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'Forced to answer': Sessions readies 'rebuttal' at Senate panel after Comey stokes Russia concerns

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is being sucked into an open Senate hearing on the Trump-Russia probe Tuesday, courtesy of some tantalizing testimony last week by the former FBI director.

Attorney general Jeff Sessions latest to be drawn into Trump-Russia probe after ex-FBI director’s testimony

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, seen here at his confirmation hearing in January, is expected to be asked about his contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign when he appears Tuesday before the Senate intelligence committee. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Jeff Sessions couldn't have avoided this for long. Now, the U.S. attorney general is being sucked into an open Senate hearing on the Trump-Russia probe, courtesy of some tantalizing testimony last week by the former FBI director James Comey.

Sessions, the nation's chief law-enforcement officer, faces sharp questioning on Tuesday at another must-watch hearing before the Senate intelligence committee, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET.

Whether he, in fact, held a third, undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential campaign — as Comey reportedly claimed during the closed-door portion of his testimony — is expected to be among the details he'll be grilled on.

This would be Sessions's rebuttal to  Comey .— Former senator Bob Graham

Sessions will be the highest-ranking cabinet member to testify in Congress about the investigation into Donald Trump's campaign, Russia, and its alleged meddling with the 2016 election. 

He's also likely to take questions about his role in firing Comey, and whether he truly recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe.

Testifying is a political "must" for Sessions. And he can blame Comey for that, says Bob Graham, the former Florida senator who chaired the same Senate committee in 2000-01.

Trump being thrown out of office, that's science fiction.— Michael  Barone, political commentator 

The veteran lawman's testimony "created a political, if not a legal situation, in which Attorney General Sessions is almost forced to answer and come forward in a public session," Graham says. 

When he was asked about his former boss at the Justice Department, Comey told the committee the FBI had become "aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting" that would have made Sessions's involvement in the probe "problematic." 

To the bureau, those facts, whatever they might be, made it incumbent upon the attorney general to recuse himself.

Comey also reportedly told the panel, in a closed session, that Sessions likely met a third time with Kislyak at the Mayflower hotel in Washington.

When he was asked, during his confirmation hearing, about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, Sessions denied he'd had any such meetings, though it later emerged he'd spoken twice with Kislyak. Sessions then recused himself. 

"This would be Sessions's rebuttal to Comey," Graham says, noting it would have been difficult for him to refuse.

Graham, though now retired, also wants to know what "safeguards" the Department of Justice has in place to prevent a violation of Sessions' recusal from the investigation.

"And were those safeguards met in the ... firing of the FBI director?"

But Graham's biggest question is: What was going through Sessions's head when, according to Comey, the attorney general was asked to leave the Oval Office so the president could chat with Comey alone?

During closed-door testimony last week, former FBI director James Comey reportedly told senators that Sessions had likely had a third, undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

"Why did the president ask the attorney general to leave the room? Particularly when that left a person, director Comey, who on the organizational chart is subordinate to Sessions, creating the sense that there was something sinister to be discussed."

Comey testified the private encounter made him uneasy. He also testified he believed the president was trying to establish a "patronage relationship" with his job on the line. After the Oval Office chat, he asked Sessions never to leave him alone with Trump.

Sessions requested a public hearing, which will be encouraging to Democrats who demanded an open testimony, under oath.

Tuesday's hearing is not expected to be as explosive as Comey's, in which he accused the president of lying. Sessions is expected to mainly take on the role of protecting the president.

The Department of Justice issued a memo saying the attorney general felt it was important "for the American people to hear the truth directly from him," following months of unanswered questions.

Bob Graham, former chair of the Senate intelligence committee, says Comey's testimony effectively forced Sessions to also appear before the committee. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has a few of those questions on his mind. Chief among them is the extent of Sessions's recusal from the Trump-Russia probe.

Legal experts have noted that the very act of participating in Comey's termination — by writing a memo rationalizing it — may have violated Sessions's recusal standard.

"He was involved in the firing of Comey. And the president said Comey was fired because of Russia. How does that fit in with his recusal?" the New York senator asked CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday. "It doesn't seem to stand up well for me."

Conservative political commentator Michael Barone, the principal author of the Alamanac of American Politics, won't be watching in any substantial way. He doesn't expect to learn much, though he says he understands the liberal "slavering and mouths watering over the prospect" of a Trump impeachment.

"This idea there was collusion with Russia, they've been investigating for 10 months now, and nobody's found anything, far as I can tell," he says. "Trump being thrown out of office, that's science fiction."

Whether the president still has confidence in Sessions is believed to be a fraught matter. The Senate intelligence committee may choose to ask Sessions about friction between himself and the commander-in-chief.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer initially deflected the question last week, though his deputy Sarah Huckabee-Sanders affirmed later the president "has confidence in all of his cabinet."

Trump was reportedly angered by his attorney general's decision to recuse himself, and blamed Sessions' actions for the eventual expansion of the probe and the appointment Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

News outlets reported that Sessions offered his resignation a few weeks ago as tensions worsened, but that Trump refused to accept it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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