Jeff Sessions came to Capitol Hill in self-defense mode, refuting allegations that have dogged his short tenure as attorney general about his role in the Russia imbroglio plaguing the Trump administration.
But there were few shockers in his Tuesday testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, as Sessions repeatedly shook off questions, particularly about his conversations with President Donald Trump. Democrats were predictably displeased with his answers, but Republicans signaled that Sessions successfully cleared up any confusion surrounding his own interactions last year with Russian officials.
“You’ve answered questions that surround the reasons of your recusal and the fact that you had never been briefed since day one on the investigation,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee chairman, said at the end of the hearing. “You made clear that you can’t think of any other conversations that you’ve had with Russian officials … just to name a few things that I think you’ve helped us to clear up.”
Here are POLITICO’s takeaways from Sessions’ appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee:
Sessions’ go-to line: ‘I don’t recall’
The attorney general couldn’t definitively recall whether he interacted with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at an April 2016 forum at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. He didn’t recall whether the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had similar conversations with the Russian diplomat.
And in a rapid-fire sequence of questions from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sessions repeatedly stressed that he could not recall whether current and former White House officials such as Michael Flynn, Reince Priebus and Stephen Miller had met with Russian representatives during the 2016 campaign.
The “I don’t recall” line was a reliable response from the attorney general during the nearly three-hour grilling, particularly about one of the biggest questions raised before his testimony — whether he had further undisclosed meetings with Russian officials.
“I did not have any private meetings — nor do I recall any conversations — with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel,” Sessions said in his defiant opening remarks. Later, he slightly qualified his statement, acknowledging that he “may have had an encounter during the reception” with Kislyak, but that was it.
His responses prompted Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to wonder how much Sessions had prepared for his high-stakes hearing, perhaps with written documents, e-mails, notes or his personal calendar.
“I attempted to refresh my recollection, but so much of this is in a wholesale campaign of extraordinary nature that you’re moving so fast that you don’t keep notes,” Sessions explained.
Senate Republicans run interference
While Democrats were harsh toward Sessions, nearly all Republicans treated him gingerly.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was perhaps the most critical of Democrats, accusing them of tumbling “down lots of other rabbit trails” because no evidence has surfaced so far of collusion between Moscow and Trump associates – a conversation that devolved into chatter about action movies.
“Have you ever, ever, in any of these fantastical situations, heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?” Cotton mused.
Sessions did not hide his gratitude.
“Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton. It’s just like through the looking glass,” Sessions responded. “I mean, what is this?”
Cotton was not alone in running interference for Sessions. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) noted that senators regularly speak with ambassadors and asked Sessions, “Is that a fair statement?”
And Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) read a lengthy response from the Center for the National Interest, which hosted the April 2016 event at the Mayflower and said it was unlikely that a private meeting between any two individuals could’ve occurred without drawing some attention.
Lankford then asked Sessions: “Do you have any reason to disagree with that?”
The support from Senate Republicans extended off the dais. Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), who was appointed to Sessions’ Senate seat and is now seeking to win it outright, attended most of the hearing and issued a statement afterward, declaring that the attorney general showed a “complete commitment to integrity, transparency and the rule of law.”
Sessions rattled under pressure
The still-new attorney general has had little practice at the witness table, and it showed as he became rattled under questioning from Democrats who have accused him of not being forthcoming about his interactions with Russian officials.
His first eruption was directed at Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who pressed Sessions on what exactly fired FBI Director James Comey found so “problematic” that he felt the attorney general’s recusal from the Russia probe was inevitable. Comey had implied there were reasons for the recusal that had not been made public.
“Why don’t you tell me?” Sessions retorted. “There are none, Sen. Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty. This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”
Wyden shot back: “You made your point that you think Mr. Comey is engaging in innuendo. We’re going to keep digging.”
Later, Sessions admitted that he was getting a bit flustered as Democrats sped through a series of questions about his potential communications with anyone connected to the Russian government.
“If I don’t qualify, you’ll accuse me of lying. So I need to be correct as best as I can,” Sessions, his voice rising quickly, said as Harris tried to cut off his answer and move on to her next question. “I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.”
Sessions and his deputy show some daylight
Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were testifying on Capitol Hill simultaneously Tuesday, but they weren’t always in sync.
One such moment came when Sessions testified that Comey likely had an obligation to notify Congress when new evidence emerged in the probe into Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails last October.
“Once the director first got involved and embroiled in a public discussion of this investigation which would have been better never to have been discussed publicly, and said it was over, then when he found new evidence that came up, I think he probably was required to tell Congress that it wasn’t over, that new evidence had been developed,” the attorney general said.
However, the letter Rosenstein wrote last month as part of the process of firing Comey indicated that the FBI director actually should have remained mum.
“Concerning his letter to the Congress on October 28, 2016, the Director cast his decision as a choice between whether he would ‘speak’ about the decision to investigate the newly-discovered email messages or ‘conceal’ it. ‘Conceal’ is a loaded term that misstates the issue,” the deputy AG wrote. “When federal agents and prosecutors quietly open a criminal investigation, we are not concealing anything; we are simply following the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information. In that context, silence is not concealment.”
Sessions had appeared to endorse Rosenstein’s memo last month, so it was surprising that he took the opposite position at one point on Tuesday.
Sessions’ testimony also departed from Rosenstein’s in a broader fashion, with the attorney general willing to discuss matters special counsel Robert Mueller may be investigating but his deputy declining to do so.
Sessions discussed his involvement in Comey’s firing, something Rosenstein was not willing to do —citing the Mueller probe. And the attorney general went even further: detailing his own interactions with the Russians as well as an Oval Office meeting that Comey said may have been part of an effort to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Sessions clearly felt an urgency to speak in an effort to clear his name in the face of the “false attacks” he railed against Tuesday. He may also believe that because he’s recused from the Russia probe he is permitted to act more like a witness and less like a cautious Justice Department official.
Much Tuesday’s hearing was devoted to Sessions’ refusal to answer certain questions that he said endangered executive branch confidences, but there were also the questions that were never asked.
The most glaring: Did Sessions ever offer to resign due to Trump’s dissatisfaction with his job performance, as several news outlets have reported? The attorney general might have punted, but his reaction might have betrayed the answer.
Sessions was also never asked whether he did anything at all after Comey expressed discomfort with his interactions with the president. The attorney general generally rebuffed questions about his dealings with Trump, but there were no questions about whether Sessions relayed Comey’s concerns to anyone, such as other Justice Department officials or the White House counsel. Sessions said Comey could have brought the concerns to others but never said he suggested any such action.
Another potential lay-up might have been to ask Sessions whether he considers Comey a “nut job” or “crazy” — as Trump reportedly said in a meeting with Russian officials just a day after sacking the FBI director.