Comey described Sessions as weak, passive, and potentially dogged by scandal—either unwilling to stand up to the president, or incapable of it. Over the course of his remarks to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey frequently mentioned Sessions as a key supporting character during his brief tenure in the Trump administration.
But, in Comey’s telling, Sessions’ role was far from heroic.
Comey testified on Thursday that Sessions refused to shield the FBI from politicization, and even hinted that the Attorney General recused himself from the Russia investigation for reasons beyond those he gave publicly—an assertion the Justice Department disputed in a statement released Thursday evening.
Comey set the scene in a statement released the day before the hearing—describing a tense situation on Feb. 14 where the president dismissed everyone from an Oval Office meeting except for him.
“As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the Attorney General lingered by my chair, but the President thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me,” Comey said in his written statement.
Comey added at the hearing, “My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering.”
But Sessions left Comey alone with Trump, and the president then made an eye-popping request: He wanted him to roll back his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn—a request that was, at best, wildly inappropriate, and which some legal experts believe broke the law.
Comey testified that after that Oval Office conversation happened, he told Sessions he didn’t want to have any other direct communication with the president.
“I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me,” Comey said in written testimony. “I told the AG that what had just happened—him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind—was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, a career prosecutor, pressed Comey at the hearing for more detail on that conversation.
“What did he do, if anything?” she asked of Sessions. “Did he just look at you? Was there a pause for a moment? What happened?”
“I don’t remember real clearly,” Comey replied. “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, but I kind of got—his body language gave me the sense that, ‘What am I going to do?’”
“Did he shrug?” Harris asked.
“I don’t remember clearly,” Comey replied. “I think the reason I have that impression is I have some recollection of imperceptible, like, ‘What am I going to do?’ But I don’t have a clear recollection of that. He didn’t say anything.”
In a statement, Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior contested this.
"The Attorney General was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House,” said Prior.
Besides indicating he believed Sessions failed to defend the independence of the FBI, Comey also strongly implied there may be more to the story of why the attorney general recused himself from the Russia probe.
After the meeting on Feb. 14, Comey said he and the rest of FBI leadership agreed not to tell the Attorney General about Trump’s Flynn request, because they assumed Sessions was “inevitably going to recuse himself [from the Russia investigation] for a variety of reasons.”
And Sessions did just that about two weeks later.
“We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey continued. “So we were——we were convinced that, in fact, I think we had already, we heard the career people were recommending he recuse himself——that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. And that turned out to be the case.”
Trump’s conversation with Comey about Flynn happened before The Washington Post reported, on March 1, that Sessions had two undisclosed conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign.
When Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe on March 2, he said it was because career ethics staff at the Justice Department advised him to do so because he was a Trump surrogate.
“They said because I had involvement with the campaign, I should not have involvement with any campaign investigations,” Sessions told reporters that day at a hastily convened press conference.
Comey’s testimony strongly suggests that isn’t the whole story.
But Prior’s Thursday evening statement says that, in fact, it is.
“Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 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.”
Members of Congress will soon have a chance to ask Sessions more questions about it. He’s scheduled to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 13.
In the meantime, he’ll face heat for Comey’s revelations. Heidi Feldman, a professor at Georgetown Law School and an expert on legal ethics, told The Daily Beast that Sessions’ silence when Comey asked for protection from Trump was a major ethical failing.
“Sessions was doing nothing to ensure that the FBI was not politicized,” she said, “and by doing nothing, he was uniquely enabling the president to potentially compromise the FBI’s political independence.”