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For Attorney General Sessions, Hill Testimony Presents Risk And Opportunity

Ahead of Tuesday's hearing with the House Judiciary Committee, a letter from the Justice Department appeared to throw GOP members of the panel as well as President Trump a bone.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and is expected to get questions about his oversight of the Justice Department and Trump campaign contacts with Russia in 2016. // AFP/Getty Images, Jason Connolly

For Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday presents a risk — and an opportunity.

The risk lies in testifying under oath, for the fourth time this year, about his awareness of Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election while he served as a top surrogate for President Trump.

The opportunity stems from his interrogators — a committee led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who's been reluctant to pile on Sessions this year. Other GOP members of the panel are die-hard Trump supporters who have suggested firing special counsel Robert Mueller, the man leading the ongoing criminal investigation.

On the eve of the hearing, Sessions appeared to throw those Republicans — and his boss — a bone. The Justice Department sent a letter Monday night informing Goodlatte that it had directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate "whether any matters merit the appointment of [another] special counsel." Earlier this year, Goodlatte had demanded a DOJ investigation into "alleged unlawful dealings at the Clinton Foundation" and other scandals focused on Democrats.

There's a twist, though: Sessions has already promised to recuse himself from any investigations into Hillary Clinton or the Clinton Foundation, given his campaign role. So the letter may raise yet another sensitive area on a hearing agenda already packed with them.

Here's what to watch for in Tuesday's hearing:

1. The Russia tightrope

At his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions testified, "I'm not aware" of communications between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. In October, at a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the attorney general said he didn't have talks with Russians as a surrogate for then-candidate Trump: "I did not, and I'm not aware of anyone else that did. I don't believe that happened."

What's more, another person at the table that day, J.D. Gordon, said he does remember Papadopoulos floating the idea of a conversation between Trump and Putin. But, Gordon said, Sessions shot down the idea.

"These facts appear to contradict your sworn testimony on several occasions," House Democrats wrote Sessions last week.

In other words, the attorney general will be walking a tightrope: reckoning his inability to remember those events with his denials of Russian outreach to the Trump campaign. And it's never a good thing when the top law enforcement officer in the country faces persistent questions about his credibility.

2. Boundaries with the White House

Trump recently told a radio interviewer he was "very frustrated" with the Justice Department and wishes he were able to direct the DOJ and the FBI to investigate his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, among other things.

"The saddest thing is that, because I'm the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department," Trump told WMAL in Washington, D.C. "I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI."

Now it appears the Justice Department is indeed looking into the matter.

But already this year, Trump's White House has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of the Justice Department's historical, post-Watergate independence. The president asked his former FBI Director James Comey to go easy on an investigation of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, Comey later testified. Trump floated the idea of dropping a prosecution against another ally, former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom the president went onto pardon. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway traveled to the Justice Department to watch a news conference unveiling criminal charges against Chinese fentanyl sellers.

And last week, the top executive at AT&T, Randall Stephenson, said the company was preparing to litigate after the Justice Department signaled it wanted tough conditions to approve the company's merger with Time Warner. Those conditions could include the divestiture of DirecTV or the sale of CNN, which the president has criticized as "fake news."

Both Trump and the Justice Department said the antitrust decision was made without interference from the White House. But Democrats and some DOJ veterans said those assertions are difficult to square with a pattern of breaches already this year.

3. Reviews from the audience

As attorney general, Sessions will be speaking to multiple audiences.

They include his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, where he served as a Republican senator from Alabama; the 100,000-odd lawyers, investigators and staff members who work for the U.S. Justice Department; and perhaps, most importantly, his boss, President Trump.

Six lawyers who have spent years in and outside the Justice Department described morale in the institution as poor, after a series of critical comments and tweets from Trump this year, and the attorney general's public silence in the face of them.

As for the president, he has made Sessions a frequent target of his ire, especially since the attorney general recused himself from the Russia probe in March and a special counsel was named to take over that investigation.

"Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else," Trump told the New York Times in July.

The president will be returning from his long trip to Asia on Tuesday, giving him time to formulate some views of Sessions's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, and perhaps to share them on Twitter.

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