WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a Senate panel Wednesday that he would not answer questions about his conversations with President Donald Trump leading up to the firing of former FBI Director James B. Comey, saying he considered them confidential.
Sessions, the former senator from Alabama and 20-year member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is testifying before that panel for the first time since being confirmed as attorney general.
Democrats have made it clear they will once again press him for answers about his conversations with Trump and Comey in the days before Trump dismissed the FBI director in May.
In testimony earlier this year before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions said he and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein agreed that Comey needed to go because of his decision to talk about the email investigation of Hillary Clinton _ and his defense of it in Congress.
But Sessions would not answer Wednesday when Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, asked whether Trump actually fired Comey to remove a cloud created by the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
“That calls for a communication I’ve had with the president, and I believe it remains confidential,” Sessions said. Pressed by Feinstein about whether that meant Trump did say something about Russia, Sessions said he “cannot confirm or deny the existence of any communication with the president that I consider confidential.”
Sessions says he needs to protect a tradition of confidential conversations between the president and aides. But Trump has not formally invoked executive privilege, which might force a legal confrontation between the White House and Congress.
Last week, the Democratic senators on the committee sent a letter to Sessions, warning him that they expected he “will answer members’ questions fully and truthfully” or invoke the privilege.
The committee’s Republican chairman also indicated that he wants to probe further into the reasons for Comey’s firing. “The American people have a right to know why he was fired, especially in the middle of so many high-profile investigations,” Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said in opening remarks.
Sessions’ shifting statements on his conversations with Russian officials sparked sharp exchanges as Democrats pressed him on whether he misled the committee in previous testimony. In January, Sessions testified that he “did not have communication” with Russian officials, but news accounts later revealed three meetings with the former Russian ambassador. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Sessions on whether he had given “false testimony.”
Sessions said he had understood the questions as senators wanting to know if he had talked with Russians about interfering in the election.
“Every one of your previous questions was about improper involvement, and I felt the answer was no,” Sessions said.
Sessions also said that he has not been interviewed by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating questions of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Sessions also said Mueller has not requested an interview.
The attorney general got testy when Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who was one of his interrogators in the January session, accused him of “moving the goalposts” on his answers about Russia. His current statements are “very different from saying, ‘I have not had conversations with the Russians,'” Franken said.
But Sessions said he had been “taken aback” by Franken’s question toward the end of a long day and said he had made a “good faith response” denying collusion. “I don’t think it’s fair for you to suggest otherwise,” he said.
The appearance comes after a tumultuous summer during which Sessions endured a barrage of public criticism from Trump, even as he aggressively moved to champion tough policies on crime and immigration. When Trump decided to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it was Sessions who delivered the news.
In his opening remarks, Sessions said DACA was “unlawful and contrary to the laws passed by this institution.”
Sessions, a hard-liner on immigration issues during his time in the Senate, said he hadn’t changed his views that people who enter the country illegally should not be eligible to receive citizenship, or government benefits.
“If people are here unlawfully, it seems to me the last thing you want to do is subsidize that unlawfulness,” he said.
But he added that Trump remains interested in working with Congress to find a legislative solution for the approximately 700,000 young immigrants who have been protected from deportation by the DACA program. “The president has said he wants to work with Congress. He has a heart for young people,” he said.
Sessions also defended his controversial policy of trying to deny federal grants to so-called sanctuary cities that don’t cooperate with immigration enforcement.