Sessions’ loyalty to Trump will be put to the test

Jeff Sessions has been a staunch ally of Donald Trump as an early surrogate of the real estate mogul’s unconventional campaign and now as attorney general, carrying out the president’s unapologetically populist agenda.

That loyalty will be put to the test on Tuesday.

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Sessions has so far avoided public testimony on his connections to the Russia probe engulfing the Trump administration — but his hastily arranged appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee could finally unlock some answers to questions that have chased the attorney general for weeks.

Last week’s testimony from James Comey raised more questions about Sessions, especially when the fired FBI director hinted at — but declined to publicly share — information about the attorney general that Comey said would have made Sessions’ involvement in the Russia probe “problematic.”

It remains unclear exactly how much Sessions will divulge Tuesday, considering other DOJ officials — including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — cited special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe as they declined to respond to queries at a similar Intelligence hearing last week.

Still, Tuesday’s hearing is a chance for Sessions to personally push back on the record against reports of additional undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador that could add to the scandal that prompted his recusal from the probe in the first place.

Here are five things to watch as Sessions testifies on the evolving Russia controversy, which marks his first public appearance on Capitol Hill as attorney general:

Does Sessions assert executive privilege?

The attorney general may invoke executive privilege in response to questions about some of the most sensitive dealings with Trump, particularly his role in Comey’s firing that stunned Washington one month ago.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to say whether Sessions would go that route, noting it would be “premature” to speculate how the attorney general may answer questions he may face.

But Democrats, already frustrated at the lack of answers from other Trump national security officials at another intelligence committee hearing last week about their interactions with the president, are certain to mount a fierce pushback if Sessions avoids answering their questions — a move that could help protect Trump.

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“These are matters that, of course, have been discussed extensively in the public square, including by the president,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Monday. “I expect that there could be an effort to blur the lines between executive privilege and classification and overclassification.”

Wyden added: “In a sense, both of them are a backdoor way to stonewall. We’re just not going to allow that.”

A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment on whether Sessions will cite executive privilege on Tuesday. But one source familiar with plans for his testimony said he’s unlikely to talk about any direct conversations with the president.

It was unclear whether Sessions would cite executive privilege or simply say he wants to preserve the confidentiality of his discussions with Trump.

What did Comey find so ‘problematic’?

Comey threw out one major bombshell during his testimony last week: He intentionally didn’t loop Sessions in on Trump’s alleged Feb. 14 request for the FBI director to drop the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn because he felt Sessions’ recusal from the investigation was inevitable.

Now Democrats and Republicans want to hear from Sessions why Comey would find the attorney general’s inclusion in the Russia investigation “problematic.”

“What he knew, when he knew it, and who spoke to him, essentially,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said in summing up her questions for Sessions.

Democrats are especially interested in the time frame between the alleged Feb. 14 encounter — by which time Comey already had concerns about Sessions’ involvement — and the attorney general’s March 2 recusal. During that time, Democrats want to know if the attorney general made any key decisions involving the Russia investigation, had access to relevant information, or briefed Trump on the matter, including during a Feb. 16 between the two men in the Oval Office.

DOJ said last week that Sessions stayed away from Russia matters even before his formal March 2 recusal, soon after his first meeting with career ethics officials at the Justice Department.

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But the hearing presents Sessions with an opportunity to mount a vigorous defense of his own. The attorney general can refute on the record that he did not have a third undisclosed meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

He can also tell his side of another episode recounted by Comey, when the FBI director urged Sessions to never leave him alone with the president again and Sessions allegedly had no response.

“I have a recollection of him just kind of looking at me — and there’s a danger here I’m projecting onto him, so this may be a faulty memory,” Comey said last week. “But I kind of got — his body language gave me the sense like, what am I going to do?”

A Justice Department spokesman following Comey’s testimony said that Sessions did respond, pressing the FBI and DOJ to be sure to follow proper protocol regarding White House communications.

How broad is Sessions’ recusal?

Sessions is supposed to remain an arm’s length away from any investigation that touches on last year’s political campaign — yet was involved in Comey’s firing, which Trump later acknowledged had to do with the FBI director’s oversight of the federal Russia probe.

In the weeks since Comey’s dismissal, Democrats have demanded answers that can reconcile those two factors. Tuesday could be their best opportunity to pin down an answer.

An e-mail released by the Justice Department last week from Sessions’ chief of staff, Jody Hunt, said the attorney general has “decided to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”

But Democrats will insist on more specifics of what exactly that recusal entails.

What’s the impact on the Trump-Sessions relationship?

The president hasn’t exactly been giving his attorney general a vote of confidence in recent days — a surprise dynamic between the two men who have been fierce political allies well before Trump snagged the GOP presidential nomination.

Reports surfaced last week that Sessions had privately offered to resign amid sustained furor from Trump that the attorney general had recused from the Russia investigation, thereby removing a loyalist from overseeing the probe. And White House officials repeatedly declined to say whether Trump retained confidence in Sessions, stirring even more speculation about a growing rift between the two men.

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Depending on what Sessions tells senators on Tuesday, that fissure may widen. Spicer, when asked Monday whether Trump was comfortable with the prospect of Sessions testifying, was circumspect.

“He’s going to testify,” Spicer told reporters. “We’re aware of it, and we’ll go from there.”

How do Republicans treat one of their own?

The testimony of Sessions presents yet another tricky balance for Senate Republicans.

They can’t appear deferential to the administration they are investigating. Yet GOP senators have long been irritated at how Democrats have treated Sessions in his new attorney general role, believing they have been unfair to someone who had been a longtime colleague and veteran of the clubby chamber.

So far, Republicans have praised Sessions’ insistence on testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee – even though the appearance comes after the attorney general cancelled twice before panels that oversee funding for the Justice Department. That decision has infuriated Democrats.

“He volunteered to testify publicly tomorrow, which he didn’t have to do, but he wants to set the record straight,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close Sessions ally and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Most of what we’ve been seeing and hearing from the critics have been gossip and innuendo and speculation, and I think the American people deserve to know the facts.”

Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

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