Zero Recall: Sessions Punts Questions On Trump, Comey, Russia Probe

Attorney General Jeff Sessions removes his glasses as he speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 13, 2017, while testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about his role in the firing of James Comey, his Russian contacts during the campaign and his decision to recuse from an investigation into possible ties between Moscow and associates of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/AP

In an often-contentious Tuesday hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, an indignant Attorney General Jeff Sessions made clear that he was upset that allegations that he knew of collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives during the election were impugning his “honor.” But in nearly three hours of testimony, he failed to answer many of the key questions that prompted the panel to invite him to testify in open session.

The attorney general’s refusals to divulge certain information ran up against the reason he gave for agreeing to appear before the committee in the first place: refuting key parts of the detailed testimony former FBI Director James Comey provided last week. Asked repeatedly about contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign associates, himself included, as well as Comey’s abrupt firing, Sessions either refused to comment or said he could not “recall” the specifics.

Democrats’ intense focus on these questions during the hearing prompted several crackling moments of anger and exasperation from the attorney general, who sometimes raised his voice in response to tough lines of questioning. Republicans on the committee took a softer tack, saying it was within Sessions’ rights to keep his conversations with President Donald Trump close to his chest and characterizing the sprawling federal probe into Russian election interference as a set of pointless “rabbit trails.”

“It’s just like ‘Through The Looking Glass,’” a smiling Sessions agreed with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), in a nod to Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s book. “I mean, what is this?”

Sessions offered a near-blanket refusal to comment on his private conversations with the President, although he said that Trump never had asserted executive privilege to block him from sharing details with the committee. Instead, Sessions said he declined to discuss their interactions in case Trump wanted to invoke that privilege down the road.

This bizarre sidestep allowed Sessions to avoid saying whether he ever discussed the federal Russia probe or Comey’s handling of that investigation with Trump. Comey testified last week that he believed he was fired “to change the way” that probe was handled—another topic on which Sessions refused to comment, although Trump himself said publicly that the “Russia thing” was on his mind when he dismissed Comey.

“I’m not able to discuss with you, or confirm or deny, the nature of private conversations that I may have had with the President on this subject or others,” Sessions told Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in one typical exchange.

In one of the hearing’s testier moments, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) demanded to know the “legal basis” for Sessions’ repeated dodges.

“I am protecting the right of the President to assert it if he chooses and there may be other protections that apply,” Sessions claimed, saying it was “premature” for him to “deny the President a full and intelligence choice about executive privilege.”

In between the frequent invocations of “I do not recall” and “I cannot answer that,” the attorney general did divulge some previously undisclosed information about his oversight of the Russia probe—that he actually had none. Sessions testified that he “basically recused” himself from the investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign immediately after he was sworn in as attorney general on Feb. 10, and that he “never received any detailed briefing” on Russia’s cyberhacking or other influence efforts from that point forward.

The Justice Department made no public indication that Sessions was not involved in oversight of the Russia probe from the time he was sworn in, and he did not formally announce his recusal until March 2—the day after the Washington Post reported that he failed to disclose two meetings he had with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the campaign.

Sessions undermined that timeline he laid out later in the hearing, testifying that he realized “over time” that he was close enough to the Trump campaign that recusal was a necessary step.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., reacts during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., reacts during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The non-answers Sessions provided on his and other Trump surrogates’ contacts with Russian officials were another source of frustration for Democrats on the panel, leading to a tense back-and-forth with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).

Sessions in his opening statement denied reports that he failed to disclose a third meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in April 2016, saying he did not “recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel.”

Under questioning, he softened that characterization, saying he had no “formal meeting” with Kislyak but may have had an “encounter.” If he did, Sessions added, “nothing improper” would have been discussed.

Other topics the attorney general said he could not recall include: how he ended up being one of the last people in the Oval Office on the day Trump allegedly asked Comey to quash an investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn; whether the Trump campaign pushed for changes on Ukraine policy in the 2016 GOP platform; whether the Trump team met to discuss lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia during the transition; or if key Trump associates met with Russian officials at any point during the campaign.

It’s unclear whether there will be future opportunities to glean that information from Sessions. When asked, the attorney general would not commit to appearing before the committee again for additional testimony.

“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 huffed.

Sessions similarly would not commit to turning over documents to the committee, saying he would only do so “when appropriate.” He declined to define what he considered an appropriate request.