In his much-anticipated testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions asserted that the very idea he participated in or was aware of collusion with the Russian government during the 2016 election campaign is nothing more than “an appalling and detestable lie.”
Speaking under oath in the public hearing on Capitol Hill, Sessions said he’d never had a conversation with any Russian official about the campaign, where he served as an active Trump surrogate.
“I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russian or foreign officials concerning a campaign or election,” Sessions said. “The suggestion I participated in any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country that I have served with honor for 35 years is nothing but an an appalling and detestable lie.”
Sessions conceded he’d met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak as part of his duties as a U.S. senator — he was also a longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — but he firmly denied the allegation by former FBI Director James Comey in testimony last week that he had a third, previously undisclosed, meeting when Trump gave his first foreign policy speech during the campaign, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington in April 2016.
“A brief interaction”
Sessions said he knew Kislyak had been at the Mayflower that night but he had no recollection of a meeting. “If a brief interaction occurred during that reception, I do not remember it,” he said.
Sessions did confirm that Comey had approached him with concerns about President Trump speaking to him to seemingly exert influence over the FBI’s Russia investigation.
“Mr. Comey expressed concern about proper communications protocol with the White House and the president,” Sessions said. “I responded by agreeing that the FBI and DOJ needed to be careful to follow policy on contact with the White House.”
Sen. Joe Manchin asked Sessions whether any other key Trump campaign personnel met with Russian officials during the campaign.
“Manafort?” Manchin asked.
“I don’t have any information that he had done so,” Sessions replied.
“I have no information…”
“I don’t recall it.”
“I don’t recall it.”
“I don’t recall.”
“I don’t recall any of those individuals meeting with the Russians,” Sessions said.
“Page?” Manchin asked.
“I don’t know,” Sessions replied.
Former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s financial ties to Russian oligarchs and past role serving as adviser to pro-Russian former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych and Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia have made both men key figures in the Russian probe. Former Trump adviser Carter Page, who also has financial interests in Russia and central Asia, has also been closely scrutinized.
Reasons for firing Comey
Sessions testified that Trump asked for his and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein’s opinion about Comey, which they delivered in the form of a written memo. The memo focused largely on the former FBI director’s actions relating to the Clinton email investigation. Sessions maintained that this was the main reason Comey was dismissed.
But Trump, during an appearance on NBC Nightly News a few days after Comey’s firing, said he would have fired him regardless of the DOJ’s recommendation, and that he was unhappy Comey was pursuing the probe into his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
Lawmakers wanted to know whether Sessions knew before writing the memo that the president wanted Comey gone for this reason. If he was aware, then that could be a potential violation of his recusal from all matters Russia-related.
Sessions said he would “have to let [Trump’s] words speak for themselves” and that he was “not sure what was in [Trump’s] mind explicitly.”
“It did not violate my recusal,” Sessions testified. “The letter that I signed represented my views that had been formulated for some time.”
“That answer does not pass the smell test,” Sen. Ron Wyden retorted, noting that the president made no secret about his anger over the continuing investigation into alleged collusion with Russia, calling it a “total hoax.”
The Russia probe
Sen. Dianne Feinstein pressed Sessions on whether he’d ever discussed Comey’s handling of the Russian probe with the president.
“I am not able to comment on that,” Sessions replied.
“You are not able to answer that question?” Feinstein said.
“That is correct,” he replied.
“You discussed the termination, so why wouldn’t you discuss reasons?” she asked.
“Those were put in writing, and he made that public,” Sessions said. “I may not discuss with you the nature of the conversation I had; that’s a rule that has long been adhered to by the Department of Justice.”
“It would be easy to say if the answer was no,” Feinstein said, and then asked again, “Do you really believe this had to do with Comey’s performance?”
“It was my best judgement that a fresh start at the FBI was the appropriate thing to do,” Sessions said.
Sessions later stressed he did not feel it was appropriate to disclose the nature of conversations that were potentially subject to the president’s executive privilege (which Trump has not yet exercised).