The stakes of an intensifying Russia investigation are growing for President Donald Trump as his attorney general prepares to confront lawmakers on Capitol Hill for the first time about the role he played in the inquiry and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies Tuesday afternoon to lawmakers for the first time since January, in a public hearing that wasn’t on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s official agenda 24 hours earlier. But while lawmakers will press Sessions for details on the probe into Moscow’s role in the 2016 election, his meetings with Russian officials and the dismissal of Comey, they may find their efforts thwarted by claims of executive privilege.
The attorney general has told the committee he will refuse to discuss his conversations with the president, according to a person familiar with Sessions’s plan. Asked if Sessions will claim that some of his conversations are subject to executive privilege and won’t be shared, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday, “I think it depends on the scope of the questions, and to get into a hypothetical at this point would be premature.”
Adding to the sense of urgency, National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers met behind closed doors Monday night with the Intelligence Committee, after last week saying he couldn’t respond to some questions about the Russia probe and Trump’s alleged involvement in a public hearing.
Coming just days after Comey’s dramatic 2 1/2 hour testimony on Friday, the risks for Trump are high with Sessions, pitting the former senator’s word against that of Comey, a career law enforcement officer known for standing firm against White House political pressure.
Trump and Comey last Friday accused each other of lying about their encounters, but the former FBI director was praised by Republicans and Democrats afterward for his service and detailed recollection of events.
And while Sessions recused himself from involvement in the Russia probe in early March, senators will seek out details of what role he had in the inquiry up to that point and what he may have done since then, including taking part in the May 9 firing of Comey.
In the aftermath of that firing, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI chief Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the inquiry.
Against the backdrop of the congressional inquiries, Mueller is in the earliest stages of his investigation and still building up his team that will lead the probe. But already rumors are circulating that Trump, who has called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt,” may have little patience for continuing.
Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a close friend to the president, said Monday he believed Trump was considering dismissing Mueller. “I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel,” Ruddy said during an interview with PBS News.
But administration officials downplayed those comments and reports that Ruddy recently visited the White House. “Mr. Ruddy never spoke to the President regarding this issue,” Spicer said in an email. “With respect to this subject, only the President or his attorneys are authorized to comment.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said Tuesday on radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show that while he would’t “get into hypotheticals,” he’d be surprised if Trump dismissed Mueller. “I think he should let Bob Mueller do his job and do his job independently and do his job quickly,” he said, adding that Trump “can be vindicated” by letting the facts unfold.
“Let’s not forget what this is originally all about,” Ryan said. “Russia is up to no good. Russia is trying to meddle into our elections.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, praised Sessions’s decision to request the public hearing but said, “There are many unanswered and troubling questions, so the attorney general needs to be forthcoming.” If Sessions was involved in Comey’s firing, that “would seem to be a violation of his recusal,” Schumer said.
Trump called the sworn testimony by Comey, the nation’s former top law enforcement officer, “cowardly” on Twitter. Specifically, Trump rejected Comey’s assertion that he demanded loyalty from the FBI director and asked him to back off the probe of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, warned Trump of the risks of continuing to speak out on the probe.
“Advice 4 POTUS: You have not been vindicated. U won’t be unless Bob Mueller says so. Stop talking. You’re heading into a giant perjury trap,” Fleischer wrote on Twitter, using an acronym for president of the United States.
Whether he invokes executive privilege or not, Sessions must determine how he contends with key issues Comey surprised senators and the public with last week.
Among the revelations was thatsomething was so concerning about Sessions that Comey and the FBI leadership team decided against informing the attorney general about all of the information at their disposal. Sessions hadn’t recused himself from the Russia probe at that point, although Comey said he believed then that the attorney general would do so soon.
“We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey said of the attorney general. Comey declined to provide details during the public hearing.
After a closed session with Comey following last Thursday’s hearing, members of the Senate panel said their investigation has a renewed focus on Sessions.
“The committee is going to be requesting documents and an interview with the attorney general, and there are some unanswered questions,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Friday in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “The attorney general clearly made the right decision in recusing himself from the Russian investigation.”
In addition to clarifying his role in Comey’s firing, lawmakers will want Sessions to recount what he remembers of a Feb. 14 meeting in the Oval Office, during which Comey said the attorney general and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner were asked to leave the room so the president could speak with his FBI director. At that meeting, a day after Flynn was fired, Comey said the president suggested that he ease up on the inquiry into his former national security adviser.
According to Comey, “He then said, ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.’ I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.’ ”
After the February meeting, Comey said, he “took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me.”
Sessions had originally been scheduled to make separate appearances Tuesday before subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations panels. Now, he is sending Rosenstein, his deputy, to those hearings instead.