Democrats To Attorney General Sessions: Don't Duck Our Questions

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 2:26 pm

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing Wednesday. There's a lot to discuss.

In eight months as the nation's top federal law enforcement official, Sessions has presided over a series of Justice Department reversals — from police oversight and voting rights litigation to protections for the LGBT community.

And then there's the matter of his contacts with Russians during last year's presidential campaign, where Sessions served as one of President Trump's most vocal advocates. Sessions didn't include those on his security clearance forms. An aide said he was following guidance from the FBI. Here's what you need to know.

1. Democrats: Don't duck us

All nine Democrats on the Judiciary Committee put Attorney General Sessions on notice with a letter last week.

"We expect will have determined whether the president will invoke executive privilege as to specific topics and will be prepared to answer completely all questions in those areas on which he has not," the letter said.

Democrats on the panel took that unusual step after Sessions declined to answer a series of queries in June about the Russia probe and other sensitive topics, arguing it was "inappropriate" for him to respond because President Trump might choose to invoke executive privilege. The senators now say the time is up for Sessions to delay providing answers. And they said they'll expect him to share a list of issues on which the White House has asserted privilege at the hearing.

2. On Russian contacts: Who, what and when?

At his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions went out of his way to deny any contacts with Russians last year, in response to a question from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

"I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it," Sessions said at the time. Later, he denied any such contacts in response to a written question from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Since then, The Washington Post reported Sessions at least twice spoke with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The disclosures prompted the attorney general to announce his recusal from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in last year's presidential election. Later, The Post and CNN reported Sessions may have had a third, undisclosed encounter with Kislyak. Those inconsistencies are likely to be a hot topic at the hearing, according to the national security website Just Security.

Two more Russia-related questions for Sessions: whether or not he's been interviewed by investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller, who's leading the Justice Department's criminal probe into election interference; and whether President Trump, publicly infuriated by Sessions' recusal, has gotten over his ire.

3. Civil rights reversals

This year, the Justice Department reversed course in a pair of closely watched voting rights cases, in Texas and Ohio. Under Sessions, the department revoked guidance designed to protect transgender students in schools. And it filed an amicus brief in a major Supreme Court case backing a bakery owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious objections.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said Sessions "must be held accountable for the significant changes that have taken place on his watch, which have virtually brought federal civil rights enforcement to a grinding halt."

4. Law and order

After campaigning on a promise of "law and order," President Trump and his attorney general have backed away from investigating local police departments in search of patterns of discriminatory or unconstitutional behavior. Sessions said discrete acts of criminal activity by state or local police officers could come under DOJ scrutiny, but he said the federal government is a partner to law enforcement, not an overseer.

Sessions also directed federal prosecutors to advance "the most serious, readily provable offense" in cases, including those involving drug crimes in which the Obama administration had sought to exercise more discretion. He's long opposed efforts in Congress to reduce penalties for federal drug crimes, in contrast to a group of police chiefs, local prosecutors and bipartisan lawmakers appearing in Washington Wednesday.

Those officials are sending Sessions and Trump a letter imploring them to change course.

"We do not believe that public safety is served by a return to tactics that are overly punitive without strong purpose," said the letter from Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. "From decades of experience on the front lines, we have learned first-hand that these responses are ineffective to reduce crime. We cannot incarcerate our way to safety."

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee today for what is billed as a routine oversight hearing. That's what it's billed, but nothing feels very routine about the issues the Justice Department is involved in just now or about this hearing. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now I say this doesn't feel routine because before the hearing, Senate Democrats put Attorney General Sessions on notice, sending him a letter saying, we write to express our expectation that you will answer members' questions fully and truthfully. The fact that they would send a letter suggests that they're fearful of something else.

JOHNSON: Well, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, testified in June before the Senate intelligence committee, and Democrats there think he ducked a lot of tough questions by saying at some point in the future, President Trump might invoke executive privilege. So Sessions said he couldn't talk about his sensitive conversations with Trump because the White House might quash those remarks by him. Well, Democrats sent a letter to Sessions last week saying the time is up, bub. Either the president's going to assert privilege or not on these issues, but next week, you need to come prepared to respond to our questions.

INSKEEP: I would love it if the letter actually used the word bub.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: I assume it didn't say bub, but...

JOHNSON: Sadly no.

INSKEEP: No, no. But in any case, so does that mean he actually has to answer their questions?

JOHNSON: Well, Sessions can speak on behalf of the White House to say, on the following topics, President Trump says I can't talk about these things. But Democrats have said Jeff Sessions needs to bring a list of those topics to the hearing so they can have some credibility.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that they want to hear that the White House has specifically invoked executive privilege, not that Sessions thinks the White House might hypothetically invoke executive privilege?

JOHNSON: That is one of the many things I'm going to be looking for today.

INSKEEP: OK, so let's talk about what they might talk about if Sessions proves willing to talk about it. What are some of the key issues that they're going to be discussing?

JOHNSON: Well, first of all, Russia. Remember at his confirmation hearing, Jeff Sessions went out of his way to deny contacts with Russians during the campaign last year when he was a surrogate for President Trump. It turned out The Washington Post reported Sessions had at least two meetings with Russians during that period last year. Sessions eventually had to supplement his testimony.

There are still some open questions about whether he might have had a third contact with Russians last year. And what is the nature of his communication with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who's investigating Russian interference in last year's election? The attorney general of the United States could be a witness in a criminal investigation. Think about that, Steve, it's pretty remarkable.

INSKEEP: Those questions you just raised, are those some of the questions or some of the areas that Sessions wouldn't really talk about last time?

JOHNSON: Well, typically, the White House can exert - assert executive privilege over sensitive communications involving the president, advice to the president. And as the attorney general, Jeff Sessions was in a good position to give advice to the president on any number of topics, legal ones especially, political sensitive conversations as well.

INSKEEP: Aren't there a lot of other things to ask Jeff Sessions about?

JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. He's pledged to do a number of things, and already has done a number of things, over the last eight months. He's returned to support local police, he says, and stop investigations into excessive force. He reversed course in two major voting rights cases in Texas and Ohio where the Obama Justice Department had been challenging state laws as either discriminatory or problematic or both. And he also revoked protections for transgender students this year - all major changes supported by President Donald Trump's political base.

INSKEEP: OK. Going to be a lot to talk about today, and NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson will be listening for us. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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