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Sessions employs a novel tactic in Senate hearing, thereby ducking many questions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reacting angrily to questions from Sen. Ron Wyden as he's testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday.

If you're piloting an airplane held together by baling wire and chewing gum, and you have no actual training at piloting an airplane, any day that you don’t lose a wing or a propeller must feel like a good day.

Against that standard, maybe Tuesday was a good day for President Trump.

His still-acting-loyal (despite rumors that Trump is ready to dump him) Attorney General Jeff Sessions did a pretty good job for his boss yesterday, or at least it’s hard to see that he made anything worse for the president.

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions made relatively few damaging admissions, in part by declining to answer certain perfectly fair and relevant questions. He avoided many of those questions by invoking a relatively new way of ducking questions, namely: Instead of literally invoking “executive privilege” (the right of a president to have confidential conversations with members of the executive branch), Sessions relied on the relatively novel theory that he couldn’t invoke executive privilege – only the president can do that, and President Donald Trump has not done so.

Not invoking executive privilege, but ...

So Sessions claimed he couldn’t respond to various questions about his conversations with Trump because, although neither he nor Trump was invoking executive privilege, the president might subsequently wish to invoke executive privilege to prevent him from answering. And, if Sessions had already answered, it would be too late.

Did you follow that? You might want to read that previous paragraph again slowly, because I can’t figure out a cleaner explanation.

I don’t know how novel this dodge was. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin seemed to think it was a new one. But it managed to get Sessions past many questions, the answers to which might have been embarrassing, without putting the blame on the president for actually invoking the privilege and therefore looking like he was hiding something. Slick or too slick? You decide.

Sen. Martin Heinrichs, D-New Mexico, thought it was too slick, and accused Sessions of both “obstructing” and “impeding” the congressional investigation by his refusal to answer so many questions.

Rep. Schiff's view

There is, by the way, a possible work-around for the Catch-22 that Sessions’ tactic presented, which was suggested later in the day on TV by Rep. Adam Schiff. If the committee really wants to know about one of Sessions' conversations with Trump, they should submit the question in writing and insist that Sessions either get Trump’s permission to testify about it, or get him to actually assert executive privilege (and bear whatever blame goes with that).

Sessions did, in his angriest moment, invoke a sort-of personal privilege. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, pointed out that fired FBI Director James Comey, in his previous testimony to the same committee, had suggested that Sessions had certain matters that he, Comey, knew about but couldn’t discuss in a public setting, but which cast some shadow over Sessions' relationship to the Russia inquiry. What problem was that, Wyden asked Sessions?

Sessions, in high dudgeon, demanded:

Why don’t you tell me. There are none, Sen. Wyden. there are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty. This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me and I don't appreciate it. I've tried to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I’ve appeared before.

Without having any clear idea what Comey might have been referencing, and without assuming either way whether Sessions was hiding something to which Comey was alluding, I guess I have some sympathy for Sessions taking offense at Wyden’s question. And “secret innuendo” has a certain flair. Maybe someday we’ll find out what Comey meant and whether Sessions is so innocent.

Reed's questioning and Sessions' worst moment

Sessions’ worst moment, in my view, occurred late in the hearing under questioning by Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island. Reed asked Sessions about the argument Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had made in his now famous memo offering Trump reasons to fire Comey. Rosenstein relied on Comey’s infamous handling of his investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and his decision late in the campaign to announce that he was reopening the investigation. (As you probably know, Clinton and many of her supporters blame Comey’s remarks for costing her the election.)

Sessions interjected that Comey had indeed botched that, and he agreed with Rosenstein that this was a good reason for Trump to have fired Comey.

But Reed reminded Sessions that, at the time Comey announced his reopening of the case, Sessions publicly praised Comey for exactly the conduct that he now says justified Trump’s decision to fire Comey.

Uh-oh. Here’s how that came down during the hearing:

Sen. Reed: “Excuse me, sir, on July 7th when Mr. Comey made his first announcement about the [Clinton e-mail] case, you were on Fox News, and you said, first of all, director Comey is a skilled former prosecutor and then you concluded by saying essentially that it's not his problem. It's Hillary Clinton's problem.

Then in November, on November 6th, after Mr. Comey again made news in late October by reopening the investigation, you said, again, on Fox News: FBI Director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence. He had no choice but to report it to the American Congress where he had under oath testified the investigation was over. He had to correct that and say this investigation was ongoing now. I'm sure it's significant, or else he wouldn't have announced that.

So in July and November Director Comey was doing exactly the right thing. You had no criticism of him. You felt that in fact he was a skilled professional prosecutor. You felt that his last statement in October was fully justified, so how can you go from those statements to agreeing with Mr. Rosenstein and then asking the president or recommending that he be fired?”

Sen. Sessions: “I think in retrospect, as all of us began to look at that clearly and talk about it as perspectives of the Department of Justice, once the director first got involved and embroiled in a public discussion of this investigation, which would have been better never to have been discussed publicly, and said it was over. Then when he found new evidence that came up, I think he probably was required to tell Congress that it wasn't over, that new evidence had been developed. It probably would have been better and would have been consistent with the rules of the Department of Justice to never have talked about the investigation to begin with. Once you get down that road, that's the kind of thing that you get into that went against classical prosecuting policies that I learned and was taught when I was United States attorney and assistant United States attorney.”

REED: “If I may ask another question. Your whole premise in recommending to the president [that he fire Comey] was the actions in October involving Secretary of State Clinton, the whole Clinton controversy. Did you feel misled when the president announced that his real reason for dismissing Mr. Comey was the Russia investigation?”

SESSIONS: “I don't have — I'm not able to characterize that fact. I wouldn't try to comment on that.”

This is a really great gotcha by Reed, which exposes Sessions as a political changeling whose principles shift to fit the political needs of the moment.

Hannity's take

Lastly, as I did the other night as a brake on my own anti-Trump sentiments, I offer the words of Sean Hannity as he opened last night’s fulmination on Fox: 

The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, obliterates the left and their black-helicopter tin-foil-hat Russia collusion conspiracy theories and slams the Democrats for spreading detestable lies during his very, very powerful Senate testimony earlier today. …

Jeff Sessions' testimony today a huge win for President Trump and his administration as they continue to fight back against the unprecedented attacks against them. And that is tonight’s very important monologue.

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Comments (18)

With wins like that

Trump and Sessions don't need losses.
And Sessions' convenient memory gaps could be interpreted as signs of senile dementia, which would disqualify him from public office.

Mr. Brandon:

How true - how true! Nobody could have stated it better. How anyone could view Sessons' testimony as a win for the Trump administration is FAR beyond me. But then, everything that has transpired since before and after Election Day of 2016 is FAR beyond me to say the least.

At least AG Sessions showed up and debunked

the fantasy that he colluded with the Russians. No Susan Rice, Eric Holder was found in contempt for lying, Lois Lerner took the 5th, Fast N Ferious supervisors pleaded executive privilege..... The list of folks who never showed up in the past 8 years is long. Now that the collusion piece is falling apart, I see the story is executive privilege and not answering certain questions is AG Sessions crime.

The real crime is a failing ACA, hurting working Americans and not getting tax reform to help those same working Americans.

Query

Just out of curiosity: you do know that Barack Obama is no longer President, right? And that he hasn't been President for nearly five months? And that all of the "scandals" you are rehashing happened some time ago? They're over--it's really time to move on, if you can. If you can't, time to ind your safe place.

Frankly, it speaks volumes that your only defense of the junta in Washington is that Obama's people did something else.

"Now that the collusion piece is falling apart . . ." Well, no. Self-serving denials/failures to recall are not signs that something is "falling apart." "I see the story is executive privilege and not answering certain questions is AG Sessions crime." No one has accused him of a "crime," except perhaps that conservatives regard anything other than uncritical acceptance of anything their people say as a mean, spiteful, and baseless accusation.

The ACA now called Trumpcare

Trump signed the Executive Order to repeal and replace the ACA, the GOP now owns it and it is called Trumpcare. Trump put his stamp of disapproval on the current version of Trumpcare yesterday by calling the current version "Mean". If Trump calls it "Mean" you know it's Mean. It is not the Democrats that have cause the GOP to be unable to pass anything sensible. It is the GOP's dysfunction causing America the heartburn about healthcare. You are right it is a real crime the GOP dog caught the car it has been chasing for the last eight years and now the GOP doesn't know what to do with it. You would think after seven or more years of total distain for the ACA the GOP had ample time and ideas to sign their top notch healthcare bill into law on day one of Trump's presidency. In the frequently used word used by the President at the end of his tweets, Sad!

I don't think 'debunk' means what you think it means

Sessions only said what he wanted to say. He refused to answer any questions he didn't like. That's not "debunking". It's called a "cover up".

What happen to Trump and Russian collusion?

I think there is more evidence of the Obama surveillance and unwarranted unmasking of the Trump campaign than there is of Trump collusion with Russia.

In fact, it is interesting the Mr. Black seems to have forgot the original question that needs to be answered- collusions with Russia.

The best questions came from Senator Tom Cotton as he put in perspective the futile and outrages democratic talking points about Russia and collusion.

Yeah, Sen. Cotton sure had the best questions.

My favorite was asking Sessions..."do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond movies?" He was quite the pitbull. I'm surprised that he didn't share favorite BBQ rub recipes with him.

need to invite Mr. Sessions back to testify under oath

clearly Mr. Sessions needs to be invited back to testify under oath. And if he is not forthcoming, he should be found in contempt of Congress, subjected to what ever sanctions afforded by law.

BTW, Mr. Black, please don't feel obligated to "balance" your article with quotes of drivel from Sean Hannity. You offer interesting, informative coherent analysis and opinion. He does not. There is no equivalence.

Re-Invitation

Before Sessions come back, the committee should ask the President if he intends to claim executive privilege, and if so, which discussions or communications are regarded as privileged. Only the President can assert executive privilege.

And you're right.about Hannity. The balance he provides could be obtained from any disturbed person ranting on a street corner.

It seems more and more evident

…that Mr. Hannity and the media outlets that think he has important and truthful things to say are, to phrase it politely, detached from reality. Simply by reading the questions and the testimony offered in response, it seems obvious that Mr. Sessions is squirming, and rightly so, at the "gotcha" question from Senator Reed. That exchange does precisely what Eric suggests: it exposes Sessions as a "political changeling," with legal and ethical principles that are, to be polite once again, exceedingly flexible. Or, if you're less polite, Sessions is merely another political opportunist in an administration which demands the kind of loyalty to its leader that used to be confined to monarchs and tin-pot dictators.

No one who watched Sessions

No one who watched Sessions yesterday can say, with a straight face, that he said anything at all.

He did offer up a puff-toad blowing of hot air about his "honor" while lying about the reason he recused himself from all Justice Dept. matters concerning Russia and the Trump campaign (maybe Trump supporters don't pay close attention, but Sessions did NOT recuse himself because he'd simply been part of Trump's campaign; it was the Russian tie, plus the fact that he had lied about his Russian ties during his confirmation hearing with the Senate Judiciary Cte. I repeat: he had lied to the Judiciary Committee.).

He was under oath, too! Protecting the President by refusing to say anything, and thus protecting his own current job as Atty. General.

So sad and squirmy a scene! What amazes me is that the Trump team thinks we're all really stupid and unable to see the tricks they're trying to pull.

Everyone should go back and watch again the calm, frank, thorough, rational testimony given--without notes or an attorney at his side--that Comey gave a week ago. What a contrast.

The hocus-pocus approach

The hocus-pocus approach to the law, both in following it and making it, has completely enveloped the Republican Party now that we must deal with everything Trump on top of their usual MO of paupering the populace.

If Hannity was pleased

It must've been really bad.

The Trump effect cloud hangs over the US

All Jeff Sessions did for me yesterday was raise my suspicions about the Trump administration and their reasoning for firing Director Comey and their Russian connections. Sessions, who thinks there is a policy about not answering questions in congressional investigations, is laughable.

Several days prior to yesterday’s hearing the National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats all avoided talking about conversations they may have had with Comey. Add in Sessions’ stonewalling and it leads me to believe there is nefarious activity going on in the Trump administration. Director Roger has since testified in a closed session, so we will never know what his answers were.

The Trump effect cloud hangs over the entire US with the Trump administration’s shady answers, stonewalling, no significant accomplishments, and healthcare legislation that even Trump calls “Mean”. So, you know it is bad. I don't have any confidence in this administration’s ability to govern the country.

The GOP nervousness is starting to show and rightfully so. What an embarrassment for the GOP having total control of the government and they can’t get anything accomplished..

And then there's his day job

"The mission of the Office of the Attorney General is to supervise and direct the administration and operation of the Department of Justice, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Bureau of Prisons, Office of Justice Programs, and the U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Marshals Service, which are all within the Department of Justice.

"The principal duties of the Attorney General are to:

"Represent the United States in legal matters.

"Supervise and direct the administration and operation of the offices, boards, divisions, and bureaus that comprise the Department.

"Furnish advice and opinions, formal and informal, on legal matters to the President and the Cabinet and to the heads of the executive departments and agencies of the government, as provided by law.

"Make recommendations to the President concerning appointments to federal judicial positions and to positions within the Department, including U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Marshals.

"Represent or supervise the representation of the United States Government in the Supreme Court of the United States and all other courts, foreign and domestic, in which the United States is a party or has an interest as may be deemed appropriate.

"Perform or supervise the performance of other duties required by statute or Executive Order."

www.justice.gov/jmd/organization-mission-and-functions-manual-attorney-g...

Had his resume consisted of various news clips of his comments, policy stances and an "accomplishments summary" from his years in the Senate . . . and had his testimony yesterday been his end of the job interview I was doing because I was responsible for the hiring decision . . . it probably wouldn't have taken more than three or four minutes to conclude he wasn't up for the job.

And it probably wouldn't have taken much longer to wonder if he'd even bothered to read the job description before he applied and how he made it through the initial screening process.

That, of course, got me to wondering if the president knew (or knows yet) what the Attorney General is actually supposed to do (between undocumented mother roundups, Congressional hearings and firing strategy meetings) before he gave him the job.

I guess it's just more compound proof of the truth in the ancient American saying, "Good help is hard to find."

Why the euphemism?

“Novel tactic”? Sessions simply was stonewalling, with a rationale that assuredly neither he nor anyone else in the room considered more than laughable. He was not just refusing to perform, but making a mockery of, his obligation as the chief legal officer of the United States to assist the legislature in its oversight of the executive.

A group of folks is aiming to put the fork in democracy and install an autocratic government in which they hold the power. They are daring the country to try and stop them. That’s the story.

Sessions

He didn't "remembah" speaking to the Russians...but he did "remembah" that they didn't talk about anything of substance....Not sure why no one called him on that one.