WASHINGTON - Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that he has “always told the truth” in describing his knowledge of Trump campaign contacts with Russians, although he acknowledged that he now recalls an interaction with a lower-level adviser to Donald Trump who said he told Sessions about contacts who could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When asked previously about whether he thought that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians, Sessions said, “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”
Now, speaking before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he recalled a March 2016 meeting with George Papadopoulos, one of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy advisers. Papadopoulos, in pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents, has admitted that he told Trump and other campaign officials, including Sessions, that he had contacts who could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.
“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting,” Sessions said. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter. But I did not recall this event, which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago, and I would gladly have reported it had I remembered it because I pushed back against his suggestion that I thought may have been improper.”
Sessions clarified later that he recalled Papadopoulos making “some comment” about a Trump-Putin meeting, and he “pushed back.”
“I remember the pushback,” Sessions said. “I remember that he suggested an ability to negotiate with Russians or others, and I thought he had no ability, or it would not be appropriate for him to do so.”
Also at Tuesday’s hearing, Sessions said the Justice Department would need a “factual basis” to appoint a second special counsel to investigate a host of GOP concerns - and he rejected the suggestion by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, that such a basis already existed.
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Republicans have pressed Sessions to launch probes on a variety of matters - including alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia - and on Monday, the Justice Department sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., saying that Sessions had directed senior federal prosecutors to explore at least some of them. They were to report back to him and his top deputy on whether any necessitated the appointment of a second special counsel.
Jordan said he appreciated Sessions was considering appointing such a person, but asked, “What’s it gonna take to get a special counsel?” Near the end of a testy exchange, Sessions said, “‘Looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.”
“The Attorney General was clarifying the legal basis for appointing special counsel - not passing judgment on whether it applied in any specific investigation,” Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said.
Sessions himself also said of his earlier remarks: “I did not mean to suggest that I was taking a side one way or the other on that subject.” He said it was “my responsibility to evaluate it,” and he would appoint a special counsel if the circumstances called for it and reject the idea if not.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., sought to highlight that Trump had publicly pressed the Justice Department to investigate Clinton-related matters, noting, “What strikes me about these comments is the president’s view that the criminal justice system serves him, and not the public.”
Sessions, though, disputed that he had been inappropriately pushed to do anything.
“I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced,” he said.
Democrats had vowed to press Sessions about his and other Trump campaign aides’ dealings with Russians leading up to the 2016 election, and throughout the hearing, they made good on that promise. In his opening statement, Conyers went through Sessions’s public statements on Russia-related matters, highlighting instances in which what Sessions said did not comport with other evidence.
“I hope the attorney general can provide some clarification on this problem in his remarks today,” Conyers said.
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In recent weeks, unsealed court documents have called into question the attorney general’s previous testimony about his interactions with Russians and his knowledge of others’ interactions, when he was an official with the Trump campaign.
Testimony before Congress has proved to be something of a thorn in Sessions’ side. At his confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Sessions said he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the campaign. When The Washington Post later revealed he had twice spoken with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, he revised his account, saying that he had no meetings with Russians “to discuss issues of the campaign.”
The Post later reported that Russia’s U.S. ambassador told his superiors that he and Sessions discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow. And at an October appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions seemed to shift his position again. That time, he said he conducted no “improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country,” although he acknowledged that it was possible in one of his conversations that “some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were.”
“I certainly didn’t mean I hadn’t met a Russian in my life,” Sessions said at one point during Tuesday’s hearing.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., pressed Sessions on his shifting memories, noting that he had previously criticized Clinton for her lack of recall during an FBI interview and said intentionally forgetting might be criminal.
“Do you still believe that the intentional failure to remember can constitute a criminal act?” Jeffries asked.
“If it’s an act to deceive, yes,” Sessions responded.
In addition to the meeting with Papadopoulos, Trump campaign adviser Carter Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee recently that he told Sessions of his plans to travel to Moscow. Page has said the interaction was brief and forgettable and that his trip was unconnected to his campaign work. Sessions said he didn’t recall the conversation, but was “not able to dispute it.”
“Does that establish some sort of improper contact with the Russians?” he quipped to Jeffries. “He’s not Russian either, you know?”
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Sessions also revealed Tuesday that the Justice Department has 27 open leak investigations, some that started before Trump took office, compared to nine such inquiries in the latter years of the Obama administration. He has vowed to crack down on disclosures of sensitive government information.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, asked Sessions if he believes the women who have accused Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct.
“I have no reason to doubt these young women,” Sessions replied.
On Monday, an Alabama woman accused Moore, who is running for Sessions’s open Senate seat, of sexually assaulting her when she was 16 years old. That allegation followed a report last week in The Washington Post that detailed allegations that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a 14 year old girl when he was 32. The Post story also described Moore’s relationship with three other girls who were between the ages of 16 and 18 at the time. Moore has denied the allegations.
Senate Republican leaders are now pressuring Moore to withdraw from the Alabama Senate race.
Jackson Lee asked Sessions if the Justice Department would investigate the allegations against Moore, should he win a Senate seat. Sessions replied that the department would evaluate every case, but “this would normally be a state case.”
“We will do our duty,” Sessions said.
The hearing is the first time Sessions testified before the House Judiciary Committee.