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Sessions breaks with intelligence agencies, says he doesn’t know if Russia wanted Trump to win

The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian brings us up to speed on Jeff Sessions's decision to recuse himself from all investigations into the 2016 presidential campaign. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Fox News that he did not know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.

That assessment differs from the view of U.S. intelligence agencies, which released a report in January declaring that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”

The report also said Moscow did so in part because it “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Declassified report says Putin ‘ordered’ effort to undermine faith in U.S. election and help Trump

Sessions’s comments about Russian meddling in the election came during an interview with Tucker Carlson — the first he has given since he said earlier Thursday that he would recuse himself from any campaign-related probes. While spokespeople for the FBI, which Sessions supervises, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment, the remarks are sure to rankle some within the agencies. John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of CIA, said, “Many within the intelligence community would be surprised that the attorney general would not recall their conclusion that the Russian hacking was intended in part to favor Trump’s election.”

Asked whether the matter would upset members of the intelligence community, McLaughlin said, “I think they’re beyond outrage at this point.”

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke about the suspected Russian attempt to influence American elections in 2016. (Video: Reuters)

For the most part, Sessions repeated the points he made during a news conference hours earlier on his recusal. He confirmed that he had met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — even though he said during his January confirmation hearing, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Sessions said he had been responding to a particular question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who, referring to a freshly posted CNN report, asked what Sessions would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign.

“I think it was an honest answer, Tucker. I thought I was responding exactly to that question,” Sessions said Thursday night.

Carlson soon pressed the attorney general broadly on the topic of Russia and the campaign.

“Did the campaign believe that the Russian government, the Putin government, favored Trump over Clinton in this race?” Carlson asked.

“I have never been told that,” Sessions responded.

“Do you think they did?” Carlson said.

“I don’t have any idea, Tucker. You’d have to ask them,” Sessions said.

It is unclear how Sessions could not have seen or heard of the intelligence community report, which contains the Department of Justice & FBI seal and was released publicly in January, not long before he took over as Attorney General. Then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. held a classified, full-Senate briefing on the matter on Jan. 12. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

Trump himself acknowledged for the first time in January that he believed Russian operatives hacked the Democratic Party during the election, though even then, he disputed reports that the Russians acted to help him win. At his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions acknowledged that he was not well informed about Russia’s cyber provocations.

When Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) pointed out that the FBI had concluded Russia was behind the intrusion, Sessions observed, “at least that’s what’s been reported.” Later, he allowed, “I have no reason to doubt that.” Asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) whether he had any reason to doubt the accuracy of the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia used cyber attacks “to attempt to influence this last election,” Sessions said, “I have no reason to doubt that and have no evidence that would indicate otherwise.”

"Thus far the Bureau has not been willing to give us a full counterintelligence briefing. That can’t persist," Rep. Adam Schiff said. (Video: Video: Reuters / Photo: Getty)

The report that concluded Russia sought to help Trump win the presidency said the Kremlin carried out an unprecedented cyber campaign, penetrating U.S. computer systems and relaying emails to WikiLeaks. It said Putin might have been motivated in part by dislike for Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state who he felt was responsible for inciting protests against his government. It was presented to Trump by Obama administration officials including Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James B. Comey.

The report did not address whether the Russian efforts affected the outcome of the election. Sessions also said that was unclear to him.

“People are bringing forth evidence, and there are congressional committees that are investigating that, and I believe the truth will come out. It usually does,” he said.