WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday denied that he had a third, previously undisclosed meeting with Russian officials and called any suggestion that he was involved with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election an “appalling and detestable lie.”
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions also vigorously defended his right to run the Justice Department even after recusing himself from a probe into Russian interference in the presidential election.
“Let me state this clearly, colleagues: I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or foreign officials concerning any type of interference in any campaign or election in the United States,” Sessions declared.
“I was your colleague in this body for 20 years,” he said. “And the suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government, or 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.”
The attorney general was facing sharp questions about his Russian contacts and his role in firing FBI Director James B. Comey amid concerns that President Donald Trump may be considering firing the special counsel investigating his administration.
Sessions, a former four-term senator from Alabama, was giving his own version of a turbulent month that saw the firing of Comey, the appointment of a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and new questions about Sessions’ own meetings with Russian officials.
The nation’s top law enforcement official, Sessions recused himself on March 2 from the FBI’s investigations of Russian meddling in the election and any improper ties between some of Trump’s campaign or White House aides and Russian authorities.
He emphasized, though, that his recusal did not prevent him from involvement in Comey’s firing.
“It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render an attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations,” Sessions told the senators.
In reality, he said, he was recused “in effect” from the Russia investigation from his first day in office, out of concerns that he might have to recuse himself at some point because he had been a “principal adviser” to the Trump campaign.
“I never received any information” about the investigation, Sessions told the senators.
The hearing opened with brief statements from the committee’s leadership.
“This venue is your opportunity to separate fact from fiction, and to set the record straight on a number of issues reported in the press,” the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.,said as the hearing got underway.
Burr said the committee would seek answers on whether Sessions met with Russian officials or their proxies; what Sessions’ involvement was with Trump’s foreign policy team during the election campaign; why he decided to recuse himself from the government’s investigation on Russia connections; and what role he played in the removal of former FBI director James B. Comey.
Sessions in the past has said he stepped down from the investigation because of his involvement in Trump’s campaign, where he was an early and vocal supporter. But his decision closely followed a controversy over his failure to disclose two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s top envoy in Washington, to his Senate confirmation hearing.
Sessions was asked at the hearing about reports that he had a third meeting with Kislyak in April 2016 during a reception at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, where Trump was giving a campaign speech.
In his opening, committee vice chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., emphasized the seriousness of the threat that is the subject of the inquiry.
“I’m concerned that the president still does not recognize the severity of the threat,” Warner said. “Russia massively intervened in our elections.”
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said on MSNBC on Monday that evidence of that encounter comes in part from an intercepted conversation “between Kislyak and his people.”
Kislyak may have been exaggerating the contact, Franken said.
In a statement, the Justice Department said Sessions began avoiding any briefings related to the Russia probe shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
After his recusal, though, Sessions wrote a memo at Trump’s request saying that he recommended Comey be fired.
In his own testimony before the same committee last week, Comey said he deliberately avoided telling Sessions about what he felt was pressure from Trump to drop an investigation into Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Comey also said that Sessions didn’t respond to his entreaties to keep him away from private meetings with Trump, a version disputed by Sessions.
The hearing comes as a new development roils Washington.
On Monday evening, Trump confidant Christopher Ruddy said in an interview on PBS that Trump was weighing whether to fire Mueller as the special counsel. “I think he’s weighing that option,” Ruddy said.
The comment sparked immediate concerns on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that Trump might seek to block the investigation in an echo of President Richard Nixon’s dismissal of a special prosecutor in the notorious “Saturday Night Massacre” of the Watergate scandal.
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, at another congressional hearing Tuesday, said only he has the authority to fire Mueller and that he would not do so without cause — even if the order came from the president.