And many of those questions involve just what President Trump said about James Comey before his firing.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions dodged many of the most important questions he was asked during his Senate testimony Tuesday, arguing that it would be improper for him to disclose “confidential communications” between him and President Donald Trump.
Senators wanted to know just what Sessions and Trump had discussed about FBI director before Trump fired him, and whether Sessions was surprised to later hear Trump admit that he did so due to the Russia investigation.
But again and again on questions like these, Sessions testified he was “not able to comment on” or “not able to characterize” something he and President Trump talked about.
And yet it’s not that Sessions wasn’t willing to answer any sensitive or high-stakes questions. He bluntly told Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) that he’s never talked to the president about whether he has confidence in special counsel Bob Mueller. “I have no idea. I have not talked to him about it,” Sessions said.
However, when it came to questioning implying improper behavior by Trump around the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Sessions grew mum and said he couldn’t answer. The hearing was supposed to shed more light on why Trump fired Comey, but Sessions refused to give those details.
The questions Sessions wouldn’t answer
So it’s worth taking a closer look at just which questions Sessions wouldn’t answer. When asked, he demurred about:
- Whether Trump talked about Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation with him
- Whether he was surprised to hear Trump say, two days after Comey’s firing, that the Russia investigation was a major factor in his decision
- Whether Trump has expressed anger to him over his recusal from the Russia investigation
- Whether top White House or Justice Department officials have already discussed pardons for Trump associates under investigation
Now, Sessions’s non-answers surely shouldn’t be taken as confirmation that any of these things happened. Still, it’s worth taking note that under oath, he refused to straightforwardly deny any of these suggestions. So we don’t have a clear answer on whether they happened or not.
What we don’t know about Sessions’s role in Comey’s firing
To set the stage for the questioning: On May 8, the day before President Trump fired FBI Director Comey, he had Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein over for a meeting. At that meeting, according to the Washington Post, Trump had already decided to fire Comey, but he asked Sessions and Rosenstein to make the case for doing so in writing:
The president already had decided to fire Comey, according to [a person close to the White House]. But in the meeting, several White House officials said Trump gave Sessions and Rosenstein a directive: to explain in writing the case against Comey.
They ended up doing so, with Rosenstein writing a lengthy critique of Comey’s behavior in the Clinton email case and Sessions writing that he agreed with the critique. The Trump White House released those statements in their announcement of Comey’s firing, presenting them as justification.
But it always appeared to be a thin pretext — there were multiple reports that Trump had repeatedly complained to associates about Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, and indeed, Trump essentially said that to NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview just two days after the firing. (“When I decided to just do [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’” Trump said.) The president reportedly said a similar thing to Russians in the Oval Office — according to leaks to the New York Times, he said the firing of the “nutjob” Comey eased “pressure” on him.
So what exactly did Trump say about Comey to Sessions and Rosenstein during that White House meeting, and at other times? Was Sessions fully aware that Trump was firing Comey because of the Russia investigation? If so, wouldn’t this seem to violate his recusal?