WASHINGTON (CN) – Returning to the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time since his confirmation, Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered little insight Wednesday into the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Though the topics dominated this morning’s hearing, Democrats failed to elicit any new information on them from the former Alabama senator.
“I can neither assert executive privilege nor can I disclose today the content of my confidential conversations with the president,” Sessions said. “Under the administrations of both parties, it is well established that a president is entitled to have private, confidential communications with his cabinet officials.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., called the attorney general’s refusals misplaced, saying the concern that President Donald Trump might assert executive privilege is not carte blanche.
“The default is that you have to answer our questions,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “It’s only when there’s an assertion of executive privilege that that default is no longer a case.”
Since Sessions made the same point about executive privilege in June, during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Whitehouse said the time has come for Trump to either explicitly claim the privilege or for his officials to give clear answers to Congress.
Sessions would not say when he first spoke to Trump about removing Comey, or whether Trump mentioned a “cloud” of the Russia investigation in any conversation on the subject, but he did defend the president’s decision.
“Sen. Feinstein, I don’t think it’s been fully understood the significance of the error that Mr. Comey made on the Clinton matter,” Sessions told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., early in the marathon hearing.
Comey’s investigation of Russian meddling was well underway when Trump fired him in May, but the notice itself coincided with a letter by the FBI that said Comey overstated key details in his testimony to the Senate about why he publicized his reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server just 11 days before the presidential election.
Trump fired Comey after receiving input from both Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, but later said he made the decision with the investigation into Russian interference in the election in mind. A prominent Trump advocate and a member of the campaign, Sessions has recused himself from any investigation touching on alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Sessions denied Wednesday that the successor to Comey’s investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller, has interviewed him about the Russia investigation.
When asked whether Mueller had requested an interview, however, the attorney general declined repeatedly to answer.
“Well, I’d be pleased to answer that, I’m not sure I should without clearing that with the special counsel,” Sessions initially told Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
When pressed on the question by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sessions said his staff had informed him that he had received no such request.
Democrats also grilled Sessions on his insistence during his January confirmation hearing that he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the presidential campaign. The Washington Post later reported that Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on multiple occasions during the campaign, leading Democrats to accuse Sessions of lying under oath to Congress.
Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who asked the original question at Sessions’ confirmation hearing, engaged in a heated exchange with the attorney general on this point Wednesday. Franken challenged Sessions to explain the evolution of his responses to questions about meetings with representatives of the Russian government , accusing him of “moving the goal posts.”
“That’s very different, not being able to recall what you discussed with him, is very different than saying I have not had communications with the Russians,” Franken said. “The ambassador from Russia is Russian, and how your responses morphed from ‘I did not have communications with the Russians’ to ‘I did not discuss the political campaign’ and then finally going to ‘I did not discuss interference in the election.'”
Sessions defended his nomination hearing testimony as accurate based on how he understood the question at the time, calling Franken’s allegations “totally unfair.”
“Yes, you can say what you want to about the accuracy of it, but I think it was a good-faith response to a dramatic event at the time, and I don’t think it’s fair for you to suggest otherwise,” Sessions told Franken.
While many of the questions lobbed at Sessions during the five-hour hearing related to the Russia investigation, others focused on high-profile and sometimes controversial Justice Department initiatives.
Sessions was a vocal opponent of sentencing reform in the later part of his time in the Senate but told lawmakers Wednesday that he “certainly” would be willing to work with Congress on a criminal-justice reform bill reintroduced earlier this month by a bipartisan group of senators.
The attorney general rankled Democrats, however, with his defense of other Justice Department initiatives.
Regarding a sweeping executive order that blocks travel to the United States by the citizens of eight countries, Sessions called the ban “lawful” and “necessary.”
“The president’s executive order is an important step to ensuring that we know who is coming into our country,” Sessions said. “It’s a lawful, necessary order that we are proud to defend.”
Two federal judges blocked a third iteration of order on Tuesday, finding that the new inclusion of three countries that are not Muslim majority did little to diminish the ban’s discriminatory effects.
Sessions also defended efforts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that took deportation off the table for thousands of qualifying young immigrants.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., hit Sessions for making the decision agains 2014 findings about the legality of deportation deferment by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Sessions shot back by saying that office had been considering decisions made on an individual basis not to deport people, not via overarching program.
“The Department of Justice can’t just wipe out whole sections of the American law and just say we’re not going to enforce it after Congress has passed such a law,” Sessions said.