Sessions steps into Russia crossfire

Sessions steps into Russia crossfire
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Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE will face a grilling Tuesday on Capitol Hill over contacts with Russian officials and his role in President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Comey thrust Sessions back into the spotlight of the roiling Russia controversy with his incendiary appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week — the same panel that will interrogate the attorney general.

The ex-FBI director said federal law enforcement had expected Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia, strongly suggesting he knew more than has been publicly revealed about Sessions’s contacts with Moscow officials.

The Justice Department has already contradicted Comey on several key points, laying the stage for some tense exchanges on Tuesday — and signaling that Sessions has a different story to tell from Comey’s.


“The Attorney General has requested that this hearing be public,” a Justice spokesperson said in a statement Monday. “He believes it is important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him and looks forward to answering the committee’s questions tomorrow.”

The stakes are high for Sessions, a Trump Cabinet member who has been in hot water with the president.

His recusal from the probe into Russian election interference in March reportedly incensed Trump, who wanted his close ally in charge of the matter at Justice. In a public rebuke of Sessions, Trump also called out the Department of Justice over its handling of his executive order blocking travelers from several predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States.

Sessions is said to have offered to resign over the strain.

Democrats will be swift to question Sessions on why he was involved in Comey’s firing, which Trump linked to the FBI’s investigation of Russia, given his own recusal from that probe.

In its initial explanation of Comey’s firing, the White House said that Trump accepted a recommendation from Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

“Recommending Director Comey’s firing would seem to be a violation of his recusal, and Attorney General Sessions needs to answer for that,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerManchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Monday.

Comey, pressed by Intelligence Committee members last week, left his old boss out to dry on the topic.

“That’s a question I can’t answer,” the former director said. “I think it’s a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know, and so I don’t have an answer for the question.”

Sessions stepped back from the federal probe in March — two months before Comey’s firing — after reports emerged that showed he had not informed Congress of two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The Justice Department has insisted that Sessions has abided by the scope of his recusal.

Comey also suggested that there may have been more interactions between Sessions and Russian officials, telling the panel that months before his recusal, the bureau was aware of facts that would make the attorney general’s involvement in the probe “problematic.” He later reportedly told lawmakers behind closed doors that Russian-to-Russian intercepts suggested that a third meeting between Sessions and Kislyak might have taken place.

Sessions has, at this point, disclosed two contacts with Kislyak before the presidential election, neither of which he revealed during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. The Justice Department has said that Sessions held the meetings in his capacity as a senator.

The department has repeatedly and vociferously denied that there was a third meeting, which press reports suggest could have occurred at a Russia-friendly foreign policy address given by Trump at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016.

Both men were in attendance — but it’s possible that Kislyak might have been exaggerating his connection to Sessions to his superiors in Moscow, sources familiar with the intercepts told CNN.

In yet another damning moment from Comey’s testimony, the former director said that the attorney general was silent when he “implored” him to prevent one-on-one conversations with the president, reporting that he told Sessions that such interactions were “inappropriate and should never happen.”

“I have a recollection of him just kind of looking at me,” Comey said of Sessions last week. “His body language gave me the sense like, ‘What am I going to do?’ … He didn’t say anything.”

But the Justice Department, in a statement issued after the testimony, described the encounter quite differently.

“The Attorney General was not silent,” according to the department. “He responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.”

Sessions is the highest-ranking official yet to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

For a time, it was unclear whether the testimony would take place in the public view or behind closed doors.

Sessions was scheduled to testify before two House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees this week. But after lawmakers indicated that they planned to use the opportunity to question Sessions on Russia and Comey’s dismissal, he canceled those appearances and said he would testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee instead.

“In light of reports regarding Mr. Comey’s recent testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it is important that I have an opportunity to address these matters in the appropriate forum,” Sessions wrote to lawmakers on Saturday.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee is the most appropriate forum for such matters, as it has been conducting an investigation and has access to relevant, classified information.”

Aides initially told reporters that the hearing would likely be closed, reportedly raising concerns among some committee members that Sessions was trying to avoid testifying publicly.

The Justice Department issued a statement saying that Sessions had requested the panel be open just minutes before the committee announced it.