During an often contentious hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions began by asserting his innocence, insisting that the allegations that he failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador were lies. “I have never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States,” Sessions forcefully during his opening statement. “Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign,” he added. Sessions, too, denounced the allegations that he knowingly made misleading statements, calling the accusations, “an appalling and detestable lie.”
Though Sessions’s opening statement was a forceful rebuttal of alleged collusion between himself, other members of the Trump administration, and the Russian government, the Attorney General began to wane under questioning. Sessions denied a 2016 meeting with the Russian ambassador at the Mayflower hotel. But his denial of the meeting quickly turned into ignorance of details of an event that may or may not have taken place. He said simply that he had no “recollection” of the meeting. “If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador, I do not remember it,” Sessions said. Sessions’s inability to recall or remember details ostensibly key to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation served as the chorus to his testimony, repeated at various times throughout Tuesday’s hearing without any hint of irony or embarrassment.
When Sessions was able to remember details, particularly the details of conversations with President Donald Trump, he refused to relay them, even when asked to do so. Though Sessions, when pressed by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), indicated that the president had not invoked executive privilege, the Attorney General seemed to do it for him by refusing to answer virtually any question that shielded Trump from nearly all public scrutiny. Sessions deferred not to executive privilege but to practices within the Justice Department, denied that he was “stonewalling” and said only that he was unable “to comment on conversations with high officials in the White House.” It was a clear contrast to his ignorance of the events at the Mayflower hotel—he knew the details, he refused, however, to share, conflating silence with the ethics of the Justice Department, all the while denouncing the “scurrilous and false claims” as well as the “secrets” and “innuendo” that swirled around him.
Sessions positioned himself as an honest man, a man defamed by partisan politics and ugly lies, a man whose ability to fight the “gangs, cartels, fraudsters, and terrorists” that supposedly lurk on American soil was undermined by petty bickering. And yet his testimony, his easy display of ignorance combined with a silence indicative less of morality and more of uncritical loyalty, showed little of his own sense of himself. It was, perhaps, one of the more casual displays of the ease that power affords men—a persistent reminder of how institutions can preserve not just the power of men like Sessions but also preserve their own personal fictions.