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Vox Sentences: Jeff Sessions is not going to talk about that

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Sessions denies colluding with Russian officials; Senate Republicans remain mum on their health care bill; North Korea releases a US political prisoner who it says has been in a coma for more than a year.


A very testy session

Jeff Sessions CQ Roll Call/Bill Clark
  • There were many things US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he couldn’t answer during his testimony at Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
  • But one thing he offered up on his own was noteworthy: He said he has never received a detailed briefing on Russian interference in the 2016 election, adding he learns new things about the investigation “in the papers.” [Kyle Griffin via Twitter]
  • Even though President Trump has not exerted executive privilege to stop Sessions or Comey from testifying in front of Congress, Sessions refused to answer many of the questions posed by senators on Tuesday, saying he needed to check with Trump first to see if the president wanted to invoke executive privilege on individual questions. [Vox / Alex Ward]
  • The attorney general also vehemently denied colluding with Russian officials while he was a member of the Trump campaign, calling the suggestion “an appalling and detestable lie.” [Washington Post / Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky]
  • He pushed back on the notion that he had a third, unreported meeting with Russian officials at Washington, DC’s Mayflower Hotel in April 2016, saying that while he may have been in the same place as the Russian ambassador, he did not talk to him. [NYT / Charlie Savage, Emmarie Huetteman, and Rebecca Ruiz]
  • At this point, there are two distinct questions in the tangled web involving Trump, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, and the Russia investigation: a) whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians as they interfered in the 2016 election, and b) whether Trump committed obstruction of justice by firing Comey.
  • Sessions is an important figure in both questions. He recused himself from the Russian investigation in February because he had undisclosed meetings with Russian officials, and he was Comey’s boss and recommended the former FBI director be fired. [Vox / Dara Lind]
  • When it came to questions about conversations he may have had with Trump before Comey’s firing, Sessions remained mum, repeatedly saying he was unable to comment. [NYT / Charlie Savage, Emmarie Huetteman, and Rebecca Ruiz]
  • But he did tell Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden that he had longstanding criticisms of Comey, so participating in the former FBI director’s firing didn’t violate his recusal from the Russia investigation. [Vox / Alexia Fernández Campbell]
  • In contrast to Comey’s testimony in front of the same committee a week ago, Sessions and Democratic senators got into heated exchanges. As Sessions said he could not answer questions, Wyden insinuated he was “stonewalling,” and later said Sessions’s explanation for firing Comey “didn’t pass the smell test.” [Washington Post / Devlin Barrett​]

North Korea releases US college student

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty)
(Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
  • North Korea released a 22-year-old US college student named Otto Warmbier on Tuesday, after holding him as a political prisoner for more than a year.
  • Soon after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the University of Virginia student’s release, Warmbier’s parents told the Washington Post their son had been in a coma for more than a year, and was being medically evacuated through an American military base in Japan. [Washington Post / Anna Fifield]
  • Details are scarce, but North Korean officials told the Warmbiers their son came down with a case of botulism shortly after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, and has been in a coma ever since. (Botulism is a serious bacterial illness that can be caused by eating spoiled food.) [Washington Post / Anna Fifield]
  • So what did Warmbier do that was so bad? He took down a pro-regime sign from the wall of his hotel. He was charged with “hostile acts against the state” and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. At the time, North Korean officials said Warmbier was acting under the “manipulation” of the United States government. [Time / Nash Jenkins]
  • If this sounds completely ridiculous, keep in mind that North Korea is one of the strictest authoritarian regimes in the world. Random detentions and sentencing people (foreigners and its own citizens) to years of hard labor are common. [Vox / Alex Ward]
  • The country has special animus for the United States that stems all the way back to the 1950s, when the US backed rival South Korea in the Korean War. The North views the US as a main enemy, and is busy stockpiling a nuclear weapons arsenal to make sure America and other nations are too scared of the threat of nuclear war to try to break up the regime or remove dictator Kim Jong Un from power. [Vox / Alex Ward]
  • But North Korea’s weapons program isn’t just a defense mechanism. There’s been a lot of activity in the Korean Peninsula in the past few months as the country has stepped up its nuclear missile tests to see if one could reach the United States. There have been plenty of botched attempts but also some scarily successful ones, with rockets getting as far as Russia. [Vox / Alex Ward]
  • Warmbier’s release coincides with former NBA basketball player (and frequent flier to North Korea) Dennis Rodman’s fifth trip to the isolated country. Rodman told reporters he’s trying to “open a door” with North Korea. [NPR / Bill Chappell]
  • Three other Americans are still being held by the North Koreans, and Tillerson said the State Department is still discussing their release. [Associated Press / Matthew Lee​]

I’m just a bill, hidden here on Capitol Hill

Capitol Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
  • Somewhere on Capitol Hill, Republican senators are hard at work on their version of the American Health Care Act, a bill that could take away insurance coverage from millions. But no one really knows what exactly that bill looks like, because senators are being very secretive about what it contains. [Vox / Dylan Scott]
  • Like their counterparts in the House, Senate Republicans are rushing to get the bill done.
  • The House caught flak for taking a May vote on the AHCA without first getting it scored by the Congressional Budget Office to see how much it would cost taxpayers and how many Americans would lose insurance if Obamacare were repealed. Now senators are taking it a step further, bypassing the normal legislative process by not holding public hearings or seeking public testimony from health policy experts. [Vox / Dylan Scott]
  • Senate Democrats are reportedly furious with the lack of committee hearings, and plan to hammer Republicans for the tight schedule and lack of transparency. [Politico / Jennifer Haberkorn and Burgess Everett]
  • However, the fact remains that Democrats don’t have a lot of ammunition to fight back with, since Republicans can repeal the Affordable Care Act with 50 votes and no filibuster. [Politico / Jennifer Haberkorn and Burgess Everett]
  • Republicans want to vote on the bill in the next three weeks, before they head home for the Fourth of July recess. [Axios / Caitlin Owens]
  • Democratic senators drew comparisons between the secrecy around the AHCA and another controversial flap in the Senate, as TV and radio reporters were told they could not film or record senators while interviewing them in Senate hallways without first asking for special permission. [Washington Post / Elise Viebeck]
  • Many reporters took to Twitter to vent their frustration about needing to ask a long list of people before interviewing senators, including the committee, the Senate sergeant-at-arms, and individual senators themselves. [The Hill / Alexander Bolton]
  • Rules Committee Chair Sen. Richard Selby later clarified the move wasn’t a formal rules change but rather a directive to try to improve safety for members of Congress and the press as multiple television crews flocked to the Senate to film the Sessions hearing and report on the health care bill. [Vox / Tara Golshan]
  • By mid-afternoon, Selby had reversed course, telling reporters they could carry on as usual. [Kasie Hunt via Twitter​]

Miscellaneous

  • If Bernie Sanders runs for president in 2020, he will be almost 80 years old. His strongest supporters are totally fine with that. [NYT / Yamiche Alcindor]
  • Venezuelan bishops are pleading Pope Francis not to turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis in their country. [The Economist / Erasmus]
  • With a White House promising to be “tough on crime,” criminal justice activists are setting their sights on changing state laws and improving local jails. [BuzzFeed / Chris Geidner]
  • Linguists looked at how Trump’s speech patterns changed over the years. They found his sentences have become much more simple and repetitive, a sign of potential cognitive decline. [STAT / Sharon Begley]
  • SEC filings show fossil fuel companies are fully aware of the risks of climate change and how worsening weather could damage pipelines and other energy infrastructure. [Reveal / Sandy Tolan]

Verbatim


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