Watch CNN’s live coverage of AG Jeff Sessions’ testimony beginning Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET on CNN and CNN.com
Attorney General Jeff Sessions stunned the political world over the weekend by making clear he wanted to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee in its investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Today he delivered another stunner: He wants that Tuesday hearing to be public!
“The Attorney General has requested that this hearing be public,” said a Justice Department spokesperson. “He believes it is important for the American public to hear the truth directly from him and looks forward to answering the committee’s questions tomorrow.”
That’s a very, very smart decision by Sessions.
Closed-door hearings, by their very nature, give off a whiff of “something to hide.” Think about your own life. When someone walks into your – and their – boss’s office, you assume something secret is going down. And that it’s probably bad. Now, compare that to if a colleague walks into your boss’s office and doesn’t close the door. Your perception of what they are talking about – assuming you aren’t actually listening in (if so, you should stop because that’s super creepy) is totally different.
This is also Washington, where strategic leaking is basically an Olympic sport. That goes for any act by a public official but roughly quadruple so for a hearing about Russia ties featuring the sitting Attorney General.
Here’s an artist’s rendering of what that might look like for Sessions:
Leaks would be everywhere the second Sessions concluded his testimony. Maybe even before he finished.
And, even if the leakers didn’t have an agenda – and they will – what those leaks produced would be bad news for Sessions. Think of the childhood game “telephone.” You sit in a circle. The first person whispers a phrase – say, “I don’t like broccoli” – to the person sitting next to them. That person whispers it to the person next to them. And so on and so forth. By the time it goes all the way around the circle and the last person says what they heard, it’s usually something like “I bike promptly.”
Point being: Even if the leaks weren’t targeted to cause Sessions trouble, it’s a near-certainty there would be things that were misheard or misconstrued out of what Sessions said.
That’s bad, generally speaking. But it’s way worse if you are Sessions since you’re already on thin ice with Trump. Remember that we are just a week removed from a series of stories detailing the collapse of the duo’s once-close relationship and the fact that Sessions had offered to resign amid tensions with Trump.
You can bet that if Sessions testified in a closed-door setting, Trump is going to read – and believe – almost every bad thing that gets leaked out about what he said. Already pissed off that Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, Trump would be looking for any little moment in which Sessions admits error or weakness. And if he found one – whether or not it was accurate – he would seize on it as an example of why Sessions has let him down.
A public hearing makes leaks irrelevant. What Sessions says – for good or bad – is what he says. While some of Sessions’ statements tomorrow will likely leave some room for interpretation, that’s a very different thing than dealing with leaks based, in some cases, only loosely on what was said. Sessions’ answers – and his demeanor – will be on display for everyone, including the president of the United States, to see.
There are also, without question, perils to Sessions testifying publicly. He could look cagey if he refuses to answer questions about his meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kisylak after very publicly asking for the hearing to be public. And, if Sessions generally fails to answer the questions asked effectively and/or looks like a feckless AG, he could be in trouble with the ever-image conscious Trump anyway.
To be clear: Neither a closed-door hearing nor a public one are great options for Jeff Sessions. But, it you have to do one, Sessions chose the right one.