When it became clear that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be bombarded with questions about Russia, he decided to substitute his deputy to testify about the Justice Department’s budget and appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee instead.
Undoubtedly that is the more appropriate venue to address questions about Russian interference in the 2016 election. And when Democrats initially objected to the attorney general’s reported request that he testify behind closed doors, he agreed to appear Tuesday in public.
Despite those efforts, Democrats accused him of ducking the Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing.
“Deputy Attorney General [Rod] Rosenstein, I won’t mince words,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said during that panel’s hearing. “You’re not the witness we were supposed to hear from today. You’re not the witness who should be behind that table. That responsibility lies with the attorney general of the United States.”
Leahy said attorneys general in the past have answered questions, no matter how difficult.
“Attorneys general of the past did now cower at the request of Congress to fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibility,” he said. “And they didn’t agree to come and then cancel at the last minute … Until now, that is.”
Viewed in isolation, someone watching Leahy might get the idea that Sessions was hiding under his desk at the Justice Department. In fact, he appeared the same day before the Intelligence Committee, which is the panel that is actually conducting the Russia probe.
Leahy was not satisfied, referencing the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the testimony Sessions gave at his confirmation hearing in January in response to a question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) about reported communications between Russian intermediaries and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“You’re not who I’m interested in speaking with or hearing from today,” Leahy told Rosenstein. “I do have questions for the attorney general. I want to know why he has provided false testimony to me and to Sen. Franken. I want to know why he, if he’s recused in the Russian investigation, he played any role in the dismissal of FBI Director Comey.”
If that truly was Leahy’s motivation, he could have turned on the TV and watched the Intelligence Committee hearing, because senators on that panel asked the same questions.
“I don’t think it’s good policy to continually bring Cabinet members or the attorney general before multiple committees going over the same things over and over.”
Sessions said he did not provide false testimony because Franken’s question was clearly in the context of communications between the Trump campaign and Russians. The attorney general said he did not mention a meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and an encounter with him after Sessions had given a speech because he was acting in his capacity as a senator representing Alabama.
As far as Comey, Sessions said his recusal from the Russia investigation did not include his duty to supervise the FBI director.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, also expressed “concern with the process” that led to the attorney general’s appearance before his panel.
“While we appreciate his testimony before our committee, I believe — and I believe I speak for many of my colleagues — that I believe he should also answer questions from members of those [House and Senate appropriations] committees and the Judiciary Committee as well,” he said. “Mr. Attorney General, it’s my hope that you will reschedule those appearances as soon as possible.”
Sessions said he would consider future requests to testify before other committees but made no promises.
“Senator, I will commit to appear before the committees and others as appropriate,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good policy to continually bring Cabinet members or the attorney general before multiple committees going over the same things over and over.”