Sessions denies lying to Congress about Russia contacts

Sessions denies lying to Congress about Russia contacts
© Camille Fine

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE on Tuesday denied that he lied under oath about contacts with Russia even as he acknowledged his interactions with a low-level Trump campaign adviser who offered to broker a meeting with Moscow.

During five-and-a-half hours of testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions faced repeated questions about a meeting that included the former Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, who is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Session acknowledged that he participated in the meeting with Papadopoulos and other Trump campaign officials last year. 

“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said during that meeting,” Sessions said. “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.” 

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Court documents unsealed by Mueller at the end of October revealed that Papadopoulos, a campaign volunteer, pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russia-connected individuals during the campaign. 

Documents released by Mueller showed that Papadopoulos sought for several months to set up a meeting between the Trump campaign and Moscow, helped by an intermediary identified in the indictment as a professor in London. 

Sessions walked a fine line in his testimony, simultaneously insisting that his recollection of a meeting with Papadopoulos was foggy while insisting that he “pushed back” on any possible meeting with Russia.

The attorney general also refused to challenge former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page’s account of a June 2016 conversation during which he says he informed Sessions of an impending trip to Moscow. At the same time, Sessions insisted he did not recall the interaction, which Page recounted to House Intelligence Committee members earlier this month.

The developments fueled charges from Democrats that Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing when he said he had no knowledge of contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

“That is exactly the opposite answer you gave under oath to the U.S. Senate,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “Either you’re lying to the U.S. Senate or you’re lying to the U.S. House of Representatives.” 

Sessions was defiant.

“My story has never changed,” Sessions said. “I have always told the truth.” 

Tuesday’s testimony is likely to generate further scrutiny of the attorney general.

In January, Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee he was unaware of interactions between Trump campaign surrogates and Russian government “intermediaries” and that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” 

Later, it surfaced that Sessions met twice with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak — once at the Republican National Convention in July 2016 and again in his Senate office that September. Sessions is also alleged to have met with Kislyak a third time in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

The developments resulted in Sessions recusing himself from all Russia-related investigations, including the one that Mueller is now conducting as special counsel.

On Tuesday, Sessions continued to defend his statements during his confirmation hearing as truthful, explaining that he was specifically addressing a news report cited by Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenDemocrats turn on Al Franken Schumer called, met with Franken and told him to resign Overnight Finance: Trump says shutdown 'could happen' | Ryan, conservatives inch closer to spending deal | Senate approves motion to go to tax conference | Ryan promises 'entitlement reform' in 2018 MORE (D-Minn.) about continuing contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. 

“My focus was on responding to the concern that I, as a surrogate, was participating in a continuing series of meetings with intermediaries for the Russian government,” Sessions said. “I certainly didn’t mean I had never met a Russian in the history of my life.”

“My response was, according to the way I heard the question, as honest as I could give it at the time,” Sessions said later. 

Democrats said Sessions was simply shifting his story.

“It’s difficult to take your assurances under oath when you seem to change your testimony each time new evidence emerges,” said Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalThe nearly 60 Dems who voted for impeachment Conyers saga brings Dem tensions to a boil Democrat: Pelosi ‘ceded the moral high ground’ on sexual harassment MORE (D-Wash.).

Republicans on the committee at times tried to deflect from the Russia questioning by pressing Sessions on the possibility of appointing a second special counsel to investigate matters related to former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE.  

The hearing took place just weeks after the special counsel’s office revealed Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, as well as a slew of financial-related charges against former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Richard Gates.

Trump and his associates have described Papadopoulos's role in the campaign as minimal. 

Sessions said Tuesday that he has not consulted with Mueller or anyone at the FBI about his interactions with Papadopoulos.