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Sessions: ‘No clear recollection’ of proposed Trump-Putin meeting

Despite his lack of clarity on what transpired with Papadopoulos, Sessions said he believes he rejected the suggested meeting with Putin.


Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday he never lied under oath about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election and didn’t recall conversations with Trump campaign aides about their Russia-linked contacts until he saw news reports about them.

At his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he has “no clear recollection” of what was said at a session at which a Trump campaign associate, George Papadopoulos, proposed organizing a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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However, Sessions said that despite his lack of clarity on what transpired at the March 2016 meeting, he believes he rejected the suggested meeting with Putin.

“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,” Sessions told the committee. “But I did not recall this event, which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago, and would gladly have reported it.”

A short time later, Sessions was blunter: “At the meeting, I pushed back.”

Sessions has come under scrutiny about his repeated denials or seemingly shifting answers to questions about what he knew about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia, as special counsel Robert Mueller and several congressional committees probe Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.

In January, he told lawmakers he had no communications with Russians during the 2016 campaign, but it was later revealed that he met at least twice with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign. Sessions said Tuesday that he had meant in the context of his duties as a campaign adviser: “I certainly didn’t mean I’d never met a Russian in the history of my life.”

Earlier this year, Sessions also said he didn’t know of any conversations between campaign surrogates and Russians. But a recent plea agreement by Papadopoulos, who acknowledged lying to the FBI, indicated that Sessions had heard at the March 2016 policy advisers’ meeting about the adviser’s contacts with Russia-linked people.

Sessions conceded Tuesday that his memory of 2016 was imperfect, blaming the helter-skelter nature of the Trump campaign, which he said was “a new form of chaos every day.” But he denied he had ever misled Congress, calling any accusations that he had done so “a lie” and growing indignant at Democrats’ assertions that his story had evolved.

“My story has never changed,” Sessions said. I’ve always told the truth.”

Democrats argued otherwise.

“The attorney general must have been very much aware of a continuing exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” said Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the panel. “Under oath, knowing in advance that he would be asked about this subject, the attorney general gave answers that were, at best, incomplete.”

While Sessions said news accounts and recollections of other participants had refreshed his recollection of the foreign policy advisers’ meeting, he said he still did not remember whether Trump or others who attended weighed in on Papadopoulos’ proposal.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during an annual oversight hearing of the Department of Justice on Nov. 14.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during an annual oversight hearing of the Department of Justice on Nov. 14. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

He also said he did not remember a conversation with another former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, who has said he told Sessions about an upcoming trip to Russia after a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington.

“You did not tell him to not go to Russia is that correct?” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) asked.

“No, I didn’t tell him not to go to Russia,” Sessions responded. “I didn’t recall [Page] saying that. Am I supposed to stop him from taking the trip?”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York) noted that Sessions had once spoken about prosecuting a police officer for changing his testimony, even though the officer later corrected it.

“Mr. Jeffries, nobody, nobody, not you or anyone else should be prosecuted…or accused of perjury for answering the question the way I did,” Sessions shot back. “I’ve always tried to answer the questions fairly and accurately.”

Sessions said Tuesday he didn’t think it was fair to conclude that Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation —an action that led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel — amounted to obstruction of justice. And he wouldn’t say whether the president could pardon people such as indicted former campaign advisers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates or even Trump’s own family members, who don’t face any charges.

“The attorney general should not be giving legal opinions from the seat of his britches,” he said

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) called that an evasion. “When you answer the way you have, it suggests that the rule of law is crumbling at our feet,” he said.

Sessions’ contentious appearance came a day after the Justice Department floated the possibility of a special counsel to investigate issues related to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration’s approval of the sale of large uranium mining firm to Russian interests in 2013.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Conyers slammed the Justice Department over a letter sent Monday on the topic, saying it raised the possibility of what he called “a new special counsel to cater to the President’s political needs.”

As video screens displayed some of Trump’s tweets calling for FBI and Justice Department investigations into “crooked Hillary Clinton,” Conyers asked Sessions about whether it was appropriate for a president to try to influence federal investigations.

“A president cannot improperly influence an investigation and I have not been improperly influenced,” the attorney general said. “The president speaks his mind. He’s bold and direct about what he said.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte claimed Sessions’ Democratic predecessors, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, had politicized the Justice Department and suggested Sessions was undoing that.

In his early testimony, Sessions also discussed other issues GOP lawmakers and Trump have been intently focused on, such as leaks of classified information. The attorney general said 27 such investigations are open, which he said was a dramatic increase from before he took office.

Sessions was also questioned about a reported investigation by Mueller into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s alleged involvement with a plot to kidnap a Turkish dissident living in Pennsylvania. Flynn’s attorneys have described the reports as false.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) asked Sessions if he had any knowledge that Flynn was offered $ 15 million to essentially force the exile, Fethullah Gulen, out of the U.S. and back to Turkey.

“Absolutely not,” Sessions said.

However, the attorney general confirmed he was aware of Turkey’s interest in getting its hands on Gulen.

“I’m aware the Turkish government continued to press the federal government with regard to seeking the return of Mr. Gulen to Turkey,” Sessions said. “My department had a role to play in it, although I’m not at liberty to discuss it today.”

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