Senators question Sessions with Russia cloud looming

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies about the Russia probe at an opening hearing conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) on Tuesday, June 13, 2017.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions has arrived in a Senate hearing room to give testimony expected to focus on the Russia investigation, his contacts with Kremlin officials and his recently tense relationship with President Donald Trump.

Sessions is appearing on Capitol Hill for the first time since recusing himself from the Russia investigation, but will face questions from Democrats about why he still played a role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which Trump later said was motivated by the probe into Moscow’s meddling the last year’s election.

Comey’s testimony will form a dramatic sequel to Comey’s own appearance before the Senate intelligence committee last week, and he will have to tackle several open loops that emerged during that appearance, which twisted the knife in an administration that has struggled to extricate itself from the Russia cloud.

Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina laid out questions that he wanted addressed, including Sessions’ meetings with Russian officials or proxies while working for the Trump campaign or as Attorney General. Burr also asked for details of his involvement on Trump’s foreign policy team and its possible interactions with the Russians. He also asked why Sessions recused himself from oversight of the FBI’s Russia probe and wanted to know what role in played in Comey’s dismissal.

Senators will challenge Sessions on issues raised by Comey’s testimony, about his own behavior, new questions about his meetings with Russian officials and possibly his apparently tense relationship with Trump.

And while Sessions agreed to testify publicly, there are questions about his motivations. Does he simply want to get his side of the story out following Comey’s testimony? Or does his appearance represent a White House-orchestrated counterattack following the damaging Comey testimony?

What Sessions faces

Sessions’ appearance is not without risk.

The former Alabama senator put in a shaky performance under questioning from his former colleagues during his confirmation hearing. His failure to disclose meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak forced him to later amend his testimony and added fuel to the Russia intrigue swirling around Washington.

“It is really unclear what he is going to say, and I am a little bit surprised because in the past, he has gotten into trouble when he said things and they turned out not to be entirely true,” said Jens Ohlin, a professor of law at Cornell University.

“I am not sure he is the best performer under questioning from fellow senators. He is used to being on the other side. The more he says, the more he risks being called out for inconsistencies.”

Questions for the attorney general

Sessions is vulnerable in at least three areas.

First, Democrats will grill him on Comey’s revelations — for instance, his claim that Sessions appeared to recognize the inappropriateness of Trump’s request to meet the FBI director alone on February 14. Comey testified that in the privacy of the Oval Office, the President asked him to let the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn drop.

“My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering,” Comey said last week.

Later, Comey said he was so uncomfortable that he went to Sessions to “implore” him “to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me.”

Secondly, Sessions is likely to be asked why, after recusing himself from oversight of claims of Russian election meddling because he was on Trump’s campaign team, he played a key role in the decision to recommend the President fire Comey last month.

In his defense, Sessions could cite a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that criticized Comey over the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

But Trump’s subsequent statement on NBC that he was thinking of the Russia probe when he sacked the FBI director would call into question any such explanation by Sessions.

A third area of vulnerability for Sessions also arose from the Comey hearing. The former FBI director hinted in the committee’s closed session that there may have been a third, unreported meeting between Sessions and Kislyak, people familiar with the briefing said.

CNN previously reported that congressional investigators are examining whether Sessions had an additional private meeting with the Russian ambassador in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

In his confirmation hearing, Sessions testified that he did not have “communications” with the Russians during the presidential campaign.

When it later emerged he had in fact had several meetings with Kislyak, some Democrats accused him of lying to Congress and demanded his resignation.

How far will Sessions go in describing conversations with Trump?

The high stakes of Tuesday’s hearing prompted speculation that Sessions would protect his private conversations with Trump by declaring executive privilege.

“I think it depends on the scope of the questions,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

However, questions about conversations with the Russian ambassador, for instance, would not fall under such a designation.

With executive privilege in play, lawmakers must be on their game, Michael Moore, a former US attorney, told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.

“I think there are times when it plays an important role in government. What it is not to be used for is as some kind of tool to cover up conduct that is improper or illegal perhaps,” Moore said.

“I think what needs to happen tomorrow is the panel needs to very carefully craft their questions so that they can illicit responses which would be outside of the privilege.”

Tuesday’s hearing may also throw new light on the awkward state of the relationship between Trump and Sessions. Sources told CNN last week that the attorney general offered to resign after a series of heated exchanges with the President over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe.

On Monday, in a strange photo op, members of Trump’s Cabinet lavished praise on the President, who has struggled to extricate himself from the Russia cloud over his White House.

Sessions told Trump he was “honored” to be able to serve him.