Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday, fiercely maintaining he did nothing wrong in meeting twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during President Trump’s 2016 campaign and also infuriating Democrats by refusing to detail any conversations he has had with the president.
The hearing lasted about 2 1/2 hours and included a number of testy exchanges. Here are the highlights:
1. “An appalling and detestable lie”
Similar to former FBI Director James Comey, who testified before the same committee last week, Sessions came out ready to defend himself.
After his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions was skewered for saying, “I did not have communications with the Russians.” He later amended the record by revealing he had met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, twice over the course of the 2016 campaign.
On Tuesday, Sessions argued that he was caught off guard by the question at the hearing and thought he was answering whether he was involved in any election collusion with the Russians, not whether he had any communication with Russian officials as he normally would as a member of the Senate:
“Let me state this clearly: 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. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.
“I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, and 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 added that any assertion that he did not honestly answer the question at the confirmation hearing is “false.”
2. Sessions gets testy
The first real fireworks flew almost 90 minutes into the testimony. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pressed Sessions on why the attorney general actually recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Sessions originally said that he disaffiliated himself simply because he was an adviser to Trump during the campaign, but doubt was cast on that explanation when Comey testified last week and said he had thought Sessions would recuse himself earlier than he did for “problematic” reasons that needed to be discussed in a closed session.
Sessions raised his voice in protest when asked what those reasons were.
“Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Sen. Wyden. There are none!” he said. “I can tell you that with absolute certainty. This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”
3. Democrats push for Trump conversation details
While no new bombshell details emerged from the Sessions testimony Tuesday, there were a number of threads and themes that are sure to crop up again as hearings continue on Russian election meddling. Maybe most prominent is the Democrats’ insistence that those testifying share conversations they’ve had with President Trump. Sessions wasn’t having any of that.
At one point, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., asked whether Trump had expressed any frustration with Sessions about his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
“Sen. Heinrich, I’m not able to share with this committee private communications — ” Sessions said, before Heinrich cut him off.
“Because you’re invoking executive privilege,” Heinrich interjected.
“I’m not able to invoke executive privilege, that’s the president’s prerogative,” Sessions said.
But the attorney general added that he needed to not discuss his conversations with Trump, to preserve the president’s ability to theoretically invoke executive privilege in the future.
Sessions was talked into a corner a few times when it came to the actual legal basis for the argument, by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Maine’s Angus King, I-Maine, but no real damage was done.
It it appeared as though Sessions had consulted with a legal team — at the Department of Justice or the White House Counsel’s Office — and burning that much time at the hearing without revealing any private conversations with the president had to be viewed as a victory.
4. Tom Cotton goes deep into the spy novel canon
In general, as with most of the Russia-related hearings conducted by Congress, it was a tale of two parties. Republicans were mostly noncombative, if not friendly to Sessions Tuesday, maybe none more so than Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
Sessions caught on quick.
“Yeah, Alan Furst, David Ignatius,” he said. “I just finished Ignatius’ book.”
“Do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond movies?” asked Cotton.
“No,” said Sessions, followed by a giggle and laughter in the audience. “Yes, I do.”
“Have you ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plotline so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting, with hundreds of other people, to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?” Cotton asked rhetorically.
“Thank you for saying that, Sen. Cotton,” Sessions said.
5. In writing a letter, did Sessions break his recusal?
Sessions continued to insist that he could both recuse himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation and support the dismissal of Comey as the FBI director. Sessions recused himself from the Department of Justice Russia investigation in March, but then signed a letter endorsing Comey’s firing in May.
He said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had begun discussing replacing Comey before either of them was confirmed in their jobs.
“I recused myself from any investigation into the campaigns for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” he said.
Comey was overseeing thousands of investigations at the time of his firing, Sessions argued, so the fact that he was recused from just one of them shouldn’t mean he couldn’t make a judgment call on Comey’s leadership abilities.