Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied he lied or misled Congress about contacts with Russia by people involved in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, saying he simply forgot about a meeting that’s emerged in the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“I will not accept and reject accusations that I have ever lied,” Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday. “I have always told the truth, and I have answered every question as I understood them and to the best of my recollection.”
Democrats have questioned the attorney general’s credibility ever since he said in sworn testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing in January that he “wasn’t aware” that anyone in Trump’s campaign made contact with Russians. Their criticism deepened after Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in the campaign, filed court documents last month about a meeting Sessions attended in March 2016.
At the meeting, George Papadopoulos, an unpaid adviser, boasted of his Russian connections and said he could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said during that meeting,” Sessions said. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter.”
Sessions said he doesn’t recall having any further discussions about contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives after that, including a discussion that Carter Page, another Trump foreign policy adviser, has said he had with him.
Democrats made clear they doubted Sessions’ changing recollections.
“In the past month, we have also learned that the attorney general must have been very much aware of a continuing exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” said Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the committee’s top Democrat. “Under oath, knowing in advance that he would be asked about this subject, the attorney general gave answers that were, at best, incomplete.”
Republicans sought to change the topic, pressing Sessions to name another special counsel — this one to look into a litany of questions more favorable to Trump, who has dismissed the Russia inquiry as a “Democratic hit job” and said in a tweet that James Comey, the FBI director he fired, “lied and leaked and totally protected Hillary Clinton.”
In response to requests from committee Republicans, Sessions said, “I have directed senior federal prosecutors to make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any matters merit the appointment of a special counsel.”
Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio wasn’t satisfied.
“What’s it going to take to actually get a special counsel?” Jordan demanded after ticking off questions including how former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Comey handled inquiries into Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, whether the FBI paid the author of a dossier on Trump that contained salacious allegations and whether Mueller was involved in an FBI investigation of an Obama-era uranium deal.
“We will use the proper standards, and that’s all I can tell you, Mr. Jordan,” Sessions said. After Jordan suggested that it looks like opposition research documents were used by intelligence officials to obtain a surveillance warrant, Sessions replied, “I would say ‘looks like’ is not enough to appoint a special counsel.”
Conyers also asked Sessions if it would be common for the leader of a country to order the criminal justice system to retaliate against his political opponents, a reference to tweets from Trump demanding that the Justice Department open investigations.
“The Department of Justice can never be used against political opponents. That would be wrong,” Sessions said. “A president cannot improperly influence an investigation. I have not been improperly influenced and will not be improperly influenced.”
In at least one area, however, Sessions is delivering on Trump’s concerns: He said his department has ramped up probes into leaks of information and now has 27 open investigations.
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