(CNN)Attorney General Jeff Sessions will face down more than a dozen of his former colleagues this afternoon when he testifies in front of the Senate intelligence committee about the ongoing probe into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.
The Senators Jeff Sessions needs to worry about in the Russia hearing, ranked
The committee is comprised of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats as well as four ex officio members who may or may not show up. (My guess is John McCain and Jack Reed are there while Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell are not.)
One good way to watch the hearing is to know which of those 17 Senators pose the most -- and least -- risk to Sessions. I've ranked them all based on that criteria. The #1 ranked Senator poses the single biggest risk to Sessions' chances of making it through the hearing unscathed.
(Also: Make sure to read the 6 most important questions Sessions should be asked via CNN's Tom LoBianco.)
Here we go!
The Idaho Republican was one of the most skeptical senators regarding Comey's testimony last week. And he's a Sessions ally; he was the originator of the Senate rules move to silence the Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren after she tried to insert a letter from Coretta Scott King that opposed Sessions. "We have rules around here, and the rules are very clear that you don't impugn another Senator," Risch said at the time.
Cornyn, the 2nd-ranking Republican in leadership and a former chairman of the party's campaign committee, will do everything he can to prop up Sessions -- understanding that a poor performance by the AG will make it that much harder for the GOP to move beyond this Russia investigation before the 2018 election.
Blunt was, somewhat surprisingly, one of Comey's most aggressive questioners last week. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. Blunt just got reelected in 2016 and has always been a guy who toes the party line. He was in House leadership before coming to the Senate, after all.
Cotton has an eye on his political future -- whether that comes in 2020 or 2024. With that in mind, he's not going to make it too hard on Sessions, who continues to be regarded by the party base as an undeserving target of the so-called "liberal" media's bile. Cotton has also been a steady defender of Sessions; "Anyone who knows Jeff Sessions as I do can vouch for his integrity and honesty," he said in March. "There's no scandal in a senator meeting an ambassador, which happens all the time."
Lankford is an interesting cat. Yes, he represents one of the most conservative states in the country -- a place where defending Sessions at all costs would be applauded. But during his relatively brief time in the Senate, Lankford has shown himself to be more than a predictable partisan. That said, don't expect Lankford to go after Sessions. "We want to be able to get [Sessions'] side of it, get all the facts out there," Lankford said over the weekend. "We've had a lot of unnamed sources in the media come out and make statements about Jeff Sessions. It would be very good to get it directly from him."
Rubio, along with Blunt, were the two Republicans who went after Comey hardest last week. But Rubio has been all over the map as it relates to Sessions and Russia. He said he needed to get to the bottom of the initial reports that Sessions had met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak without properly disclosing them. But days later, he was fully back on Team Sessions; "I don't believe it was intentional in any way, because at the end of the day it was not the kind of thing that Jeff Sessions does and it's not kind of thing that would be easy to hide, and nor would there be any reason," Rubio said on CNN of the Kislyak meetings.
After McCain's showing at the Comey hearing, everything is on the table today. I would assume, given the furor over what, exactly, McCain was talking about in his questioning of Comey last week, he will be better briefed and more to the point this week. McCain revels in being unpredictable and is no Sessions ally so it's possible he might throw a curveball or two.
As the chairman of the committee, Burr has, in the past, adopted a "just the facts" approach in which he kicks off the hearing by confirming a series of key facts and then steps out of the way. My guess is he'll do the same with Sessions today.
Collins has built her political reputation on a willingness to break with her party. But, as brilliantly documented in this piece by the Washington Post's Paul Kane, Collins has a long relationship with Sessions. That personal tie will likely limit her willingness to push him on some of the finer points on his meetings with Kisylak or his conversations with Comey about Trump.
Foremost in Manchin's mind -- today and every day -- is that he needs to find a way to get reelected next November in a state Trump won by 42 points in 2016. That almost certainly necessitates Manchin being the easiest on Sessions of all the Democrats on the committee.
As the vice chair of the committee, Warner has been slightly more willing than Burr to push witnesses. But, if he follows his usual blueprint, Warner will use his opening statement to lay out the many unanswered questions still swirling in the Russia investigation and then take something of a backseat while his Democratic colleagues ask the more pointed things.
Reed, like McCain, is an ex officio member of the Intelligence Committee due to his senior role on the Armed Services Committee. While Reed is among the most powerful members of the Senate minority, he's generally a low-key presence in the chamber. However, in an interview with Erin Burnett Monday night, Reed signaled he might strike a more aggressive tone with Sessions. "I think it's important to establish why he was involved in the dismissal of Director Comey since he had recused from, apparently, all matters related to the Russia investigation, and (President Donald Trump) himself has indicated that he, indeed, based his dismissal of Comey on the Russia Investigation," Reed told Burnett. "The attorney general's involvement is highly questionable, to be blunt, and I think those questions will be raised."
This is the start of the Senators who are going to make Sessions squirm. Heinrich -- along with Warren -- wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking the organization to open an investigation into whether Sessions violated the terms of his recusal from everything having to do with the Russia investigation given that he was consulted in the firing of Comey. Heinrich, who sits in a safely Democratic state, has every reason to be as direct as possible with Sessions.
Wyden was the leading voice to make the Sessions hearing public and may be somewhat sated by getting what he wanted on that front. But Wyden is already signaling he plans to be very aggressive regarding the Sessions' recusal. "Based on everything I know, this isn't close to what people believe is a real recusal," Wyden told reporters Monday. "When you're recusing yourself, you are stepping aside and this sure doesn't look like it." Plus, Wyden has already called on Sessions to resign -- repeatedly.
Feinstein may be the Democrat positioned most centrally in these Russia investigations given her roles on the Intelligence committee and as the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She knows things from this dual role that not all of her colleagues do. Which makes her questions all the more important to pay attention to. Feinstein, of late, has been outspoken about the need for a full investigation by the Judiciary Committee into the possibility of obstruction of justice by President Trump.
Harris, widely seen as a potential 2020 candidate for Democrats, speaks from a position of authority here -- as a former Attorney General of California. She's also been among the first and most willing critics of Sessions, repeatedly insisting his conduct is improper and that he should resign his post. "There's nothing about any of this that is normal," Harris told CNN's Jake Tapper last month, adding: "There is good reason to believe that [Sessions] was not truthful when he testified before Congress."
If past is prologue, King will be the single most effective questioner of Sessions. In the James Comey hearing, King was a breakout star -- walking the fired FBI director through three specific instances in which his version of events directly contradicted the narrative offered by Trump and his White House. King has a frankness about him that tends to force direct -- and revealing -- responses from the people he is questioning.