“These false attacks, the innuendos, the leaks, you can be sure will not intimidate me,” Sessions told the committee.
During the election, Sessions was chairman of the Donald Trump campaign’s national security advisory team.
He said that he had “no recollection” of meeting the Russian ambassador at an April 27, 2016, Trump campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, despite reports that he may have had a previously undisclosed meeting on that date.
He acknowledged meeting twice last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but said that the encounters were not campaign related and denied that he “met or had any conversations with any Russians” about interference in the 2016 elections.
Asked whether he thought that the Russians interfered with the elections, Sessions said, “It appears so. The intelligence community seems to be united in that.”
But Sessions said that he had never received “any detailed briefing on how hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaign.”
Broadcast and cable networks again interrupted regular programming on Tuesday to provide live coverage of Sessions’ testimony before a Senate committee, as investigations into Russian hacking of the 2016 election continue to dominate the attention of Washington and much of the country.
Almost 20 million viewers tuned in last week to watch fired FBI Director James Comey’s testimony live, as he said under oath that Trump sought his loyalty and later asked him to publicly state that he himself was not under investigation. Comey said that he believed that he was fired over the handling of the Russia investigation.
Sessions confirmed many aspects of Comey’s account, including that the FBI director came to him in February to express his concerns about a private meeting in the Oval Office with Trump on Feb. 14. Comey testified that Trump said that he “hoped” that the FBI could let go of an investigation into Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser. But Sessions said that Comey, while relaying his discomfort with the Trump meeting, did not describe to him what was said in their conversation.
At the hearing, Sessions got into several heated exchanges after he refused to talk about his private conversations with Trump. He insisted that it was “long-standing policy” of the Justice Department not to share his conversations with the president.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) grilled Sessions on the legal rationale for refusing the answer questions about those conversations.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) accused Sessions of “impeding this investigation” by refusing to answer.
Sessions said that he was not stonewalling, but was protecting Trump’s right to assert “executive privilege,” even though he did not do so in advance of his testimony. Sessions said he was “protecting the president’s constitutional right by not giving it away.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) also pressed him in a series of queries on his refusal to answer, to the point where Sessions complained to her, “I don’t want to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.”
Democrats wanted to know whether Sessions had any conversations with Trump about firing Comey before May 9, and whether he discussed with the president the way the FBI director was handling the Russia investigation. Sessions supported the decision, which the White House initially said was due to Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. On the day of his firing, they released a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein laying out a critical assessment of Comey’s performance.
At the hearing, Sessions continued to defend the decision to fire Comey, arguing that he had failed to follow procedure and “we need to bring classic procedure to this department.”
But in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt just days after Comey was fired, Trump acknowledged that the Russia investigation was one of the reasons he got the ax. “I will just have to have his words speak for” itself, Sessions said at the hearing.
Sessions called the “innuendo” surrounding his Russian contacts something “through the looking glass,” while Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) came to his defense by noting that the suspicions about collusion were hardly the stuff of spy novels and James Bond movies.
Still, NBC News and other outlets reported on classified intelligence suggesting an undisclosed meeting at the Mayflower between Sessions and Kislyak.
“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it,” Sessions said.
In March, Sessions acknowledged he had twice met with Kislyak, something he did not disclose during his confirmation process. In his confirmation hearing, Sessions told Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that he “did not have communications with the Russians,” but Sessions later said that he thought that he was addressing contacts beyond his official duties as a senator.
After those two meetings were revealed in March, Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Still, he participated in the decision to fire Comey, saying that his recusal could not interfere with his duties at the Justice Department to oversee the FBI.
Sessions said that his participation in Comey’s firing “did not violate my recusal,” arguing that he still had duties at the Justice Department to oversee the FBI.
In recent days leading up to the hearing, Trump supporters have increasingly taken aim at Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is investigating the Russia issue. On Monday, Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax who is a friend of Trump’s, told PBS’s “Newshour” that he thought that the president was “considering perhaps terminating the special counsel.” That has set off a new level of speculation of what Trump may do next.
Sessions said that he “wouldn’t think it would be appropriate” for him to take part in any effort to have Mueller removed, but said that he had confidence in the special counsel.