Memory, spines lacking at Sessions hearing

The Observer editorial board

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. AP

Americans learned two things from Jeff Sessions’ testimony Tuesday: That he lacks a good memory and that most Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee lack spines. Both are supremely disappointing to anyone who wants to get to the bottom of Jim Comey’s firing at the FBI and Russian interference in U.S. elections.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina kicked off the proceedings by telling the attorney general that this was his “opportunity to separate fact from fiction,” and it was. Unfortunately, Sessions repeatedly refused to fulfill his oath to tell the whole truth – with no legal justification. Over and over, he claimed he could not recall the answer to a question, refused to comment or said it would be inappropriate to answer.

The performance of Republican senators, with one or two exceptions, was as disappointing. Their job was to represent the American public by asking tough questions of a central figure in the Donald Trump/Comey/Russia affair. Instead, they served as Sessions’ defense attorneys, asking soft and leading questions designed not to elicit revealing information but to let Sessions evade giving it.

The questioning from Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, was typical. Risch asked Sessions if during the campaign he heard about Russian involvement. Sessions said no. “What would you have done?” Risch asked. “I would know it was improper,” Sessions said. “You would head for the exit,” Risch prompted.

After Sessions repeatedly stonewalled the committee, it was Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford’s turn to quiz Sessions.

“You speak as a man eager to set the record straight,” Lankford pandered.

Democrats, in contrast, asked substantive questions about Comey’s version of his Feb. 14 one-on-one meeting with Trump and its aftermath; Sessions’ and other campaign officials’ meetings with Russians; and Sessions’ justification for recommending Comey’s firing.

As a result, Sessions essentially confirmed Comey’s testimony about Trump kicking everyone else out of the Oval Office so he could meet with Comey alone (to urge him to drop the Michael Flynn probe, Comey says). Sessions confirmed that he was the last or near the last to leave, and that Comey told him afterward that he was uncomfortable meeting with Trump alone and that Sessions should help him avoid that.

Sessions was believable when he said that he didn’t meet with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington and, if he did, it was in passing in a crowded room.

He was far less convincing when he said he urged Trump to fire Comey because of poor performance on the job. He acknowledged under Democratic questioning that he had never previously suggested to Comey or anyone else that he was failing to perform – something most any employer would do before firing an employee. Trump, of course, later told NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired Comey with the Russia probe in mind.

In the end, Sessions did little to help get to the bottom of Russian involvement in American elections. That interference is something even Sessions acknowledged happened, and should concern Americans regardless of their political bent.

The strongest answers might come from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. A friend of Trump’s says the president is considering firing Mueller, which would be a colossal constitutional breach. Trump and everyone else should give Mueller all the leash he needs.