WASHINGTON (AFP) — The eyes of the world turn again to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, where embattled US Attorney General Jeff Sessions faces questions over his Russia contacts and role in the firing of FBI director James Comey.
It was the first sworn public testimony from Sessions, a longtime former senator, since he was nominated by US President Donald Trump and confirmed as the nation’s top law enforcement officer in February.
It comes as political intrigue pulses through the US capital following explosive testimony by Comey before the same panel last week, and as Trump has expressed frustrations with Sessions, one of his earliest high-profile campaign backers.
In his riveting appearance Thursday, Comey said the Federal Bureau of Investigation was aware of information that would have made it “problematic” for Sessions to be involved in investigations into alleged Russian meddling in last year’s election.
Comey said he could address the details only in a classified setting — heightening the suspense about what might be asked and answered on Tuesday.
The president sacked Comey in early May. Given that as FBI director Comey was overseeing the probe into Russia and its possible collusion with the Trump team, the firing has led to questions about potential obstruction of justice.
But Sessions, who recommended in a signed memo that Comey be fired, may end up claiming executive privilege as a means of limiting the breadth of his testimony.
Whether executive privilege is invoked “depends on the scope of the questions,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Monday.
“To get to a hypothetical at this point would be premature,” he added.
Although Sessions, a genteel 70-year-old from the southern state of Alabama, backed Trump’s campaign, he was also one of the first administration officials to fly into turbulence.
During his January confirmation hearing, he failed to disclose meetings he held with Russian officials.
Third Sessions-Russia meeting?
On March 1, The Washington Post reported that he met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign.
Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe the next day.
“He didn’t tell us the truth,” Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy told MSNBC Monday.
There are now “things that indicate he had a third meeting,” Leahy added. “Let’s find out under oath what it was.”
Sessions may be under a further cloud after Comey suggested the attorney general may have failed to take appropriate steps to protect the FBI chief.
At the conclusion of a February 14 meeting, Comey testified, Trump urged everyone else but Comey to leave the Oval Office, including Sessions.
Comey recalled that he felt “something big” was about to happen, and “my sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving.”
Sessions heads to Capitol Hill in a perilous position with his boss, with US media reporting Trump has grown displeased with his attorney general, notably for his recusal on the Russia probe.
Trump made his frustration known publicly on Twitter on June 5, when he criticized Sessions’s office for the way it acted on the president’s travel ban on visitors from some Muslim-majority countries.
During a White House meeting Monday, cabinet members including Sessions offered a chorus of flattery for the president despite the crises buffeting the administration.
“It’s an honor to be able to serve you,” Sessions said.
He may face questions about new comments on Monday by a Trump confidante who suggested that the president was considering firing Robert Mueller, a special counsel with sweeping powers whom the Justice Department appointed to lead an independent Trump-Russia probe.
“I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he’s weighing that option,” Chris Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax, told the PBS News Hour, speaking of Trump.
Democrats warned that Congress would turn around and re-appoint Mueller as independent counsel if Trump dismisses him.
A White House official downplayed Ruddy’s comments, saying “Chris speaks for himself.”