Sessions grilled by senators in angry exchanges
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he never spoke with Russian officials concerning "any type of interference" with the 2016 presidential campaign and called any suggestion he colluded with Russia during the election an "appalling and detestable lie".
Under questioning by Senate Intelligence Committee members yesterday, Mr Sessions added that he was within his responsibilities as attorney general to sign off on the firing of FBI Director James Comey, even though he had recused himself from involvement in a federal probe of Russia's role in the election that was led at the time by Mr Comey.
With pressure growing on the White House over Mr Comey's dismissal and the Russia probe, Mr Sessions also defended himself against Democratic allegations that he gave misleading testimony about his contacts with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing. "That is false," Mr Sessions said.
While the hearing lacked the detailed revelations that Mr Comey provided in his testimony last week, it featured sharp exchanges between Mr Sessions and committee Democrats over accusations the attorney general recused himself from the Russia probe, in part, for reasons that haven't been publicly disclosed.
"Why don't you tell me," what those accusations are, Mr Sessions said to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. "There are none - I can tell you that for absolute certainty," he continued, adding that he doesn't appreciate "secret innuendo" being leaked about him.
Mr Sessions sought to pre-empt questions from the panel about conversations with President Donald Trump regarding the Russia investigation and the May 9 firing of Mr Comey, saying he "cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I had with the president."
Democrats said he had little basis for doing so without the White House claiming executive privilege.
Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico repeatedly said Mr Sessions' answers amounted to "obstructing" the congressional probe and his refusal to answer was without justification. In a response to Maine independent Senator Angus King, the attorney general suggested he wanted to keep the president's options open. "It would be premature to me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice on executive privilege," Mr Sessions said.
Mr Sessions, in his first public testimony on Capitol Hill since his January confirmation hearing, suggested he's only aware of the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia attempted to undermine the election because of media reports. He said he never read classified reports about the meddling or got a briefing, even before he joined the administration.
"It appears so," Mr Sessions said when asked whether Russians interfered in the 2016 election. "I know nothing but what I've read in the paper."
Responding to questions about the firing of Mr Comey, Mr Sessions said he never informed the FBI chief of concerns about his job performance, which the administration cited in his dismissal.
And he added that he discussed the need for a "fresh start" at the FBI with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein before either of the men were confirmed to their posts.
Mr Sessions largely confirmed a key portion of Mr Comey's description of a February meeting at the White House, at which the attorney general and Mr Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner left the Oval Office so the president and Mr Comey could speak alone.
He said Mr Comey expressed concerns afterwards about being left alone with the president, a point highlighted in the former FBI director's testimony last week.