Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday forcefully rejected suggestions that he had inappropriate conversations with Russians about last year’s presidential election in more than two hours of testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But he also frustrated several members of the committee by refusing to answer questions about what conversations he’d had with President Donald Trump about fired FBI director James Comey. Sessions said he was declining to answer to preserve the president’s ability to assert executive privilege, something the White House has not done.
Sessions’ more than two hours of testimony came one week after Comey had appeared before the same committee and offered an explosive account of Trump asking him to drop an investigation into retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a close Trump campaign adviser who became Trump’s national security adviser. The conversation is critical to allegations that Trump tried to obstruct Comey’s investigation into Russian election meddling.
Testifying under oath, Sessions confirmed the general outline of Comey’s testimony, acknowledging that he was one of the last people to leave the Oval Office Feb. 14 when Trump cleared the room so he could hold a private conversation with Comey.
Sessions also confirmed that afterward Comey expressed concern about the propriety of the one-on-one meeting. But Sessions said Comey did not detail what Trump had said during the meeting, and that Sessions did not know why specifically Comey appeared concerned.
But he contradicted Comey’s claim that Sessions only shrugged in response, saying instead that he’d agreed with Comey that Justice Department guidelines frowned on such contacts with the White House. He said he agreed with Comey that such meetings were to be avoided, though Sessions also noted that such conversations are not prohibited.
Sessions’ most energetic testimony came, however, as he defended himself against allegations that he had met several times with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and that he might have been aware of other campaign officials’ contacts with Russians.
“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 in his opening statement, his voice rising.
The attorney general’s testimony came on a day when Trump confidants fueled rumors that the president was considering firing Robert S. Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Mueller was appointed after Comey’s firing. Asked directly to reassure the committee that he would not be involved in any future Mueller firing, Sessions said he could do so with “confidence” since he had recused himself from involvement in the probe.
Sessions is enmeshed in multiple lines of inquiry in the ongoing investigations: He had meetings with Russian officials that later forced him to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s Russia probe. Despite that recusal, he was involved in Trump’s decision to fire Comey, who was leading the Russia investigation.
Sessions told senators, however, that he saw no conflict in recommending Comey’s firing even after he recused himself from the Russia probe. He said the Justice Department is involved in multiple cases, and even if the attorney general is recused from one, he should still be involved in decisions over leadership of the FBI and other agencies.
But when senators pressed him to detail his conversations with Trump on Comey’s termination, Sessions refused, other than to confirm he had met with the president, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Sessions said it was “longstanding, written” Department of Justice policy for an attorney general not to reveal conversations with the president.
“I’m not claiming executive privilege, because that’s the president’s power,” said Sessions, who pledged to provide the committee with details of the Justice Department policy.
That wasn’t good enough for Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, who lambasted Sessions for remaining mum without formally claiming executive privilege. “You are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering that question,” Heinrich said during several tense moments of testimony.
Sessions also faced tough questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, who asked him whether he’d used any notes or documents to prepare for his testimony in a series of rapid-fire questions that prompted Sessions to ask for a breather.
“I am not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous,” said Sessions, who appeared visibly relieved when Harris’ time allotment ran out.
Sessions is the second high-profile figure in the Russia investigation to testify in a week, following the blockbuster testimony of Comey on Thursday, which drew a TV audience of 19.5 million. Like Comey, Sessions testified in a packed hearing room, with spectators lining up hours before in the hallway, hoping to secure an empty seat.
At the start of the hearing, intelligence committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, gave Sessions a cordial welcome. “Attorney General Sessions, this is your opportunity to separate fact from fiction,” said Burr.
Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, took a sterner tone. “In the past several weeks, we’ve seen a concerning pattern of administration officials refusing to answer public, unclassified questions about allegations that the president attempted to undermine the FBI’s investigation,” Warner said.
Several Democrats have accused Sessions of misleading the Senate Judiciary Committee about his Russia contacts during his January confirmation hearing.
Under questioning on Jan. 10, Sessions had said that he’d had no communications with Russians during the campaign. It later was revealed he met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, once while Sessions was a senator and once as Trump’s adviser before the inauguration.
In his opening statement, Sessions said it was “false” that he tried to mislead senators about his interactions with Russian officials. He said his testimony during his confirmation hearing was a hurried response to a breaking news story the details of which he did not fully know. He called a question from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., about his contacts with Russians “rambling” and said he was motivated primarily to refute “immediately any suggestion that I was part of such activity.”
“That was the context in which I was asked the question, and in that context, my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it,” Sessions said. “It simply did not occur to me to go further than the context of the question and list any conversations I may have had with Russians in routine situations, as I had with numerous other foreign officials.”
Sessions also dismissed suggestions that his contacts with Kislyak were the principal reason for his decision in March to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, saying that he was merely following Justice Department guidelines that call for officials to step aside from investigations if they have a close relationship with any of the people or institutions being investigated.
Sessions said he didn’t know why Comey said in public testimony last week that he couldn’t discuss in an open hearing why he believed Sessions would have to recuse himself. “I don’t know why he made that allusion,” Sessions said.
Compared to the House, the Senate Intelligence Committee has sought to project an image of bipartisan cooperation in the Russia probe. But there were signs Tuesday of deepening party divisions. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, delivered a speech that effectively criticized his colleagues for spending months on an investigation he likened to an overblown spy novel.
Sessions seemed to enjoy that comparison, responding: “It’s just like through the looking glass. I mean, what is this?”
By contrast, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, lectured Sessions on being evasive. “The American people have had it with stonewalling,” he said. “We are talking about an attack on our democratic institutions, and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable.”
Sessions objected to Wyden’s characterization of his testimony as stonewalling. “I am not stonewalling,” he said. “I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.”
Tension surrounding the Sessions hearing was heightened by news reports in which Trump supporters such as Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh have questioned if Mueller can conduct a fair inquiry. Trump confidant Christopher Ruddy, CEO of conservative Newsmax Media, told PBS Newshour on Monday that he thought Trump “was considering perhaps terminating the special counsel.”
But in a separate hearing Tuesday before a Senate appropriations committee, Rosenstein said that Mueller has his full support and could only be fired “for good cause.” He added that Mueller will have the “full independence he needs to conduct that investigation” and that there was “no secret plan” to fire him.
“If President Trump ordered you to fire Special Counsel Mueller, what would you do?” asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
“Senator, I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders,” Rosenstein answered.
Later, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked if Rosenstein knew of any reason to fire Mueller, the deputy attorney general was curt: “No, sir.”
McClatchy’s Greg Gordon contributed to this report.