Beleaguered Attorney General Jeff Sessions, recused from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the firing of FBI Director James Comey, faced the lions before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week and survived with barely a scratch.
For more than two hours before the television cameras on Capitol Hill, the wide-eyed former Alabama senator clung to his script of non-involvement. He said his meetings with the Russian ambassador during and after the campaign had nothing to do with pressures of what President Donald Trump has termed the “Russian thing" that has created a "cloud" hanging over his presidency.
Mr. Sessions indignantly characterized the whole business as a despicable "witch hunt." He refused to disclose private conversations with Mr. Trump, citing Justice Department policy protecting a president's rights of privacy in conversations with cabinet and other policy advisers.
Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon noted that Mr. Sessions was relying on an "executive privilege" of the presidency not articulated by Mr. Trump, but he heatedly maintained his position.
As for his publicly recusing himself from the committee investigation while supporting Mr. Trump's firing of Mr. Comey, Mr. Sessions insisted he had not recused himself from his responsibility to lead the Justice Department. He said he had already concluded that Mr. Comey had violated department policy in his public acquittal of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in her email quandary.
Mr. Sessions, who early on was Mr. Trump's campaign manager for the Republican presidential nomination, told the Senate Intelligence Committee: "I recused myself from any investigation into the campaigns for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations. The recusal covered one case in the Department of Justice and the FBI."
He went on: "I'm the attorney general of the United States. It's my responsibility to ensure that the department is run properly. I do not believe it is a sound position that if you recuse from a single case, you can't make a decision about the leadership of that agency." He said he told Mr. Comey "that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contact with the White House."
Mr. Wyden expressed skepticism, telling Mr. Sessions about his evasions of committee questions: "I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don't want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged or off limits. We are talking about an attack on our democratic values, and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable." Mr. Sessions vigorously replied: "I'm not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice."
Mr. Trump, in a most revealing interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt, had earlier said he had the handling of “the Russian thing" in mind when he decided on his own to fire Mr. Comey. He had suggested earlier that it was Mr. Comey's conduct in dealing with Hillary Clinton's emails that had triggered the FBI director's removal.
In any event, Mr. Session's eventual testimony did not so much shed any light on his relations with the Russians as it did on the sharp divide between the partially recused attorney general and Mr. Comey, in adherence to longstanding principles and policies of the Department of Justice, to which both men pledged their firm allegiance.
Concerning Mr. Trump's reported suggestion to Mr. Comey that he should "let go" of the criminal investigation into National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, Mr. Comey said, "I took it as a very disturbing thing," adding "but that's a conclusion I'm sure the special counsel will work toward, to try to understand what the intention was there, and whether that's an offense."
Mr. Sessions thus came through his testimony reinforced as an early committed soldier and loyalist in the Donald Trump conservative army. As for Mr. Comey, he remains a shrewd and calculating defender of the rule of law and its instruments, positioned to defend them against a president he sees as an unprincipled political opportunist in a highly dangerous time for the country.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.