After two hours of testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrats were left fuming over what the attorney general didn't answer.
Sessions would not say whether the president told him he wanted to fire former FBI Director James Comey because of his handling of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Nor would he say why the memo Sessions wrote justifying the firing of Comey was so different than the reasoning the president offered in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt days later.
There were few definitive answers. Asked for yes and no answers, he said he didn't recall certain things. Asked if he'd had more meetings with Russians, he said at one point no, and at another point he really couldn't remember any more.
Still, we did learn more about how Sessions defines the scope of his recusal from the Russia investigation, and he confirmed many of the circumstances and facts of Comey’s private conversations with the president.
Democrats appeared largely unsatisfied with much of the briefing: his answers didn’t “pass the smell test,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. “You are obstructing,” said New Mexico’s Sen. Martin Heinrich. Republicans, however, seemed more satisfied with his answers. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton even asked if Sessions was a fan of spy movies.
— Jane C. Timm
The GOP chairman of the Senate Rules Committee quickly backed down from an apparent attempt to impose new restrictions on reporters Tuesday prior to Sessions' testimony.
Reporters have for decades freely approached senators in the hallways and outside the meeting rooms of the Capitol for impromptu interviews, so they were stunned and outraged when told Tuesday morning they would now need prior approval from the senator before asking questions on camera in the Senate.
By the end of the day, however, Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL), said there would be no changes to the rules — for now at least. “No additional restrictions have been put in place by the Rules Committee," Shelby said.
The Capitol has been unusually crowded with reporters lately, raising legitimate concerns about the safety of lawmakers and reporters alike, especially around heavy TV cameras.
But many senators — including Republican and Democratic senators — viewed the new restrictions as overly draconian. The Radio and Television Correspondents Association condemned the new rules “in the strongest possible terms" while the National Press Club's Journalism Institute said, "We remain concerned that such constitutionally questionable practices were even discussed at all."
— Alex Seitz-Wald
California Democrat Sen. Kamala Harris was again reprimanded for questioning and interrupting a witness on while questioning Sessions on Tuesday.
She was first interrupted by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who said Sessions should be allowed to answer; Committee Chair Sen. Richard Burr, of North Carolina, said the chairman would control the hearing, before adding that the witness should be allowed to answer questions.
She is the only senator to be interrupted and reprimanded, despite the fact that many senators — most noticeably Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who sits next to Burr and is the vice chairman on the committee — interrupted Sessions before and after Harris spoke.
Sessions insisted that he didn’t want to be rushed during his questioning, because he didn’t want to be later accused of lying should he not properly qualify his answers. He also said he wasn't able to be "rushed" on his answers, saying, "it makes me nervous."
Harris was reprimanded similarly for her questioning six days ago by Burr, while she was questioning the deputy attorney general.
— Jane C. Timm
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island dug in by asking Sessions about his past praise for Comey.
He then questioned him specifically about the decision-making process for Comey’s public announcements regarding the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use. Comey’s October announcement that the FBI would reopen its probe has been cited by Clinton herself as derailing her campaign at a crucial moment.
Sessions said the reason Comey needed to announce reopening the investigation was because he’d already come out with other developments.
Sessions' larger takeaway? The investigation should never have been discussed publicly at all.
“It would have been better… never to have talked about that investigation to begin with,” Sessions said.
“It went against classical prosecutorial policies that I learned when I was a U.S. Attorney and an Assistant U.S. Attorney.”
— Joy Y. Wang
A glimpse inside West Wing thinking: A senior administration official says they're "pretty impressed" with Sessions' testimony so far; they like that he came out swinging. Note this is probably something President Trump will approve of, too, despite the recent tension between him and his Attorney General. Sessions made a point to play the loyalty card to the president during today's hearing
One more note: Sessions said he wouldn't answer certain questions regarding private conversations with the president in part because the president hadn't reviewed the questions yet. We've asked the White House for further clarity on whether they will follow up with Sessions to allow him to answer those questions if he's called back before Congress, but no response yet.
— Hallie Jackson
Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton asked a slew of questions that sounded an awful lot like the president’s own Tweets — was there collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign or is this a ridiculous witch hunt? And what about the leaks to the media? How are they being prosecuted?
His questioning of the Attorney General comes several hours after he and 14 other Republican senators had lunch with the president.
Sen. Joe Manchin pressed Sessions on whether he knew of any direct contact between Russian officials and Trump’s advisers.
“I racked my brain and I do not believe so,” Sessions said. “I can assure you that none of those meetings discussed manipulating those campaigns in any shape or form.”
Manchin asked Sessions whether specific advisers had contact with Russian officials. The senator ran down a list of names, asking the attorney general to simply answer “yes” or “no.” Here’s how that exchange played out.
Steve Bannon: “I have no information that he did.”
Michael Flynn: “I don’t recall it.”
Reince Preibus: “I don’t recall.”
Stephen Miller: “I don’t recall him ever having such a conversation.”
Corey Lewandowski: “I don’t recall any of those individuals having any meeting with Russian officials.”
Cater Page: “I don’t know.”
Sessions elaborated a bit on Page. “There may have been some published account of Mr. Page talking with Russians but I’m not sure," he said.
So much for “yes” or “no.”
— Joy Y. Wang
Independent Maine Sen. Angus King pressed Sessions again on his determination not to answer questions about his conversations with the president, adding his name to the list of senators arguing Sessions lacked all legal right to do so.
“The president hasn’t asserted [executive privilege], you said you don’t have the power to exert,” King said, arguing that the attorney general was trying to have it "both ways." Executive privilege allows a president, or executive branch members, to withhold information from subpoenas and other requests because of its ties to the administration and its work.
Sessions pushed back: “I am protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses, or there may be other privilege ... It would be premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice—”
King interjected to press Sessions about the testimony he'd given earlier in the session — that the president had asked for his opinion on James Comey’s role at the head of the FBI — and asked why that wasn’t confidential.
Sessions insisted that he spoke about that interaction because the president had already spoke about it publicly.
Like Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Michael Rogers did last week, Sessions is refusing to answer some questions but he is not claiming national security and the president did not assert executive privilege.
Coats' and Rogers' unwillingness to respond to the committee resulted in a testy exchange with Senator Angus King, I-Maine, who continued his mission to get witnesses to answer questions Tuesday.
— Greta Van Susteren
Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich repeatedly pushed back against the Attorney General’s claim that he could not speak about conversations with the president because Trump might want to invoke executive privilege.
“My understanding to this, you took an oath…to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and now you’re not telling the truth,” the senator from New Mexico said, arguing that Sessions had no legal standard for claiming “appropriateness” as his reason for refusing to answer questions.
“You are obstructing," he said defiantly, as Sessions insisted that he could refuse to answer questions without executive privilege being invoked.
“It’s my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the president when he has not had the opportunity to approve such an answer," Sessions said.
—Jane C. Timm