Live coverage: Sessions testifies before Senate Intelligence Committee
Attorney General Jeff Sessions comes before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon to respond to last week’s bombshell testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey.
The Justice Department has already contradicted key parts of Comey’s remarks, setting the stage for Sessions to directly refute the former FBI director’s sworn testimony.
Lawmakers are expected to press Sessions sharply on the scope of his recusal from the federal Russia investigation and a possible third meeting with the Russian ambassador.
Follow along with The Hill’s live coverage below.
Burr gavels out
Chairman Burr signaled the end to the hearing, thanking Sessions for answering several questions but signaling that the committee may pursue further “dialogue” with the attorney general.
Burr said that, while Sessions helped the committee “clear up” some issues, “There were several questions that you chose not to answer.” Vice chair Warner more sternly indicated that there were issues that still needed to be addressed.
Burr urged Sessions to engage with the White House to see if there were any questions they would feel comfortable with him answering, with regards to his privileged communications with the president.
He also noted that Sessions could provide documents substantiating his testimony, after some Democratic members had asked Sessions to provide calendars or other documentation of his meetings.
“They would be helpful to us with the purpose of sorting timelines out,” Burr said.
The hearing spanned roughly two and a half hours.
Reed suggests Clinton reasoning for Comey firing was a ‘cover story’
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) suggested that the Justice Department’s recommendation that Trump fire Comey over his handling of the Clinton email investigation was a “cover story” that Trump “quickly abandoned” when he indicated in a televised interview that the Russia probe figured into his thinking.
Sessions dodged a question about whether he felt “misled” when the president said that he considered Russia investigation when making the decision. During the same interview, Trump also said he would have fired Comey regardless of the DOJ’s recommendation.
“I’m not able to characterize that,” Sessions said. “I wouldn’t try to comment on that.”
Burr again cuts off Harris
Kamala Harris was once again cut off by Chairman Burr for not allowing a witness to answer her question.
Harris had been asking whether Sessions had asked to see any written rule giving him permission not to answer questions despite executive privilege not being invoked. Sessions would not answer, just saying he had spoken to lawyers.
Harris’s prosecutorial style has run afoul of Burr in the past. During a contentious hearing with Rod Rosenstein, she was also cut off for not allowing a witness to answer.
Sessions warns leakers
Sessions warned of the danger of intelligence leaks during questioning by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), saying that we need to restore “regular order” and prevent leaks from the intelligence community, Congress or elsewhere.
“Some of these leaks, as you well know, are extraordinarily damaging to United States security,” Sessions said, adding that some leaks are “already resulting in investigations.”
“I fear some people will find they shouldn’t have leaked,” he said.
Sessions touted the recent arrest of a government contractor in Georgia accused of leaking classified information to a media outlet.
“We have had one successful case very recently in Georgia,” Sessions said. The leak has been tied to a classified NSA report on Russian hacking efforts reported by The Intercept.
Sessions doesn’t ‘recall’ meetings between other Trump campaign associates, Russia
Sessions was grilled by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) on whether he has knowledge of meetings between a list of other Trump campaign associates and Russian officials.
To each name, Sessions said that he could not “recall” or had no knowledge about meetings between each campaign associate and Russia.
Sessions was asked about potential contacts between Russia and Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Reince Priebus, Stephen Miller, Corey Lewandowski, and Carter Page.
While he said he knew of no meetings between Page and Russians, he added, “There might be some published accounts of Mr. Page communicating with Russians, I don’t know.”
Sessions ‘protecting’ POTUS right to executive privilege
Pressed repeatedly on whether the president has asserted executive privilege to shield his conversations with Sessions prior to today’s testimony, Sessions was emphatic: No claim of executive privilege has been made.
But, he said, it was still inappropriate for him to publicly describe his conversations with the president.
“I am protecting the legal right of the president to assert it if he chooses,” Sessions said.
Sessions says he never received briefing on Russian election interference
When pressed by Sen. Angus King (I-Me.), Sessions said that it “appears” Russia tried to interfere in the presidential election–but that he never received a classified briefing on Russian active measures against the election.
“It appears so. The intelligence community appears to be united in that,” Sessions said, adding, “But … I know nothing but what I’ve read in the paper.”
When asked whether he ever received a briefing, Sessions replied, “No, I don’t believe I ever did.”
NSA director spoke to committee in closed session
NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers answered the committee’s questions in a closed setting on Monday evening, Burr said.
Rogers was criticized by lawmakers on the committee for dodging a number of questions related to the Russia investigation at a recent open hearing.
According to the Washington Post, Trump made an appeal to Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to publicly deny the existence of evidence of collusion between Trump campaign associates and Moscow, after Comey acknowledged the existence of the FBI investigation.
Neither official has publicly confirmed the report.
Burr said Tuesday that Rogers “spent almost two hours in closed session with almost the full committee” and “thoroughly answered” their questions.
Heinrich accuses Sessions of ‘obstructing this investigation’
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) sparred with Sessions over his refusing to answer questions based on “appropriateness” despite it not being a legal argument. Sessions had said President Trump had not exerted executive privilege.
“There is no appropriateness bucket. It is not a legal standard,” said Heinrich.
“I’m protecting the president’s constitutional right by not giving it away before he has a chance to review it,” said Sessions.
Heinrich compared Sessions strategy not answering questions to NSA director Mike Rogers’ and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ similar answers last week.
“You are obstructing this investigation by not answering these questions,” said Heinrich.
Wyden, Sessions clash over ‘secret innuendo’
In a furious exchange with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted Tuesday that he had “basically” recused himself from the federal probe into Russian interference in the election on the day he arrived at the Justice Department.
But Wyden — one of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s more firebrand members — was dissatisfied with that answer.
Just days before, in front of the same committee, Comey had suggested 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.”
Pressed on what those matters were, Sessions raised his voice and fired back.
“Why don’t you tell me?” he snapped. “There are none. Sen. Wyden, there are not. I can tell you for absolute certain.”
“This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me and I don’t appreciate it.”
Sessions said that he engaged with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sometime before his confirmation about Comey and the need for a “fresh start” at the FBI.
Sessions said that it was “a topic of conversation” among people who had served a longtime at the Justice Department, in response to questioning from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.).
Sessions said that people viewed Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation last fall as “pretty dramatically unusual.”
“Many people felt it was very wrong,” Sessions said, adding of Rosenstein, “We both shared a common view that a fresh start would be appropriate.”
Sessions sidestepped questions on ‘lingering’
Sessions sidestepped questions from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) about whether he lingered before leaving following a meeting with Comey, the president, and others in the Oval Office.
Comey said last week that he believed Sessions “lingered” because he felt he should not leave the FBI director alone with the president.
“I do recall being one of the last ones to leave,” Sessions said. He also would not say whether he and others were asked to leave, as was indicated by Comey’s account.
Sessions said that leaving Comey and Trump alone did not in itself seem problematic.
“It didn’t seem to me to be a major problem,” Sessions said.
According to Comey, Trump asked him privately to let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn after the exit of Sessions and other administration officials.
Sessions: Let Trump’s words on Comey firing ‘speak for himself’
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Session’s about why the Department of Justice produced a memo about the fitness of James Comey to continue heading the FBI, since the president later claimed he had already determined he would fire Comey.
“We were asked our opinion,” he explained.
Later Feinstein asked if the president’s on-air claims seemed valid.
“I’ll have to let his words speak for themself,” he said.
Sessions says Comey expressed ‘concern’ over meeting with Trump
Sessions shed light on his conversation with Comey following what the former FBI director has described as a private meeting in the Oval Office during which President Trump asked him to let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Sessions said that Comey expressed concerns with him about the private conversation but didn’t offer “any details” about what he said that he interpreted as improper.
“He was concerned about it,” Sessions said.
“I affirmed his concern that we should be following the proper guidelines of the Department of Justice and basically backed him up on his concerns,” Sessions said.
Of the meeting, Sessions confirmed that he was in the Oval Office with Comey and others and departed, leaving Comey alone with the president.
“We were there, I was standing there,” he recalled. “I did depart, I believe everyone else did depart, and director Comey was sitting in front of the president’s desk and they were talking.”
“That in itself is not problematic,” Sessions said.
Sessions did not discuss performance concerns with Comey
Warner asked whether Sessions had discussed Comey’s performance with the former director of the FBI before firing him. Comey’s performance, particularly in the Hillary Clinton email investigation, were cited as the reason behind removing Comey.
Sessions said he had not.
Mayflower meeting ‘possible’
Later in his testimony, Sessions said that it was “possible” the third meeting with Kislyak occurred, arguing that he would have “gladly reported it… if I remembered it, or if it actually occurred.”
Sessions has ‘confidence’ in Mueller
In response to questioning from vice chair Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sessions said that he had confidence in Robert Mueller, who the Justice Department has appointed as a special counsel to spearhead the federal probe into Russian election interference.
At the same time, he refused to comment on speculation that Trump might consider firing Mueller.
“I have confidence in Mr. Mueller but I’m not going to discuss any hypotheticals,” Sessions said.
He also said he has “no idea” whether Trump has confidence in Mueller.
“I have no idea,” Sessions replied. “I’ve not talked to him about it.”
Sessions: Recusal not because I thought I was a subject of the investigation
Sessions pushed back against critics he says believe he recused himself because he thought he was under investigation.
Rather, he pointed to Department of Justice regulations calling on former “principle advisors” of the subject of an investigation to step aside.
Finding out there was this conflict, he said, “I recused myself that day.”
Chairman Burr noted that this could explain former FBI director James Comey’s claim that the FBI knew he was going to recuse – he may have been aware of the rule.
Sessions says he came to Trump foreign policy address as an ‘interested person’
When asked by Burr whether he attended the April 2016 foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in his capacity as a senator or a campaign surrogate, Sessions answered that he came as an “interested person” looking to see how Trump would handle his first major speech.
“I came there as an interested person, very anxious to see how President Trump would do as his first major foreign policy address,” Sessions said. “It was an interesting time for me to observe his delivery and the message he would make.”
Sessions also denied having interactions with foreign government officials in a campaign capacity.
“No, Mr. Chairman,” Sessions told Burr. “I’ve racked my brain to make sure I can answer any of those questions correctly and I did not.”
Sessions defends answer at confirmation hearing
Sessions addressed the controversy surrounding his answers at confirmation hearings suggesting he had no contact with Russian officials – something he later corrected.
“[Senator] Al Franken asked me a sprawling question after hours of testimony that included dramatic new allegations” of continued meetings with Russians, he said, adding that his claims that he had no contact with Russian agents was in the context of those allegations.
“That was a fair and correct response for the question as I understood it,” he said.
Sessions denies meeting with Russians at Mayflower Hotel
In his opening statement, Sessions said that he has no recollection of meetings or conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. or any other Russian officials during an event at the Mayflower Hotel.
“I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials,” Sessions said.
If any such encounter occurred, he added, “I do not remember it.”
Following former FBI director Comey’s testimony last week, reports emerged that he told senators about a possible third meeting between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during a Trump campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016.
Trump delivered a foreign policy speech at the event. Sessions characterized the event as a reception he attended with members of his staff and then-candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday.
Sessions also denied meeting or having any conversations with Russians or any foreign officials “concerning any type of interference” in U.S. elections.
“I was your colleague in this body for 20 years and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country that I have served with honor for 35 years, to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie,” Sessions said.
Sessions won’t disclose conversations with Trump
Sessions kicked off his testimony by saying he would not characterize any conversations with President Trump.
“I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I have with the president,” Sessions said.
Burr says committee has interviewed over 35 people
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) kicked off the hearing laying out the questions he hoped Sessions would answer. He also said that the committee has interviewed more than 35 people in its investigation into Russian election interference, and has held 10 open hearings–five in connection with the Russia probe–since the start of the year.
Specifically, Burr said he wanted Sessions to address whether he had any meetings with Russian officials or “proxies,” his involvement with Trump’s foreign policy team during the campaign, why he recused himself from the Russia probe, and what role, if any, he played in Comey’s removal.
Burr characterized the hearing as Sessions’ “opportunity to separate fact from fiction.”
The attorney general has arrived and taken his seat.
In attendance: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and the man who now sits in Sessions’ seat in the Senate, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.).
A cavalcade of photographers takes their place around the table where Sessions will soon sit down — but the mood in the room on Tuesday afternoon is considerably less tense than just four days previous, when Comey testified.
There is still a line down the hall — spectators vying for a place — but there are a few more open seats at the tables reserved for reporters.
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