(Watch the video of the entire hearing.)
WASHINGTON – A livid Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday by declaring that any allegation he colluded with the Russian ambassador, or any Russian officials, to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was “an appalling and detestable lie.”
His full quote was, “I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for over 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”
The attorney general insisted he would never discuss anything so improper with foreign officials.
Visibly angry at allegations he saw as damaging to his reputation, Sessions vigorously defended his conduct since recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
“I did not recuse myself from defending my honor from false and scurrilous accusations,” the Alabaman asserted.
“These false attacks, the innuendo and the leaks, you can be sure, will not intimidate me,” he adamantly added.
Sessions also forcefully defended his participation in the decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey.
“It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render an attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations,” he asserted.
“I recused myself because Justice Department regulation required it, not because of any wrongdoing,” the attorney general added.
Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation because of his involvement in the Trump presidential campaign.
He testified, “[I]t became clear to me over time that I qualified as a significant principal adviser-type person to the campaign, and it would be appropriate and the right thing for me to recuse myself.”
Sessions denied there was any impropriety in a meeting he had in his office with the Russian ambassador last year in his capacity as a then-senator, and another “brief encounter” with the diplomat during the Republican National Convention.
“If there was an improper illegal relationship in an effort to impede or influence this campaign, I absolutely would have departed,” testified the attorney general about those meetings.
Under oath, Sessions denied having a reported third meeting with the Russian ambassador at the Mayflower hotel in April 2016. The attorney general said he was at a reception that the ambassador also attended, but did not have any conversation with him, other than perhaps exchanging a pleasantry in passing.
“I did not have any private meetings nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel,” testified Sessions.
“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it,” he added. Sessions said if there was conversation, it was “certainly nothing improper.”
He also said he appreciated the Committee’s “critically important efforts to investigate Russian interference with our democratic process. Such interference can never be tolerated, and I encourage every effort to get to the bottom of any such allegations.”
The attorney general did not claim executive privilege to refuse to answer any questions, saying that was the president’s power, not his.
But, Sessions said there were confidential Justice Department matters he could not discuss because that was the established policy.
“I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I have with the president,” he said.
The attorney general announced he was not able to discuss in public whether he discussed the Russia investigation with the president, because that was a privileged communication.
That included whether he ever discussed with the president the handling of the Russia investigation by Comey, whom Trump fired on May 9.
However, Sessions also said, “I was never briefed on any investigative details and did not access information about the investigation,” and that what he knew about any about Russian interference in election was only what he saw in the news.
Sessions told Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, “you might have been very critical if I, as an active part of the campaign, was seeking intelligence related to something that might be relevant to the campaign.”
The attorney general insisted he was never asked to do anything illegal or unethical by anyone in the administration.
Sessions also said he didn’t know whether the Russia investigation factored into the president’s decision to fire Comey.
“I will have to let his words speak for himself. I’m not sure what was in his mind specifically when we talked to him,” he said.
But Democrats were particularly outraged that Sessions refused to answer whether he discussed Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation with the president when he was deciding whether to fire the FBI chief.
When Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked him about that, Sessions replied: “I’m not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of a private conversation that I may have had with the president on this subject or others. I know this will be discussed, but that’s the rules that have been adhered to by the Department of Justice.”
Democrats repeatedly hammered Sessions over how he could refuse to answer that and other questions due to executive privilege, if he had just asserted that was the president’s prerogative, not his.
Sessions responded that it would be premature of him to deny the president to assert executive privilege should he choose to do so, while also continuing to maintain he could not divulge details of private conversations with Trump.
The attorney general indignantly denied a charge from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that he was “stonewalling” the hearing, telling him he was following established Justice Department protocol.
“I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don’t want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged or off limits,” said Wyden. “We are talking about an attack on our democratic institutions and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable.”
Sessions indignantly took exception to the senator’s suggestion he was not being candid.
“I am not stonewalling,” he thundered. “I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.”
Wyden pressed on, goading Sessions to explain what facts might be “problematic” about his involvement in the Russia probe, as Comey had suggested in his testimony last week.
“Why don’t you tell me?” shot back an enraged Sessions. “There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none.”
“This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it, and I’ve tried to give my best and truthful answers,” declared the attorney general. “People are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest … and I’ve tried to be honest.’”
“You’re impeding this investigation,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., later bluntly told Sessions.
“You are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering the questions,” accused the senator.
Sessions calmly replied that he had consulted with senior Justice Department officials and that his decision was “consistent with my duties.”
Tensions rose again later when Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., pointedly asked Sessions if he had any communications with any Russian businessmen or nationals during the campaign, and he answered there were none that he could recall.
As he sought to add that he did not have a perfect recollection, Harris brusquely interrupted the attorney general and tried to ask another question.
But Sessions interrupted her and asserted, “If I don’t qualify it, you will accuse me of lying.”
With a smile, he added, “I’m not able to be rushed this fast; it makes me nervous.”
Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, later admonished Harris for badgering Sessions and told her to give him a chance to answer her rapid-fire questions.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark, ridiculed the Democrats’ intense grilling of Sessions and likened their insinuations that he had colluded with the Russians to “spy fiction.”
“Have you ever, ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?” he asked.
Sessions laughed and replied: “Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton. It’s just like through the looking glass. I mean, what is this? I explained how in good faith I said I had not met with Russians because they were suggesting I as a surrogate had been meeting continuously with Russians. I didn’t meet with them.”
Earlier in his testimony, the attorney general contradicted Comey’s testimony last week that he simply did not reply to a concern the former FBI director said he expressed about meeting alone with the president.
Describing that meeting, Sessions said: “Following a routine morning threat briefing, Mr. Comey spoke to me and my chief of staff. While he did not provide me with any of the content of the substance of the conversation, Mr. Comey expressed concern about proper communications protocol with the White House and with the president.”
Comey testified last week that Sessions did not respond to that comment.
But Sessions disputed that, testifying, “I responded to his comments by agreeing that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contact with the White House.”
The attorney general added that Comey “did not tell me any details about anything that was said that was improper.”
Sessions testimony came as rumors swirled around the nation’s capital that President Trump may fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading the Russia investigation.
The attorney general testified, “I have no idea,” if Trump has confidence in the special counsel, while adding, “I have confidence in Mr. Mueller.”
Sessions told ranking member Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., he did not think it would be proper for him to participate in any decision whether to fire the special counsel.
A friend of Trump, Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax, said on PBS’ “NewsHour” the president was “considering, perhaps, terminating the special counsel.” But the White House denied Ruddy ever spoke with the president about the issue.
“With respect to this subject, only the president or his attorneys are authorized to comment,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow wouldn’t rule out Trump firing Mueller, but said he was not going to speculate. He told ABC News, “The president is going to seek the advice of his counsel and inside the government as well as outside.”
Top Democrats on the committee have confirmed that no evidence of collusion by Trump or his associates with Moscow has ever surfaced.
And, under questioning by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., the attorney general said he had no knowledge of, or could not recall, any meetings between a string of Trump associates and Russian officials.
Manchin specifically asked about presidential advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, former National Security adviser Michael Flynn, and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. Sessions said he didn’t know about former Trump business associate Carter Page.
In his opening statement, Sessions said: “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. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.”
Although there has been no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump team, there is a new report from Bloomberg that Russian attempts to hack the 2016 election were more extensive than previously reported.
Sessions called persistent and ongoing Russian attempts to interfere with the U.S. electoral system very disturbing.
Some Republicans have been calling for the dismissal of the special counsel ever since Comey revealed in testimony before the same committee Thursday that the president has never been under investigation for collusion with Russia. They say there is now no purpose for such an investigation.
Additionally, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has alleged that Mueller has stocked his staff with Democrat donors.
“Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair,” he tweeted.
LifeZette reported, “Four top lawyers hired by Mueller have contributed tens of thousands of dollars over the years to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates, including former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.”
As WND reported, Democrats are hoping to base an obstruction of justice charge against Trump on Comey’s recollection of a Feb 14. conversation he had with the president at the White House about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump said he fired Flynn in February for not telling the whole truth about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition, even though the two did not discuss anything inappropriate.
Comey testified that on Feb. 14, the day after Trump fired Flynn, he recalled the president telling him during a private meeting in the White House: “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.”
However, in his opening remarks, submitted in written form, the former FBI director made clear he did not think the president was trying to interfere in the Russia investigation or pressure him to drop it.
“I had understood,” Comey testified, “the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.
“I did not understand the president to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign,” he continued. “I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls.”
But under persistent questioning by Democrats, Comey later claimed he interpreted Trump’s expression of “hope” that he would drop the Flynn inquiry as a directive to stop the probe.
“I took it as a direction,” Comey said. “I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, ‘I hope’ this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”
Democrats have seized upon that as evidence of obstruction of justice by the president.
Legal experts from left to right have disagreed.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote for Fox News, “[U]nder our Constitution, the president has the authority to direct the FBI to stop investigating any individual,” and, ” let us put the issue of obstruction of justice behind us once and for all.”
Writing in the Washington Post, former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy argued: “Not every form of interfering with an investigation, or even the closing down of an investigation, is felony obstruction. Only corrupt ones. Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused not only acted intentionally but also with an awareness that his actions violated the law.”
“In describing their Feb. 14 meeting,” he continued: “Comey understandably inferred, from Trump’s request that others leave the room, the president’s possible awareness that he was about to do something inappropriate. But this suspicion must be balanced against what Trump actually did, which was merely to plead on Flynn’s behalf, not order an outcome.”
McCarthy concluded: “This was clearly not corruption. And without corruption, there cannot be obstruction.”
In fact, as WND reported, Comey actually appeared to indicate the president encouraged the investigation because it was important to learn if any of his associates had, in fact, colluded with Russians.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., asked Comey if he got the impression Trump had asked him, “‘[I]f there are people in my circle that are (colluding with Russia), let’s finish the investigation,’ is that how you took it?”
“Yes, sir. Yes,” replied the former FBI chief.