Sessions' Day In Court
If former FBI director James Comey’s testimony was le plat de resistance, the much-awaited main dish that had America licking its lips, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ was le fromage puant—a second course of stinky-cheese. For five days, Washington bounced in anticipation and simmered with speculation to hear what Sessions had to say. He was scheduled to testify before a senate sub-committee organized on Capitol Hill. The thought was that he would corroborate or repudiate much of what Comey had just declaimed. Added to the anticipation was the fact that Sessions and President Trump’s relationship had lately been on the rocks. Whispers of a growing rift between the two had been wafting in the air for some time. This added to what might’ve been a second act of high drama. Sessions could have closed the chasm and found himself again in Trump’s temporary high regard, or enflamed the controversy and estranged himself for eternity.
Where we were expecting a firework, we found little more than a dud. Sessions’ performance turned out to be an underwhelming and, frankly, inutile affair. He served his congressional inquisitors before him a steady diet of demurrals, evasion, and indignation. He acted in a manner of pure defense and survival, like a soldier caught before a hostile audience. He remonstrated profusely against the most damning parts of Comey’s testimony. He swatted away many questions and swallowed just as many answers. For the most part, he stymied all inquiries raised about conversations he’d held with President Trump. The committee wanted to learn more about the things Trump might’ve confided in him pertaining to Comey’s firing and the Russia investigation. The objective in doing this was to corroborate Comey’s incendiary account.
Instead of playing ball, Sessions leaned on what’s known as “executive privilege”. It’s a useful little shield that immunizes members of the executive branch from testifying against their boss—President Trump, in this case. It’s an expedient gadget for the person employing it, and a salvific blessing for the person whose protection it guarantees. But above all else, it’s a nuisance for those doing the digging and searching for answers.
So while Sessions dallied with this privilege, he provoked the frustrations of an impatient sub-committee. They asked him time and again by what right he had to persist in so unforthcoming a way. Reliably, Sessions retreated to the bastion executive privilege, as outlined above. The problem with this, however, was that it wasn’t clear if Sessions was employing the privilege properly. As a member of the executive branch, Sessions could have independently invoked the privilege without first addressing the situation with President Trump. He instead told the committee that he was protecting information that the president might, in theory, want concealed. It was all a bit more theoretical than actual. There was no substantive reason for him to do this. President Trump could’ve proactively declared executive privilege and Sessions’ would’ve been in the clear.
What ultimately came of the day were tired tergiversations without meaning or value. Sessions avoided answering most of the questions asked of him. Many of the questions had the potential to rebuke or prove James Comey’s testimony. They were urgently relevant to the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing and Russia’s involvement in the whole mess. It was a situation in which Sessions’ voice could’ve un-muddied the waters unlike anyone else’s.
But the swamp remains murky. Democratic senators, who were at first displeased and then exasperated at having been made to stand in the dark for so long, became unkind toward their former colleague. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) assailed Sessions for impeding the investigation and obstructing justice—both formidable charges. Kamala Harris (D-CA) took a different approach. She fired off a salvo of questions with polished prosecutorial rapidity, in what seemed to be an attempt catch Sessions unwittingly in a lie. In responding to Harris’ flurry of questions poisoned with “perjury” on their tips, Sessions meekly replied, “I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous”. It wasn’t an especially heroic courtroom rejoinder, but—meek and bathetic though it was—it probably saved Sessions’ skin.
This is perhaps the greatest risk any number of Trump administration officials run during hearings like this (and doubtless, there are bound to be more). By continuously responding with a phrase like, “I don’t recall…” (which Sessions did over and again to everyone’s consternation), he protects himself from an unforced error. It’s evasive and costive, but self-preserving and affective. It’s one sure way to be protected against accusations of perjury destined to come down the road.
Republican senators, for their part, were far less churlish than the Democrats in questioning Sessions. Evidence of this abounded, but no more so than when Tom Cotton took the floor. The Arkansas Republican squandered precious time, thinking it better to talk at length about spy films. He likened the circumstances surrounding Sessions’ meeting with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak as something out of the annals of literary espionage. It was a droning digression, but one Sessions surely welcomed. Cotton’s point might have been more succinctly made—and with less frivolity—had he not beaten his point with so heavy a hammer. But, at least, his point wasn’t lost. It’s highly unlikely, as Cotton pointed out, that Jeff Sessions—armed only with his innocuous charm and ingenuous Southern cordiality—orchestrated Russia’s meddling scheme behind everyone’s back. It’s an unlikelihood that Democrats have been slow to consider, let alone accept.
With this, the open hearing concluded. All attendees then transitioned to an adjoining room where a closed session was set to begin. Not being privy to goings-on inside those doors, one can safely bet it was more of the same: Sessions dodging, Democrats castigating—on camera or off, some things don’t change.