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Senators Ready to Confront Sessions at Oversight Hearing

Attorney General likely to face contentious questions about his leadership

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions returns to face his former Senate Judiciary Committee colleagues Wednesday in an oversight hearing likely to include contentious questions about Justice Department actions since he took on the role eight months ago.

“The attorney general will earn his money that day,” said committee member John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican.

Senate Democrats have plenty of fodder to put the former Alabama Republican senator on the spot. The Justice Department under Sessions has argued in courts against civil rights protections for LGBT individuals, moved to bolster protections for religious liberties and sought to withhold grant funding for so-called sanctuary cities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The DOJ flipped positions on key voter rights litigation under Sessions’ leadership and has defended the Trump administration’s evolving versions of immigrant and refugee travel bans. Sessions backed more use of a civil asset forfeiture process that is criticized by lawmakers from both parties and announced a crackdown on leakers of classified information after President Donald Trump griped about it to the media.

Sessions declined to defend an Obama-era program that provides deportation relief to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. He also recommended Trump fire James B. Comey as FBI director, and wrote a legal memo that the Trump administration used last week to announce it would end key subsidies in the 2010 health care law.

“It’s a long list,” said Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a committee member who said he will focus on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program. “It’s good to see him back after a long period of time, and there are so many questions to be asked about policies.”

But wait, there’s more: The last time Sessions testified before the Judiciary Committee, at his confirmation hearing in January when he was still a senator, he later was accused of having misrepresented his contacts with Russian officials as part of his role with the Trump campaign.

And when Sessions testified in June before the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of a hearing about Comey’s firing and an investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, his former colleagues criticized him for not being forthcoming in testimony about conversations with Trump because of what he called a “duty to protect confidential communications.”

Democrats on Judiciary wrote Sessions last week seeking to “put you on notice” that they will question potential assertions of such executive privilege at Wednesday’s hearing.

“We expect that when you appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 18th, you will have determined whether the president will invoke executive privilege as to specific topics and will be prepared to answer completely all questions in those areas on which he has not,” the nine senators wrote.

Sessions’ testimony before the Intelligence Committee hearing in June, his first as attorney general, was on the narrow topic of Russian interference. At the time, he leaned on the relationships built over a 20-year Senate career to urge his former colleagues to hear him out.

Senators unleashed

Questions on Wednesday about his leadership at the Justice Department will be less constrained.

As attorney general, Sessions commands a vast portfolio that includes the nation’s immigration courts, antitrust enforcement, responses to terrorism, enforcement of civil rights laws and policies on criminal prosecutions ranging from drug traffickers to white-collar criminals.

It is not surprising that Sessions took the Justice Department in a direction strikingly different from the Obama administration’s on the most divisive issues, such as voter rights and immigration.

Sessions previously ducked hearings that might have featured these types of questions from lawmakers. He backed out of testifying at June hearings before the House and Senate Appropriations committees, which oversee the Justice Department’s $29 billion budget, and sent Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in his place.

Russia probe

Rosenstein could again offer some shelter for Sessions on Wednesday, at least from questions about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sessions recused himself from that probe amid the controversy about the accuracy of his confirmation hearing testimony, so Rosenstein is in charge.

Trump publicly criticized Sessions so much, reportedly fuming over the recusal decision, that some political watchers expected him to resign. Lawmakers have called on Sessions to resign at various times since March.

Sessions has passionately defended himself, and Republican senators also came to his defense during his June testimony.

“There are plenty of other areas to consider,” Durbin said of possible questions on the Russian probe.

Republicans on the panel could also press Sessions about his views on a criminal justice overhaul bill that has bipartisan support in the Senate. As a senator, Sessions was one of the most vocal opponents of the legislation. 

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