Senator Patrick Leahy’s ‘Prebuttal’ Senate Address On Attorney General Sessions’ Testimony

This afternoon, Attorney General Sessions will return to the Senate for the first time since his confirmation hearing.  It has been more than three months since the press revealed that the Attorney General gave false testimony in response to questions from me and from Senator Franken about his contacts with Russian officials.  Yet, the Attorney General has made no effort to come back before the Judiciary Committee to explain his actions—actions that could be construed as perjury.

There are now countless new and deeply troubling questions swirling around the Attorney General.  He was scheduled to appear before an Appropriations Subcommittee this morning, but for the second time in as many months he abruptly cancelled.  Neither I nor Senator Franken sit on the Intelligence Committee, so we will not have the opportunity to follow up with the Attorney General in person.  I will not be able to ask him why he hid his contacts with the Russian ambassador, including a reported third meeting at the Mayflower Hotel.  Nor I will be able to ask about the timing of his recusal, or his involvement with the Russia investigation both before and after.  I will not be able to ask whether the President ever suggested he intervene in the Russia investigation in any way.  And I will not be able to ask how the Attorney General can justify violating his recusal from the Russia investigation by firing its lead investigator. 

The American people deserve answers to each of these questions, and they deserve the truth.  That is why I shared my questions for Attorney General Sessions on these topics and others with members of the Intelligence Committee.

It is good that Attorney General Sessions will finally face some serious questions, but I am still concerned that he will not be the most forthcoming witness.  We saw last week that Trump administration officials have invented a brand new claim of privilege to insulate themselves from Congressional oversight—and to protect themselves from giving answers that would be embarrassing or damaging to the President.  I asked the Congressional Research Service to provide me with a list of valid reasons to refuse to answer a question from a senator.  There is executive privilege, which must first be invoked by the President and is not absolute.  There are also constitutional privileges such as the Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate oneself.  But there is no “I would rather not answer” privilege.  And unless an answer necessarily involves disclosing classified information, “I would rather discuss this behind closed doors” is not a valid response.

The Attorney General’s spokesperson said yesterday that Sessions “believes it is important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him and looks forward to answering the committee’s questions.”  Yet it was also reported yesterday that he plans to invoke executive privilege in response to some inquiries.  If true, the Attorney General is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. 

I hope that the Attorney General will not allow President Trump to follow Richard Nixon down the path of invoking executive privilege to foil an inquiry into illegal or unethical conduct.  These questions need to be answered because the American people deserve the truth.  They deserve an Attorney General who is held accountable for his leadership of the Justice Department.  Not one embroiled in controversy and who hides from the Congressional committees with oversight jurisdiction of his Department.

We must not lose sight of the fact that our democracy was attacked, and if we do not take this seriously it will be attacked again.  We must know exactly how that happened so we can protect our democratic institutions, and protect our country.  That includes knowing whether members of the Trump campaign enabled Russian interference.  The American people also deserve to know whether the President, or his administration, has attempted to interfere with that investigation, knowing that it was improper.  Any such attempt would amount to obstruction of justice.  

Attorney General Sessions needs to answer critical questions today, and he also needs to answer for his leadership of the Justice Department to both the Senate Appropriations and Judiciary Committees.  Sooner or later the Attorney General must answer for his actions.  We deserve to know whether he is acting in the public interest, or in Donald Trump’s personal interest.  If he cannot decide between those answers—if he cannot distinguish between the public interest and Donald Trump’s interest—then he is unfit to serve as Attorney General.

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