Critic's Notebook: Jeff Sessions Dodges and Demurs His Way Through Senate Testimony
The alternate questioning of the epically evasive attorney general by Republicans and Democrats had the feel of the most elaborate good cop/bad cop routine ever.
It’s unfair to say that the Trump administration is failing to make any progress. It usually takes years for a presidency to be embroiled in scandal and investigative hearings. Donald Trump has managed to do it all before the six-month mark.
The latest episode of As the Administration Turns featured Attorney General Jeff Sessions — or, as I prefer to call him, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III — testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. These hearings, which included last week’s dramatic appearance by former FBI director James Comey, are the place to be seen in Washington these days.
If you were expecting any dramatic revelations in the hearing, which lasted two-and-a-half hours, you were left sorely disappointed. Sessions is too canny and experienced to let himself get tripped up. He dodged and weaved through the questioning like Muhammad Ali in his prime, and invoked such phrases as “To the best of my recollection,” “I don’t recall” and “I can’t remember” with such frequency that it made you think he should consult a neurologist. Mafia dons have been more forthcoming in their testimony.
Sessions also refused to answer many questions concerning his interactions with President Trump. He didn’t claim executive privilege, mind you, since he has no legal right to do that. Rather, he mentioned some mysterious Department of Justice policy that precluded him from answering such queries on the grounds that he was “protecting the president’s right” to assert executive privilege at some point in the future.
When California Sen. Kamala Harris asked if that policy was written down somewhere, Sessions replied weakly, “I think so.” It’s more likely that he, along with everyone else in Trump’s orbit, was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement. And a prenup. It’s not the Oval Office — it’s the Cone of Silence.
It was nice of Sessions to take the time to appear, considering how busy he is locking up non-violent drug offenders and throwing away the key. He began with an opening statement in which he denied any personal collusion with the Russians, saying that it was “an appalling and detestable lie.” The assertion was delivered with suitable dramatic outrage, although it would have been even more effective if he had begun by fanning himself and saying, "Why, I do declare!”
Before the questioning started, committee chairman and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr expressed hope that the senators wouldn’t “take partisan or political shots.” Yeah, right. The Democrats all treated Sessions with varying degrees of skepticism, disbelief and outright hostility. The Republicans, on the other hand, gently guided him through such softball queries that Sessions often felt compelled to thank them. Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt took the opportunity to compliment Sessions’ wife, who was in attendance, and praise the enduring strength of their marriage. He stopped only short of asking if he could draw Sessions a warm bath and offering him a mint julep.
Much was made of Sessions’ meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a reception at the Mayflower Hotel. The Republican questioners characterized it as an innocent encounter in a crowded ballroom; the Democrats all but implied that the two men had booked a room before dessert.
One of the main lines of inquiry involved Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s now-famous memo advising the president to fire Comey, which Sessions wholeheartedly endorsed. Sessions doubled down on his assertion that Comey had to go because of his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton investigation. Because, as we all know, what keeps Republicans up at night is their worry about Clinton being mistreated.
The most heated exchange involved Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. “I believe that the American people have had it with stonewalling!” he shouted about Sessions’ repeated refusals to answer questions regarding his dealings with Trump. “I am not stonewalling! I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice!” Sessions shouted back. When Sessions claimed that his recommendation didn’t violate his recusal even when Trump himself admitted that he was firing Comey because of the Russia investigation, Wyden sniffed, “That answer doesn’t pass the smell test!”
Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico continued the attack, accusing Sessions of “impeding this investigation.” When Heinrich also asked him if the rules he was invoking were written down at the DOJ, Sessions replied, “I believe they are.” (As if he wouldn’t have bothered to check.) “I think your silence speaks volumes,” huffed Heinrich.
The whipsawing back-and-forth continued when Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma announced, “You speak as a man eager to set the record straight.” He proceeded to blow smoke up Sessions’ derriere for the next five minutes, barely letting the Attorney General get a word in edgewise. But Lankford was outdone by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, whose face seems to be set in a permanent glower. After accusing his Democrat colleagues of going down “rabbit trails,” he asked Sessions if he enjoyed spy fiction and James Bond and Jason Bourne movies, making the case that only John Le Carre could possibly dream up such a scenario of Russian collusion.
Sessions happily boarded the life raft. “Thank you for saying that,” he said with a relieved smile. “It’s like through the looking glass!”
And so it went, with the alternate questioning by Republicans and Democrats giving the hearing the feel of the most elaborate good cop/bad cop routine ever. Arizona Sen. John McCain was the final questioner, and the suspense was palpable considering his embarrassing incoherence the previous week. Would he ask Sessions where he went on his last vacation? His favorite flavor of ice cream? For bored viewers, there was no such luck. Instead, McCain delivered a series of warnings about Russian aggression, with Sessions dutifully expressing his concern.
It’s depressingly obvious that these hearings are much more political theater than true investigation. And as long as the Republicans continue their “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach, nothing significant is going to change. Unless, of course, President Trump fulfills his promise to testify under oath. If that happens, the only question will be how many minutes elapse before he commits his first perjury.