Stanford scholars offer analysis on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' hearing before Senate committee

Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Stanford scholars Kori Schake and David Sklansky share their thoughts on the proceedings.

For the second time in five days, the Senate Intelligence Committee heard testimony from one of the nation’s top law enforcement officials about potential Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (Image credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied inappropriate contact with Russian officials and also said that suggesting he participated in or knew of a collusion with the Russian government regarding the election “is an appalling and detestable lie.” Sessions’ testimony on Tuesday followed former FBI Director James Comey’s appearance before the same committee last week.

Kori Schake, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and David Sklansky, a professor of law and faculty co-director at Stanford Law School’s Criminal Justice Center, gave their thoughts on Tuesday’s hearing.

What was your assessment of Sessions’ appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee? Did he help or hurt himself with his testimony?

Schake: I don’t think it ever helps a witness to be angry and defensive in congressional testimony.  And it definitely hurt him to refuse to answer questions.

Sklansky: I think he probably raised his stock with President Trump and his close circle, but I doubt he won over any skeptics.  A lot of what he did was refuse to answer questions.

What did we learn today that we did not previously know?

Schake: We learned five important things:

  • Sessions did not believe recusing himself from Russia-related issues prevented him from participating in the decision to fire FBI Director Comey, even when the Russia probe was the president’s reason for firing Comey. The attorney general declined to say whether he knew the president was firing Comey because of the Russia investigation – leaving this an open question seems to me damaging to his own case.  Because if there was any question it was related to the Russia case, Sessions should have recused himself.
  • He corroborated Comey’s statement that Comey had asked Sessions not to leave him alone with the president.
  • The attorney general’s chief of staff was present for the Comey-Sessions exchange, so the chief of staff can corroborate one of their opposing testimonies.
  • The attorney general never counseled the FBI director about his job performance before firing him.  This matters because it calls Sessions’ rationale for the firing into question.
  • The attorney general never sought or received a briefing on Russian interference in the election.

Sklansky: We learned that Sessions will refuse to answer any questions about his conversations with the president or other senior administration officials, even if there has been no claim of executive privilege.  His view, as he eventually explained it, is that he shouldn’t answer questions about anything about which the president might later decide to invoke executive privilege.

We also learned Sessions’ explanation for his recusal from the Russia investigation.  He said that was required under Justice Department regulations because of his relationship with the Trump campaign, and that there were no other facts requiring his recusal.  That raises a couple of questions:  why it took him an entire month to announce his recusal after he was sworn in, and what Comey was referring to when he testified last week that Sessions’ continued involvement in the Russia investigation was rendered “problematic” by facts that couldn’t be discussed in open session.

Did we get any further insight today about what Comey meant by his claim that Sessions’ continued involvement in Russia-related matters would be “problematic?”

Sklansky: Sessions acted angry about Comey’s suggestion that there were undisclosed facts that might have required Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia inquiry.  So I would say the mystery here only deepened.

Considering Comey’s testimony last week, did Sessions have any choice but to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a public setting?

Sklansky: Even before Comey’s testimony, Sessions was facing increasing pressure to defend his own actions. But Comey’s testimony obviously increased the pressure.

Schake: Yes, he had a choice, although refusing would have made it difficult for him to achieve much of what an attorney general needs from the Congress – and, ironically, the manner of his testimony I think left him in the same place, having alienated Congress.

President Trump has stated he would be willing to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller. What is the likelihood of that occurring? Is there anyone else who needs to be heard from before Trump?

Sklansky: Certainly the fact that Trump says he’d be willing to testify doesn’t mean that he will.  He used to say that he’d love to release his tax returns.  And testifying would be risky for him, because lying under oath would be perjury. But who knows?  Trump does like to look bold, and he likes to be the center of attention.  And before this is over he may be forced to testify.

No one needs to be heard from before Trump, but [special counsel Robert] Mueller isn’t likely to seek Trump’s testimony, or even to interview him, before talking with and possibly getting testimony from many other people.  If Mueller investigates the Comey dismissal, he’ll likely want to talk to Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein before speaking with or taking testimony from the president.  The refusal by Sessions today to answer any questions about conversations with the president or other senior administration officials — even without any claim of privilege —suggests that it may take grand jury subpoenas to get the full facts regarding Comey’s dismissal.

Schake: Having committed to it, the president will have a difficult time avoiding doing so, which makes the likelihood pretty high.  The two important players who have not yet testified in public are the directors of National Intelligence (Dan Coats) and Central Intelligence (Mike Pompeo), both of whom the president also evidently spoke to about pressuring FBI Director Comey.  If they corroborate Comey’s testimony, it will be difficult to sustain the president’s version of events.

One thing more: I find believable Attorney General Sessions not being able to recall meeting the Russian ambassador; he was one of the few Trump spokesmen at the time, and was probably being mobbed by foreign dignitaries.  The problem for the president and attorney general is that even if there is no collusion with the Russians, investigations take on a life of their own and this investigation is now about perjury and obstruction of justice.

Media Contacts

Milenko Martinovich, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-9281, mmartino@stanford.edu