Sessions Refuses to Discuss His Conversations With Trump About Comey or Russia – New York Times
WASHINGTON — One after another, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide information. And again and again in nearly five hours of testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Sessions refused.
The lawmakers asked for more details about his conversations with President Trump before he fired James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, and pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff in Arizona. They wanted to know what the two had discussed about Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible links to Mr. Trump.
The senators also asked about topics not involving the president, like whether Mr. Sessions had conversations with the attorney general of Texas about an immigration program the state had threatened to sue over, and whether any evidence supported Mr. Trump’s claim that the Cuban government was behind sonic attacks on American diplomats.
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“I’m just not able to comment,” Mr. Sessions said.
Mr. Sessions’s demurrals — and Democratic anger over them — were a recurring theme during his first appearance before the panel for an oversight hearing in the eight months since he became the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
The attorney general had testified in June before the Senate Intelligence Committee and refused then as well to answer questions about his conversations with Mr. Trump, saying they were potentially subject to an assertion of executive privilege by the president. The privilege provides a legal basis to avoid answering questions.
Bracing for more of the same, Democrats had sent Mr. Sessions a letter last week arguing that he would not have a legal basis to continue to refuse to answer unless Mr. Trump invoked the privilege. They demanded that Mr. Trump do so, or that Mr. Sessions be prepared to answer. But from his opening statement, Mr. Sessions made clear that he would frustrate their ambitions.
“Consistent with a longstanding policy and practice of the executive branch, I can neither assert executive privilege, nor can I disclose today the content of my confidential conversations with the president,” Mr. Sessions said.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, told Mr. Sessions that a Reagan-era directive instructed executive branch officials to suspend congressional requests for potentially privileged information long enough to give the president a chance to make a decision. But, the senator added, “You can’t have a situation which the president never has to assert it and the abeyance goes on indefinitely.”
And Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, told Mr. Sessions that he had “stretched this concept of executive privilege, maybe to the breaking point.”
But with Mr. Sessions’s fellow Republicans in charge of the Senate, there appeared to be little chance that the confrontation would lead to a citation of contempt. The committee chairman, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, pointed out that during the Obama administration, Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general at the time, refused to provide internal Justice Department documents related to a botched gun-trafficking investigation. (President Barack Obama eventually invoked executive privilege over them, and the Republican-controlled House cited Mr. Holder for contempt.)
Several other testy exchanges on Wednesday did yield answers from Mr. Sessions, including when Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, pressed him to indicate whether he had been interviewed by Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Sessions initially responded by telling the senator that he would have to ask Mr. Mueller, prompting Mr. Leahy to growl: “I’m asking you.”
Mr. Sessions eventually answered “no,” and when Mr. Leahy pressed further, he reiterated, “The answer’s no.”
Mr. Leahy and Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, also accused Mr. Sessions of changing his answers about his communications with Russian officials last year. They noted that Mr. Sessions had gone from saying he had none, to saying he had none that were campaign-related, to saying he had none about interference in the campaign.
Asked by Mr. Leahy whether he had discussed with Russians the policies or positions of the campaign or the Trump presidency, Mr. Sessions said he was unsure, later adding that it was possible that “some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were.”
At another point, Mr. Franken listed steps the Justice Department had taken on Mr. Sessions’s watch to weaken civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender protections, declaring: “There is an argument to be made that no single Trump administration official has done more to hurt L.G.B.T. people than you.”
Mr. Sessions pushed back, saying his Justice Department had “no hostility” to transgender or gay people, but was simply following the law “scrupulously.”
Asked by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, to commit to not jailing reporters “for doing their jobs” — a reference to the Trump administration’s vow to crack down on leaks to the news media, like reports about what surveillance of Russian officials revealed about contacts with Mr. Trump’s associates — Mr. Sessions demurred.
“I don’t know if I can make a blanket commitment to that effect, but I would say this: We have not taken any aggressive action against the media at this point,” he said.
But asked whether he had talked with the attorney general of Texas, who threatened to sue over an Obama-era program protecting young immigrants from deportation, Mr. Sessions said the answer was privileged.
He frustrated his questioner, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who brought up Mr. Sessions’s own time on the committee.
“This would have been just about the moment when Senator Sessions of Alabama would have blown up,” Mr. Durbin said.
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