Sessions Defends Trump as Democrats Accuse Him of `Stonewalling’
Attorney General Jeff Sessions played two starkly different roles as he fielded questions from lawmakers over the firing of FBI chief James Comey and alleged Russian connections to himself and other associates of Donald Trump.
For Republicans at Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions was the nation’s top law enforcement officer, defending the president and declining to shed light on his conversations with Trump.
For Democrats, Sessions was a hostile witness in an ongoing investigation, accused of “stonewalling” without any legal basis after he kept refusing to answer questions about his exchanges with the president, in the words of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.
Just days after Comey’s detailed testimony about his private exchanges with the president put the White House on the defensive, Sessions spoke at a hearing he abruptly requested over the weekend to help the administration regain its footing in an investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election. And in nearly 2 1/2 hours of testimony, the attorney general sought to give the White House room to navigate that probe in the months and years to come.
Sessions said allegations that his meetings with Russian officials during the campaign somehow amounted to collusion with Moscow in a bid to undermine the election were an “appalling and detestable lie.” Charges that he gave misleading testimony about those meetings, which he didn’t initially inform Congress about, were totally “false,” Sessions said.
In some of the most heated moments, Democrats disputed the attorney general’s assertions that his conversations with the president could be kept private, even though the White House wasn’t claiming executive privilege.
“We are talking about an attack on our democratic institutions, and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable,” Wyden said.
Sessions shot back.
“I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice,” the attorney general said. “You don’t walk into any hearing or committee meeting and reveal confidential communications with the president of the United States.”
Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico repeatedly said that Sessions’s answers amounted to “obstructing” the congressional probe and that his refusal to answer was without justification. In a response to Maine independent Senator Angus King, the attorney general suggested he wanted to keep the president’s options open.
‘Premature to Deny’
“It would be premature to me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice on executive privilege,” Sessions said.
Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, countered that Democrats were seeking to score political points without looking at the larger issues of tampering by foreign adversaries in the U.S. election and leaks of national security secrets to the media. Maybe, he suggested, the evidence was starting to suggest there was no collusion between Trump associates and Russia after all.
Sessions himself largely pleaded ignorance to the entire Russia inquiry. While he didn’t recuse himself from the Russia probe until March, following revelations that he failed to disclose two meetings with the country’s ambassador to the U.S., Sessions said he never even read classified reports about election meddling produced in the months before he took office.
“It appears so,” Sessions said when asked whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election. “I know nothing but what I’ve read in the paper.”
Asked what he would want to know if he were a senator on the Intelligence Committee, Sessions said he’d ask if foreign interference had any impact on the election.
The attorney general also pushed back on other allegations, including reports emerging from a closed hearing that he had held a third, undisclosed meeting with Russian envoy Sergey Kislyak.
“Why don’t you tell me,” what those accusations are, Sessions demanded of Wyden. “There are none — I can tell you that for absolute certainty,” he continued, adding that he doesn’t appreciate “secret innuendo” being leaked about him.
The attorney general said he learned after the fact that Kislyak was at a reception held in conjunction with a foreign-policy speech that then-candidate Trump gave at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel in April 2016, which Sessions attended. But Sessions said he doesn’t remember Kislyak being there and has no recollection of interacting with him at the event.
Responding to questions about the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing, Sessions said he never informed the FBI chief of concerns about his job performance, which the administration cited in his dismissal. And he added that he discussed the need for a “fresh start” at the Federal Bureau of Investigation with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein before either of the men were confirmed to their posts.
Sessions largely validated a key portion of Comey’s description of a February meeting at the White House, at which the attorney general and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner left the Oval Office so the president and Comey could speak alone. He said Comey expressed concern afterward about being left alone with the president, a point highlighted in the former FBI director’s testimony last week. And he praised Comey for his farewell note to the bureau, in which he said the president has the right to fire his FBI director for “no reason at all.”
Warner pressed Sessions on whether he has confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed to lead the Russia probe by Rosenstein and is still building his investigative team. He said he did, though he added that he has “no idea” if Trump does since he isn’t kept abreast of the probe.
Questions about Trump’s support for Mueller were raised after Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a close friend to the president, said Monday he believed Trump was considering dismissing the special counsel. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Ruddy never met with the president to discuss the issue and doesn’t speak for Trump.
But the most definitive statement on the Mueller probe came from Rosenstein, who was on Capitol Hill testifying to a pair of subcommittees on the same day as Sessions. The deputy attorney general made clear that only he, not the president, can fire the special counsel and he said he’d there would need to be “good cause” to dismiss Mueller.
“I appointed him. I stand by that decision,” said Rosenstein. “I’m going to defend the integrity of that investigation.”
–With assistance from Terrence Dopp
on this story: Chris Strohm , Steven T. Dennis