After a round of cancellations and legal wrangling over the weekend, Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreed to testify in public Tuesday afternoon before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Sessions takes the hot seat following explosive allegations about his undisclosed meetings with Russian officials, his recusal from the Russia investigation, and his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Sessions has not submitted to congressional questioning since his confirmation hearing in January, in which he voluntarily and falsely claimed to have not met with any Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. He will reportedly refuse in Tuesday’s hearing to answer questions about his conversations with Trump, citing executive privilege.
Yet with the DOJ already pushing back on Comey’s account of Sessions’ behavior, the hearing offers the prospect of the extraordinary spectacle of an attorney general publicly contradicting a former FBI director, and defending himself against accusations of perjury.
Here are the top seven questions looming over Sessions at Tuesday’s hearing:
After news outlets uncovered that Sessions had met at least twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016—once at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and once in his Senate office in September—and did not disclose those meetings during his confirmation hearing to become Attorney General or on his security clearance forms.
Last week, Comey reportedly told the Senate Intelligence Committee in a classified session that there was a third meeting between Sessions and Kislyak that Sessions did not disclose—uncovered by monitoring conversations between Russians based in D.C. and Moscow.
Were there any additional meetings Sessions did not disclose? What was discussed in those meetings—which took place at the height of an aggressive Russian hacking campaign aimed at hurting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton? Why did Sessions omit them from his forms and his testimony?
That raises the next question…
During his confirmation hearing to become attorney general, Sessions said without being directly asked: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” He also replied with a blanket “no” to the committee’s written question: “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election?”
The Justice Department later admitted this was not true, but argued that Sessions did not mislead or lie to the Senate because no campaign issues were discussed in his encounters with Kislyak. Democratic lawmakers did not accept this explanation, and demanded Sessions recuse himself from the Russia investigation or resign.
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who asked the question that led to Sessions’ initial false statement, has accused Sessions of perjury.
Sessions recused himself in early March from any involvement in the federal investigation into ties between Trump associates and the Russian government, citing the recommendation of his Justice Department staff. The DOJ reiterated this week that the sole reason for the recusal was Sessions’ involvement in Trump’s campaign.
Yet Comey dropped hints in his blockbuster testimony last week that there may be much more to the story. He told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he knew weeks before Sessions announced his recusal that the decision was “inevitable … for a variety of reasons,” and thus chose not to tell him about Trump’s alleged request that the FBI drop its investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey added cryptically.
What were these facts and the “problematic” information Comey alluded to? What other factors contributed to the decision to recuse besides Sessions role in the Trump campaign?
Another key question facing Sessions is whether he violated the terms of his recusal from the Russia investigation by recommending the firing of the man leading it: James Comey. At least one Intelligence Committee senator, Jack Reed (D-RI), says he plans to grill Sessions on this point.
Comey testified on Thursday that he was never informed of the parameters of Sessions’ recusal. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Comey if Sessions violated those parameters by recommending his firing—considering that Trump publicly admitted that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. Comey responded: “That’s a question I can’t answer. I think it is a reasonable question. If, as the President said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the Attorney General involved in that chain?”
Comey’s testimony put a bright spotlight on a fateful Valentine’s Day meeting in the Oval Office, in which Trump reportedly asked Sessions and other cabinet members to clear the room before leaning on Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, his national security adviser who resigned after just a few weeks on the job.
Comey said Sessions was one of the last people to exit the Oval Office, noting: “My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving which is why he was lingering.”
Comey also said he confronted Sessions following that “inappropriate” one-on-one meeting, and demanded he never again allow him to be alone with Trump. Comey told senators that Sessions responded by “just kind of looking at me.”
“His body language gave me the sense, like, ‘What am I going to do?'” Comey said. “He didn’t say anything.”
The Justice Department disputed this characterization, saying: “The Attorney General was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.”
As special counsel Robert Mueller ramps up the federal investigation and sends subpoenas to several current and former Trump associates, questions remain about whether Sessions has been contacted and if so, whether he is cooperating with the probe. Former DOJ sources say Mueller will likely want to question Sessions about a number of matters, ranging from his decision to conceal his meetings with Kislyak to the terms of his recusal from the Russia investigation to his participation in Comey’s ouster.
One of Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters on the campaign train and a trusted ally in the administration, Sessions reportedly fell out of the president’s good graces when he decided to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Many outlets have reported that Trump has seethed for weeks over Sessions’ move, which the president believes triggered the appointment of a special counsel to take over the investigation. Trump has also reportedly lashed out at Sessions as the Justice Department has lost again and again in various federal courts when attempting to defend the president’s travel ban.
The atmosphere became so toxic that Sessions allegedly offered to resign in early June, an offer that Trump did not accept.
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.