The Comey hearing certainly lived up to the hype. And now there is buildup to the testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday afternoon.
The difference is Sessions still works for President Donald Trump, and he has a lot more to lose. In fact, his own survival as attorney general, which has recently been a subject of much debate, could hinge on his performance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
One aspect of the Comey hearing that was overwhelmed by the newsworthiness of his comments was his refusal to speak to the nature of Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation in an open hearing. This cast a new spotlight on Sessions and made him a character to watch in the Russia investigation.
The White House has already acknowledged that Sessions will not hesitate to invoke executive privilege, which may limit knowledge-sharing quite a bit.
Sessions will therefore have to walk a tightrope to both satisfy his boss, Donald Trump, and remove the political target on his back.
Though we may not learn a lot about the Russia investigation, we will be able to better assess Sessions’ survival by the end of the day.
There is no doubt senators on the committee have been preparing for his testimony, but here are the questions to Sessions that will be critical in determining his fate.
1. Can you commit to discuss with the committee in a closed session the reasons for your recusal from the Russia investigation?
If he says yes, it could be an indication there are additional reasons for his recusal, beyond a few meetings with the Russian ambassador, that are not known publicly. If he says no, he will set off alarm bells across the Capitol, because it will indicate he may have something to hide. And if he disagrees with Comey and explains in a public hearing the reasons for his recusal, it will likely lead to more questions about why he didn’t also recuse himself from the firing of Comey.
2. How many meetings did you have with the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials in 2016? What were the topics discussed? And why did you fail to provide information about the meetings you had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on your security clearance form?
These are the most obvious questions — and frankly the reason Sessions finds himself in hot water. This is the first time he will be speaking under oath about the nature of his discussions with Russian officials, and if he answers honestly, he may be able to at least end the speculation about the number and details of his meetings.
3. What was your involvement in the decision to fire James Comey? Did you ask your deputy attorney general to write a memo recommending the firing of Comey? And if so, did he know it would become public?
It has never been clear how Sessions could have recused himself from the Russia investigation, but still involved himself in the decision to fire the FBI director, given that the decision to fire Comey was directly linked to the Russia investigation. In addition, even Rod Rosenstein, his deputy, was not clear in his hearing whether he knew what his memo would be used for and who asked him to write it.
4. Were you aware of Jared Kushner’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and were you aware of his interest in setting up a back channel during the transition? In general, do you think outreach to foreign governments should be coordinated with the outgoing administration during a transition?
Sessions was nominated to be attorney general in the middle of November, before Kushner reportedly attempted to set up a back channel with Russian officials. He was a foreign policy adviser during the campaign and in the running to be vice president. The Kushner meetings would likely have been discussed within Trump’s inner circle. If Sessions has any information or even a view on this, it will be newsworthy. It is also the question his boss will be watching closely.
5. At any point during the campaign did Trump ask you or anyone on the campaign to contact a Russian government official? Is there any request from the President or any other official in the White House that has made you uncomfortable since you were sworn in as attorney general?
There is a great deal we don’t know about the potential Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials, such as who may have directed them and who, if anyone, knew of Putin’s intentions to interfere with the electoral outcome. And Sessions has sat through enough hearings to know his answers will come back to bite him if there is even an element of untruth.
If he says he has no concerns, which we should fully expect, his answer will be replayed if and when more information comes out about who on the campaign knew what. And if he acknowledges he had some concerns, he will open up a new line of questioning about the conduct of President Trump and his advisers.