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Sessions tries to distance himself from Trump advisers' Russia talks

Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried Tuesday to distance himself from new accounts of contacts between Donald Trump’s aides and Russia-linked people last year, saying he had never lied about his own role but simply had little recollection of discussions on the topic.

Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee he hadn’t remembered one meeting with a Trump adviser trying to broker high-level talks with Russia until he saw media reports about it, and he said he still couldn’t recall a conversation about another adviser’s planned trip to Moscow.

The attorney general blamed the helter-skelter nature of Trump’s 2016 campaign for the confusion, calling the novice candidate’s unconventional White House bid “a new form of chaos every day.”

Sessions grew indignant over Democrats’ assertions that his explanations of his contacts with Russians and of his awareness of such communications by other campaign advisers had evolved over time, and he said any accusations he had misled Congress were “a lie.”

“My story has never changed,” Sessions insisted, sometimes slapping the table in apparent anger. “I’ve always told the truth.”

Democrats say Sessions’ answers have shifted about what he knew about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia as special counsel Robert Mueller and several congressional committees probe Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.

At his confirmation hearing in January for the attorney general post, the Alabama senator told lawmakers he had no communications with Russians during the 2016 campaign, but it was later revealed that he met at least twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential race. Sessions said Tuesday that his denial pertained to contact in the context of his duties as a campaign adviser: “I certainly didn’t mean I’d never met a Russian in the history of my life.”
Earlier this year, Sessions also said he didn’t know of any conversations between campaign surrogates and Russians. But a plea agreement by George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, indicated that Sessions had heard at a March 2016 meeting about the then-campaign adviser’s contacts with Russia-linked individuals.

“The attorney general must have been very much aware of a continuing exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” said Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the panel. “Under oath, knowing in advance that he would be asked about this subject, the attorney general gave answers that were, at best, incomplete.”

Making his first appearance before the House panel some nine months into his term as attorney general, Sessions told lawmakers he had “no clear recollection” of what was said at a session at which Papadopoulos proposed organizing a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, Sessions said that despite his lack of clarity on what transpired at the March 2016 meeting, he believes he rejected the idea of a meeting with Putin when Papadopoulos proposed it.

“I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter,” Sessions told the committee. “But I did not recall this event, which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago, and would gladly have reported it.”

Later in the hearing, Sessions was even more emphatic about his move to head off a campaign entreaty to Putin: “At the meeting, I pushed back.”

While Sessions said news accounts and recollections of other participants had refreshed his recollection of that meeting, he said he still did not remember whether Trump or others who attended weighed in on Papadopoulos’ proposal.

He also said he did not remember a conversation with another former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, who has said he told Sessions about an upcoming trip to Russia after a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington.

“You did not tell him to not go to Russia is that correct?” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) asked.

“No, I didn’t tell him not to go to Russia,” Sessions responded. “I didn’t recall [Page] saying that. Am I supposed to stop him from taking the trip?”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) noted that Sessions had once spoken about prosecuting a police officer for changing his testimony, even though the officer later corrected it.

“Mr. Jeffries, nobody, nobody, not you or anyone else should be prosecuted…or accused of perjury for answering the question the way I did,” Sessions shot back. “I’ve always tried to answer the questions fairly and accurately.”

Sessions also said Tuesday he didn’t think it was fair to conclude that Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation — an action that led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel — amounted to obstruction of justice. And Sessions wouldn’t say whether the president could act now to pardon people such as indicted former campaign advisers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates or even Trump’s own family members, who don’t face any charges.

“The attorney general should not be giving legal opinions from the seat of his britches,” he said.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) called that an evasion. “When you answer the way you have, it suggests that the rule of law is crumbling at our feet,” he said.

Sessions’ contentious appearance came a day after the Justice Department floated the possibility of a special counsel to investigate issues related to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration’s approval of the sale of a large uranium mining firm to Russian interests in 2013.

Conyers slammed the Justice Department over a letter sent to lawmakers Monday on the topic, saying it raised the possibility of what he called “a new special counsel to cater to the president’s political needs.”

Despite the letter playing up the possibility of a new special counsel, in the early stages of the five-hour hearing, Sessions seemed to deflate GOP lawmakers’ hopes for such an appointment. Later, the attorney general said he’d reached no judgment on the question.

“I did not mean to suggest I was taking sides one way or another on that subject,” Sessions declared.

Sessions insisted that politics would play no role in any such decision, but Democrats pressed him on repeated challenges to the Justice Department’s independence.

As video screens displayed some of Trump’s tweets calling for FBI and Justice Department investigations into “crooked Hillary Clinton,” Conyers asked Sessions about whether it is appropriate for a president to try to influence federal investigations.

“A president cannot improperly influence an investigation and I have not been improperly influenced,” the attorney general said. “The president speaks his mind. He’s bold and direct about what he said.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) claimed Sessions’ Democratic predecessors, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, had politicized the Justice Department and Sessions was reversing that trend.

In his early testimony, Sessions also discussed other issues GOP lawmakers and Trump have been intently focused on, such as leaks of classified information. The attorney general said 27 such investigations are open, which he said was a dramatic increase from before the time he took office.

Sessions also was questioned about a reported investigation by Mueller into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s alleged involvement with a plot to kidnap a Turkish dissident living in Pennsylvania. Flynn’s attorneys have described the reports as false.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) asked Sessions whether he had any knowledge that Flynn was offered $15 million to essentially force the exile, Fethullah Gulen, out of the U.S. and back to Turkey.

“Absolutely not,” Sessions said.

However, the attorney general confirmed he was aware of Turkey’s interest in getting its hands on Gulen.

“I’m aware the Turkish government continued to press the federal government with regard to seeking the return of Mr. Gulen to Turkey,” Sessions said. “My department had a role to play in it, although I’m not at liberty to discuss it today.”

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