WASHINGTON – It is widely presumed on Capitol Hill that Jeff Sessions chose to testify before the Senate Intelligence committee, rather than the committees that have jurisdiction over his department, because he has more friends there who would run interference on his behalf. If that was indeed the attorney general’s strategy, Tuesday’s hearing validated it.
The tension between the chumminess of an old boys’ club that traditionally looks after its own and the seriousness of a Russia investigation that clouds the presidency was neatly captured in the closing minute of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing.
Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, expressed displeasure that Sessions was not forthcoming about his role – and the role of the Russia investigation – in Donald Trump’s decision to fire James Comey as FBI director. “There were a number of very strange comments that Mr. Comey testified last week that you could have, I believe, shed some light on,” the Virginia senator lamented.
Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee, concluded by pointing out that Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to replace Sessions when he stepped down earlier this year, had sat through the session in the audience. “He’s made us regret that we don’t have an intramural basketball team because he’s six-foot-nine,” said the North Carolina senator, who has been in Congress for 22 years.
“Big Luther is a good player,” Sessions replied with a knowing chuckle, noting that his successor played college ball at Tulane.
“You have helped us tremendously,” Burr said as he gaveled the hearing to a close, “and we’re grateful to you and to Mary for the unbelievable sacrifice that you made in this institution and also, now, in this administration.”
– The tribalism that has infected our politics has also transformed the Senate. Republicans, for the most part, either pulled their punches or batted cleanup. Democrats whacked at the former senator like a piñata.
– Sessions pleaded for some old-fashioned senatorial courtesy in his opening statement. “I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you,” he said, “and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government, to hurt this country . . . or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”
Speaking in the vernacular of the Old South, Sessions said he had come to “defend my honor against scurrilous and false allegations.” “I’ve earned a reputation for (integrity) . . . in this body, I believe,” he said. A minute later, he implored them again: “Please colleagues, hear me on this. . . . Colleagues, that is false.” Then Sessions corrected himself. “I cannot say colleagues now,” he said. “I’m no longer a part of this body.”
– But in the process of trying to clear his name, Sessions antagonized Democrats and suggested that he doesn’t believe in the chamber’s Golden Rule: Treat your colleagues as you’d like to be treated. The nation’s chief law enforcement officer acknowledged that he met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – once during the Republican National Convention and once in his Senate office – and that he did not disclose these contacts during his confirmation hearing. But his excuse for what some legal experts think might have constituted perjury was that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., had asked him “a rambling question.” Referring to “the so-called dossier,” Session complained: “I believe that’s the report that Sen. Franken hit me with.” In fact, Franken didn’t even ask Sessions about his interactions with the Russians. Without prompting, he volunteered: “I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Sessions incensed other former colleagues by reneging on his commitment to appear before the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the Justice Department’s budget. It was the second time he backed out. He sent a deputy in his stead. “You’re not the witness that should be behind that table,” Pat Leahy, D-Vt., told Rod Rosenstein Tuesday morning. “You’re not who I’m interested in speaking with at the hearing today.” Leahy, the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate, said Sessions “provided false testimony” and questioned how he “can credibly lead the Justice Department.” He also called the DOJ’s budget request “abysmal.”
During the Intelligence hearing, Sessions suggested that he won’t necessarily agree to answer additional questions about Comey or Russia before the committees tasked with overseeing his department. “I don’t think it’s good policy to continually bring Cabinet members or the attorney general before multiple committees going over the same things over and over,” he said. (Sessions undoubtedly would have complained if Eric Holder or Loretta Lynch ever made this comment.)
– If Sessions thought he’d get special treatment from his Democratic counterparts because he spent two decades in the Senate, he thought wrong. The attorney general struggled not to let their tough questions – which he is unaccustomed to answering – get under his skin.
Kamala Harris, D-Calif., pressed harder than anyone else on the committee. She served as California’s attorney general for the past six years and San Francisco’s district attorney for the seven years before that. With the savvy of a seasoned prosecutor, the freshman Democrat peppered Sessions with specific yes-or-no questions. It didn’t take long for him to become exasperated. When she asked if he had contacts with Russian businessmen last year, he said no. Then he began to clarify that it’s possible he met some at the Republican convention because there were lots of people he met with. Harris noted that she didn’t have much time and wanted to move quickly. “Will you let me qualify it? If I don’t qualify it, you’ll accuse me of lying,” Sessions shot back. “So I need to be correct as best I can. I’m not able to be rushed this fast! It makes me nervous!”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cut in. “The witness should be allowed to answer the question,” he told Harris. “Senator Harris, let him answer,” Burr, the chairman, admonished. Sessions then didn’t directly answer her question – and Burr announced that Harris’s time had expired.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Sessions what Comey was cryptically referring to last week when he said that he had been aware of “problematic” facts that he knew would force Sessions to recuse himself. The fired director said he couldn’t discuss them outside of a classified session. The question peeved the attorney general, who responded: “Why don’t you tell me?!?! There are none, Sen. Wyden! There are none! This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, pressed Sessions on why he was talking about some private conversations with Trump but then clamming up about others. “I just don’t understand the legal basis for your refusal to answer,” he asked. “I am protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses,” Sessions said. “You’re being selective,” King replied. “No, I’m not intentionally,” said Sessions.
– Tuesday’s hearing offered a fresh illustration of a long-term trend away from senatorial deference:
The watershed moment was 1989, when Democratic senators rejected John Tower’s nomination to be secretary of defense despite his 24 years as a senator from Texas.
In 2013, Republicans tried to blockade Chuck Hagel- a former GOP senator from Nebraska – after Barack Obama appointed him as secretary of defense. They used the confirmation fight to try extracting information about Benghazi. It was the first time a pick for defense chief had ever been filibustered, though he eventually made it through.
In January, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke against Sessions at his confirmation hearing — the first time in U.S. history that a sitting senator had testified against a colleague’s nomination for a cabinet post.
Booker said he could not stay silent, even though he knew some of his colleagues weren’t “happy that I am breaking with Senate tradition.” “In the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country,” he said.
Just last week, senators also excoriated Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who until last year was a Republican senator from Indiana, when he declined to discuss whether Trump asked him to try reining in Comey’s investigation.
– Part of this shift is generational. A changing of the guard is underway. Booker is 48. Harris is 52. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who lectured Sessions on the rules of executive privilege during Tuesday’s hearing, is just 45. These are relative youngsters by Senate standards.
Other Democrats fell more into the throwback category. “You and I are about the same vintage,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who is 69, told Sessions, who is 70. Manchin politely referred to Sessions as “sir” and noted that the attorney general understands what it’s like to be a senator. “All in all, it’s better on that side,” Sessions replied with a smile. “Nobody gets to ask you about your private conversations with your staff!”
– Friendly Republicans on the committee helped Sessions offer a full-throated defense:
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., read a statement in the attorney general’s defense from the Center for the National Interest, which hosted Trump’s April 2016 speech at the Mayflower Hotel, where the AG acknowledges he might have interacted with Kislyak for a third time. Lankford asked Sessions: “Do you have any reason to disagree with that?” He did not, of course. “You speak as a man eager to set the record straight,” Lankford told him.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, noted that senators meet with ambassadors all the time, and even run into them at the grocery store.
He asked Sessions, “Is that a fair statement?”
It’s very rare for a top administration official to bring his wife to what he knows is going to be a contentious oversight hearing. But Mary Sessions sat in the front row Tuesday, offering moral support to her husband of 48 years.
“It’s good to see Mary,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said at the start of his five minutes of questioning. “I know there are other places you’d both probably rather be.” Blunt praised the couple for approaching public service as a joint enterprise. “I’ve been blessed indeed,” said Sessions. “I agree with that,” Blunt replied.
– Meanwhile, after the hearing, some Democratic members who used to be friendly with Sessions said that the attorney general’s unwillingness to give straight answers only stiffened their resolve to pursue him as part of the ongoing congressional inquiries. Dick Durbin, Ill., who is number two in Democratic leadership, voted against Sessions in January, but he reminisced about how they worked out together in the gym and came up with a compromise on drug sentencing after one workout. In a statement Tuesday night, the Illinois senator said: “It is hard to see how he can continue to serve.”
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer complained that Sessions “repeatedly refused to answer pertinent questions . . . without offering a scintilla of legal justification for doing so.”
Franken called Sessions’ testimony “very unsettling” and said he didn’t buy his explanations. “I believe he’s trying to downplay the gravity of and whitewash the fact that he misled the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath and failed to correct the record until he was forced to do so seven weeks later after reporting by the Washington Post,” the Minnesotan said in a statement.
With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve