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Five questions Jeff Sessions may have to face

June 13, 2017 11:37 AM
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Five questions Jeff Sessions may have to face

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions' appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday is the biggest thing to hit Washington since, uh, last week.

OK, so the sequel to the James Comey hearing doesn't have the same build-up as the original, but that doesn't mean that there won't be fireworks - or that the proceedings can't cause new headaches for the Trump administration.

In a way, the attorney general's hearing is likely to be a mirror image of Mr Comey's, with Republicans lobbing friendly questions while Democrats sharpen their knives.

During his confirmation hearings in January, Mr Sessions answered this question with a negative - then had to plead a faulty memory when it was revealed that this was not, shall we say, an accurate account.

Then-Senator Sessions had indeed had two meetings with Mr Kislyak. He visited with the ambassador - who is considered by some to be the top Russian spymaster in the US - around the time of the Republican convention, and he later hosted him in his Senate office.

This may have been the "facts" that Mr Comey was hinting at during last week's testimony when asked about Mr Sessions.

"He was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons," the former FBI director said. "We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic."

It was one of the more dramatic passages in Mr Comey's written statement last week - his revelation of a meeting in the White House on 14 February where Mr Trump told him he hoped he could let Flynn go.

"The President signalled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone," Mr Comey wrote.

"I stayed in my chair. As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the Attorney General lingered by my chair, but the president thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me."

During his testimony Mr Comey described how he remembered Mr Sessions responding to the request.

"His body language gave me the sense, like, 'What am I going to do?'" he said.

Will Mr Sessions corroborate this account? Does he know anything more about what took place? If so, it could help bolster the contention that the president understood the pressure he planned to put on the then-director in private was improper, at best.

Mr Comey wrote in his statement that after the awkward meeting with the president, in which he said that the former national security advisor Michael Flynn was a "good guy" but never told the president he would back off the investigation, the director reached out to Mr Sessions to express his concern.

"I took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the president and me," Mr Comey recalled. "I told the AG (attorney general) that what had just happened - him being asked to leave while the FBI director, who reports to the AG, remained behind - was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply."

Mr Sessions will have another chance to reply on Tuesday - or challenge the veracity of the former director's testimony - and a great many more people than Mr Comey will be listening.

When Mr Comey's firing was announced by the White House, the action was initially explained as the end result of a review process initiated within the Justice Department.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo detailing the then-director's mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server while she was secretary of state. Mr Sessions then forwarded the memo to the president, with his recommendation that Mr Comey be terminated. Mr Trump then accepted conclusion.

All that, of course, was blown out of the water when Mr Trump told a television interviewer that he had always planned to fire Mr Comey and that the ongoing Russia investigation was in his mind when he made the decision.

Given that Mr Sessions had officially recused himself from his department's Russia probe, the attorney general's involvement in a firing that now appears to have been motivated, at least in part, by Mr Comey's direction of the Russia probe has raised some eyebrows.

"Attorney General Sessions should not have had any involvement in this decision at all," Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota said. "He recused himself. And yet he inserted himself in this firing."

A Justice Department spokesman has pushed back against these allegations in an email statement to the press.

"The recommendation to remove Director Comey was a personnel decision based on concerns about the effectiveness of his leadership as set forth in the Attorney General's letter," Sarah Isgur Flores writes. "The recommendation had nothing to do with the substance of any investigation."

Mr Sessions has the opportunity to add some clarity to the process behind Mr Comey's firing - or seek the protection of executive privilege, claiming that his private conversations with the president are legally shielded from outside scrutiny.

Ever since the Mr Trump tweeted that Mr Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" everyone in the Trump administration, from the president on down, has been asked if they have any knowledge of whether such recordings exist.

The president himself has been cryptic, saying last week that he would make an announcement in a "very short period of time".

"Oh, you're going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer," he added. "Don't worry."

When asked on Monday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the president had been clear in his statement and he had nothing to add.

Mr Sessions probably will be equally unhelpful, but that doesn't mean he won't be asked. And how he responds, even in a denial, could be plenty interesting.


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