Attorney General Jeff Sessions rode his high horse into Tuesday’s hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is to say, he came mounted on a stolen steed.
Sessions talked like a man who was somehow being smeared.
“I recused myself from any investigation into the campaign for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” Sessions said.
It called to mind a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson: The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons. Sessions’ recusal came about after he, as the attorney general-designate, assured the Senate under oath that, as a Trump surrogate, he hadn’t had communications with any Russians. It then came out that Sessions had in fact had two campaign-era meetings with Sergey Kislyak, who, as the Russian ambassador to the United States, does seem to qualify as a Russian.
Sessions explained the inconsistency by saying he had met with Kislyak not as a Trump surrogate but rather as the senator from Alabama. (And who knows, perhaps Kislyak wasn’t acting in his capacity as a Russian, but merely, say, a foreigner seeking sightseeing tips.) In the end, with controversy brewing, Sessions recused himself from having anything to do with the Russia probe.
Except, as we now know, he didn’t. Not when it came to the firing of the man who led it. That, of course, would be then-FBI Director James Comey. Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with the president on May 8 and helped him, well, trump up a reason to dismiss Comey. The Sessions-Rosenstein cover story — that Comey hadn’t followed proper procedure in the probe of Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server — survived for two days before the president himself admitted he had had the Russia investigation on his mind when nixing the FBI director.
Noting Trump’s own comments, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, asked if Sessions agreed that the Russia investigation was the real reason for Comey’s firing.
“I guess I just have to let his words speak for himself,” Sessions replied.
Did he and Trump ever discuss Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation?
“That would call for a communication between the attorney general and the president,” Sessions said, “and I am not able to comment on that” — an answer he reverted to any number of times.
Senator Angus King, Independent of Maine, pressed the attorney general on why he was declining to respond. Was the president asserting executive privilege? He was not, Sessions said. Well, then, King continued, why wouldn’t Sessions answer?
Sessions tried to take King for a run around the barn, saying it would be premature for him to answer, because that might co-opt a future decision by the president to exert executive privilege. Thus the AG was essentially refusing to answer a question based on the notion of executive privilege, even while saying the president was not invoking that privilege. (Call it the executive privilege that dares not speak its name.)
This, as Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico noted, was the same line that National Security Agency director Mike Rogers and director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently took before the committee. Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, called it what it was: stonewalling.
That’s obviously become the Trump administration’s real posture toward Congress’s oversight effort — and that reality shouldn’t be lost on anyone.