National Security

Five things to watch in Sessions hearing

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is stepping into the middle of a political firestorm as he faces lawmakers for the first time since President Trump’s surprise decision to fire James Comey as FBI director last month.
Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama, will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, setting up another Capitol Hill media frenzy just days after Comey’s bombshell testimony.
Comey’s remarks last week about Sessions — including about a potential third meeting between Sessions and a top Russian official — are threatening to drag the attorney general deeper into the controversy surrounding potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
Ahead of Sessions’s testimony, the White House sent mixed signals about how open he will be with lawmakers.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News that Sessions “is willing to cooperate and share what he knows.”
But press secretary Sean Spicer declined to rule out Sessions’s invoking of executive privilege during his testimony, saying, “I think it depends on the scope of the questions.”
Here are five things to watch for.
Did Sessions have a third meeting with a Russian official?
Comey said during a closed-door meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee that Sessions may have had an undisclosed third meeting with the Russian ambassador.
The former FBI director hedged his comments, but congressional investigators were reportedly already looking into whether Sessions and Sergey Kislyak met on the sidelines of a foreign policy speech Trump gave in April 2016.
The Justice Department has denied that the two talked, saying the “the then-senator did not have any private or side conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel.”
If the third meeting took place, it would contradict Sessions’s previous assertion that he only met twice with the Russian official during the presidential campaign — once at the Republican National Convention and a second time in his Senate office in September 2016.
“I do not recall any discussions with the Russian ambassador, or any other representative of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasions,” Sessions wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
When did he decide to recuse himself from Russia probe?
Sessions will face a barrage of questions over when he decided to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian election meddling, which includes a review of potential ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow to influence the race’s outcome.
Comey told lawmakers that the FBI had expected Sessions to step back from the investigation even before his recusal on March 2. He said the FBI knew of facts that would make it “problematic” for Sessions to oversee the probe.
“It’s pretty clear that Comey wanted to signal in his testimony information about Sessions that was pretty concerning,” said a GOP strategist.
It’s unclear what information Comey was referring to.
The Justice Department stressed after the hearing that Sessions began consulting with career department officials shortly after he was confirmed about stepping back from the investigation, and his decision was based only on his status as a Trump campaign supporter.
Ian Prior, a spokesman for the Justice Department, added that Sessions “had not been briefed or participated in any investigation within the scope of the recusal” after he began meeting with ethics officials.
Session’s decision to recuse himself from the probe reportedly strained his relationship with Trump, and senators will likely ask Sessions about reports that he offered to resign.
Will Sessions talk about his involvement in Comey’s firing?           
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told lawmakers during a closed-door meeting that he first learned Trump planned to fire Comey during a May 8 meeting with Sessions and the president.
He and Sessions also discussed replacing Comey during a meeting last year —months before Comey was fired.
“In one of my first meetings with then-Senator Jeff Sessions last winter, we discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI,” Rosenstein told lawmakers, according to his released remarks.
Democrats argue Sessions would have violated his pledge to recuse himself from the Russia probe if he was involved in Comey’s firing. They are expected to ask the attorney general if he knew the president wanted to fire Comey, in part because of the Russia investigation, as Trump has stated publicly.
“If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain?” Comey said.
Did Comey raise concerns about a meeting with Trump?
Comey told the Intelligence Committee that Trump asked Sessions to leave the room at the end of a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting, and he thought Sessions lingered “because he knew he shouldn’t be leaving.”
It was after that one-on-one conversation with Trump — when Comey says the president asked him to let go of an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — that the former FBI director says he asked Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump.
“It can’t happen that you get kicked out of the room and the president talks to me,” Comey says he told Sessions, adding that the attorney general “didn’t say anything.”
Republicans seized on Comey’s comments. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asked why, if Comey didn’t want to be alone with Trump, the former FBI director still accepted phone calls from the president.
The Justice Department also disputes Comey’s version of their conversation, saying the then-FBI director told Sessions that the FBI wanted to make sure it was following the “proper communications protocol” and that Sessions “was not silent.”
“He responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies,” Prior said.
Will GOP senators stand by Sessions?
One area to watch: Do Republicans stand by Sessions  — who is widely liked in the caucus — or do they criticize their former colleague?
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.) during a contentious town hall on Monday sidestepped whether he would vote again for Sessions as attorney general, noting he “generally has made a practice of not outlining any votes that I regret.”
“I’m awaiting the outcome of the special counsel and their report with what has gone on with Russia, and therefore Sen. Sessions is entitled to the factual findings of this counsel,” Moran said, according to the Kansas City Star.
But Republicans played defense for the Alabama Republican during his contentious confirmation hearing, and again when Democrats called for him to recuse himself or resign over his meetings with Russian officials.
GOP senators quickly stressed in the immediate wake of Comey’s testimony that they wanted to hear Sessions’s side of the story.
“I want to know, is it true what Comey said? Did you create an atmosphere there that people believe that you cannot fairly render judgment on the president’s interactions with Comey?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told CBS.
Tags Jeff Sessions Jerry Moran Lindsey Graham Roy Blunt
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