Democracy & Government

‘Stonewall’ Sessions Leads the Charge Of the Trump Brigade

The attorney general's testimony before the Senate intelligence committee was more smoke and mirrors.

‘Stonewall’ Sessions Leads the Charge Of the Trump Brigade

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill June 13, 2017. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

US Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions spent Tuesday afternoon up on Capitol Hill trying out his new one-man show based on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

In performance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions alternated between the roles of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, at one moment playing the testy yet coquettish belle shocked — shocked! — at having one’s integrity impugned, defending his Southern honor “against scurrilous and false allegations.”

Then the next moment, he was the charming Dixie rapscallion Rhett, acting all chummy with his good old boy pals in the Senate — once known as the world’s greatest deliberative body, a title that was forfeited several years ago.

“I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you,” the former senator from Alabama declared, “and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government, to hurt this country… or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”

As Scarlett would say, well, fiddle-dee-dee.

Capsule review of his show: Needs work. Petulant at times, evasive and contradictory, Sessions justified his refusal to answer various questions on what many experts agree are rather shaky legal grounds. His memory seemed shaky, too, especially when it came to when and how many times he saw Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Amber Phillips of The Washington Post wrote, “About the only thing Sessions can recall for sure is that he didn’t do anything wrong.”

It was clear that Sessions’ offer to appear before the intelligence committee was not intended as a chance to clear the air but as an opportunity to smog the playing field with protestations of innocence, whether it was knowledge of any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia or the extent of his involvement in events surrounding Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.

For now, Sessions also was able to avoid the judiciary committee, where he would have faced tough grilling from Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and his damn Yankee nemesis Al Franken of Minnesota, the man who triggered much of Sessions’ troubles when he asked a question during the attorney general’s confirmation hearing and Sessions chose to answer something else, stating, “I did not have communications with the Russians.” Which, of course, proved to be, ahem, incorrect.

During his testimony on Tuesday, Democrats tried to put Sessions’ feet to the fire, while most of the Republicans opted to use the flames to feed him toasted marshmallows. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas seemed especially obsessed with the idea that James Comey had told Trump that when it came to the allegations of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, the president was not a subject of investigation. To Cotton, this was proof that there was no substance to any of the allegations of campaign contacts with Russia and that made him cocky and deeply annoying.

During his testimony on Tuesday, Democrats tried to put Sessions’ feet to the fire, while most of the Republicans opted to use the flames to feed him toasted marshmallows.

But keep in mind that in the opening statement that Comey presented to the intelligence committee, he noted that the FBI had been reluctant to publicly state that Trump was not under investigation “for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.” (My italics.)

And change it has. For as of Wednesday we now know that in the days since Comey’s firing, Donald Trump has become a subject of the investigation. As special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry plows relentlessly on, it was reported by The Washington Post that Mueller’s team is looking into whether or not the president is guilty of attempting to obstruct justice:

Accounts by Comey and other officials of their conversations with the president could become central pieces of evidence if Mueller decides to pursue an obstruction case. Investigators will also look for any statements the president may have made publicly and privately to people outside the government about his reasons for firing Comey and his concerns about the Russia probe and other related investigations, people familiar with the matter said.

For the moment, as Mueller and investigators work to determine if the Trump campaign was tied at all to Russian interference with our electoral process, if there is anything of which to be glad, it is that with each passing day and revelation there at least is greater bipartisan belief in the reality and gravity of what Russia attempted and doubtless is hoping to do again.

Days after The Intercept website revealed a leaked NSA report that Russian hacking of our voting systems was more extensive than previously known, Michael Riley and Jordan Robertson at Bloomberg Politics quoted a knowledgeable source claiming that the systems of 39 states had been hit. They noted:

Such operations need not change votes to be effective. In fact, the Obama administration believed that the Russians were possibly preparing to delete voter registration information or slow vote tallying in order to undermine confidence in the election. That effort went far beyond the carefully timed release of private communications by individuals and parties.

One former senior US official expressed concern that the Russians now have three years to build on their knowledge of US voting systems before the next presidential election, and there is every reason to believe they will use what they have learned in future attacks.

This news makes it all the more puzzling why the Trump White House continues to be so muted in decrying Russia’s attempts to destabilize democracy and yet so vocal in its insistence that there is nothing to any story of possible Trump campaign involvement. And then there’s this: At 5:55 a.m. on Thursday, Trump tweeted:

He then followed up with yet another primal scream/tweet:

If it’s all so phony, why is our insomniac-in-chief so worried?

With each disclosure, the cycle of defiance and denial goes on. In its own way, Sessions’ appearance before the Senate committee on Tuesday was just one more turn of the wheel, one more diversion, one more attempt to defend the indefensible.

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.