The Memo: Five takeaways from Jeff Sessions’s testimony

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE went before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday as reverberations continue from the appearance of former FBI Director James Comey in front of the same panel last week.

So, what were the key takeaways?

Sessions got his side of the story out

Sessions’s testimony diverged from the fired FBI chief’s in important respects.

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Sessions disputed Comey’s account of a crucial meeting in mid-February. By Comey’s account, he told Sessions the day after being left alone with President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE in the Oval Office that this should never happen again, and Sessions did not respond.

Sessions, an Eagle Scout and former senator, insisted he did respond, and agreed with Comey on the importance of maintaining proper protocol.

More broadly, Sessions emphasized a number of times that a conversation between a president and the head of the FBI would not axiomatically be inappropriate. Rather, it would only be improper if regulations about what could be said about ongoing investigations were violated.

Conspicuously, Sessions sought to shift the burden of responsibility away from Trump and onto Comey. 

“The rules apply to the Department of Justice, so it is the duty of the FBI agent to say, ‘Mr. President I can’t talk about that,’” Sessions insisted, in response to a question from Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntDems push for more money for opioid fight Trump asked Senate Republicans to end Russia election interference investigation: report An overlooked solution to the opioid epidemic MORE (R-Mo.).

But Sessions did buttress some elements of Comey’s testimony. He appeared to acknowledge that Comey was concerned about the Oval Office encounter with Trump. 

Comey testified that Sessions had lingered on that occasion as if aware he should not let a one-on-one meeting occur. While the attorney general did not admit such concerns, he did say, “I do recall being one of the last ones to leave.”

On the subject of Comey’s firing, however, Sessions stood fast by his assertion that he had concerns about the management of the bureau under Comey. 

Importantly, he declined to get into specifics about his discussions with Trump about the former director.

His refusal to answer some questions triggered Dem ire

The most heated moments in the hearing concerned Sessions’s refusal to talk about Comey-related discussions with the president.

His tactic drew the ire of several Democrats, including Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Lobbying world MORE (Ore.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Senators introduce bipartisan gun background check bill Dem senator: 'Super close' on bipartisan deal on guns MORE (N.M.). Wyden accused Sessions of “stonewalling,” which drew an angry denial from the attorney general, while Heinrich went even further, accusing him of “impeding this investigation.”

Sessions was at pains to point out that he was not officially invoking executive privilege, since he argued that only the president could do so. 

But skeptics would argue that he was drawing a distinction without a difference. 

During the hearing, the Republican National Committee emailed statements out from then-Obama administration officials citing the need for the commander-in-chief to receive confidential advice.

A third encounter with Russia’s U.S. ambassador may have happened

Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, has been a big problem for Sessions.

Earlier this year, Sessions said during his Senate confirmation hearing that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” He subsequently had to admit that he had in fact met Kislyak on two occasions during the 2016 campaign.

But news reports after Comey testified behind closed doors last week suggested that there had been a third time Sessions and Kislyak met, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

Sessions implicitly acknowledged that he and Kislyak had both attended an event at the hotel, where then-candidate Donald Trump gave a speech on foreign policy. However, Sessions vehemently pushed back on any suggestion that he could have met Kislyak in private or that anything improper had occurred.

Referring to Kislyak’s presence at the event, Sessions argued, “I did not remember that, but I understand he was there. So I don’t doubt that he was.”

The hearing had some heat

There were some moments of real fieriness from Sessions, as well as from the Democratic members of the panel.

In Sessions’s opening remarks, he said that any suggestion that he had colluded with Russia was an “appalling and detestable lie.” In response to sympathetic questioning from Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Grassley offers DACA fix tied to tough enforcement measures Five things senators should ask Tom Cotton if he’s nominated to lead the CIA MORE (R-Ark.), Sessions lamented that the whole inquiry was “like ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ I mean, what is this?”

Sessions seemed sincerely outraged that his propriety had come under question. During tense exchanges with Wyden, the Oregon Democrat asked why Comey might have seen something “problematic” regarding Sessions and Russia. 

“Why don’t you tell me?” an angry Sessions responded. “There are none, Sen. Wyden … This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”

Kamala Harris, 2020?

The most viral moment of the hearing had nothing to do with the specifics of Sessions’s encounter with Kislyak or even about the firing of Comey per se.

Rather, it came when Harris, an experienced prosecutor before becoming a senator, drilled into Sessions’s hesitancy about answering certain questions.

A flustered Sessions at one point shot back, “I'm not able to be rushed this fast, it makes me nervous.”

Harris’s demeanor toward Sessions drew the intercession of the panel’s Republican chairman, Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSessions argued presidents can obstruct justice in Clinton impeachment trial Trump Jr. to meet with Senate panel amid Russia probe Trump’s Russian winter grows colder with Flynn plea deal MORE (N.C.). 

But her persistence drew enthusiastic approval from liberals on social media. In Washington, the encounter is likely to further amplify buzz about a possible presidential bid by the California Democrat in 2020.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.