Attorney General Jeff Sessions will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, where he is expected to face a fresh round of questions about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Sessions was initially invited to talk budget details, but his previously scheduled testimony gained new relevance last week after James Comey reportedly told the committee behind closed doors that he was aware of at least one other, previously undisclosed meeting between Sessions and Kislyak. During his confirmation hearings, Sessions said under oath that he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the campaign; he later admitted he met with the ambassador twice.
Tuesday marks the first time Sessions will testify since announcing in March that he would recuse himself from “any existing or future investigations” relating to Russia or the 2016 election – that was after the Washington Post reported on his meetings with Kislyak. Sessions’ decision has reportedly strained his relationship with the president, but the extent to which he has actually distanced himself from the investigation remains the subject of fierce speculation. (For instance, Sessions was involved in the decision to fire Comey – a move Trump would later admit was motivated by “this Russia thing.”)
On Thursday, several senators questioned Comey about Sessions’ recusal, but none more pointedly than Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, who asked if Sessions reviewed any documents related to the investigation before or after recusing himself (Comey answered that he didn’t know) and whether he put a mechanism or process in place to ensure he would not have any contact with the investigation (again, Comey said he didn’t know). Expect the senator to revisit that line of questioning with Sessions himself on Tuesday.
Sessions, it’s worth noting, isn’t the only Trump associate whose supposed recusal from such an investigation is being questioned. Rep. Devin Nunes stepped down from his role leading the House Intelligence Committee investigation of Russian interference in the election after the Office of Congressional Ethics opened a probe into whether the congressman disclosed classified information during a hastily called press conference at the White House earlier this year.
Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on that committee, tells Rolling Stone that despite his promise to step aside from the investigation, Nunes recently issued subpoenas relating to the Russia investigation.
“Since the chairman has recused himself from the Russia probe, he shouldn’t be signing subpoenas or having any say in subpoenas related to the Russia investigation, but he has not been willing to delegate that authority to [his Republican colleague Mike] Conaway. And so that is a problem that we have raised,” Schiff says. “It hasn’t prevented us from issuing the subpoenas we need to issue, but nonetheless, if he’s going to honor his request to step aside, to recuse himself, he needs to delegate that authority to Mr. Conaway.”
Nunes’ move puzzled Schiff, he says, not only because Nunes recused himself, but also because it was unnecessary. “The intelligence agencies have been complying with our requests in the Russia probe, I think very completely,” Schiff says. “But quite out of the blue, the chairman on his own issued three subpoenas to three of the agencies, and that, I think, took them by surprise. And it certainly took us by surprise, since the agencies have been fully cooperative with us. I don’t understand why they were subpoenaed.”
Schiff adds, “We haven’t seen any evidence that any of the agencies haven’t cooperated with any of the requests, so, in our view, the subpoenas were unnecessary.”
The subpoenas Nunes issued were related to the reported “unmasking” of Trump associates who were captured speaking to Russians under U.S. surveillance. (The identities of Americans whose communications are “incidentally” collected are usually redacted, unless certain government officials specifically request to “unmask” them.)
At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that he could recall unmasking at least one Trump associate, who also happened to be a member of Congress. The list of people who would fit that profile is short, but it would include Devin Nunes – the congressman served on Trump’s transition team – and, of course, Jeff Sessions.