The nightly news takeaway from today’s appearance by Jeff Sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee will be the attorney general’s exchanges with Senators Heinrich (D., N.M.) and Harris (D., Calif.), who took issue with Sessions’s refusal to comment on his direct communications with the president, on the grounds that it is “longstanding Justice Department policy” and the normal practice of Cabinet members to try to protect the president’s right to invoke executive privilege. Andy takes a look at the legal question below. That argument is above my pay grade, but two things are worth noting: First, it was obvious that Sessions was going to be asked these questions, and the fact that his reason for refusing was vague, at best, is surprising, to put it mildly. Second, it was equally obvious that Sessions was never going to answer questions about his direct communications with President Trump, and the indignation of his interrogators (e.g., Heinrich’s accusing him of “obstructing” the committee’s investigation) was overheated; Sessions was not subpoenaed, he showed up voluntarily. That being the case, the de facto agreement going into today was that everyone would give a little to get a little to move the ball forward — the Democratic senators would receive some non-answers, and Sessions would endure 150 minutes of hammering and grandstanding — and that’s what happened.
The fact that the takeaway is Sessions’s non-answers is, to my mind, more important. It shows just how far this hearing moved away from its central concern: an alleged third meeting between Sessions and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, this one supposedly at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. in April 2016. Mark Warner (D., Va.) and Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) both questioned Sessions aggressively about that report (apparently leaked from last week’s classified Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with James Comey), and Sessions denied it, vigorously, as well as any insinuation that he was in contact with any Russian officials related to anything involving the Trump campaign. On these matters, he was categorical.
Where Sessions was less-than-categorical was on questions related to Comey’s termination. (These questions prompted the showdown about executive privilege.) His bob-and-weave permits of several non-nefarious explanations (Rich suggests one below), but the result is that Sessions’s testimony had generally the same result as Comey’s last week: Both threw cold water on the idea that the president or his close advisers “colluded” with Russia to influence the election; and both also raised questions about whether or not the president sought to “obstruct” the FBI’s Russia-focused counterintelligence investigation (Andy’s points about “obstruction” notwithstanding).
No doubt we will be hearing from Messrs. Manafort, Page, Flynn, et al. in the future, but it’s easy to see that there has been a decisive narrative shift: away from collusion, for which there seems to be little if any evidence, and toward obstruction. The latter is a very serious issue, too. But clearly the goalposts are moving.