Sessions contradicts Comey at Senate intelligence hearing

In his appearance before the Senate intelligence committee Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions contradicted a contention made by former FBI director James Comey last week that there were problems with his recusal from the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election.

'Detestable and appalling lie' to suggest he colluded with Russia, says U.S. attorney general

The attorney general contradicts ex-FBI director in his testimony to the Senate intelligence committee. 4:53

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions heatedly denied on Tuesday that he had any undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador or conversations with Russian officials about the U.S. elections. He vowed to defend his honour "against scurrilous and false allegations."

Sessions testified it was a "detestable and appalling lie" to suggest that he participated in or was aware of any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

In his appearance before former colleagues, Sessions also contradicted a contention made by former FBI director James Comey at a hearing before the same panel last week.

Sessions: “The suggestion that I participated in any collusion with the Russian government … is an appalling and detestable lie.” 0:56

Comey said that, after an encounter with President Donald Trump in which he said Trump pressured him to back off an investigation into the former national security adviser, he had "implored" Sessions to make sure he was never left alone with the president again — but that Sessions didn't respond.

"I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policy" regarding contacts with the White House, Sessions said.

Comey fired for 'usurpation'

Asked about Comey's firing, Sessions said Comey's decision to announce that Hillary Clinton would not be prosecuted over her emails was a "usurpation" of the Justice Department's authority.

Sessions said he recommended Comey's firing after a number of concerns about his job performance. But Comey's very public handling of the Clinton email investigation was chief among them.

Senate intelligence committee chair Richard Burr, right, accompanied by vice-chairman Mark Warner, questions Sessions on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

He said Comey's decision to announce the results of the investigation without Justice Department approval was "a stunning development" because "the FBI is the investigative team. They don't decide prosecution."

He called Comey's move "a thunderous thing" and it caused him to conclude "that a fresh start was appropriate."

Sessions also said he was involved in Comey's firing because he oversees the FBI. He added that, "to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation" would render him unable to manage the leadership of the FBI would be "absurd."

Sessions angrily denied that there were problems related to his decision to recuse himself from the FBI's investigation into Russian activities during the election.

Comey testified earlier that he knew of reasons why it would be problematic for Sessions to remain involved in the Russia investigation, even before he recused himself.

Jeff Sessions has a heated exchange with Senator Ron Wyden over "problematic" matters brought up in James Comey's testimony. 0:51

Sessions raised his voice to the Democratic senator pressing him for an answer, insisting there were no such reasons.

Sessions said to Senator Ron Wyden: "Why don't you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden, there are none."

Sessions bristled at Wyden, telling the Oregon senator that people are suggesting through innuendo that he has not been honest.

"I don't appreciate it."

'You're impeding this investigation': senator

"You raised your right hand here today and said you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich said. "Now you're not answering questions. You're impeding this investigation."
Sessions refused to say whether he had discussed FBI director James Comey's handling of the FBI's Russia probe with Trump before the president fired Comey on May 9. Similarly, he did not answer whether Trump had expressed concern to Sessions about the attorney general's March decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions previously offered to resign because of tensions with Trump over his recusal decision.

Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich accused Sessions of violating his vow to tell the full truth. “You are impeding this investigation,” he stated. 2:18

Sessions also refused to answer whether any Justice Department officials had discussed possible presidential pardons of individuals being looked at in the Russia investigations.
Russia has denied repeatedly that it interfered in the U.S. election, and Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign with Moscow.

'I am not stonewalling'

Wyden told Sessions, "I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don't want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged."
"I am not stonewalling," Sessions replied. Sessions said he was following Justice Department policy and would not discuss confidential communications with the president.

Senator Angus King, an independent, questioned Sessions's legal basis for refusing to answer. Sessions said Trump had not invoked executive privilege regarding the conversations.

Senator Ron Wyden, right, got into a heated exchange with Sessions over his refusal to detail his conversations with Trump. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Executive privilege is a power that can be claimed by a president or senior executive branch officials to withhold information from Congress or the courts to protect the executive branch decision-making process.
"It is my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the president when he has not had a full opportunity to review the questions and to make a decision on whether or not to approve such an answer," Sessions said.

'Scurrilous and false allegations'

The former Alabama senator defended himself against accusations that he misrepresented himself during his confirmation hearing by saying he hadn't met with Russian officials during the campaign. Sessions argued that in the context of the hearing, "my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it."

Sessions: “I did not recuse myself from defending my honour.” 0:14

Sessions said he recused himself from the Justice Department's Russia investigation only because of a regulation to require the step because of his involvement in the Trump campaign. He never, he insisted, knew anything about the Russia probe or had any role in it.

While he had recused himself from the Russia probe, Sessions said, "I did not recuse myself from defending my honour against scurrilous and false allegations."

Watch the full testimony

With files from Reuters