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Democrats To Attorney General Sessions: Don't Duck Our Questions

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about immigration in Falls Church, Va., last week.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing Wednesday. There's a lot to discuss.

In eight months as the nation's top federal law enforcement official, Sessions has presided over a series of Justice Department reversals — from police oversight and voting rights litigation to protections for the LGBT community.

And then there's the matter of his contacts with Russians during last year's presidential campaign, where Sessions served as one of President Trump's most vocal advocates. Sessions didn't include those on his security clearance forms. An aide said he was following guidance from the FBI.

Here's what you need to know.

1. Democrats: Don't duck us

All nine Democrats on the Judiciary Committee put Attorney General Sessions on notice with a letter last week.

"We expect that...you will have determined whether the president will invoke executive privilege as to specific topics and will be prepared to answer completely all questions in those areas on which he has not," the letter said.

Democrats on the panel took that unusual step after Sessions declined to answer a series of queries in June about the Russia probe and other sensitive topics, arguing it was "inappropriate" for him to respond because President Trump might choose to invoke executive privilege. The senators now say the time is up for Sessions to delay providing answers. And they said they'll expect him to share a list of issues on which the White House has asserted privilege at the hearing.

2. On Russian contacts: Who, what and when?

At his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions went out of his way to deny any contacts with Russians last year, in response to a question from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

"I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it," Sessions said at the time. Later, he denied any such contacts in response to a written question from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Since then, the Washington Post reported Sessions at least twice spoke with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The disclosures prompted the attorney general to announce his recusal from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in last year's presidential election. Later, the Post and CNN reported Sessions may have had a third, undisclosed encounter with Kislyak. Those inconsistencies are likely to be a hot topic at the hearing, according to the national security website Just Security.

Two more Russia-related questions for Sessions: whether or not he's been interviewed by investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller, who's leading the Justice Department's criminal probe into election interference; and whether President Trump, publicly infuriated by Sessions' recusal, has gotten over his ire.

3. Civil rights reversals

This year, the Justice Department reversed course in a pair of closely watched voting rights cases, in Texas and Ohio. Under Sessions, the department revoked guidance designed to protect transgender students in schools. And it filed an amicus brief in a major Supreme Court case backing a bakery owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious objections.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said Sessions "must be held accountable for the significant changes that have taken place on his watch, which have virtually brought federal civil rights enforcement to a grinding halt."

4. Law and order

After campaigning on a promise of "law and order," President Trump and his attorney general have backed away from investigating local police departments in search of patterns of discriminatory or unconstitutional behavior. Sessions said discrete acts of criminal activity by state or local police officers could come under DOJ scrutiny, but he said the federal government is a partner to law enforcement, not an overseer.

Sessions also directed federal prosecutors to advance "the most serious, readily provable offense" in cases, including those involving drug crimes in which the Obama administration had sought to exercise more discretion. He's long opposed efforts in Congress to reduce penalties for federal drug crimes, in contrast to a group of police chiefs, local prosecutors and bipartisan lawmakers appearing in Washington Wednesday.

Those officials are sending Sessions and Trump a letter imploring them to change course.

"We do not believe that public safety is served by a return to tactics that are overly punitive without strong purpose," said the letter from Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. "From decades of experience on the front lines, we have learned first-hand that these responses are ineffective to reduce crime. We cannot incarcerate our way to safety."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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