STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee today for what is billed as a routine oversight hearing. That's what it's billed, but nothing feels very routine about the issues the Justice Department is involved in just now or about this hearing. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Now I say this doesn't feel routine because before the hearing, Senate Democrats put Attorney General Sessions on notice, sending him a letter saying, we write to express our expectation that you will answer members' questions fully and truthfully. The fact that they would send a letter suggests that they're fearful of something else.
JOHNSON: Well, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, testified in June before the Senate intelligence committee, and Democrats there think he ducked a lot of tough questions by saying at some point in the future, President Trump might invoke executive privilege. So Sessions said he couldn't talk about his sensitive conversations with Trump because the White House might quash those remarks by him. Well, Democrats sent a letter to Sessions last week saying the time is up, bub. Either the president's going to assert privilege or not on these issues, but next week, you need to come prepared to respond to our questions.
INSKEEP: I would love it if the letter actually used the word bub.
INSKEEP: I assume it didn't say bub, but...
JOHNSON: Sadly no.
INSKEEP: No, no. But in any case, so does that mean he actually has to answer their questions?
JOHNSON: Well, Sessions can speak on behalf of the White House to say, on the following topics, President Trump says I can't talk about these things. But Democrats have said Jeff Sessions needs to bring a list of those topics to the hearing so they can have some credibility.
INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that they want to hear that the White House has specifically invoked executive privilege, not that Sessions thinks the White House might hypothetically invoke executive privilege?
JOHNSON: That is one of the many things I'm going to be looking for today.
INSKEEP: OK, so let's talk about what they might talk about if Sessions proves willing to talk about it. What are some of the key issues that they're going to be discussing?
JOHNSON: Well, first of all, Russia. Remember at his confirmation hearing, Jeff Sessions went out of his way to deny contacts with Russians during the campaign last year when he was a surrogate for President Trump. It turned out The Washington Post reported Sessions had at least two meetings with Russians during that period last year. Sessions eventually had to supplement his testimony.
There are still some open questions about whether he might have had a third contact with Russians last year. And what is the nature of his communication with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who's investigating Russian interference in last year's election? The attorney general of the United States could be a witness in a criminal investigation. Think about that, Steve, it's pretty remarkable.
INSKEEP: Those questions you just raised, are those some of the questions or some of the areas that Sessions wouldn't really talk about last time?
JOHNSON: Well, typically, the White House can exert - assert executive privilege over sensitive communications involving the president, advice to the president. And as the attorney general, Jeff Sessions was in a good position to give advice to the president on any number of topics, legal ones especially, political sensitive conversations as well.
INSKEEP: Aren't there a lot of other things to ask Jeff Sessions about?
JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. He's pledged to do a number of things, and already has done a number of things, over the last eight months. He's returned to support local police, he says, and stop investigations into excessive force. He reversed course in two major voting rights cases in Texas and Ohio where the Obama Justice Department had been challenging state laws as either discriminatory or problematic or both. And he also revoked protections for transgender students this year - all major changes supported by President Donald Trump's political base.
INSKEEP: OK. Going to be a lot to talk about today, and NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson will be listening for us. Thanks, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
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