Attorney General Jeff Sessions has insisted it was a “detestable and appalling lie” to suggest he was aware of or took part in any collusion between Russia and the election campaign that sent Donald Trump to the White House last year.
Mr Sessions – a close adviser to Mr Trump during his presidential campaign – faced more than two hours of tough questioning in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he vowed to defend his honour..
“Let me state this clearly, colleagues: I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States,” Mr Sessions said. “Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign."
“The suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government, to hurt this country, which I have served with honour for 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie,” Mr Sessions added.
Mr Sessions was forthright in the answers he gave over the allegations of collusion, having recused himself back in March from the Justice Department probe into Russian meddling into the election after media reports over two previously undisclosed meetings with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador.
Ahead of the hearing there had been suggestions that Mr Sessions might have had a third, unreported encounter with Mr Kislyak in April 2016, at Washington's Mayflower Hotel, where candidate Trump was giving his first major foreign policy speech.
Mr Sessions was adamant that he did not have a private meeting with Mr Kislyak at that event. He did allow for the possibility that he encountered him in a reception that he said was attended by a couple dozen people, though he said he had no specific recollection of that.
The Attorney General testified that he recused himself from the current Russia investigation only because of a regulation that required it because of his involvement in the Trump campaign.
“Many have suggested that my recusal is because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself, that I may have done something wrong,” Mr Sessions added. That was not so, he said.
And while he had recused himself from the Russia probe, Sessions insisted, “I did not recuse myself from defending my honour against scurrilous and false allegations.”
The statements came less than a week after the former FBI Director James Comey testified before the same committee. Mr Comey said then, that he had asked Mr Sessions to make sure that he was not left alone in a room with the President, because he was concerned that the conversations might breach in protocol from usual relations between the executive branch and the FBI. Mr Sessions confirmed that they had discussed the proper protocols.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon aggressively asked Mr Sessions about suggestions arising from Mr Comey's testimony that there was something “problematic” about his recusal.
Mr Wyden asked Mr Sessions what problematic issues existed.
“Why don't you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden, there are none,” Mr Sessions insisted, his voice rising. “This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don't appreciate it.”
Mr Sessions defended his role in the firing of Mr Comey, saying that he still retained the ability as the Attorney General to oversee FBI leadership even though he had recused himself from investigations into alleged Russian collusion.
Many people cried foul when Mr Comey was fired last month, saying that the President’s decision constituted an obstruction of justice. Mr Trump later confirmed that the Russia investigation played a part in his decision to remove Mr Comey.
Mr Sessions told the Senate that he couldn't confirm or deny any private conversations that he had with the President about Mr Comey's firing, but did not say he was doing so because of executive privilege. Similarly, he did not answer whether Mr Trump had expressed concern to Mr Sessions about the decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Mr Sessions previously offered to resign because of tensions with Mr Trump over his recusal decision.
Executive privilege is a power that can be claimed by a president or senior executive branch officials to withhold information from Congress or the courts to protect the executive branch decision-making process. Democrats on the committee noted that Mr Sessions was, legally speaking, free to discuss non-classified conversations with the President.
"I just don't understand your legal basis for your refusal to answer", Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, said.
“It is my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the President when he has not had a full opportunity to review the questions and to make a decision on whether or not to approve such an answer,” Mr Sessions answered.
Democrats were quick to use Mr Sessions responses to suggest he was avoiding giving complete answers.
Mr Wyden told Mr Sessions, “I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don't want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged.”
“I am not stonewalling,” Mr Sessions replied.
Senator Martin Heinrich went further: “You raised your right hand here today and said you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth ... Now you're not answering questions. You're impeding this investigation.”
Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, defended Mr Sessions' decision not to discuss his private conversations with the President. Mr Lankford said that certain conversations with the President should remain private, and that there is a lengthy history of past attorneys doing just this.
Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, pushed Mr Sessions more broadly on his repeated use of the phrase "to the best of my recollection", and asked if he had prepared for his testimony by checking written documents about his interactions with people during the 2016. Mr Sessions indicated that he had a lot of contacts during the campaign, that the campaign was fast-moving, and said he hadn't taken detailed notes for each meeting. When asked if he had met with Russian businessmen or Russian nationals during the 2016 Republican National Convention, Mr Sessions said that he did not think he had. He hedged by saying that there were a lot of people at the convention.
In another important moment of Mr Sessions' testimony, Arizona Senator John McCain used much of his time to point out that Mr Sessions' interest in Russian relations is a relatively new development. Before the 2016 campaign, Mr McCain said, Mr Sessions did not focus on Russia relations while serving in the Senate. But, after joining the Trump campaign, Mr McCain said, the future Attorney General of the US took a greater and greater interest in the subject.
The controversy that resulted from the removal of the FBI chief ultimately led Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to install former FBI Director Robert Mueller to head up an special counsel investigating the Russia’s 2016 meddling.
Since then, some reports have indicated Mr Trump has been considering firing Mr Mueller from his position as special prosecutor, or counsel.
Mr Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he did not think it would be appropriate for him to remove Mr Mueller, and that he has confidence in him. The attorney general refused to discuss his thoughts on Mr Trump firing Mr Mueller.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies