(WASHINGTON) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied suggestions Tuesday that he misled Congress in previous appearances before Senate committees in which he was asked about Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials.
Questions about the attorney general’s prior answers to Congress came during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers asked about the latest developments in the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election, including one Trump campaign adviser’s guilty plea to misleading investigators.
The questions focused on campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos’ attempts to coordinate a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his presence at a March 2016 meeting also attended by Sessions. The attorney general’s response drew scrutiny from Democrats who believed that Sessions may have known more than he previously disclosed.
Sessions said he now recalled the meeting, following recent news reports on the matter, but that he “always told the truth” in appearances on Capitol Hill. He additionally added that he “wanted to make clear to [Papadopoulos] that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government.”
“But I did not recall this event, which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago,” he said.
2:52 p.m.: Steps to mitigate interference in future elections
After telling the Senate Judiciary Committee a month ago that the U.S. was not prepared to prevent future interference in U.S. elections, Sessions admitted he has “not followed through to see where we are on that.”
“I will personally take action to do so,” he said. “A lot of things have been happening. We are working on a lot of great agenda items. But this one is important and I acknowledge that. And I should be able to give you better information today than I am.”
2:41 p.m.: “The president speaks his mind as he chooses”
Sessions took no responsibility for Trump’s opinions when asked by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., about the president’s statement last week that certain members of the intelligence community were “political hacks.”
“The president speaks his mind as he chooses,” Sessions said, adding that he “respect[s] and value[s] [the] intelligence community.”
During earlier questioning, Sessions gave a similar answer when Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. inquired about whether the president should make public comments that could influence ongoing investigations.
“The president speaks his mind,” he said.
1:23 p.m.: “I’m not a fan of Wikileaks,” says Sessions
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. ended his line of questioning by asking for the attorney general’s opinion of WikiLeaks, the website founded by Julian Assange which the U.S. intelligence community has said was behind leaks of sensitive information and, during last year’s election, emails purportedly belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton presidential campaign officials.
“The CIA said that WikiLeaks is a hostile intelligence service. Candidate Trump said, ‘I love WikiLeaks,'” Swalwell said, referring to comments made by Trump on the campaign trail after the Clinton-related leaks began.
“Do you love WikiLeaks, Mr. attorney general?” the congressman asked.
“I’m not a fan of WikiLeaks,” Sessions said.
Sessions did not provide his opinion when asked if it was appropriate for Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr. to have communicated with a Twitter account belonging to the organization.
12:55 p.m.: Sessions faces questions about his memory of events
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., referring to transcripts of Sessions’ previous testimony on Capitol Hill, noted that the attorney general said “I don’t recall” upwards of 20 times in three prior appearances before congressional committees.
Jeffries went on to remind Sessions of his vote to remove President Bill Clinton from office over allegations of perjury, and his prosecution, while a U.S. attorney, of a police officer who lied during a deposition before later correcting himself.
Sessions described the apparent comparison to his previous testimony and insinuation that he had lied as “not fair.”
Earlier in the day, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, also called attention to Sessions’ non-answers after he repeatedly said, “I do not recall” in response to questions.
“I cannot imagine your memory failing so much,” said Jackson Lee.
12:45 p.m.: Rep. Richmond grills Sessions of African-American staff, U.S. attorneys
Sessions admitted that he has yet to hire an African-American to be a part of his senior staff at the Justice Department, as Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., expressed his desire that the department not take steps backwards when it comes to upholding the civil rights of minorities.
Richmond previously testified in January in opposition to Sessions’ nomination during his confirmation hearing.
11:40 a.m.: Sessions responds to request for additional special counsel
After Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ran through a timeline of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the related actions of former FBI Director James Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Sessions explained that the matter did not automatically warrant the use of a special counsel as Jordan suggested was necessary.
“It would take a factual basis that meets the standards of the appointment of a special counsel,” Sessions said, an answer that did not quell Jordan’s concerns.
“You can have your idea but sometimes we have to study what the facts are and to evaluate whether it… meets the standard required for a special counsel,” Sessions continued.
11:17 a.m.: “I have no reason to doubt” Moore accusers: Sessions
Though he said he believes he should not be involved in the campaign for his former U.S. Senate seat representing Alabama, Sessions said he has “no reason to doubt” the women accusing Republican candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct.
Moore is accused of pursuing relationships with teenage girls in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including attempting to engage in sexual activity with one girl as young as 14.
Jackson Lee asked Sessions whether he would introduce a Justice Department investigation into the alleged actions should Moore win election to the senate.
“We will do our duty,” Sessions said.
11:06 a.m.: Sessions doesn’t recall discussing Russia policies, meetings with Flynn
In response to questions from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Sessions said he was not present when the Republican party’s platform committee met at the Republican National Convention last year, during which changes were made to the party’s foreign policy platform with regard to Russia.
He further said that he did not recall discussing policies related to Russia with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and denied awareness of a reported offer by the Turkish government to get Flynn to assist in extraditing a Turkish cleric.
10:59 a.m.: Sessions has not spoken about Papadopoulos with Mueller, FBI
10:57 a.m.: Did Sessions attempt to prevent further contact with Russians?
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. pressed Sessions on his actions after a March 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in which Papadopoulos mentioned his outreach to Russia.
Sessions maintained that he “pushed back” on the suggestion of a meeting with Russia, but did not remember how Trump reacted to the specter of such interactions with the country.
When Nadler asked if the attorney general took additional steps later during the campaign to prevent contact with Russia, Sessions said that he had no further contact with Papadopoulos.
10:54 a.m.: Sessions stands by pledge to recuse himself from Clinton matters
Nadler asked Sessions if he would re-commit to a pledge he made during his January confirmation hearing that he would recuse himself for questions involving Hillary Clinton.
“Yes,” responded Sessions.
10:45 a.m.: DOJ shouldn’t “retaliate politically against opponents”
After the committee’s ranking member Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., showed Sessions several of President Trump’s tweets suggesting the Justice Department investigate former campaign rival Hillary Clinton, the attorney general was asked whether it was “common” for a country’s leader to “retaliate against his political opponents.”
“The Department of Justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents and that would be wrong,” Sessions said. He went on to add, following additional questioning, that the president should “take great care” not to influence a pending investigation
10:35 a.m.: Trump campaign was “a form of chaos every day from day one”
In explaining why he did not remember every moment from last year’s presidential campaign, Sessions described a hectic atmosphere surrounding Trump’s bid for the White House.
“None of you had a part in the Trump campaign, and it was a brilliant campaign, I think, in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day from day one,” said Sessions. “We traveled sometimes to several places in one day, sleep was in short supply and I was still a full-time senator with a very full schedule.”
10:33 a.m.: Sessions says he “always told the truth,” but now recalls Papadopoulos meeting
In his opening statement, Sessions told the committee he has “always told the truth,” seemingly referencing his criticized appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October.
On the subject of meetings attended by campaign aides George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, Sessions said he “had no recollection” of the meetings until he saw recent news reports. He previously told the Senate Judiciary Committee he was “not aware” of attempts by the campaign to communicate with Russia.
“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at the Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting,” said Sessions. “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.”
He continued by saying he “gladly would have reported it” had he remembered it. Sessions said he “pushed back” against what he thought was an improper suggestion.
What happened before the hearing
Sessions previously appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October and Senate Intelligence Committee in June.
Two of President Donald Trump’s campaign advisers, including one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, have already been indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Mueller’s probe is separate from congressional investigations.
Sessions was grilled Tuesday about Trump campaign contacts with Russia and political interference at the Justice Department.
The questions turned a routine oversight hearing into a marquee event on Capitol Hill, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the committee, told ABC News he was “amazed that [Sessions] agreed to come before the committee.”
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee told Sessions in a letter sent last week to expect questions on Russia. The letter notes that Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents, spoke with other campaign officials about his attempts to coordinate a meeting with Russian officials.
“The meeting in question was a meeting of the Trump campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee — a working group that you chaired,” the letter said.
It goes on to note that the revelations about Papadopoulos appear to run counter to previous statements Sessions gave under oath, including his insistence during his Senate confirmation hearing that he was “not aware” of communication “activities” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
The attorney general later told Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., in October he was “not aware of anyone else” within the campaign who had communications with the Russians.
“There will be a lot about his sworn testimony to the Senate,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said of today’s hearing.
On the topic of political interference in his department’s work, Democrats want “assurances” that the Justice Department’s leaders aren’t being pressured by Trump into “protecting friends and punishing enemies.”
“What walls will he put in place to ensure that that’s not carried out?” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked.
The Democrats’ letter last week further raised the administration’s lack of “meaningful response” to “more than 40 letters” sent by committee members on issues related to everything from the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, to claims made by President Trump about the alleged “wiretapping” of Trump Tower, to the proposed suspension of White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s security clearance.
“The department’s inability to respond to these letters on a timely basis is unacceptable,” the letter said. “We expect a prompt response to every reasonable oversight request.”
Sessions may also be asked about the Justice Department’s response to the nation’s latest mass shooting. More than 20 people died after a gunman opened fire at a church about 40 miles southeast of San Antonio, Texas, Nov. 5.
Sessions last week traveled with Vice President Mike Pence to Texas to visit with victims of the shooting and first responders.
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