U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is sworn-in prior to testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill Tuesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday afternoon just days after fired FBI Director James Comey appeared before the same panel investigating questions of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign.
During his testimony, Sessions rejected any insinuation that he colluded with Russian operatives to influence the presidential election in any way, calling the suggestion an “appalling and detestable lie.”
Here are four major takeaways from Tuesday’s open hearing:
No. 1: Sessions: I had no meetings with Russian operatives in the Mayflower Hotel
Sessions told the Intelligence Committee under oath that he had no private meetings with Russian operatives during an April 2016 event during which then-candidate Donald Trump delivered a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.
“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception,” Sessions said, “I do not remember it.”
The attorney general did, however, acknowledge that he did meet twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, once during the Republican National Convention and once in his Senate office, two meetings he failed to disclose during his confirmation hearings earlier this year.
Sessions’ recollection of the Mayflower event is in contradiction to testimony shared last week by Comey. Comey, speaking to the same committee during a closed-door session, reportedly told the senators that Sessions may have held a previously undisclosed meeting with Kislyak at the hotel.
“Any suggestion that I participated in, or was aware of, collusion with the Russians is an appalling and detestable lie,” Sessions declared in his opening statement Tuesday.
No. 2: Sessions says he recused himself only because of Justice Department rules
The attorney general explained to the committee that — in his mind — the sole reason he recused himself from the Russia investigation is because of Justice Department regulations.
Sessions, who served as a top surrogate for Trump’s campaign, said Tuesday that it was “not because of an asserted wrongdoing, or any belief that I may have been involved in any wrongdoing in the campaign” that he recused himself from the investigation. Instead, Sessions said his recusal, which came in early March, was because of “a Department of Justice regulation” that he felt required him to step away.
The top Trump official explained that the regulation stipulates that Justice Department employees “should not participate in investigations of a campaign if they served as a campaign adviser,” as he did during the 2016 election.
Despite that recusal, a frustrated Sessions made clear he would not stand idly by as lawmakers — and Comey — cast aspersions, accusing him of potential wrongdoing.
“I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” he said.
Sessions says he recused himself from the Russia investigation because of DOJ rules pic.twitter.com/faOeum45Qc
— Tré Goins-Phillips (@tregp) June 13, 2017
Interestingly, Sessions’ explanation for stepping away from the Russia probe differs from what he told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings in late January. At the time, he said he was “not aware of a basis to recuse myself."
“If merely being a supporter of the President’s during the campaign warranted recusal from involvement in any matter involving him, then most typical presidential appointees would be unable to conduct their duties,” he said at the time.
Democrats then — as they have since — raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest. Sessions, though, said Tuesday he has not been briefed at all on the Russia investigation.
No. 3: Comey did meet alone with Trump, Sessions confirms
Sessions corroborated part of Comey’s testimony last week, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump did at one time abruptly request a private Oval Office meeting with the former FBI director.
The attorney general testified that he and other officials filed out of the president’s office, leaving Trump alone with Comey following a group meeting in February. At the time, the FBI was investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his ties to Russian operatives.
Comey told lawmakers last week that during that private encounter, Trump told him: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Sessions said Tuesday that Comey came to him the day after his private meeting with Trump to express “concern” about being left alone with the president, but the ex-FBI chief offered no details about his conversation with Trump.
Sessions confirms that Comey expressed concern to him about being left alone with President Trump pic.twitter.com/sEsVTgrx7P
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) June 13, 2017
Sessions said he “affirmed” Comey’s concerns and implored him to not hold any conversations with Trump about any investigation “in a way that was not proper.” He added that Comey, who had been in the bureau for many years, “knew those policies probably a good deal better than I did.”
No. 4: Sessions rejects any claims that he is 'stonewalling'
During a particularly heated moment in the lengthy Senate hearing Tuesday, Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama, rejected the notion that he was “stonewalling” questions from lawmakers.
The attorney general’s rejection came when his former colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), told him: “The American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don’t want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged and off-limits, or that they cannot be provided in public, or that it would be quote ‘inappropriate’ for witnesses to tell us what they know.”
Earlier in the hearing, Sessions claimed to be unable to reveal the details of his private communications with the president because he did not want to step on Trump’s opportunity to decide — at some future time — whether or not he wants to invoke executive privilege.
Sessions asserted he was not trying to evade the senators’ questions but was just “following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.” He never clarified exactly what policies he was referring to.
“You don’t walk into any hearing, or committee meeting, and reveal confidential communications with the president of the United States, who is entitled to receive confidential communications in your best judgment about a host of issues,” he added.
“I am not stonewalling” -- this entire Sessions/Wyden exchange is something https://t.co/2RtQhOmAXh
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) June 13, 2017
That line of questioning ultimately led to an extremely intense exchange between Sessions and Wyden, who then pressed the attorney general on statements made by Comey during his testimony last week. The Oregon lawmaker explained that Comey vaguely testified to “matters” regarding Sessions’ recusal “that were problematic.”
When he asked the attorney general what Comey might have been referring to, Sessions shot back: “Why don't you tell me? There are none!”
“This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it,” Sessions said. “People are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters, and I’ve tried to be honest.”
Sessions ultimately voiced frustration that any details of Comey’s closed-door testimony made it into news reports.
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