The first story we heard about why Donald Trump fired James Comey as FBI director was that he’d done so on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, both of whom were emphatically disgusted by Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Two days later, on May 11, Trump himself told NBC’s Lester Holt that he’d been planning to fire Comey long before Rosenstein and Sessions laid out their complaints and that he’d done so for his own reasons. “When I decided to just do it,” Trump told Holt, “I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story—it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ”
Based on his performance at Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Jeff Sessions seems to have committed himself to pretending that interview never happened. Time and time again during the roughly three-hour hearing, Sessions insisted that the original story of the Comey firing had been the true one—that despite everything we now know, including the fact that Trump bragged to Russian officials in the Oval Office that firing Comey had relieved him of “great pressure” stemming from the Russia investigation, it had been Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation that was responsible for his ouster after all.
Hewing closely to the arguments Rosenstein made in his memo, Sessions said on Tuesday that he and his deputy both felt Comey had violated long-standing Justice Department tradition by organizing a press conference last July to announce the end of the Clinton investigation. He also said Comey had overstepped his authority as FBI director when he asserted that “no reasonable prosecutor” would pursue charges against her based on the evidence available. “It was a stunning development … a thunderous thing,” Sessions said, by way of explaining why he “had come to the conclusion that a fresh start was appropriate.”
In a show of either impressive discipline or impressive self-delusion, Sessions refused to acknowledge even once that Trump had no interest in his and Rosenstein’s critique of Comey except insofar as it served as a convenient cover for his actual motives. He also declined to note how happy Trump had been to share those motives in a nationally televised interview.
Sessions had at least two reasons for playing it this way. The first has to do with his desire to protect the president from accusations of criminal wrongdoing: The more fog he can conjure around why Comey was fired, the less obvious it might look that Trump obstructed justice by getting rid of the guy who was investigating his friends and associates. Sessions’ other goal in recommitting to the “Clinton emails” version of Comey’s dismissal is that he needed to defend himself: After all, hadn’t Sessions violated his pledge to recuse himself from the Russia investigation by playing a decisive role in firing the person overseeing it? Well, no, Sessions suggested—not if Trump fired Comey for reasons that had nothing to do with Russia.
(It’s worth noting that the terms of Sessions’ recusal pledge were broader than he now wants us to believe. In the original recusal announcement, the attorney general said he would distance himself from investigations relating to both 2016 campaigns, not just Trump’s. That means that even if Trump had fired Comey because of his handling of the Clinton emails, Sessions shouldn’t have been involved.)
Each time the attorney general was reminded during Tuesday’s hearing that the president had publicly admitted the Rosenstein memo was nothing more than pretext, Sessions bobbed and weaved. Here’s his exchange with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine:
Collins: If you had known that the president … was going to go on TV and in an interview with Lester Holt of NBC would say that “this Russian thing” was the reason for his decision to dismiss the FBI director, would you have felt uncomfortable about the timing of the decision?
Sessions: Well, I would just say this, Sen. Collins. I don’t think it’s appropriate to deal with those kind of hypotheticals. I have to deal in actual issues and I would respectfully not comment on that.
Later, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island was more direct, and Sessions was even more evasive:
Reed: Did you feel misled when the president announced that his real reason for dismissing Mr. Comey was the Russian investigation?
Sessions: I don’t have—I’m not able to characterize that fact … I wouldn’t try to comment on that.
Reed: So you had no inkling that there was anything to do with Russia until the president of the United States basically declared not only on TV but in the Oval Office to the Russian foreign minister saying, ‘the pressure is off, I got rid of that nut job.’ That came to you as a complete surprise?
Sessions: All I can say, Sen. Reed, is our recommendation was put into writing and I believe it was correct. And I believe the president valued it but how he made his decision was his process.
You can see Sessions clinging to the fact that the Clinton ruse was “put into writing,” as if that somehow makes it more authoritative or salient than the president’s own comments. Or maybe Sessions is taking the position that it doesn’t matter why the president actually fired Comey—that as long as someone in the administration made a legitimate case for the decision to get rid of him, the illegitimate motives of the person who actually carried out the firing don’t matter.
It was startling, four weeks after the Rosenstein memo was revealed to be nothing more than a prop, to watch Sessions try to will its credibility back into existence. In doing so, Sessions faced a challenge that was less akin to putting toothpaste back in a tube than to, say, blowing up a balloon that has a massive hole in it from being run over by a truck driven by Donald Trump. He failed, of course. It’s still kind of amazing that he tried.