• Attorney General Jeff Sessions, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, showed selective recall on the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts.
• Mr. Sessions said he had “no reason to doubt these women” who have accused the man who wants his old Senate seat, Roy S. Moore, of seeking sexual or romantic favors from them as teenagers.
• Mr. Sessions was asked about his direction that the department consider a special counsel to investigate Mr. Trump’s political opponents, including Hillary Clinton.
Sessions: I don’t recall Russia reports, but I shot down Trump-Putin meeting.
Mr. Sessions denied that he lied in October when he testified that he knew of nobody in the Trump campaign who had contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign. “And I don’t believe it happened,” he said.
Court records later revealed that Mr. Sessions led a March 2016 meeting in which George Papadopoulos, a campaign aide, discussed his Russian ties and suggested setting up a meeting between Mr. Trump. and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
“I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports,” Mr. Sessions said.
Mr. Sessions testified Tuesday that was still hazy on the details about what Mr. Papadopoulos had proposed.Continue reading the main story
But on one matter, he said his memory is clear: he said he shot down Mr. Papadopoulos’ idea of a Trump-Putin meeting. And he said he told Mr. Papadopoulos that he was not authorized to represent the campaign in such discussions.
To sum up: Mr. Sessions said he could not remember much about Russian influence on the Trump campaign, except when he could block such influence.
Applying the Sessions standard on perjury to … Jeff Sessions.
As Democrats repeatedly put heat on Mr. Sessions over the evolution of his testimony before Congress, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York, invoked an unexpected ostensible ally: Senator Jeff Sessions.
Holding up a speech he said Mr. Sessions had given on the Senate floor during the proceedings to remove President Bill Clinton from office, Mr. Jeffries said Mr. Sessions had then justified his vote for removal by saying that he would not hold the president to a different standard than a young police officer he had prosecuted years before for lying under oath.
“You stated that you refused to hold a president accountable to a different standard than the young police officer who you prosecuted,” Mr. Jeffries said. “Let me be clear: The attorney general of the United States of America should not be held to a different standard than the young police officer whose life you ruined by prosecuting him for perjury.”
Mr. Sessions vehemently disagreed with the comparison, repeatedly calling Mr. Jeffries suggestion “unfair.”
“Mr. Jeffries, nobody, nobody, not you or anyone else should be prosecuted, not be accused of perjury for answering the question the way I did in this hearing,” Mr. Sessions said. “I have always tried to answer the questions fairly and accurately.”
Sessions says he is plugging the leaks.
Several Republican lawmakers urged Mr. Sessions to crack down on leaks. Republicans have generally responded to various Trump-Russia revelations — like the Washington Post report disclosing that a wiretap of the Russian ambassador had picked up his conversations about sanctions with Michael Flynn, then Mr. Trump’s national security adviser — by saying the real scandal was the leaks.
Mr. Sessions told Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the committee, that the leaking of classified information was “a very grave offense.” He also said touted a significant increase in the number of open leak investigations.
“We had about nine open investigations of classified leaks in the last three years; we have 27 investigations open today,” Mr. Sessions said. “We intend to get to the bottom of these leaks. I think it has reached epidemic proportions. It cannot be allowed to continue and we will do our best effort to ensure it does not continue.”
In August, Mr. Sessions had told reporters that the Justice Department was pursuing three times the number of leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama administration, but he had declined then to say what the specific numbers were.
(The numbers were also complicated by the fact that the department’s method of tracking such cases conflates leaks to the news media with other types of unauthorized disclosures, like foreign espionage. Mr. Sessions said in August, and again on Tuesday, that there have been four such indictments this year, but only one of those — the charging of Reality Leigh Winner, a contractor working for the N.S.A., with sending an intelligence report about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to The Intercept — is a classic news media leak case.)
Later, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, brought up Mr. Trump’s accusation that the press is the “enemy of the people,” said the Founders thought the free press was society’s best friend, and asked Mr. Sessions to commit to not prosecuting “investigative journalists for maintaining the confidentiality of their professional sources.”
(That question garbled or conflated two different issues. One is whether journalists could be jailed for contempt if they refuse to provide witness testimony when subpoenaed in connection with an investigation into or prosecution of their suspected sources. The other is whether journalists could be prosecuted as alleged co-conspirators in a criminal leak.)
“I’ll commit to respecting the role of the press and conducting my office in a way that respects that,” Mr. Sessions responded. “We have not had a conflict in my term in office yet with the press but there are some things the press seems to think they have an absolute right to.” but it does not, he added.
He offered no further details about where he draws the line.
A Republican-Sessions divide on government surveillance.
While the Trump campaign contacts with Russia is the main recurring theme, a separate subplot has emerged: surveillance.
The statute by which Congress legalized the Bush administration’s post-9/11 warrantless wiretapping program, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, is set to expire at the end of 2017 if lawmakers do not extend it.
The current law permits the government to collect from American internet companies, without a warrant, the messages of foreigners abroad who have been targeted for intelligence purposes — even when they are communicating with an American. Leaders from both parties on the House Judiciary Committee have agreed to push a bill, dubbed the USA Liberty Act, that would impose some new limitations on the surveillance program as a condition of extending it.
The Liberty Act would require government agents to obtain a warrant from a judge to scrutinize such messages when the information pertains to Americans connected to a criminal investigation, though not when it comes to a national-security investigation. The Trump administration opposes that idea.
Among others, Rep. Ted Poe, Republican of Texas, pressed Mr. Sessions about that issue. Invoking the language of Fourth Amendment privacy rights, he noted that the information in the internet repository was seized without a warrant, and said querying the database amounts to a search. He demanded, “you don’t think probable cause and a warrant is required to go into that information?”
Mr. Sessions replied that the federal courts “have so held,” adding “I agree with the courts, not you, congressman, on that.”
In fact, while it is true that several judges have upheld the use of evidence derived from the program in terrorism-related cases; the issue of whether evidence derived from it may be used in ordinary criminal cases — the type the Liberty Act proposal addresses — has not been adjudicated.
Mr. Poe responded: “It is the responsibility of Congress to set the privacy standard for Americans.”
The Constitution supports the view that the government should get a warrant before it searches through internet databases without a warrant, he said. Otherwise, “that is spying on Americans.”
Sessions abandons fellow Alabamian Roy Moore.
Mr. Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee, “I have no reason to doubt these women” who have accused Roy S. Moore of seeking sex or romance with them when they were teenagers.
Mr. Moore is seeking to fill the Alabama Senate seat that Mr. Sessions gave up when he was confirmed as attorney general. And Mr. Sessions remains a popular figure in Alabama. The attorney general’s views matter in his home state.
What’s more, Republican leaders in Washington are discussing whether Mr. Sessions should launch a write-in campaign to reclaim his seat. If that does not happen and Mr. Moore prevails in the Dec. 12 special election, there is talk of expelling the jurist from the Senate and prevailing on Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, to appoint Mr. Sessions back to the Senate.
The twin hearings: Russia — and anything but Russia.
Mr. Sessions’ appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday was really a twofer. There was the hearing on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, guided by the committee’s Democrats who single-mindedly bored in on the topic.
Then there was the hearing-on-any-topic-other-than-Russia orchestrated by the committee’s Republicans, which scurried over federal eavesdropping law, rising crime, immigration and Hillary Clinton.
Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, summed up the Republican sentiment.
“I don’t speak Russian and I haven’t met with Russians and I don’t really want to talk about that today,” he said, before diving into questions about sober living homes.
The straight dope on marijuana use among ‘good people’
The Democrats were not exclusively concerned with Russia. During his time with the attorney general, Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, paused the grilling to ask Mr. Sessions about a subject long associated with him: pot. Comedy ensued.
“You said one time that good people don’t smoke marijuana,” Mr. Cohen said. “Which of these people would you say are not good people?”
Mr. Sessions began to explain in earnest, but Mr. Cohen cut him off.
“Quickly. John Kasich, a good person? George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Judge Clarence Thomas — which are not good people?” he demanded, citing prominent Republicans who, ostensibly, have admitted smoking dope.
Mr. Sessions, laughing with much of the hearing room, chalked it up to context. “So the question was, what do you do about drug use, the epidemic we’re seeing in the country, and how you reverse it. Part of that is a cultural thing. I explained how when I became the United States attorney in 1981, and the drugs were being used widely, over a period of years, it became unfashionable, unpopular, and people were seeing — it was seen as such that good people didn’t use marijuana.”
And with that, Mr. Cohen’s allotted time for questioning ended.
The White House has its eye on his performance.
The White House was carefully watching Mr. Sessions’s performance. The attorney general has been in hot water with the president since he decided in March to recuse himself from all matters related to Russia, leaving him without control over the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian efforts to meddle in the election.
Representative Robert Goodlatte, the committee’s Republican chairman, appeared to pile on when he said, “While I understand your decision to recuse yourself was an effort by you to do the right thing, I believe you, as a person of integrity, would have been impartial and fair in following the facts wherever they led.”
Any hiccups in Mr. Sessions’s testimony would most likely only make his problems at the White House worse.
And Representative John Conyers, the top Democrat on the panel, did not make things easier for the attorney general when he asked Mr. Sessions if the president should make “public comments that might influence a pending criminal investigation.”
Mr. Sessions hesitated. “He should take great care in those issues,” he said, before adding a defense of Mr. Trump.
“I would say it’s improper,” Mr. Sessions said. “A president cannot improperly influence an investigation. And I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced.”
Debate emerges on appointing a second special counsel.
Republicans were pleased that Mr. Sessions came with good news. On Monday, the Justice Department notified the committee that senior prosecutors were looking into whether a special counsel should be appointed to investigate the Obama administration’s decision to allow a Russian nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that owned access to uranium in the United States. The department will also examine whether any donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to the approval.
Republicans are investigating the matter themselves but have been clamoring for the department to get involved. On Tuesday, Mr. Goodlatte signaled his support but said again that he wanted the department to go farther and appoint a second special counsel. He also urged Mr. Sessions to let a special counsel investigate the Clinton email case.
“There are significant concerns that the partisanship of the F.B.I. and the department has weakened the ability of each to act objectively,” he said.
Democrats were incensed by the letter, which they said they did not receive. Mr. Conyers said the appointment of a new special counsel was merely to “cater to the President’s political needs.” He argued that there was not sufficient evidence to do so. And, he said, it smacked of “a banana republic.”
Mr. Sessions said that any decisions about the investigations would be made “without regard to politics, ideology, or bias.”
Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, pressed Mr. Sessions on a litany of issues that “looks like” they need a special counsel to investigate, the attorney general was brusque: “ ‘Looks like’ is not enough to appoint a special counsel.”
Sessions is in the hot seat over Russia — again.
Mr. Sessions has twice told lawmakers under oath that as a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign, he did not communicate with Russians to aid Mr. Trump’s candidacy, nor did he know of other members of the campaign who had.
His challenge on Tuesday will be to try to square those comments with recent revelations that at least one member of the campaign’s foreign policy council, which Mr. Sessions led, and another foreign policy adviser, had informed Mr. Sessions about their discussions with Russians at the time.
Mr. Sessions has already had his statements undercut once. After telling senators at his confirmation hearing in January that he had not had any contacts with Russians, it was revealed that Mr. Sessions held multiple meetings with a Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Now, Mr. Sessions must contend with comments he made last month, in another hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did,” Mr. Sessions told senators when asked whether he believed members of the campaign had communicated with Russians.
Democrats on the committee put Mr. Sessions on alert in a letter last week, saying that they would want clarification on “inconsistencies” between those statements and those of the two campaign advisers, George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, who have acknowledged having contact with Russians.
“Under oath, knowing in advance that he would be asked about this subject, the Attorney General gave answers that were, at best, incomplete,” said Mr. Conyers. “I hope the Attorney General can provide some clarification on this problem in his remarks today.”Continue reading the main story