The most interesting parts of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Tuesday testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence may have been the questions he didn’t answer.
Attorney General Sessions appeared to have a two-pronged strategy for his appearance, which came in the wake of fired FBI Director James Comey’s dramatic testimony last week.
The first prong was to defend his own integrity in regards to dealings with Russians. He did this forcefully, right from the start: Any insinuation that he had colluded with Russian agents in the dissemination of leaked Democratic emails prior to the 2016 election is an “appalling and detestable lie,” Sessions said in the hearing’s opening moments.
The second prong was to avoid saying anything about his dealings with President Trump. This was difficult due to the fact that the president has not invoked executive privilege to prevent his communications with Sessions from becoming public.
Instead, Sessions declined to answer specific questions due to Justice Department policy, and on the grounds that he was preserving for Trump the ability to raise the executive privilege shield in this matter if he so desires.
Democratic senators fumed about this “stonewalling,” but on Tuesday at least, it served to protect Sessions from answering some legally and politically delicate questions.
Why was Comey fired, exactly?
Sessions testified that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein both felt that Comey’s actions in publicly discussing the Hillary Clinton email investigation were inadvisable and that the FBI needed a fresh start under a new director.
But he declined to talk about the nature of a meeting he attended with Trump just before Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein drafted a letter outlining these objections. Did Trump complain about the Russia probe at that meeting? Did he say he was already set on getting rid of the FBI director? On Tuesday, Sessions declined to say.
Did Sessions warn Trump about his discussions with Comey?
On Feb. 15, the day after Trump had a private conversation with then-FBI chief Comey in the Oval Office, Comey asked Sessions to ensure that he was never again left alone with the president – something inappropriately close. Comey also said that Sessions did not respond to this complaint.
On Tuesday, Sessions gave a different account of this conversation, insisting that he had spoken up and said that yes, it was important the FBI and the Department of Justice follow guidelines in this matter.
But Comey wanted Sessions to serve as an intermediary with the president, telling him it was wrong to be buddy-buddy with someone directing an investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia. Did Sessions ever do this? Did he tell the president he was on legally problematic ground here, and did the president nevertheless persist?
Has Trump talked about pardoning anybody?
In an intriguing exchange, Sessions avoided answering a question about whether the president has mused about pardoning the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, or anyone else caught up in the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Is that on Trump’s agenda already? Preemptive pardoning is within the president’s power. But in this case, it might be a politically explosive action.