Attorney General Jeff Sessions huffed his way through three hours of testimony before the Senate on Tuesday, turning in a bravura performance of the Trump administration’s preferred tactic of pretending to answer questions that no one was asking and dodging the ones that are actually crucial to our democracy. The list of things Mr. Sessions wouldn’t discuss on the theory that the president might someday invoke executive privilege about them was long, including whether President Donald Trump told him in advance that he was firing then-FBI director James Comey over his handling of the “Russia thing,” whether the president had expressed anger over Mr. Sessions ostensible recusal from Russia investigation-related matters, whether he was surprised when the president threw his and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s explanations of the Comey firing under the bus and even whether an actual written policy exists for him to recuse himself in situations like the one he confronted Tuesday.
Perhaps the one nugget he added to the discourse was an effort to push back on what may have been among the least explosive bits of Mr. Comey’s testimony.
The former director said that after an uncomfortable one-on-one Oval Office meeting in which Mr. Trump urged him to drop an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russians and other foreign actors, he asked that Mr. Sessions not leave him alone with the president again. Mr. Sessions didn’t rebut any of that. What he did rebut was Mr. Comey’s assertion that he did not respond, saying instead that he told him “the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contact with the White House.’’
That was of a piece with Mr. Sessions evident purpose for coming to Capitol Hill. He had no desire to use his testimony to cast light on a disturbing chain of events that at the very least involve a hostile foreign government trying to influence the election and at worst the collusion of associates of the president in that effort.
Rather, he wanted to defend his personal honor in front of his former Senate colleagues against the “detestable” lies he claimed are being told about him. But his personal honor is a sideshow in this whole matter. Senators didn’t call him to testify because they believe he was the mastermind of the Trump-Kremlin axis. They wanted answers about his involvement in and knowledge of Mr. Comey’s firing, the legitimacy of his recusal from the Russia investigation and his previous failure to disclose his own contacts during the campaign with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. On all three, he was evasive, contradictory and defensive.
Mr. Sessions said he had concluded long before Mr. Trump decided to fire Mr. Comey that new leadership was needed at the FBI for the reasons Mr. Rosenstein laid out in a memo — that he had made inappropriate public statements about the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But at other times, he said he trusted Mr. Comey’s ability to handle himself as a professional. He would not discuss his conversations about the matter with the president and would not even say whether he was surprised when, shortly after his own memo agreeing with Mr. Rosenstein’s reasoning was trotted out by the White House as justification for the firing, Mr. Trump confirmed in a television interview and to Russian officials in the Oval Office that the real reason was Mr. Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation. He claimed that his recusal had nothing to do with his own failure to disclose meetings with Mr. Kislyak — absurd, given the context when he made the decision — and flailed at trying to square his lack of involvement in Russia matters with his role in firing Mr. Comey for his handling thereof.
As for his own contacts with the Russians, we learned through his testimony that Mr. Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement official, is easily flustered by people asking straightforward questions. He claims he didn’t mention his meetings with Mr. Kislyak during his confirmation hearing because he was rattled by a question from Sen. Al Franken. And on Tuesday, he complained that Sen. Kamala Harris of California was making him “nervous” when she tried to make him quit stalling and actually answer the questions she had asked.
The upshot was that he remains unable to remember anything of substance about his interactions with the Russians — including whether he might have run into Mr. Kislyak a third time during the campaign. This, of course, did not stop him from asserting that he had done nothing wrong.
We had little hope that Mr. Sessions’ testimony would advance the investigation, and we weren’t surprised by its uselessness. It was a piece of theater designed to buck up the president’s base and offer cover for the see-no-evil Trump apologists on Capitol Hill. To get real answers, senators, and the American public, are going to have to look elsewhere.
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