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In grinding Senate hearing, a turn in the spotlight for new senators

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) questions former FBI Director James B. Comey last week during the Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

The latest congressional hearing into Russia’s election meddling and the Trump administration’s handling of the subsequent FBI probe likely did little to alter Americans’ views, which have been hardening on both sides.

But for an aspiring class of new senators, Trump’s troubles have been good fortune, desired or not, offering continual turns on a very public stage for office-holders who may harbor a desire to succeed him.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California treated Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions as a defendant under her prosecutorial glare, to the point where she was admonished to ease up on interrupting him. Another Democrat, Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, got off one of the lines of the day when he laid a trap for Sessions and accused him of “impeding” the Senate investigation.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, more aggressive than most Republicans, mocked the idea of the Trump administration colluding with Russia as something that would never pass muster in a spy movie. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, another first-termer, offered Sessions a comfortable respite from hard-charging Democrats.

The unexpected election of President Trump, and the even more unexpected series of events that have spiraled from his administration in the last four and a half months, have unhinged official Washington, now operating on a tense, what-will-happen-next footing. But for some there is advantage in the chaos.

Notably, most committee members Tuesday hewed to what was expected of them given their party, Democrats asking questions intended to uncover Trump’s failings and Republicans intent on poking holes in the version of events laid out last week by fired FBI director James Comey. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican from Florida, was nearly alone in putting a foot in both camps.

The relatively young senators on display were not the only ones to make stinging points one way or the other. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California toed the line of sarcasm when she noted that President Trump had suggested he fired Comey because of his Russia inquiry—and not for management incompetence, the reason repeatedly detailed on Tuesday by Sessions.

“Do you really believe that this had to do with Director Comey’s performance with the men and women of the FBI?” asked Feinstein, at 83 the oldest member of the Senate. Her question harkened to Comey’s description last week that Trump’s accusations that he bungled his control of the FBI as “lies, plain and simple.”

But Feinstein and other more veteran senators also gave off a whiff of decorum, of playing by the Senate’s rules. While that may be appropriate given the high stakes, in this fraught political environment it left an opening for others to mix it up.

Heinrich, who has served in the Senate since 2013, opened by asking Sessions if the president was angry about Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, as published reports have indicated. The question, predictably, prompted Sessions to refuse to testify about conversations with Trump.

“You said that you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Heinrich replied firmly. “And now you’re not answering questions. You’re impeding this investigation.”

Session’s argument, simplified, was that he was not refusing to answer because Trump had declared his executive privilege, but rather in order to preserve Trump’s option to do so in the future.

That vein was thoroughly picked apart by Harris when the California senator, sworn in only weeks before Trump himself, got her turn.

For Harris, the Russia hearings have been a boon, a way to flesh herself out in a way that her careful Senate campaign last year did not. To some, she had been more style than substance until recently, needing the right set of circumstances to be seen with more gravitas.

She also has been in a somewhat difficult position in that she is ambitious in a party whose leftward lurch does not necessarily insure general election popularity when it comes to the next step up, the presidency.

Yet the former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general has found solid footing in the hearings, at least among Democrats.

She has pushed her questioning past the comfort zone of the Republican leaders of the panel, who have taken turns tut-tutting that she was badgering witnesses. That, of course, is precisely what her national Democratic constituency wants to see, and has already prompted fundraising efforts on her part.

In machine gun style, Harris demanded, over Sessions’ attempts to foil her, any written policies and paperwork he used to inform his testimony and his refusal to speak more openly.

“As appropriate, I will supply the committee with documents,” he replied.

“Can you please tell me what you mean when you say appropriate?” she asked archly.

She clearly got under Sessions’ skin, at one point drawing the attorney general to demand more time to explain himself lest she “accuse me of lying.” Their back-and-forth ended with other Republicans coming to his defense.

The young Republicans, not surprisingly, were far more solicitous of the sitting attorney general. Even if they disagree with Trump’s approach—and many in his party do, privately—Republican politicians are aware that Republican voters remain loyal to Trump, so a deft touch is required.

Lankford of Oklahoma, elected in 2014, offered Sessions a restful rhetorical hammock.

“You speak as a man eager to set the record straight,” he told Sessions, before defending the attorney general’s right to keep presidential conversations private.