WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday branded claims that he colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election as an “appalling and detestable lie,” as Democrats blasted him for “stonewalling” to defend the Trump administration over the Russia probe and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
In a combative and emotional Senate hearing, Sessions beseeched his former Senate colleagues to believe him when he said he did not hold a meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a speech by then-candidate Donald Trump at the Mayflower hotel last year.
Sessions defended his decision to participate in the firing of Comey, even though he had recused himself from the Russian matter and Trump later said that the probe was in his mind when he pushed the FBI chief overboard. He also criticized “false attacks” and “innuendo” that he implied were designed to thwart the Trump administration’s capacity to enact its agenda.
“The people of this country expect an honest and transparent government and that is what we are giving them,” Sessions said.
But the attorney general left Democratic senators deeply frustrated when he declined to go into the reasons for Comey’s dismissal and wouldn’t say whether the President ordered him out of the Oval Office so he could talk privately with Comey on February 14, in an encounter the former FBI director said included a request for him to go easy on former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
When asked by Sen. Angus King if the President invoked executive privilege to prevent his testimony, Sessions responded, “I am protecting the right of the President to assert it if he chooses; and there may be other privileges that could apply in this circumstance.”
His responses triggered an explosion by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.
“I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling,” Wyden said.
Sessions replied, “I am not stonewalling. I’m following historic policies of Department of Justice. You don’t walk into any committee meeting and reveal confidential communications with president of United States.”
When Wyden accused him of not answering the questions about Comey's reported remark that his behavior after recusing himself from the Russia probe was "problematic," Sessions chuckled and then launched into his most theatrical defense of his actions.
"This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don't appreciate it," Sessions said, raising his voice.
Trump watched Sessions testify aboard Air Force One during about 90-minute flight to Milwaukee, an aide told CNN.
Other Democrats also lost their patience with Sessions.
"You are not answering questions. You are impeding this investigation," said New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich.
And California Sen. Dianne Feinstein appeared puzzled by Sessions' reasoning for not providing more details.
Sessions said that he was not sure what was "explicitly" in Trump's mind when he decided to fire Comey. But he said that he was unable to say whether he had discussed Comey's handling of the FBI investigation on the principle that his conversations with the President should be kept confidential.
Feinstein then asked, "How do you view that? Since you discussed his removal, why wouldn't you discuss the reasons?"
Sessions' determination to mount a vigorous rebuttal after Comey's testimony before the committee last week raised questions about the administration's conduct was clear from the moment he began his opening statement.
He said he did not recall a third meeting with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in the Mayflower hotel in Washington, despite reports that the FBI had been investigating whether such a contact took place.
"I did not have any private meetings nor recall any private conversations with any Russian official at the Mayflower Hotel," Sessions told the Senate intelligence committee.
Sessions also argued that his recusal from the Russia investigation did not mean that he should be barred from his oversight duties over the FBI, following claims by Democrats that he should have not played a role in Comey's firing.
"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," Sessions said. "At all times throughout the course of the campaign, the confirmation process, and since becoming attorney general, I have dedicated myself to the highest standards."
Sessions confirmed that he had left Comey on his own with Trump in the Oval Office alone February 14, though declined to say whether he was ordered to do so by the President citing the need to keep his conversations with him private. He also said that Comey had later told him he was concerned about the meeting, but he did not say that something improper occurred.
Sessions also testified that he had never had any meetings with officials from Russia or anywhere else about interference in the US election.
"Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to 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 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie."
Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina laid out questions that he wanted addressed, including Sessions' meetings with Russian officials or proxies while working for the Trump campaign or as Attorney General. Burr also asked for details of his involvement on Trump's foreign policy team and its possible interactions with the Russians. He also asked why Sessions recused himself from oversight of the FBI's Russia probe and wanted to know what role in played in Comey's dismissal.
Sessions said he had confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller, but said that his recusal from the Russia probe would stop him taking part in any hypothetical effort to remove him. A friend of Trump's said Monday that the President was considering taking just such a step.
Sessions also mounted an impassioned defense on Trump, perhaps in the expectation that the President would be watching his appearance on Air Force One as he flew to Wisconsin.
CNN previously reported that congressional investigators are examining whether Sessions had an additional private meeting with the Russian ambassador in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
Sessions testified Tuesday that he had been at an event at the Mayflower hotel last year when Trump was giving a foreign policy speech. He said he did not have any meetings at the event and did not recall any "brief interaction" he may have had with the Russian ambassador in passing at reception at the Mayflower.
Later however, Sessions appeared to raise the prospect that the meeting may have occurred and he had simply forgotten it.
"I would have gladly have reported the meeting, the encounter that may have occurred, that some say occurred in the Mayflower, if I had remembered it, or if it actually occurred which I don't remember that it did," Sessions said.