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Sessions has answers for himself, but not Trump, on Russia

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, June 13, 2017. Credit: Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

Sessions dodges a big one

Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t hold back when angrily denying “scurrilous and false allegations” that his 2016 conversations with Russian officials suggest collusion with Moscow’s election interference.

But Sessions ducked behind a hypothetical future presidential claim of executive privilege in refusing to answer questions aimed at shedding more light on the run-up to President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.

He refused at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to say whether he ever discussed the Russia case with Trump. Sessions stood by the pretext he gave Trump for dismissing Comey — that the FBI chief mishandled the Hillary Clinton email case.

Trump later acknowledged the real reason: Russia. But Sessions said his role in the firing wasn’t inconsistent with his recusal from matters related to the investigation.

See Newsday’s story by Tom Brune.

Sessions vs. Comey

Sessions’ testimony neither undercut nor boosted the essence of Comey’s story that Trump pressed him to chase away the “cloud” of the Russia investigation. Sessions -- a top adviser in Trump’s campaign -- also said he knew nothing about Russian meddling beyond “what I’ve read in the paper.”

While offering no insight into Comey’s accounts of his Trump conversations, Sessions had a different version of what happened after one of them.

Comey testified last week that he got no response from Sessions after telling him -- after Trump ordered everyone but the FBI director out of a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting -- not to leave him alone with the president again.

Sessions said he told Comey that he agreed “the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.” (Video excerpt here.)

The take-away: Defensive driving

Sessions proceeded with caution. He didn’t swerve out of his lane with echoes of Trump’s more extreme counterattacks, writes Newsday’s Dan Janison, and he fended off Democrats grilling him about conversations inside the administration.

Given Washington’s divide, it was all a matter of whose partisan narrative -- reflected in the different lines of questions from Democrats and Republicans — you wished to follow in tracking Sessions’ answers.

The Mueller watch

The White House isn’t pushing back with all its might at the notion that Trump has considered firing Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump refused to answer reporters’ questions Tuesday.

White House aides told Politico that Trump friend Christopher Ruddy, who told the story, was purely speculating.

Ruddy said his comments mirrored those of Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow in a TV interview Sunday -- but Sekulow didn’t say Trump was considering it. He had a right to do so, but “I can’t imagine that that issue is going to arise,” Sekulow said.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, told a Senate subcommittee the probe’s leader has full “independence” and he would ignore any order to fire him without “good cause.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump should “let Robert Mueller do his job.”

The target on Preet’s back

Trump’s outside lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, boasted to friends and colleagues that he played a central role in the firing of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, according to ProPublica, an investigative journalism organization.

Kasowitz said he told Trump “This guy is going to get you,” according to the ProPublica account, which cited people familiar with the conversations. The article also said that Kasowitz, like his most famous client, is sometimes prone to exaggerating his exploits.

Bharara has said he was never given a reason for his firing as the top federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. On Twitter after the ProPublica article was posted, he responded: “Sheesh, I haven’t even had my covfefe yet.”

Trump shift on health bill

When House Republicans passed their health care bill in May, Trump brought them to the White House to celebrate the “great plan.” But at a lunch with Senate Republicans Tuesday, Trump called it “mean” and urged them to craft a version that is “more generous,” The Associated Press reported.

Trump didn’t get into specifics. Senate GOP efforts to finish a bill have been slowed by disagreements between moderates and conservatives on cuts to Medicaid and limits on the services insurers must cover.

The Russians aren’t coming?

Trump has reportedly considered letting Russian officials return to the Upper Brookville estate from which they were expelled by President Barack Obama last year. That would be prohibited as part of a bipartisan Senate agreement expanding sanctions on Moscow.

The language was negotiated by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“After Putin directly and maliciously interfered in America’s presidential election, the notion that we would make concessions to them -- like handing over access to this mansion on a silver platter -- is offensive, weak and counterproductive,” Schumer told Newsday’s Emily Ngo.

What else is happening

  • Russia’s cyberattack on U.S. elections systems was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed, Bloomberg News reported, citing federal investigators. The hacking included incursions into voter databases and software systems in 39 states -- almost twice as many as previously reported.
  • Trump has boasted about the opening of a new coal mine in Pennsylvania as evidence he is succeeding in “putting the miners back to work.” But construction of the mine began before the 2016 election, notes.
  • PolitiFact’s updated score card on 411 Trump statements, dating back to his “birther” attacks on President Barack Obama in 2011: True 5 percent, mostly true 12 percent, half-true 15 percent, mostly false 20 percent, false 33 percent, pants on fire 16 percent.
  • Trump doesn’t sound shocked any more at losing court scrimmages on his travel ban. He tweeted Tuesday: “Well, as predicted, the 9th Circuit did it again — Ruled against the TRAVEL BAN at such a dangerous time in the history of our country.”
  • Another milestone, or millstone, for Trump. His disapproval rating in the Gallup daily tracking poll hit 60 percent. Approval: 36 percent.
  • At a Wisconsin technical college, Trump said the nation needs a stronger system of apprenticeships to match workers with millions of open jobs. “I love the name ‘apprentice,’ ” the former host of the reality show with that title said.
  • Vornado Realty, which does business with Trump and the family of Jared Kushner, is a finalist for a $1.7 billion contract to build a new FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, the AP reports.
  • The Chinese insurance billionaire whose meeting with first son-in-law Jared Kushner regarding his building at 666 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan has been detained by an investigative unit of the Beijing government.
  • Congressional Democrats signed on to a lawsuit against Trump alleging that his still-active global business interests violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution meant to avert conflicts of interest involving foreign entities.
  • Trump celebrates his 71st birthday Wednesday.

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