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Six times Jeff Sessions talked about perjury, access and recusal — when it involved the Clintons

What has Jeff Sessions said about perjury, access and special prosecutors? (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
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Not a month into the job, Attorney General Jeff Sessions finds himself in the hot seat for not disclosing at his confirmation hearing that he spoke twice last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The meetings — which occurred when Sessions was a senator and senior member of the influential Armed Services Committee, as well as one of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s top foreign policy advisers — breathed life into calls for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations involving Trump and Russia.

A day after these meetings became public, Sessions said Thursday afternoon that he would recuse himself from any probes related to the 2016 presidential campaign. Some legislators have also said he should resign, and the American Civil Liberties Union and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday called for an investigation into potential perjury.

Sessions served as a senator for two decades, and he was an outspoken surrogate for Trump on the campaign trail. Because of that, he has talked extensively on all the topics for which he now faces criticism — lying under oath, the importance of meetings, handling sensitive investigations and even correcting the congressional record. He was particularly critical of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and spoke extensively about the investigation of her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Those sentiments are a lot more important now, given the spotlight Sessions is under. Here are six times he addressed the topics, in other contexts.

Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose

1. “In America … no one is above the law.”

After then-President Bill Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, Sessions — then a freshman senator from Alabama — went on television to discuss the significance of lying under oath.

“I am concerned about a president under oath being alleged to have committed perjury,” Sessions said in a January 1999 interview with C-SPAN that was resurfaced and widely shared on social media Wednesday night. “I hope that he can rebut that and prove that did not happen. I hope he can show that he did not commit obstruction of justice and that he can complete his term. But there are serious allegations that that occurred.”

Speaking about allegations of perjury against former president Bill Clinton in 1999, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said "no one is above the law." (Video: C-SPAN)

Sessions, who vowed to give Bill Clinton a fair trial, said people tend to see things differently based on “what party you belong to.”

This comment is important because of the way congressional Republicans are now responding to the news of Sessions’s contacts with the Russian ambassador. While some Democrats have called on him to resign, top Republicans instead argued he should recuse himself from any Russia probes.

“In America, the Supreme Court and the American people believe no one is above the law,” Sessions said in 1999. “The president has gotten himself into this fix that is very serious.”

Perjury is an extremely difficult charge to prove, requiring investigators to show a person under oath “willfully … subscribes any material matter which he does not believe to be true.” Even if someone says something false to Congress, investigators have to prove they knew at the time they were doing so.

Republicans asked for a perjury investigation of Hillary Clinton for telling Congress “there was nothing marked classified on my emails, either sent or received.” That was not true. FBI Director James B. Comey has said that investigators found three such emails with the notation “(C)” — meaning confidential — contained within the text. But Comey said it was possible Clinton “didn’t understand what a ‘C’ meant when she saw it in the body of an email like that” — which would undermine a perjury charge. The State Department has further said two emails might have been marked incorrectly.

2. Bill Clinton’s acquittal “will weaken the legal system by providing an option for those who consider being less than truthful in court.”

Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999. Sessions, who voted to convict Clinton on both charges, said he was worried that the Senate’s decision would help anyone looking to lie under oath and could damage the country’s respect for the rule of law.

“It is crucial to our system of justice that we demand the truth,” Sessions said in a statement at the time. “I fear that an acquittal of this President will weaken the legal system by providing an option for those who consider being less than truthful in court.”

Sessions said that to him, it was “proven beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty” that Clinton committed perjury, and he assailed “the chief law-enforcement officer of the land, whose oath of office calls on him to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” for what he called an attack on the law.

This is important because during his confirmation hearing, Sessions testified under oath that he had not communicated with the Russian ambassador — despite two such contacts.

A spokeswoman for Sessions said there was “absolutely nothing misleading” about his answer, because he was discussing contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, not meetings Sessions had in his role as a senator. Sessions made a similar assertion in a statement released late Wednesday. He did not deny meeting with Russian officials, but instead said he never met with them “to discuss issues of the campaign.” (The Post story to which he was responding never said he discussed campaign issues.)

In the Clinton case, Sessions went on to evoke the Watergate-era case against President Richard M. Nixon, who resigned after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment in 1974 but before the full House of Representatives voted on them.

“Whereas the handling of the case against President Nixon clearly strengthened the nation’s respect for law, justice and truth, the Clinton impeachment may unfortunately have the opposite result,” Sessions said.

Top Republicans call on Sessions to recuse himself from Russia investigation

3. “Assure the public the matter will be handled without partisanship”

As Hillary Clinton’s email investigation was nearing its end last year, then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Bill Clinton met aboard the attorney general’s plane at an airport in Phoenix. The meeting sparked calls for Lynch to recuse herself from the case, and while she stopped short of doing that, she ultimately said she would accept Comey’s recommendation.

Trump repeatedly questioned Lynch’s meeting, as did many people supporting him. Among them was Reince Priebus, who is now the White House chief of staff.

Three days before the election, Sessions, a former U.S. attorney, signed a op-ed with Rudolph W. Giuliani and other former federal prosecutors calling for Lynch to appoint a special counsel, saying, “The Department of Justice has been thwarted by its top officials’ refusal to conduct a proper investigation.”

“The appropriate response when the subject matter is public and it arises in a highly-charged political atmosphere is for the Attorney General to appoint a Special Counsel of great public stature and indisputable independence to assure the public the matter will be handled without partisanship,” the former prosecutors, all of whom were supporting Trump, said.

Sessions had previously been critical of the plane meeting, but he also rebuked Lynch for not being the one to make the decision on whether Hillary Clinton should be charged.

“That’s a total abandonment of her responsibility, of course,” Sessions said on Fox Business Network. “The FBI director can make a recommendation to her, but she’s the one that decides whether or not to bring a case before the grand jury. So I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the meeting that you mentioned on the airplane. It put Comey in a position that he had to make this announcement.”

4. “The man wanted access to talk about something. This is very important to people, and they have an agenda. They wouldn’t be asking for access for nothing.”

Throughout the campaign, Sessions was critical of the Clinton Foundation’s dealings with foreign donors, suggesting essentially that donors were able to buy access to Hillary Clinton. In a conversation with CNN, Sessions was pressed on whether there was evidence donors actually got something beyond access — such as a policy or other action.

“The man wanted access to talk about something,” Sessions responded. “This is very important to people, and they have an agenda. They wouldn’t be asking for access for nothing.”

That is important because a spokeswoman for Sessions has sought to minimize his encounters with the Russian ambassador, casting the September meeting in his office as one of more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, South Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian and German ambassadors. The meeting came at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials have said was a Russian cyber campaign to affect the presidential race.

A Justice Department official first said Sessions did not have “strong recollection of what was said,” then in a statement later Wednesday night Sessions denied they discussed the campaign. Sessions’s previous comments, though, suggest he at least should have known the meeting was important and that the Russian ambassador wanted something.

Jason Chaffetz said Attorney General Jeff Sessions should "clarify his testimony" about his contacts with Russian officials during the presidential campaign. (Video: Reuters)

5. “If it’s different from what he told the Congress in his testimony, and the American people, then he had to correct it.”

When Comey announced that agents were resuming their probe of Clinton’s use of a private email server, Sessions went on Fox Business Network to talk about the importance of the development and his concerns about how the probe had been handled. At the time, Comey was under fire for notifying Congress the investigation was back on — which upended the presidential campaign just weeks before Election Day. But in Sessions’s view, Comey had no choice. He had told Congress the investigation was over, and now that was no longer the case.

“If it’s different from what he told the Congress in his testimony, and the American people, then he had to correct it,” Sessions said.

That is important because Sessions himself is now under pressure to change his own testimony to Congress.

At Sessions’s confirmation hearing in January, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked the attorney general nominee what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign. As attorney general, Sessions would supervise investigations into that.

“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he responded. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

A spokeswoman for Sessions has said there was “absolutely nothing misleading” about Sessions’s answer, and noted, “He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.” But even Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said on Twitter that Sessions must “clarify” his testimony and recuse himself from any investigations.

6. “A case of this high profile should have been handled as clean as possible, with the least possible ability for anybody to question what was done.”

One of Sessions’s particular frustrations with the Clinton email investigation was that top Clinton aide Cheryl Mills was allowed to sit in on Clinton’s FBI interview. On “The Howie Carr Show,” he spoke at length about those concerns and said, “A case of this high profile should have been handled as clean as possible, with the least possible ability for anybody to question what was done, and they left a lot of things out there that caused real questions in my mind, and it’s troubling.”

That is important because critics say Sessions’s interactions with the Russian ambassador, and his omission of them in his testimony to Congress, might muddy the Justice Department and FBI’s probes of Russian interference in the presidential election and possible contacts between Trump associates and Russians. Until Thursday, Sessions had stopped short of recusing himself, saying only that he would do so if appropriate.

This story, first published at 1:04 p.m., has been updated with news of Sessions’s recusal.

Further reading:

The Daily 202: Trump’s Russia headache gets worse, as Sessions struggles to spin undisclosed meetings

National security adviser Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador, despite denials, officials say

Flynn was then forced to resign from the White House