(WASHINGTON) — Democratic lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ refusal to discuss conversations he’s had with President Trump or other top White House officials about the Justice Department’s probe of Russian election meddling and other matters.
But a top Democrat Thursday seemed to acknowledge the political reality means there’s little way to force answers out of Sessions.
“We have the power to compel the attorney general to answer those questions, but that requires [Republican] agreement,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Thursday after Sessions testified to the committee behind closed doors.
For months, Schiff and his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill have unsuccessfully pressed Sessions to describe his talks with Trump related to the federal probes looking at whether Trump or his associates may have helped Russia meddle in last year’s presidential election.
During Thursday’s private testimony, Schiff asked Sessions whether Trump ever instructed him to block the federal probes, but the attorney general wouldn’t answer, according to Schiff.
“There is no privilege basis to decline to answer a question like that,” Schiff told reporters Thursday. “If the president did not ask him to take any action that would hinder the investigation, he would say so. If the president did instruct him to hinder the investigation in any way, in my view that would potentially be a criminal act and certainly not covered by any privilege.”
A Republican source said Sessions did tell the House panel Thursday that, generally speaking, he has never been directed to do anything improper or illegal. The Republican source insisted Sessions was “forthcoming” with lawmakers.
Nevertheless, Sessions has made clear that – at least for now – executive privilege is not the basis for his refusal to answer questions about his conversations with senior White House officials.
“I’m not claiming executive privilege,” Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee two weeks ago. “I’m following the long-established policies of the Department of Justice.” He told a Senate panel over the summer that he was “protecting the president’s constitutional right by not giving [executive privilege] away before he has a chance to view it and weigh it.”
In the hearing two weeks ago, an exasperated House member wondered: “Is there authority in this committee to permit a witness to refuse to answer a question without properly invoking a privilege?”
The reality, though, is that Sessions is far away from having to invoke a privilege – he wouldn’t face that decision unless and until Congress subpoenas him for testimony or takes some other legal action against him. And with Republicans in control of Congress, a House or Senate committee is unlikely to issue a subpoena or take such action. Many of the Republican lawmakers in Congress served alongside Sessions when he was in the Senate representing Alabama.
Schiff said Sessions and other administration officials have refused to answer certain questions by claiming they want “to preserve the president’s ability to at some later point claim executive privilege.”
“[But] that is not a basis to refuse,” Schiff said. “We have the power to compel the attorney general to answer those questions, but that requires the majority’s agreement. In my view, we ought to compel the attorney general to tell Congress if the president ever instructed him to take actions that would hinder the Russia investigation. Congress has a need to know and so do the American people.”
Meanwhile, Russian meddling isn’t the only topic that has Sessions refusing to shed light on communications between his Justice Department and the White House.
At the House Judiciary Committee hearing two weeks ago, Sessions wouldn’t answer questions related to AT&T’s proposed takeover of Time Warner, a move the Justice Department has since asked a federal judge to block.
“My first question is: Has any White House employee or official, including the president, contacted the Justice Department regarding the AT&T-Time Warner transaction or any other transaction?” Rep. David Cicilline, D-RI, asked Sessions.
Sessions replied, “I’m not able to comment on conversations or communications the Department of Justice top people have with top people at the White House.”
“You just can’t decline to answer because it’s uncomfortable,” Cicilline then told Sessions.
But the attorney general never answered the question.
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