Sessions denies lying on Russia
He testifies he forgot about Trump aide’s mention of Putin
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that he has “always told the truth” in describing his knowledge of the president’s campaign contacts with Russians, although he acknowledged that he now recalls an interaction with a lower-level adviser to Donald Trump who said he told Sessions about contacts who could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When asked previously about whether he thought that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians, Sessions said, “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”
Now, speaking before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he recalled a March 2016 meeting with George Papadopoulos, who served on a campaign foreign policy advisory council that Sessions, then an Alabama senator, led. Papadopoulos, in pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents, said he told Trump and other campaign officials, including Sessions, that he had contacts who could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.
“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 at 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, 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, 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.”
Sessions clarified later that he recalled Papadopoulos making “some comment” about a Trump-Putin meeting, and he “pushed back.”
“I remember the pushback,” Sessions said. “I remember that he suggested an ability to negotiate with Russians or others, and I thought he had no ability, or it would not be appropriate for him to do so.”
Democrats had vowed to press Sessions about his and other Trump campaign aides’ dealings with Russians leading up to the 2016 election, and throughout the hearing, they made good on that promise.
In his opening statement, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., went through Sessions’ public statements on Russia-related matters, highlighting instances in which what Sessions said did not comport with other evidence.
“I hope the attorney general can provide some clarification on this problem in his remarks today,” Conyers said.
In recent weeks, unsealed court documents called into question the attorney general’s previous testimony about his interactions with Russians and his knowledge of others’ interactions, when he was an official with the Trump campaign.
Testimony before Congress has proved to be something of a thorn in Sessions’ side. At his confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Sessions said he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the campaign. When The Washington Post later revealed that he had twice spoken with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, he revised his account, saying he had no meetings with Russians “to discuss issues of the campaign.”
The Post later reported that Russia’s U.S. ambassador told his superiors that he and Sessions discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow. And at an October appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions seemed to shift his position again.
That time, he said he conducted no “improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country,” although he acknowledged that it was possible in one of his conversations that “some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were.”
“I certainly didn’t mean I hadn’t met a Russian in my life,” Sessions said at one point during Tuesday’s hearing.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., pressed Sessions on his shifting memories, noting that he had previously criticized Hillary Rodham Clinton for her lack of recall during an FBI interview and said intentionally forgetting might be criminal.
“Do you still believe that the intentional failure to remember can constitute a criminal act?” Jeffries asked.
“If it’s an act to deceive, yes,” Sessions responded.
SESSIONS DENIES LYING
In addition to the meeting with Papadopoulos, Trump campaign adviser Carter Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee recently that he told Sessions of his plans to travel to Moscow.
Page has said the interaction was brief and forgettable, and that his trip was unconnected to his campaign work.
Sessions insisted Tuesday that he did not recall that conversation with 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,” Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee. “But I will not accept, and reject, accusations that I have ever lied. That is a lie.”
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,” Sessions said. “We traveled sometimes 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 on the committee, buoyed by the announcement a day earlier that the Justice Department might be open to a new special counsel to investigate an Obamaera business transaction that Trump has railed against, repeatedly challenged the underpinnings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Democrats focused their questioning on Sessions’ evolving explanations about how much he knew of communications during the campaign between Trump associates and Russian government intermediaries.
On Monday, the Justice Department said Sessions had directed federal prosecutors to look into whether a special counsel might be merited to investigate allegations that the Clinton Foundation benefited from a uranium transaction involving a Russia-backed company during the Obama administration.
On Tuesday, Sessions said that any such review would be done without regard to political considerations. “A president cannot improperly influence an investigation,” Sessions said in response to questions from Conyers.
Sessions also revealed Tuesday that the Justice Department has 27 open leak investigations, some that started before Trump took office, compared with nine such inquiries in the latter years of President Barack Obama’s administration. He has vowed to crack down on disclosures of sensitive government information.
The hearing is the first time Sessions testified before the House Judiciary Committee.
“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,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “But I will not accept, and reject, accusations that I have ever lied. That is a lie.”