Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence demonstrated he has conformed to the highest standards of ethical conduct during his entire career, and especially since becoming attorney general in February.
Sessions was not only willing to testify but insisted on a public hearing so the American people could receive all the facts communicated in the hearing. His public testimony stands in stark contrast to the anonymous rumor-mongers and leakers trafficking in fantastic lies and speculation. Sessions stood his ground and answered every question asked regardless of how ridiculous the question.
The only questions he refused to answer were ones pertaining to private conversations he had with the President. In refusing to detail those conversations, he acted properly.
Sessions’ refusal to answer on the basis that President Trump may wish to assert executive privilege over the conversation in question, conforms with longstanding practice at the Department of Justice, as well as every other department or agency of the executive branch. Democrats were aghast at this, and Senator Martin Heinrich (NM) even accused him of obstructing a congressional investigation. Yet legal privileges, like the attorney-client privilege, marital privilege, and executive privilege, are important protections for the rule of law, not an obstruction of the process.
Furthermore, as it is the President who holds the privilege, neither Sessions nor any other executive branch official, has the authority to waive that privilege. Every President, including Obama, understood this.
Democrats on the Committee, and their allies, must have forgotten that for eight years during the Obama administration, they championed the independence of the executive branch, executive privilege, the confidentiality of executive branch communications, and the power of the executive branch to resist congressional investigations.
The Obama administration broadly resisted congressional investigations into serious crimes and misdeeds for which there was actual evidence (unlike the assertion of Trump’s collusion with Russia).
DOJ refused to produce emails between DOJ and IRS officials and the IRS conveniently “lost” emails requested by Congress as part of its investigation into IRS targeting of Tea Party and other conservative non-profit organizations. DOJ also refused to let a lawyer testify to Congress about the investigation into the targeting scandal, and IRS official Lois Lerner invoked the Fifth Amendment to refuse to testify after an opening statement proclaiming her innocence. Obama’s DOJ invoked executive privilege 34 times when DOJ’s Richard Pilger was testifying before the House Oversight Committee on DOJ’s role in the IRS targeting.
President Obama invoked executive privilege to refuse to provide documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking debacle in Mexico, leading to then-Attorney General Holder being held in contempt of Congress.
When two reality TV stars crashed a state dinner, the White House even refused to allow Social Secretary Desirée Rogers to testify, saying: “I think you know that based on separation of powers, staff here don’t go to testify in front of Congress.”
These are just a few examples of the many ways the Obama administration resisted investigations by Congress by standing on privilege. They refused to answer questions, provide documents, and sometimes they just refused to show up. Contrast that to Sessions’ willingness to testify publicly and promptly.
Now that a Republican is in the White House, Democrats have forgotten all their concern for the separation of powers and executive branch independence; they expect Trump administration officials to answer any and all questions, no matter how intrusive or inappropriate.
Sessions has acted entirely ethically and responded to every reasonable request in this matter. In his testimony, Sessions unequivocally denied meeting with the Russian Ambassador at the Mayflower hotel or any other collusion with Russia: “[T]he suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for over 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”
He has recused himself from any existing or future investigations relating to last year’s presidential campaigns because he acted as an advisor to the Trump campaign. Sessions made this decision on the advice of ethics officials in the Department of Justice in order to follow federal law and protect the legitimacy of the pending investigation. Even before he was confirmed, he was concerned that his statements during the campaign could place his objectivity in question and that the “proper thing” would be to recuse himself. And even before he formally recused himself, Sessions was not briefed on and did not participate in anything related to the pending investigation.
Then-Senator Sessions was concerned about the legitimacy of the DOJ and its decisions, and he followed through on this concern by acting ethically as Attorney General Sessions. Compare his actions with former FBI Director Comey’s usurpation of the role of the Department of Justice in the Clinton e-mail investigation. Sessions is the one on solid ethical and legal grounds.
Despite the Democrats’ hysteria over Russian influence in last year’s election, Democrat senators asked shockingly few questions about the Trump campaign or administration contacts with Russian representatives. Most of those questions came from Republican senators seeking to establish the facts. Senator Joe Manchin (WV) appeared to be the only Democrat senator with any sense, as he actually asked pointed questions about Trump campaign contacts with Russia.
Many of the Democrats’ questions pre-supposed some “secret” information former FBI Director Comey had regarding Sessions and the Russians. The Democrats seemed to be winking and nodding about some “secret” proof of collusion when in fact none exists and Sessions repeatedly denied any collusion. In one notable exchange, Sessions vehemently objected to Senator Ron Wyden’s (OR) absurd questions about something “problematic” regarding his recusal: “There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty. This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it, and I’ve tried to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I’ve appeared before, and people are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters and I’ve tried to be.”
Attorney General Sessions’ conduct has been above reproach, and the inquiries about him should be laid to rest, but Democrat Senators and the media continue “resisting” President Trump through false attacks on Sessions and others close to Trump. This not only damages the public discourse and undermines our system of representative government but, as Sessions pointed out during the hearing, it distracts the DOJ from legitimate problems facing the nation, such as the opioid epidemic and terrorism. Perhaps that is the Democrats’ true goal: if successful in damaging Sessions, they can prevent DOJ from carrying out its mission and thereby harm President Trump and Republicans in 2018 and 2020.
The Democrats will continue to trade in detestable lies and secret innuendo in their attempt to effectuate the coup they seek in order to achieve the result they did not get at the ballot box.
What today’s hearing demonstrated beyond any doubt is that Attorney General Sessions is an ethical man who has served his country honorably for many years.
David Warrington is the Republican National Lawyer Association’s Vice President for Election Education.