There is an old maxim that everything moves slower in the South. It certainly applied on Tuesday to Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on questions related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Sessions was often combative and defensive from his opening statement on. But mostly, he dragged the proceedings out with rambling filibusters. Every answer to one of his former Senate colleagues dripped from his lips with all the speed of molasses on a hot day. If he didn’t like a question, he complained in that wounded Southern drawl. (“Senatuh, I b’lieved it impropah to discuss such mattas.”)
All that was missing was the attorney general slapping one of the Democratic senators with a glove and announcing that the only way to salve his wounded honor was a duel at dawn, with antique muzzle-loading pistols.
Sessions deployed this folksy, aw-shucks Southern charm as part of a larger stonewalling effort. But he failed to answer many of the questions that had been swirling around Washington after Comey’s testimony before the same committee last Thursday. He stuck to the original White House line that Comey was let go because of his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation during last year’s campaign, despite the president's long ago abandoning that rationale. He answered,“I can’t recall” to multiple questions and could not be moved off that position by Democratic senators.
It was weird how he dodged some questions by holding out the possibility that the president might want to invoke executive privilege, at some point in the future. It is so unusual to refuse to answer questions based on the chance that executive privilege might be invoked at an unspecified later date that even a White House official decried the move to CNN reporter Dan Merica.
Much like after Comey’s appearance before the committee last week, one big takeaway is the Trump administration’s total lack of interest in potential Russian interference in the election. This was summed up most vividly in an exchange between Sessions and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, rendered nicely by Roger Simon of Politico:
King: Do you think Russians interfered with the 2016 election?
Sessions: Appears so.
King: But you never asked about it?
Sessions was sworn in as attorney general in early February. He did not recuse himself from the Russian investigation until almost four weeks later. He is the chief law enforcement officer in the country. He oversees the FBI, which hunts foreign spies on American soil. Yet with all the nation’s intelligence agencies screaming about Russian interference in the election, with a report published Monday by Bloomberg stating that hackers associated with Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services may have tried to hack voting machine software and voter registration data, Sessions simply was not interested in learning more about it? He was not interested in hearing what the nation’s federal law enforcement agencies might know about an attack on the machinery of American democracy?
It is one thing to be skeptical of the entire Russian story. It is another to be the nation’s attorney general and to apparently have no interest in finding out if there's any truth to it. Yet that appears to be exactly what Jeff Sessions has done. It is a disgraceful abdication of his responsibilities.
Why would Sessions not be interested in finding out more about whatever Russia has been up to with our elections? He did drop one clue during the hearing, when he told Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., that he considers it “a tragic event that we can’t get along better” with Russia. Improving relations with Russia has unquestionably been one of this administration’s driving forces in foreign policy. Indeed, it has perhaps been its main goal.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. But why is it such an important goal that the administration is willing to overlook meddling in the election on the scale that has been alleged by the entire American intelligence community? Does Sessions, who was in no way a notable foreign policy mind during his Senate tenure and whom the Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe on Monday termed a “strange” choice as the Trump campaign’s foreign-policy chair, know something that the more experienced Russia hands in Washington do not?
Thus we can sum up the giant question that could not be answered at Tuesday’s hearing: Why? Why so little interest in what could go down in history as a massive attack on American democracy? If Trump and the entire Republican Party get their way, we will not get an answer anytime soon.