Jeff Sessions walks the tightrope: Compromised attorney general must try to shield his boss and protect himself

Sessions is in a tough spot: He must prove his loyalty to Trump while explaining his own deeply troubling conduct

By Heather Digby Parton
June 13, 2017 12:15PM (UTC)
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Jeff Sessions (AP/Ron Sachs/Shutterstock/Salon)

People all over the country were riveted by James Comey's testimony last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee and it whet their appetites for more revelations. A friend of mine texted me after it was done and asked excitedly, "Who's testifying next week?"

As it happens, on Tuesday Attorney General Jeff Sessions will appear before the same committee. This will be the first time Sessions has appeared before Congress since his confirmation hearings, and since he's previously canceled several scheduled appearances to speak about the Justice Department budget (and face unpleasant questions from Sen. Al Franken again) before the Senate Appropriations Committee, it's pretty clear that he's been dodging his former colleagues.


Sessions surprised the Intelligence Committee with his offer to testify, and when rumors began to fly that he'd done it only so that he wouldn't have to appear in public, he sent word that he would testify in open session. Perhaps he always intended to do so, but at the moment it appears he was shamed into it.

This public testimony comes on the heels of numerous reports that Sessions was in the doghouse with President Donald Trump because he had recused himself from the Russia investigation and that led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. Why Trump should be so concerned about Mueller is anyone's guess, but that's clearly the case. On Monday night the Beltway was all atwitter over rumors that the president is considering firing Mueller, at the urging of such legal geniuses as Ann Coulter and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

After refusing for days to say whether Sessions still had the confidence of the president (and amid reports that the attorney general had recently offered to resign), the White House press office finally gave a perfunctory "yes" at the end of last week. Perhaps coincidentally, the Justice Department also decided to defend the president's right to accept personal payments from foreign governments, which was awfully nice for him.


On Monday Sessions was among the most unctuous of the Cabinet members who sat around the table obsequiously pledging fealty to their liege lord Donald Trump at what CNN dubbed the weirdest Cabinet meeting ever and New York Times columnist Elizabeth Williamson described as "a public display of affection more Pyongyang than Washington." So perhaps Sessions has accepted that this desire for "freedom to do his job" is secondary to the necessity to protect President Trump, come hell or high water. The testimony he gives on Tuesday will give us a hint about just how far he's willing to go to do that.

This hearing will be just as much about the attorney general as the president, however. Right now, Sessions is very much a part of the Russia investigation himself. And since he hasn't seen fit to testify before Congress as attorney general until now, it's the first time the senators charged with oversight of the intelligence community have had a chance to ask him about his failure to disclose his own meetings with various players in the saga and his decision to participate in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Sessions is right in the middle of the whole thing.

It's important to remember that Sessions wasn't just the first senator to endorse Trump; he was the chairman of the Trump presidential campaign's national security committee. This was the same committee on which Carter Page, one of the central subjects of the Russian investigation, served during the campaign. Considering that Sessions was involved in fashioning the Trump campaign's foreign policy, it's only natural that investigators would see him as someone of interest in an investigation of foreign meddling in the presidential campaign.


For that reason alone, Sessions would have had to recuse himself from having anything to do with the Russian investigation. But he's gone way beyond that, including failing to disclose two meetings with a Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings, allegedly because they were so routine he didn't even remember them. That might be more believable if the issue of possible Russian interference hadn't been all over the media at the time and Sessions hadn't been so closely involved with foreign policy during the campaign.

Be that as it may, Sessions is also under suspicion now for other reasons in the wake of the Comey testimony. He will be asked about Comey's claim that he told Sessions he didn't want to be alone with Trump after a one-on-one meeting when Trump said he hoped Comey would lay off investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn. According to Comey's testimony, Sessions basically shrugged off his concerns.


And the senators will want to know Sessions' reasons for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and what he thinks that means. According to Comey, high-ranking members of Justice Department knew that Sessions would have to do it and at least some of the reason has to do with classified information, which CNN reported was related to yet another undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador.

Even more problematic is the fact that Sessions involved himself in the Comey firing. Trump said on national TV that the Russian investigation was his reason for the firing and Sessions had recused himself from that inquiry. Sessions may say that he didn't know that was behind the president's thinking and claim he thought the reason for the firing was Comey's handling of Hillary Clinton's emails. Lest we forget, during Sessions' confirmation hearing he had promised to recuse himself from that case as well. So there is really no excuse for Sessions having been in any meetings about Comey's firing or weighing in with an opinion. And since Comey's firing was the culmination of a number of actions that may constitute obstruction of justice by the president, Sessions may be implicated in that as well.

Sessions is a savvy political player, so it's unlikely he'll be trapped into saying anything he doesn't want to say. But he's in an awkward position at the moment. He is obviously on precarious ground with the president and will have to find a way to exonerate him if he hopes to retain his confidence, however tenuously. But he's also personally exposed and will have to walk a fine line if he hopes to protect himself as well. You can be sure that Trump will be watching this hearing closely, alert to any sign that his man is selling him down the river.


Trump has said that the worst kind of disloyalty is when someone fails to come to his aid. And he swears that should that happen, that he will "wipe the floor" with them:

If Sessions doesn't properly cover for the boss today, Robert Mueller will not be the only person who needs to look over his shoulder.

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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