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'I did not recall:' 4 key takeaways from Jeff Sessions's memory lapse-filled congressional hearing

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 6 days ago Amber Phillips
Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post

Meetings he had with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. Campaign related conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. Shutting down campaign aide George Papadopoulos after Papadopoulos suggested then-candidate Trump and Vladimir Putin get together.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he couldn't remember any of these events — that is until the media or Robert S. Mueller III's investigation remembered for him.

That's the key takeaway from Sessions's hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. What is typically a routine check-in between Congress and the head of the Justice Department got political real fast, largely because of Russia.

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Here are four takeaways from Sessions's nearly day-long hearing:

1. Sessions is not helping clear up questions about Trump campaign's Russian involvement

Here's why Sessions said Tuesday he couldn't remember any of these Russian contacts or conversations: “It was a brilliant campaign in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day. . . . Sleep was in short supply.”

It's certainly possible Sessions didn't remember any number of Russia connections that have now come to light until they came to light.

But Sessions has also demonstrated that once his memory gets jogged, he can recall details of events, like what he spoke about with the Russian ambassador in two separate meetings, or the fact he told Papadopoulos not to set up a Trump-Putin meeting. Which opened the door to Democrats to ask: Why haven't you gotten your facts straight about Russia by now?

Sessions didn't really have any answer to that other than even if he did misremember these events, he didn't do anything wrong during them. His meetings with the Russian ambassador were legal and normal, he said. He didn't encourage Papadaopulous to meet with Putin; he discouraged it. “I pushed back and said you shouldn't do it,” Sessions recalled. “So I don't think it is right to accuse me of doing something wrong.”

At the very least, Sessions's consistent memory lapses before Congress doesn't help the president's public image. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found 49 percent of Americans think it is likely Trump committed a crime in connection with possible Russia meddling, although more say this view is based on suspicion rather than evidence.

2. Sessions doesn't seem that keen on a special counsel to look into Hillary Clinton affairs

Trump wants one. About two dozen Republican members of Congress want one. Sessions is entertaining the idea of appointing a special counsel to investigate the Clinton Foundation and the sale of a uranium company to Russia and how the FBI exonerated Hillary Clinton on her emails.

But Sessions himself doesn't seem totally convinced that's necessary.

"'Looks like' is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel,” he told Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) after Jordan listed off a number of things he thinks Democrats did during the 2016 campaign that he thought looked fishy, like the Clinton campaign paying for research that ultimately led to a controversial, unproven dossier alleging Trump wrongdoing in Russia.

“It would take a factual basis that meets the standards of a special counsel,” Sessions replied.

So what's that standard? According to The Post's Matt Zapotosky: A special counsel can be appointed when the Justice Department or a U.S. attorney’s office has a conflict of interest, when there are other “extraordinary circumstances,” or when it would otherwise be “in the public interest” to do so, according to the federal regulation governing such appointments.

3. Sessions sides with Roy Moore's accusers

It's fair to ask if Moore — the GOP Senate candidate trying to fill Sessions's seat in the Senate — has any friends in Washington right now besides Stephen K. Bannon. Sessions is definitely not one of them.

“I have no reason to doubt these young women,” Sessions said when asked if he believes Moore's five accusers that he tried to have romantic or sexual relationships with them when he was twice their age.

Other Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have ditched Moore. But the McConnells of the world could arguably boost Moore's appeal in Alabama.

But Sessions is different. He had represented Alabama in the Senate for nearly 20 years before becoming Trump's attorney general. He is one of the most well-known politicians in the state. Does his ditching of Moore change the dynamic of the race? We'll find out in less than a month.

4. Sessions is suspicious of WikiLeaks

It now appears that Donald Trump Jr. communicated with WikiLeaks, the organization that published Democratic emails that were allegedly hacked by Russians. The Atlantic reported, and Trump Jr. confirmed, that he exchanged Twitter messages with WikiLeaks during the campaign.

Sessions indicated that if he were Trump Jr., he probably wouldn't have been so trusting of WikiLeaks.

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