Sessions faces crucial test in new hearing on Russia
Among those watching: Congress, Mueller, Trump
WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions could not have been more definitive when he told a Senate panel last month that he had no knowledge of any Trump campaign contacts with Russia.
“I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I don’t believe that happened.”
Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are preparing a strong challenge to Sessions’ assertions at a hearing Tuesday, based largely on the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, who was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign and acknowledged to the FBI that he attended a national security meeting in March 2016 with then-candidate Donald Trump, Sessions and other advisers.
At that meeting, which Sessions chaired, Papadopoulos told the group he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to charging documents unsealed last month by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The gathering promises to be a central focus of Tuesday’s hearing as the attorney general will be asked to reconcile his past assertions for the first time since the Papadopoulos disclosures.
For Sessions, the House hearing represents yet another crucial test for an attorney general seeking to bolster his standing with three separate and important constituencies: Congress, President Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller.
Dogged by his own failure to disclose prior contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his Senate confirmation, Sessions has sought to shore up his credibility with Congress. With Papadopoulos’ account now public, Mueller’s team will no doubt be paying close attention to Sessions’ House appearance, where he will be testifying under oath.
And then there is the audience of one — Trump — whose mercurial relationship with the attorney general makes Sessions the most tenuous of any Cabinet member.
“The president grades his Cabinet members on public appearances, and I think you can expect Attorney General Sessions’ performance to be intensely scrutinized by the president and others at the White House,” said Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s Russia legal team. “The bigger problem for the attorney general is that he is not likely to get the backup from Republican members that he would like because of the attention that he has drawn to himself.”
Corallo, a strong supporter of the attorney general, referred to Sessions’ closely examined testimony at his January confirmation hearing in which he did not acknowledge at least two contacts with the Russian ambassador when pressed by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
When the contacts were ultimately disclosed, the political firestorm that followed prompted Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and the Justice Department to appoint Mueller to lead the inquiry — a move that still rankles Trump.
“Unfortunately, the attorney general is still paying a price for that,” Corallo said. “Republicans don’t always tend to be supportive of their own.”
Jack Sharman, a special counsel to the House Banking Committee during independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Clinton, said some Republicans are likely assessing the political damage inflicted by Ses- sions’ past testimony. “It might get to the point where it becomes more difficult for your allies on the committee to help you,” Sharman said.
Committee Democrats and some Republicans already have put Sessions on notice to prepare himself for an unusually adversarial encounter — even by House standards.
“The facts appear to contradict your sworn testimony,” Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the panel’s senior Democrat, said in a Nov. 7 letter to the attorney general, referring to Sessions’ Senate testimony last month and at his earlier confirmation hearing. “When you appear before our committee we intend to ask you about these inconsistencies.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida said in an op-ed on foxnews.com Monday that Sessions should appoint a second special counsel to investigate actions taken by former FBI director James Comey and former attorney general Loretta Lynch related to the email investigation that dogged Hillary Clinton.
“It’s time for Jeff Sessions to name a Special Counsel and get answers for the American people,” the congressmen wrote. “If not, he should step down.”
The House committee is viewed as one of the most partisan panels in Congress, with many of its members — 24 Republicans and 17 Democrats — representing ideological extremes. The Senate Judiciary Committee has just 20 members, who largely showed deference to their former colleague. Sessions served for 20 years as a U.S. senator from Alabama.
“The president grades his Cabinet members on public appearances, and I think you can expect Attorney General Sessions’ performance to be intensely scrutinized.” Mark Corallo Former spokesman for Trump’s Russia legal team
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. The House takes a turn today. MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA