BY JOHN T. BENNETT AND NIELS LESNIEWSKI, CQ ROLL CALL
Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined to answer questions Tuesday about conversations with President Donald Trump, citing the potential that the White House could assert executive privilege — which has not yet happened.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, was among the lawmakers pressing Sessions on the grounds of the attorney general’s refusal to characterize or describe conversations with Trump. After Sessions confirmed that Trump has not asserted executive privilege, King asked for the legal basis.
“I am protecting the right of the president … to assert it if he chooses, and there may be other privileges that apply in this circumstance,” Sessions said.
Sessions also testified that he was unsure if there was any additional clarity he could provide to members of the Intelligence panel in a closed session.
But the attorney general aggressively denied any involvement to collude with Russian officials to interfere in the 2016 president election on President Donald Trump’s behalf.
“The suggestion that I participated in any collusion” that would hurt the United States, which “I have served for 35 years … is an appalling and detestable lie,” Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee in his opening statement.
Senate hallways were filled with television cameras once again Thursday afternoon, as Sessions faced off against the Intelligence panel. The hearing took place on an afternoon when members of the media were protesting potential new restrictions on access to Senate office buildings.
The temperature at the hearing seemed to rise beginning with an exchange between Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Sessions, in which the current senator accused his former colleague of “stonewalling.”
“I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don’t want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged or off-limits,” Wyden said. “We are talking about an attack on our democratic institutions and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable.”
“I am not stonewalling,” replied Sessions. “I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.”
In the same exchange, Sessions sought to refute allegations that Comey may have made to Senate Intelligence Committee.
“This is secret innuendo being leaked out there about me — and I don’t appreciate it,” Sessions said.
That followed with a moment that caused social media to erupt when Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said “you’re not answering questions. You’re impeding this investigation.”
Sessions denied meeting with the Russian ambassador following a foreign policy speech by then-candidate Trump at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel last year. And he defiantly pushed back on notions that had he and the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, might have attended the same event meant that would be proof of collusion.
“Whether I ever attended a reception where the Russian ambassador also was present was beside the point,” an emotional Sessions, contending he went to Mayflower event with no knowledge Kislyak would also be there.
The former Alabama GOP senator also defended meetings he had with Kislyak in his official Senate office: “Not one thing happened that was improper in any one of those meetings.”
Sessions assured the panel he recused himself from the FBI’s Russia probe, but not from any effort to “defend my honor against scurrilous and false accusations.”
“These false attacks, the innuendo, the leaks … will not intimidate me,” the AG said.
Sessions said he does not remember what has been reported as a meeting with Kislyak at the Mayflower following Trump’s April 2016 speech.
The AG said he opted to recuse himself after determining he met the standard of a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.
It would have “not appropriate, per se” for then-FBI Director James Comey to have told the president anything about the bureau’s Russia probe, Sessions said. Comey — or any other Justice Department official — would have had to obtain prior approval from a superior before doing so, he added.
Asked about reports that Trump is considering firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel for the Russia probe, Sessions said, “I don’t know about these reports and have no [ability] to ascertain their validity,” Sessions said. “I have confidence in Mr. Mueller,” Sessions told Warner, and he said he didn’t see a reason to remove him from the post.
Among the answers Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said he wants to hear from Sessions is what role he might have played in President Donald Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
The AG revealed he and Trump discussed, before he was confirmed, terminating Comey. They agreed, he said, that it was time for a “fresh start” at the buearu, adding concerns about his performance were never discussed with the then-FBI chief.Trump has said he was going to fire Comey no matter what, and also has acknowledged that the “Russia thing” was on his mind when he made the final termination call.
Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., told Sessions the panel wants him to “clear up those discrepancies” in regard to a reported third meeting between him and Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
Warner told Sessions the committee must learn whether Trump asked him to leave the Oval Office when he pressed Comey to drop a FBI probe of Michael Flynn — “and whether you thought it was appropriate.”
Sessions was originally scheduled to defend the Justice Department’s fiscal 2018 budget request to House and Senate appropriators this week, but told the committees in a letter late Friday that he would instead meet with Senate Intelligence.
In a letter to the subcommittee chairmen, Sessions justified the switch by saying some appropriators had made clear their intention to ask him about the Russia investigation, which the attorney general has recused himself from.
Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, appeared on behalf of the Trump administration’s DOJ budget request.
Asked by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire in that hearing if he had seen “good cause” to fire Mueller.
“No, I have not,” Rosenstein said, and he affirmed Mueller will have “full independence.”
Sessions testimony follows that of Comey before the Intelligence Committee last week. Sessions told appropriators that the Intelligence panel was the more “appropriate forum” in the wake of Comey’s testimony.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter that Sessions had provided false testimony to him and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., about contacts with Russian officials that led to his recusal from the bureau’s Russia probe.
(2) Now, twice in 2 mos., AG Sessions cancels an Approps hg in which I could Q him about his false testimony and half-hearted Russia recusal
3) My mssg to AttyGen Sessions: Approps & Judiciary have oversight of DOJ. You need to testify before both in public. You can’t run forever.
Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.