But the nonetheless riveting spectacle offered a very public stage for an ambitious class of new senators, some of whom may harbor hopes of someday succeeding President Trump.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California treated Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions as a defendant under her prosecutorial glare, to the point that she was admonished to ease up on interrupting him. Another Democrat, Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, got off one of the lines of the day when he laid a trap for Sessions and accused him of “impeding” the Senate investigation.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, more aggressive than most Republicans, mocked the idea of the Trump administration colluding with Russia as something that would never pass muster in a spy movie. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, another first-termer, offered Sessions a comfortable respite from hard-charging Democrats.
The unexpected election of Donald Trump, and the even more unexpected series of events that have spiraled from his administration in the last four and a half months, have unhinged official Washington, now operating on a tense, what-will-happen-next footing. But for some there is advantage in the chaos.
Notably, most committee members Tuesday hewed to what was expected of them given their party, with Democrats asking questions intended to uncover Trump’s failings and Republicans intent on poking holes in the version of events laid out last week by fired FBI director James B. Comey. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican from Florida, was nearly alone in putting a foot in both camps.
The relatively young senators on display were not the only ones to make stinging points one way or the other. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California toed the line of sarcasm when she noted that Trump had suggested he’d fired Comey because of his Russia inquiry — and not for management incompetence, the reason Sessions repeatedly detailed on Tuesday.
“Do you really believe that this had to do with Director Comey's performance with the men and women of the FBI?” asked Feinstein, at 83 the oldest member of the Senate. Her question harked back to last week’s description by Comey that Trump’s accusations of the former director bungling his control of the FBI were “lies, plain and simple.”
But Feinstein and other more veteran senators also gave off a whiff of decorum, of playing by the Senate’s rules. While that may be appropriate given the high stakes, in this fraught political environment it left an opening for others to mix it up.
Heinrich, who has served in the Senate since 2013, opened by asking Sessions whether the president was angry about Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, as published reports have indicated. The question, predictably, prompted Sessions to refuse to testify about conversations with Trump.
“You said that you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Heinrich replied firmly. “And now you're not answering questions. You're impeding this investigation.”
Sessions’ argument, simplified, was that he was not refusing to answer because Trump had declared his executive privilege, but rather in order to preserve Trump’s option to do so in the future.
That vein was thoroughly picked apart by Harris when the California senator, sworn in only weeks before Trump himself, got her turn.
For Harris, the Russia hearings have been a boon, a way to flesh herself out in a way that her careful Senate campaign last year did not. To some, she had been more style than substance until recently, needing the right set of circumstances to be seen with more gravitas.
She also has been in a somewhat difficult position in that she is ambitious in a party whose leftward lurch does not necessarily ensure general election popularity when it comes to the next step up, the presidency.
Yet the former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general has found solid footing in the hearings, at least among Democrats.
She has pushed her questioning past the comfort zone of the Republican leaders of the panel, who have taken turns tut-tutting that she was badgering witnesses. That, of course, is precisely what her national Democratic constituency wants to see, and has already prompted fundraising efforts on her part.
In machine gun style, Harris demanded, over Sessions’ attempts to foil her, any written policies and paperwork he used to inform his testimony and his refusal to speak more openly.
“As appropriate, I will supply the committee with documents,” he replied.
“Can you please tell me what you mean when you say ‘appropriate’?” she asked archly.
She clearly got under Sessions’ skin, at one point drawing the attorney general to demand more time to explain himself lest she “accuse [him] of lying.” Their back-and-forth ended with other Republicans coming to his defense.
The young Republicans, not surprisingly, were far more solicitous of the sitting attorney general. Even if they disagree with Trump’s approach — and many in his party do, privately — Republican politicians are aware that most Republican voters remain loyal to Trump, so a deft touch is required.
Lankford of Oklahoma, elected in 2014, offered Sessions a restful rhetorical hammock.
“You speak as a man eager to set the record straight,” he told Sessions, before defending the attorney general’s right to keep presidential conversations private.
“There's a long history of attorney generals standing beside the president saying there are some conversations that are confidential,” Lankford said.
Cotton, another Republican from the class of 2014, more overtly mocked the whole proceeding in a commentary that seemed meant to attract GOP voters who see the current investigations as a thin attempt to disenfranchise Trump.
Do you like spy fiction or James Bond movies, Cotton asked Sessions, ticking off authors’ names and prompting the attorney general to look at first confused, then delighted. The accusations of collusion, Cotton said, wouldn’t pass muster in any of those confections.
”Thank you for saying that, Sen. Cotton,” a relieved Sessions replied. “It's just like through the looking glass.”
It may have been a reflection of temperament, experience or the stinging repudiation of voters in his 2016 run for the presidency that made Rubio comport himself far differently. Much as he did when Comey testified last week, Rubio seemed to follow a bright line right down the middle.
The second-term senator extracted testimony that Sessions had, in fact, been one of the last people to leave a meeting that ultimately included only Trump and Comey. That confirmed the former FBI director’s claim.
But Rubio also went out of his way to pull from Sessions, after some back-and-forth, that he was unaware if he had been courted by anyone who might have been working for the Russian government, a statement that helped the Trump campaign’s argument.
Whichever approach is more winning, the young senators will have far more time to refine them as the Trump investigations persist, over what looks now to be at least a span of months.