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Updated 9:18 PM  |  June 13, 2017

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Warner challenges Republicans pushing for less focus on Trump and more on Russia

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) challenged Republican senators calling for the committee to focus less on President Trump and more on Russian threats, arguing that the president’s “unprecedented” move firing the FBI director “superseded some of our activities.”

Then-FBI Director James B. Comey “was leading this very same Russia investigation,” Warner pointed out to critics of the focus on his firing, adding that there was a “very troubling amount of smoke, at least, that’s out there between individuals that were affiliated with the Trump campaign.”

Warner urged Jeff Sessions to turn over to the committee any documents and information about Justice Department procedures that Sessions could share, noting they could help “shed some light” on “some of the contradictions between today and last week.” He was referring to Comey’s alternative take on the substance and propriety of several interactions with Trump and Sessions.

“I do want to say that a change at the top of the FBI should have no impact whatsoever on an investigation,” Warner added, noting that his request was “not about re-litigating 2016, it’s about finding out what happened.”

McCain prompts Sessions to remember something he discussed with Russian ambassador
Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his testimony Tuesday. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

During his testimony, Jeff Session has repeatedly said some variation of “I don’t recall” in response to a question.

When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) brought up one of Sessions’s discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States — meetings Sessions did not disclose to Congress during his confirmation hearing — Sessions said he did not recall whether he raised any concerns about:

  • Alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election
  • Similar efforts against American allies
  • Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But Sessions did remember something he brought up — concerns about Russian actions in Ukraine.

On that front, Sessions said he vividly recalled discussing the issue with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, because he had met with the Ukrainian ambassador a day before to hear his concerns.

“I raised those with Mr. Kislyak, and he gave, as you might imagine, not one inch,” Sessions said. “I remember pushing back on it, and it was a bit testy on that subject.”

Sessions: Comey made ‘stunning’ decision to supersede AG Lynch
Attorney General Jeff Sessions gestures as FBI Director James B. Comey looks on in February before Sessions’s first meeting with heads of federal law enforcement components at the Justice Department. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended his decision to recommend that FBI Director James B. Comey be fired, calling Comey’s decision to supersede then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch’s authority “stunning.”

“It violates fundamental powers,” Sessions said of Comey’s decision to announce the termination of the FBI’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server instead of deferring to Lynch.

When Comey defended that decision publicly to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions said, “that was additional confirmation that the director’s thinking was not clear.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex), a member of the Senate leadership, walked Sessions through a timeline of his decision to fire Comey, concluding that because Sessions recused himself from Justice Department probe two months before Comey was dismissed, the Russia probe couldn’t have played a role in his thinking – even if the president said it played a role in his.

Cornyn also quoted Comey’s words back to Sessions, asking whether the former FBI director was right when he said the president can fire an FBI director for any reason, or for no reason at all.

“Yes, and I think that was probably good for him to say,” Sessions said, remarking that he believed the next FBI director — the administration has named Christopher Wray as Trump’s pick for the job — would be “new and excellent” in the post.

“I think that statement was probably a valuable thing for Director Comey to say, and I appreciate that he did,” Sessions said.

Kamala Harris pushes Sessions on documentation
WASHINGTON, DC – During the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Senator Kamala Harris (D- CA) questions Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, along with Acting Director Andrew McCabe Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Admiral Michael Rogers Director of the National Security Agency, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC Wednesday June 7, 2017. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Following other Democrats’ concerns that Jeff Sessions was refusing to answer certain questions based only on the possibility that the White House could assert executive privilege in the future, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) tried to extract a promise from Sessions that he would provide any documentation that would help the committee’s investigation.

Sessions would only promise to review the rules of the Justice Department, and respond accordingly.

Harris, a former California attorney general before getting elected to the Senate last November, tried to shorten Sessions’s answers to her questions, causing him to bristle.

The attorney general said that if she didn’t allow him to fully answer her question “you’ll accuse me of lying. I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.’’

Sessions said he couldn’t remember much of the details of his conversations or communications on the subject of Russia.

“I may have had some conversations and I think I did, with the general strategic concept of the possibility of whether or not Russia and the United States could get on a more harmonious relationship,’’ he said, calling it “tragic’’ that the two countries don’t get along better.

Cotton twice earns thanks from Sessions for friendly questioning
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies in an open hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, on June, 13, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Bill O’Leary)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s testimony has been marked by some heated moments, including tense debates over whether he is “stonewalling” the committee.

And then came Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas. The first-term senator opened by suggesting Democrats on the committee were going down “rabbit trails,” invoked the novels of John le Carré and the James Bond films and generally cast questions about potential collusion between the Trump campaign as Russia as the work of outlandish spy fiction.

His line of questioning was so friendly that a smiling Sessions twice thanked him for his inquiries. When Cotton said it was ridiculous to suggest that a potential interaction between Sessions and the Russian ambassador at a Washington hotel last year could have involved potential collusion, Sessions had only praise for the senator.

“Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton,” Sessions said. “It’s just like through the looking glass. I mean, what is this?”

Cotton’s performance was hailed by conservatives on Twitter:

Cotton did again bring up the disputed meeting Comey and Sessions had in mid-February, during which Comey said he expressed concerns about being left alone with President Trump but got no response from Sessions. He asked Sessions why Comey distrusted Trump from their first meeting, but Sessions said he could not answer.

In winding down his questioning, Cotton turned to a subject near and dear to the Trump administration’s heart: the danger of leaks. He ticked off a series of news reports based on leaks, and asked Sessions if he agreed that such leaks should lead to prosecutions.

Sessions replied by thanking Cotton again, noting that the Trump administration had brought charges against one suspected leaker so far — a government contractor in Georgia. And Sessions, calling leaks “damaging” to the country, warned that investigations were underway into other leaks, ending with a threat for other people considering leaking information.

“This is … already resulting in investigations, and I fear that some people may find that they wish they hadn’t leaked,” Sessions said.

Sessions testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former senator from Alabama, will face his former colleagues this afternoon in a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is expected to face questions on contacts with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, and his role in the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director.