Attorney General Jeff Sessions engaged in highly contentious testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, with Democrats pressing him on his conversations with President Trump related to the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He called any suggestion that he colluded with Russians during the election an “appalling” lie. “Please, colleagues, hear me on this,” he said.
• Mr. Sessions said he would not discuss his direct conversations with Mr. Trump, saying, that “consistent with longstanding Department of Justice practice, I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect confidential communications with the president.”
• Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the committee, said Mr. Sessions’s testimony was his opportunity to “separate fact from fiction.”
• Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Mr. Burr’s Democratic counterpart, quickly challenged Mr. Sessions’s previous denial of contact with the Russians. “The fact is that you did indeed have interactions with Russian government officials during the course of the campaign,” Mr. Warner said.
Sessions rejects any suggestion of Russian collusion.
In his opening statement, Mr. Sessions said any suggestion that he participated in or was aware of any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to undermine the democratic process “is an appalling and detestable lie.”
Mr. Sessions also denied talking to any Russian official in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington at an event in April 2016, rejecting reports that he may have had an undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, at that event. He said he recalled no private conversations with any Russian officials at that reception and “if any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador, I do not remember it.”
The Huffington Post reported on March 8 that Mr. Sessions and Mr. Kislyak had attended that event, at which Mr. Trump was also present, but that it was not clear whether the two had spoken. CNN has more recently reported that there continue to be questions about whether there was such a meeting. The issue matters because Mr. Sessions testified at his confirmation hearing that he did not communicate with the Russians in 2016, but it later emerged that he had at least two contacts with Mr. Kislyak; the question is whether there was a third. (Mr. Sessions has said his answer at the hearing was accurate in context.)
Sessions refuses to talk about communications with Trump.
Mr. Sessions refused to talk about direct communications with Mr. Trump, saying, “I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I have with the president.”
Pressed by Mr. Warner, though, Mr. Sessions clarified that Mr. Trump had not invoked executive privilege — a constitutional doctrine that permits a president to shield his confidential communications with subordinates. Rather, he said it was a matter of longstanding Justice Department practices to keep those discussions secret.
“I’m not able to comment on conversations with high officials in the White House,” Mr. Sessions said, denying that he was “stonewalling.”
As the testimony unfolded, that played out in several ways. For example, at one point, Mr. Sessions refused to say whether he had discussed the F.B.I. investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election with Mr. Trump.
At another, asked by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, about the account of James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, that Mr. Trump had cleared the Oval Office after a Feb. 14 meeting — including asking Mr. Sessions to leave — Mr. Sessions said that would be a White House communication he could not comment on. But when Mr. Rubio asked if Mr. Sessions remembered seeing Mr. Comey stay behind, Mr. Sessions replied, “Yes.”
Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, criticized Mr. Sessions for refusing to answer questions about his conversations with Mr. Trump. The senator argued that since the president had not invoked executive privilege, Mr. Sessions had no legal basis for declining to provide answers, accusing him of “obstructing” the congressional investigation.
Mr. Sessions said he believed it would be inappropriate to discuss confidential communications with the president that were potentially subject to executive privilege before Mr. Trump had an opportunity to decide whether to invoke it.
“I have consulted with senior career attorneys in the department,” Mr. Sessions said. “I believe this is consistent with my duties.”
Sessions contests Comey’s account of discussion.
Mr. Sessions offered a different account of what he said when Mr. Comey approached him following a meeting on Feb. 14 in the Oval Office with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Comey recounted that after a routine counterterrorism meeting, Mr. Trump cleared the room of everyone else — including Mr. Sessions — and then made comments that Mr. Comey interpreted as an improper request to drop an investigation into Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser. Afterward, Mr. Comey said, he “implored” Mr. Sessions never to leave him alone with the president again, but Mr. Sessions did not respond.
After Mr. Comey’s testimony last week, the Justice Department released a statement contesting Mr. Comey’s account that Mr. Sessions had merely remained silent, and Mr. Sessions himself on Tuesday said directly and under oath that he did respond.
“While he did not provide me with any of the substance of his conversation with the president, Mr. Comey expressed concern about the proper communications protocol with the White House and with the president,” Mr. Sessions said. “I responded to his comment by agreeing that the F.B.I. and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.”
He added: “I was confident that Mr. Comey understood and would abide by the department’s well-established rules governing any communications with the White House about ongoing investigations. My comments encouraged him to do just that, and indeed, as I understand, he did.”
Sessions said he would not have any role in Mueller’s tenure.
Under questioning from Mr. Warner, Mr. Sessions said he would not have anything to do with any effort, should one emerge, to fire Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel, since he is recused from the Russia investigation Mr. Mueller is leading.
“I wouldn’t think that would be appropriate for me to do,” he said.
As things stand, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein is the acting attorney general for the purpose of overseeing the Russia investigation, and so oversees Mr. Mueller. Still, Mr. Sessions was involved in recommending the firing of Mr. Comey — a decision Mr. Trump said he made while thinking about the Russia investigation — despite being recused from it.
Sessions defends his recusal decision.
Mr. Sessions defended his involvement in the decision to fire Mr. Comey, explaining that his recusal did not prevent him from having a say in his department’s management decisions.
“It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render an attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations,” he said.
He argued that he recused himself not because of “any sort of wrongdoing,” but in accordance with department regulations regarding his involvement with Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
“This is the reason I recused myself,” he said, holding up a copy of the rule. “I felt I was required to under the rules of the Department of Justice.”
But Mr. Sessions made it clear that would not stop him from defending himself.
“I recused myself from any investigation into the campaign for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false accusations,” he said.
Senator defends Sessions and Trump.
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, ridiculed the idea that Mr. Sessions may have colluded with the Russian ambassador at the Mayflower reception to influence the 2016 election, and then pivoted to “the potential crimes that we know have happened.”
Mr. Cotton then listed a series of leaks. Among those he mentioned were the contents of alleged transcripts of calls between Mr. Flynn, the former national security adviser, and Mr. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, and accounts of Mr. Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Russian officials last month. At that meeting, the president reportedly disclosed sensitive information about an Israeli intelligence source in the Islamic State and bragged that firing Mr. Comey, whom he called a “nut job,” had relieved great pressure on him about the Russia investigation.
That invited Mr. Sessions to talk about criminal leak investigations, and he did so with relish. He invoked as a “successful case” the charges filed earlier this month against Reality Leigh Winner, a contractor with the National Security Agency who is accused of sending an intelligence report about Russian election-related hacking to reporters, and suggested there would be more like that, saying “some of these leaks, as you well know, are extraordinarily damaging to the United States’ national security.”
Saying intelligence officials’ leaking of sensitive matters “is already resulting in investigations,” Mr. Sessions added, “I fear that some people may find that they wish they hadn’t leaked”
Senator Kamala Harris, interrupted.
It was a moment Democrats were certain to seize on — again.
For the second time in a week, Republican senators interrupted Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, as she pressed a Trump administration witness.
Ms. Harris had interrupted Mr. Sessions a couple of times during a series of questions related to his communications with Russians and Mr. Trump, so flustering him at one point that he said: “I don’t want to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.”
As Mr. Sessions offered his rationale for not discussing conversations with Mr. Trump, Ms. Harris, the former attorney general of California, jumped in again, prompting murmurs from the Republican side of the dais.
“Will the witness be allowed to answer the question?” said Senator John McCain of Arizona, an ex officio member of the committee.
Mr. Burr cut her off not long after that, noting her allotted time had expired.
It was an echo of last week’s testimony, when Ms. Harris pressed Mr. Rosenstein during another public hearing, prompting a similar exchange involving Mr. Burr and Mr. McCain.
That episode had provided Twitter fodder for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, another female Senate Democrat who had been cut off by a Republican.
“Silencing @SenKamalaHarris for not being ‘courteous’ enough is just unbelievable,” Ms. Warren tweeted last week. “Keep fighting, Kamala! #NeverthelessShePersisted”
Echoes of the ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’
Even as Mr. Rosenstein vowed to “defend the integrity” of the special counsel investigation, including by refusing any order to fire Mr. Mueller without good cause, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, spotted a potential issue that has no clear answer: What if Mr. Trump fired Mr. Rosenstein and then worked down through the Justice Department until he found someone willing to do it?
That possibility has historical precedent: In “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, President Richard M. Nixon fired the attorney general and his deputy because they were unwilling to remove the Watergate special prosecutor, stopping only when the official next in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, was willing to do what the president wanted.
If something like that happened again, Mr. Van Hollen asked, and Mr. Mueller believed he had not been fired for any legitimate good cause, what protection did the Justice Department regulation provide? Would the fired special counsel have recourse, for example, to contest his firing in the courts?
Mr. Rosenstein said he hoped there would never be a need to answer what would happen next if someone at the Justice Department did not adhere to the rules. Comparing it to a law school hypothetical, he said, “I would be reluctant to answer it without doing some research first.”
But no one at the hearing brought up what would happen if the White House directed the Justice Department to change the rules first — by revoking the special counsel regulations — so that Mr. Mueller could then be fired for any reason, just as ordinary senior Justice Department officials can.
Ryan and McConnell support Mueller investigation.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on Tuesday that Mr. Mueller should be allowed to continue his work.
“I think the best thing to do is to let Robert Mueller do his job,” Mr. Ryan said at a news conference. “I think the best vindication for the president is to let this investigation go on independently and thoroughly.”
Later Tuesday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also voiced support for Mr. Mueller.
“I have a lot of confidence in Bob Mueller,” he told reporters. “I think it was a good choice.”