It may not be as high-profile an event as James Comey’s testimony last week, but Senate Democrats have a long list of questions they’re preparing to throw at Attorney General Jeff Sessions at his hearing on Tuesday. Sessions will appear in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its ongoing probe into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The two biggest questions facing Sessions will revolve around whether he effectively recused himself from the Russia investigation — given that he also signed off on Comey’s firing — and whether he committed perjury in failing to disclose contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearing.
On Monday, three Democratic staffers close to the committee shared excerpts of their bosses’ expected lines of questioning with Vox. Sessions’s testimony is scheduled to start at 2:30 pm. Watch it live on Vox’s YouTube.
1) How much did Sessions know about the Trump-Comey spat?
A crucial part of Comey’s account of his firing is a meeting held at the Oval Office on February 14. Toward the end of that meeting, Comey has testified, Trump asked Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Sessions, and other aides to leave the room to have a private conversation with the FBI director. That’s when Trump reportedly told Comey, “I hope you can let this go,” about the FBI’s investigation into National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Though Comey’s testimony certainly provides valuable evidence, Senate investigators are looking for more testimony to fill in their understanding of that pivotal meeting. The president’s request over Flynn is part of why some legal experts think there’s reason to believe Trump committed the federal crime of obstructing justice.
So Senate Democrats have prepared a series of questions for Sessions designed to fill in more details from before and after this one-on-one encounter between Trump and Comey. Writes on Senate Democratic aide close to the committee in an email about the possible line of interrogation:
Why would you allow [Comey] to sit down one-on-one with the President? Did it occur to you that this might not be appropriate? Were you aware of Mr. Comey’s concerns regarding his one-on-one conversations with the President? Were you aware that Mr. Comey was asked to drop the Flynn investigation by the President? Were you aware that the President had requested Mr. Comey’s help in making public that he was not directly under investigation?
2) Did Sessions lie to Congress about his meetings with the Russian ambassador?
In March, news broke that Sessions had apparently misled senators at his confirmation hearing. In response to questions from Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Sessions said that he had not met with Russian officials during the Trump campaign. But then it emerged that Sessions had, in fact, met twice with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak — once in a formal meeting in his Senate office, and once briefly at a public event. (Intelligence suggesting a possible third additional meeting was hinted at by Comey following last week’s testimony.)
Senate Democrats want to learn much more about what was discussed when Sessions and Kislyak came into contact, and how or why Sessions would have forgotten to mention those contacts. They also want to know whether this alleged third meeting — reportedly at the Mayflower hotel in Washington, DC, during a foreign policy speech by Trump — actually happened. (Sessions has denied that this third meeting took place, and is expected to deny it again Tuesday.)
Sessions has said the omission was an honest oversight with no greater significance. “In retrospect,” he told reporters in March, “I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.”
But Democrats have many more questions about the meeting that they want Sessions to respond to under oath: Did Trump come up in the formal meeting? Did the election? Did this third meeting really happen? If it did, how could Sessions have left that out of his testimony too?
3) Did Sessions violate his recusal from the Russia investigation?
After news of the undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador emerged, Sessions announced that he’d be recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into the connection between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
But Senate Democrats now think Sessions may have violated that recusal by supporting Trump’s decision to fire Comey. In May, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo lambasting Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. The next day, Sessions wrote a letter to the president recommending that Comey be removed from his position.
That doesn’t add up, Senate Democrats plan to argue. If Sessions had recused himself from the Russia probe, how could he fire the FBI director leading the probe? “In firing Comey, did Sessions violate his recusal from the Russia investigation?” asked one Senate Democratic staffer close to the committee.
Comey already gave Democrats some fodder for this line of attack, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that the legitimacy of Sessions’s recusal was “a reasonable question.”
At least one Senate Democrat is already acknowledging this should be a key question at the hearing. “I think it’s important to establish why he was involved in the dismissal of Director Comey, since he had recused from, apparently, all matters related to the Russia investigation,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) said on CNN.
4) Did Comey really request never to be left alone with Trump?
After his fateful one-on-one Oval Office meeting with Trump, Comey apparently had a strong desire to never again be in a room alone with the president. According to his testimony, Comey went to Sessions — then his boss — and asked him to prevent that situation from recurring.
“It can’t happen that you get kicked out of the room and the president talks to me,” Comey told Sessions, at least according to Comey. “I have a recollection of [Sessions] just kind of looking at me. ... His body language gave me the sense like, ‘What am I going to do?’ … He didn’t say anything.”
As the Washington Post reported, the Justice Department has since disputed Comey’s version of events. Justice Department spokesperson Ian Prior told the Post that Sessions was not silent, and that he instead responded to Comey by saying “that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.”
So is Sessions calling Comey a liar? Does Sessions believe Comey never made his request to never be left alone with Trump? If that’s not what Comey said, then what did he tell Sessions?
Sessions’s answer to this question, like his answers to the rest, is unlikely to do much to lead to criminal charges or suddenly spur impeachment chatter in Congress. But Senate Democrats are hoping to chip away at the administration’s story on Tuesday.