Attorney General Jeff Sessions is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The ranking Democratic member on that committee, Rep. John Conyers, opened his time with a series of yes/no questions about basic democratic norms that Sessions refused to answer clearly.
The video of Sessions dancing around these questions, asking the 88-year-old Conyers to repeat himself, and obfuscating with responses that could be interpreted any number of ways might have been considered in another time to be fairly outrageous conduct for an attorney general. In Donald Trump’s America, it is apparently considered pretty typical.
Sessions spent the exchange giving nonanswers to very simple questions about basic concepts of constitutional democracy and the rule of law, as well as to a question about a previous promise he had made to Congress to recuse himself from Justice Department investigations that would involve Hillary Clinton.
Here is the footage of Conyers’ questioning.
Each refusal to answer should be enraging and terrifying, but maybe it isn’t anymore.
Here’s the first exchange with Conyers:
Conyers: Yes or no, please. In a functioning democracy, is it common for the leader of the country to order the criminal justice system to retaliate against his political opponents?
Sessions: That a question?
Conyers: That’s the question.
Sessions: Is it proper? Is that what you.
Sessions: But I didn’t quite catch the beginning of the question. I’m sorry.
Conyers: All right. In a functioning democracy, is it common for the leader of the country to order the criminal justice system to retaliate against his political opponents?
Sessions: Mr. Conyers I would say that it’s—the department of justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents and that would be wrong.
Conyers: I interpret that as no.
Sessions: My answer stands for itself, I guess.
Again, this was an insanely basic question. In functioning democracies do leaders use the criminal justice system to punish political enemies? Rather than simply answering the question, No, that’s not how functioning democracies work, he responded that the Department of Justice “cannot be used” to retaliate politically and that would be “wrong” for it to happen. Of course, though, it can be used to do so! President Richard Nixon did just that and it was the second article of impeachment against him passed by this very House Judiciary Committee.
As Conyers noted, this was all relevant because President Donald Trump has used his Twitter to repeatedly encourage his DOJ to investigate his political enemies.
Trump had said at the start of his administration that he did not want to go after Clinton including, presumably, for the hokey “Uranium One” controversy. In the weeks since special counsel Robert Mueller issued his first indictments against Trump campaign officials in relation to his investigation of Russian election interference, though, the president has stepped up his calls for the DOJ to investigate political adversaries for baseless offenses.
University of Missouri–Columbia law professor, Frank Bowman, has argued in Slate that this is an impeachable offense, again noting that it mirrored the second article of impeachment against Nixon approved by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974. Punishing political enemies is also something Trump promised to do during the campaign—in Trump’s own words, he said that if he were elected he would put Clinton “in jail.” Also, this is something that they do in authoritarian countries like Russia, which was Conyers’ point.
The Michigan congressman’s next question was also along these lines, and Sessions’ refusal to answer the simple yes/no question again was telling.
Conyers: Yes or no, if you can. … Should the president of the United States make public comments that might influence a pending criminal investigation?
Sessions: Should he take great care in those issues…
Conyers: Could you respond yes or no?
Sessions: Well, I don’t know exactly the facts of what you’re raising and what amounts to the concern you have. I would say it’s improper to influence—it would be—a president cannot improperly influence an investigation.
Sessions: And I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced. The president speaks his mind. He’s bold and direct ability about what he says, the people elected him, but we do our duty every day based on the law and the facts.
Sessions can’t even bring himself to say it would be “improper” for the president to influence DOJ investigations. He starts to say it, then he cuts himself off knowing who his boss is. Also, again, it’s not just “improper,” it’s been considered by a previous Judiciary Committee to be an impeachable offense, and it is what leaders do in countries that are not functioning democracies.
Sessions’ ultimate phrasing that “a president cannot improperly influence an investigation” is also deeply disturbing. Yes, a president can and Nixon did. Read another way, Sessions could easily be understood to be saying that it can’t be considered improper influence if the president does it. If that sounds familiar, it should.
For Conyers’ final question, he sought to address a report released on Monday that Sessions had directed members of his Justice Department to look into investigating Clinton and the “Uranium One” deal, essentially following Trump’s repeated requests. The separate issue, as Just Security noted on Monday, is that Sessions during his confirmation hearings promised to recuse himself from “investigations that involve Secretary Clinton.” As Just Security also noted, his eventual recusal declaration was much narrower than that promise. Conyers sought a simple answer: Was he recused from investigations of Clinton, as he had promised during his confirmation hearings?
Conyers: For my yes or no question, are you recused from investigations that involve secretary Clinton?
Sessions: Mr. Chairman, it’s—I cannot answer that yes or no because under the policies of the Department of Justice, to announce recusal in any investigation would reveal the existence of that investigation and the top ethics officials have advised me I should not do so.
The fact that he would not clarify the scope of his current recusal opens the very real possibility that he is involved in investigations of Clinton, contra his confirmation hearing promise. Again, this is exactly what was indicated by Monday’s reporting on a letter that Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte outlining Sessions’ involvement in the DOJ’s consideration of a Clinton investigation.
Again, under another administration all of this would have likely been shocking and disgraceful. For this one, though, it was fairly standard. The attorney general left the door open for himself to break his promise to Congress not to be involved in a Clinton investigation, and he repeatedly left the door open for Trump to take the powers of an autocrat.
This was a theme throughout the entire horrifying spectacle. When Sessions was later asked by Rep. Ted Deutch whether Trump could pre-emptively pardon subjects of the Mueller investigation who might ultimately implicate him in their own alleged crimes—including his own son—Sessions again refused to answer. (It’s illegal to take a bribe for a pardon, and it would be similarly illegal to use the pardon power to obstruct justice.)
Ultimately, Deutch summed up Sessions’ answers and what they should mean to all Americans.
“You said when you started your testimony here today that there is nothing more important than advancing the rule of law,” Deutch said. “When you answer the way you have, it suggests that the rule of law is crumbling at our feet.”