Sessions: Any suggestion I colluded with Russia is 'appalling'

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that any suggestion that he colluded with Russian officials while he was advising the Trump campaign is 'an appalling and detestable lie.'

WASHINGTON - Embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that any suggestion that he colluded with Russian officials while he was advising the Trump campaign is "an appalling and detestable lie."

An animated Sessions called the implication that he took part in an influence campaign against an American election “beyond’’ both his reach and the plot of the most outrageous spy novels and movies.

“It’s just like through the looking glass,’’ Sessions said.

Sessions also said he could “not recall” a reported meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during an April campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., that has recently been in the news.

"I did not have any private meetings nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel," Sessions testified. "I did not attend any meetings at that event.  Prior to the speech (by President Trump), I attended a reception with my staff that included at least two dozen people and President Trump. Though I do recall several conversations I had during that pre-speech reception, I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian Ambassador or any other Russian officials."

Sessions displayed flashes of anger during questioning by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., when the senator pressed him about suggestions that he had failed to provide full disclosure about his meetings with Kislyak.

Bouncing in his chair, the attorney general asserted that “secret innuendo is being leaked out there about me. People are suggesting through innuendo that I’m not being honest about matters.’’

In a quick series of questions posed by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sessions was less than definitive in his answers about his possible contacts with Russians, indicating that he was unnerved by her fast-paced questioning.

“I don’t believe I have had any conversations with Russian businessmen or Russian nationals (during the campaign),’’ Sessions said. “If I qualify it, I will be accused of lying.  I’m not used to being rushed like this, it makes me nervous.’’

Sessions said he has not been briefed on the FBI's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election since becoming attorney general because he had begun considering his recusal from the Russia matter immediately after taking office. Sessions said he recused himself because of departmental rules that bar his participation in an investigation of a campaign he was involved in.

“I have no knowledge of the investigation beyond what has been reported in the press,’’ Sessions said. “And I don’t even read that.’’

Sessions testified in an extraordinary public session in which senators are grilling the nation's chief law enforcement officer on his prior contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and his involvement in the firing of FBI director James Comey.

The attorney general said it would be "absurd to suggest that a recusal from a single investigation would prevent me from managing an agency," including the employment of the FBI director.

Sessions repeatedly maintained that he was right to participate in Comey's firing.

“It is my responsibility,’’ he said. “The recusal involved one case in the Department of Justice and the FBI. I’m the attorney general of the United States. It's my responsibility to ensure that the department is run properly. I do not  believe it is a sound position that if you recuse for a single case, you can’t make a decision about the leadership of that agency.’’

Sessions challenged Comey’s testimony that Sessions failed to act on his concerns about President Trump’s direct contact with Comey on Feb. 14. The former FBI director said in that meeting, the president urged him to drop the FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Sessions said Comey indeed expressed concern about the nature of the contact, but he did not disclose the content of his meeting with Trump. But the attorney general said he acted on Comey’s concern, urging caution in future contacts between the White House and FBI.

"I encouraged him to do just that," Sessions said.

However, he said "there is nothing wrong" with the president communicating directly with the FBI.

"What is problematic is to talk … about ongoing investigations that are not properly cleared through top levels of the Department of Justice," Sessions testified.

Sessions' testimony comes less than a week after Comey raised questions about the attorney general’s role in his firing last month.

“Attorney General Sessions, this is your opportunity to separate fact from fiction,’’ said Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C.

Comey testified that he did not brief Sessions on what he felt was Trump pressuring him on the investigation because he knew Sessions was considering recusing himself and, "We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make (Sessions’) continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.’’ That was an apparent reference to an ongoing inquiry over whether Sessions failed to disclose the April 2016 meeting with the Russian ambassador. Sessions had previously apologized to senators for failing to disclose during his confirmation hearings two other meetings he had had with Kislyak.

Sessions announced he was recusing himself from the Russia investigation March 2.

Just hours before Sessions’ appearance, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told a separate Senate panel that there was no reason to consider the removal of Russia special counsel Robert Mueller, despite suggestions that Trump was weighing such an action.

“I appointed him; I stand by that decision,’’ Rosenstein told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. “I will defend the integrity of that investigation.’’

Because Sessions recused himself from all matters related to the investigation, the authority to appoint and remove the special counsel belongs to Rosenstein.

Sessions told the Intelligence Committee that he has "confidence in Mr. Mueller." And he pledged not to interfere with Mueller’s management of the inquiry because of his prior recusal from the investigation.

Throughout the hearing, Sessions declined to reveal the content of his conversations with the president, including whether Trump expressed disagreement with the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation and whether the president told him that he fired Comey because of his handling of the Russia investigation.

“I’m protecting the president’s constitutional right by not giving it away,’’ Sessions said.

Sessions did, however, cite Comey’s May 3 Senate Judiciary Committee testimony in which he staunchly defended his management of the Clinton email investigation. The attorney general said Comey's testimony offered a “breathtaking usurpation” of Justice policy by issuing his recommendation not to charge Clinton without consulting top Justice leadership.

The high-stakes testimony took place amid reported friction between Sessions and Trump, who criticized the attorney general's decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Sessions reportedly offered to resign in wake of the president's criticism. Sessions refused to answer senators' questions Tuesday about whether Trump told him he was frustrated with Sessions' decision to recuse himself.

"You're impeding this investigation," Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told Sessions when he wouldn't answer the questions.

Comey testified that he decided not to report the president's request to Sessions at the time, because the attorney general was weighing his recusal from all matters related to the Russia investigation.

“We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make (Sessions’) continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,’’ Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation weeks later. The matter that Comey declined to disclose appears to refer to an ongoing inquiry over whether Sessions failed to disclose a third meeting with the Russian ambassador during a April 16 campaign event for then-presidential candidate Trump. Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Al Franken of Minnesota had asked the FBI early last year to review the possible third meeting with Kislyak.

"It has been more than three months since the press revealed that the Attorney General gave false testimony in response to questions from me and from Senator Franken about his contacts with Russian officials," Leahy said in a statement Tuesday. "Yet, the Attorney General has made no effort to come back before the Judiciary Committee to explain his actions — actions that could be construed as perjury."

Justice officials have strongly denied that a third meeting occurred between Sessions and Kislyak.

Just hours before Sessions’ appearance, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told a separate Senate panel that there was no reason to consider the removal of Russia special counsel Robert Mueller, despite suggestions that Trump was weighing such an action.

“I appointed him; I stand by that decision,’’ Rosenstein told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. “I will defend the integrity of that investigation.’’

Because Sessions recused himself from all matters related to the investigation, the authority to appoint and remove the special counsel belongs to Rosenstein.

Sessions told the Intelligence Committee that he has "confidence in Mr. Mueller." And he pledged not to interfere with Mueller’s management of the inquiry because of his prior recusal from the investigation.

Democrats said Sessions needs to resolve conflicting evidence about contacts with Russians and to explain if and why he recommended Comey's firing by Trump, an action that could be a violation of his recusal.

"The Senate and the American people deserve to know exactly what involvement with the Russia investigation he had before his recusal, what safeguards are in place to prevent his meddling, and why he felt it was appropriate to recommend the firing of Director Comey when he was leading that investigation," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate's top Democrat.

Sessions repeatedly declined to describe his conversations with Trump, and White House spokesman Sean Spicer declined to discuss Trump's "private conversations" with Sessions about Comey.

The high-stakes testimony also takes place amid reported friction between Sessions and Trump, who criticized the attorney general's decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Sessions reportedly offered to resign in wake of the president's criticism.

Comey's testimony

During his testimony last week, Comey said he had notes of meetings with Trump in which the president asked him for a pledge of personal loyalty and to drop the Russia investigation as it pertained to former national security adviser Flynn. Some Democrats said Trump's actions could amount to an obstruction of justice.

During his testimony, Comey said Trump had specifically excluded Sessions and other top administration officials from the meeting where the president discussed Flynn's possible exposure.

Shortly after the meeting, Comey said he confronted Sessions, saying that had become increasingly uneasy about being left alone with Trump. According to long-standing Justice Department guidelines, contact between the White House and the FBI is supposed to be routed through the attorney general or deputy attorney general to avoid the appearance of undue influence.

Comey said he wrote memos on his meetings with the Trump because of "the nature of the person" he was talking to. "I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document," the ex-FBI director testified.

Trump denied Comey's testimony, saying he never asked the FBI director for a loyalty pledge or to drop the Russia probe. The president said he is willing to testify under oath on these points.

The president and aides noted that Comey testified that he told Trump three times he was not personally under investigation over Russian contacts. They also emphasized Comey's admission that he arranged to have contents of his memos leaked to the news media.

"I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible," Trump tweeted over the weekend. "Totally illegal? Very 'cowardly!'"

Contributing: Erin Kelly

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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