Attorney General Jeff Sessions resorted to two main tactics in hedging particular lines of questioning in his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today. One was selective amnesia with regard to particulars concerning interactions with Russian officials during the 2016 Presidential campaign. The other was his invoking of a “longstanding policy” of cabinet level heads of the Department of Justice not to comment on private discussions, “confidential communications”, as he termed them, with the executive branch (i.e., the President).
It’s interesting, the pattern emerging. Trump’s media surrogates and defenders among GOP members of Congress, complain that nothing of any significance has been discovered regarding Trump campaign collusion with agents of Russian influence; and that the investigatory process should be shelved – but at the same time, oppose efforts to uncover any and all facts that would clear the President, his campaign and certain administration officials of the cloud of suspicion, both of possible collusion, but of obstructing an ongoing investigation. Such was the case with Admiral Rogers and Dan Coats, and such is the case with A.G. Sessions.
“Longstanding DOJ Policy”
Sessions was asked by California Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) as well as Angus King (I-ME), what was the basis of Session’s claim that a “longstanding DOJ policy” existed, that prevented Sessions from providing detailed answers to pertinent and specific questions not involving classified material. Sessions could not elaborate beyond his recital of his “understanding” of the policy.
When asked if the policy is written down anywhere in specific policy outline, Sessions was not able to refer any of the Senators to such a policy. When pressed further, Sessions could only tell Senator King and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) that it was his “judgment” that the President must review and approve his testimony beforehand in order to determine if (Trump) would wish to invoke his privileges – apparently referring to ‘executive privilege’.
“I’m not claiming executive privilege, because that’s the President’s power,” Sessions told Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.
Sessions said in numerous exchanges that he was “not able to comment” or “not able to discuss” certain topics, saying also that he “is protecting President Donald Trump’s right to later on assert executive privilege if he chooses.” On another occasion Sessions referred to the unknown and mysterious rule that even GOP questioners were not familiar with.
“Not able to discuss or confirm…”
One such instance involved an exchange with California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, when she asked him whether he had any discussions with Trump about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Sessions replied, “I’m not able to discuss or confirm or deny the nature of private conversations that I may have had with the president on this subject or others.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, said Sessions’ “silence speaks volumes.” “You said you would solemnly swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Heinrich told Sessions. “Now you’re not answering questions. You are impeding this investigation.”
Once more – as in every engagement with any Senator that was not using their time to toss softballs to Sessions, the Attorney General responded:
“That’s my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the president when he has not had a full opportunity to review the questions and to make a decision on whether or not to approve such an answer.”
At another telling point of the testimony, Sessions was asked if he could recall having a meeting with President Trump to discuss the Russian investigation in relation to the firing of Comey. Sessions once again invoked the unknown “longstanding policy”.
Affirmation of Loyalty
Essentially, it translates that Sessions regards his relationship with the President as one where he is obligated to defend the interests of the President at the expense of the American people being able to learn the truth about Sessions involvement with Russian officials and what was actually behind the President’s decision to fire James Comey.
That was the significance of yesterday’s cabinet meeting photo op, where one cabinet level official after another, in effect, obsequiously pledged loyalty to the President – (in most cases not specifically stating it as such), including Jeff Sessions, of which reports have surfaced that Trump has been very frustrated with Sessions’ inability to put a halt to the Russian investigation.
Elsewhere in Session’s non-answers to members of the committee, Sessions relied on selective amnesia to avoid providing information that might tangle him in possible involvement in or knowledge of arrangements with the Russians to influence the election or discussions regarding the lifting of existing sanctions.
While he clearly remembers Donald Trump’s early foreign policy speeches, he has very murky recollections of Trump’s April 27th campaign appearance at the Mayflower Hotel, where Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak was in attendance. He said he “didn’t remember” whether he spoke to Kislyak at the event or not. This strains credulity to the breaking point. At one point, however, Sessions let it slip that he, “met with a lot of Russian officials”, during the campaign – describing the interactions as the individuals wanting to discuss points of American policies affecting them.
Senator Marco Rubio, (R-FL) asked Sessions if he recalled ‘lingering’ somewhat after Donald Trump dismissed the other participants in a meeting on February 14th, in which the President requested James Comey to stay for a private discussion. Sessions claims to have no specific recollection of his impression of that event or it’s propriety.
Other questioners raised with Sessions, the dubious nature of Sessions never having had a meeting with James Comey to discuss his and the President’s dissatisfaction with Comey’s performance of his job – the poor performance and low morale cited in Assistant Atty. General Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation to dismiss memorandum.
They also pointed out the contradiction that while Sessions and Rosenstein, along with the President’s WH Communications staff, were telling the media that Trump fired Comey for the express reason that Comey mishandled the public communications regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails – Trump later told NBC’s Lester Holt, the reason for the firing had to do with Trump’s impatience with the Russian investigation.
“The Smell Test”
Senator Ron Wyden, (D-OR) told Sessions that his claim that his involvement with Rosenstein’s recommendation to dismiss Comey, “doesn’t pass the smell test”, when noting that Trump had tweeted the day before that the investigation, “was a total hoax”, making Sessions’ story about not violating his recusal, suspect at best.
As to Sessions’ assertion that he has some basis to decline answering questions directed to him by members of Congress, William Yeomans, Professor at the American University Law School and an attorney with the Justice Department for 26 years, takes issue with it:
“There is no legally binding basis for refusing to answer questions unrelated to an ongoing investigation unless the President is invoking executive privilege. That privilege is not absolute — it can be overcome by a sufficient interest. DOJ traditionally does not discuss ongoing investigations in public, but ultimately must answer questions unless executive privilege is properly invoked and upheld.”