WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pressed by House Democrats Tuesday on new questions about Russian contacts with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — and by Republicans on almost anything but that.
Sessions appeared as the House Judiciary Committee began an ostensibly routine oversight hearing that wasn’t routine at all. Instead, it highlighted a growing, and perhaps insurmountable, partisan dispute over the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and Trump-backed demands to reopen past inquiries into Hillary Clinton, his campaign opponent.
The Democratic questioning of Sessions, to be led by Jerrold Nadler of New York, is turning on revelations by Mueller that appeared to undercut Sessions’s sworn testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing in January that he “wasn’t aware” of anyone in Trump’s campaign making contact with Russians.
Republicans made clear they would focus instead on a litany of questions more favorable to Trump, who has dismissed the Russia inquiry as a “Democratic hit job” and said in a tweet that James Comey, the FBI director he fired, “lied and leaked and totally protected Hillary Clinton.”
“There are significant concerns that the partisanship of the FBI and the department has weakened the ability of each to act objectively,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the committee’s Republican chairman, said in his prepared opening remarks.
Bolstering Republican efforts to change the subject from Russian meddling, the Justice Department disclosed Monday night that Sessions has asked “senior federal prosecutors to evaluate” questions raised by the committee’s chairman about the FBI’s investigation last year into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Sessions was put on the defensive by court documents filed last month by Mueller. They revealed that Sessions — as a Republican senator who led then-candidate Trump’s foreign policy team — was at a meeting last year where George Papadopoulos, an unpaid adviser, boasted of his Russian connections. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to initially lying to the FBI about the timing of his Russian contacts.
“If, as recent reports suggest, you rejected Mr. Papadopoulos’s suggestion that President Trump meet with Vladimir Putin at that March 31 meeting — a fact you appear to have remembered only after Mr. Papadopoulos’s account was made public — it seems likely that you were ‘aware’ of communications between the Russian government and surrogates of the Trump campaign,” all 17 Democrats on the Judiciary panel said in a letter to Sessions on Nov. 7.
Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia probe, has tried to distance himself from his previous testimony, saying at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month that he was talking about whether he knew of continuous, improper contacts between Trump surrogates and Russian operatives, and that he didn’t.
“In the past month, we have also learned that the attorney general must have been very much aware of a continuing exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the committee’s top Democrat, said in his prepared opening remarks. “Under oath, knowing in advance that he would be asked about this subject, the attorney general gave answers that were, at best, incomplete.”
For their part, Republicans are calling for a second special counsel to look into the actions of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who served under former President Barack Obama, and Comey’s investigation into Clinton’s emails.
“Why in 2016 did FBI Director Comey begin drafting an exoneration letter for Secretary Clinton, whom he called ‘grossly negligent’ in an early draft of the letter, before completing the investigation? Before interviewing several witnesses? And before interviewing Secretary Clinton?” committee Republicans Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida wrote in a joint opinion piece for FoxNews.com.
In the letter Monday to Goodlatte of Virginia, the committee chairman, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, wrote that senior prosecutors will report to Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “as appropriate, whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources or whether any matters merit the appointment of a Special Counsel.”
Boyd wrote that the department “will never evaluate any matter except on the facts and the law.”
But Democrats say the Republican questions are efforts to distract from Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it.
“Certainly it is designed to shift resources and attention away from the Russia investigation,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “Initiating another investigation into the Clinton emails isn’t going to make the country any more safe But then, this really isn’t about getting to the truth.”
Among the Republicans’ questions: whether Lynch directed Comey to lie about the nature of the investigation into Clinton; the impact of decisions by the FBI and the Justice Department in that inquiry, including immunity deals given to potential co-conspirators; and leaks of classified information during the Obama administration that unmasked the identity of Americans who were mentioned or recorded in foreign surveillance.
They also want an investigation into whether the FBI relied on a dossier that included salacious allegations against Trump in starting the investigation that’s now led by Mueller.
Additionally, some Republicans want to pursue questions about the Obama administration’s decision approving a Russian government agency’s purchase of a controlling interest in Uranium One, a Canadian company that held interests in U.S. uranium mines.
The deal was approved when Clinton was secretary of state, although she has said she played no role in it. The New York Times reported in 2015 that Bill Clinton’s foundation received donations from leaders of Uranium One.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who has asked for a special counsel to investigate the uranium deal, backed such an appointment in an interview on Fox News Tuesday, saying that Mueller has a conflict because he served as FBI director when that deal was negotiated.
“It isn’t about Clinton. It isn’t about Trump and Russia,” Grassley said. It is about whether there is “political interference” in the Justice Department and the FBI, he said.