WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed back against critics Tuesday as he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating possible meddling by the Russians in the 2016 presidential election.
Sessions, who served in the Senate for 20 years, denied having any private meetings with Russian officials while helping Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last year. Any assertion that he took part in or was aware of any collusion with Russia, he told his former colleagues, is “an appalling and detestable lie.”
Tuesday’s hearing moved the committee’s focus from probing possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russian officials to an attempt mainly by Democratic senators to uncover more information on Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey in May.
Trump told NBC he fired Comey because he did not like the FBI’s Russian probe – after Trump claimed to have fired Comey at the urging of Sessions and his Department of Justice. Senators questioned Sessions about his conversations with Trump in light of Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russian probe that Comey oversaw.
Sessions refused to answer questions about “private conversations” with the president, citing “long-standing policy” that Justice Department officials not comment on conversations with the president.
When Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked Sessions for the legal basis for his refusal, the attorney general said that he was protecting the president’s right to assert executive privilege should he choose to do so in the future.
Sessions also denied having any recollection of meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel, as the Washington Post reported. Sessions said it was possible the two chatted, though he did not recall doing so.
Sessions and Trump
Sessions was the first GOP senator to endorse Trump. The president later chose him to be his top lawman.
Of late, their relations have been tested. At times, Trump spokespeople have passed on opportunities to attest that Trump has full confidence in his attorney general. According to some reports, Sessions has offered to resign.
Sessions had launched a tough pro-enforcement agenda on drug crimes and immigration when he got swept into the Russian probe. In March, the Washington Post reported that he had met with the Russian ambassador twice during the 2016 campaign. The story contradicted Sessions, who said during his confirmation hearing, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
After the Post story, Sessions issued a statement in which he clarified, “I never met with Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign.” Sessions also recused himself from the Russian probe.
Asked about his confirmation testimony, Sessions blamed a “rambling question” by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., which prompted him to say that he hadn’t talked to Russian officials in “the context” of the Trump campaign.
When Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., questioned Sessions if he was aware of any communications between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials or nationals, Sessions said he was not. But first he replied, “I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.”
Legal scholars weigh in
Legal scholars were left to argue about Sessions’ refusal to answer questions about his interactions with Trump.
“There is such a thing as executive privilege, but it was really hard to see how Sessions could assert it in this context,” said UNLV law professor Ruben Garcia. Sessions’ reasons for not answering have “not been recognized by any court.”
“When Congress is asking, and you’re basically subpoenaed to testify, then you’re talking about a legal process and you need to have a legal basis” not to answer, said Garcia. He added that Sessions’ answer could be crucial in determining that Trump’s firing of Comey constitutes obstruction of justice.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said he does not believe critics have nailed the case for presidential obstruction of justice.
The Democrats, Turley said, were right to challenge Sessions for failing to establish a pre-hearing basis for not answering them. If Sessions had explained his position, Turley added, “Most courts would I think support him,” as cabinet member conversations with presidents present “a very strong basis for privilege assertion.”
Still, Turley noted, watching Democratic senators express their shock was “like watching a Claude Rains convention,” referring to the “Casablanca” gendarme who was “shocked, shocked” to discover gambling at Rick’s Café.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.