So I’m back, the malware cleanup is done, and the site is safe to visit. I’ll be back tomorrow with some actual posts.
I didn’t get to watch it, but I take it Jeff Sessions’s testimony today was a lot of chest thumping and bluster without substance.
The big and overriding takeaway from this hearing is that Sessions declined to answer almost all the pertinent questions â€“ in most cases because they involved his discussions with President Trump and in at least one case (or this was what I understood him to be saying) discussions with other leaders at the Department of Justice. Thereâ€™s an important back and forth about what basis he had for this refusal. That is important in itself. But the gist, as Sessions eventually seemed to concede, was that he was refusing to answer because he did not want to preclude or render moot the Presidentâ€™s ability to assert executive privilege.
But as the President hasn’t asserted executive privilege yet, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to fly.
What did jump out at me across the whole testimony is that Sessions claims he recused himself from the Russia probe simply and only because it involved a presidential campaign of which he could reasonably be viewed as a top advisor. This is almost certainly not true. Sessions recused himself the day after The Washington Post reported two meetings with Ambassador Kislyak which Sessions had failed to disclose at his confirmation hearing. Sessions now claims that that he had made what amounts to an in pectore recusal the day after he was sworn in (little shout out to you canon lawyers out there). So in Sessionsâ€™ mind, what we thought was a recusal was just the formal version of what he had done in his head weeks earlier. Again, this seems almost certainly false. Inevitably this elaborate ruse undermines his credibility about all the rest. Comey seemed to have in mind something more than simply a technical reason requiring Sessions to recuse himself.
Big picture: Sessions refused to answer the biggest questions; he was almost certainly not telling the truth about what triggered his refusal. Most of the rest was atmospherics.
The contrast with Comey was striking. Sessions, grayer and older, looked nervous and shrunken in his seat, growing defensive at times. He weakly complained to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) about her questioning. He sharply objected: â€œIâ€™m not able to be rushed this fast, it makes me nervous.â€ Indeed, whileÂ Comey was relaxed, confident and expansive, Sessions was evasive and skittish. He repeatedly refused to answer questions, not invoking executive privilege but saying it was Justice Department â€œpolicyâ€ not to talk about conversations with the president. Democrats repeatedly challenged him, accusing him of â€œstonewalling.â€ Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) slammed him: â€œYou are impeding this investigation.â€ Heinrich told Sessions thereâ€™s no â€œappropriatenessâ€ standard that alleviates him from the need to testify under oath fully and completely. Heinrich flat out accused Sessions of â€œobstructingâ€ the investigation.
Sessionsâ€™s recusal â€” his justification for it, and the scope of how he defines it â€” is central to the integrity of the FBIâ€™s investigation into Russian interference in our election, and possible Trump campaign collusion with it. Thatâ€™s because Sessions was at the center of advising the Trump campaign on national security issues during the campaign and has failed to be forthcoming about how that role might have blended with his communications with Russian officials throughout. This raises questions as to how impartially he can exercise his role as the nationâ€™s chief law enforcement officer and whether he may still be in a position to influence the Russia probe.
Sessionsâ€™s testimony, though, failed to put to rest any doubts Senate investigators, or the public, have about many of the matters relating to his recusal, and whether he is adhering to it. In fact, Sessions only raised new and potentially damaging questions about his actions and cast doubt on his own truthfulness about what the recusal entails.
The people who best treed JeffBo on his most preposterous bullshitâ€”Heinrich, Kamala Harris of California, and The Mustache of Righteousness, Angus King of Maineâ€”could only push him so far. Everybody on that committee knew that what JeffBo was selling was batter-fried nonsense. (Call me an elitist snob if you like, but whenever I hear a Southerner talking about “mah honah,” I reach for William Tecumseh Sherman’s phone number.)
Everybody on that committee knew that, when JeffBo declined to answer questions about whether James Comey was fired because of the Russia probe, he was hiding the plain truth behind a privilege that he’d made up on the spot. Everybody on that committee knew that JeffBo’s memory lapses were at best highly convenient. (He couldn’t remember meeting the Russian ambassador, but he could quote an op-ed by William Barr from almost a year ago? That dog don’t even want to hunt.) Everybody on that committee knew that you can’t refuse to answer a question because the president* might want to invoke executive privilege at some vague point in the future. But if the majority is content to look like an entire bag of tools and pretend otherwise, there’s not much the Senate can do about being obstructed in such a shameless fashion.
Actually, there is one historical precedent for what Sessions asserted that went unmentioned, and that precedent is not promising. Although even it wasn’t as barefaced as it was on Tuesday, the assertion of an illegitimate, unasserted “executive privilege” was, for a long time, central to the defense of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s corrupt AG who went to jail behind his crimes relating to Watergate and what Mitchell himself called, “the White House horrors.” It is an argument you make when you know that there is an unacceptable political price to be paid if the president* actually does assert executive privilege in advanceâ€”which is what the Obama administration did on several occasions, despite Tom Cotton’s having been deliberately and dishonestly obtuse on the comparison during Tuesday’s hearings.
There’s only a certain amount of sham that our institutions can tolerate. We’re getting very close to it.