lighting. Starr writes:

Certainly, if Mueller wanders outside the bounds of professionalism and basic integrity, he can and should be fired. Concerns are already being raised – including about Mueller’s friendship with Comey and his staff-packing with anti-Trump partisans. He will be closely watched.

Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t noticed any “concerns” being raised about Mueller’s approach to the investigation of Trump-Russia or other possible criminal conduct by Trump and his administration. Virtually everyone who has addressed the subject has praised Mueller as a paragon of integrity and professionalism, someone beyond reproach.

Starr goes further, addressing Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions’ refusal, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, to discuss any aspect of conversations with the president related to anything. Sessions asserted that the president should be given the questions and what amounts to an indefinite period of time to decide whether and how the questions can be answered. Starr flatly declares that Sessions “was on entirely solid ground in safeguarding the president’s right to invoke executive privilege.”

However, when Senator Kamala Harris tried to examine Sessions about why Sessions did not prepare for the inevitable questions about contacts with Trump, she was interrupted by Senator McCain waiving a verbal flag at Chairman Burr to stop Harris’ effort to get at that important question. Burr responded by effectively preventing further examination on that point. The question I have raised in other forums was, of course, not reached: why the previous intelligence leaders and Sessions’ appearance did not include White House counsel who could have advised on the spot about the assertion of executive privilege and the basis for it.

Then the Starr article gets even crazier and more troublesome. Starr goes on to say that “the early returns also suggest the absence of any Oval Office criminality.” He sells out on whether Trump’s “hope” that Comey would drop the Michael Flynn investigation was reasonably construed by Comey as a statement of presidential intention rather than a wistful wishing upon a star (no pun intended, but I do like it). Starr claims that “to hope that the director would abandon a line of inquiry is most naturally read as pleading and cajoling, but not as an order” and “in any event, at the time, Comey didn’t treat the president’s words as a directive.”

These declarations are astonishing in multiple ways that reflect an attempt by Starr to put his foot on the scale and add gravitas to Trump’s defense against obstruction of justice. There is no indication, other than Fox News and its like, that “early returns … suggest the absence of any Oval Office criminality.”

There are, I suggest, millions of Americans who believe just the opposite based on what has been disclosed thus far. Moreover, what Starr claims is the most “naturally read” thrust of the president’s stated “hope” is, in fact, downright silly, since Starr was not present to observe the president’s demeanor or fully evaluate the context. The notion that the president of the United States, known globally for his always-aggressive style, was effectively on bended knee before a man whose employment was in the president’s hands is facially absurd. And, of course, Starr ignores the most inconvenient fact, confirmed by Sessions, that Trump cleared the room before addressing his “hope” to Comey. Trump can’t begin to remember the last time he pleaded and cajoled to get his way.

Finally, there is Starr’s claim that since Comey at the time didn’t treat Trump’s words as a “directive,” the “pleading and cajoling” must not have been a directive. What would Comey have had to do to show that he took the words as a statement of what the president wanted and expected of him? Salute? Bow down? In fact, Comey went to his car and promptly wrote down what had transpired. And he asked the Attorney General to not leave him alone with the president in the future. That memorandum is now in the hands of Special Prosecutor Mueller. Starr would have us believe that Comey made the whole thing up, an act that even most of Comey’s principal adversaries seem to believe is inconsistent with both his character and long-time behavior.

I suspect we have not seen the last of Trump’s shadow team stepping forward to try to shore up the sinking ship that Trump has captained to near disaster. Newt Gingrich is another voice from the Republican past who is going to extraordinary lengths to sustain the president in his self-imposed hour of ever-deepening crisis. Gingrich for example, has stated that a president cannot, as a matter of law, commit obstruction of justice. http://bit.ly/2rFgD5N

Last time I looked, the United States was still a constitutional democracy. We do not have a king. We have not had a king since 1776 when we declared our independence and officially ended any allegiance to the King of England. Gingrich should refresh his memory regarding the U.S. Constitution.

It would not be surprising if more people like Starr and Gingrich join the proverbial circle of wagons around the White House. Even Vice President Pence is lawyering up. Give it your best shot, gentlemen. The cavalry is coming. But this is not a Western movie and the cavalry is not coming to save you.