At the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, Chairman Richard Burr began with a request: “that members will focus their questions today on the Russia investigation and not squander the opportunity by taking political or partisan shots.”
Not everyone appeared to receive the message.
While Burr and the panel’s vice chairman, Mark Warner, have strived to put a bipartisan face on the panel, Tuesday’s hearing featured its fair share of partisan squabbles. Democrats repeatedly pressed Sessions, a former GOP senator who on several occasions referred to members of the committee as his “colleagues,” on his refusal to answer questions about conversations with President Trump. And Republicans stepped up at times to help shore up Sessions’ defense regarding his silence on some matters, as well as a possible undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The hearing took on a different tone from former FBI Director James Comey’s appearance before the committee last week, when Republicans seemed more eager to poke holes in the star witness’s story—while Democrats lauded and defended him.
The ability of the committee, particularly among the majority party, to agree on its priorities and stay above the political fray will be critical as it continues Capitol Hill’s foremost probe into the Russian government’s interference in the last election and potential ties to Trump’s associates.
Sen. Tom Cotton began using his allotted time by admonishing his Democratic colleagues for going down “lots of other rabbit trails,” but not focusing on the lack of evidence pointing to collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. In his opening statement, Sessions said, “I have never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States,” and called any suggestion that he colluded with the Russians “an appalling and detestable lie.”
Cotton backed him up, likening allegations that Sessions may have secretly met with the Russian ambassador at a hotel in Washington last year to spy books and movies, akin to the actions of Jason Bourne or James Bond.
“Have you ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plotline so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?”
Sessions was appreciative. “Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton,” he replied, the first of two times he thanked Cotton for his questions. “It’s just like through the looking glass. I mean, what is this?”
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. James Risch also helped bolster Sessions’ testimony that he didn’t set up a meeting with any Russian officials, but may have had chance encounters that he doesn’t recall. Risch said meetings between senators and foreign government officials are “everyday occurrences here,” adding they might even run into each other at the grocery store.
“That could very well happen,” Sessions responded. “We did nothing improper.”
Sen. James Lankford said Democrats complaining about Sessions declining to detail his conversations with Trump had “short memory,” referring to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s testimony in the “Fast and Furious” case during the Obama administration.
“You speak as a man eager to set the record straight,” Lankford told Sessions. “You have spoken very plainly from the very beginning, from your opening statement all the way through this time.”
A couple of Republicans also made sure to set aside some time for a favorite punching bag: the media. Risch asked about a February New York Times report that Trump campaign aides were in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials, a report which Comey had said last week was “not true.” Sessions said he didn’t remember the specifics of the article.
For his part, Lankford called the stories that Trump was considering firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller the “rumor of the day,” even though Christopher Ruddy, a friend of the president’s, was the first to bring it up. And he criticized leaks from anonymous sources.
“It does seem as well that every unnamed-source story somehow gets a hearing,” Lankford said.
Meanwhile, just about every Democrat on the committee pressed Sessions to explain why he wouldn’t discuss conversations he may have had with Trump about the Russia probe or Comey’s firing. This led Sessions to get into heated exchanges with Sens. Ron Wyden, Martin Heinrich, and Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Sessions argued that even though Trump hasn’t asserted executive privilege, he could at some point in the future.
Heinrich accused Sessions of “obstructing” the panel’s investigation, while Wyden said he was “stonewalling.”
“I am not stonewalling,” Sessions shot back. “I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.”
Towards the end of the hearing, Sen. Kamala Harris kept up the line of questioning in a rapid succession. “I don’t like to be rushed this fast; it makes me nervous,” Sessions said.
After a few more rounds of back and forth, Sen. John McCain, who was attending the hearing as the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, tapped on his microphone a few times before cutting in to urge Harris to allow Sessions to answer her questions uninterrupted.
“Senators will allow the chair to control the hearing,” Burr said, before intervening again a minute later to inform Harris that her time was up.
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