Tuesday June 13, 2017
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is testifying this afternoon before the Senate Intelligence Committee to address alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The public testimony comes days after fired FBI Director James Comey’s dramatic appearance before the same panel. Join TOPLive at 2:30 p.m. ET as we bring you full coverage and analysis from the hearing.
Welcome to TOPLive. I'm Erik Larson, and I cover U.S. law for Bloomberg News. Along with Congressional reporter Billy House, I'll be taking you through the next couple of hours as we find out what Attorney General Jeff Sessions has to say about all things Trump-Russia. Joining us will be:
- Kartikay Mehrotra, Legal reporter
- Steven Dennis, Congressional reporter
- Camila Russo, Markets reporter
- Andrea Snyder, Social media monitor
It's been a rough month for Sessions. Today's hearing follows reports last week that the attorney general offered to resign after Trump publicly criticized the DOJ's handling of a revised travel ban. Trump was also reportedly angry that Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, after days of ambiguity, said June 8 that the president “absolutely” supports Sessions.
And of course last week's hearing with former FBI Director James Comey prompted new questions about Sessions. Comey said in testimony to the Senate committee he and other bureau leaders had expected Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigations, a week before he did so on March 2. Their reasons for thinking that were classified, said Comey -- but will Sessions now be asked if he can elaborate?
A likely key committee question for Sessions -- beyond whether he had a third meeting with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. during the campaign? Did Comey really tell him after Feb. 14 he did not want to ever be left alone in a room again with Trump?
Some additional questions we're listening for:
- Comey said there was more to Sessions' recusal from the Russia investigation. What don't we know?
- What did Sessions know about Comey's departure? What was his role?
- Was Sessions fully candid in his confirmation testimony when he seemingly failed to mention his meeting with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak?
A look at the hearing room earlier today as it was being readied for Sessions:
Democrats may use the opportunity to grill Sessions about why he failed to say during his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing that he'd had two meetings with the Russian ambassador.
“I did not have communications with the Russians," Sessions said at that hearing. He later told reporters he should have "slowed down" before answering the question.
Here's what top Senate Democrat Charles Schumer says questions for Sessions should be:
- What involvement he had with the Russia investigation before his recusal?
- What safeguards are in place to prevent his meddling?
- And why he felt it was appropriate to recommend the firing of Director Comey when he was leading that investigation?
Democrats also may be tempted to ask Sessions a rhetorical question: why did so many people close to Trump apparently forget about their meetings with one of the most powerful Russians in the U.S.?
Narrative emerging from some congressional Republicans links GOP's sluggish legislative agenda to "cloud" hanging over president, including Russia turmoil, Comey and Sessions. Seen as distracting from Trump's and GOP's health care, tax or infrastructure proposals. But such talk overlooks that House GOP delayed, struggled on health bill, for internal reasons.
As we approach Sessions' testimony, U.S. stocks are up after tech shared rebounded from a two-day rout, while Treasuries are steady as investors await the Fed's rate decision, and the dollar is down. The bar to shake up markets is high after nothing, from Comey's firing to his leaked memo or his testimony, was able to make a lasting effect on U.S. assets.
The Comey/Russia scandal may seem damaging for the Trump administration, but market reaction has been pretty bland. While the S&P 500 slipped after Comey's memo was leaked, it quickly recovered and U.S. stocks and Treasuries are up since the former FBI director was fired. It shows political turmoil hasn't dented investors' confidence that Trump will be able to carry out the more pro-growth parts of his agenda.
Still, 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.
We know senators' questions for Sessions will likely to be formed against the backdrop of fComey's testimony last week when he addressed allegations related to obstruction of justice and implicit bribery against the president. The panel may attempt to corroborate what they learned from Comey, while demanding clarity on Sessions' relationship with Russian diplomats to the U.S.
Trump called Comey's sworn testimony “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, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush, took to Twitter to warn Trump of the risks of continuing to speak out on the probe.
Against the backdrop of the intense media interest in the Sessions testimony -- and last week's Comey testimony -- has come word that Senate officials are seeking to impose, starting today, new rules on some media access to lawmakers at the Capitol.The galleries (which act as representatives for press, radio and TV) are objecting and pushing back.
McConnell speaking now on Capitol Hill is trying to ease those concerns, saying `we're a press friendly operation around here'
Maybe there's a lot less at stake for Trump today, with a staunch ally being questioned instead of someone he recently fired and reportedly insulted.
Sessions was an early and ardent Trump backer. A hard-liner on free trade and immigration, the former federal prosecutor was also one of the most conservative U.S. senators.
Background note: In 1986, President Ronald Reagan picked Sessions for a judgeship, but his nomination died in committee following claims he'd made racist statements.
Sessions also has allies on the Senate Intelligence Committee, among them the chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina. "I trust Jeff Sessions," Burr told reporters in March, amid initial calls for Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation into potential contacts between Trump officials and Moscow.
William Portanova, state and federal prosecutor for 15 years, says today's testimony could determine Sessions' continued role with the Trump administration:
''I think this hearing is going to define Sessions' future with this White House, and by the same token it'll define his relationship with the Senate, his former colleagues."
Sessions will likely be asked explain precisely his legal rationale for recommending that Comey be fired despite earlier recusing himself from decisions related to the Russia probe. The DOJ blamed Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, but will that pass the smell test?
David Sklansky, a former assistant U.S. Attorney and co-director of Stanford Law School's Criminal Justice Center
``The standard for what constitutes obstruction of justice are vague. What's impeachable is even vaguer. There's now a national conversation for what it means for something to be corrupt. It'll be interesting to see what signals we get from Republican senators on how far they are willing to go to excuse conduct that otherwise would be thought to be impeachable."
Trump fired Comey, so why not Mueller too? Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told a Senate subcommittee today that only he, not Trump, can fire the special counsel probing Russian meddling in the election. The question came up after one of Trump's friends said in TV interviews that the president is weighing whether to fire former FBI Director Robert Mueller from that role.
“I appointed him. I stand by that decision,” said Rosenstein. “I’m going to defend the integrity of that investigation.”
For a primer on how we arrived at this point today, Check out our Bloomberg QuickTake, which answers questions what Russia is said to have done, how WikiLeaks was involved and which Trump aides are under scrutiny.
As we wait for Sessions to arrive, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts is tweeting
The hearing is expected to last about 2 hours. For questions, Chairman Burr and vice chair Warner get 10 minutes, and other committee members each will get 5 minutes.
DNC offers 10 questions that could be asked of Sessions, including what he knows about whether President Trump ever put pressure on Comey to drop Flynn investigation or any other aspect of Russia probe.
Faiza Patel, a co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law
"Sessions testimony could be dramatic, but it could also be a letdown for many if he declines to answer questions about his conversations with Trump, invoking executive privilege or some other."
Sessions also is testifying against a backdrop of new reports that Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. electoral system before Trump’s election was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed. Trump has repeatedly derided the probes into Russia’s role as "fake news."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives at senate committee hearing.
Sessions takes his seat as photographers crowd around him and lawmakers continue to file in. The testimony was supposed to start 10 minutes ago.
Trump said he felt vindicated after Comey testified, even though he accused the president of lying about why he was fired. No doubt Trump will feel vindicated again today no matter what Sessions says.