Alfred E. Newman/Jeff Sessions Ravaged by Amnesia Somehow Able to Hold Down Demanding Legal Job

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NYT editorial

How many ways are there to fail to answer a question under oath?

Ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The last time Mr. Sessions appeared before a Senate committee, during his confirmation hearing in January, he gave false testimony.

“I did not have communications with the Russians,” Mr. Sessions said in response to a question no one asked — and despite the fact that he had, in fact, met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at least twice during the 2016 presidential campaign. The omission raised questions not only about his honesty, but also about why he would not disclose those meetings in the first place.

On Tuesday Mr. Sessions returned to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian sabotage of the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible ties to those efforts.

That was the plan, anyway. In fact — and to the great consternation of the Democratic members of the committee, at least — Mr. Sessions was not on board. He arrived in full body armor, testy and sometimes raising his voice to defend what he called his honor against “scurrilous and false allegations” that he had colluded with Moscow.

He also defended his misstatements in January, to the Judiciary Committee, as being taken out of context, and he lowered a broad cone of silence around all his communications with President Trump regarding last month’s firing of James Comey as F.B.I. director, claiming it was “inappropriate” for him to discuss them. Did they involve classified information? No. Was he invoking executive privilege? No, he said, only the president may invoke that. Reminded that Mr. Trump has not done so, he said, “I’m protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses.”

In lieu of a real excuse, he cited a longstanding policy at the Justice Department — although he couldn’t confirm that it existed in writing or that, if it did, he had actually read it. In other words, Mr. Sessions has no intention to answer any of those questions now or in the future.

Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, angrily accused Mr. Sessions of “impeding this investigation” by refusing to respond, but perhaps the attorney general was wise to keep his mouth shut. When he opened it, he often seemed to contradict himself, his staff at the Justice Department, or the president.

The most glaring example was his claim that the letter he wrote supporting Mr. Comey’s dismissal was based on the former director’s missteps in the bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server — even though Mr. Trump himself had almost immediately blown that cover, telling a national television audience that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he decided to fire Mr. Comey.

Mr. Sessions’s explanation would’ve been impossible to swallow anyway, since he, like Mr. Trump, had originally praised Mr. Comey’s actions in the Clinton investigation.

The attorney general also had a strange reaction to Mr. Comey’s plea that he not be left alone with the president again. By his own account, Mr. Sessions seemed less concerned with the president’s highly unusual and inappropriate behavior than he was with Mr. Comey, telling him “that the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.”

So here are a few more questions that Mr. Sessions should answer, but probably won’t.

Why did he not resist when Mr. Trump asked him and others to leave the Oval Office so he could have a private conversation with Mr. Comey? At the very least, why did he not take steps to find out what had happened?

Why does he believe he did not violate the terms of his recusal by taking part in Mr. Comey’s firing? His recusal extended, in his own words, to “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States” — which clearly includes the Clinton email investigation.

If his recusal was truly based, as he claimed, on his closeness to the Trump campaign, why not announce it immediately upon his confirmation, rather than wait weeks, until after news of his undisclosed meetings with Mr. Kislyak broke?

And perhaps most pressing: Why, since he agreed with the committee that Russian interference in the election represents a profoundly serious attack on American democracy, has Mr. Sessions never received or read any detailed briefing on that operation?

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