Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to have his cake and eat it too when it came to his explanations during congressional testimony Tuesday for the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
On the one hand, Sessions didn’t feel like he needed to stay in the Oval Office on February 14 when President Trump said he wanted to speak privately with Comey. And he didn’t feel the need to do anything following a meeting the two men had in the days that followed in which Comey expressed his discomfort with these one-on-one conversations with the president.
Sessions’ justification in both instances was that Comey was a total pro, that he knew his stuff and that Sessions trusted him to handle his business.
“I felt (Comey), so long in the department – former deputy attorney general, as I recall – knew those policies probably a good deal better than I did,” said Sessions at one point. At another, Sessions said: “Our Department of Justice rules on proper communications between the department and the White House have been in place for years. Mr. Comey well knew them, I thought and assumed, correctly, that he complied with them.”
On the other hand, Sessions told the Senate intelligence committee that he and deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had discussed removing Comey as FBI director and agreed that it was time for a “fresh start” at the bureau before either man was confirmed to their current positions.
Either Comey was the ultimate pro who could be trusted to handle his business or he was someone who Sessions had decided months before needed to go because he had badly mismanaged his role in the 2016 election. Comey can’t simultaneously be highly competent and a bungling, bumbling fool depending on what image suits Sessions’ needs at the moment.
But, time and again, Sessions tried to hold those totally oppositional thoughts in his head – and insisted that they weren’t at all contradictory.
As Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, noted in Tuesday’s hearing, in July and again in October – following Comey’s initial announcement that Hillary Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of her private email server and his decision to re-open the case in October – Sessions praised the then FBI director.
This exchange between Reed and Sessions is telling:
REED: So, in July and November, Director Comey was doing exactly the right thing. You had no criticism of him. You felt that in fact he was a skilled professional prosecutor. You felt that his last statement in October was fully justified. So how can you go from those statements to agreeing with Mr. Rosenstein and then asking the President, or recommending he be fired?
SESSIONS: I think, in retrospect, as all of us begin to look at that clearly and talk about it, as perspectives of the Department of Justice, once the director had first got involved and embroiled in a public discussion of this investigation, which would have been better never to have been discussed publicly, and said he – it was over. Then when he found new evidence that came up, I think he probably was required to tell Congress that it wasn’t over, that new evidence had been developed.
If you get what Sessions is driving at in his response to Reed, you are a better – and smarter – person than me.
(Also worth noting: Comey testified, under oath, that Trump called him several times in the first part of this year to tell him how great a job he was doing.)
Then there was the fact, revealed in Sessions’ testimony yesterday, that he had never met with Comey to discuss what he took to be his poor performance.
This back and forth with Mark Warner, D-Virginia, the vice chairman of the intelligence committee, gets at that oddity:
WARNER: So you were his – his superior, and there were some fairly harsh things said about Director Comey. You never thought it was appropriate to raise those concerns before he was actually terminated by the President?
SESSIONS: I did not do so. A memorandum was prepared by the deputy attorney general, who evaluated his performance and noted some serious problems with it.
Take one giant step back. We know, because Donald Trump told us, that the real reason he fired Comey was because of the former FBI director’s approach to the Russia investigation. Trump said that after his administration had tried to sell the same case Sessions was selling on Tuesday: That Comey was removed because of a memo from Rosenstein.
That’s the fact. Everything else – including Sessions’ attempts to spin his views on Comey and the circumstances surrounding his firing – are simply post-action spin.