(CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday angrily denied having had any undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador or conversations with any Russian officials about the 2016 elections, calling such suggestions “appalling and detestable” lies.
Although he tried to maintain an almost folksy demeanor — early on referring to the members of the Senate intelligence committee as “colleagues” before sheepishly correcting himself and saying “well, not anymore” — Sessions grew tense and raised his voice when pressed by committee Democrats on a number of issues.
At one point, he vowed to defend his honor against any and all “scurrilous and false allegations” that he participated in or knew about any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Sessions also contradicted testimony offered by former FBI Director James Comey before the same panel last week; defended his role in Comey’s firing last month by President Donald Trump; and got into an extended, hearing-long debate with Democrats over his refusal to discuss private conversations with the president in order to preserve Trump’s right to claim executive privilege over their content at some future, unspecified date.
Sessions recused himself in March from a federal investigation into contacts between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign after acknowledging that he had met twice last year with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
But by then he was already under an ethical cloud because he had told lawmakers at his January confirmation hearing that he had not met with Russians during the campaign.
He has been dogged by questions about possible additional encounters with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak ever since.
“Many have suggested that my recusal was because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself and done something wrong, but this is the reason I recused myself,” Sessions said.
According to the attorney general, federal regulations preclude employers from participating in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person involved in … an investigation.
That includes a relationship with an elected official or candidate.
“I felt I was required to under the Department of Justice. And as a leader of the DOJ, I should comply with the rules obviously,” Sessions said.
But the subject of his recusal remains a sensitive issue for the attorney general. Later, under Democratic scrutiny, his temperature rising, he testily said, “I recused myself from any investigation into campaign for president but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations.”
Democrats are particularly interested in determining whether the men met at an April 2016 foreign policy event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
The Justice Department has said that while Sessions was there, for a speech by candidate Trump, there were no meetings or private encounters.
Sessions sought to quickly put that question to rest saying that he had no formal meeting with Kislyak at the event, and that if he had a brief, informal encounter in passing, he had no recollection of it.
Former FBI Director James Comey raised additional questions at a hearing on Thursday, saying that the FBI expected Sessions to recuse himself weeks before he actually did. But Comey declined to elaborate.
In a letter Saturday to Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Rep. John Abney Culberson, R-Texas, Sessions said that he had been scheduled to discuss the Justice Department budget before House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees but that it had become clear some members would focus their questions on the Russia investigation. Shelby chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee.
Sessions said his decision to accept the intelligence committee’s invitation to appear was due in part to Comey’s testimony. He wrote that “it is important that I have an opportunity to address these matters in the appropriate forum.”
Sessions did not come to the hearing prepared to offer a point-by-point rebuttal of Comey’s testimony. In fact, he left most of Comey said before the committee unaddressed.
The one topic he did speak to was his February conversation with Comey during which the former FBI director asked the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between him and the president.
That conversation followed a series of encounters with the president that Comey said gave him pause. During one, he said, Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
At a second, Comey has testified, the president told him he hoped the FBI director could see his way clear to letting go of the investigation of former National Security Agency advisor Michael Flynn and Flynn’s contacts with the Russians during the campaign.
Before the second of these exchanges, Trump asked Sessions to leave the room.
“I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply,” Comey said last week.
Sessions contradicted that testimony. He said he was not silent, but instead stressed to Comey the need to be careful about following appropriate policies.
“Mr. Comey had served in the Department of Justice for the better part of two decades, and I was confident that Mr. Comey understood and would abide by the Department’s well-established rules governing any communications with the White House about ongoing investigations,” the attorney general said.
“My comments encouraged him to do just that and indeed, as I understand, he did. Our Department of Justice rules on proper communication between the Department and the White House have been in place for years. Mr. Comey well knew them, I thought, and assumed correctly that he complied with them,” Sessions said.
He then revisited his March 2 recusal from the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, saying he was never briefed on any investigative details and did not access information about the investigation.
“I received only the limited information that the department’s career officials determined was necessary to inform my recusal decision,” he said. “As such, I have no knowledge about this investigation beyond what has been publicly reported, and I have taken no action with regard to any such investigation.”
He went on to stress, however, that his recusal “does not and cannot interfere with my ability to oversee the Department of Justice, including the FBI.”
With that he told the senators he did play an active role in the decision to remove Comey.
“I presented president with my concerns, and those of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, about the ongoing leadership issues at the FBI as stated in my letter recommending the removal of Mr. Comey along with the deputy attorney general’s memorandum, which have been released publicly by the White House,” Sessions said.
“It is a clear statement of my views. 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 said.
But at the same time, Sessions told the committee he never discussed concerns or performance issues with Comey,
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pressed the issue, noting that two days after Comey was let go, the president said he would have fired the FBI director regardless of the recommendation he received from Sessions and Rosenstein.
“”I’m puzzled because the decision had been made, what was the need for you to write a recommendation?” Feinstein said.
” We were asked our opinion and when we expressed it –which was consistent with the letter [firing Comey] and I felt comfortable providing that information in writing,” Sessions said.
Feinstein was not satisfied. When Sessions declined to say directly whether Comey was fired because of the Russian investigation, she asked the attorney general why wouldn’t discuss the reasons behind the firing.
The reasons Comey was let go were put in writing and those letters were released by the White House, Sessions said.
“I can’t discuss with you the nature of private conversations I may have had with the president. And I know how it’s been discussed, but those are the rules that have long been adhered to,” he said.
But that was not a hard and fast rule. Sessions later said the president laid out extensive reasons for firing Comey, all of them related to the director’s handling of the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she served as secretary of state.
The problems with the handling of that investigation “were more widespread than most people know,” he said.
Asked about Trump’s own contention that he fired Comey with the Russia probe in mind, and regardless of any recommendation from anyone else, Sessions said: “I guess I’ll just have to let his words speak for themselves. I’m not sure what was in his mind specifically.”
No matter how hard Democrats on the committee tried to pry context lose, Sessions refused to discuss his conversations with the president.
Several reacted angrily, noting that Trump had not invoked executive privilege to bar such testimony.
“Consistent with longstanding Department of Justice practice, I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect confidential communications with the president,” Sessions said more than once.
“It’s longstanding policy for the Department of Justice not to comment on conversations that the Attorney General has had with the president of the United States for confidential reasons that really are founded in the coequal branch powers of the Constitution of the US,” he said at another point.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., shot back, “You’re impeding this investigation.”
But Sessions said to offer the kind of testimony the Democrats sought would be inappropriate before Trump has “a full opportunity to review the questions and make a decision on whether or not to approve such an answer.”
Sessions said the same concern would prevent him from sitting down for a closed door session with the committee.
Sen. Angus King, D-Maine, asked whether Trump had already claimed executive privilege, to which Sessions replied he had not.
“You’ve testified that only the president can assert it,” King said. “What is the legal basis for your refusal to answer these questions?”
“I’m protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses,” Sessions said. “The president will either assert the privilege or not, or some other privilege can be asserted, but at this point I believe it’s premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligence choice about executive privilege.”