Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered an aggressive defense of his conduct surrounding the Russia investigation on Tuesday, but his repeated refusal to answer questions based on a vague reference to executive privilege will likely prolong the congressional effort to understand what preceded former FBI Director James Comey’s controversial ouster last month.
The former Alabama senator offered little to rebuff allegations from Democrats that there’s too much smoke around Comey’s firing and the Russia investigation for there to be no fire. Nor did his replies firmly clear up questions about his own contacts with Russian officials.
Sessions began by telling lawmakers at the open Senate hearing that any allegations he had colluded with Moscow to undermine the election were an “appalling and detestable lie” and that he would not stand by while others suggested he had committed any wrongdoing. “I recused myself from any investigation into the campaigns for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” he told senators in a raised tone, as he read his opening statement. “At all times throughout the course of the campaign, the confirmation process, and since becoming attorney general, I have dedicated myself to the highest standards.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing marked Sessions’s first appearance before Congress since his confirmation in February. It also came less than a week after Comey’s dramatic session, which was the subject of several lawmakers’ questions Tuesday. In one notable exchange, Sessions bristled at suggestion that he couldn’t—or shouldn’t—have had oversight over the Russia investigation. “Mr. Comey said that there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic and he couldn't talk about them,” asked Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden at one point. “What are they?”
“Why don't you tell me?” Sessions snapped back, visibly angry. “There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell that you for absolute certainty. This is secret innuendo leaked out there about me and I don't appreciate it.” The moment was representative of the stark contrast between Sessions’s posture and the ease and relative dispassion with which Comey answered the committee’s questions last week.
Some Democratic senators accused Sessions of not fully answering their questions, a charge he tried to rebut. "Senator, I am not stonewalling,” he told Wyden. “I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice. You don't walk into any hearing or committee meeting and reveal confidential communications with the president of the United States, who's entitled to receive confidential communications and your best judgment about a host of issues. And after be accused of stonewalling for not answering them. So I would push back on that.”
But that explanation did not persuade them. Multiple Democratic senators pressed Sessions on his efforts to seemingly invoke a new version of executive privilege, a protection that shields some executive-branch communications from Congress and the judiciary. He repeatedly suggested he needed to acquire permission from President Trump before replying to some of their queries.
“There are two investigations here. There is a special counsel investigation. There is also a congressional investigation,” New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, told the attorney general, referring to his own committee’s probe. “And you are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering these questions. And I think your silence, like the silence of Director [of National Intelligence Dan] Coats, like the silence of [National Security Agency Director Mike] Rogers, speaks volumes.” Both officials avoided answering multiple questions for vague reasons in a similar hearing last week.
“I would say that I have consulted with senior career attorneys in the department and they believe this is consistent with my duties,” Sessions retorted.
Republican committee members took a softer approach, at times exchanging friendly banter with Sessions in between questioning by Democratic colleagues. Other queries from GOP senators offered Sessions a chance to clarify the sequence of events surrounding Comey’s abrupt ouster last month. “Isn’t it true that the Russian investigation did not factor into your recommendation to fire Director Comey?" Texas Senator John Cornyn asked. “That is correct,” Sessions replied.
Most of the former lawmaker’s testimony revolved around the Russia investigation, and he began his opening statement by reaffirming its importance and categorically denying any collusion on his part. “Let me state this clearly: I have never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election,” he said. “Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.”
In one of the most striking moments of Comey’s testimony last week, he told senators about a conversation he had with Sessions after a White House meeting in February. According to Comey, Trump asked him to stay behind after a group meeting, then requested he drop the investigation into Flynn. Comey said that when he later spoke to Sessions, the attorney general appeared to recognize he shouldn’t have left the director alone with Trump.
“Shortly afterwards, I spoke with Attorney General Sessions in person to pass along the president’s concerns about leaks,” Comey testified in his prepared remarks. “I took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the president and me. I told the AG that what had just happened—him being asked to leave while the FBI director, who reports to the AG, remained behind—was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.”
During his own testimony, Sessions disputed Comey’s assertion that he’d stayed silent. “While he did not provide me with any of the substance of his conversation with the president, Mr. Comey expressed concern about the proper communications protocol with the White House and with the president,” he said. “I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.”
Sessions played a central role in Comey’s dismissal, including writing Trump a letter formally recommending his removal. Some Democratic lawmakers have claimed that Sessions’s involvement could be seen as a violation of his pledge to recuse himself from matters involving the Russia probe, given that Comey was overseeing it at the time. Sessions, however, asserted the firing fell outside that pledge, despite Trump’s subsequent statement connecting Comey’s ouster directly to the investigation.
“The scope of my recusal, however, does not and cannot interfere with my ability to oversee the Department of Justice, including the FBI, which has an $8 billion budget and 35,000 employees,” he said in his opening remarks. “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’s abstention came one day after The Washington Post reported Sessions had failed to disclose two meetings during the presidential campaign with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, during his Senate confirmation process. In an exchange with Minnesota Democrat Al Franken at his confirmation hearing in January, he’d said he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
On Tuesday, Sessions strongly disputed insinuations he had committed perjury with that statement. “I wanted to refute immediately any suggestion that I was a part of such an activity,” Sessions testified, referring to Franken’s question about reports of contact between Trump campaign officials and the Russians. “I replied, ‘Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.’” From his perspective, it seems, that did not cross the line into perjury, as some Democratic lawmakers subsequently claimed.
In his opening remarks, Sessions similarly denied he spoke with Russian officials during a foreign-policy address by Trump at Washington, D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel, a possible effort to refute rumors on Capitol Hill that there was an undisclosed third meeting with Kislyak at that gathering. “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,” he testified. “If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it.”
Senators also briefly asked Sessions whether Trump is planning to fire the special counsel, a move that would likely precipitate a political and legal crisis beyond even Comey’s dismissal last month. Chris Ruddy, a close Trump confidant, said Monday that the president was mulling Robert Mueller’s dismissal. Under Justice Department rules, that would require Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s approval, though he said during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing earlier on Tuesday that he hasn’t seen the “good cause” required to remove Mueller. Sessions, for his part, offered only partial assurance that Mueller would remain. “I have confidence in Mr. Mueller,” Sessions said. But he then declined to discuss “future hypotheticals.”
Another eyebrow-raising moment at Comey’s hearing last week was when he discussed Session’s recusal—the part Wyden focused his questioning on Tuesday—and how he didn’t tell Sessions what Trump requested about Flynn. “Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons,” Comey told senators, referring to his leadership team at the FBI. “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
Comey’s statement implied that there are reasons for Sessions’s recusal that might not be publicly known, but the attorney general forcefully rebuffed suggestion there’s anything to know. In doing so—just as in his refusals to answer questions—Sessions only seemed to prolong the game of he said-he said that’s characterized the national drama over Russia and the Trump campaign.