Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a star player in two key controversies about the Trump administration: the investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia and whether the president improperly interfered in an FBI investigation.
Sessions was asked about all of this under oath Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the lead congressional committee on Russia. Here are four key takeaways:
1) Sessions denied four major allegations against him with regard to the Russia investigation
1) He denied that he purposefully left out his two 2016 meetings with Russians at his confirmation hearing. (Sessions said he was answering a question about “surrogates,” not himself specifically. But that doesn’t explain why, as CNN reported, Sessions did not acknowledge the meetings in his security clearance form.)
2) He denied that he had a third, undisclosed private one-on-one conversation with the Russian ambassador. “I may have had an encounter” with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a D.C. hotel in April 2016, Sessions allowed. But he said that the two never substantially talked.
3) He denied that he recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation because he wasn’t forthcoming about Russia meetings. Sessions's recusal came the day after The Washington Post reported the first two meetings, but Sessions said he was already talking with lawyers about whether his Trump campaign work would force him to hand over the Russia investigation to his deputy.
4) He denied that he violated his recusal by advising the president to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. “Supervising all the federal agencies is my responsibility, trying to get the very best people in those agencies at the top of them is my responsibility,” he said.
2) Sessions did not deny Comey’s broader allegations of the president meddling
Part of that is that Sessions, obviously, was not in the room in Comey’s one-on-one meetings with the president, where Comey said Trump directed him to back off the FBI’s investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.
But Sessions did corroborate two key parts of Comey’s testimony:
1) The details of a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting, where Sessions and other top aides left the room and Trump talked to Comey alone. When asked by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) whether Sessions “lingered” (Comey's word) because the attorney general knew he wasn’t supposed to leave the FBI director alone with the president, Sessions ducked: “What I did recall is I did depart,” Sessions said, “and Director Comey was sitting in front of the president’s desk, and they were talking.”
2) Sessions corroborated that Comey came to him the next day and asked not to be alone with the president. Sessions said of that moment: “He was concerned about it, and his recollection of what he said to me about this concern is consistent with my recollection.”
3) Sessions appears to have contradicted himself several times
1) Sessions said he trusted Comey to do his job well and that’s why he didn’t get involved when Comey expressed concern about the president interfering in the FBI investigation.
But: Sessions also said he thought Comey should be fired. And he advised the president as much, mainly for the way Comey handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
2) He said he felt okay leaving Comey alone with the president in the Oval Office.
But: When Comey brought it up the next day, Sessions said he agreed it wasn’t a good idea to be alone with the president.
4) About the only thing Sessions can recall for sure is that he didn’t do anything wrong
Sessions hedged almost all of his answers about whether/when he met with Russians, or why he was involved in firing Comey, or how he feels about the president’s decisions, with: “I don’t recall” or “I believe so” or “maybe.”
At one point, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Sessions to give details about his September meeting with the Russian ambassador in his Senate office. Sessions couldn’t.
But Sessions proved he is clearly capable of giving an answer in black and white. Several times, the mild-mannered Southerner came across as downright angry when emphasizing that he did not have conversations with Russian officials about meddling in the election:
"[T] he suggestion that I participated in any collusion — that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to 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,” he said.