Jeff Sessions took a gamble when he became the first senator to endorse Donald Trump for president in February of last year. Now, with Trump’s administration awash in scandal, he’s set to face his former colleagues to answer for his role in the controversy around connections between Trump’s associates and Moscow.
For Sessions, it’s a rapid backslide from the position he was in after Trump’s inauguration, when he was seen as a central figure in the president’s efforts to crack down on immigration and carry out Trump’s larger “America First” agenda.
Sessions on Tuesday will return to the Capitol to talk to the Senate Intelligence Committee in a surprise appearance announced over the weekend, although it remains unclear whether he’ll testify in an open setting.
Nonetheless, the trip comes just days after former FBI Director James Comey cryptically testified that he knew details about the attorney general before his recusal from the Russia probe that would make his involvement in the Russia probe “problematic.”
“It was a tantalizing clue that there may be other complicating issues connecting the attorney general to the ongoing investigation,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in an interview.
So far, there’s been little interaction between Sessions and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly Democrats who have flooded the administration with inquiries about Sessions’ contact with Russian officials. The attorney general canceled a planned Tuesday appearance before congressional panels with oversight of the Justice Department’s budget to instead speak to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But in the aftermath of Comey’s testimony last week, Republicans conducting the Senate’s investigation are also raising questions about his role in the federal Russia probe before his March 2 recusal. Sessions stepped back from the Russia probe after it was revealed that he failed to disclose multiple meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign.
On Sunday, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the panel wants to press Sessions for his perspective on several accounts relayed by Comey involving the attorney general. One example is Sessions’ interaction with Comey in mid-February when the FBI director asked him to not leave him alone with President Trump, shortly after he allegedly asked Comey to let go an investigation into his former national security adviser.
“We want to be able to get his side of it, get all the facts out there,” Lankford said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We’ve had a lot of unnamed sources in the media come out and make statements about Jeff Sessions. It’d be very good to get it directly from him.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said the powerful investigatory panel will also seek documents from the attorney general.
Comey told lawmakers in written testimony last week that he and other top FBI officials decided not to tell Sessions about the Feb. 14 encounter when Trump allegedly told Comey “I hope you can let this go,” referring to a federal probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to Comey’s retelling.
He then elaborated on his concerns on Thursday, including that he and other FBI officials knew at the time that career DOJ officials had already recommended Sessions step aside from the Russia investigation.
“I want to know, is it true what Comey said?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Did you create an atmosphere there that people believed that you could not fairly render judgment on the president’s interactions with Comey?”
Later Thursday, after his public testimony, according to reports, Comey privately told senators that Sessions may have met another time with Kislyak that had not been disclosed to lawmakers.
DOJ has repeatedly said that an alleged meeting between Kislyak and Sessions in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington never occurred. But whether Sessions met with Kislyak a third time will certainly be raised during his Senate Intelligence Committee appearance.
Democrats also want to know how Sessions could have been involved in the abrupt decision to sack Comey from his FBI job, if he was recused from all matters involving Russia — a dynamic that the fired FBI director also questioned during his testimony.
“First, did he interfere with the Russian investigation before he recused himself? Second, what safeguards are there now so he doesn’t interfere?” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on “Face the Nation,” listing questions he wants Sessions to answer. “Third, he says he was involved in the firing of Comey, and the president said Comey was fired because of Russia. How does that fit in with his recusal?”
The New York Democrat noted that Sessions was involved in the selection of Christopher Wray as Trump’s new nominee for FBI director and added: “Did he talk about the Russia investigation with him?”
For months, Democrats have had questions about Sessions and his role in the Russia probe but little opportunity to air them.
When Sessions’ previous interactions with Kislyak surfaced in March, the attorney general wrote to the Judiciary Committee clarifying comments during his confirmation hearing, when he testified that “he did not have communications with the Russians.” But Democrats wanted Sessions to return in person to discuss those remarks, instead of relaying them in a letter.
Immediately after Comey’s firing, Democrats demanded separate briefings with Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about how the abrupt dismissal transpired. Democrats got the Rosenstein briefing, but not one with Sessions. Rosenstein will appear in Sessions’ absence before the appropriations subcommittees on Tuesday and could face Russia-related questions of his own.
And the Judiciary Committee has yet to schedule an oversight hearing with Sessions, which it typically does every year with the attorney general to discuss a host of issues involving DOJ. Sessions had already canceled one appearance before the subcommittees overseeing DOJ’s budget last month.
But key Republicans on Capitol Hill are coming to Sessions’ defense in light of Comey’s testimony, arguing that their former Republican colleague from Alabama has done little to make them question his actions in the Russia investigation before he stepped aside.
“He’s someone in whom I have a lot of confidence,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “I don’t know exactly what happened or what meetings he’s had. I’m confident that Jeff Sessions would never intentionally mislead anyone or intentionally misstate the truth.”