Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon, addressing last week's testimony from former FBI director James Comey regarding his firing at the hands of President Donald Trump. Sessions decried the idea he had any role in colluding with Russian officials to influence the outcome of the 2016 election and largely refused to address any conversations he had with or about Trump.
But there was an overlooked moment that merits notice: a statement from Sessions' testimony about the Trump campaign and Russia.
It came during an exchange between Sessions and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican. Risch was essentially aiding Sessions' case, highlighting a lack of publicly viewable evidence to support allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. In doing so, he asked a purely hypothetical question, designed to allow Sessions to paint a picture of himself as a morally rigid, independent figure.
And yet, Sessions botched it. When asked if he would've "headed for the exits" if he'd learned of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government last year while a surrogate last year, Sessions didn't say yes. Rather, he said "maybe."
Asked if he would have "headed for the exits" had he heard about Trump campaign collusion with Russia, Sessions responds "Maybe."— Alex Wagner (@alexwagner) June 13, 2017
Needless to say, even though Sessions seemed to be slightly casual when he made the "maybe" remark, it's a rather startling response. What he was asked, in practical terms, was "if you found out the Trump campaign was engaged in a treasonous plot to capture the presidency through the illegal help of a historically hostile foreign power, would you quit over it?" His answer, however flippantly he may have meant it, was not an unequivocal yes, but "Well, maybe."
Even if it was meant as a sort of passing joke, that's a strange attitude to take when you're under oath at an intelligence committee hearing. It somewhat reinforces the fact that, setting aside the still-unproven allegations of misconduct between the Trump campaign and Russia, the findings of the American intelligence community which Sessions accepted during the hearing are serious enough as to make such a remark really stick out.
Heinrich asks about this. Sessions: "If there was an improper or illegal effort to influence the campaign, I absolutely would have departed"— Lachlan Markay (@lachlan) June 13, 2017
Later in the hearing, New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich called Sessions to account for the remark, and got him to clarify that yes, he would've quit the campaign had he learned it was in bed, so to speak, with the Russian government. That was a welcome correction to Heinrich, although he did note that he wondered why it wasn't offered to begin with, and lambasted Sessions for refusing to answer questions about his conversations with Trump despite the president not having invoked executive privilege.
Suffice to say, it was a tense and occasionally testy hearing, with Sessions seeming at time indignant and outraged at being questioned so aggressively by his former colleagues in the Senate. It figures to be far from the last bit of pressure-packed public testimony, too — both the House and Senate Trump-Russia investigations are ongoing, alongside that of independent counsel Robert Mueller.