Attorney General Jeff Sessions rebuffed repeated requests from Democratic lawmakers to detail his conversations with President Trump on the firing of former FBI Director James B. Comey at a contentious oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
Democratic senators peppered the nation’s top law enforcement officer with questions on Comey, Trump and the ongoing investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race, but for the most part, Sessions declined to say anything of real substance.
He would not say what Trump told him before Comey’s firing, offering only that the president asked for his advice in writing. He said he had not been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading the probe that is exploring, in part, if Trump obstructed justice leading up to Comey’s removal.
Sessions lambasted the former FBI director, saying he did not believe “it’s been fully understood the significance of the error that Mr. Comey made” on the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. But he would not say if the president, in deciding to remove Comey, mentioned the Russia case in their discussions.
The hearing marks the first time Sessions has appeared before the Judiciary Committee since his confirmation hearing in January. Lawmakers pressed the attorney general on a variety of topics — including his legal opinion on the DACA program for immigrants who came to the U.S. as kids, his threat to strip “sanctuary cities” of federal grants and even his stance on those wanting to grow marijuana for research. But as with most political affairs in Washington in 2017, much of the hearing was spent talking about Russia.
Sessions is recused from the Russia case because of his role on the Trump campaign, though he could be someone with whom Mueller wants to speak. He said he would be willing to cooperate with the probe — a spokesman said he has yet to even be approached about an interview.
Of his personal confidence in Mueller, Sessions said: “I think he will produce the work in the way he thinks is correct, and history will judge.” He said he didn’t know if it “was appropriate” for Trump to pardon people who were under investigation by Mueller, but added that the “pardon power is quite broad.”
Democrats, in particular, have long been interested in Sessions own meetings with Russians, after The Post reported in March he had spoken twice last year with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and did not disclose the encounters when asked about possible contacts between members of Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during his confirmation hearing to become attorney general.
Sessions offered a slightly new wrinkle Wednesday, asserting he may have discussed Trump campaign policy positions in his 2016 conversations with Kislyak. The attorney general said it was “possible” that “some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were,” though he also said, “I don’t think there was any discussion about the details of the campaign.”
The Post reported in July that Kislyak reported back to his superiors in the Kremlin that the two had discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow. Sessions has previously said he didn’t “recall any specific political discussions,” though at the time he allowed that most ambassadors are “pretty gossipy” and it was “campaign season” when he and Kislyak talked.
In one of the testiest exchanges of the hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who had asked Sessions about Trump campaign and Russia contacts at the confirmation hearing, accused the attorney general of changing his story over time.
While Sessions first asserted he “did not have communications with the Russians,” he now seemed to be only denying that he had inappropriate discussions about election interference, Franken said.
Sessions shot back that Franken’s question came with a “very, very troubling” lead up, and he answered “in a way that I felt was responsive to what you raised in your question.” The two men interrupted each other, and at one point, Sessions erupted, “Mr. Chairman, I don’t have to sit in here and listen to his charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.”
Democrats had warned Sessions they expected him to answer questions about his conversations with Trump, especially as they might relate to the firing of Comey and the Russia investigation. Sessions, though, said in his opening remarks that he wouldn’t, nor would he honor Democrats’ request that he detail the particular topics on which Trump would assert executive privilege and block his testimony.
“I can neither assert executive privilege, nor can I disclose today the content of my confidential conversations with the president,” Sessions said.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in June, Sessions also refused to detail his conversations with the president. But Democrats have questioned his rationale for not providing at least some information. In a letter to Sessions last week, they said the attorney general needed to formally identify the topics over which Trump would assert executive privilege — and Sessions thus could not address — and fully answer questions about the others.
“We expect that when you appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 18th, you will have determined whether the president will invoke executive privilege as to specific topics and will be prepared to answer completely all questions in those areas on which he has not,” the Democrats wrote. “As to the former category, we will expect you to provide the Committee with a list of issues over which the privilege has affirmatively been asserted.”
Sessions also used the hearing to defend Trump’s travel ban, saying it could help prevent terror attacks in the United States. He called the directive — which was blocked by two different federal judges Tuesday and Wednesday — an “important step” in the fight against terror.
“It’s a lawful, necessary order that we are proud to defend,” Sessions said, adding, “We are confident we’ll prevail, as time goes by, in the Supreme Court.”
He said that military leaders had told him to expect an “increase in attacks” as the Islamic State is pushed out of strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
Sessions sparred with Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) over his attempts to withhold federal grant money from Chicago over the city’s so-called “sanctuary” policies. A federal court recently blocked Sessions from doing so, and Durbin said the attorney general was wrong to harp on the city’s rise in violent crime while at the same time trying to take resources.
“You want to cut off federal funds to that city, and come here and criticize the murder rate. You can’t have it both ways,” Durbin said.
Sessions shot back that federal authorities “can’t take over law enforcement for the city of Chicago,” and that they needed city officials to notify them when illegal immigrants were scheduled to be released from jail.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told Sessions that she is concerned about several actions he has taken as attorney general, including his reversal of DOJ positions on voting rights and LGBT rights.
The attorney general this month issued a memo opining that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect transgender people from workplace discrimination, and his Justice Department came down on the side of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Civil liberties advocates say his recent memo offering guidance on religious freedom essentially amounts to a license for discrimination. Under his leadership, the department dropped its long-standing position that Texas intended to discriminate when it passed a strict voter-ID law.
Sessions has taken the department in a significantly different direction than did his predecessors in the Obama administration — especially on his interpretation of federal law as it relates to the DACA program, the Affordable Care Act and discrimination against transgender people.
Sessions was the public face of the decision to wind down the DACA program, which granted a reprieve from deportation to people who came to the U.S. without documentation when they were children. He has asserted the program could not withstand legal challenges.
Sessions also laid out the legal underpinnings for the Trump administration to create broad exceptions to the Affordable Care Act’s no-cost contraceptive coverage, and he paved the way for another decision days later to stop certain payments to insurers under the act.
Sessions, too, has ordered lawyers in his department to review all reform agreements it has with police departments nationwide, and he has implemented a sweeping new charging policy that instructs prosecutors to pursue the most serious, readily provable crimes, even if those might trigger stiff mandatory minimum sentences. He has been especially aggressive in cracking down on illegal immigration — even threatening to take certain grant money from certain so-called “sanctuary cities,” though his efforts to do so have largely been blocked by federal courts.