The Guardian reports that Richard Burt, who served as ambassador to Germany during the Reagan administration and who has lobbied on behalf of a pipeline company that’s now controlled by Russian state-owned energy conglomerate Gazprom, has admitted to attending two dinners organized by Sessions last year during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I did attend two dinners with groups of former Republican foreign policy officials and Senator Sessions,” Burt told the Guardian.
This is notable, writes the Guardian, because “Sessions testified under oath on Tuesday that he did not believe he had any contacts with lobbyists working for Russian interests over the course of Trump’s campaign.”
News of Burt’s attendance at dinners organized by Sessions was first reported last October by Politico, although this report didn’t gain significant traction until this week when Sessions testified that he didn’t recall any contacts with lobbyists who worked on behalf of Russian interests last year.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave more than two hours of sometimes heated testimony Tuesday, with Democrats demanding details of matters including conversations with President Donald Trump, interactions with the Russian ambassador and the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The appearance before the Senate intelligence committee gave Sessions a chance to defend himself, but offered little new insight.
Some takeaways from Sessions’ appearance before the committee:
Sessions, a close Trump adviser during the battle for the presidency, said in his opening statement that it was a “detestable and appalling lie” to suggest he was aware of or participated in any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. He said he never met with, or had conversations with, Russians about election interference.
Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe in March after it was revealed he twice met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign but failed to say so when pressed by lawmakers at his confirmation hearing. Sessions reiterated Tuesday those meetings were in his capacity as a lawmaker and not about the campaign.
Sessions was adamant he never had a third meeting with the Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He did allow for the possibility the men could have had a brief interaction “in passing” at a well-attended reception at the Mayflower Hotel before an April 2016 foreign policy speech by then-candidate Trump. But Sessions said he had no recollection of that.
He’s been hounded by speculation over the possibility of a third meeting, with Democratic senators calling for an investigation. But he angrily denounced such claims as “secret innuendo,” a likely reference to media accounts of a closed-door briefing lawmakers had last week with Comey that suggested the FBI had been looking into whether another meeting had taken place.
Sessions insisted he stepped aside from the Russia investigation because he was a principal adviser to the Trump campaign, not because he did something wrong or was a subject of the probe. Comey testified publicly last week the FBI was aware of reasons it would be problematic for Sessions to remain involved in the probe before he recused himself.
Sessions was sworn in Feb. 9 but did not actually step away from the investigation until March 2, the day after The Washington Post reported on his two previously undisclosed Kislyak meetings. But he said Tuesday he anticipated the conflict of interest and effectively recused himself on his first day on the job, and was never briefed on the Russia investigation.
He disputed that his involvement in Comey’s firing violated the recusal. He said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had long discussed their concerns with Comey’s job performance. Namely, they were upset with his very public handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe, which Sessions said was a “usurpation” of Justice Department authority.
Sessions said it would be “absurd” to suggest that a recusal from a single investigation would render him unable to manage the leadership of the FBI.
Sessions repeatedly refused to discuss private conversations with Trump on a wide variety of topics. He did not say he was using executive privilege, but rather adhering to longstanding tradition of Justice Department leaders not revealing private conversations with the president. That position was similar to the one taken at a separate hearing last week by the country’s intelligence chiefs.
His refusals to comment, including about conversations with Trump on Comey’s firing, repeatedly irked Democrats. But time and again, Sessions returned to lines such as “I am not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of private conversations that I may have had with the president on this subject or others.”
The Justice Department subsequently released decades-old memos from its Office of Legal Counsel that it said supported Sessions’ position.
Sessions contradicted Comey, who last week told the intelligence committee that after an encounter with Trump in which he said Trump pressured him to back off an investigation into the former national security adviser, Comey “implored” Sessions to make sure he was never left alone with the president again — but that Sessions didn’t respond.
“He didn’t recall this, but I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policy regarding appropriate contacts with the White House,” Sessions told the panel.
He also said Comey should have shared his concerns about the Trump conversation with another Justice Department official, Dana Boente, who was then acting deputy attorney general, and would have been Comey’s direct supervisor.
If Comey had information that Sessions would need to recuse himself, he said, that would have been “double reason” to talk to Boente.
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.
Here are highlights from the nearly three-hour session:
• After coming under fire for failing to disclose his interactions with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearing, Mr. Sessions was determined to provide his version of events — and he did not waste any time. “I have never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States,” he said during his opening statement.
• Mr. Sessions denied meeting with Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington in April 2016, adding that he could not “recall” any such private conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, there. “If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador, I do not remember it,” he said.
• Mr. Sessions contested the assertion of James B. Comey, who was fired as F.B.I. director, before the committee last week that the attorney general had not responded when Mr. Comey asked him not to leave him alone with Mr. Trump again.
“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,” he 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.”
• Mr. Sessions repeatedly refused to discuss his conversations with Mr. Trump about the Russia investigation or Mr. Comey’s firing beyond what was in his recommendation memo about ousting Mr. Comey, which the White House released. Democratic senators reacted angrily, noting that Mr. Trump had not invoked executive privilege to bar such testimony. Mr. Sessions argued that it was a longstanding practice not to disclose confidential conversations with the president that would potentially be subject to executive privilege, but several senators said that was not a legal basis to refuse to answer their questions.
“Consistent with longstanding Department of Justice practice, I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect confidential communications with the president,” he said.
• Seizing on a criticism others have made of Mr. Comey, Mr. Sessions emphasized that Mr. Comey had not told him why he was uncomfortable being alone with Mr. Trump — specifically, that Mr. Trump had asked him to drop the investigation into Michael T. Flynn, his former national security adviser.
“He could have complained to the deputy or to me at any time that he felt pressure,” Mr. Sessions said, referring to Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
• Mr. Sessions made it clear that he did not take kindly to the insinuations and accusations arising from the fact that he previously failed to disclose meetings with Mr. Kislyak. And he came to the committee in large part to defend himself against what he called “an appalling and detestable lie” that he had colluded with Russian officials. “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.
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 Mr. 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 reportedthat 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 repeatedly refused to discuss his conversations with Mr. Trump about the Russia investigation or Mr. Comey’s firing beyond what was in his memo recommending that Mr. Comey be fired, which the White House released. Democratic senators reacted angrily, noting that Mr. Trump had not invoked executive privilege to bar such testimony.
Mr. Sessions argued that it was a longstanding practice not to disclose confidential conversations with the president that would potentially be subject to executive privilege, but several senators said that was not a legal basis to refuse to answer their questions.
Mark J. Rozell, a George Mason University professor who has written books about executive privilege, said previous administration officials had often gone before Congress and declared that they would not answer questions about communications that might be subject to executive privilege even though the president had not yet invoked that power. Whether that was legitimate, he said, was a “constitutional gray area” that lacked a clear answer.
“The problem I have with it is that it’s similar to a claim of executive privilege without the president actually uttering the words or formally declaring that power,” he said. “It puts Congress in an impossible position if a member of the administration can simply claim a right of private communications for the president that could stand as a basis for refusing to answer anything.”
If Congress wanted to force the issue, he said, it could issue a subpoena requiring Mr. Sessions to provide testimony, forcing Mr. Trump to decide whether he wanted to invoke the privilege and, if so, over what. Typically, he said, such confrontations have led to negotiations that resulted in an accommodation to defuse the disputes, which is why there are few definitive court precedents about the scope and limits of executive secrecy powers.
Mr. Sessions also said there was a Justice Department policy about not disclosing confidential communications with the president even absent an executive privilege claim, but Mr. Rozell said that while some previous presidents put out formal guidelines laying out how their administration would use executive privilege, he was not aware of the Trump administration having produced any.
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 Mr. Flynn. 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 Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the panel, 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, Mr. 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.
Watch the hearing from start to finish
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 and Mr. Kislyak, 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.
Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the committee, cut her off not long after that, noting that 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.”
Jeff Sessions met at least three times with a Russian ambassador as a member of the Trump campaign, according to a new report, and not as part of his duties as a U.S. senator.
The attorney general will testify Tuesday afternoon before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where lawmakers will likely ask why he did not disclose those meetings during his confirmations hearings.
Sessions confirmed two of those meetings after they were revealed by reporters, although he insists they were part of his official duties as a senator, but The Atlanticreported that he met with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at least once more.
“All told, Sessions encountered Kislyak at least three times in five months,” reported The Atlantic‘s Julia Ioffe.
The meetings were among a series Sessions conducted with ambassadors and foreign policy experts, who understood his role to be that of a Trump campaign surrogate and not senator.
“That may seem semantic, but for Sessions, the distinction is crucial,” Ioffe reported. “He has insisted that he did not disclose the meeting with Kislyak in his testimony, because it was a routine part of his Senate duties.”
Sessions had no reputation for foreign policy before his crash course during the presidential campaign, and even Republicans were surprised that he emerged as a national security adviser for Trump.
“Is that a serious question?” said one Republican Senate staffer. “He’s clueless.”
Sessions met regularly with Central European and Baltic ambassadors during the campaign, although the White House insists they were part of his duties as a senior member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.
But some of the diplomats who met with Sessions said his roles weren’t so clearly defined.
“He was double-headed all the time, so it was very hard to distinguish,” said one European diplomat who met with Sessions multiple times last year.
The Atlantic reports extensively on Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which took place April 27, 2016, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. — where Sessions and Trump both encountered Kislyak, who sat in the front row as the GOP candidate promised to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia.
The speech was organized by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, who has fallen under investigation himself for his own meetings with Kislyak and a Russian state-owned bank during the transition period.
A source with direct knowledge told The Atlantic that Trump’s Mayflower speech was written by Richard Burt, a lobbyist for McLarty and Associates who has represented Russian clients like Alfa Bank, which is under investigation by the FBI for a possible computer link to Trump Tower during the campaign.
Sessions set up a separate office to meet with foreign dignitaries, in order to comply with ethics guidelines, but he continued to invite ambassadors — including Kislyak — to his more impressive office at the Capitol, the magazine reported.
Those meetings abruptly ended three days after Trump’s election, with a Nov. 11 appointment with the German ambassador.
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a lot on the line when he goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday.
For weeks, questions have swirled among lawmakers, reporters and others about classified intelligence suggesting Sessions hasn’t come clean about all his meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
As NBC News has reported, lawmakers want to know whether Sessions met privately with Kislyak in April 2016 during a Donald Trump campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. His spokeswoman has denied that any such private encounter occurred.
And Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Hardball, said Monday that the U.S. “intercepted some contacts between Kislyak and his people.” But he added that it wasn’t clear whether Kislyak was exaggerating, suggesting a meeting with Sessions that had not, in fact, occurred.
If he does so, it will amount to an “all in” moment for the attorney general, because he already once had to clarify sworn testimony in which he said he didn’t meet with Russians during the campaign. He later acknowledged that he met twice with Kislyak, though he said it was in his capacity as senator. One mistake under oath can be explained away — a second would be extremely damaging.
If Sessions offers a more qualified answer, or says he doesn’t recall, that is likely to spark a new round of questions.
At his daily press briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined to say whether Sessions sought President Trump’s approval before agreeing to testify publicly, or how the president feels about the matter.
“He’s going to testify. We’re aware of it. And we’ll go from there,” Spicer told reporters.
Sessions is expected to be asked about his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey, given that President Trump told NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt that Comey’s ouster was related to the Russia investigation, something Sessions has recused himself from. And he is certain to be asked about Comey’s testimony last week that he urged Sessions not to allow the FBI director to be alone with the president.
Sessions’ decision to testify in public came after he decided to cancel a public appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee, and offered to testify in private before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Democrats balked, saying Sessions should not be able to duck a public appearance.
By mid-morning Monday, Sessions had issued a statement agreeing to testify publicly. What was unclear was whether there will also be a closed session during which they can explicitly discuss the classified allegations about the alleged meeting.
Interest in the Mayflower Hotel event was rekindled when Comey raised it Thursday in a closed hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, GAT sources told NBC News. That came after Comey’s public testimony, in which he said the FBI was “aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make [Sessions’] continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
“Jeff could add a lot of light to it as to why he recused himself,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC News last week. “There’s one meeting we don’t [have details about] and people would like to know about it.”
NBC News reported June 1 that the FBI and Congress have been examining the Mayflower Hotel event. Five current and former U.S. officials said they are aware of classified intelligence suggesting there was some sort of private encounter between Trump and his aides and the Russian envoy.
That would be a huge problem for Sessions, who has already come under fire for failing to disclose two other contacts with Kislyak — in May and September 2016 — when he said during his Senate confirmation hearing that he had not met with Russian officials while part of the Trump campaign. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, also denied through a spokesman that he met privately with Kislyak that day.
After his May and September contacts with Kislyak became known, Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. “In retrospect,” Sessions told reporters, “I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.”
Sessions’ changing answers are a main reason the evidence of a possible third meeting is deeply concerning to lawmakers. However, the officials acknowledged to NBC News that the evidence of a meeting does not amount to proof, and they have declined to provide details about it. Comey, speaking to senators in Thursday’s closed session, also acknowledged that the FBI did not have proof the alleged meeting occurred, a source familiar with the matter said.
“The then-Senator did not have any private or side conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel,” Sessions’ spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, said in a statement.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the matter told NBC News that the FBI is also scrutinizing the Mayflower event, which was sponsored by a think tank that has been characterized as pro-Russian. The official said the FBI is interested in who was at the event and what was said, in the context of the counterintelligence investigation into Russian election meddling. That official said there was no indication the bureau is zeroing in on Sessions.
It has long been known that Trump briefly met Ambassador Kislyak that day at a VIP reception shortly before he gave a foreign policy address at the hotel. But witnesses said it wasn’t a private meeting, and White House officials dismissed it as inconsequential.
Kushner and Sessions were also in the room, contemporaneous news reports say. Sessions’ aides have insisted he did not speak to Kislyak.
In March, the Center for the National Interest, the right-leaning, Russia-linked group that hosted the event, said the interaction between Trump and Kislyak “was limited to the polite exchange of pleasantries appropriate on such occasions.”
Sen. Al Franken, D.-Minn., in a March letter to the FBI with fellow Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, asked the FBI to investigate any contacts between Sessions and Russian officials, and to brief him on the results.
The FBI replied that it could not confirm or deny whether it was investigating, a Franken spokesman said.
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the US during the presidential campaign have sparked questions, agreed Saturday to appear before the Senate intelligence committee as it investigates alleged Russian meddling in the election.
Sessions recused himself in March from a federal investigation into contacts between Russia and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump after acknowledging that he had met twice last year with the Russian ambassador to the United States. He had told lawmakers at his January confirmation hearing that he had not met with Russians during the campaign.
Sessions has been dogged by questions about possible additional encounters with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Senate Democrats have raised questions about whether the men met at an April 2016 foreign policy event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. The Justice Department has said that while Sessions was there, for a speech by Trump, there were no meetings or private encounters.
Former FBI Director James Comey raised additional questions at a hearing on Thursday, saying that the FBI expected Sessions to recuse himself weeks before he actually did. Comey declined to elaborate in an open setting.
In a letter Saturday to Reublican Senator Richard Shelby, Sessions said that he had been scheduled to discuss the Justice Department budget before House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees but that it had become clear some members would focus their questions on the Russia investigation. Shelby chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee.
Sessions said his decision to accept the intelligence committee’s invitation to appear was due in part to Comey’s testimony. He wrote that “it is important that I have an opportunity to address these matters in the appropriate forum.” He said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would appear before the subcommittees.
Briefing congressional appropriators on the Justice Department’s budget is a critical part of the attorney general’s job. The fact that Sessions would delegate that task to his deputy showed the Russia investigation was distracting him from his core duties.
Sessions did not say in the letter whether his appearance would be in public or behind closed doors. Comey testified in public and then met with the committee in a closed session to discuss matters touching on classified information.
James Comey characterized President Donald Trump as untrustworthy and intent on slowing the investigation into his campaign ties to Russia — but Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions also emerged as potential targets.
The former FBI director declined to say Thursday in his highly anticipated congressional testimony whether Trump himself was under investigation in the widening probe, but lawmakers’ questions suggested both Pence and Sessions could be.
Comey told lawmakers that disgraced national security adviser Mike Flynn was in “legal jeopardy” when Trump asked him to back off the FBI investigation of his trusted campaign adviser’s possible ties to Russia.
He testified that Trump’s expression of hope that he would halt the investigation seemed to be, in his opinion, a directive — which could provide evidence of intent to obstruct justice.
“I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work toward to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that’s an offense,” Comey testified.
But other lawmakers questioned him about Pence and, especially, Sessions — who recused himself from overseeing the FBI investigation after his undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador were reported.
Pence has repeatedly claimed he was unaware of concerns about Flynn until shortly before he resigned over secret communications with the Russian ambassador — but Comey disputed those assertions.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked whether Pence, who oversaw the presidential transition process, was aware of those concerns before Flynn became national security adviser.
“My understanding is that he was,” Comey said. “I’m trying to remember where I get that understanding from. I think from acting attorney general (Sally) Yates.”
Yates notified the White House counsel Jan. 27 that the Department of Justice was concerned Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail.
She was fired three days later, and Flynn resigned 18 days later, after Yates’ concerns were reported.
Comey was not sure if Sessions knew about those concerns before he was sworn in, four days before Flynn resigned.
Several senators were highly interested in Sessions and the role he might have played in Comey’s firing — but Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), in particular, zeroed in on the attorney general.
She asked Comey whether Sessions had access to any of documents related to the investigation in the two weeks between Flynn’s resignation and the attorney general’s recusal.
Comey wasn’t sure if Sessions had, but he admitted it was possible.
Harris then asked if the attorney general played any role in the Russia investigation after his March 2 recusal, and Comey said he could only assume that Sessions had not.
Comey also told Harris that he could only rely on public statements about Sessions’ recusal because the Justice Department did not issue any written notice or memorandum describing the process that he would follow to stay away from the investigation.
“I know he had consulted with career ethics officials that know how to run a recusal at DOJ, but I don’t know what mechanism they set up,” Comey said.
Harris asked if he believed Sessions behaved appropriately by recommending Comey’s firing.
“It’s something that I can’t answer sitting here, but it’s a reasonable question,” he said.
Washington (CNN) President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have had a series of heated exchanges in the last several weeks after Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, a source close to Sessions told CNN Tuesday.
A senior administration official said that at one point, Sessions expressed he would be willing to resign if Trump no longer wanted him there.
The frustration comes at a critical juncture for Trump. Former FBI Director James Comey is set to testify Thursday about his private discussions with Trump and the Russia investigation has lapped into the White House, with questions about the President’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.
Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to say whether Trump has confidence in Sessions.
“I have not had a discussion with him about that,” Spicer said.
As of 9 p.m. ET Tuesday, the White House still was unable to say whether or not the President backs his attorney general, a White House official said. The official said they wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened when Kellyanne Conway said Trump had confidence in Flynn only to find out hours later that the national security adviser had been pushed out.
Sessions remains at the Justice Department, where a spokeswoman told CNN that he is not stepping down.
Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe in March, shorty after The Washington Post reported on undisclosed meetings between him and the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.
In the three months since Sessions stepped aside, the intensity of the probe has grown exponentially — culminating in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel.
The frustration between Trump and Sessions has gone both ways, with Justice Department officials upset that the President’s tweets and comments caused problems for Sessions and Rosenstein in the wake of the Comey firing.
CNN has previously reported that Trump was frustrated with Sessions’ decision to recuse himself.
Sessions was Trump’s first supporter in the Senate and was an enthusiastic backer throughout the campaign — standing with Trump through multiple controversies. And Sessions’ own team has become a part of Trump’s inner circle: former Sessions chief of staff Rick Dearborn is now Trump’s deputy chief of staff, and former Sessions spokesman Stephen Miller has evolved into a highly influential figure as Trump’s policy director and speechwriter.
After the election, Sessions was rewarded with one of the most prominent positions in Trump’s new administration, atop the Justice Department.
But pressure has been mounting on Trump over his campaign’s communications with Russians. Trump told NBC News that he fired Comey in part because of the Russia probe and Comey, in a memo about a private talk, said Trump pressured him to drop his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
WASHINGTON — Few Republicans were quicker to embrace President Trump’s campaign last year than Jeff Sessions, and his reward was one of the most prestigious jobs in America. But more than four months into his presidency, Mr. Trump has grown sour on Mr. Sessions, now his attorney general, blaming him for various troubles that have plagued the White House.
The discontent was on display on Monday in a series of stark early-morning postings on Twitter in which the president faulted his own Justice Department for its defense of his travel ban on visitors from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Mr. Trump accused Mr. Sessions’s department of devising a “politically correct” version of the ban — as if the president had nothing to do with it.
In private, the president’s exasperation has been even sharper. He has intermittently fumed for months over Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election, according to people close to Mr. Trump who insisted on anonymity to describe internal conversations. In Mr. Trump’s view, they said, it was that recusal that eventually led to the appointment of a special counsel who took over the investigation.
Behind-the-scenes frustration would not be unprecedented in the Oval Office. Other presidents have become estranged from the Justice Department over time, notably President Bill Clinton, who bristled at Attorney General Janet Reno’s decisions to authorize investigations into him. But Mr. Trump’s tweets on Monday made his feelings evident for all to see and raised questions about how he is managing his own administration.
“They wholly undercut the idea that there is some rational process behind the president’s decisions,” said Walter E. Dellinger, who served as acting solicitor general under Mr. Clinton. “I believe it is unprecedented for a president to publicly chastise his own Justice Department.”
In his Twitter posts, Mr. Trump complained that his original executive order barring visitors from select Muslim-majority nations and refugees from around the world was revised in hopes of passing legal muster after it was struck down by multiple federal courts. The second version, however, has also been blocked, and last week the Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court.
“The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C.,” Mr. Trump wrote.
Then he added, “The Justice Dept. should ask for an expedited hearing of the watered down Travel Ban before the Supreme Court — & seek much tougher version!”
But the messages caused considerable head scratching around Washington since it was Mr. Trump who signed the revised executive order and, presumably, agreed to the legal strategy in the first place. His posts made it sound like the Justice Department was not part of his administration.
The White House had little to add to the president’s messages on Monday. Asked why Mr. Trump signed the revised order if he did not support it, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said he did it only to convince a California-based appeals court. “He was looking to, again, match the demands laid out by the Ninth Circuit and, for the purpose of expediency, to start looking at the best way possible to move that process forward,” she said.
Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School who has frequently defended Mr. Trump on cable news, said the president was clearly voicing frustration with Mr. Sessions. But he said it was not clear to him that it was a personal issue as opposed to an institutional one with the office.
“What he’s saying is, ‘I’m the president, I’m the tough guy, I wanted a very tough travel ban and the damn lawyers are weakening it’ — and clients complain about lawyers all the time,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “I see this more as a client complaining about his lawyer. The lawyer in this case happens to be Jeff Sessions.”
David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the White House and Justice Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, said Mr. Trump clearly looked at the case from the lens of a businessman who did not get his money’s worth.
“He’s unhappy when the results don’t come in,” Mr. Rivkin said. “I’m sure he was convinced to try the second version, and the second iteration did not do better than the first iteration, so the lawyers in his book did not do a good job. It’s understandable for a businessman.”
Mr. Sessions and the Justice Department remained silent on Monday. But at least one lawyer close to the administration suggested that there was consternation in the department over the president’s messages. George T. Conway III, who until last week was Mr. Trump’s choice for assistant attorney general for the civil division and whose wife, Kellyanne Conway, is the president’s counselor, posted a Twitter message suggesting that Mr. Trump’s tweets “certainly won’t help” persuade five justices on the Supreme Court — the majority needed — to uphold the travel ban.
In subsequent posts, Mr. Conway said that “every sensible lawyer” in the White House Counsel’s Office and “every political appointee” at the Justice Department would “agree with me (as some have already told me).” Mr. Conway stressed that he strongly supports Mr. Trump — “and, of course, my wonderful wife” — and was making his points because the president’s supporters “should not be shy about it.”
The frustration over the travel ban might be a momentary episode were it not for the deeper resentment Mr. Trump feels toward Mr. Sessions, according to people close to the president. When Mr. Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Mr. Trump learned about it only when he was in the middle of another event, and he publicly questioned the decision.
A senior administration official said Mr. Trump has not stopped burning about the decision, in occasional spurts, toward Mr. Sessions. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who was selected by Mr. Sessions and filled in when it came to the Russia investigation, ultimately appointed Robert S. Mueller III, a former F.B.I. director, as special counsel to lead the probe.
In fact, much of the past two months of discomfort and self-inflicted pain for Mr. Trump can be tied in some way back to that recusal. Mr. Trump felt blindsided by Mr. Sessions’s decision and unleashed his fury at aides in the Oval Office the next day, according to four people familiar with the event. The next day was his fateful tweet about President Barack Obama conducting a “wiretapp” of Trump Tower during the campaign, an allegation that was widely debunked.
However, Mr. Trump is said to be aware that firing people now, on the heels of dismissing James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, would be risky. He has invested care and meticulous attention to the next choice of an F.B.I. director in part because he will not have the option of firing another one. The same goes for Mr. Sessions, these people said.
Mr. Dershowitz said he thought any frustration over Mr. Sessions’s recusal, like the travel ban, was probably not personal. “I think that’s also institutional,” he said. “Almost any A.G. would recuse himself. I think he’s railing against lawyers.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign over his role in former FBI Director James Comey’s firing.
“Frankly, I think Jeff Sessions should resign,” Harris said Thursday on CNN’s “The Lead.”
“There is good reason to believe that he was not truthful when he testified before Congress,” Harris continued, mentioning Sessions’ past meetings with Russian officials.
“Then, in the last 48 hours, [it’s] that he would sign off on the firing of the person investigating the case he’s recused from.”The California lawmaker is at least the second Democratic senator to call for Sessions to resign in the wake of Comey’s firing this week, joining Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who called for Sessions to resign on Wednesday.
Harris argued that Sessions participating in Comey’s ouster would violate the former GOP senator’s pledge to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s probe of Russia’s interference in the election.
“[It] calls into question his objectivity and his ability to keep his word when he has told the American public and Congress that he’ll recuse himself from being involved with a subject that he knows he has a conflict with.”
The White House on Tuesday announced that President Trump had fired Comey on the recommendation of Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
Comey’s ouster was in the works since at least Monday, with Trump giving Sessions and Rosenstein a directive to provide a written explanation for firing Comey, The Washington Post reported. Sessions was purportedly asked to find justifications for Comey’s dismissal.
Trump told NBC News on Thursday that he would have fired the FBI chief “regardless of the recommendation” from the Justice Department.
Many lawmakers from both parties have questioned the timing of Trump’s decision to fire Comey, who announced in March that the FBI was probing Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential race, including possible ties between Moscow and Trump’s campaign.