Every time Kamala Harris, the United States senator from California, opens her mouth in a high-profile hearing, it seems that some old white man tells her to be quiet.
That’s what happened on Tuesday when, for the second time in a week, an old white man with a gavel stopped Harris, a woman of African American and Indian heritage, when she dared to demand that Attorney General Jeff Sessions explain to the American people the legal underpinnings for his refusal to answer questions put to him by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian officials and businessmen.
Prompted by Senator John McCain, Committee Chair Richard Burr interrupted Harris, telling her to “allow the witness to answer the question.” It was also Burr who interrupted Harris’s questioning of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during a June 7 hearing, when she demanded a yes-or-no answer on whether or not he would grant Special Counsel Robert Mueller full independence in his conduct of his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
On Tuesday, it was Sessions’s turn on the hot seat, and he did not take kindly to being pressed by Harris, whose line of questioning revealed that the attorney general could not cite the details or origins of a policy he claimed existed in the Justice Department regarding advance protection of a president’s right to shield from public view conversations he had with members of his administration.
As Sessions sought to stonewall without stonewalling, Harris pressed on. “I'm not to be able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous,” Sessions said. Cue the gavel.
At both hearings, Harris was the only committee member so admonished for demanding short answers to questions posed during her five-minute allowance, even though others had made the same demand. It should be noted that Harris is the only non-white person on the committee. She is also a woman. But even more dangerous to the Republican project of despot-protection, she is perhaps the most talented cross-examiner on the panel. And that may be the thing the Republican men who control the committee find most infuriating about her.
IF THERE WAS ANYTHING to be learned from the appearance of Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee, it is that the Trump administration is led by people whose allegiance to the president far exceeds their love of country.
Sessions was the latest administration official to refuse to answer questions from senators about their interactions with the president on topics related to any relationship Trump campaign and transition-team members had with Russian officials or businessmen.
Less than a week before the Sessions hearing, Politico described National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats as having “stonewalled” in their appearance before the same committee “when asked about news reports that Trump asked each of them to downplay or refute the FBI’s probe [of] whether Trump’s associates colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.”
At his own big turn before the committee, Sessions declared, “I am not stonewalling!” He then proceeded to continue to stonewall some more, denying the elected representatives of the American people knowledge of any conversations he may have had with President Donald J. Trump about an investigation that could implicate the president and his aides in questionable interactions with representatives of a foreign adversary—one that is known to have meddled in the 2016 presidential election. From his opening statement onward, Sessions said that in maintaining silence, he was protecting any future invocation of executive privilege the president might assert. This is a novel interpretation of executive privilege.
It could be argued that Sessions is simply incompetent—not constitutionally capable of doing his job. He apparently has a terrible memory, not to mention an extreme lack of curiosity. He can’t remember what he discussed in his Senate office with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, back when Sessions was still a senator and a member of the Trump transition team. He can’t remember whether he met Kislyak at a small, private reception attended by both men prior to a Trump campaign speech at the Mayflower hotel in April, or assuming that he did, what he might have said to the ambassador.
Despite serving as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Sessions said he never received a briefing on Russia’s meddling in the election, and never read the unclassified report on that meddling that was issued jointly by the nation’s intelligence agencies. He said that when, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Al Franken asked him what he would do if he saw evidence corroborating news reports of Trump campaign officials’ contacts with Russian officials, he hadn’t understood the question. That’s why he had answered that he himself had had no contacts with such officials—an answer that turned out not to be true and subsequently led to his ostensible recusal from matters pertaining to the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election campaign. (Despite that recusal, Sessions signed a memo advising Trump to fire then-FBI Director James Comey, which Trump said he did because of Comey’s conduct of the Russia investigation.)
Sessions can’t recall if he knew of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian figures. He can’t remember the substance of his interactions with former FBI Director James Comey regarding Comey’s stated discomfort with an impromptu one-on-one meeting with Trump in the Oval Office, which took place after Sessions and Vice President Mike Pence were asked to step out. (This is the meeting at which Comey says Trump asked him to end the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials.)
With each day that goes by, it’s hard not to conclude that major figures in the Trump administration are deeply invested in maintaining a cover-up of discussions that have taken place with regard to the president’s relationship to Russian officials and oligarchs. They appear to care more about this than they do about the Constitution, the integrity of our elections, or the malevolent actions of a foreign adversary in the maintenance of the republic.
Whether for incompetency or prevarication or stonewalling, Sessions must go. But it mustn’t end there. The United States is facing a grave threat to its continued existence as a democratic republic. A ruthless group of wealthy people and generals now have their hands on the levers of power, all in the service of robbing the American people of the resources of their nation.
Kamala Harris, put on your Wonder Woman suit. We need you now, more than ever.