U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday denounced as "an appalling and detestable lie" the idea he colluded with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign but refused to answer a series of questions during a high-stakes Senate hearing.
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Sessions, a senior member of Republican President Donald Trump's Cabinet and an adviser to his presidential campaign, faced criticism from Democratic senators for declining to answer their questions relating to conversations he had with Trump.
Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich accused Sessions of violating his vow to tell the full truth. He told Sessions: "You're impeding this investigation."
Sessions dodged questions about were whether he had discussed FBI director James Comey's handling of the FBI's Russia probe with Trump before the president fired Comey on May 9. Similarly, he did not answer whether Trump had expressed concern to Sessions about the attorney general's March decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden told Sessions, "I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don't want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged."
"I am not stonewalling," Sessions replied. "I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice." Sessions said he would not discuss confidential communications with the president.
Senator Angus King, an independent, questioned Sessions' legal basis for refusing to answer. Sessions said Trump had not invoked executive privilege regarding the conversations.
Executive privilege is a power that can be claimed by a president or senior executive branch officials to withhold information from Congress or the courts to protect the executive branch decision-making process.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a report released in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an effort to interfere in the election to help Trump in part by hacking and releasing damaging emails about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
The testimony by Sessions marked the latest chapter in a saga that has dogged the Republican Trump's first five months as president and distracted from his domestic policy agenda including major healthcare and tax cut initiatives.
"I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected with the Trump campaign," Sessions said.
"The suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for over 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie," he said.
Sessions is the most senior member of Trump's administration caught up in the controversy over whether associates of the president colluded with Russia to help Trump win the election.
In regards to the firing of former FBI director James Comey, Sessions said he wrote a recommendation on dismissing him after being asked by the president. Sessions said he believes it was his responsibility as the attorney general to participate in the decision to fire Comey.
While he declined to say whether he spoke with Trump aboout Comey's handling of the Russian meddling investigation, Sessions said that he and the deputy attorney general felt that were performance problems at the FBI, and that a fresh leadership was needed. He then called Comey's handling of the Clinton email probe a "stunning userpation of prosecutorial powers."
Sessions said that "not one thing improper" happened in either of his two meetings with Russia's ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak. He also said that he didn't recall having any conversations with Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel.
Asked about what problematic issues that made FBI officials think he would recuse himself from the Russia probe as Comey said last week, Sessions said: "There are none. I can tell you for certain."
Sessions said that since he recused himself from the Russian investigation, he would not take any action to dismiss Robert Mueller, the former FBI director named last month by the Justice Department to head a federal probe into the Russia issue.
As Sessions entered the crowded hearing room, a swarm of news photographers clicked away with their cameras. Sessions is the most senior member of President Donald Trump's administration caught up in the controversy over whether associates of the president colluded with Russia to help Trump win the election.
The committee's chairman, Republican Richard Burr, told Sessions the hearing was "your opportunity to separate fact from fiction" and "set the record straight on a number of allegations reported in the press."
Even before Sessions testified, attention in Washington swiveled to whether Trump might seek to fire Mueller.
Such a move would be complicated and potentially politically explosive. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the person who would be responsible for carrying out any such dismissal, told a different congressional panel on Tuesday he would not fire Mueller without good cause and he had seen no such cause.
Sessions appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee just five days after Comey, whom Trump fired as FBI director on May 9, told the panel Trump ousted him to undermine the agency's investigation of the Russia matter. Sessions had written a letter to Trump recommending Comey's firing.
Burr said he wanted to know from Sessions what meetings he had with Russian officials or their proxies on behalf of the Trump campaign, why he recused himself from the Russia investigation and what role, if any, he played in the firing of Comey.
The testimony by Comey marked the latest chapter in a saga that has dogged the Republican Trump's first five months as president and distracted from his domestic policy agenda including major healthcare and tax cut initiatives.
Sessions, a former Republican U.S. senator and an early supporter of Trump's presidential campaign, is expected to be asked to explain why he told senators in January that he had no dealings with Russian officials last year while serving as an adviser to candidate Trump.
In March he acknowledged he met twice last year with Kislyak, Russia's envoy in Washington. His staff said Sessions did not mislead Congress because the encounters were part of his job as a U.S. senator, not as a Trump campaign representative. But the revelations prompted Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation in March.
The abrupt dismissal of Comey prompted Trump's critics to charge that the president was trying to interfere with a criminal investigation.
The attorney general will also face questions about whether he met Kislyak on a third occasion. Several media outlets have reported that Comey told the Intelligence Committee in closed session last week that the FBI was examining whether Sessions met with Kislyak at a Washington hotel last year. The Justice Department has denied such a meeting occurred.
Trump has been publicly dismissive of the Russia investigation for months. A Trump confidant, Chris Ruddy, told "PBS NewsHour" on Monday the president was weighing whether to fire Mueller.
Amid the firestorm over Comey's dismissal, the Justice Department's Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to oversee the probe into Russian election interference and any collusion by Trump aides. Russia has denied interfering in the U.S. election. The White House has denied any collusion.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the election to help Trump in part by hacking and releasing damaging emails about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
If Trump were targeting Mueller, dismissing him would not be a simple matter. Trump could recommend to the Justice Department that the special counsel be fired. Since Sessions is recused from these matters, he would likely would send such a recommendation to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein.
In a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Rosenstein offered assurances about Mueller. "I am confident that he will have sufficient independence," he told a Senate panel evaluating a Justice Department budget request.
Rosenstein told the panel he had seen no evidence of good cause for letting Mueller go, and that lacking such evidence he would not follow any theoretical order to fire him.