Ses­sions de­nies ly­ing about Rus­sia, pleads hazy mem­ory

The Globe and Mail (Atlantic Edition) - - NEWS - ERIC TUCKER SADIE GURMAN

U.S. At­tor­ney-Gen­eral in­sists he hasn’t been dis­hon­est and sug­gests un­fair­ness in Congress’s ques­tions

At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions on Tues­day dis­played a hazy mem­ory of the Trump cam­paign’s dis­cus­sions about and deal­ings with Rus­sians in the 2016 elec­tion, deny­ing he ever lied to Congress about those con­tacts but blam­ing the chaos of the race for fog­ging his rec­ol­lec­tions.

Dur­ing more than five hours of tes­ti­mony to Congress, Mr. Ses­sions sought to ex­plain away ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tions in his ear­lier ac­counts by cit­ing the ex­haust­ing na­ture of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s up­start but surg­ing bid for the White House. He also de­nied un­der re­peated ques­tion­ing from Democrats that he had been in­flu­enced by Mr. Trump.

But af­ter say­ing un­der oath months ago that he was un­aware of any re­la­tion­ship be­tween the cam­paign and Rus­sia, Mr. Ses­sions ac­knowl­edged for the first time that the ar­rest of a low-level cam­paign ad­viser re­minded him af­ter all of a meet­ing at which the aide, Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, pro­posed set­ting up a get-to­gether be­tween Mr. Trump and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

“Af­ter read­ing his ac­count and to the best of my rec­ol­lec­tion,” Mr. Ses­sions told the house ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee, “I be­lieve that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not au­tho­rized to rep­re­sent the cam­paign with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment or any other for­eign gov­ern­ment for that mat­ter.

“But I did not re­call this event, which oc­curred 18 months be­fore my tes­ti­mony of a few weeks ago,” he added, “and I would gladly have re­ported it had I re­mem­bered it be­cause I pushed back against his sug­ges­tion that I thought may have been im­proper.”

Mr. Pa­padopou­los was ar­rested by the Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion and pleaded guilty last month to ly­ing to au­thor­i­ties about his own for­eign con­tacts dur­ing the cam­paign. That guilty plea came in a wide-rang­ing crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by for­mer FBI di­rec­tor Robert Mueller, who, as the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s spe­cial coun­sel, is look­ing into whether the Trump cam­paign co-or­di­nated with Rus­sia to sway the out­come of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and into whether the fir­ing of James Comey as FBI di­rec­tor was an ef­fort to ob­struct jus­tice.

Dur­ing the Trump cam­paign, Mr. Ses­sions, then an Alabama se­na­tor, led a cam­paign for­eign pol­icy ad­vi­sory coun­cil on which Mr. Pa­padopolous served. The At­tor­ney-Gen­eral has strug­gled since Jan­uary to move past ques­tions about his own for­eign con­tacts and about his knowl­edge of Rus­sian out­reach ef­forts dur­ing the elec­tion ef­fort.

Each con­gres­sional hear­ing, in­clud­ing Tues­day’s, has fo­cused on Mr. Ses­sions’s own rec­ol­lec­tions, and he re­cused him­self in March from the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into elec­tion med­dling af­ter ac­knowl­edg­ing two pre­vi­ously undis­closed en­coun­ters dur­ing the cam­paign with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador to the United States.

Ques­tions for Mr. Ses­sions have only deep­ened since the guilty plea last month of Mr. Pa­padopou­los and re­cent state­ments to con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors by an­other for­eign pol­icy ad­viser, Carter Page, who has said he alerted Mr. Ses­sions last year about a trip he planned to take to Rus­sia dur­ing the cam­paign. Mr. Ses­sions in­sisted Tues­day that he did not re­call that con­ver­sa­tion with Mr. Page at all and ap­peared in­cred­u­lous at times that he could be ex­pected to re­mem­ber the de­tails of con­ver­sa­tions from more than a year ago.

“In all of my tes­ti­mony, I can only do my best to an­swer all of your ques­tions as I un­der­stand them and to the best of my mem­ory,” Mr. Ses­sions told the house ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee. “But I will not ac­cept, and re­ject, ac­cu­sa­tions that I have ever lied. That is a lie.”

Mr. Ses­sions in­sisted that his story had never changed and that he had never been dis­hon­est. But he also sug­gested to the com­mit­tee that it was un­fair to ex­pect him to re­call “who said what when” dur­ing the cam­paign.

“It was a bril­liant cam­paign, I think, in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day from day one,” Mr. Ses­sions said. “We trav­elled some times to sev­eral places in one day. Sleep was in short sup­ply and I was still a full-time se­na­tor … with a very full sched­ule.”

The over­sight hear­ing di­vided along stark par­ti­san lines.

Repub­li­cans, buoyed by the an­nounce­ment a day ear­lier that the Jus­tice De­part­ment might be open to a new spe­cial coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate an Obama-era busi­ness trans­ac­tion that Mr. Trump him­self has railed against, re­peat­edly chal­lenged the un­der­pin­nings of Mr. Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Democrats grilled him on the evolv­ing ex­pla­na­tions about how much he knew of com­mu­ni­ca­tion dur­ing the cam­paign be­tween Trump as­so­ciates and Rus­sian gov­ern­ment in­ter­me­di­aries.

ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

U.S. At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions waits for the be­gin­ning of a hear­ing be­fore the house ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee on Tues­day. He has strug­gled since Jan­uary to move past ques­tions about his for­eign con­tacts.

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