Jeff Sessions' Senate hearing goes off the rails after heated battle with Al Franken

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota had a heated exchange during Sessions’ Wednesday hearing.
  • The exchange focused on Sessions’ January answer to the committee regarding his conversations with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign, which landed Sessions in hot water.
  • Sessions and Franken spent much of their exchange battling with each other and committee chair Chuck Grassley over how much time they were allowed to speak.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions engaged in a lengthy, heated exchange with Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota during a Senate hearing Wednesday. The battle focused on Sessions’ January answer to the committee during his confirmation hearing regarding communications with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.

During a line of questioning from Franken in that January hearing, Sessions was asked what he would do as attorney general if he found evidence that “anyone affiliated with the Russian government” communicated with the Trump campaign through the election. In response, Sessions said he was both unaware of any such activities and insisted that he personally “did not have any communications with the Russians.”

It was later reported that Sessions had a handful of conversations with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign. Sessions, as a result, recused himself from all Trump campaign-related matters as attorney general, though he insisted he did not attempt to mislead the committee.

“This allegation that a surrogate — and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump — had been meeting continuously with Russian officials, and that’s what I — it struck me very hard, and that’s what I focused my answer on,” he said in addressing Franken’s question Wednesday. “And in retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.'”

Franken later said that “it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than he just perjured himself.” On Wednesday, he sought to push Sessions hard on that January exchange and Sessions’ subsequent answers.

Sessions pushed back equally hard.

Franken said that once Sessions was confronted with the reports, he began to change his answer from not having any communications with the Russians to not having discussed a political campaign to eventually having his position be that he did not discuss election interference with Kislyak.

“So the goalposts have been moved,” Franken said. “First, it was, ‘I did not have communications with Russians,’ which was not true. Then it was, ‘I did not meet with any Russians to discuss any political campaign,’ which may or may not be true. Now it’s, ‘I did not discuss interference in the campaign,’ which further narrows your initial blanket denial about meeting with the Russians.”

“Since you qualified your denial to say that you did not discuss issues of the campaign with Russians, what in your view constitutes issues of the campaign?” he said.

Sessions said in response that he could say “without hesitation” that he “conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.”

“I want to say that first, that’s been the suggestion that you’ve raised and others, that somehow we’ve had conversations that were improper,” he added.

That’s when the back-and-forth started to get tense and the pair battled over Franken’s allotted time to question Sessions.

“So I want to ask you some questions,” Franken said.

“Mr. Chairman,” Sessions said to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I don’t have to sit in here and listen to his charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.”

Grassley ended up granting Franken additional time.

Sessions said Franken’s initial question in January was not simple, adding it had a “very, very troubling” lead in and that he “answered to you in a way that I felt was responsive to what you raised in your question.”

He then reread his initial answer to Franken, who responded that he did not “think that can fairly be interpreted to saying that I never had any conversations with Russians.”

“Yes, you can say what you want to about the accuracy of it, but I think it was a good-faith response to a dramatic event at the time,” Sessions said. “And I don’t think it’s fair for you to suggest otherwise.”

Franken, seeking more time to speak on the panel, then turned back to Grassley.

“He took more than three minutes,” Franken said.

“He took about two and a half,” Grassley said back. “How much do you want? I don’t want to take up a bunch of time bargaining with you.”

Sessions chimed back in and said he “didn’t take as much time as Sen. Franken took.”

“Let me just deal with Sen. Franken,” Grassley shot back, then awarding Franken an additional three minutes.

Franken then went after Sessions for saying earlier in the Wednesday hearing that he could not recall what he discussed with Kislyak, to which Sessions said “you make a lot of allegations” and “it’s hard for me to respond to them.”

Franken criticised Sessions then for having “morphed” his responses and “moving the goalposts every time.”

“By the end, we’re going to a 75-yard field goal,” the Minnesota senator said.

Given another chance to respond, Sessions turned to Grassley and complained that Franken “gets to do about 10 minutes improperly framing this subject, and I’m given a short chance to respond.”

Grassley told him to “proceed please.”

Sessions called Franken’s characterization of the who ordeal “totally unfair to me,” saying he took Sessions’ initial answer and is saying “if I’ve ever met with a Russian, then I’m not being candid with the committee, and I reject that.”

That closed out the exchange. Just as the fireworks were ending, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska decided to throw in his own curveball. Apparently, Sasse had caused a commotion on the opposite side of the panel while Sessions and Franken were going back and forth.

“There was some drama there,” Sasse said. “I sort of added to the drama and distracted you for a minute. I was paying enough attention there that I dumped a Dr Pepper on Sen. Cruz. So that’s what was distracting us on this side of the dais.”

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