The Senate Intelligence Committee, under Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA), held yet another hearing today on accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Attorney General Jeff Sessions “set the record straight,” and testified in an open hearing before the public. His testimony and answers to committee member questions clarified his decision to recuse himself from the Russian investigation, explained his recommendation to fire FBI Director James Comey, and denied any collusion with Russian officials.
In his opening remarks, Chairman Burr cautioned the committee to stay on topic and refrain from “taking partisan shots.” He listed four questions he hoped to address:
- Did Sessions have meetings with Russian officials or proxies during the campaign?
- How was Sessions involved with Trump’s foreign policy team?
- Why did Sessions recuse from the Russia investigation?
- What role did Sessions play in the removal of FBI Director James Comey?
Attorney General Sessions opened his testimony with the promise to meet the committee’s questions as best as he could but warned that he would not reveal any private conversations between himself and the president. In his actual testimony, Sessions immediately and in no uncertain terms attacked the allegations of collusion:
Let me state this clearly, colleagues. I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States. Furthermore, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump Campaign.
In both his testimony and the questioning session afterward, Attorney General Sessions sought to answer all four of the concerns outlined by Chairman Burr. He explained that he had in fact met with Russian officials – as well as officials from many other nations – as a senator, but that he had not colluded with any of them. He explained that Senator Franken (D-MN) had caught him after six hours of testimony with a rambling question that included dramatic allegations of collusion. Sessions said that in saying he had not met with Russians, he was refuting the accusation implicit in Sen. Franken’s question. It never occurred to him that the Senator meant to ask if he had ever met with Russians, and believed he was answering the question honestly within context.
Since he was an advisor during the Trump campaign, he had to recuse himself from any investigation of that campaign. His recusal was not an admission of guilt, but a safeguard against conflicts of interests. Since his recommendation to fire Comey had nothing to do with the Russia investigation; he had no reason to recuse from it and every reason as Attorney General to make it. According to Sessions, James Comey mishandled the Clinton email investigation by usurping the Attorney General’s authority to determine whether a prosecution should continue, by publically commenting on the ongoing investigation, and by commenting negatively against Mrs. Clinton after clearing her of any charge.
Despite Chairman Burr’s advice to avoid partisan behavior, the party affiliation of each Senator could be determined by how they addressed Sessions. The questions, however, were mostly the same questions asked in different ways and were, as Senator Harris (D-CA) said, “predictable.” While most Senators either supported or attacked Sessions rather mildly, some did seem to make a point to show off.
Senator Feinstein (D-CA) – and several others – attacked his refusal to answer some questions on the ground that they would reveal private conversations with the president. She claimed it seemed suspicious, as he could avoid the conflict by simply saying “no” if the answer were no. To this, he replied that he could just as easily say “yes” if the answer is yes. By answering “no” to some relevant questions and refusing to answer others, Sessions would have negated the point of not answering them. Mr. Sessions declined to claim executive privilege but didn’t answer some questions because doing so before President Trump had the chance to consider them would infringe on the president’s right to claim privilege later. This is in line with the understanding of executive privilege, as described by the Supreme Court. The president has preemptive privilege, and doesn’t have to declare it for his conversations to remain private.
Senators Lankford (R-OK) and Cotton (R-AR) used their time to grant some relief to Mr. Sessions. Mr. Lankford read aloud a statement released by the Center for National Interest, the host of the event at the Mayflower Hotel at which Sessions was accused of meeting with Russian officials. The statement explained that there was no way that Mr. Sessions could have met with the Russian ambassador without drawing the attention of several witnesses. He then asked Mr. Sessions if there was any question the senators had neglected to ask. Sessions suggested they ask if the Russians had any effect on the election.
Senator Cotton followed up by saying that he feels they should ask the central question that sparked the investigation months ago. Was anyone in the Trump campaign colluding with Russian officials to affect the outcome of the election? This question still wasn’t asked after six Senators had their chances. He asked what people expected happened at the reception, and compared the allegations to spy fiction.
Throughout the proceedings, Sessions stuck to his guns and didn’t change his story. He did say that he didn’t recall a lot of things and didn’t answer the direct question of whether or not he saw a written regulation forbidding him from revealing his conversations with the president. However, he agreed to turn over all documents legally possible to the committee. After a long and mostly redundant hearing, it still seems that no collusion occurred. Will the accusations finally be put to rest? That remains to be seen.