Attorney General Jeff Sessions forcefully defended his personal integrity on Tuesday, testifying that any suggestion he colluded with Russian officials to affect the 2016 election was “a detestable lie,” even as he repeatedly refused to answer questions about his conversations with President Donald Trump.
Sessions provided several fresh insights into his role in the Russia controversy engulfing the Trump administration, revealing that he has avoided internal DOJ conversations about the FBI’s Russia probe since he was sworn in, that he’s never been briefed on Russia’s alleged campaign to affect the U.S. presidential race, and that he never warned FBI Director James Comey that his job was on the line before he was abruptly fired by Trump last month.
The attorney general, former Alabama senator and former Trump campaign adviser also insisted he did not recall having a third undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, as multiple reports have alleged citing information gathered by U.S. intelligence.
But Sessions’ testimony was far from an exoneration of the president’s conduct, as the attorney general confirmed that Comey had voiced concerns to him that the president had initiated improper one-on-one contacts.
Some of the hearing’s most memorable moments came as Sessions repeatedly — and at times emotionally — lashed out at allegations that he and other Trump campaign advisers might have worked with Russian leaders to try to tip the election Trump’s way.
“The suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for over 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie,” Sessions said as he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sessions also pushed back against the idea that he had more meetings with Kislyak, after having been forced to clarify remarks from his confirmation hearing in January that he did not have communications with Russian officials during the campaign. Two previous meetings with Kisylak surfaced earlier this year, but Sessions said on Tuesday he doesn’t remember any further encounters, including an allegation he met with Kislyak in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel, which hosted a foreign policy speech by Trump.
“I did not have any private meetings nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel,” Sessions said.
He later elaborated that a brief interaction with Kislyak may have occurred, noting that “I may have had an encounter during the reception” but that would have been the extent of any communication.
Sessions took his uncomfortable star turn in the same seat occupied by Comey five days before as the former FBI director pointedly accused Trump of lying about his dismissal.
Sessions has found himself at the center of the Russian controversy in recent days, particularly after Comey testified that he had asked Sessions to intervene after Trump initiated a series of contacts about the Russia probe that the FBI director viewed as improper.
The ex-FBI chief also suggested Sessions realized something inappropriate was afoot when Trump asked Comey to stay behind at an Oval Office meeting in February, while dismissing Sessions and others from the room.
“My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering,” Comey testified.
Comey also said that in the one-on-one meeting that followed, Trump asked that the FBI “let…go” of a probe into former national security adviser Mike Flynn. Trump has said he made no such request.
Sessions denied on Tuesday that he stayed silent when Comey urged him never to leave him alone again with Trump. The attorney general testified that he urged the FBI and Justice Department officials to follow proper protocol in their communications with the White House.
That directly contradicts Comey’s testimony from last week, when the ex-FBI chief said Sessions had no verbal response when Comey told the attorney general that being left alone with Trump was inappropriate and should not happen. A Justice Department spokesman rejected Comey’s account following the June 8 hearing.
“He didn’t recall this, but I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House,” Sessions testified.
However, Sessions did not say whether he made any effort to stop Trump from contacting the FBI, such as intervening with the president directly or seeking to pass such a message through the White House counsel or other officials.
The attorney general’s closely watched testimony came as Washington buzzed about suggestions from Trump allies that the president was considering firing the man tapped last month to take over the probe into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election: special counsel Robert Mueller.
Sessions would not specifically talk about Mueller’s job performance, but said, “I have confidence in Mr. Mueller.”
The attorney general cited his recusal from the Russia probe as one of the reasons he could not elaborate on Mueller. In March, Sessions declared that because of his role in the Trump campaign he was recusing himself from all inquiries related to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 elections.
During his testimony on Tuesday, Sessions disclosed more details of the timeline of his recusal: One day after he was sworn in as attorney general on Feb. 9, Sessions had his first meeting to generally discuss the recusal matter. Several meetings followed, and “it became clear to me over time that I qualified as a significant principal adviser type person to the campaign and it would be appropriate and the right thing for me to recuse myself.”
His recusal from matters related to the presidential campaign, which Sessions said was essentially in place from his first day as attorney general, is apparently so broad that he has never been briefed on Russian hacking attempts last year.
“I never received any detailed briefing on how the hacking occurred,” Sessions testified, saying he had gotten his information about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign only through the news media.
Speaking to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), Sessions added that “you might have been very critical if I, as an active part of the campaign, was seeking intelligence related to something that might be relevant to the campaign.”
Sessions also said Tuesday that he would not claim executive privilege as he testified “because that is the president’s power.” But he added that he would abide by longstanding DOJ practice to shield his discussions with Trump.
“I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect confidential communications with the president,” he said.
Sessions refused to answer a pivotal question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): Whether he discussed Comey’s handling of the investigations into the Trump campaign with the president prior to the FBI director’s dismissal.
“I’m not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of a private conversation that I may have had with the president on this subject or others. I know this will be discussed, but that’s the rules that have been adhered to by the Department of Justice,” Sessions said.
Asked to react to Trump’s public statement that he had the Russia probe on his mind at the time of the firing, the attorney general demurred.
“I will have to let his words speak for himself. I’m not sure what was in his mind specifically when we talked to him,” Sessions said.
As Sessions declined to answer a series of questions, Democrats bluntly accused him of undermining Congress’ effort to get to the truth. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said the lack of responses amounted to stonewalling.
“I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice,” the attorney general declared.
“You’re impeding this investigation,” Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said. “You are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering the questions.”
Resolving a longstanding question, Sessions acknowledged publicly for the first time Tuesday that he gave Comey no warning before his firing on May 9.
“Did you ever have a conversation about his failure to perform?” Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked.
“I did not,” Sessions said.
“You never thought it was appropriate to raise those concerns before he was actually terminated by the president?” Warner asked.
“I did not do so,” Sessions said, noting that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein prepared a memo critiquing Comey’s performance. “It’s something that we both agreed to that a fresh start at the FBI was probably the best.”
“The timing seems a little peculiar,” Warner said.
Democratic senators and Comey have suggested that Sessions should not have been involved in the firing of the FBI director, particularly since investigations from which Sessions was recused appear to have played roles in spurring that decision.
Sessions flatly rejected those arguments on Tuesday.
“It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render an attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations,” Sessions said.
The usually genial Alabamian showed outbursts of anger, including under questioning from Wyden when the Oregon Democrat pressed Sessions on what Comey found so “problematic” about the attorney general that he felt his recusal was inevitable.
“Why don’t you tell me?” Sessions responded, his tone escalating. “There are none … this is a secret innuendo.”
Sessions also offered his first-hand account of the Feb. 14 Oval Office encounter that resulted in Comey being alone with Trump.
“We were there. I was standing there and without revealing any conversation that took place, what I do recall is I did depart. I believe everyone else did depart and Director Comey was sitting in front of the president’s desk and they were talking….That in itself is not problematic,” Sessions said.
The attorney general confirmed that the next day Comey complained about the contact.
“He did not tell me at that time any detail about anything that was said that was improper,” Sessions said, claiming he “backed [Comey] up in his concern” about improper contacts.
“He was concerned about it….His recollection of what he said about his concern is consistent with my recollection,” the attorney general added.
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