WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic senators plan to press Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his private communications with the president when he appears before a Senate committee Wednesday to discuss his leadership of the Justice Department.
The routine oversight hearing is Sessions’ first appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee since his January confirmation, and it comes as he has worked quickly to reshape the department with an intense focus on immigration, drugs, gangs and violent crime. He will likely face questions from lawmakers about his swift undoing of Obama-era protections for gay and transgender people and his rollback of criminal justice policies that aimed to reduce the federal prison population, among other changes he has made in nine months since taking office.
He has tried to pressure so-called sanctuary cities into cooperating with federal immigration authorities by threatening to withhold grant money, and he was the public face of the Trump administration’s decision to end a program benefiting hundreds of thousands of young people who entered the U.S. illegally as children. Senators could question him about that, as Congress seeks a legislative solution to extend the protections before recipients’ work permits expire.
But lawmakers are also expected to ask him about the investigation into Trump campaign connections to Russia, which continues to cast a shadow over his tenure. Sessions recused himself from that probe, a decision that still frustrates President Donald Trump, who subjected him to a solid week of blistering public criticism this summer. He could also be asked about any communication he’s had with the team of investigators led by Robert Mueller, the Justice Department’s special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation.
It is standard operating policy for attorneys general to appear each year before the Justice Department’s congressional overseers on the House and Senate judiciary committees. Yet, in a reflection of the extent to which the Russia investigation and his own role as a campaign ally have dominated public attention, Sessions made his first appearance on Capitol Hill as attorney general before the Senate Intelligence Committee. There, he faced hours of questioning about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States and his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
That hearing was scheduled for the day as a separate hearing on the Justice Department’s budget, which Sessions was absent for. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein attended in his place to lay out the department’s budget priorities, a task ordinarily fulfilled by the country’s chief law enforcement officer.
Democratic senators have already made clear they want Sessions to detail his private conversations with Trump, particularly in the run-up to the May firing of FBI Director James Comey, or announce that Trump is invoking executive privilege to protect those communications. Sessions repeatedly refused to discuss his talks with Trump during his three-hour appearance before the Senate intelligence panel.
He did not say he was using executive privilege, but rather adhering to longstanding tradition of Justice Department leaders to refrain from revealing the contents of private conversations with the president. That explanation left many Democrats unsatisfied and is unlikely to put to an end demands for detailed accounts of those conversations.