Joseph Hunt, the current chief of staff for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is up for confirmation to be Assistant Attorney General running the Civil Division. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats grilled Hunt on his role in a number of scandals from the past year, including the firing of FBI Director James Comey, and Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation.
In her turn questioning Hunt, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) zeroed in on Comey’s claim that he asked Sessions, in the presence of Hunt, to never again leave him alone with President Trump, who he worried was trying to co-opt him.
“At the time of the conversation, Director Comey did not mention the subject of the conversation he had had with the President,” Hunt said. “He just said it was a one-on-one conversation, but nothing about the subject.”
“It’s important that the Department of Justice maintain appropriate independence,” he added. “We should make our decisions based on what the law is and not based on political influence.”
Comey and Sessions have given conflicting accounts of their now-infamous conversation. Comey insists that Sessions was silent when Comey asked him to protect him from future one-on-one meetings with Trump. Sessions disputes that account, and told the Senate last year that he told Comey that it’s important all officials follow the proper protocol for White House-FBI communications.
“My recollection of what happened in that meeting comports with what the AG has testified,” Hunt told Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) Wednesday. “The attorney general emphasized that it’s an important policy and we all need to do our best to adhere to it.”
When grilled further about the meeting, Hunt said tersely: “I do not recall anything else. It was a very brief conversation.”
Sessions’ recusal, near-resignation
Several senators also asked Hunt about his role in Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe—a move that continues to enrage President Trump many months later—and Sessions’ flirtation with resignation last year.
Hunt confirmed that he “was part of the process of his determination to recuse,” adding that Sessions “followed the proper procedure and spoke to the career ethics officials and got all of the information he needed to make the decision, and I believe he did it appropriately.”
Responding to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) questions about Sessions’ reported threat of resignation last year, during a period in which Trump was publicly humiliating him, Hunt repeatedly refused to answer, saying it would not be appropriate for him to comment on communications that may have happened between Trump and Sessions.
“The President is entitled to confidential communications,” Hunt said.
Blumenthal pushed back, saying Hunt has no claim to either executive privilege or attorney-client privilege in the matter. Hunt disagreed.
“Communications with senior advisers to the President are in fact covered by executive privilege,” he argued. His spilling the beans, he added, “would take away the right of the President to invoke privilege if he ever needed to.”
As Sessions’ chief of staff, Hunt is, like his boss, recused from handling anything related to Mueller’s ongoing Russia investigation, and he confirmed Wednesday that that recusal would still apply if he’s confirmed to lead the DOJ’s civil division.
When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked him what would happen if Trump tried to fire Rosenstein or called on the Justice Department to fire Mueller, Hunt answered that he could not and would not participate.
“I am in the line somewhere in that succession,” he said. “I have a hard time imagining it would get to me. But if it did I would be recused from that. I would not be able to take any action with respect to that.”
He later added: “If I were ever ordered to do something I felt was unethical or unlawful, I would resign my position.”
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