Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions opened his Senate Intelligence Committee defiantly: “I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” he told the bipartisan panel investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials who hacked the election on his behalf—and perhaps whether Sessions himself played a role. The longtime Alabama senator now finds himself in the probe’s undertow.
After that, he was alternately bold, obsequious, weaselly and feeble. Sessions ducked key questions and said “I don’t recall” more than anyone could count in the dramatic hearing Tuesday afternoon. In the wake of fired FBI director James Comey’s revelations last week, Sessions found himself in high demand to answer questions Comey’s testimony raised about his former boss—especially about whether he’d had undisclosed meetings with Russian officials and about why he fired Comey though he’d recused himself from Comey’s Russia investigation. But senators found him much less forthcoming than Comey had been the week before.
Sessions repeatedly invoked a mysterious Justice Department policy that allowed him not to answer questions about his conversations with Donald Trump, on the grounds that Trump deserved “confidentiality” in his dealings with his staff and cabinet members. But if the president wanted that, he’d have had to claim executive privilege, and he did not. Senator Kamala Harris, among others, tried to get Sessions to name the policy, and to say whether it existed in writing—and he couldn’t. He turned to calling it a “principle.” Legal experts I talked to were mystified by Sessions’s claim. On MSNBC, attorney Paul Butler declared: “I was at the Justice Department, I never heard of it.” It could be a dodge that allows Trump to claim executive privilege later—but even that claim can be challenged.
It was a little disappointing that none of the senators ever came out and clarified the law. Sometimes, especially during the Republicans’ questioning, it was like they were humoring the occasionally dotty-seeming Sessions that his six-foot rabbit Harvey was sitting right next to him at the hearing table. After the hearing though, Senator Jack Reed and others promised that if they could find no actual Justice Department policy letting Sessions duck their questions about his conversations with Trump, they’d make him answer them in writing. (Reed also shined when he rubbed Sessions’s nose in his campaign trail praise for Comey’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail handling. Sessions almost looked ashamed.)
Despite his bobbing and weaving, we learned a few intriguing new details. Sessions did not dispute that he’d attended a third meeting at the Mayflower Hotel with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in April 2016, having said he’d only met him twice (after first saying never). He merely said, repeatedly, that he couldn’t “recall” meeting Kislyak, and insisted the reception they reportedly attended had three dozen people. Bizarrely, Sessions told the committee that he decided to recuse himself from the Russia investigation on February 10, the day after he began as attorney general, upon reading ethics guidelines relating to his role in the Trump campaign. Yet he failed to actually recuse himself until March 2—right after the Washington Post revealed that he’d met with Kislyak at least twice, and Senators Al Franken and Pat Leahy began asking whether he’d committed perjury.