Ses­sions faces cru­cial test in new hear­ing on Rus­sia

Among those watch­ing: Congress, Mueller, Trump

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Kevin John­son and Erin Kelly

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 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

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