When Attorney General Jeff Sessions finished testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday, members of the committee faced swarms of television cameras and boom microphones outside the front and rear of the hearing room.
Some senators left quickly, but others faced the barrage of media. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for instance, held court in an extended interview that featured correspondents from both CNN and NBC.
Among the questions for Rubio was whether Sessions “stonewalled” during his testimony.
“I think he answered every question provided to him as truthfully as he possibly could,” Rubio said. “Obviously, there are issues that he wasn’t going to get into because as attorney general, and member of the Cabinet, he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to outline in great detail every conversation he’s had with the president of the United States.”
That was a reference to the exchange between Sen. Ron Wyden and Sessions, in which the Oregon Democrat accused his former colleague of “stonewalling” the inquiry.
Sen. Martin Heinrich went a step further, accusing Sessions of obstruction.
“There is also a congressional investigation, and you are obstructing that congressional … investigation by not answering these questions,” the New Mexico Democrat said, generating a slew of support from Trump critics on social media and some suggestions that a new Democratic star was being born.
“There is no ‘appropriateness’ bucket. It is not a legal standard,” Heinrich said of Sessions’ view that he should not testify about conversations with Trump.
That the Senate hallways outside the hearing room would be filled with television cameras once again Thursday afternoon, as Sessions faced off with the Intelligence Committee, was not a foregone conclusion.
The hearing took place just hours after correspondents and producers learned of a directive, apparently from the Rules and Administration Committee, that would have restricted the ability of TV reporters to interview senators in the hallways of the three Senate office buildings.
The Rules Committee apparently backed down, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said she received assurances that she would be consulted before any changes to enforcement of rules governing the press were contemplated.
“This is no time for limiting press access in the U.S. Senate — with Russia hearings, Attorney General Sessions testifying, and what appears to be the secretive drafting of a health care bill,” Klobuchar said. “We have to preserve freedom of the press.”
By the time the hearing was underway, the stakeouts were in place on both sides of the hearing room, and TV crews were spotted elsewhere, like a Chinese state media crew in the basement of the Dirksen Office Building adjacent to the building’s Senate subway stop.
And as the focus was out in the office buildings, Sen. Sherrod Brown was speaking on the floor of the Senate in support of press access to the Capitol complex.
“Today brought news that some people in this building are trying to bar reporters from asking senators questions,” the Ohio Democrat said. “This is outrageous — if senators can’t handle tough questions from reporters about their plans to take health care away from millions of Americans, they should change the bill — not restrict the reporters.”
Brown connected his floor speech to the fact that the White House allowed a Russian media outlet to take photographs of an Oval Office meeting between Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which was not open to the U.S. media.
“Remember that Oval Office meeting with Russian officials? We have all seen the pictures, but the photos that ran on front pages around the country weren’t taken by American journalists,” Brown said. “They were taken by Russian state media, the remnants of the old Soviet propaganda machine.”
All this took place as the temperature at the hearing itself seemed to rise beginning with the Wyden-Sessions exchange.
“I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don’t want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged or off-limits,” Wyden said. “We are talking about an attack on our democratic institutions and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable.”
“I am not stonewalling,” Sessions replied. “I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.”
In the same debate, Sessions sought to refute allegations that former FBI Director James B. Comey may have made to the Intelligence panel in a closed session about a potential third meeting with Kislyak.
“This is secret innuendo being leaked out there about me — and I don’t appreciate it,” Sessions said.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was among the lawmakers pressing Sessions on his refusal to characterize or describe conversations with Trump. After Sessions confirmed that Trump has not asserted executive privilege, King asked for the legal basis.
“I am protecting the right of the president … to assert it if he chooses, and there may be other privileges that apply in this circumstance,” Sessions said.
For senators like King, it wasn’t the answer they were looking for, but it was the only one they would get.