This post will be updated continuously throughout Sessions's testimony today
The Senate's Russia investigation is back in the news today as Attorney General Jeff Sessions takes the stand to testify before the Intelligence Committee on all things Donald Trump, Russia, and former FBI Director James Comey. That's right — after last week's blockbuster testimony from Comey, Sessions has a lot to answer for with regards to the sequence of events that have played out since President Trump took office. What's most notable here, however, is the fact that Sessions himself asked for an open hearing before the panel. He was previously slated to meet behind closed doors with Congress to discuss his department's budget — an appearance he's now delegated to his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. In an effort to head off what he believed would be an onslaught of questions about Russia and Russia alone, he decided to flip the script in order to tell his story directly to the American people. It's a move most political experts see as a savvy way to avoid both suspicion and leaks from a closed-door testimony.
Sessions notably recused himself from his role as chief investigator in the Russia investigation in March after it was revealed that he did not disclose two meetings he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the lead-up to the 2016 election. But whether or not he was taking the recusal seriously came into question back in May, after it was discovered that he was involved in the high-profile firing of James Comey. Comey, for his part, fired back in the closed-door portion of his Senate testimony, reportedly confirming that the FBI had been investigating a third meeting with Kislyak that Sessions neglected to disclose to officials.
While Sessions probably won't give us a Comey-style dramatic retelling of events, one would hope that he would come with a pretty solid set of facts — and a very good reason for not sharing those facts, should the situation warrant it. He's facing a Senate committee that is still fuming from last week's unsuccessful grilling of the intel chiefs, all of whom not only refused to give answers but also refused to give legal justification for their silence.
Whatever happens in today's hearing is bound to be interesting, though — so we'll be breaking down the facts, moment by moment, and giving you a rundown of exactly what you need to know going forward:
- Just before the hearing began, news broke that Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, will be testifying before the House Intelligence committee in September. September may feel far off, but it ultimately means that this whole Russia probe imbroglio isn't going anywhere anytime soon. As Senator Richard Burr said in his opening statement, Sessions took part in the 10th open hearing this year, and the fifth on the Russia investigation — and there are still many, many more to come.
- The committee was planning to meet with Sessions regardless of whether or not he came forward this week — it just wasn't going to be today. Senator Mark Warner said to Sessions, "We had always expected to talk to you as part of our investigation. We believed it would be later in the process."
- Sessions flat-out denied any collusion with Russia, and stated that he did not commit perjury about a third meeting. Sessions explicitly denied reports that he met Kislyak a third time at the Mayflower Hotel, and said he had "no recollection" of meeting the Russian ambassador at a Trump campaign event. Most notably, he called the implication that he colluded with Russia an "appalling and detestable lie."
- The attorney general also addressed his recusal from the investigation. Sessions pushed hard on the fact that he recused himself from the Russia investigation due to governmental policy and not due to any wrongdoing — and that it was absolutely his choice. But he didn't stop there, adding that though he wasn't participating in the investigation, "I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations."
- Sessions expressed extreme frustration with the ongoing Russia investigation and the hearings in general. He said point-blank that he didn't think it was good policy for Congress to be continually bringing cabinet members before various committees.
- He was pretty non-committal about Special Counsel Robert Mueller, though he was definitive on the fact that he has not met with him since he was appointed. Sessions said he had confidence in Mueller, didn't know if the president had confidence in Mueller, and when asked if he would commit to ensuring that the special counsel wasn't fired, responded "I think that I can say that with confidence because I'm recused from the investigation . . . "
- Sessions did answer some questions about the Comey firing, after all. Senator Diane Feinstein asked why he wrote a recommendation to fire Comey even after he had recused himself — and if it even mattered that he wrote the recommendation, given the president's comments to Lester Holt. Sessions responded by saying he was comfortable with writing the memo, but that with regards to the president he could only say, "I guess I'll just have to let his words speak for himself. I'm not sure what was in his mind explicitly when we talked with him."
- But following suit with the intelligence officials who testified last week, he refused to answer questions about conversations he's had with the president. In Sessions's own words: "I'm not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of private conversations that I may have had with the president on this subject or others. And I know that . . . how this will be discussed, but that's the rules that have been long adhered to by the Department of Justice, as you know."
- Sessions said that nobody in the administration has ever asked him to take any illegal actions since he took office as attorney general. A reminder: all of these hearings take place under oath. In saying what he did, this assertion is now part of the public record.
- In a weird and unexpected twist, Sessions doesn't remember if he was asked to leave the room when that one-on-one Trump/Comey conversation happened. It happens to be the one fact that nobody has disputed or tried to explain away and is an odd thing to forget. He did go out of his way to confirm the fact Comey approached him about his discomfort with the one-on-one conversation, though.
- A fiery exchange took place between Sessions and Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. It's not a stretch to say that this came perilously close to sounding like a shouting match:
Wyden: "Comey said there were 'problematic matters' relating to you with regard to the Russia investigation. What are they?"
Sessions: "Why don't you tell me?! There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me and I don't appreciate it."
- Sessions has never been briefed on what happened with the Russian election hack. Yes, you read that correctly. The sitting attorney general has gotten all of his information about what happened during the election the same way that all of us have: from the media. A former Obama administration staffer weighed in on the validity of this statement.
It's impossible that AG Sessions never received a briefing about Russia's hacking of our elections unless he refused it.
— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) June 13, 2017
- We heard once again that the president has not invoked executive privilege, but this time it veered dangerously close to what looked almost like obstruction. Not answering questions has been a point of contention throughout the course of all the Russia hearings this year, but today it took a new turn. Sessions stated that Trump had not invoked privilege but since he could do so in the future, he wasn't going to respond to certain aspects of certain questions. Several senators were unimpressed with this lack of clarity around the stance that the administration was taking, with Senator Heinrich summing up his response to the stonewalling quite succinctly: "You are obstructing."
- Sessions also doesn't remember if Trump associates met with Russian operatives. Senator Joe Manchin read off a list of many individuals in the Trump orbit, asking if each one met with Russians and requesting a response of yes or no. He was met with a repeated refrain from Sessions: "I don't recall."
- Another thing Session isn't a fan of: rapid-fire questioning. Once again, Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, showed her questioning prowess. Sessions was definitely thrown for a loop by it, saying, "I'm not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous."
- And finally, John McCain's appearance this time was a bit more lively. He took the opportunity to put forth a line of questioning about Russia and Syria, which ultimately demonstrated that the attorney general doesn't care much for international relations.