In testimony punctuated by flashes of anger, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called charges that he colluded in Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 election “an appalling and detestable lie.” The hearing revealed little new about the core issue of potential collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. There remains little hard evidence for that. But, the questions Mr. Sessions refused to answer were more intriguing than those he did.
Over the course of a sometimes contentious hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday, Mr. Sessions bristled at accusatory questions lobbed by Democrats. When Democratic Senator Ron Wyden pressed Mr. Sessions to explain what fired FBI Director James Comey was alluding to when he hinted last week at other reasons for Mr. Sessions recusal, tempers flared.
“Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden,” Mr. Sessions responded, his voice rising in anger. “This is a secret innuendo being leaked about me and I don’t appreciate it.”
Mr. Sessions frustration seemed well-justified. Mr. Comey’s vague accusation was a landmine that left Mr. Sessions in an impossible position – defending himself on charges about which he could only speculate.
From what we do know, Mr. Sessions contacts with Russian officials, specifically with Moscow’s Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak, appear innocent. A meeting with a Russian Ambassador is not anything out of the ordinary for a Senator. Indeed, your humble blogger recalls meeting Mr. Kislyak’s boss, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavarov, many years ago as a young Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer. But, in light of the peculiar amnesia about meetings with Russians that infects Trump world, Mr. Sessions failure to initially disclose these encounters raises eyebrows nonetheless.
What Sessions Didn’t Say
But it was Mr. Sessions’ refusal to answer questions about the specifics of his conversations with President Donald Trump that ignited the most fireworks. Mr. Sessions declined to answer whether he discussed with the President potential pardons, the reasons for Mr. Comey’s dismissal and whether Mr. Trump had expressed his frustration with Mr. Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, invoking the ire of Democrats on the committee.
“There is also a congressional investigation, and you are obstructing that…investigation by not answering these questions, and I think your silence, like the silence of Director Coats, like the silence of Admiral Rogers speaks volumes,” Sen. Martin Henrich fumed.
Mr. Sessions cited Justice Department policy against revealing such discussions. However, Mr. Sessions was unable to cite exactly what policy precludes him from doing so. This led Democrats to press him repeatedly on whether he was asserting executive privilege. Mr. Sessions said he was not. “I’m protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses and there may be other privileges that could apply in this circumstance,” Sessions explained. Mr. Sessions selective refusal to answer questions about his discussions with the President and senior White House officials will not put these matters to rest. It seems certain that the committee will call his bluff. Senators will likely insist that either President Trump assert executive privilege or compel Mr. Sessions to answer their questions.
What Sessions’ Silence Might Tell Us
It’s reasonable to speculate that Mr. Sessions’ refusal to answer questions about whether he had talked with the President about certain matters could imply that he has. Elsewhere in the hearing, Mr. Sessions did deny that he had discussed various things with the President. In response to a question from Ranking Member Mark Warner about whether the President had confidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Mr. Sessions responded, “I have not talked to him about it.” But, when Senator Warner asked whether any Department of Justice or White House officials have had conversations about the potential for presidential pardons related to the Russia investigation, Mr. Sessions declined to similarly deny that he had.
If there is internal talk about pardons, it suggests that while publicly the Trump Administration is dismissing the Russia probe as “fake news,” privately they are taking it more seriously. That shouldn’t be taken to mean that the charges of collusion in Russian election meddling are true. These investigations often uncover other issues that result in prosecutions. News reports indicate that several people formerly in Mr. Trump’s orbit could potentially face criminal liability on matters not directly related to Russia’s election meddling that have been raised in the probe.
- Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn initially failed to disclose payments from Russian-owned TV network RT on his security clearance forms and financial disclosure filing. He also failed to register as a foreign agent for work his firm performed on behalf of the government of Turkey. Both potentially expose him to criminal liability under various federal statutes.
- Special Council Robert Mueller is also investigating Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort’s business dealings with former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian businessman and Kremlin ally. Both matters pre-date Mr. Manafort’s involvement in Trump’s campaign.
Mr. Sessions’ questioning, like Mr. Comey’s, didn’t change much when it came to the question of potential collusion in Russia’s efforts to influence the November elections. There remains little direct evidence that either Mr. Trump or Mr. Sessions were complicit on Russia’s scheme. Despite all the hype, we are still about where we started two weeks ago — waiting for Special Council Robert Mueller to report back to learn the truth.
In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s defenders would be wise to check their calls for firing Mr. Mueller. If Mr. Trump has done nothing seriously wrong, Mr. Mueller’s exoneration might be the only thing that will allow Mr. Trump to put the Russia story behind him. Firing Mr. Mueller would only exacerbate his problems. If he fires Mr. Mueller, whether he is innocent or not, the Russia cloud that so frustrates the President may never lift.