During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday morning, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Donald Trump's pick to be attorney general, engaged in a curious exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate judiciary committee. Graham asked Sessions a simple question about Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign, and Sessions...well, basically said nothing. As attorney general, he will oversee the FBI, which is part of the Justice Department, and the FBI, along with other national security agencies, has concluded that Russian intelligence mounted an extensive covert operation to influence the election for Trump's benefit. Yet Sessions had little to say on this matter.
Graham opened with a simple query: "Do you think the Russians were behind hacking into our election?" Sessions replied, "I have done no research into that. I know just what the media says about it." This was a Trumpy reply, for Sessions was referencing media reports, not the US intelligence community assessment released last week that definitively concluded Russia had hacked Democratic targets and disseminated swiped emails to help Trump. He could have said, "I know what US intelligence says." But he chose not to.
The exchange continued:
Graham: Do you think you could get briefed anytime soon?
Sessions: Well, I'll need to.
Graham: I think you do too. [Do] you like the FBI?
Sessions: Do I like them?
Sessions: Some of my best friends are FBI agents.
Graham: Do you generally trust them?
Graham: Are you aware of the fact that the FBI has concluded that it was the Russian intelligence services who hacked into the DNC and Podesta's emails?
Sessions: I do understand that. At least that's what's been reported, and I've not been briefed by them on the subject.
With this answer—referring to media reports—Sessions was still apparently trying to not say anything that could be interpreted as a sign he fully accepted the official findings as conclusive and accurate. Apparently, the fellow who wants to run the Justice Department did not bother to look at the intelligence community report on Russian hacking put out last week. (It's short.)
Graham pressed on:
Graham: From your point of view, there's no reason for us to be suspicious of them?
Sessions: Of their decision?
Sessions: I'm sure it was honorably reached.
Honorably reached? Not that it was an accurate evaluation. Sessions wouldn't say that. He was only stating that he believed that the FBI had not purposefully cooked the books. That was hardly a full embrace of the conclusions. The conversation went on:
Graham: How do you feel about a foreign entity trying to interfere in our election? I'm not saying they changed the outcome, but it's pretty clear to me they did. How do you feel about it? What should we do?
Stop the presses! Graham just said that the Russian hacking did change the outcome of the election. The small number of Republicans who have expressed concern about the intervention have generally stuck to the talking point that the result of the election should not be questioned. Yet here was Graham saying the Russian operation determined that Trump became president. Back to the tape:
Sessions: Sen. Graham, I think it's a significant event. We have penetration apparently throughout our government by foreign entities. We know the Chinese have revealed millions of background information on millions of people in the United States, and these, I suppose, ultimately are part of international big-power politics. But when a nation uses their improperly gained or intelligence-wise gained information to take policy positions that impact another nation's democracy or their approach to any issue, then that raises real serious matters. It's really, I suppose, goes in many ways to the State Department, our Defense Department, and how we, as a nation, have to react to that, which would include developing some protocols where when people breach our systems, that a price is paid even if we can't prove the exact person who did it.
In this word salad, Sessions, once again, would not clearly state that Russia was behind this penetration and that consequently Moscow should be punished. As a Trump partisan, Sessions could not recognize a reality that Trump himself has not accepted. That raises the question of how independent he will be as attorney general, if confirmed, and how vigorously the FBI will be able to investigate this Russian operation on his watch.