On the heels of former FBI Director James Comey’s damning testimony at last week’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, you might have held out some hope that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ appearance in front of the same group today would yield similar fireworks. Unfortunately, what we got instead was a return to the obfuscation, misdirection, and hair-splitting that has so far become a hallmark of the Trump administration.
According to some on the left, Comey’s letter in late October 2016 cost Hillary Clinton the election; on the right, he is now the face of the so-called Democratic “witch hunt” to undermine Trump’s administration wherever possible. What made Comey’s testimony so compelling is his historical willingness to play the villain among both parties; you may not have agreed with his perspective on events, but his track record indicated that Comey’s primary obligation is the truth and that he was a credible, nonpartisan witness.
Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, is not.
We should have known this would happen. Sessions began his appearance before the committee with an emphatic, hand-over-heart denial of the allegations surrounding his role in the Trump campaign’s contact with Russian officials, playing the part of the lifelong public servant wounded to his very core by these “scurrilous allegations.” It was, however, telling that Sessions went all fire-and-brimstone in his denials, but kept the scope of those denials extremely narrow: at one point, Sessions flatly denied any meeting with Russian officials; a little later, he amended his initial denial by saying he did not “recall” any meeting with Russian officials, and if he did have a meeting with Russian officials, any lie he might have told in his earlier denials was “not intentional.”
During the questioning, Sessions was defiant; this should come as no surprise, since Jeff Sessions is a former Senator, and he’s been on the other side of the table in committee hearings more times than we can count. He knows how the game is played. Case in point: Sessions refused to answer a question about any conversations he’d had with the President regarding Comey’s firing, citing executive privilege. When it was pointed out that the President had not exercised his executive privilege regarding any of their conversations, Sessions replied that he still would not be answering on the off chance that the Trump administration may at some point wish to exercise it.
The whole charade carried on for entirely too long, especially considering we know how it was going to go well before the proceedings started. The committee members would all express their desire to “get to the bottom of this,” Democratic Senators would grandstand a little bit, talk about how “alarmed” they are by the Trump administration’s approach to Russian interference, ask their questions, and not get a worthwhile response. Then, Republican Senators would warmly welcome Sessions, make some remarks — most of which serving to reinforce Sessions’ case — and lob softballs at him for the duration of their time. John McCain would say how “troubled” he is by all this, then resume his regular duties of carrying the Republican Party’s water. And that’s pretty much how it went.
Following last week’s hearing, James Comey might have won some new fans on the left, but he isn’t running for political office. At the end of the day, he’s still out of a job; in other words, he had nothing to lose and, realistically speaking, nothing to gain from his testimony. It’s why it was so compelling: he was a witness who had nothing to protect.
Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, has everything to lose. If the allegations are true and Sessions did have improper contact with foreign officials on behalf of the Trump campaign (and then lied about it numerous times after the fact), not only is he finished in politics, but he could face conviction and imprisonment. Knowing that, his testimony was as close to worthless as possible: since the investigation is still in the fact-finding stage, all Sessions had to do was continue to deny any impropriety. It’s only a lie if you can prove it.
We should never have expected anything more from Sessions’ testimony. Sessions was always going to do what everyone else in the Trump administration does: tell the truth if it helps your argument, lie if the truth is too damning; strictly adhere to norms when they suit you, throw them out when they don’t; parse words if the question isn’t phrased correctly, and when all else fails, just refuse to answer.
As testy as some of the exchanges were (Senator Kamala Harris’ questioning comes to mind), the whole testimony was just a public show of two groups warily circling each other. Sessions purportedly asked for the hearing as a way to clear his name, yet he offered nothing aside from his word as evidence that he did not engage in any illegal or improper behavior.
By the same token, Democrats used the hearing to reiterate how disturbed they are by Russian interference in our elections, but so far can only point to misleading or inaccurate statements as proof that there’s evidence of wrongdoing. Sessions’ unwillingness to answer questions did nothing to help support the Trump administration’s claim that this is all just a politically-motivated charade, but it also didn’t give us any information we didn’t already have. Democrats simply don’t have enough information to nail anybody to the wall; not yet, at least. But it was foolish for them — and us — to expect we’d get it from Jeff Sessions.