Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday forcefully denied improper contact with Russian officials, insisted he was within his rights to recommend the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey and disputed part of Comey’s testimony last week.
Sessions called the suggestion he acted improperly during the 2016 campaign an “appalling and detestable lie.” He was generally forthcoming, but he declined to answer questions at the Senate Intelligence Committee about his private communications with President Donald Trump. That sparked the testiest exchange of the hearing and the moments Democrats seized upon.
“I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said.
Sessions responded icily.
“Sen. Wyden, I am not stonewalling,” he said. “I have followed the historic policies of the Department of Justice. You don’t walk into a hearing or a meeting and reveal confidential communications with the president of the United States, who is entitled to receive confidential communications and your best judgment about a host of issues.”
Wyden referenced testimony last week in which Comey said he did not share information about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election because he was aware of information that would make the attorney general’s participation “problematic.” Wyden demanded to know what that meant.
“Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Sen. Wyden,” Sessions said. “There are none. I can tell you that … This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”
Sessions also denied Wyden’s assertion that he violated his commitment to recuse himself from the Russia investigation when he recommended that Trump fire Comey.
Wyden didn’t buy it.
“That answer in my view doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.
Sessions testified he never received any information regarding the FBI investigation even before he formally recused himself three weeks later. He said he recused himself on the advice of career lawyers at the Justice Department because of his role as an adviser on the Trump campaign, not because he had done anything wrong.
“But I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” he said. “At all times throughout the course of the campaign, the confirmation process and since becoming attorney general, I have dedicated myself to the highest standards.”
Sessions pushed back hard on the suggestion that it was improper for him to review the job performance of the director.
“It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations,” he said.
Sessions added: “The scope of my recusal, however, does not and cannot interfere with my ability to oversee the Department of Justice, including the FBI, which has an $8 billion budget and 35,000 employees.”
Sessions tried to put an end once and for all to speculation about a possible third, undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kisylak, with whom then-Sen. Sessions had met at his office in September. He also had a brief encounter with him as he left the stage after delivering a speech at an event outside of the Republican National Convention in July.
The supposed third meeting took place in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where Trump delivered a foreign policy speech. Sessions said he did not know Kisylak even attended the event, although he added that he recently saw a recording of the ambassador arriving.
“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador at that reception, I do not remember it.”
Sessions said he could not say for sure that that he did not speak briefly with Kislyak at a reception before the speech.
“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador at that reception, I do not remember it,” he said.
But Sessions said it was “entirely beside the point” of the question about whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian agents. He implored his former colleagues to give him the benefit of the doubt from his 20 years of service in the Senate before becoming attorney general.
“Let me state this clearly, colleagues: 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 said. “Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.”
Comey testified that he expressed to Sessions his discomfort when the president asked him to stay behind for a one-on-one meeting after a security briefing. He told senators that Sessions did not respond. Sessions disputed that, testifying that he told Comey it was important to follow department policy on interactions with the White House.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) expressed frustration with the Russia conspiracy.
“What do we think happened at the Mayflower?” he asked at one point.
Sessions thanked Cotton for the question.
“It’s just like ‘Through the Looking-Glass,'” he said. “What is this?”