By Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky
WASHINGTON - Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to comment Tuesday on whether he spoke to President Donald Trump about former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the investigation into coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race.
Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee he could not discuss his conversations with Trump because they were private.
“I am not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of private conversations that I may have had with the president on this subject or others,” Sessions said.
Sessions opened his testimony to the panel with a fiery assertion that he never had any conversations with Russians about “any type of interference” in the 2016 presidential election.
“The suggestion that I participated in any collusion . . . is an appalling and detestable lie,” Sessions said.
Sessions took particular aim at news reports about a possible meeting he had with a Russian official during an April 2016 event at the Mayflower hotel, where Trump gave a pro-Russian speech. He acknowledged being at the event and said he had conversations with those there, but did not remember any with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it,” Sessions said. If he did have a conversation with the ambassador, it was “certainly nothing improper.”
Sessions acknowledged that he had met twice with Kislyak - once during the Republican National Convention and once in his Senate office - and he did not disclose that during his confirmation hearing. But he said essentially that he was flustered by a question from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., about an alleged “continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” and that is why he claimed wrongly that he had not met with Russians.
“I wanted to refute that immediately,” Sessions said.
Sessions also said he does not remember any other meetings with Russian officials, except those two, during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The attorney general has recused himself from the Russia investigation - a decision he sought to cast on Tuesday as resulting from his role on the Trump campaign, rather than because of any inappropriate interaction with Russian officials.
“I recused myself from any investigation into the campaigns for President, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” Sessions said.
In his opening statement, Sessions also said he is bound to protect private communications with the president, suggesting he will not answer some questions about the firing of FBI director James B. Comey.
“I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I have with the president,” he said.
At one point, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., suggested the attorney general was ducking questions, angering Sessions.
“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 shot back: “I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.’’
Wyden noted Comey had said it was “problematic’’ for Sessions to oversee the Russia probe, for reasons he did not explain in a public setting.
Sessions got angry again when Wyden pressed Sessions to explain what facts might be “problematic “about his involvement in the Russia probe, as Comey suggested.
“Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Sen. 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,’’ Sessions said. “People are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest. . . and I’ve tried to be honest.’’
In another exchange with lawmakers, Sessions disputed Comey’s testimony about a key discussion the two of them had in February, after the president met with Comey alone and privately suggested the FBI drop its probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The president has denied asking Comey to drop the Flynn matter.
Testifying last week, Comey said after that “disturbing” private talk with Trump, he went to the attorney general and told Sessions “it can’t happen that you get kicked out of the room and the president talks to me.’’
Comey said the attorney general didn’t say anything, but the attorney general’s body language “gave me the sense like ‘what am I going to do?’ ’’
Sessions described the exchange very differently Tuesday.
“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,’’ said Sessions. “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.’’
Sessions revealed Tuesday that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein had discussed Comey and his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Sessions said they had decided, even before they were confirmed for their positions at the Justice Department, that they needed to remove Comey because the FBI needed a “fresh start.”
Earlier Tuesday, Rosenstein appeared before lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He responded to questions regarding comments Monday from Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a friend of Donald Trump, that Trump might fire Robert S. Mueller III. Mueller was recently appointed to lead the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenstein said that if the president ordered him to fire the special counsel handling the Russia investigation, he would only comply if the request was “lawful and appropriate.”
Rosenstein, who has been on the job for six weeks, said only he could fire Mueller, and only if he found good cause to do so. He described Mueller as operating independently from the Justice Department in his investigation.
Asked what he would do if the president ordered him to fire Mueller, Rosenstein said, “I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders.” He added later: “As long as I’m in this position, he’s not going to be fired without good cause,” which he said he would have to put in writing.
“If there were good cause, I would consider it,” Rosenstein testified. “If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Tuesday he had confidence in Mueller, and dismissed reports that Trump might fire Mueller as “rumors.”
Lawmakers also asked Rosenstein whether it was appropriate for Sessions to be involved in the firing of Comey given Sessions’s recusal from the Clinton email investigation, which he offered because of his role on the Trump campaign. Rosenstein wrote a memo to Sessions on Comey, which was then used by the administration to justify firing the director for his handling of the Clinton case.
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., asked Rosenstein: Why would the deputy attorney general have written a memo to Sessions that was “exclusively” about a matter from which Sessions was recused?
“I don’t think that’s a question for me to answer,” Rosenstein responded. He later noted that it was up to Mueller to determine whether the issue might be part of his investigation, and he thought Mueller “ought to review that.”
Rosenstein was probably referring to the possibility that Mueller would investigate whether Sessions violated his recusal or whether Comey’s firing might have been an effort to obstruct justice.
In addition, lawmakers wanted Rosenstein to spell out the scope of Sessions’s other recusal, specifically with regard to the Russia investigation, which Sessions announced after reports emerged that he had not fully disclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
“I know what we’re investigating, and he does not,” Rosenstein said to Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.