Senate Democrats want to grill Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his firing of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and his past testimony on Russia — but it’s unclear if they’ll get the chance despite a GOP promise for FBI oversight hearings.
Sessions' decision to axe McCabe inflamed Democratic suspicions that he bowed to political pressure from President Donald Trump. Though Sessions followed the advice of a nonpartisan Department of Justice review board, Trump has attacked McCabe for months. Republicans have largely defended Sessions, but lawmakers in both parties are eager to see the flap aired out in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Judiciary panel’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), this week said he would hold hearings on the still-unreleased DOJ inspector general’s report, which underpinned Sessions' firing of McCabe. Although all 10 Democrats on the committee have urged Grassley to ask for “an advance and embargoed copy of” the report and called on DOJ “to explain the timing and manner of this firing,” whether the GOP would insist on testimony from Sessions himself remains an open question.
Democrats would welcome the chance to put Sessions back on the hot seat for the first time since last fall. And it’s not just the McCabe firing that Democrats want to dig into.
Should Sessions return to his former home in the Senate for the first time since two ex-Trump campaign aides pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, he can also expect sharp questions on his shifting statements about Trump campaign contacts with Russia.
Sessions “either made a false statement or misled the committee” in the past when discussing contacts with Russia, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “I think that that’s not a question — that’s a fact.”
The attorney general told the Judiciary panel at his confirmation hearing last year that he “did not have communications with the Russians,” only to later revise himself after reports of two meetings with the then-Russian ambassador. Sessions said he attended those meetings in his role as a senator, not a Trump campaign adviser, although media reports have suggested the two discussed campaign-related issues.
McCabe himself authorized a criminal inquiry into Sessions' Senate testimony last year in response to a request from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), ABC reported Wednesday. That move is bound to raise further questions among Democrats already concerned about politicization driving Sessions' firing of McCabe less than two days before the former FBI No. 2's scheduled retirement.
Sessions “wasn’t forthcoming with the truth,” Booker said before ABC's report, adding that “it sounds eerily familiar to what the IG’s accusing McCabe about.”
The DOJ’s inspector general has found that McCabe made an unauthorized disclosure to media about an ongoing investigation and then misled investigators about it — an allegation McCabe denies.
A source close to Sessions said the attorney general was unaware of the probe McCabe opened when he decided on the firing. Chuck Cooper, Sessions' lawyer, said that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not currently investigating Sessions' congressional testimony.
"The special counsel's office has informed me that after interviewing the Attorney General and conducting additional investigation, the Attorney General is not under investigation for false statements or perjury in his confirmation hearing testimony and related written submissions to Congress," Cooper said in a statement.
A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment on whether Sessions would consider testifying in the Senate Judiciary Committee if asked. A spokesman for Grassley said that the panel first would "need to review" the inspector general's report and the recommendation for McCabe's firing from the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility before deciding on witnesses for a hearing.
But several Democrats on the committee, including ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, made clear this week that they would want Sessions himself to discuss the unique circumstances behind McCabe’s firing.
It’s “very important” for the attorney general to personally address the McCabe firing, Feinstein told reporters, adding that she has "a lot of questions." Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) also issued a call for Sessions' testimony hours after McCabe's firing.
Leahy and Franken sent three requests for an FBI inquiry into Sessions’ communications with Russian officials last year, raising concerns about false statements — the first two to Comey, dinging Sessions for "lack of candor," the same ethics breach that resulted in McCabe’s dismissal.
The Democrats’ sent their third letter seeking a Sessions probe to McCabe, three days after McCabe became acting FBI director following Trump’s firing of Comey.
Another hot-button issue that Democrats want addressed: how Sessions' recusal from investigative matters related to Hillary Clinton's email server and family foundation squares with his decision to fire McCabe over the ex-FBI No. 2's disclosures to the media about its probe of the Clinton Foundation.
"I have concerns about his respect to the scope of his recusal," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), another Judiciary Committee member. "I also have concerns that the president is inappropriately influencing the leadership of the Department of Justice."
DOJ points to existing internal regulations to note that, while Sessions is recused from investigative matters relating to the 2016 election, that recusal does not cover personnel or employee misconduct decisions such as McCabe’s firing or last year's Comey firing.
With the IG’s report still under wraps and subject to potential delays, Democrats who challenged the timing of McCabe’s termination face political pitfalls of their own in any effort to probe more deeply.
Before seeing the results of the DOJ watchdog’s probe, it’s impossible for them to know whether McCabe’s behavior documented within it undercuts his claim to be a target of Trump administration allies who want to "undermine my credibility" ahead of likely cooperation with Mueller.
"What’s been widely reported, and I assume it’s true, is Mr. McCabe leaked classified information and lied, including but not limited to lied under oath,” another Judiciary panel Republican, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, said in an interview. “And that’s a firing offense."
Trump's GOP allies in the House have largely applauded Sessions' decision to fire McCabe, calling it a justified action after a year of questions about his role in both the Clinton investigation and Mueller's Russia probe.
Senate Republicans on the Judiciary panel have offered more measured responses, welcoming the chance for a hearing on the inspector general's report while stopping short of passing judgment on conclusions they have yet to see.
"I want the country to understand what happened. Was it political reprisal or was it justified?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "I think it’d be good for the country to understand the basis of the firing."
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) agreed with Grassley's camp that lawmakers should first get a complete look at the inspector general's and internal FBI recommendations.
"I'm sure the attorney general will be testifying" at some point soon, Cornyn told reporters, as part of his periodic returns to the Hill. "[S]o people will have their shot at him. But I'd like to get the facts first."