Senate Democrats Try to Play ‘Gotcha’ with Sessions on Kislyak Meeting

Sen. Al Franken and his colleagues did their best to tie the Alabaman to Russia during a Senate hearing on Wednesday

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 18 Oct 2017 at 6:59 PM

Russia-obsessed Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee seem unable to move past the 2016 election.

Despite an exhaustive explanation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered to the Senate Intelligence Committee in June about his prior testimony regarding his conversations with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Democrats hammered away on the issue again Wednesday.

Sessions, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, flashed a bit of testiness over aggressive questioning from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) over answers then-Sen. Sessions gave during his confirmation hearing in January.

At one point, Sessions objected to Franken cutting off his response to a long-winded, accusatory question.

"I don't have to sit here and listen to his argument without having a chance to respond," he said. "Give me a break."

Franken maintains that Sessions lied to him during the confirmation hearing about a question regarding contacts between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia.

"That was a simple, straightforward question," Franken said Wednesday. "'What will you do?' The implication was would you recuse yourself."

Franken said Sessions chose to volunteer that he "did not have communications with the Russians." The Washington Post then reported on March 1 that Sessions had a brief encounter with Kislyak at an event outside the Republican National Convention and later met with him in his Senate office.

"Confronted with these reports, you subtly changed your story," Franken said.

Sessions denied any wrongdoing.

"Well, let me just say this without hesitation that I conducted no improper discussion with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other issue facing this country," he said. "I want to say that first. Now, that's been the suggestion that you've raised and others, that it was somehow that we had discussions that were improper."

Sessions told Franken that his original question was not simple. He read from the transcript, in which the senator had referenced a "continuing exchange of information" between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries from the Russian government. Sessions said his answer was in that context and that he did not have any conversations with Russian officials about campaign issues.

"The lead-in to your question was very, very troubling," he said. "And I answered to you in a way that I felt was responsive to what you raised in your question."

Sessions testified Wednesday that he never had conversations with Russia-connected figures about emails or sanctions. He said he did not know about a meeting that the president's son, son-in-law, and campaign chief had with a Russian lawyer during the campaign.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who has been seething ever since Sessions skipped the Judiciary Committee in June in favor of appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, also went after the attorney general on his confirmation testimony.

"Now, I've never accused you of colluding with the Russians," he said. "But clearly your answer, you concealed your own contact with Russian officials at a time when such contacts were a great interest to the committee."

As with Franken, Sessions said he believes his answer was accurate in the context Leahy framed the question. The senator asked about contacts with Russians "about the 2016 election."

Said Sessions: "And I took that to mean not any casual conversation but did I participate with Russians about the 2016 election … I felt the answer was 'no.' And I answered 'no,' because I did not meet with them in any way about the election."

Sessions also fended off insinuations by committee Democrats that he had violated his recusal of matters arising from the Russia investigation by offering a review of FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired in May.

Sessions told the committee's ranking minority member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), that Trump asked him and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for recommendations. That memo focused on Comey's decision to announce whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be charged in connection with her use of a private email server to send and receive messages that contained classified information. That was a role for prosecutors, not the FBI, Sessions said.

"I don't think it's been fully understood the significance of the error that Comey made on the Clinton matter," he said. "For the first time I'm aware of in all of my experience — and I don't think I've heard of a situation in which a major case in which the Department of Justice prosecutors were involved — that the investigative agency announces the closure of the investigation."

Sessions declined to answer questions about whether the cloud caused by the Russia allegations came up during their discussions. He said it is up to the president to determine whether to waive any privilege regarding their private communications.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) suggested that Sessions violated his recusal promise by helping to draft the memo. But Sessions said it did not because it was an evaluation of Comey's performance and did not deal with the substance of whether Clinton should or should not have been charged.

"It dealt with whether he acted properly when he just closed the case instead of the attorney general's office, prosecutors in the attorney general's office," he said. "I think it's quite different, Sen. Coons."

Sessions also said he had not met with special counsel Robert Mueller about his investigation regarding possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, but that he would cooperate with the probe.

(photo credit, homepage image: Jeff Sessions, CC BY-SA 2.0, by Gage Skidmore; photo credit, article image: Jeff SessionsCC BY-SA 2.0, by Gage Skidmore)

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