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WASHINGTON — Democrats will seek assurances from Jeff Sessions Wednesday that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is free of political interference, as the attorney general makes his first appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee since he was confirmed to the post in February.
As a starting point, Democrats will look to Sessions’ first and only appearance before the panel this year, at his confirmation hearing in January, when he testified that he did not have any communications with Russians during Trump’s presidential campaign. It later was revealed that Sessions met at least twice with a top Russian diplomat, leading some Democrats to question whether Sessions’ testimony was at least misleading and at worst tantamount to perjury.
During a June appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions strenuously denied that he had any conversations with Russian or other foreign officials about interfering in the election, calling any suggestions of collusion “an appalling and detestable lie.”
But his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, nonetheless had been key to his decision to recuse himself from the department’s investigation. In May, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, announced the appointment of Mueller to take over the investigation citing the “unique circumstances” of the probe.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he expected that Sessions would cite his recusal to avoid answering most direct questions about the probe. But he nonetheless had prepared a series of questions “relating to the integrity of the Department of Justice” and “protecting against interference.”
“The resource question will be important, making sure that there are sufficient resources for the special counsel,” Blumenthal said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., noted that Sessions’ extended absence means there is much to catch up on including just how much Sessions has removed himself from the probe. The White House said Sessions was among those officials who recommended that the president dismiss then-FBI Director Jim Comey.
Typically an attorney general might appear for multiple oversight hearings with the Judiciary Committee each year. But Wednesday’s long-delayed appearance means that lawmakers will be scrambling to address a wide range of topics covering Sessions’ tumultuous first eight months — a period that includes his recusal from involvement from the Justice Department’s probe of election interference, the appointment of Mueller by Sessions’ deputy to ultimately oversee it and his offer to resign as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer after a rift with President Trump.
“It’s a long list,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the minority whip, said Tuesday.
Durbin said that among his priorities would be questioning Sessions about the department’s involvement in the president’s decision to phase out the DACA program, which has shielded as many as 800,000 undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children from the threat of deportation.
“The decision to repeal the DACA program and the short time given to those under the program who are eligible to sign up again is really troubling to me,” he said.
Klobuchar said she also planned to ask Sessions about first amendment and voting rights issues, including whether the Justice Department was improperly coordinating with members of the president’s commission on election integrity.
She and other Democrats on the committee, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., wrote a letter to Sessions and other DOJ officials Tuesday seeking more information about contacts with the commission, citing documents recently released to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law after the election watchdog sued over improper disclosure.