SENATE

The Sessions inquisition comes up empty: Trump unscathed after Attorney General's testimony

Hans von Spakovsky

As disappointed as Democrats were by James Comey’s testimony last week, they were probably even more disappointed Tuesday by their inability to get anything damaging on President Trump from Attorney General Sessions.

 Sessions had to put up with sometimes insulting questions about his actions as a senator when he was part of the Trump campaign, or his behavior as the attorney general of the United States. Yet despite their most determined efforts, the inquisitors didn’t leave a mark on their former colleague.

Sessions was passionate in defending himself and his work as the attorney general. He was obviously angry about some of the claims made by James Comey and the “secret innuendo” being thrown against him. 

He vigorously denied any wrongdoing, particularly in connection with the Russia investigation being conducted by the FBI, and vowed to defend himself “against scurrilous and false allegations.”

In his opening statement, Sessions addressed the false assertion that he had not answered a question honestly from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) at his confirmation hearing.  Franken had asked a “rambling” question about claims that “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”  Of course, we know from Comey’s testimony last week that this was false.  But Sessions emphasized that he answered that question honestly and forthrightly when he said that he was “not aware of any of those activities.”

In one of his most forceful statements, Sessions reminded committee members that he had been their colleague for 20 years.  The “suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for over 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”

Sessions couldn’t answer any detailed questions about the Russia investigation because he had recused himself after he was sworn in as the attorney general.  It turned out that Comey’s claim last week that he had not received any information from the Justice Department on the details of Sessions’ recusal was false; Sessions’ office had specifically sent Comey an email on March 2 telling him that he had “decided to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President” after consultation with career ethics officials at Justice.

The attorney general pushed back hard against the idea that he had recused because of any unlawful or unethical activities: “Many have suggested that my recusal is because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself, that I may have done something wrong.”  He recused himself because he felt he “was required to under the rules of the Department of Justice.”  He is referring to a Justice Department rule (28 CFR §45.2) that says that no Justice employee can “participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has personal or political relationship with...any person or organization which he knows has a specific and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was particularly insulting to Sessions, suggesting that there was something “problematic” about his recusal and asking him what those problems were.  Sessions replied sharply “Why don’t you tell me?  There are none, Sen. Wyden. There are none.”

Session emphasized repeatedly that he “never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign official concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.”  Moreover, he had “no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.” 

Senators such as Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) were obviously annoyed that Sessions refused to relate the specifics of any conversations he had with the president.  But as Sessions said, he would “not violate” his “duty to protect confidential communications with the President.”

I have no doubt that the senators Tuesday who were angry about this would not have questioned representatives of the Obama administration in this fashion. One needs only to recall Susan Rice, who refused to provide details of her conversations with President Obama.  No president can function without that protection and the ability to have privileged and confidential discussions with his aides, his cabinet heads, and his advisers.

Senators kept trying to push Sessions on his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who visited the White House numerous times during the Obama administration.  Sessions only had two meetings, one of which was just “a brief encounter in July after a speech that [Sessions] had given during the convention in Cleveland, Ohio.”  Sessions had meetings with 25 other ambassadors during 2016, something that all senators–including those questioning Sessions—do routinely.  He denied reports of a third meeting with the Russian ambassador at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.  In short, Sessions’ testimony demonstrated that those who have tried to make these meetings look as if they were something nefarious have just made themselves look foolish.    

About the only thing the Senate Intelligence Committee accomplished in this hearing was to give the American people the opportunity to see an honest, honorable, and forthright public official – Jeff Sessions – being persecuted by political partisans with no interest in actually getting the truth.  And the truth so far is that after more than six months, no one has turned up a single piece of evidence that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it colluded with any foreign officials anywhere in the world to somehow interfere in the November election.  Period.  End of story.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and former Justice Department official. He is coauthor of “Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk”.