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Sessions spars with Dems at heated oversight hearing

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsConservatives fume over format of upcoming Rosenstein interview Support for legal marijuana hits all-time high: Gallup Beto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' MORE tangled with Democrats Wednesday over his immigration policies, his involvement in the firing of FBI director James Comey and whether he’s being looked at in the special counsel’s investigation of Russian election interference.

The oversight hearing for the Department of Justice marked the first time Sessions has appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee since taking office in February. 

Sessions said he didn’t recall being asked to provide an interview with the special counsel. Later, during Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) line of questioning, Sessions said his staff had passed him a note affirming he has not been asked for an interview at this point.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP plays hardball in race to confirm Trump's court picks Trump officials ratchet up drug pricing fight Dems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October MORE (R-Iowa) noted that members had complained the hearing had not happened sooner, but said he wanted to give Sessions time to hire his staff.

With Sessions finally in the hot seat, Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinFarm bill negotiators should take advantage of the moment The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump says he is cutting foreign aid over caravan | Lawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince | DNC chair downplays 'blue wave' talk The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Early ballots pouring in with 15 days to the midterms MORE (D-Ill.) jumped at the chance to hammer him on his decision to pull federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities such as Chicago that are refusing to comply with federal immigration officials.    

Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenElection Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout Dem holds single-digit lead in race to replace Franken GOP lawmaker once belittled sexual harassment: 'How traumatizing was it?' MORE (D-Minn.), meanwhile, went head-to-head with Sessions over whether he willingly misled the committee during his confirmation hearing when he claimed he had never met or communicated with Russian officials during the campaign. Media reports following that hearing revealed that Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while he was a campaign surrogate for Trump.  

"First it was 'I did not have communications with Russians,' which is not true," Franken said Wednesday. "Then it was 'I never met with any Russians to discuss any political campaign,' which may or may not be true. Now it's, 'I did not discuss interference in the campaign,' which further narrows your initial blanket denial of meeting with the Russians ... What, in your view, constitutes issues of the campaign?" 

Sessions fired back.

“Let me just say this without hesitation that I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country," he said.

"I want to say that first. That's been the suggestion that you've raised and others, that somehow we had conversations that were improper." 

When Franken tried to interject, Sessions cut him off.

"No. No. No. You had a long time, Sen. Franken. I would like to respond," he said. 

Sessions said he responded to Franken's questions during his confirmation hearing in good faith.

Grassley was ultimately forced to step in when the two started squabbling over how much time they were given to ask and respond to questions. 

"He took more than three minutes," Franken said in protest. 

"Well I didn't take as much time as Sen. Franken took," Sessions fired back. 

"Hey! Let me just deal with Sen. Franken," Grassley said. 

Republicans on the committee, meanwhile, commended Sessions for a job well done.

“You have a tough job to do at the Department of Justice after eight years of mismanagement, where I think the American people lost confidence in the department’s ability to do things in a nonpolitical fashion,” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke debate showdown MORE (R-Texas) said. 

“I know you are the man to help restore the reputation of the department … Keep up the good work.”

Here are some other highlights from the hearing.

Executive privilege 

Several Democrats expressed frustration with Sessions’s refusal to answer questions about his private conversations with President Trump over the firing of FBI director James Comey.

Sessions said it is established that the president is entitled to have private conversations with his Cabinet officials. He said he couldn’t waive the President’s right to executive privilege. 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Dems ask Trump to disclose financial ties to Saudi Arabia Democrats won’t let Kavanaugh debate die Senate poised to confirm Kavanaugh after bitter fight MORE (D-R.I.) pushed Sessions on that claim. Reading from an order on executive privilege signed by Ronald Reagan, Whitehouse said the attorney general has the authority to determine on his own that executive privilege shall not be invoked.

"Well, the attorney general does not have the power to invoke it, period. Only the president can," Sessions said. 

But Whitehouse said the attorney general has the power to allow questions to be answered and documents released.

"You can make that determination under paragraph three, correct?"

"I'm not sure about that," Sessions said. "I don't think so." 

"OK, I'm reading aloud," Whitehouse quipped.

LGBTQ rights

Sessions was repeatedly pressed on whether the department’s Civil Rights Division will protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, following newly released agency guidance on protecting religious liberty that civil rights groups claim paves the way for discrimination against LGBTQ people. 

Sessions dodged a line of questioning from Durbin about what’s covered by the guidance. Durbin asked if a Social Security Administration employee could refuse to accept or process spousal or survival benefits paperwork for the surviving spouse of a same-sex couple.

“That’s something I never thought would arise,” Sessions said. “I would have to give you a written answer, if you don’t mind.”  

“Could a federal contractor refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people, including in emergencies, without risk of losing federal contracts?” Durbin asked.  

Sessions said he wasn’t sure that was covered by the guidance, but would look into it.  

Prosecuting journalists

Sessions refused to make a “blanket commitment” against jailing journalists when Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDem holds single-digit lead in race to replace Franken Is there a difference between good and bad online election targeting? Election Countdown: Minnesota Dems worry Ellison allegations could cost them key race | Dems struggle to mobilize Latino voters | Takeaways from Tennessee Senate debate | Poll puts Cruz up 9 in Texas MORE (D-Minn.) asked if he could pledge not to put reporters in jail for doing their job. 

“Well, I don’t know that I can make a blanket commitment to that effect. But I will say this, we have not taken any aggressive action against the media at this point,” Sessions said. 

“But we have matters that involve the most serious national security issues that put our country at risk and we will utilize the authorities that we have legally and constitutionally if we have to.”

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that Trump repeatedly asked Comey to consider jailing reporters who publish leaked classified information.

Mallory Shelbourne contributed to this report.