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The real story of Jeff Sessions’s testimony is the questions he didn’t answer

And many of those questions involve just what President Trump said about James Comey before his firing.

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

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?

Sessions wouldn’t say whether he’d talked about Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation with Trump

In the hearing, Sessions restated that he agreed with Rosenstein’s memo, and that they had talked months earlier and agreed that the FBI should probably have new leadership for those reasons (Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton email case).

But then, Sessions was asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) whether he had ever discussed Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation with the president. That proved to be one of the questions Sessions wouldn’t answer.

FEINSTEIN: Did you ever discuss Director Comey's FBI handling of the Russia investigations with the president or anyone else?

SESSIONS: Sen. Feinstein, that would call for a communication between the attorney general and the president, and I'm not able to comment on that.

FEINSTEIN: You are not able to answer the question here whether you ever discussed that with him?

SESSIONS: That’s correct.

Later, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asked a similar question, and Sessions similarly dodged:

KING: In any of your discussion with the president about the firing of James Comey, did the question of the Russia investigation ever come up?

SESSIONS: I cannot answer that, because it was a communication by the president, or if any such occurred it would be a communication that he has not waived.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), for one, wasn’t satisfied with these answers:

WYDEN: The president tweeted repeatedly about his anger and investigations into his associates and Russia. The day before you wrote the letter he tweeted that the collusion story was a total hoax and asked, “when will this taxpayer funded charade end?” I don't think your answer passes the smell test.

Indeed, here’s the tweet:

So did Trump disparage Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation to Sessions before the firing? We don’t have a straight answer here.

Sessions wouldn’t say whether he felt misled when Trump said on TV that Russia was on his mind when he fired Comey

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) pursued a similar line of inquiry, asking Sessions whether he felt “misled” when Trump told Lester Holt that Russia was on his mind when he made the decision to fire Comey.

And Sessions dodged, saying he was “not able to characterize” his reaction, and that he “wouldn’t try to comment on that”:

REED: Your whole premise in recommending [Comey’s firing] to the president was the actions in October involving Secretary of State Clinton, the whole Clinton controversy. Did you feel misled when the president announced that his real reason for dismissing Mr. Comey was the Russia investigation?

SESSIONS: I don't have — I'm not able to characterize that fact. I wouldn't try to comment on that.

REED: So you had no inkling that there was anything to do with Russia until the president of the United States basically declared not only on TV but in the Oval Office to the Russian foreign minister, saying, “The pressure is off now. I got rid of that nutjob.” That came to you as a complete surprise?

SESSIONS: Well, all I can say, Sen. Reed, that our recommendation was put in writing and I believe it was correct and I believe the president valued it, but how he made his decision was his process.

Reed then followed up, asking Sessions if he “had no inkling” that Trump was thinking about the Russia investigation when deciding whether to fire Comey. And Sessions dodged again:

REED: And you had no inkling that he was considering the Russia investigation?

SESSIONS: Well, I'm not going to try to guess what I thought about that.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) also asked about the Holt interview, and whether it would have made Sessions feel “uncomfortable” about even the timing of the firing. Again, Sessions said he “would respectfully not comment on that”:

COLLINS: Now, if you had known that the president subsequently was going to go on TV and in an interview with Lester Holt of NBC would say that this Russian thing was the reason for his decision to dismiss the FBI director, would you have felt uncomfortable about the timing of the decision?

SESSIONS: Well, I would just say this, Sen. Collins. I don't think it's appropriate to deal with those kind of hypotheticals. I have to deal in actual issues, and I would respectfully not comment on that.

These dodges are particularly suggestive, since these aren’t even direct questions about what Trump said — they’re questions about Session’s own thoughts and reactions to public news events.

So did Sessions know what was up, regarding Trump’s apparent true reasons for firing Comey? He wouldn’t say.

Sessions wouldn’t say whether Trump has expressed annoyance that he recused himself from the Russia investigation

Back in early March, Sessions recused himself from any investigations related to the 2016 election — meaning, primarily, the Russia investigation.

Several media reports have claimed that Trump has been unhappy with Sessions of late, primarily because of that recusal.

“Two sources close to the president say he has lashed out repeatedly at the attorney general in private meetings, blaming the recusal for the expansion of the Russia investigation, now overseen by Special Counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl wrote.

So Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) asked about this, and — surprise, surprise — Sessions wouldn’t answer:

HEINRICH: Has the president ever expressed his frustration to you regarding your decision to recuse yourself?

SESSIONS: Sen. Heinrich, I'm not able to share with this committee —

HEINRICH: You're invoking executive privilege?

SESSIONS: I'm not able to invoke executive privilege. That's the president's prerogative.

So is Trump privately complaining to Sessions that he shouldn’t have recused himself?

Sessions wouldn’t say whether he’s talked with officials about pardons related to the Russia investigation

Early on in the hearing, Warner asked Sessions another question — about whether he’d discussed any potential presidential pardons related to the Russia investigation with top White House or Justice Department officials.

Pardons are, of course, a presidential power. But talking about pardons for aides who are under investigation for wrongdoing before they’re even convicted, tried, or charged would certainly raise questions about a cover-up.

WARNER: What about conversations with other Department of Justice or other White House officials about potential pardons? Not the president, sir.

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, without in any way suggesting that I have had any conversations concerning pardons, totally apart from that, there are privileges of communication within the Department of Justice that we share, all of us do. We have a right to have full and robust debate within the Department of Justice. We encourage people to speak up and argue cases on different sides, and those arguments are not to be revealed. Historically we've seen that they should not be revealed.

So are top officials already discussing pardons?