Partisanship Spikes as Intel Panel Grills Sessions

Members of the committee leading the Senate’s Russia probe settled into familiar party roles Tuesday.

Sens. Mark Warner (left), Richard Burr (center), and James Risch question Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday.
Chet Susslin
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
June 13, 2017, 7:04 p.m.

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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