The nation’s top legal officer is set to go before Congress on Tuesday to try to defuse a bomb that the former FBI director dropped into his lap.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee less than one week after James Comey told the committee he could not discuss openly certain information about Sessions’ recusal from the investigation into Russia’s election meddling last year.
Comey also told the committee that Sessions had agreed to clear the Oval Office along with other top administration leaders, after which Trump asked Comey to lay off the investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn.
Senators want to get Sessions’ take on all this. His strategy: Bring it on.
“The attorney general has requested that this hearing be public,” said spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores. “He believes it is important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him and looks forward to answering the committee’s questions tomorrow.”
Here’s a look at five questions that members likely want to ask Sessions as he both defends himself and potentially helps his boss — the president — try to preserve some headway in political seas that continue roiling in the aftermath of Hurricane Comey.
1. What’s the full story behind Sessions’ recusal?
The attorney general said early on that as someone who’d been a campaign partner and advocate for the president, he felt it wasn’t appropriate for him to be in charge of any inquiry into how it had been conducted.
“I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in,” Sessions said at the Justice Department on the day he announced his decision.
But there are also questions about meetings that Sessions had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, who has emerged as a key figure in the question of whether any Trump associates had ties to Russian officials. Sessions and Kislyak met at least twice last year.
Sessions has denied that any of his contact with Kislyak involved discussions about the Trump campaign, and he has explained that as a member of the Senate, as he then was, he dealt often with foreign emissaries as part of his normal work.
Comey’s hints to the Senate Intelligence Committee, however, suggest that he knew of more contacts or other relationships that made him and the rest of the top FBI leaders expect that Sessions would take himself out of the game.
Whatever they are, they’re “facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting,” Comey said.
What were they?
2. Did Sessions fully recuse himself as promised?
“I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” Sessions said in a statement on March 2. “I have taken no actions regarding any such matters, to the extent they exist.”
And yet Sessions took a huge action on May 9: He signed a letter, with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, recommending that Trump fire Comey as FBI director. Trump cited the Justice Department leaders’ recommendation in his now-famous note to Comey concluding that “you are not able to effectively lead” the FBI.
What’s more, Trump reportedly tasked Sessions with coming up with the case for firing Comey. How could an attorney general who said he would take himself out of the Russia investigation play a role in firing the officer who was leading it?
And if Sessions was involved with that decision, in what other ways might he have continued to be involved with the Russia inquiry even after announcing that he wouldn’t take part?
3. Did Sessions know what Trump planned to ask Comey in the closed meeting?
Comey painted a clear picture for the Senate Intelligence Committee: At the conclusion of a meeting with several people in the Oval Office, Trump — in Comey’s telling — cleared the room.
“As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the attorney general lingered by my chair but the president thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me,” Comey wrote in his statement. “The last person to leave was Jared Kushner [Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser], who also stood by my chair and exchanged pleasantries with me. The president then excused him, saying he wanted to speak with me.”
That’s when, in Comey’s telling, Trump made the ask about the inquiry into the former national security adviser: “I hope you can let this go.”
Did Sessions know beforehand that the president planned to take aside the FBI director and appeal to him to lay off Flynn? If so, had the president asked him beforehand in some other time or place?
And if not, why did Sessions agree to leave the president alone with someone who was technically his subordinate — the FBI is part of the Justice Department — for a discussion that would have been within his purview?
Sessions’ answers about this and another encounter that Comey has described (more on that below) could be some of the most significant of the hearing on Tuesday. If he confirms there was a meeting at which he and Kushner were asked to leave, it could bolster Comey’s account. But if he challenges this story strongly, it helps Trump’s narrative that Comey didn’t tell the Senate the truth.
If there is no independent account of what might have taken place inside the White House — in the form of a recording system that might have kept “tapes” of the discussions that took place, as Trump once suggested on Twitter — it boils down to Trump’s and Sessions’ word against Comey’s.
Trump told reporters Friday he’d have something to say about the tapes “soon,” but White House officials haven’t given a solid answer about whether they exist — though members of Congress have called for them as evidence if they do. White House spokesman Sean Spicer didn’t address questions about potential recordings on Monday.
4. Did Sessions ever talk to Trump about the private meeting with Comey?
Comey told members of Congress that he appealed to Sessions after Trump’s private request: Don’t let that happen again. Don’t leave us alone like that. You, the attorney general, have to be between the president and me.
California Sen. Kamala Harris asked Comey for more detail about this scene when he appeared last week. What did Sessions say, she asked — how did he respond?
“I don’t remember real clearly,” Comey answered. “I have a recollection of him just kind of looking at me — and there’s a danger here I’m projecting onto him, so this may be a faulty memory — but I kind of got that his body language gave me the sense, like, ‘What am I going to do?’ “
The Justice Department responded to this in an official statement on the day of Comey’s testimony: “The attorney general was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.”
On Tuesday, Sessions will have the chance to give his own answer in person — or explain to senators what other conversations he and Trump may have had on this subject about which Comey might not have been aware.
5. What questions will Sessions decline to answer?
Members of Congress would love it if their witnesses gave the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — but that is seldom how it actually works. On Wednesday last week, the heads of the top intelligence agencies and the deputy attorney general declined to answer key questions for various reasons.
On Thursday, Comey said there were some things he couldn’t discuss because they involved classified information. And on Tuesday, odds are good that Sessions may also not respond to some of the most pressing questions at the hearing.
Top administration officials sometimes argue they shouldn’t disclose the details of what they discuss with the president. Sometimes they tell members of Congress that an answer would divulge classified material. Sometimes they just don’t want to respond, irrespective of a justification for not doing do.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, thundered at two top spy bosses last week when they couldn’t give the legal reasons for why they couldn’t explain what he wanted.
“I’m not satisfied with ‘I do not believe it is appropriate’ or ‘I do not feel I should answer,’ ” King said. “You swore an oath.”
Depending on the extent of what Sessions is willing to discuss on Tuesday, he and King could have a similar exchange.