The Senate Intelligence Committee wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to verify – or knock down – fired FBI Director James Comey’s allegations against the president. Instead, they were left only with more questions.
By the end of Sessions’ testimony on Tuesday, senators—from committee chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., to freshman Kamala Harris, D-Calif.—iterated one request after the next for documents to back up his statements and assurances that he would discuss the questions he could not answer with Trump.
Indeed, rather than serving to move lawmakers closer to a verdict in the congressional probes into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign, and potential ties between Trump’s team and the Kremlin, the hearing will be remembered more as just a marker on the route whose end remains unknown.
Sen. Mark Warner, R-Va., the top Democrat on the committee, said he has not reached reach any conclusions about what happened yet – either in 2016 or surrounding Trump’s decision to fire Comey. But, Warner said there was "a troubling amount of smoke, at least."
That smoke, he insisted, deserves continued investigation.
Lawmakers wanted Sessions to verify pieces of Comey’s testimony, specifically what happened between Comey and Trump on Feb. 14 in the Oval Office after the president cleared the room of everyone but the man running the agency that was leading the Russia investigation. Sessions noted that when the next day he talked to Comey, the then-FBI director seemed "uncomfortable" about his one-on-one with Trump.
That was hardly the confirmation some Democrats sought.
Still, as they closed the door on the Sessions hearing, what’s noteworthy is that Congress does not, at this time, have another public Intelligence hearing scheduled on what Trump has dismissed as “the Russia thing.”
That, in itself, is significant, at least this year. The Senate Intelligence Committee usually works in secret. Yet Tuesday, they finished what was just their latest must-see open meeting. The panel has held seven public hearings this year that had nothing to do with a nomination compared with one in 2016 and three in 2015. In 2014, 2013 and 2011, the committee had two each year, and in 2012, just one.
As this meeting ended, the feeling on Capitol Hill started to spread that the Russia investigation could still lead anywhere.
Questions from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., suggested as much.
"Did Donald Trump or any of his associates in the campaign collude with Russia in hacking those emails and releasing them to the public?" Cotton asked, referring to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee email accounts. "That’s where we started six months ago."
Since a joint intelligence briefing came out in January, the investigators, the allegations and the questions raised have been piling up so fast that it’s easy to see it all as rolling backward, downhill. But investigators also insist that these are still early days in the investigation.
Sessions, in what ended up being among his final comments, appeared to bolster that case.
He said that he takes cybercrime more seriously today than he did when he was a member of the Senate.
And, as for Russia: "It is very disturbing that the Russians continue to push hostile actions in their foreign policy. It’s not good for the United States, or the world, or Russia.”