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."
Sessions also grew visibly uncomfortable when Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy asked him about his interactions with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Leahy pressed Sessions on whether he had been interviewed by Mueller, not allowing Sessions to demur to ask the special counsel about it first.
"The answer's no," Sessions finally said.
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.
Executive privilege and pardon power
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 topic was also the subject of a tense exchange with Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who read aloud from policies and rules about executive privilege and pressed Sessions on whether he was stretching the limits of what the White House is entitled to.
"This period of abeyance has turned into a non-assertion assertion of executive privilege," Whitehouse said.
"The executive branch is a co-equal branch and you would not want someone demanding to know who you talked to in your office, your counsel, your chief of staff. Neither would we want to be prowling willy-nilly through the Supreme Court and what their clerks knew or were told," Sessions said. "This is not a little matter, is all I'm saying to you. And if this isn't legitimate and you make the specific cases, we'll review it, but it shouldn't be done casually, I got to say."
The presidential pardon power also came up in relation to the Russia investigation. Sessions was asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, about whether the President could pre-emptively pardon a person under investigation.
"Well the pardon power is quite broad," Sessions said, saying he'd prefer to answer in writing. "I have not studied it. I don't know whether that would be appropriate or not, frankly."
Russia comes up again
Sessions' meetings with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign came up quickly during the hearing, when Leahy pressed Sessions in a testy exchange about his response to a question on his confirmation questionnaire.
Leahy referred to the questionnaire, which asked if Sessions had been in contact with anyone connected to the Russian government.
"You answered emphatically, no," Leahy said, noting that after Sessions' confirmation it was revealed by the press that Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on multiple occasions. "You answered no, you concealed your own contact with Russian officials at a time when such contacts were of great interest to the committee."
Leahy said that as a senator, Sessions "wouldn't tolerate being misled" and asked him if he could "understand" the impression of Democrats that his answer was "false testimony."
"I believe my answer was correct," Sessions said, pulling out the questionnaire and reading from the lead-up to the question, which referenced interference in the 2016 campaign.
"I took that to mean, not any casual conversation, but did I participate with the Russians about the 2016 election," Sessions said. "Every one of your previous questions talked about improper involvement and I felt the answer was no."
Leahy and Sessions went back and forth for several minutes, with Leahy noting that both men were lawyers and know the difference between "no" and "I don't recall." He asked Sessions anew whether he had discussed with Russian officials emails, interference in the election, sanctions and the Magnitsky Act, and Trump's policies with Russian officials.
Sessions and Leahy went through each, with Sessions giving answers from "I don't recall having done any such thing" to a flat "no."
Contention over hearing timing
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 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.