Attorney General Jeff Sessions reassured senators Wednesday the Justice Department will stay committed to the law in the face of criticism from President Donald Trump, who has openly disparaged the agency and actions of the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
But Sessions was coy during testimony about his role in the department’s high-profile investigations and the politics of Trump’s criticism.
He declined to confirm media reports that he said he would quit if Trump fired special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 elections and possible connections to Trump’s campaign.
“That calls for a speculative answer, or a question calls for speculation,” Sessions said in response to a question from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee. “I’m just not able to do that.”
Sessions declined to confirm media reports that he would not recuse himself from the probe of Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s personal attorneys whose office and residence were searched by the FBI. The attorney general said an answer could inappropriately reveal the scope or other details of an investigation.
“I think the best answer from me, having given it some thought, is to say that I should not announce that,” Sessions said about the Cohen probe. “In fact, recusals happen all the time in the department and are not made public.”
Sessions also said he could not reveal if Trump or other White House staff had discussed any possible pardon of Cohen for any crimes he might be charged with in the future.
Sessions, who was one of Trump’s earliest campaign supporters when he was a senator, made the comments in testimony before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department. Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget requests $28 billion for DOJ, with an emphasis on curbing violent crime, boosting immigration enforcement and combating the opioid epidemic.
The members of the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee pressed Sessions on the department’s stance on a variety of topics, such as states enacting medical marijuana laws and immigration enforcement.
But before the embattled Sessions got a chance to speak, Leahy told him that “you are at the helm of a Justice Department under siege.”
Leahy said he worries that Trump’s attacks on Sessions and other department officials “are being done to interfere in your department, the Department of Justice, a place you and I have always tried to protect.”
Sessions, in his opening statement, told the committee that “you can be sure, really sure, that I understand the importance of the office I hold. And I will strive to be worthy of it.”
He added later that the department would not be defensive in the face of criticism.
“When questions arise, even if misplaced, we will take necessary action to establish that the concerns are either not true or take strong action against any wrongdoing,” Sessions said. “This Department — above all others — can never get too big for its britches or think itself in any way as above the law that we must apply to others. We know the government always wins when justice is done.”
Later, during questioning, Sessions told Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that he has confidence in Rosenstein. Trump reportedly has mulled firing the deputy attorney general as a way to hamstring the special counsel’s investigation.
“I think you’ve done a very good job for the country and many of us up here have your back, and I want you to know that,” Graham told Sessions.
Correction, 7 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the day Jeff Sessions testified before the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee. It was Wednesday.