Thursday 17 August 2017

Jeff Sessions denies 'false and scurrilous Russia allegations'

Attorney General Jeff Sessions gives evidence on Capitol Hill (AP)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions gives evidence on Capitol Hill (AP)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has heatedly denied that he had any undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador or conversations with Russian officials about the US elections.

He vowed to defend his honour "against scurrilous and false allegations".

Testifying at a Senate hearing, Mr Sessions said 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 dramatic appearance before former colleagues, Mr Sessions also contradicted a contention made by former FBI Director James Comey at a hearing before the same panel last week.

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

"He didn't recall this, but 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, Mr Sessions said.

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.

Mr Sessions argued that in the context of the hearing, "my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it".

He 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, Mr Sessions said: "I did not recuse myself from defending my honour against scurrilous and false allegations."

Despite his statement about the reasons for his recusal, the attorney general did not actually step aside from the Russia probe until March 2, the day after The Washington Post reported on his two previously undisclosed meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Days after that, Mr Sessions also corrected his confirmation hearing testimony to inform the committee about the two meetings with Mr Kislyak.

Democratic Sen Ron Wyden of Oregon asked Mr Sessions about suggestions arising from Mr Comey's testimony last week that there was something "problematic" about his recusal.

Mr Wyden asked Mr Sessions what problematic issues existed.

"Why don't you tell me? There are none, Sen Wyden, there are none," Mr Sessions insisted, his voice rising. "This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don't appreciate it."

As for his role in Mr Comey's sacking, Mr Sessions told senators that he and his second-in-command, Rod Rosenstein, had a "clear view ... that we had problems there, and it was my best judgment that a fresh start at the FBI was the appropriate thing to do. And when asked I said that to the president."

But Mr Sessions said that despite his sense of problems at the FBI, he never raised that with Mr Comey.

And asked about Mr Trump's own contention that he fired Mr Comey with the Russia probe in mind, and regardless of any recommendation from anyone else, Mr Sessions said: "I guess I'll just have to let his words speak for themselves. I'm not sure what was in his mind specifically."

Mr Sessions refused to say whether he had ever discussed the Russia investigation with Mr Trump, arguing that he could not disclose private communications with the president.

On another issue, Sen Marco Rubio, asked Mr Sessions whether Mr Trump records his conversations in the White House. Mr Trump has suggested there might be tapes of his encounters with Mr Comey.

"I do not," Mr Sessions replied.

Mr Comey had also said that Mr Sessions had lingered in the Oval Office following a group meeting, just before the private encounter during which he has said the president asked him to pull back on his investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

As Mr Trump tried to shoo everyone out to talk alone with Mr Comey, Mr Sessions lingered, in Comey's account.

Mr Comey suggested this indicated the attorney general's awareness that it was improper for the president and Comey to meet alone together.

But Mr Sessions disputed that was why he lingered. "I do recall being one of the last ones to leave, I don't know how that occurred," he said.

AP

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