WASHINGTON (CNN) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions came out swinging in a dramatic appearance before a Senate committee Tuesday, branding any claims that he had helped or was aware of any collusion with Russian officials to interfere in the 2016 election as an “appalling and detestable lie.”
Sessions said in his opening statement that he did not recall a third meeting with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in the Mayflower hotel in Washington, despite reports that the FBI had been investigating whether such a contact took place.
“I did not have any private meetings nor recall any private conversations with any Russian official at the Mayflower hotel,” Sessions told the Senate intelligence committee.
Sessions is appearing before the committee for the first time since recusing himself from the Russia investigation, but will face questions from Democrats about why he still played a role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which President Donald Trump later said was motivated by the probe into Moscow’s meddling the last year’s election.
Sessions also argued that his recusal from the Russia investigation did not mean that he should be barred from his oversight duties over the FBI, following claims by Democrats that he should have not played a role in Comey’s firing.
“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. “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.”
“I do not believe that recusal from a single case means I can’t make a decision about the leadership in that agency,” Sessions said later.
Sessions confirmed that he had left Comey on his own with Trump in the Oval Office alone February 14, though declined to say whether he was ordered to do so by the President citing the need to keep his conversations with him private. He also said that Comey had later told him he was concerned about the meeting, but he did not say that something improper occurred.
Comey’s testimony will form a dramatic sequel to Comey’s own appearance before the committee last week, and he will have to tackle several open loops that emerged during that appearance, which twisted the knife in an administration that has struggled to extricate itself from the Russia cloud.
Sessions testified that he had never had any meetings with officials from Russia or anywhere else about interference in the US elections.
“Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign,” Sessions said. “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 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”
Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina laid out questions that he wanted addressed, including Sessions’ meetings with Russian officials or proxies while working for the Trump campaign or as Attorney General. Burr also asked for details of his involvement on Trump’s foreign policy team and its possible interactions with the Russians. He also asked why Sessions recused himself from oversight of the FBI’s Russia probe and wanted to know what role in played in Comey’s dismissal.
The panel’s top Democrat Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said that in addition to Burr’s questions, he wanted to know why Sessions participated in the firing of Comey which he said was over the handling of the Russia probe. And he said that Sessions’ decision to leave Comey and Trump alone in the Oval Office on February 14, for an encounter in which the President asked the FBI chief to let up on then national security adviser Michael Flynn was a “very concerning action.”
Sessions said he had confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller, but said that his recusal from the Russia probe would stop him taking part in any hypothetical effort to remove him. A friend of Trump’s said Monday that the President was considering taking just such a step.
Sessions also mounted an impassioned defense on Trump, perhaps in the expectation that the President would be watching his appearance on Air Force One as he flew to Wisconsin.
“The people of this country expect an honest and transparent government and that is what we are giving them. This President wants to focus on the people of this country to ensure they are treated fairly and kept safe,” said Sessions. He added: “the false attacks, the innuendo, and the leaks, you can be sure, will not intimidate me.”
Sessions’ last appearance
Sessions’ appearance is not without risk.
The former Alabama senator put in a shaky performance under questioning from his former colleagues during his confirmation hearing. His failure to disclose meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak forced him to later amend his testimony and added fuel to the Russia intrigue swirling around Washington.
“It is really unclear what he is going to say, and I am a little bit surprised because in the past, he has gotten into trouble when he said things and they turned out not to be entirely true,” said Jens Ohlin, a professor of law at Cornell University.
“I am not sure he is the best performer under questioning from fellow senators. He is used to being on the other side. The more he says, the more he risks being called out for inconsistencies.”
CNN previously reported that congressional investigators are examining whether Sessions had an additional private meeting with the Russian ambassador in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
Sessions testified Tuesday that he had been at an event at the Mayflower hotel last year when Trump was giving a foreign policy speech. He said he did not have any meetings at the event and did not recall any “brief interaction” he may have had with the Russian ambassador in passing at reception at the Mayflower.
Later however, Sessions appeared to raise the prospect that the meeting may have occurred and he had simply forgotten it.
“I would have gladly have reported the meeting, the encounter that may have occurred, that some say occurred in the Mayflower, if I had remembered it, or if it actually occurred which I don’t remember that it did,” Sessions said.
In his confirmation hearing, Sessions testified that he did not have “communications” with the Russians during the presidential campaign.
When it later emerged he had in fact had several meetings with Kislyak, some Democrats accused him of lying to Congress and demanded his resignation.
How far will Sessions go in describing conversations with Trump?
The high stakes of Tuesday’s hearing prompted speculation that Sessions would protect his private conversations with Trump by declaring executive privilege.
“I think it depends on the scope of the questions,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
However, questions about conversations with the Russian ambassador, for instance, would not fall under such a designation.
Tuesday’s hearing may also throw new light on the awkward state of the relationship between Trump and Sessions. Sources told CNN last week that the attorney general offered to resign after a series of heated exchanges with the President over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe.
On Monday, in a strange photo op, members of Trump’s Cabinet lavished praise on the President, who has struggled to extricate himself from the Russia cloud over his White House.
Sessions told Trump he was “honored” to be able to serve him.