Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday he never lied under oath about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election and said he didn’t recall conversations with Trump campaign aides about their Russia-linked contacts until he saw news reports about them.
At his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he has "no clear recollection" of what was said at a session at which a Trump campaign associate, George Papadopoulos, proposed organizing a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, Sessions said that despite his lack of clarity on what transpired at the March 2016 meeting, he believes he rejected the suggested meeting with Putin.
"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 told the committee. "But I did not recall this which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago, and would gladly have reported it."
A short time later, Sessions was more blunt about his response to Papadopoulos’ suggestion.
“At the meeting, I pushed back,” the attorney general insisted.
Sessions has come under scrutiny about his repeated denials or seemingly shifting answers to questions about what he knew about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia, as special counsel Robert Mueller and several congressional committees probe Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.
In January, he told lawmakers he had no communications with Russians during the 2016 campaign, but it was later revealed that he met at least twice with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign. Later, he said he didn’t know of any conversations between campaign surrogates and Russians.
During his opening statement, Sessions denied that he had ever misled Congress. “I cannot accept, and reject, accusations that I have lied. That is a lie,” the attorney general said. “Let me be clear: I have at all times conducted myself honorably and in a manner consistent with the high standards and responsibilities of the Office of Attorney General, which I revere…My story has never changed. I’ve always told the truth.”
However, Sessions conceded that his memory was imperfect due to the helter-skelter nature of the Trump campaign.
“None of you had a part in the Trump campaign,” the attorney general told the lawmakers. “It was a brilliant campaign in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day…Sleep was in short supply, and I was still a full-time senator.”
While Sessions said news accounts and recollections of other participants had refreshed his recollection of the March 2016 foreign policy advisers’ meeting, he said he still did not remember whether Trump or others who attended weighed in on Papadopoulos’ proposal.
“I do not recall,” Sessions said. He also said he still did not remember a conversation with another former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, who has said he told Sessions about an upcoming trip to Russia after a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington.
Following his arrest in July by agents working for Mueller, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last month to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia-linked individuals. The former Trump adviser’s admissions in the case resulted in the new disclosures about the March meeting.
Ranking Judiciary Democrat John Conyers alleged at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing that Sessions had been less than forthright in earlier Senate appearances in which he issued broad denials about campaign dealings related to Russia.
“The attorney general must have been very much aware of a continuing exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” Conyers said. “Under oath, knowing in advance that he would be asked about this subject, the attorney general gave answers that were, at best, incomplete."
Sessions’ contentious appearance came a day after the Justice Department floated the possibility of a special counsel to investigate issues related to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration’s approval of the sale of large uranium mining firm to Russian interests in 2013.
Conyers slammed the Justice Department over a letter sent Monday on the topic, saying it raised the possibility of what he called “a new special counsel to cater to the President’s political needs.”
As video screens displayed some of Trump’s tweets calling for FBI and Justice Department investigations into “crooked Hillary Clinton,” Conyers asked Sessions about whether it was appropriate for a president to try to influence federal investigations.
“A president cannot improperly influence an investigation and I have not been improperly influenced,” the attorney general said. “The president speaks his mind. He’s bold and direct about what he said.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte claimed Sessions’ Democratic predecessors, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, had politicized the Justice Department and suggested Sessions was undoing that.
In his early testimony, Sessions also discussed other issues GOP lawmakers and Trump have been intently focused on, such as leaks of classified information. The attorney general said 27 such investigations are open, which he said was a dramatic increase from before he took office.
Sessions was also questioned about a reported investigation by Mueller into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s alleged involvement with a plot to kidnap a Turkish dissident living in Pennsylvania. Flynn’s attorneys have described the reports as false.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) asked Sessions if he had any knowledge that Flynn was offered $15 million to essentially force the exile, Fethullah Gulen, out of the U.S. and back to Turkey.
“Absolutely not,” Sessions said.
However, the attorney general confirmed he was aware of Turkey’s interest getting its hands on Gulen.
“I’m aware the Turkish government continued to press the federal government with regard to seeking the return of Mr. Gulen to Turkey,” Sessions said. “My department had a role to play in it, although I’m not at liberty to discuss it today.”