On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and formally responded to former FBI Director James Comey's testimony last week. More than what he testified, many senators in the committee were concerned with what Sessions didn't say in front of an open session. In fact, Sen. Martin Heinrich's interaction with Sessions during the Senate testimony, accusing the attorney general of "impeding" the Senate's work, is one moment from the tesimony that deserves to be watched again.
During his testimony, Sessions faced many tough questions about his involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, his recusal from the FBI's investigation into the campaign and its alleged ties to Russia, and the firing of Comey. To many of the questions, he gave one of two responses: He either couldn't recall a certain detail — such as whether or not he met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyiak on the campaign trail — or he couldn't disclose certain information — such as conversations between him and President Trump.
For instance, Sen. Heinrich asked, "Has the president ever expressed his frustration to you regarding your decision to recuse yourself?" As the attorney general replied, once again, that he was "not able to share with this committee private communications," Heinrich sternly laid out his options. "You're impeding this investigation," Heinrich said.
My understanding is that you took an oath. You raised your right hand here today and you said that you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — and now you're not answering questions. You're impeding this investigation.
Heinrich's concern seemed to stem from Sessions' repeated refusals to answer questions about his conversations with President Trump. Sessions claimed that he wasn't invoking executive privilege, saying executive privilege is "the president's prerogative." Rather, he explained, he was "protecting the president's constitutional right" by not divulging private information.
Heinrich didn't seem to find such a "legal standard" for Sessions' refusals to answer.
My understanding of the legal standard is that you either answer the question, that's the best outcome. You say, "This is classified, I can't answer it here. I'll answer it in closed session." That's bucket number two. Bucket number three is to say, "I'm invoking executive privilege." There is no appropriatness bucket.
Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, has taken a stand against the Trump administration before. Last month, he was part of a group of Democratic lawmakers who called for an investigation into Sessions' role in Comey's firing from the FBI. Last week, Heinrich questioned Comey as part of the former FBI director's Senate testimony. Comey, by the way, did answer Heinrich's questions about conversations with President Trump.