The Attorney General rebuffed several Senators’ questions on Wednesday, relying on a contrived theory of executive privilege to remain silent on issues ranging from the firing of James Comey to the pardoning of disgraced Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The hearing also revealed that the Senate Judiciary Committee is growing increasingly impatient with the DOJ’s lack of responsiveness to inquiries.
Even before he fielded questions, Attorney General Jeff Sessions informed the committee that he would not be revealing the details of any conversations he may have had with President Trump. Sessions, at the same time, stated that the White House had not invoked executive privilege compelling him to remain silent.
“Under the administration of both parties, it is well-established that a president is entitled to have private, confidential communications with his cabinet and officials,” Sessions claimed.
“I can neither assert executive privilege nor can I disclose today the content of my confidential conversations with the president,” he added.
Sessions used this defense to counter the bulk of the questions from the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.).
She first asked Sessions if the President ever revealed to him that he intended to fire former FBI Director James Comey to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation.
“That calls for a communications I’ve had with the President and I believe that remains confidential,” the Attorney General stated.
Feinstein then moved on to a separate issue, asking Sessions if the President ever urged him to drop the federal case against former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Trump went on to pardon the hardline right-wing celebrity cop in August.
“Sen. Feinstein, I cannot comment on the private conversations I may have had with the president,” Sessions repeated.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) argued that the Attorney General has a competing interest that Sessions disregarded, which is complying with congressional requests for information. He cited a November 1982 executive order that is the basis for applying executive privilege.
“Congressional requests for information shall be complied with as promptly and as fully as possible unless it is determined that compliance raises a substantial question of executive privilege,” Whitehouse said reading from the executive order.
The Senator further noted that the E.O. specifically says that “executive privilege will be asserted only in the most compelling circumstances and shall not be invoked without specific presidential authorization,” which the administration has not done yet.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) summed up the committees’ frustrations. “Many of my colleagues and I feel that you have stretched this concept of executive privilege maybe to the breaking point,” he said.
Not only was the Sessions unwilling to play ball with Senators during Wednesday’s proceedings—his first oversight hearing since becoming Attorney General—his office has also been remarkably dismissive of questions sent by the panel in writing.
“We have a lot of trouble getting answers to anything out of the Department of Justice,” Sen. Whitehouse said. He then read from a list of seven unanswered correspondences.
“They won’t even answer my mail,” Whitehouse said.