Attorney General Jeff Sessions took an unusual path to the witness table before Wednesday’s Justice Department oversight hearing. He looped behind the dais to smile and shake the hands of his former Senate Judiciary Committee colleagues and pat them on the shoulder.
But the next four hours made it clear that congeniality has faded for the former Alabama Republican senator. Democrats lectured him on immigration policy, questioned his truthfulness in previous testimony about Russia and criticized his implementation of the Trump administration’s conservative policies.
“Give me a break,” Sessions implored Chairman Charles E. Grassley at one point during questioning from Minnesota Democrat Al Franken. “I don’t have to sit in here and listen to his charges without having a chance to respond.”
Franken had been detailing Sessions’ previous statements about meeting with Russians during the 2016 presidential election, when Sessions was part of President Donald Trump’s campaign. During his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions told the committee he had not met with any Russians. He later acknowledged he had met with the Russian ambassador three times.
Senators Spend Time Bickering Over Time at Sessions Hearing
The truthfulness of that January testimony was a theme Sen. Patrick J. Leahy used to drill Sessions like a prosecutor cross-examining a defendant caught between conflicting statements.
“We have known each other for decades. We’ve worked together on many issues,” the Vermont Democrat said. “If Sen. Jeff Sessions was in my shoes and he asked a question, he wouldn’t tolerate being misled. So, do you understand why your answer ‘no’ was false testimony?”
Leahy wasn’t the only one evoking the reputation of the dogged and insistent former senator, even as Sessions sometimes dodged answering questions Wednesday during his first oversight hearing as attorney general.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin appeared to be incredulous when Sessions declined to answer his question about whether Sessions had communicated with the Texas attorney general before a Trump administration decision to end an Obama-era program that provides deportation relief to undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
“I think this would have been just about the moment when Sen. Sessions of Alabama would have blown up if the attorney general said he can’t even tell us if he communicated with another attorney general in another state,” the Illinois Democrat said.
By the end of an exchange, Durbin used his index finger to alternatively strike the dais and point at Sessions while delivering a lecture about the attorney general’s efforts to withhold federal grant funds because Chicago is a so-called sanctuary jurisdiction that doesn’t fully cooperate with federal immigration officials.
“You want to cut off federal funds for that city and come here and criticize the murder rate,” Durbin said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Sessions several times leaned on what he called his “former colleagues and friends” to build goodwill in the committee hearing room. He used the word “friends” as he told the panel that Trump wants to work with Congress on changes to immigration laws.
“But we have got to have more than just amnesty, friends, we need a good improvement in the illegality that’s going on and there is an opportunity right now, I’m telling you, an opportunity now to do something historic,” Sessions said.
Republicans were more welcoming. “We miss you on this side of the dais,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said.
Grassley slipped and called him “Sen. Sessions” several times.
“I just want to say I’m proud of the job you’ve done as attorney general. You’re still the same person of character and committed to the rule of law,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said. “Serving in public life sometimes is not fun, and certainly you’ve caught your own slings and arrows in the process.”
But such a pep talk highlighted how Sessions’ lingering bipartisan goodwill from former colleagues has slipped away in the distance after 10 months out of the Senate, compounded by controversial actions that include recommending Trump fire James B. Comey as FBI director and reversing course on Justice Department positions in key voting rights and LGBT rights cases.
What hasn’t faded: Sessions remains a stubborn and vocal defender of his reputation and his policies on the administration’s travel ban, fighting terrorism, battling rising crime, stopping the deadly drug epidemic and enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.
The most awkward moments came when the attorney general was pressed about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the election. In a bit of a stilted exchange with Leahy early in the hearing, Sessions testified that he had not been interviewed by Mueller.
Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal asked him whether Mueller had requested such an interview or testimony. And Sessions kept dodging.
“Well, you know, maybe we should just leave that with the special counsel,” the attorney general said. Later, he said, “I’m not aware of it.”
Sessions tried to turn the tables on Blumenthal: “You seem to know. Do you have a source?”
“Well, Mr. Attorney General, with all due respect, you’re the one answering questions here today,” Blumenthal said.
For all the animated exchanges, the most telling might have come after a line Leahy delivered with a lowered voice. He asked what Sessions knew when he signed off on a May 9 memo that tied a recommendation to fire Comey to the handling of an investigation of Hillary Clinton.
Leahy said Trump himself had said Comey’s dismissal was over the Russia investigation and the Clinton matter was a pretext.
Sessions declined to answer, saying his communications with the president were privileged.
“My concern is you were part of the Russian facade and went along. And I’m sorry, I’ve known you for years, and I’m sorry you’d do that,” Leahy said.
Sessions got a chance to reply a few moments later. “I did serve a long time under your chairmanship, so it did hurt me to say you think I’m part of a facade,” Sessions said. “I’m not part of a facade.”