June 14, 2017–Yesterday the nation was treated to another deplorable performance by someone who is supposed to be an American leader. In fact, as attorney general, Jeff Sessions is supposed to exhibit sterling qualities, to be the president’s sidekick in the promised draining of the swamp. Instead we saw a small man, diminished further by his squirming, jumping, running away from questions. Mr. Sessions’ responses to the questions he did answer were denials that ranged from flimsy to vague. His invocation of an alleged Justice Department policy regarding non-executive privilege refusal to respond I will comment upon in a moment. Mr. Sessions was again under oath in this meeting with the Senate intelligence committee. I submit to you the odds are better than even that before this affair ends, Sessions will be revealed to have perjured himself again in that testimony. Far from draining the swamp, Mr. Sessions is dredging it deeper.
As for the alleged Justice Department “policy,” former DOJ employees were on the news shows last night saying they never heard of it. Sessions himself, after invoking this “policy,” could not say whether it was written or something in lore, could not say if he had read it (???!?!!–which means he either has no such policy or he has such short term memory problems that his ability to serve as attorney general is in question), and could not quote it as his authority. Today’s New York Times reaches back to the Iran-Contra scandal to find an instance where cabinet officials refused to answer a question in a similar fashion. That’s a poor precedent because in Iran-Contra there was an actual constitutional transgression from which to shield the president.
Here’s what we do know: that two senior intelligence community characters, director of national intelligence Dan Coats, and National Security Agency director Mike Rogers, adopted the identical approach of refusing to answer questions on the phony grounds that the president, in the future, might assert privilege over those subjects (but had not in fact done so at the moment testimony was given). It is far more likely that Sessions’ calculation was “if Coats and Rogers could get away with this, so can I.”
Jeff Sessions squirmed through his testimony, alternately lashing out (dastardly “secret innuendo” circulated about him) or pretending to ignorance (being forced to confront vague charges glimpsed through a “looking glass”). But Mr. Sessions knows very well the story Congress is trying to find out, and he must know that his actions as attorney general have created real questions as to propriety. His plaintive cry–aimed at Jim Comey–to “tell me what” the material act was that would have obliged his recusal from inquiries into the Russian Caper–followed by his strident claim that “of a certainty” there was no such thing–will ultimately escape perjury charges only because supporters will argue they were expressions of opinion rather than assertions of fact. In the meantime the question is, will Sessions get away with his behavior.
So far he has. All through the Sessions testimony I sat waiting for the senator who would stop and say, “Mr. Chairman, point of order, this witness is acting in contempt of the Senate.” The intelligence committee, in seeking information of direct relevance to its investigative purpose, is the body following a longstanding (and written) policy. The power of Congress to investigate was set in law more than a century ago. In connection with the specific refusals by Coats and Rogers, the National Security Act of 1947 explicitly provides, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as authority to withhold information from the intelligence committees on the grounds that providing information to the committees would constitute the unauthorized disclosure of classified information” (50 U.S.C. 413, sec. 501 (e)).
Trump administration officials are here attempting to carve out a wholly new rationale with which to deny information to Congress and the public. Democracy begins to die when executive powers believe they can act with impunity, and outside checks and balances. Sessions should have been held in contempt, not just because he was withholding information from a duly authorized congressional investigative body, but because he was participating in the construction of a wall to insulate the executive branch from proper oversight. The Senate intelligence committee demonstrated its powerlessness by failing to enforce its right to investigate. Chairman Richard Burr and the Republican members of the committee, by putting partisanship ahead of the authority of the Senate, are establishing their irrelevance. The Democratic members, by failing to pose the point of order, are acquiescing in that act. Democracy in America took a hit yesterday.