WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied in a Senate hearing Tuesday any suggestion that he had colluded with the Russian government to interfere in last year’s presidential election, calling that allegation “an appalling and detestable lie.”
In a dramatic appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions also rejected reports he had had a third meeting with the Russian ambassador, defended his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey and contradicted part of Comey’s testimony last Thursday.
Sessions opened with a statement that flatly denied he had a third meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, based on reports that emerged after Comey testified in closed session to the committee last Thursday.
“Let me state this clearly, colleagues: 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,” Sessions said.
Sessions also repeatedly refused to divulge any of his conversations with President Donald Trump, whom he served as a top adviser during the campaign, and answered many questions by saying he didn’t recall or remember.
On a key issue in the committee’s investigation, Sessions contradicted Comey’s testimony that he did not respond when Comey implored him not to leave him alone with Trump again on the day after Trump asked Comey to meet with him privately in the Oval Office.
In that Feb. 14 meeting, Comey testified that Trump asked him to lay off the FBI probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, an action some Democrats and attorneys said rises to obstruction of justice. Trump on Friday denied Comey’s accusation.
Sessions said Comey may not have recalled it, “but I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.”
Yet he also confirmed Comey’s account that Trump asked him and others to leave after they finished a counterterrorism meeting. Sessions said he was one of the last to leave the room and saw Comey sitting alone in front of Trump — something he thought Comey could handle.
Sessions said he stopped following the Russia investigation from the day he became attorney general, although he didn’t officially recuse himself until March 2. That came after a news report that he had met twice with Kislyak but failed to disclose that fact to the Senate.
But he said that recusal was for only the probe into Russian interference in the election — and that justified his decision to sign on to a memo to Trump recommending he fire Comey because of Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
But asked how he felt after Trump revealed in a television interview that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, Sessions said, “I’ll just have to let his words speak for themselves.”
In one heated moment, Sessions raised his voice when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked about Comey’s testimony that he didn’t tell Sessions about Trump’s request to lay off of Flynn because there was something “problematic” that would lead to his recusal.
Asked what the problematic issues were, Sessions responded, “Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Sen. Wyden. There are none. . . . This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”
Prompted by questions from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) citing the lack of evidence of a smoking gun in the Trump campaign collusion investigation so far, Sessions said, “It’s just like through the looking glass.”
But Democrats seized on Sessions’ repeated refusals to discuss his conversations with Trump despite citing no legal basis and a failure of Trump to invoke executive privilege.
Wyden accused Sessions of “stonewalling.” But Sessions denied it. “I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice,” he said.