In his highly anticipated appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vehemently denied ever speaking to Russian officials about last year’s election. But Sessions refused to disclose any details about his conversations with President Donald Trump related to the investigation of Russian meddling or the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
In more than two and half hours of questioning, Sessions used his first congressional hearing since his confirmation to push back aggressively against the implications of Comey’s testimony last week and the swirl of controversy surrounding the Trump administration. Sessions repeatedly came close to invoking executive privilege regarding his conversations with the president, while agreeing he had no authority to do so — a bewildering dodge that clearly irritated several Democratic senators.
Calling any suggestion that he colluded with Russian officials “an appalling and detestable lie,” Sessions indignantly deflected Democratic challenges to his account of meeting with Russians. “I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States," he told the committee.
Sessions, who was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and became an integral part of his 2016 presidential campaign, was specifically pressed about a previously undisclosed meeting with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of Russia during an April 2016 reception at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it,” Sessions insisted.
The attorney general recused himself from any probe related to Russia in March, only days after reports emerged that he had twice met with the Russian ambassador during the course of the election campaign. That contradicted statements Sessions had made during his Senate confirmation hearing, when he said under oath that he had not had any contact with Russians during the campaign.
On Tuesday Sessions blamed his misstatements under oath during his confirmation on Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., claiming he was flustered by “a rambling question” that confused him. Sessions acknowledged that he had met twice with Kislyak — once during the Republican National Convention and another time at his Senate office.
He also claimed that he had informally recused himself from the Russian probe immediately after being confirmed to lead the Justice Department — a full month before publicly announcing his recusal.
"I basically recused myself the first day I got into the office because I never accessed files; I never learned the names of investigators. I never met with them; I never asked for any documentation," Sessions told Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Sessions said no classified reasons existed for his recusal, as Comey had suggested during his Senate testimony last week.
“I recused myself not because of any wrongdoing but because of a DOJ regulation,” he explained. "The documentation [about the Russian investigation] — what little I received — was mostly already in the media."
Last week Comey suggested that Sessions’ “continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation [was] problematic,” for reasons he said he could not discuss in public.
Sessions argued that his involvement in Comey’s firing was not a violation of his recusal. "I do not believe that it's a sound position to say that if you're recused for a single case . . . you can't make a decision about the leadership in that agency," the attorney general said.
“Respectfully, you’re not answering the question,” Wyden shot back. “The question is Mr. Comey said there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic and he couldn’t talk about them. What are they?”
Asked Sessions: “Why don’t you tell me?” He added, “This is a secret innuendo being leaked about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”
Sessions revealed that he did discuss Comey’s firing with Trump, saying that he relied on a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to justify the firing and that his involvement as attorney general in that decision did not violate his recusal.
“That answer, in my opinion, does not pass the smell test,” Wyden replied.
"Senator, I am not stonewalling,” Sessions said. "I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations."
He continued: "These false attacks, the innuendo, the leaks, will not intimidate me."
But Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., did not seem to buy Sessions' noble servant act. “There is a special counsel investigation. There is also a congressional investigation. 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 [the director of the National Security Agency, Mike] Rogers, speaks volumes,” he told the attorney general.
Sessions, however, remained largely unfazed at the hearing, at least until a contentious exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., when the Republican committee chair, Sen. Richard Burr, briefly intervened, telling Harris to let Sessions answer her questions. Sessions then appeared to confirm that the Justice Department is investigating leaks that have occurred during the Trump administration, complaining that some of Comey's testimony in closed session last week had been leaked to the press within hours.