Ses­sions’ heated Rus­sia tes­ti­mony

House tes­ti­mony gets testy over ques­tions about Rus­sia con­tacts.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Joseph Tan­fani and Cath­leen Decker joseph.tan­fani @la­times.com cath­leen.decker @la­times.com

The at­tor­ney gen­eral an­grily de­nies that he de­lib­er­ately mis­led or lied to Congress about the Trump cam­paign’s mul­ti­ple con­tacts with Rus­sia dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race.

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions re­peat­edly de­nied Tues­day that he de­lib­er­ately mis­led or lied to Congress about the Trump cam­paign’s mul­ti­ple con­tacts with Rus­sia, say­ing he for­got that two aides told him about their meet­ings with Rus­sian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials dur­ing the 2016 race.

In an of­ten-con­tentious House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing, Ses­sions sparred for more than five hours with Democrats, who faulted him for chang­ing his story each time he has tes­ti­fied un­der oath be­fore Congress, and some Repub­li­cans, who pushed him to ap­point a sec­ond spe­cial coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Ses­sions grew vis­i­bly an­gry at times, in­sist­ing again and again that he “al­ways told the truth” as he re­called it, even as he con­firmed for the first time that an aide of­fered to help ar­range a meet­ing be­tween Trump and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Ses­sions said he “pushed back” against the of­fer.

“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,” he said.

“But I will not ac­cept and re­ject ac­cu­sa­tions that I have ever lied,” he added. “That is a lie.”

The hear­ing was the lat­est sign of how last year’s bit­ter pres­i­den­tial cam­paign has yet to re­cede. Harsh ques­tions about the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee’s pur­ported mis­deeds col­lided with na­tional se­cu­rity con­cerns about whether Pres­i­dent Trump’s cur­rent or for­mer aides helped Rus­sia med­dle in an Amer­i­can elec­tion — the fo­cus of a spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor Robert S. Mueller III.

Ses­sions held firm against Repub­li­cans who pressed him to swiftly ap­point an­other spe­cial coun­sel to fo­cus on Clin­ton.

Se­nior pros­e­cu­tors at the Jus­tice De­part­ment were re­view­ing the record and it would “be done with­out po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence,” he said.

Af­ter Rep. Jim Jor­dan (R-Ohio) laid out a long list of al­le­ga­tions that he said in­di­cated wrong­do­ing, Ses­sions re­sponded sharply. “I would say ‘looks like’ is not enough ba­sis to ap­point a spe­cial coun­sel,” he said.

Rep. John Cony­ers Jr. of Michi­gan, the House com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, said the al­le­ga­tions against Clin­ton — which chiefly in­volve her use of a pri­vate email server as sec­re­tary of State, fundrais­ing for the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion, and an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion de­ci­sion in 2010 to ap­prove sales of ura­nium to a Rus­sian com­pany — have been “care­fully ex­am­ined and com­pletely de­bunked.” He added that the threat of jail­ing po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents af­ter an elec­tion is some­thing that would hap­pen in “a ba­nana re­pub­lic.”

The of­ten testy backand-forth on Rus­sia largely echoed Ses­sions’ three pre­vi­ous ap­pear­ances on Capi­tol Hill this year, cre­at­ing more heat than light as law­mak­ers con­fronted Ses­sions with his pre­vi­ous state­ments and other ev­i­dence that con­tra­dicted his claims, and the at­tor­ney gen­eral re­sponded dozens of times that he did not re­call.

“I have been asked to re­mem­ber de­tails from a year ago, such as who I saw on what day, in what meet­ing, and who said what when,” he said.

He blamed his faulty mem­ory on the po­lit­i­cal and or­ga­ni­za­tional mael­strom of Trump’s in­sur­gent pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. The fourterm se­na­tor from Alabama joined Trump’s side early on and be­came his top for­eign pol­icy ad­vi­sor.

“It was a bril­liant cam­paign in many ways,” he said. “But it was a form of chaos every day from Day One. We trav­eled all the time, some­times to sev­eral places in one day. Sleep was in short sup­ply.”

Ses­sions re­cused him­self from over­see­ing Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion in March be­cause of his role as Trump’s cam­paign ad­vi­sor — and he said in Jan­uary that he shouldn’t su­per­vise a Clin­ton in­ves­ti­ga­tion for the same rea­son.

In the House hear­ing, he had to again re­vise his an­swers about his own meet­ings with Rus­sia’s then-am­bas­sador in Washington, as well as what he knew about other cam­paign aides’ meet­ings with Rus­sians in Lon­don and Moscow.

Dur­ing his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in Jan­uary, Ses­sions de­nied that he had met any Rus­sians dur­ing the cam­paign.

It later emerged that he had met three times with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador, in­clud­ing once in his Se­nate of­fice for about 50 min­utes to dis­cuss Ukraine and other is­sues.

He said he stood by his ini­tial de­nial be­cause he thought he was be­ing asked about im­proper con­tacts, and that his meet­ings with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador were not im­proper.

Last month, Ses­sions told an­other Se­nate hear­ing that he was not aware of any cam­paign aides who might have met with Rus­sian of­fi­cials, re­peat­ing a claim he had pre­vi­ously made to Congress.

On Oct. 30, how­ever, court pa­pers in the crim­i­nal case against Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, a cam­paign for­eign pol­icy aide, said that he bragged about his Rus­sian con­nec­tions at a meet­ing with Trump, Ses­sions and other aides at the Trump Ho­tel in Washington.

Ac­cord­ing to the court doc­u­ments, Pa­padopou­los of­fered to help set up a meet­ing be­tween Trump and Putin — and that Ses­sions quickly shut down the dis­cus­sion.

“I pushed back, I would say it that way,” Ses­sions said Tues­day, say­ing he only re­mem­bered the in­ci­dent af­ter read­ing news re­ports about Pa­padopou­los.

“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,” he said.

An­other cam­paign aide, Carter Page, told the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee this month that he had told Ses­sions af­ter a Capi­tol Hill din­ner of his plans to visit Moscow. Ses­sions said Tues­day that he didn’t re­mem­ber Page in­form­ing him, but did not dis­pute that he had — and that it did not es­tab­lish wrong­do­ing.

“Am I sup­posed to stop him from tak­ing a trip?” Ses­sions asked. Page told the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee that he had a pri­vate dis­cus­sion with one of Rus­sia’s deputy prime min­is­ters and sev­eral law­mak­ers while he was in Moscow.

Rep. Ted Deutch (DFla.) re­peat­edly asked Ses­sions whether Trump had the au­thor­ity to par­don any­one po­ten­tially caught up in the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, in­clud­ing mem­bers of the pres­i­dent’s fam­ily, for­mer cam­paign aides and cur­rent White House ad­vi­sors.

“I be­lieve the pres­i­dent has the power to par­don, no doubt about that,” Ses­sions said. Pressed to ex­plain, he added, “The at­tor­ney gen­eral should not be giv­ing le­gal opin­ions from the seat of his britches.”

So far, Trump’s for­mer cam­paign man­ager, Paul Manafort, and his top deputy have been charged with fraud, con­spir­acy and money laun­der­ing. A third cam­paign aide, Pa­padopou­los, has pleaded guilty to ly­ing to the FBI. Other in­dict­ments are ex­pected.

Though the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion dom­i­nated the hear­ing, Ses­sions also faced ques­tions about other con­tro­ver­sies at the Jus­tice De­part­ment.

He de­fended voter iden­ti­fi­ca­tion laws and tough new sen­tenc­ing poli­cies that some say have been wielded far more harshly against African Amer­i­cans ac­cused of drug of­fenses.

Carolyn Kaster Associated Press

ATTY. GEN. JEFF SES­SIONS was pressed by Repub­li­can law­mak­ers to swiftly ap­point a spe­cial coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate Hil­lary Clin­ton. He said a Jus­tice De­part­ment de­ci­sion on the mat­ter would be made “with­out po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence.”

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