Sessions to face sharp questions from Senate panel on Russia contacts

Ousted FBI director James Comey listens during a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill

Ousted FBI director James Comey listens during a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill

"I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials", he said.

Sessions, in opening remarks before the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the election to help President Donald Trump win, said he made a decision to remove himself from oversight of the criminal investigation of the Russian interference because of rules at the Justice Department prohibiting his involvement because he was a key campaign adviser to Trump.

He said he had met twice with Kislyak - once during the Republican National Convention and once in his Senate office - and that he did not disclose that during his confirmation hearing. Comey said Sessions said nothing, and that his body language indicated that there was nothing he could do about it.

The former Federal Bureau of Investigation director also testified that the agency had believed Sessions was "inevitably going to recuse" for reasons he could not elaborate on.

Rubio asked Sessions about the changes that were mysteriously made to the Republican platform with respect to Ukraine, a key element of suspicion in the Russian Federation matter.

Harris: Sir, I'm just asking you about the DOJ policy you referred to.

SESSIONS: I'm not claiming executive privilege because that's the president's power, and I have no power to.

His impassioned response came after Senate Democrats raised questions about whether Sessions privately met with Sergey Kislyak at an April 2016 foreign policy event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. The deputy attorney general, a civil servant, assured a congressional committee he would resist an unwarranted dismissal order: "I'm not going to follow any order unless I believe they are lawful and appropriate orders".

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Sessions denied having secret meetings with Russian officials, but also repeatedly refused to answer questions on whether he spoke privately to President Donald Trump about the inquiry.

"Many have suggested that my recusal is because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself, that I may have done something wrong", Sessions added. "Now you're not answering questions".

A report in The New York Times said the president had indeed weighed the possibility, was dissuaded by staff, and has since landed on the idea of simply pressuring Mueller by letting him know he could be fired.

Republicans said it appears Democrats don't care about this anymore, ever since Comey said the president himself was not under investigation for election collusion.

It's not clear if Sessions meant to pay penance to Trump after their relationship strained over the President's concerns that Sessions burned him by stepping aside from the Russian Federation probe - but he did a good job defending the White House anyway. "The basis for this historical practice is laid out in the 1982 memos from President Reagan and then-Assistant Attorney General Olson". It's just beyond my capability to understand, and I really appreciate, Mr. Chairman, the opportunity to at least to be able to say publicly I didn't participate in that and know nothing about it. Yet Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) confronted Sessions with the fact that a year ago he had praised Comey for the way he had handled the Clinton investigation. That sounds sinister. But Sessions offered a not-that-different account. Comey testified that he told Sessions he was uncomfortable about meeting alone with the president, and Sessions merely shrugged as if to say, What can I do?

That's what Arkansas Republican Sen. King was incredulous to learn how little Sessions says he knew about the intelligence on Russian meddling in the US election. But he said that he was unable to say whether he had discussed Comey's handling of the FBI investigation on the principle that his conversations with the President should be kept confidential. "It is absurd, frankly", he said, "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". Rosenstein said he has seen no evidence of good cause to fire the special prosecutor overseeing the Russian Federation investigation. They have gone down lots of other rabbit trails but not that question.

Comey himself had a riveting appearance before the same Senate panel last week, with some key moments centered on Sessions.

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