Attorney General Jeff Sessions vehemently denied suggestions Tuesday that he helped Russia subvert the November presidential election, calling that an “appalling and detestable lie,” and defended his recommendation that the FBI director be fired.
Mr. Sessions also flatly denied a third unreported meeting between himself and the Russian ambassador, said he played no role in the investigation into Russian meddling in the election and followed all procedures in recusing himself — though he declined to describe his conversations with President Trump to senators on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The attorney general did confirm former FBI Director James B. Comey’s account that he was uncomfortable with one-on-one meetings with Mr. Trump, but Mr. Sessions said it was up to the FBI director, not the new president, to object to the interactions.
The hearing gave Mr. Sessions his first public chance to answer a series of charges that Democrats and liberal activists had lobbed at him, including providing cover for Mr. Trump to oust Mr. Comey and holding secret meetings to coordinate election efforts with Russia.
“This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it, and I’ve tried to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I’ve appeared before,” Mr. Sessions said. “People are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters, and I’ve tried to be honest.”
Mr. Sessions said he never met with any Russian or foreign officials “concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election” and that he did not have a third undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
“Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign,” Mr. Sessions said.
The attorney general said his involvement in the Trump campaign was the sole reason why he recused himself from the Russia investigation, which is now being overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Although he didn’t officially recuse himself until March, Mr. Sessions said he steered clear of the investigation since he was sworn into office in February.
Mr. Comey raised intrigue last week when he told the same Senate committee that FBI officials had expected Mr. Sessions to recuse himself from all Russia-related issues “for a variety of reasons” and that his continued involvement would have been problematic.
That sparked Mr. Sessions’ complaint about being targeted by innuendo.
“Perhaps [Mr. Comey] didn’t know, but I basically recused myself the first day I got into office,” Mr. Sessions said.
He added that he had taken no action on the investigation since he recused himself. “I never accessed files. I never learned the names of investigators,” he said.
He called it absurd that his own recusal would bar him from making the recommendation that Mr. Comey be fired, noting recusal in the case should not preclude him from managing agencies that report to the Justice Department.
With Russia questions failing to produce much information, Democrats shifted their focus to Mr. Sessions’ involvement in the ouster last month of Mr. Comey.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo, which the attorney general signed off on, citing Mr. Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton private email server investigation as the reason why Justice Department officials had lost confidence in his ability to lead the FBI.
Mr. Trump initially pointed to the memo as his reason for firing Mr. Comey, though he later said he was going to dismiss the director anyway with the Russia investigation foremost on his mind.
Mr. Sessions said his advice to Mr. Trump didn’t violate his pledge to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He said he and Mr. Rosenstein had spoken about having concerns about Mr. Comey’s actions before either took office.
“The letter I signed represented my views that had been formulated for some time,” Mr. Sessions said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, responded by saying, “That answer doesn’t pass the smell test.”
The attorney general’s refusal to answer some questions about his communications with the president frustrated some senators. Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, at one point said, “You are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering those questions.”
Mr. Sessions said the president had not invoked executive privilege that would prevent him from talking about such matters but indicated that it appeared to be contemplated.
He said long-standing Justice Department policies also precluded him from talking about his conversations with Mr. Trump.
A Justice Department official later pointed to a memo from President Reagan and a 1982 memo from the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel as providing the basis for Mr. Sessions’ decision not to address certain questions.
“Declining to answer questions at a congressional hearing about confidential conversations with the president is long-standing executive-branch-wide practice,” the official said.
The 21-page memo, written by Theodore Olson, former assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel, notes that the attorney general “serves as both a Cabinet adviser and the principal legal adviser to the president” and outlines the degree to which communications between the president and attorney general can be shielded from compulsory disclosure.
Republicans said months of investigation into Russian meddling have found no evidence of collusion — something Democrats are now acknowledging.
“Maybe that is because Jim Comey said last week, as he said to Donald Trump, told him three times, he assured him he was not under investigation. Maybe it’s because multiple Democrats on this committee have stated that they have seen no evidence thus far after six months of our investigation and 10 months, or 11 months of an FBI investigation of any such collusion,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican.
He said Democrats were going down “lots of other rabbit trails.”
Democrats, though, said Mr. Sessions’ refusals raised more questions than he answered.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who served for decades with Mr. Sessions in the Senate, said it was time for the attorney general to step down.
“In his first few weeks as the nation’s highest-ranking legal authority, Attorney General Sessions has recused himself from the investigation of Russian interference in our election, recommended the dismissal of the director of the FBI, reportedly offered his resignation to the president and refused to answer questions from the Senate intelligence committee. It is hard to see how he can continue to serve,” Mr. Durbin said in a statement.
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