Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledges that he discussed then-FBI Director James Comey with President Donald Trump before writing the letter that was used as justification for Comey’s firing in May. But he won’t say what, specifically, Trump’s concerns with Comey were — and in particular, whether Trump was intent on getting rid of Comey to dispel the “cloud” he felt the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had cast over his presidency.
In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions confirmed to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had met with the president before writing their May 9 letters, which justified firing Comey based on his treatment of the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
But asked whether Trump had ever voiced concerns about a “cloud” over the Russia investigation to Sessions — or what, in particular, Trump’s concerns about Comey were — Sessions claimed the content of his conversations with the president was confidential.
Sessions made it clear in his opening statement to the committee that he’d be less than forthcoming on questions like this: “Under these circumstances today, I will not be able to discuss the content of my conversations with the president.” His argument (which he also made during his previous Senate testimony, before the Intelligence Committee) is that Trump has the right to invoke executive privilege to keep the contents of his interactions with officials private — and that unless the White House explicitly decides not to invoke executive privilege, Sessions can’t deprive them of the option to do so by talking about any conversations that executive privilege might protect.
Many legal scholars think this is a dubious use of executive privilege. But it’s the line that Sessions has drawn when it comes to his interactions with the president, and Senate Democrats haven’t been able to get him to budge.
Nor, for that matter, has special counsel Robert Mueller. Sessions wouldn’t answer a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) about whether he’d gotten any inquiries from Mueller or his team, but would confirm that he hasn’t yet sat down with them for an interview. The implication (as pointed out by former Obama DOJ aide Matthew Miller on Twitter) is that Mueller’s investigators have asked Sessions for an interview, but he hasn’t agreed to it yet.
Ultimately, without Sessions or Rosenstein being willing to talk about what Trump said to them about Comey before they wrote their letters, the public will never know exactly why Trump fired Comey. It’ll be up to everyone to determine what they think is more credible: Sessions and Rosenstein’s claims that a proper process was followed, or Trump’s own stream-of-consciousness associations between Comey and the Russia investigation.
Read the full exchange between Feinstein and Sessions below:
FEINSTEIN: I wanted to ask you a question or two about the firing of the FBI director; specifically, I have your letter dated May 9 to the president. Specifically, what was your designated role in the decision to fire director Comey?
SESSIONS: It is — it's a matter that I can share some information about, because the president, I'm sorry, has talked about it and revealed or — that letter. He asked that Deputy Rosenstein and I make our recommendations in writing. We prepared those recommendations and submitted it to the president.
Sen. Feinstein, I don't think it's been fully understood that the significance of the error that Mr. Comey made in the Clinton matter. I don't think I've heard of a situation in which a major case in which the Department of Justice prosecutors were involved in an investigation, that the investigative agent announces the closure of the investigation. And then a few weeks before this happened, he was testifying on — before the Congress, well, Comey was, and he said he thought he did the right thing and would do it again.
So the Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, who's got, what, 27 years in the Department of Justice, Harvard graduate, served for eight years, as US attorney on the, under President Obama and four years under President Bush, he said that was a usurpation of the position of the Department of Justice, that position. But particularly we confirmed that he reaffirmed he would do it again. I think that's a basis that called requester a fresh state after the FBI. Mr. Comey had many talents. There's no doubt about it. No hard feeling about that. But I am really excited about the new director, Chris Wray, who you've confirmed with an overwhelming vote and I believe he’s going to be able to do the job of FBI director with great skill and integrity.
FEINSTEIN: What exactly did President Trump tell you was his reason for firing Director Comey? I know he has said he thought the department was a mess and he asked you and Mr. Rosenstein to take a look at it, and my understanding was these two letters were presented, the letter from you, dated May 9, and the letter from Rosenstein, dated the same date, a response to that request, to take a look at the department.
SESSIONS: That's what I can tell you. He did ask for our written opinion, and we submitted that to him. It did not represent any change in either one of our's opinion as Deputy Rosenstein has also indicated, I believe. And we were asked to provide it, and we did.
FEINSTEIN: Did the president ever mention to you his concern about lifting the cloud on the Russia investigation?
SESSIONS: Sen. Feinstein, that calls for a communication that I've had with the president, and I believe it remains confidential.
FEINSTEIN But you don't deny that there was a communication?
SESSIONS: I do not confirm or deny the existence of any communication between the president that I consider to be confidential.
FEINSTEIN: When did you first speak with the president about firing Director Comey? What date?
SESSIONS: Sen. Feinstein, I think that's also covered by my opening statement. I believe the president has the right and I have a duty to meet with him on proper occasions and provide such advice, legal or otherwise, as I'm called upon to do. I have done that. And I believe he has a right to protect that confidentiality until appropriate circumstances exist that he might choose to waive that privilege.