For Attorney General Sessions, Hill Testimony Presents Risk And Opportunity

Nov 13, 2017
Originally published on November 14, 2017 8:22 am

For Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday presents a risk — and an opportunity.

The risk lies in testifying under oath, for the fourth time this year, about his awareness of Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election while he served as a top surrogate for President Trump.

The opportunity stems from his interrogators — a committee led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who's been reluctant to pile on Sessions this year. Other GOP members of the panel are die-hard Trump supporters who have suggested firing special counsel Robert Mueller, the man leading the ongoing criminal investigation.

On the eve of the hearing, Sessions appeared to throw those Republicans — and his boss — a bone. The Justice Department sent a letter Monday night informing Goodlatte that it had directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate "whether any matters merit the appointment of [another] special counsel." Earlier this year, Goodlatte had demanded a DOJ investigation into "alleged unlawful dealings at the Clinton Foundation" and other scandals focused on Democrats.

There's a twist, though: Sessions has already promised to recuse himself from any investigations into Hillary Clinton or the Clinton Foundation, given his campaign role. So the letter may raise yet another sensitive area on a hearing agenda already packed with them.

Here's what to watch for in Tuesday's hearing:

1. The Russia tightrope

At his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions testified, "I'm not aware" of communications between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. In October, at a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the attorney general said he didn't have talks with Russians as a surrogate for then-candidate Trump: "I did not, and I'm not aware of anyone else that did. I don't believe that happened."

What's more, another person at the table that day, J.D. Gordon, said he does remember Papadopoulos floating the idea of a conversation between Trump and Putin. But, Gordon said, Sessions shot down the idea.

"These facts appear to contradict your sworn testimony on several occasions," House Democrats wrote Sessions last week.

In other words, the attorney general will be walking a tightrope: reckoning his inability to remember those events with his denials of Russian outreach to the Trump campaign. And it's never a good thing when the top law enforcement officer in the country faces persistent questions about his credibility.

2. Boundaries with the White House

Trump recently told a radio interviewer he was "very frustrated" with the Justice Department and wishes he were able to direct the DOJ and the FBI to investigate his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, among other things.

"The saddest thing is that, because I'm the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department," Trump told WMAL in Washington, D.C. "I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI."

Now it appears the Justice Department is indeed looking into the matter.

But already this year, Trump's White House has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of the Justice Department's historical, post-Watergate independence. The president asked his former FBI Director James Comey to go easy on an investigation of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, Comey later testified. Trump floated the idea of dropping a prosecution against another ally, former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom the president went onto pardon. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway traveled to the Justice Department to watch a news conference unveiling criminal charges against Chinese fentanyl sellers.

And last week, the top executive at AT&T, Randall Stephenson, said the company was preparing to litigate after the Justice Department signaled it wanted tough conditions to approve the company's merger with Time Warner. Those conditions could include the divestiture of DirecTV or the sale of CNN, which the president has criticized as "fake news."

Both Trump and the Justice Department said the antitrust decision was made without interference from the White House. But Democrats and some DOJ veterans said those assertions are difficult to square with a pattern of breaches already this year.

3. Reviews from the audience

As attorney general, Sessions will be speaking to multiple audiences.

They include his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, where he served as a Republican senator from Alabama; the 100,000-odd lawyers, investigators and staff members who work for the U.S. Justice Department; and perhaps, most importantly, his boss, President Trump.

Six lawyers who have spent years in and outside the Justice Department described morale in the institution as poor, after a series of critical comments and tweets from Trump this year, and the attorney general's public silence in the face of them.

As for the president, he has made Sessions a frequent target of his ire, especially since the attorney general recused himself from the Russia probe in March and a special counsel was named to take over that investigation.

"Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else," Trump told the New York Times in July.

The president will be returning from his long trip to Asia on Tuesday, giving him time to formulate some views of Sessions's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, and perhaps to share them on Twitter.

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When the history of President Trump's administration is written, it will have to include space for the story of Jeff Sessions. The Alabama senator was one of the few mainstream politicians to back Trump early. He then left his Senate seat, triggering Alabama's special election and the nomination of Roy Moore. Sessions became Trump's attorney general. He recused himself from the investigation of Russian efforts to support Trump, a recusal that has infuriated his boss. Yet Sessions is still questioned about his own contacts with Russians, and he will face more questions at a House hearing today.

It's been revealed that Sessions himself chaired a campaign meeting where an aide discussed efforts to arrange contacts between Trump and Russia's Vladimir Putin. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been covering all of this. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how does that latest news of that meeting match up with what Sessions has previously said under oath?

JOHNSON: Well, it seems to contradict some previous statements by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. George Papadopoulos in the course of his guilty plea documents said he proposed arranging a conversation between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at that campaign meeting on March 31, 2016. Both Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions attended that meeting, were photographed sitting at the table with Papadopoulos. And another person at the table that day, a guy named J.D. Gordon, has told reporters he does remember Papadopoulos floating the idea of some kind of conversation between Trump and Putin.

But Gordon says that Jeff Sessions shot down the idea, which is confusing because at a couple of points this year, at least under oath, Sessions has said he's not aware of communications between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. He said he didn't know that anyone had talks with Russians as surrogates for Trump. So the attorney general is really going to be walking a tightrope here, Steve, reckoning his inability to remember these events with his denials about Russian outreach to the Trump campaign last year.

INSKEEP: This story is sounding familiar, Carrie, because didn't Jeff Sessions face an embarrassment earlier in the year when it was revealed that he had met with a Russian ambassador? And he had to explain that he didn't think that that was campaign related or was serious. But of course this time, he's got a meeting that he didn't seem to remember that was explicitly part of the campaign, right?

JOHNSON: For people close to Jeff Sessions, this is a mark of how busy he was and how, in their view, insignificant some of these people were with whom he was meeting. For Democrats and other folks who are more alarmed by the allegations concerning Russia, this is too many things, they say, to keep forgetting, and there has to be some kind of accounting of that in his testimony today, in his conversation with the American public.

INSKEEP: OK, so we mentioned that Sessions has recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation which his boss has said repeatedly he's unhappy about. And the president has gone on to make more recent remarks that he's frustrated that as president of the United States, he's not supposed to interfere with the workings of the Justice Department. That's the way it's always been. He wishes it weren't that way and wishes there were things he could do. Could that be part of today's discussion?

JOHNSON: Yeah. For Democrats and Justice Department veterans of both political parties, these boundaries with the White House are a real worry. There's a lot of examples, Steve. And in fact, President Trump has said repeatedly he wants the Justice Department to investigate his political opponent Hillary Clinton. Last night on the eve of this hearing, the Justice Department said they have directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate whether they should name another special counsel to investigate what they call, quote, alleged unlawful dealings at the Clinton Foundation or elsewhere.

Now, this letter will give Republicans a way to change the subject from Russia at the hearing and also help Sessions ingratiate himself with his boss. Remember; Jeff Sessions is supposed to be recused from anything regarding Hillary Clinton because of his close campaign ties to Donald Trump last year. And it also comes on the heels of other dust-up over DOJ independence allegations by former FBI Director James Comey that the president had asked him to go easy on an investigation of then-national security adviser Mike Flynn. And new questions last week about whether President Trump or anyone else in the White House who doesn't like the reporting of CNN has put their fingers on the scales with respect to an antitrust deal involving its parent, Time Warner, and AT&T.

INSKEEP: You said Sessions is supposed to be recused. Is he recused from this decision about whether to go after Hillary Clinton?

JOHNSON: The letter from the Justice Department to congressional Republicans last night, Steve, said that these senior federal prosecutors evaluating Clinton-related allegations will be reporting to the deputy attorney general and the attorney general. If Sessions is truly recused, I would like to know more about what he's doing in that respect. And I think that will come up at the hearing today.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Carrie, what do you make of another news story? Donald Trump Jr. has now affirmed that he communicated - as reported by The Atlantic, he communicated with WikiLeaks during the campaign. They were offering advice, and Trump a number of times seemed to take the advice.

JOHNSON: Well, Trump Jr. has said he exchanged a small number of messages - direct messages with WikiLeaks - but another data point here about contacts regarding emails during last year's campaign and after since WikiLeaks, according to the intelligence community, did get information and share it with people overseas with respect to Hillary Clinton and Democrat emails.

INSKEEP: And I guess this week should emphasize this is related to the larger story because according to U.S. intelligence officials, WikiLeaks has cooperated or has contacts with Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies do not like at all.

JOHNSON: Absolutely - one more point for these investigations in the Congress and the special counsel to pursue.

INSKEEP: So much to follow, and NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is following it. Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.