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  October 18, 2017

Sessions Faces Russia Questions, But Are Democrats Next?


In a Senate hearing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was grilled yet again on Russia and other issues. Meanwhile, a new Russia-tied investigation has emerged, but this time it involves the Obama administration
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biography

Marcy Wheeler is the author of Anatomy of Deceit , a short primer on the pre-war intelligence and the CIA Leak. She blogs under the name "emptywheel" at The Next Hurrah and live-blogged the Scooter Libby trial. She has a PhD from University of Michigan relating to politics and journalism. Marcy lives in Michigan, where she works as a business consultant.


transcript

AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News, I'm Aaron Maté. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was back on the hot seat today in an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions was grilled on many issues, not least the Russia probe.

JEFF SESSIONS: You'll have to ask the Special Counsel.

SPEAKER: No, I'm asking you.

Jeff Sessions: Repeat the question then.

SPEAKER: Have you been interviewed or been requested to be interviewed by the Special Counsel, either in connection with Director Comey's firing, the Russia investigation, or your own contact with Russian officials?

JEFF SESSIONS: I'd be pleased to answer that. I'm not sure I should without clearing that with the Special Counsel. What do you think?

SPEAKER: Have you been interviewed by them?

JEFF SESSIONS: No.

SPEAKER: You haven't been interviewed by the Special Counsel in any way, shape, or matter?

JEFF SESSIONS: The answer's no.

AARON MATÉ: But a new investigation tied to Russia has also emerged, but this time it's not about Donald Trump and his campaign. The Judiciary Committee has also launched a probe into revelations the Obama administration approved a uranium deal with Russia, despite evidence that Russian officials were trying to bribe Americans. Among the potential beneficiaries of this scheme was the Clinton Foundation, right at the time that Hillary Clinton presided on the Committee on Foreign Investment, which backed the deal.

Joining me is Marcy Wheeler, investigative journalist whose blog is EmptyWheel.net. Welcome, Marcy. Sessions' appearance today was not just about the Russia probe and we'll get to some of the other issues, but first, your thoughts on his appearance today answering questions about the firing of Jim Comey and also about his own meetings with Russian officials, and questions that have been raised about whether or not his testimony has been consistent?

M. WHEELER: I think in a lot of areas he was just dodging, and including on whether or not executive privilege prevents him from answering these questions. We learned nothing substantive about his conversations with Russians today. We learned a lot on the Russian issue and on everything else about A, either how he's dodging, and how he won't answer even very basic questions, or more importantly, on issues unrelated to Russia, how he either will not criticize the President at all, or he hasn't thought through the policy implications of some of the changes he personally has already made in the department.

Not a good outing for Jeff Sessions and as you said, the Russian stuff was very central to Democrats questions. I think a lot of the general patterns of answering were more damning to him as a whole.

AARON MATÉ: How so?

M. WHEELER: Because he repeatedly got really confused or had to retract answers. I think aides leaned over to him maybe five times over the course of hearing and said, "No, you need to go back and clarify what you just answered under oath." He did not have the appearance of a man who was really in control of his own testimony. He did not have the appearance of an Attorney General. He had the appearance of a man who was scrambling on all issues, whether it was Russia or other policies.

AARON MATÉ: Now, let me go to one more clip. This is again, Sessions being questioned by Senator Pat Lahey about the consistency of his previous statements about Russia. There was a big controversy when Sessions denied having contacts with Russians about the campaign, but then it turned out he had met with the Russian Ambassador, and that led to his recusal from Russia related matters. He had this exchange with Lahey about that today.

Jeff Sessions: The question you're referring to is sub paragraph E, and it says, "Several of President Elect's nominees or senior advisors have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election? Either before or after election day." I took that to mean not any casual conversation, but did I participate with Russians about the 2016 election, that something was wrong. Every one of your previous questions talk about improper involvement and I felt the answer was no.

AARON MATÉ: Marcy, I can't believe I'm in this position, but I think that's a credible answer. Lahey's original question to him that caused so much hoopla was about, as Sessions explained there, conversations about the 2016 campaign, so he answered no. Because all he did was meet with the Russian Ambassador, as he's met I'm sure with many officials.

M. WHEELER: At a campaign event. No look, that was not the worst of his Russian answers. Some of the more problematic Russian answers that he asked was, for example, when Franken rolled out how he lied on a more basic question. "Did you meet any Russians?" And Sessions basically reread that question as well, you're going to pull that up and say that he was answering the question, and then every time he has re-answered, because the Franken was the one that got all the attention, moved the goalposts to then saying, "Well, I did meet with Russians in this situation. Well, I didn't meet with Russians to collude on the election."

Today he said, "I did collude or I'm not aware of any collusion with results to the 2016 election" and very curiously, when he was asked about whether he talked to Russians about email, that was one of the only questions where he answered in Alberto Gonzales' classical answer, "I don’t recall." It is, by the way, consistent with answers that Kushner and others have given. They all want to deny that they talked to Russians about colluding on the election, but they have left open the possibility.

Stone, this is consistent with Roger Stone's answers, as well. They have left open the possibility that say they spoke to Russians about Hillary Clinton's Clinton Foundation email, which they deemed to be unrelated to the election or something like that. It is surprising to me, that one raised my eyeballs, because it is surprising to me that Sessions gave that answer.

I'm with you, that what we know about Sessions' meetings, Sergey Kislyak, a couple of times, are answers that he should have answered different, are answers and his afterwards response make him look stupid, make him look dishonest. I don't know that they make him look like he personally is trying to cover up colluding with the Russians, but that other answer today about, "Well, I don't recall any conversations about email."

AARON MATÉ: Okay. If you're referring to the email question from Lahey, I thought the question was pretty vague. It was ambiguous. He just said, "Did you talk to the Russians about email?" Like literally he just said, "Email." Sessions was like, "I don't recall."

M. WHEELER: "I don't recall."

AARON MATÉ: But it's vague, because what email is he talking about?

M. WHEELER: Sessions has three conversations he admits to with Russians. There are other conversations. The whole Peter Smith campaign to go pay Russian hackers to go find Hillary's deleted Clinton Foundation emails.

AARON MATÉ: Peter Smith is a rich Republican donor who recently passed, right? Who talked about maybe hiring some Russians for oppo research, right?

M. WHEELER: Very specifically, hiring Russian hackers to find Hillary's deleted Clinton Foundation emails.

AARON MATÉ: But he died and that, like many other Russiagate stories, is kind of murky and uncertain. I don't know, that's my rendering of it.

M. WHEELER: No, no, no. That is your reading of it, but there are live people who participated in that operative who have already testified to Robert Mueller. There are at least some reasons to believe that they got a call out of the blue around the same time the rest of the email operation was happening. Smith and others were trying to claim at least that Mike Flynn and others very close to Trump were involved in that operation.

So, questions like that, I mean, Sessions has said, "Okay, I've gotten all of the Russian conversations done. There are... the Mayflower Hotel." I suspect the Mayflower one is fairly minor. The other two are more interesting because they were substantive policy discussions about issues that have been a part of the Russian investigation, but fine, seed your point. To then say, "Well, I don't recall any conversations with Russians about email." That, wow. That one I think deserves more attention.

AARON MATÉ: I just wish the meaning of email had been specified, because it was ambiguous.

M. WHEELER: Right. But if Sessions is claiming he only had three conversations with Russians, right?

AARON MATÉ: Sure.

M. WHEELER: And of those three, he can't recall whether email came up? I don't know.

AARON MATÉ: Or, it's the fault of the questioner for not being specific. Let me move on, though. Because I'd like to compare all this to what is now emerging about the Clintons, which is-

M. WHEELER: It's not emerging. It's been known for years.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, but this Hill report that came out yesterday, that's launched-

M. WHEELER: Written by a hack journalist, but go ahead.

AARON MATÉ: John Solomon and Alison Spann are hack journalists?

M. WHEELER: Yeah. I mean, they've done a bunch of absolutely crazy stuff. If you want to treat them as legitimate journalists, that's fine. Go ahead.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. I'm not familiar with their work and I didn't know that, but...

M. WHEELER: They do a lot on surveillance as well, so every single of those reports has been ridiculous. I mean, I've had to spend a week saying, "Come on, guys. Please don't do this." Solomon's very conservative, and he is ... I mean, that is a propaganda outlet now. That's fine.

AARON MATÉ: The Hill? Okay, all right.

M. WHEELER: Well, not The Hill, but Solomon is. Go ahead.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. So, but they reported, and by the way they're not the first to report this. Like, the New York Times-

M. WHEELER: No, as I said. This is…

AARON MATÉ: The New York Times did a similar report, but what is new in this is that, this was a scheme in which basically the Obama administration approved a uranium deal with Russia, even though there was allegations of corruption, but what was new in this report was that this report by these hack journalists, you claim, says that there was a witness who said that part of the scheme involved routing millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation at the time when Hillary Clinton was on the Committee for Foreign Investment, which rules favorably on this deal.

That plus what we've also known about for a while, Bill Clinton receiving half a million dollars from a Russian firm that was opposed to the Magnitsky Act, for a speech that Bill Clinton gave in Moscow. Coinciding with Hillary Clinton opposing the Magnitsky sanctions, and I contend, and I'm sure you won't agree, that in terms of potential conflict of interest, there's more tangible developments pointing to the Clintons than there are to the Trumps.

M. WHEELER: No, because these are old and it also came out during the testimony today, DOJ already investigated this. People were already tried for this. I mean, this is like let's talk about Whitewater again. It's been done, it has been investigated. I'm not saying Clintons have been free of taint. I would not say that. But it is separate from the issue of whether still uninvestigated allegations about tampering with an election are ongoing.

I get why John Solomon is publishing this. This has been literally, this was some of what got discussed, some of the meetings that are now under investigation by Robert Mueller. It's an old thing. It's tired, again, during the testimony today they said, "Well, it's already been investigated."

One of the other interesting things about it, by the way, is Trump is accusing Sessions of not investigating it directly enough, which is another abuse of power on Trump's side. So, if you want to really go there, let's go there because it's good means for impeachment.

AARON MATÉ: Which I certainly would not be against but what I think is new in this Hill report also, is that they say that despite previous claims that there was no, claims by the Obama camp that there was no evidence of corruption, this Hill report says that the FBI did in fact gather documents pointing to widespread corruption, but that was ignored.

M. WHEELER: No, it was investigated. They didn't bring charges. That's a different thing. You know what? We can also go back to during the Obama administration, a lot of investigations in mobsters basically buying up condos in Donald Trump properties. Those were also not charged. We could go into and actually Sessions gave this answer. You're not supposed to talk about whether there's an ongoing investigation or what the status of it is, but there are plenty of known investigations from the FBI under the Obama administration that you and I might love for the people that were involved to have been charged on, but they were investigated.

They did get their investigation. The investigation that is still ongoing right now is the Trump Russia one. That is what FBI has not finished investigating.

AARON MATÉ: Right, fair enough. We'll leave the Russia stuff there and move onto other issues that were raised today in the Sessions testimony. I'm wondering, just your takeaways from what he said about DACA first of all? He was asked about his order to reverse essentially the protections of DACA which offers status to undocumented youth who came to the US at a young age.

M. WHEELER: I mean, partly he rehearsed the same old line. It's about rule of law. I wish actually that the Democrats humored Sessions more about consistency of rule of law, because another thing that came up over the course of the hearing was that Sessions came in and said, "We, the DOJ, is going to defend Trump against these emolument scandals. It's totally inconsistent there. Like, DOJ has decided that Trump is completely innocent. There's no rule of law violation there, even though it's clear there is, but DACA is a clear case of needing to enforce rule of law, safe cities, yada yada.

For me, on the domestic policy issues, what was most striking about Sessions was that he clearly had not thought through the implications of his policy. For example, Mazie Hirono said, "What happens if these cases, if these people who have DACA status that goes beyond the expiring deadlines, if something happens then, what happens to these people who were promised certain things and based on that understanding gave information to DOJ? What happens to these people?"

Sessions was sort of like, "I don't know." He did the same thing even more strikingly on LGBT rights, where he basically, his right to religious freedom or what have you where he said federal contractors don't have to do things they religiously disagree with. He was asked, "Is it possible that" ... This was Durbin. "Is it possible that somebody in the Social Security Agency would refuse to process or not process next of kin benefits under social security for a same sex couple?"

It was a stunning moment because Sessions just drops his jaw and he's like, "I've never thought of it."

AARON MATÉ: Right, Marcy. I'll read you the quote he said. He said, "That is something I have never thought would arise, but I would have to give you a written answer to that if you don't mind."

M. WHEELER: Right, and so the notion that he has basically himself changed policy on this issue and not thought through how many federal issues have to do with... and especially with same sex marriage, is just mind boggling to me. Because that means these policies have been put into place with no thought of the repercussions for them.

AARON MATÉ: We'll leave it there. Marcy Wheeler, investigative journalist. Her blog is EmptyWheel.net. Marcy, thank you as always.

M. WHEELER: Thanks so much.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.



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