During the testimony of our Confederate Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III yesterday before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday there was this entertaining exchange:
SESSIONS: Why don’t you tell me! There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty. This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it. I try to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I’ve appeared before, and it’s really — people are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters, and I’ve tried to be honest.
I half expected Sessions to go all Zell Miller on Sen. Wyden: “I do declare that you have impuned my honor, sir. I demand satisfaction. I challenge you to a duel.”
And it was not innuendo, it was signal intelligence of Russian communications. Comey’s Hint at Jeff Sessions-Russia Problem Was Alleged Secret Meeting at Mayflower Hotel: classified intelligence suggested an undisclosed meeting between Sessions and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
Sessions followed the script set by Lt. Col. Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal asserting “I do not recall” more times than I could keep count (this is how a witness can avoid perjury charges). And what he did know, he refused to answer citing some ethereal executive privilege in the future that president Trump might assert, someday, but had not asserted before his testimony.
This is becoming a thing with Trump administration officials.
Sean Illing at Vox.com asked ten legal experts about Sessions refusal to answer questions. Sessions: I can’t discuss conversations with the president. 9 legal experts: Yes, you can.
During his public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to answer any questions about conversations he might have had with President Donald Trump.
“It would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the president when he has not had a full opportunity to review the questions and to make a decision on whether or not to approve such an answer,” Sessions told Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich during a contentious exchange.
Heinrich’s response was forceful: “My understanding is that you took an oath, you raised your right hand here today, and you said that you would solemnly tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and now you’re not answering questions.”
But Sessions was adamant that he was obeying long-established DOJ guidelines, and that he was obligated to remain silent.
Later, Sen. Kamala Harris pushed back against Sessions’s argument, asking if this DOJ rule was in writing somewhere. “I think so,” Sessions said.
To find out whether Sessions has a legal justification for his silence, I reached out to 10 legal experts. I asked them if Sessions’s claim that he’s protecting the president’s constitutional right to executive privilege makes any sense.
All but one of the experts rejected Sessions’s argument on its face, insisting that Sessions is legally permitted to discuss conversations with the president, provided the president hasn’t yet invoked executive privilege (which he hasn’t). One expert believes there is a precedent for Sessions’s actions, but that Congress can — and should — compel him to answer their questions.
Matt Zapotosky at the Washington Post asked the Department of Justice for the alleged policy invoked by Sessions and did not get a specific policy in response. Jeff Sessions finds a shield in executive privilege — but it might not be a strong one:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s repeated refusal to answer lawmakers’ skeptical inquiries Tuesday draws on a long legal and political tradition: Private deliberations involving the president and his top advisers often can be kept out of public view.
But analysts disagreed on whether the attorney general was appropriately using executive privilege to advance a worthy goal, or merely suggesting it as a shield to fend off questions he did not want to take.
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The president undoubtedly has the right to assert executive privilege and stop an adviser from revealing details of deliberations, and Justice Department policies on releasing information to the public note the concept of “deliberative process privilege,” which is meant to “encourage open, frank discussions on matters of policy between subordinates and superiors.”
The Justice Department also pointed to a memo from President Ronald Reagan saying that when privilege about a pending presidential decision was possibly at issue, an official should ask Congress to hold off on its request for information.
Legal analysts, though, were split on whether Sessions did so correctly on Tuesday. Importantly, Sessions said Trump had not yet asserted executive privilege, and he himself had no power to claim it.
It appears there is one lawyer willing to support Sessions actions, but even he qualifies his response.
Scott L. Fredericksen, a former federal prosecutor and associate independent counsel now in private practice at Foley & Lardner, said Sessions had taken a “legitimate position . . . to protect the confidentiality of his conversations with the president.”
“I think there’s fairly good history that the Department of Justice resists revealing internal deliberations and discussions, whether it be investigations or policy, as a matter of separation of the executive from the legislative branch,” he said.
* * *
Legal analysts agreed that it was the president who would have to invoke privilege — although Fredericksen said Congress would have to push the issue if the members really wanted answers. Ultimately, Fredericksen said, a court might determine whether the information is public or not, but all involved would probably want to avoid that outcome.
Andrew Rosenthal at the New York Times is right, Jeff Sessions Gives a Master Class in Dissembling: “If the testimony on June 8 by the former F.B.I. director, James Comey, was a startling example of candor in Washington, the appearance on Tuesday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee was a master class in bamboozling, blustering and butt-covering.”
The Times editoral board was equally unimpressed. Jeff Sessions Clams Up in Congress:
How many ways are there to fail to answer a question under oath?
Ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The last time Mr. Sessions appeared before a Senate committee, during his confirmation hearing in January, he gave false testimony.
“I did not have communications with the Russians,” Mr. Sessions said in response to a question no one asked — and despite the fact that he had, in fact, met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at least twice during the 2016 presidential campaign. The omission raised questions not only about his honesty, but also about why he would not disclose those meetings in the first place.
On Tuesday Mr. Sessions returned to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian sabotage of the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible ties to those efforts.
That was the plan, anyway. In fact — and to the great consternation of the Democratic members of the committee, at least — Mr. Sessions was not on board. He arrived in full body armor, testy and sometimes raising his voice to defend what he called his honor against “scurrilous and false allegations” that he had colluded with Moscow.
He also defended his misstatements in January, to the Judiciary Committee, as being taken out of context, and he lowered a broad cone of silence around all his communications with President Trump regarding last month’s firing of James Comey as F.B.I. director, claiming it was “inappropriate” for him to discuss them. Did they involve classified information? No. Was he invoking executive privilege? No, he said, only the president may invoke that. Reminded that Mr. Trump has not done so, he said, “I’m protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses.”
In lieu of a real excuse, he cited a longstanding policy at the Justice Department — although he couldn’t confirm that it existed in writing or that, if it did, he had actually read it. In other words, Mr. Sessions has no intention to answer any of those questions now or in the future.
Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, angrily accused Mr. Sessions of “impeding this investigation” by refusing to respond, but perhaps the attorney general was wise to keep his mouth shut. When he opened it, he often seemed to contradict himself, his staff at the Justice Department, or the president.
The most glaring example was his claim that the letter he wrote supporting Mr. Comey’s dismissal was based on the former director’s missteps in the bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server — even though Mr. Trump himself had almost immediately blown that cover, telling a national television audience that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he decided to fire Mr. Comey.
Mr. Sessions’s explanation would’ve been impossible to swallow anyway, since he, like Mr. Trump, had originally praised Mr. Comey’s actions in the Clinton investigation.
The attorney general also had a strange reaction to Mr. Comey’s plea that he not be left alone with the president again. By his own account, Mr. Sessions seemed less concerned with the president’s highly unusual and inappropriate behavior than he was with Mr. Comey, telling him “that the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.”
So here are a few more questions that Mr. Sessions should answer, but probably won’t.
Why did he not resist when Mr. Trump asked him and others to leave the Oval Office so he could have a private conversation with Mr. Comey? At the very least, why did he not take steps to find out what had happened?
Why does he believe he did not violate the terms of his recusal by taking part in Mr. Comey’s firing? His recusal extended, in his own words, to “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States” — which clearly includes the Clinton email investigation.
If his recusal was truly based, as he claimed, on his closeness to the Trump campaign, why not announce it immediately upon his confirmation, rather than wait weeks, until after news of his undisclosed meetings with Mr. Kislyak broke?
And perhaps most pressing: Why, since he agreed with the committee that Russian interference in the election represents a profoundly serious attack on American democracy, has Mr. Sessions never received or read any detailed briefing on that operation?
This last point is the most shocking of all. The Attorney General is a regular attendeee of the National Security Counsel. Sessions has never received or read any detailed briefing on the Russian interference in the election?
Last week former FBI director James Comey testified:
“Did the president, in any of those interactions that you’ve shared with us today, ask you what you should be doing, or what our government should be doing, or the intelligence community, to protect America against Russian interference in our election system?” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich asked Comey.
“I don’t recall a conversation like that,” Comey said.
Heinrich pressed: “Never?”
“No,” Comey said. “Not with President Trump. I attended a fair number of meetings on that with President Obama.”
Comey later said he didn’t recall ever having a conversation with Trump that suggested the president was taking the Russia threat seriously.
“I don’t remember any conversations with him at all about that,” Comey said.
Russian interference in our elections is not a priority of the Trump administration as long as that interference works to their advantage. That should concern all Americans.