Analysis

Sessions Cover for Trump Provides Riveting Senate Drama

U.S. attorney general’s testimony marked by his knowledge that Trump eventually undercuts his staunchest defenders

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, June 13, 2017.
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

In his testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions acted like a witness who’s got a shrewd lawyer and something to hide. He could not recall meetings that may or not have taken place only a few short months ago. He relied on precedent that exists or doesn’t exist to refrain from divulging his talks with President Donald Trump. And when his back approached the wall, he exploded in rage like an honorable Southern gentleman whose good name is being sullied. He didn’t so much seek to get at the truth as to get back home safely.

At the end of the day, Sessions shed very little light on the cardinal question of whether the Trump campaign did or didn’t collude with the Kremlin. But his testimony highlighted the growing partisan divide over the Russia affair. Democratic senators acted like tough prosecutors, while their GOP colleagues behaved like public defenders, lobbing softball questions at Sessions and even suggesting how he should respond.

The same was true for the post-game analysis on Tuesday. Trump supporters, led by Fox News, jumped on the fact that the attorney general did not stumble as empirical proof that left-wing radicals are trying to get rid of Trump by blood-libeling him out of office. Liberals decided that Sessions’ evasive maneuvers strengthened suspicions that Trump and Co. are covering up serious misdeeds, if not impeachment-justifying crimes.

Trump, as usual, helped his critics more than his fans. The new reports about Trump’s wish to sack former FBI Director and current Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which his advisers have foiled for now, was seen as an almost explicit admission of guilt – along the lines of Nixon’s identical “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, which sealed his fate.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the Senate intelligence meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 13, 2017.
SAUL LOEB/AFP

Trump has already proven he can be his own worst enemy, as he did again recently when he undercut the White House spin about the reasons for his dismissal of ousted FBI Director James Comey by admitting that his only motivation was the Russia probe. Sessions is well aware that Trump is prone to sending out underlings to defend him, only to pull the rug out from under them. He took pains to avert the same fate for himself.

This is why the weakest link in Sessions’ testimony was his pretense that his support for Comey’s dismissal was unconnected to the Russia probe. Sessions asserted that he and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, found the FBI to be in disarray – a statement refuted by Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe –  and were enraged by Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email affair, something Trump had once praised.

Sessions refused to say whether he was aware of Trump’s true reasons for firing Comey, both to protect the president and to duck accusations he had violated his own recusal from the Russia investigation.

In fact, he refused to divulge any details about his conversations with Trump, citing unproven precedent of previous attorney generals. He relied on a dubious legal construction by which he cannot reveal conversations in the present about which the president might apply executive privilege in the future. When asked whether he had seen anything in writing to back up his claim, Sessions flew off in indignant rage – for which millions of TV viewers were grateful, of course.

The tense exchanges not only provided high political drama in the best Washington/Hollywood tradition; they also gave a platform to ambitious Democratic senators to star in prime time and to start building a reputation in advance of the 2020 presidential election.

Democratic Senator Kamala Harris during a previous intelligence session, June 7, 2017.
Alex Brandon/AP

Kamala Harris, the fresh junior senator from California and a quick-witted and sharp-tongued former state attorney, grilled Sessions and made him lose his composure, until his GOP colleagues on the committee intervened on his behalf. They were then accused of interrupting Harris for the second time running for sexist or racist reasons, or both, which probably boosted her ratings even more.

But she had a new competitor to contend with in the form of New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, once listed among the 50 most beautiful people in Washington. Heinrich, who looks like a central casting version of a U.S. senator, accused Sessions outright of impeding the investigation, expressing the kind of outraged contempt that most potential Democratic voters are feeling.

New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich during the Sessions hearing, June 13, 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Their disgust with Trump and his administration – which in this case included many Republicans as well – was fed by this week’s video broadcast that showed cabinet members fawning over Trump in a kind of personality cult usually associated with Stalin’s Soviet Union or Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. It was another example of how Trump’s hyper-inflated ego prevents him from comprehending why his gambits so often boomerang and how his approval ratings are now approaching rock bottom.

Against this backdrop, one can’t avoid mentioning the steady evolution of the once-ridiculed claim that the Russians may have actually tampered with the actual voting results from the fringes to the mainstream. The latest revelations came from Bloomberg News, which reported this week that Moscow hacked voting machines and software in no less than 39 of 50 states.

No one has yet to offer proof that the Kremlin changed the actual outcome of the 2016 election, or even tried to. But the explosive possibility that such a thing could have happened is gaining credibility among responsible analysts and observers. Needless to say, if the allegation transforms into concrete suspicions, the United States will be overwhelmed by a truly unprecedented superstorm, with an impulsive and unpredictable president in its eye.