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WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday refused to discuss with the Senate judiciary committee his “confidential conversations with the President,” saying it remains up to the President to claim or waive executive privilege.
“I can neither assert executive privilege neither can I disclose today the contents of my confidential conversations with the President,” Sessions said. “It is well established that the President is entitled to have private, confidential conversations with his Cabinet officials … such communications are the core of executive privilege.”
Sessions’ comments were a disappointment to the panel’s Democrats, who had warned the attorney general they expected him to testify about conversations he had with the President about the firing about former FBI Director James Comey.
Sessions continued: “I cannot waive that privilege myself or otherwise compromise his ability to assert it.”
Democrats had warned Sessions they would ask him about conversations he’s had with President Donald Trump, a topic Sessions dodged when testifying in June before the intelligence committee citing concerns about executive privilege.
The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein reiterated that message in her opening statements at the hearing, which covered voting rights, civil rights, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the Comey’s firing.
“It’s important, I believe to understand what role you had in this process, including conversations you had with the President and others in the White House,” Feinstein said, saying Democrats already alerted Sessions they “expected answers or the assertion of a valid claim of executive privilege by the President.”
The oversight hearing comes after a tumultuous summer for Sessions, during which he was publicly derided by the President over his recusal from the Russian meddling investigation, served as the face of the administration’s decision to rescind DACA and as his department suffered setbacks in the courts in trying to implement key pieces of the President’s agenda, a fresh one coming Tuesday when a federal court blocked the third travel ban from going into effect and a second judge followed suit in part on Wednesday.
Sessions defended the travel ban in his opening statements on Wednesday, saying it was an “important step” for national security.
“It is a lawful and necessary order that we are proud to defend,” Sessions said. “We’re confident that we will prevail as time goes by in the Supreme Court.”
Wednesday’s hearing is the Judiciary committee’s first turn to ask questions of Sessions since his confirmation hearing, a sore subject for committee Democrats who have pushed for a chance to question the attorney general on a range of issues, including the Russia investigation and the extent of his prior contacts with Russian officials that led to his recusal from the investigation.
Feinstein asked Chairman Chuck Grassley to schedule a hearing with Sessions in July. Grassley said Wednesday he had been waiting for the Justice Department to have a team in place and blamed Democrats for slowing down confirmations of nominees.
At a hearing earlier this month, an agitated Sen. Patrick Leahy, who used to chair the committee, chastised Sessions while questioning a Justice Department official about the DACA program that Trump ended under Sessions’ recommendation.
“He’s taken longer than any attorney general since I’ve been here, but I’ve only been here 42 years,” Leahy cracked when told he could ask Sessions his questions directly later in the month.
After confirming with Grassley the date of the hearing, Leahy dryly said he’d attend: “I’ll drop by,” he said.
A letter led by Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and signed by other committee Democrats warned Sessions that his excuse in June — that he hadn’t yet had time to discuss with the White House what he could reveal about his conversations with the President — won’t work this time.
“With respect to potential assertions of executive privilege on behalf of the President, we wish to put you on notice that any reasonable period of abeyance on many of the issues about which you will be asked has long elapsed,” the senators wrote.
The senators in the letter left open the option for Sessions to provide the committee “with a list of issues over which the privilege has affirmatively been asserted” prior to the hearing.