Tuesday’s much anticipated testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions before a Senate panel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 campaign lacked the high drama of James Comey’s appearance last week.
In nearly three hours of questioning, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee failed to land any knockout blows, nor did Sessions punch any meaningful holes in Comey’s damaging testimony about President Trump.
The attorney general, a Trump loyalist during the campaign who formally recused himself from the Russian inquiry in March, forcefully defended himself against suggestions that he colluded with the Russians last year, calling it “secret innuendo” and “an appalling and detestable lie.”
But Sessions often came across as forgetful, testy and defensive, his testimony sprinkled with the “do not recalls” that reek of the lawyerly way public officials often evade accusations in Washington.
And if Republicans were looking for Sessions to undercut Comey’s powerful testimony on the key issue — that the president asked Comey to end a criminal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — they were surely disappointed. Only around the edges did Sessions disagree with Comey’s compelling account.
Sessions corroborated that Comey and Trump met privately in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, and a day or two later Comey expressed “concern about being left alone with the president.” Sessions denied that he had said nothing and shrugged, as Comey had testified. Instead, Sessions said he “affirmed his concern that we should be following” Justice Department guidelines about such communications.
Sessions’ least convincing testimony involved why, if he had recused himself from the Russia investigation, he was involved in recommending the firing of Comey, whose agency was overseeing the Russia investigation.
The attorney general asserted that he had long believed that the FBI needed fresh leadership after watching how Comey handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private emails. But, as one Democratic senator pointed out, Sessions had complimented Comey in television interviews last year. Indeed, soon after abruptly firing the FBI director, Trump acknowledged that the Russia investigation was on his mind.
Sessions’ most consequential testimony was, oddly, his refusal to answer questions about his conversations with Trump.
Presidents ought to be able to have candid private discussions with top aides, but Sessions offered shifting and confusing rationales for dodging questions from the senators.
At one point, after acknowledging that only the president can cite “executive privilege,” he repeatedly insisted that he was “protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses.”
At other points, Sessions cited what he said was long-standing Justice Department policy protecting such private conversations, though he could not point to any written policy.
With his protectiveness of the White House, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer left the impression that he regards his main client as Donald Trump, rather than the American people.
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