- Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota had a heated exchange during Sessions’ hearing on Wednesday.
- The exchange focused on what Sessions told the committee in January about his conversations with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. Those conversations landed Sessions in hot water.
- Sessions and Franken spent much of their exchange battling with each other and with the committee’s chairman, Chuck Grassley, over how much time they were allowed to speak.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions engaged in a lengthy, heated exchange with Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota during a Senate hearing on Wednesday. The battle focused on what Sessions told the Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing in January about his communications with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a line of questioning from Franken in that January hearing, Sessions was asked what he would do as attorney general if he found evidence that “anyone affiliated with the Russian government” communicated with the Trump campaign during the election. Sessions said he was unaware of any such activities and that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
It was later reported that Sessions had a handful of conversations during the campaign with the Russian ambassador to the US at the time, Sergey Kislyak. As a result, Sessions recused himself from all matters related to the Trump campaign and insisted he did not attempt to mislead the committee.
“This allegation that a surrogate — and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump — had been meeting continuously with Russian officials, and that’s what I — it struck me very hard, and that’s what I focused my answer on,” Session said on Wednesday in response to a question from Franken. “And in retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.'”
Franken later said that “it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than he just perjured himself.”
On Wednesday, he sought to push Sessions hard on that January exchange and Sessions’ subsequent answers.
Sessions pushed back equally hard.
Franken said that once Sessions was confronted with the reports, he began to change his answer about whether he communicated with Russians.
“So again, the goalpost has been moved,” Franken said. “First it was ‘I did not have communications with Russians,’ which was not true. Then it was ‘I never met with any Russians to discuss any political campaign,’ which may or may not be true. Now it’s ‘I did not discuss interference in the campaign,’ which further narrows your initial blanket denial about meeting with the Russians.
“Since you have qualified your denial to say that you did not ‘discuss issues of the campaign with Russians,’ what in your view constitutes issues of the campaign?” he said.
Sessions responded that he could say “without hesitation” that he “conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.”
“I want to say that first,” he added. “That’s been the suggestion that you’ve raised and others — that somehow we’ve had conversations that were improper.”
That’s when the back-and-forth started to get tense, and the pair battled over Franken’s allotted time to question Sessions.
“So I want to ask you some questions,” Franken said before asking the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, for additional speaking time.
Sessions responded: “Mr. Chairman, I don’t have to sit in here and listen to his charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.”
Grassley then granted Franken additional time.
Sessions said Franken’s question in January was not simple, adding that it had a “very, very troubling” lead-in and that he answered “in a way that I felt was responsive to what you raised in your question.”
Sessions then reread his initial answer to Franken, adding that he didn’t think that could “fairly be interpreted as saying I never had conversations with any Russians.”
“Yes, you can say what you want to about the accuracy of it, but I think it was a good-faith response to a dramatic event at the time,” Sessions said. “And I don’t think it’s fair for you to suggest otherwise.”
Seeking more time to speak, Franken turned back to Grassley.
“He took more than three minutes,” Franken said.
“He took about two and a half,” Grassley replied. “How much do you want? I don’t want to take a lot of time bargaining with you.”
Sessions chimed in and said he “didn’t take as much time as Sen. Franken took.”
“Let me just deal with Sen. Franken,” Grassley shot back, giving Franken an additional three minutes.
Franken then went after Sessions for saying earlier in the hearing that he could not recall what he discussed with Kislyak.
“You go and make a lot of allegations,” Sessions said, adding that it was “hard for me to respond to them.”
Franken then criticized Sessions for having “morphed” his responses, “moving the goalposts every time.”
“By the end, we’re going to a 75-yard field goal,” the Minnesota senator said.
When Franken finished, Sessions turned to Grassley and said, “He gets to do about 10 minutes of improperly framing this subject, and I’m given a short chance to respond?”
Grassley told him, “Proceed, please.”
Sessions called Franken’s characterization of the whole ordeal “totally unfair to me.” He said Franken was taking his initial answer and saying that “if I’ve ever met with a Russian, I’m not being candid with the committee, and I reject that.”
As the exchange ended, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska threw in his curveball. Apparently, Sasse had caused a commotion on the opposite side of the panel while Sessions and Franken were going back and forth.
“There was some drama there,” Sasse said. “I sort of added to the drama and distracted you for a minute. I was paying enough attention there that I dumped a Dr. Pepper on Sen. Cruz. So that’s what was distracting us on this side of the dais.”