- Elizabeth Goiteinco-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has come under fire for repeatedly refusing to answer questions during his testimony Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee about alleged Russia meddling in the 2016 election. We air highlights and speak to Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday for a highly anticipated hearing. During his opening statement, Sessions denied colluding with Russia ahead of the 2016 election.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: That I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process is an appalling and detestable lie.
AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General Jeff Sessions had previously acknowledged meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice last year. At Tuesday’s hearing, Sessions gave conflicting answers as to whether he may have had a third encounter or conversation with Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., during a Trump campaign event in April 2016.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But much of Tuesday’s hearing saw Sessions refusing to answer questions about President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and whether Trump had expressed concern to Sessions about the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden accused him of stonewalling.
SEN. RON WYDEN: I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don’t want to hear the answers to relevant questions are privileged and off limits or that they can’t be provided in public or that it would be, quote, “inappropriate” for witnesses to tell us what they know. We are talking about an attack on our democratic institutions, and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Senator Wyden, I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice. You don’t walk into any hearing or committee meeting and reveal confidential communications with the president of the United States, who’s entitled to receive confidential communications in your best judgment about a host of issues, and—and have to be accused of stonewalling for not answering them. So I would push back on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Independent Senator Angus King of Maine also grilled Sessions about his refusal to answer questions.
SEN. ANGUS KING: What is the legal basis for your refusal to answer these questions?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: I am protecting the right of the president to exert it—assert it if he chooses. And there may be other privileges that could apply in this circumstance.
SEN. ANGUS KING: Well, I don’t—I don’t understand how you can have it both ways. The president can’t not assert it. And you’ve testified that only the president can assert it, and yet I just don’t understand the legal basis for your—for your refusal to answer.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Well, it would it be premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice about executive privilege.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Elizabeth Goitein, who is co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Elizabeth, welcome to Democracy Now! Your reaction to the hearing yesterday?
ELIZABETH GOITEIN: Well, for somebody who insisted on the opportunity to testify publicly so that he could tell his side of the story, Attorney General Sessions actually added very little information to the public record on either his communications with Russian officials before the election or the firing of James Comey or any conversations Trump and Comey might have had that were not appropriate. He certainly expressed outrage at the notion that he might have been part of collusion with the Russian government in interference in the election. But every time the members of the committee asked for details, really pressed him for details, that would enable them to probe his various claims, he either couldn’t remember or he said it would be inappropriate for him to answer because it involved communications with White House officials, which was obviously, and rightfully, quite frustrating to some of the senators.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about looking at his testimony in relationship to James Comey last week? Were there any contradictions or corroboration from Sessions of some of the stuff that Comey said?
ELIZABETH GOITEIN: Yeah, there was one contradiction, which was that Comey said that after his private meeting with Trump, which Trump arranged by ordering everybody else to leave the room, Comey went to Sessions and said, “This was inappropriate. I should not be allowed to—or I should not be forced to have a private meeting with the president,” and he implored Sessions to make sure that it didn’t happen again. Now, in Comey’s testimony, he said that Sessions simply didn’t respond. Sessions said that that was not accurate, that he responded that the Department of Justice had rules about communications between the department and the White House about ongoing investigations, and he hoped that Comey would follow those rules.
It’s a little bizarre, what Sessions said, that he—the response he said he gave, because, for one thing, apparently, he did not—had no curiosity about what the meeting was about. He apparently didn’t even ask what the meeting was about, which seems odd. And the other thing that seems odd is that if Trump arranged to have this private meeting and ordered everyone else out, and Comey said, “Well, this was inappropriate,” why is Sessions responding by lecturing Comey about the rules, instead of going to President Trump and saying that this is inappropriate?
So, I mean, the other thing I’ll say is, to the extent we’re seeing a conflict in testimony here or a conflict in recollections, I’m going to go with the man who took contemporaneous notes of everything, over the guy who said “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recall” 26 times in one hearing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, one of the most tense exchanges during Tuesday’s hearing was between Attorney General Sessions and Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Did you have any communications with Russian officials for any reason during the campaign that have not been disclosed in public or to this committee?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: I don’t recall it. But I have to tell you, I cannot testify to what was said as we were standing at the Republican convention before the podium, where somebody came up to me.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Sir, sir, I have just a few minutes.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Will you let me qualify it? I—so I need to be correct as best I can.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: I do want you to be honest.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Senator Kamala Harris then went on to question Sessions about his reasons for not answering many of the questions he was asked, but was interrupted by Senator John McCain.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: You referred to a long-standing DOJ policy. Can you tell us what policy it is you’re talking about?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I think most Cabinet people, as the witnesses you had before you earlier, those individuals declined to comment, because we’re all about conversations with the president—
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Sir, I’m just asking you about the DOJ policy you referred to.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: —because that’s a long-standing policy that goes beyond just the attorney general.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Is that policy in writing somewhere?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: I think so.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: So, did you not consult it before you came before this committee, knowing we would ask you questions about that?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Well, we talked about it. The policy is based—
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Did you ask that it would be shown to you?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: The policy is based on the principle that the president—
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Sir, I’m not asking about the principle. I’m asking—
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I am unable to answer the question.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: —when you knew that you would be asked these and you would rely on that policy—
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Chairman.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: —did you not ask your staff to show you the policy that would be the basis for your refusing to answer the majority of questions that have been asked of you?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Chairman, a witness should be allowed to answer the question.
SEN. RICHARD BURR: Senators will allow the chair to control the hearing. Senator Harris, let him answer.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Please, Jeff. Thank you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This is not the first time that Senator McCain has interrupted Senator Kamala Harris in a hearing. Elizabeth Goitein, your response to this exchange?
ELIZABETH GOITEIN: Well, there is the interruption of Senator Harris, which really needs to be addressed. This is the second time it’s happened. These senators have five minutes only to ask their questions, so they do have an interest in not allowing the witness to essentially filibuster. And every senator who asked questions of Attorney General Sessions at some point interrupted him, most of them repeatedly. So, Senator Harris was far from the only one, and yet she was the only one who was chastised for doing so. So, this is definitely problematic.
In terms of the question she was asking, it’s an extremely valid question. There was an effort to try to get to the bottom of Sessions’ legal basis for refusing to answer questions. And as Senator Heinrich said, if he lacks a legal basis, then it is impeding the investigation. It’s obstructing the investigation, in Senator Heinrich’s words. And so, he needed to be able to provide a legal basis. He was trying to hide behind a shield of executive privilege without the president having actually asserted executive privilege. So it was certainly a valid line of questioning and one that his answers were not satisfactory.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the—Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut is saying he should have to come before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Justice, and be forced to answer under oath these questions. Can you talk about the significance of that? And finally, this new lawsuit that’s brought by nearly 200 Democratic congressmembers suing President Trump, accusing him of violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by accepting millions of dollars in payments from foreign governments to his companies while he serves as U.S. president?
ELIZABETH GOITEIN: Sure. So, I think the request to have or the potential request or demand to have Attorney General Sessions come testify before the Judiciary Committee is one that makes a lot of sense. I mean, the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the Department of Justice in the way that it’s handled internally, and there are some very serious questions that have been raised about this, even before Sessions’ testimony. It makes sense to me. Ultimately, if this issue of executive privilege or pseudo-executive privilege is going to be resolved, it may come to the point where the committees have to subpoena information in order to force the president to actually assert the privilege, because right now the White House is trying to have it both ways. They don’t want to have the optics of asserting the privilege. It looks bad in a case where there’s kind of a scandal hanging over the administration. But they also want to not be able to answer questions. And that can’t continue. That will have to come to a head somehow.
In terms of the lawsuit on the Emoluments Clause, you know, all I can say is that we have seen over and over again that this president believes he is above the law in so many ways. And there’s a direct connection between his actions in the Russia investigation, trying to get Comey to shut down the Flynn investigation, which is totally improper and probably illegal, and then the issue of taking money from foreign governments. Both of these things are, at a minimum, in tension with the law. But the president doesn’t—I don’t want to say that he doesn’t know this. I think that he simply has very little regard for the rule of law and, at some level, believes that the president has the right to act however he wants. And that’s not—that’s the difference between this country and Russia and other autocracies or dictatorships. In a democracy, no one is above the law, not the president or anyone else.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Elizabeth Goitein, I want to thank you for being with us, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
And this just in—this is breaking news: House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot this morning, shot apparently in the hip, while he and other congressmembers were practicing for the upcoming Congressional Baseball Game. Congressional aides were also reportedly shot. The New York Times reports the gunman fired about 50 shots.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone on his new Showtime series called The Putin Interviews. Stay with us.