Jeff Sessions’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today didn’t produce any bombshells, nor did it show an administration with anything like an airtight case against the allegations made by James Comey before the same committee last week.
From the get-go, Sessions got belligerent at the idea he personally was involved in or knew anything about Trump-campaign collusion with Russia, and consistently claimed that even before his recusal from the Justice Department’s investigation of the issue, he knew little or nothing about it: “[T]he suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country … is an appalling and detestable lie.”
He disagreed with but did not flatly contradict Comey’s account of their interactions over Trump’s efforts to talk to the FBI director one-on-one, basically suggesting there was nothing wrong with such efforts so long as they followed certain “protocols.” Of the Oval Office meeting where Sessions was the last person to leave Trump and Comey to a private tête-à-tête, Sessions dismissively said: “It didn’t seem a major problem.”
As for other key issues, Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes summed it up like this:
Sessions’s discussion of the Comey firing was indeed weak and problematic. He embraced the original administration rationale for firing James Comey: that he was a bad manager who mishandled the 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton. This rationale was conspicuously repudiated by the president in disclosing that Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation was the actual reason for the firing, adding that Comey was a “showboat,” plus Trump’s subsequent statement to two high-ranking Russian diplomats that the FBI director was a “nutjob” pursuing an annoying Russian investigation. Comey himself, of course, in his own Intelligence Committee testimony, says it was clear he was fired for continuing the investigation and for failing to publicly clear the president himself.
So everyone has sort of forgotten how ludicrous the first rationale really was — until Sessions offered it up against today. We are supposed to believe that it took the Trump administration nearly five months to fire Comey over incredibly conspicuous, world-shaking decisions he made the year before — decisions most Republicans applauded at the time to the extent that they damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And we are supposed to disregard the abundant evidence the president has himself offered that the wildly retroactive argument Rod Rosenstein (with Jeff Sessions’s endorsement) made for firing Comey was a mere pretext for his actual motives.
On at least two occasions before the Intelligence Committee today, Sessions was confronted with this contradiction between the president’s explanation of why Comey had to go and his own, and he allowed that he could not explain what Trump was reported to have said and thought. You half expected him to say: “You know how he is.”
If Sessions actually knew Trump wanted Comey gone over the Russian investigation and helped engineer a different rationale, that would violate his recusal of all matters Russian in a way that could lead to obstruction of justice suspicions for him as well as the president. And so he was stuck with this unconvincing argument, which now sounds even less convincing than when it was first offered as justification for the firing.
The other issue on which Sessions was unconvincing and grew less convincing as the hearing went on was his refusal to answer questions about his own conversations with Trump on grounds that “Justice Department policy” prevented him from testifying on matters where the president might, at some point in the future, choose to assert executive privilege. Here’s the Washington Post’s account:
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pressed Sessions to explain how he could decline to answer questions about his talks with the president without the White House asserting executive privilege.
“I am protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses, and there may be other privileges that apply,’’ Sessions responded. “At this point, I believe it’s premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice about executive privilege.’’
This is, to put it mildly, a controversial interpretation of how executive privilege works, but there is really nothing a congressional committee can do about it, short of holding Sessions in contempt, and a Republican-run committee is not about to do that.
As for Justice Department policy on executive privilege, Sessions began to have a lot of memory issues, and hostile observers will count how many times he said “I don’t know” or “I don’t recollect” or “I would need to consult my notes” and similar expressions. It wasn’t just a matter of fatigue, because he became similarly absentminded earlier in the hearing when asked about possible contacts with Russians by various personages in the Trump campaign and entourage.
All in all, Jeff Sessions behaved like a lawyer with an especially difficult client. In that respect, if nothing else, all would agree he’s drawn a tough assignment.