After weeks of political tumult, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions will face some of his former Senate colleagues Tuesday to answer questions about his Russian contacts, his role in firing FBI Director James B. Comey and whether he has fully stepped aside from the Russia investigation.
Whatever the answers, the latest Senate Intelligence Committee hearing will keep attention focused on the Trump administration’s mounting legal and political troubles amid a swirl of Russia-related inquiries, difficulties that the White House would much prefer to move beyond.
Yet on the eve of Sessions’ appearance, a new question has come to the fore, and probably will be put to the attorney general: Is President Trump considering firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who was named by the Justice Department to investigate the Russia matters in the wake of Comey’s firing?
“He’s weighing that option,” Trump confidant Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of the conservative Newsmax Media, said on the PBS show “NewsHour” Monday evening.
Sessions, a former four-term senator from Alabama, was one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters during the campaign last year. He is expected to support the president under oath and to question Comey’s version of events, giving the White House a chance to push back after days of harsh headlines.
Sessions, the nation’s highest-ranking lawman, asked to testify after Comey’s dramatic appearance before the same panel Thursday. In it, Comey cited Sessions several times, including suggesting that the FBI had additional concerns about the attorney general’s dealings with Russian authorities during the campaign.
Comey also made clear he did not trust Sessions to keep the president from meddling in the FBI investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian-backed hackers who sought to influence last year’s election, noting that he deliberately kept Sessions in the dark about some of Trump’s comments.
Sessions is likely to be asked about Comey’s version of several key events, including Comey’s claim that in mid-February he pleaded with Sessions to ensure he not be left alone again with the president, because the FBI chief considered such private meetings inappropriate. Sessions, he said, “didn’t say anything.”
Sessions already has signaled that he will dispute part of that account.
“The attorney general was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
Sessions also may be asked about the propriety of Comey’s arranging a leak of his own memos to a reporter, which Trump described in a tweet Sunday as “very ‘cowardly,’” and whether he agrees with Trump’s description of Comey to two Russian officials as “crazy, a real nut job.”
Comey repeatedly said he did not trust Trump to tell the truth. Sessions may be asked whether he trusts the president’s statements and whether he also takes notes after their conversations. He may be asked whether news reports that he offered to resign are correct.
He almost certainly will be asked whether the president sought to pressure him to block the Russia investigation. The nation’s top intelligence officers, in a separate hearing last week, refused to say under oath whether Trump had asked them to intervene.
The Justice Department said in a statement that Sessions asked to testify in public because “he believes it is important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer would not say Monday whether the White House will invoke executive privilege to block Sessions from answering some questions.
“I think it depends on the scope of the questions,” Spicer said. He also wouldn’t say whether Sessions sought permission from the White House before agreeing to testify, adding, “We’re aware of it and we’ll go from there.”
Although he is not in legal jeopardy, Sessions is a figure in the investigations. During his Jan. 10 Senate confirmation hearing, he said in response to a question that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
After news reports later confirmed that he met twice last year with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sessions announced on March 2 that he had recused himself from any role in the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election or any contacts with the Trump campaign.
Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, handed the investigation off to Mueller last month to ensure it maintains independence from the Trump administration.
Senators are likely to ask Sessions about unverified intelligence suggesting he had a third meeting with Kislyak at a reception at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel in April 2016. His aides already have denied that any meeting occurred.
Sessions is sure to be asked about Comey’s recounting last week of a meeting that Trump held with Sessions, Comey, senior advisor Jared Kushner, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and other top administration officials in the Oval Office on Feb. 14.
As the meeting broke up, Comey said, Trump asked him to stay and shooed everyone else out. Sessions, who outranked Comey, lingered but eventually left at the president’s direction, Comey said.
Once they were alone, Comey said, Trump mentioned the FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, who had been forced to quit a day earlier as national security advisor for lying about his own contacts with Kislyak.
It was during that meeting when Trump said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey recounted. The former FBI director said he understood it as a “direction” from the president.
The president on Friday denied that he had asked Comey to squelch the investigation.
After leaving the Oval Office, Comey said, he and other senior officials in the FBI decided not to tell Sessions about Trump’s comments because Sessions was “inevitably going to recuse himself” from dealing with Russia matters.
Comey said he was “aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
He later told the committee in a classified session about intelligence regarding a third meeting with Kislyak.
Sessions may seek to clarify why he recused himself from the Russia investigation. The Justice Department said last week that Sessions stepped aside because of a department rule that bars attorneys from investigating people with whom they have personal or political ties.
“It was for that reason, and that reason alone,” the department said in a statement that did not mention his meetings with Kislyak. It added Sessions has not been briefed on any matters involving the Russia inquiry.
Senators also are likely to ask Sessions about his meeting with Trump the night before Comey was fired on May 9. After that meeting, Sessions and Rosenstein, his top deputy, wrote memos saying they agreed that Comey should be fired.
“I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI,” Sessions wrote.
Trump later told NBC News that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire Comey and would do so “regardless” of the recommendation he received from Sessions and Rosenstein. Senators may ask Sessions whether Trump mentioned the Russia investigations during their discussions.
Last week, Comey said he couldn’t explain why Sessions, if he had recused himself, was involved in his firing. “It’s a reasonable question,” Comey said.