Attorney General Jeff Sessions was scheduled to testify publicly next Tuesday before the House and Senate appropriations committees. On Saturday, he abruptly canceled.
In letters to the chairmen of the committees, Sessions writes that he will send his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, to the hearing instead. In explaining the cancellation, Sessions writes that he believed that members of the committees were planning on asking him about “issues related to the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election.”
Sessions’ role in the ongoing probe into Trump campaign’s alleged communications with Russia has come under increased scrutiny since the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey this week.
Comey’s testimony raised questions about Sessions’ engagements with Russia and his involvement in Comey’s firing despite Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation, which Comey was leading.
WYDEN: Let me turn to the attorney general. In your statement, you said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the president’s actions with Attorney General Sessions, even though he had not recused himself. What was it about the attorney general’s interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?
COMEY: Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we’d already heard the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.
WYDEN: How would you characterize Attorney General Sessions’s adherence to his recusal? In particular, with regard to his involvement in your firing, which the president has acknowledged was because of the Russian investigation.
COMEY: That’s a question I can’t answer. I think it is a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know. So I don’t have an answer for the question.
It was later reported that Comey privately told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Sessions was involved in a third undisclosed meeting with Russian officials during the campaign. During his confirmation hearing, Sessions testified under oath that he had no meetings with Russian officials during the campaign. He later admitted to two meetings.
Instead of testifying publicly before the appropriations committees, where these matters could be discussed in the light of day, Sessions will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Washington Post and USA Today report that Sessions’ appearance is expected to be closed.
Sessions’ decision not to appear before the committees was met with harsh criticism from Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT):
Atty Gen. Sessions provided false testimony in response to questions from me and @SenFranken about his contacts with Russian officials. (1)
— Sen. Patrick Leahy (@SenatorLeahy) June 10, 2017
(2) Now, twice in 2 mos., AG Sessions cancels an Approps hg in which I could Q him about his false testimony and half-hearted Russia recusal
— Sen. Patrick Leahy (@SenatorLeahy) June 11, 2017
The scheduling of Sessions’ reportedly private appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee at the exact same time he was scheduled to testify publicly required the cooperation of the chairman of the committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC).
It was reported in February that, at the request of the White House, Burr spoke to media organizations to downplay the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials. Burr was an vocal supporter of Trump’s candidacy and an official adviser to the campaign.
UPDATE (6/12, 11:30 A.M.): After receiving criticism from members of Congress and outside groups, Sessions and the Senate Intelligence Committee reversed course and will hold Tuesday’s hearing in public.