Besides President Donald Trump, another top official whose leadership came under scrutiny during former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to a Senate committee Thursday was Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The picture that was painted wasn’t flattering for Sessions. Comey, in his public testimony, suggested that the FBI knew Sessions was compromised from overseeing the agency’s probe into Russian meddling in last year’s election even before the attorney general recused himself in March from the matter.
Comey also depicted Sessions as unwilling to intervene and keep Trump from making what the then-FBI director saw as inappropriate direct contacts with him.
The bottom line may be a further eroding of Sessions’ position and clout within Trump’s administration.
The attorney general figured prominently in Comey’s written opening statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and in some of the questioning from senators.
In his statement, Comey suggested he had reason to believe, more than two weeks before Sessions announced his recusal, that Sessions would likely be taking that step.
What’s more, FBI leadership deliberately kept Sessions out of the loop about Trump’s direct request to Comey, during a private Oval Office encounter in February, that the agency drop an inquiry into former national security adviser Mike Flynn.
The then-FBI director memorialized Trump’s request in contemporaneous notes that are now with Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to handle the Russian probe after Trump fired Comey in early May.
“We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations,” wrote Comey in his statement.
Asked about this detail by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Thursday, Comey explained that FBI leadership determined that Sessions “was very close to” and would be “inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons.”
“We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey added. That suggested there’s more to Sessions’ recusal and potential contacts with the Russians that the U.S. public has yet to learn.
Comey continued his testimony to the Senate committee in a closed session Thursday afternoon. There, Comey told senators that Sessions may have had a third meeting last year with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to CNN, which had reported that detail recently. A day after two previously reported meetings came to light, Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation.
In the public session, Comey declined to offer more specifics when asked about Sessions’ recusal. But he said it was “a reasonable question” to wonder why the attorney general would work with Trump in the decision to fire him — in light of Trump’s own assertion that he had Russia in mind when making the call.
Comey, in his testimony, said he did ask Sessions one thing after what the then-FBI director viewed as an uncomfortable one-on-one meeting with Trump in February: To not leave him alone with the president.
Pressed on Sessions’ reaction to his request for protection from Trump later in the hearing, Comey said that he couldn’t recall the attorney general’s precise response ― other than body language that gave him a “what am I going to do?” vibe.
“He didn’t say anything,” Comey said of Sessions.
Thursday evening, Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior issued a lengthy statement saying the sole reason Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation were his close ties to the Trump campaign as an adviser. And he disputed Comey’s testimony that Sessions didn’t say a thing after the FBI director asked to be insulated from the White House.
“The Attorney General was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House,” Prior said.
And yet Trump’s overtures to Comey continued ― contacts that flew in the face of White House counsel Don McGahn’s own advice to route all internal communications about pending investigations through the Justice Department.
Faiza Patel, who co-leads the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, characterized Sessions as a “wimp” on Twitter over his apparent inability to shield Comey from inappropriate contacts with the president.
“At that point it seems to me that it’s the attorney general’s responsibility to do something about that,” she said later in an interview with HuffPost. She added that it’s “critical to the integrity and the reputation of the FBI” to protect the bureau from undue political influences.
Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe reportedly hurt the attorney general’s standing with the president, who as of this week was being advised to not get rid of Sessions out of concerns that the dismissal might yet again eclipse the White House agenda.
“That’s the advice he’s been given. But he might not listen to that advice,” one source close to the White House told Reuters on Wednesday.
Once Trump learns that there may be more to Sessions’ entanglements with the Russia investigation, he may yet again conclude that one of his most ardent loyalists during the 2016 campaign is not worth keeping around in his orbit for much longer.