Sessions Testimony: Senators Grill Attorney General on Russian Contacts

Attorney General Jeff Sessions stridently defended himself Tuesday against accusations of that he may have colluded with Russian officials during last year's election.

Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the allegations were an "appalling and detestable lie."

"Let me state this clearly: I have never met with or had any conversations with Russians or any foreign officials concerning any ... interference with any campaign or election," Sessions said.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General came under fire from senators for "stonewalling" and dodging as he claimed he could not answer certain questions because the president may want to invoke executive privilege.

Look back over the action as it unfolded below.


What We Learned and What We Didn't From Sessions' Testimony

After two hours of testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrats were left fuming over what the attorney general didn't answer

Sessions would not say whether the president told him he wanted to fire former FBI Director James Comey because of his handling of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Nor would he say why the memo Sessions wrote justifying the firing of Comey was so different than the reasoning the president offered in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt days later.

There were few definitive answers. Asked for yes and no answers, he said he didn't recall certain things. Asked if he'd had more meetings with Russians, he said at one point no, and at another point he really couldn't remember any more. 

Still, we did learn more about how Sessions defines the scope of his recusal from the Russia investigation, and he confirmed many of the circumstances and facts of Comey’s private conversations with the president.

Democrats appeared largely unsatisfied with much of the briefing: his answers didn’t “pass the smell test,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. “You are obstructing,” said New Mexico’s Sen. Martin Heinrich. Republicans, however, seemed more satisfied with his answers. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton even asked if Sessions was a fan of spy movies.

— Jane C. Timm

Senate Restricts Reporters Prior to Testimony, Then Backtracks

The GOP chairman of the Senate Rules Committee quickly backed down from an apparent attempt to impose new restrictions on reporters Tuesday prior to Sessions' testimony. 

Reporters have for decades freely approached senators in the hallways and outside the meeting rooms of the Capitol for impromptu interviews, so they were stunned and outraged when told Tuesday morning they would now need prior approval from the senator before asking questions on camera in the Senate.

By the end of the day, however, Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL), said there would be no changes to the rules — for now at least. “No additional restrictions have been put in place by the Rules Committee," Shelby said. 

The Capitol has been unusually crowded with reporters lately, raising legitimate concerns about the safety of lawmakers and reporters alike, especially around heavy TV cameras.

But many senators — including Republican and Democratic senators — viewed the new restrictions as overly draconian. The Radio and Television Correspondents Association condemned the new rules “in the strongest possible terms" while the National Press Club's Journalism Institute said, "We remain concerned that such constitutionally questionable practices were even discussed at all."

— Alex Seitz-Wald 

Sessions: FBI Probe of Clinton's Emails Should Not Have Been Publicly Discussed

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island dug in by asking Sessions about his past praise for Comey.

He then questioned him specifically about the decision-making process for Comey’s public announcements regarding the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use. Comey’s October announcement that the FBI would reopen its probe has been cited by Clinton herself as derailing her campaign at a crucial moment.

Sessions said the reason Comey needed to announce reopening the investigation was because he’d already come out with other developments.

Sessions' larger takeaway? The investigation should never have been discussed publicly at all.

“It would have been better… never to have talked about that investigation to begin with,” Sessions said.

“It went against classical prosecutorial policies that I learned when I was a U.S. Attorney and an Assistant U.S. Attorney.”

— Joy Y. Wang 

Kamala Harris Again Reprimanded By Committee Chair

California Democrat Sen. Kamala Harris was again reprimanded for questioning and interrupting a witness while questioning Sessions on Tuesday. 

She was first interrupted by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who said Sessions should be allowed to answer; Committee Chair Sen. Richard Burr, of North Carolina, said the chairman would control the hearing, before adding that the witness should be allowed to answer questions.

She is the only senator to be interrupted and reprimanded, despite the fact that many senators — most noticeably Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who sits next to Burr and is the vice chairman on the committee — interrupted Sessions before and after Harris spoke.

Sessions insisted that he didn’t want to be rushed during his questioning, because he didn’t want to be later accused of lying should he not properly qualify his answers. He also said he wasn't able to be "rushed" on his answers, saying, "it makes me nervous."

Harris was reprimanded similarly for her questioning six days ago by Burr, while she was questioning the deputy attorney general.

— Jane C. Timm

White House Reacts to Sessions: 'Pretty Impressed'

A glimpse inside West Wing thinking: A senior administration official says they're "pretty impressed" with Sessions' testimony so far; they like that he came out swinging. Note this is probably something President Trump will approve of, too, despite the recent tension between him and his Attorney General. Sessions made a point to play the loyalty card to the president during today's hearing

One more note: Sessions said he wouldn't answer certain questions regarding private conversations with the president in part because the president hadn't reviewed the questions yet. We've asked the White House for further clarity on whether they will follow up with Sessions to allow him to answer those questions if he's called back before Congress, but no response yet.

— Hallie Jackson

Cotton Pulling Questions From White House Playbook: What About the Leaks?

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton asked a slew of questions that sounded an awful lot like the president’s own Tweets — was there collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign or is this a ridiculous witch hunt? And what about the leaks to the media? How are they being prosecuted?

His questioning of the Attorney General comes several hours after he and 14 other Republican senators had lunch with the president.

Sen. Manchin Asks for 'Yes' or 'No' on Russian Collusion, Gets 'Don't Recall'

Sen. Joe Manchin pressed Sessions on whether he knew of any direct contact between Russian officials and Trump’s advisers.

“I racked my brain and I do not believe so,” Sessions said. “I can assure you that none of those meetings discussed manipulating those campaigns in any shape or form.”

Manchin asked Sessions whether specific advisers had contact with Russian officials. The senator ran down a list of names, asking the attorney general to simply answer “yes” or “no.” Here’s how that exchange played out.

Paul Manafort: “I don’t have any information that he had done so…”

Steve Bannon: “I have no information that he did.”

Michael Flynn: “I don’t recall it.”

Reince Preibus: “I don’t recall.”

Stephen Miller: “I don’t recall him ever having such a conversation.”

Corey Lewandowski: “I don’t recall any of those individuals having any meeting with Russian officials.”

Cater Page: “I don’t know.”

Sessions elaborated a bit on Page. “There may have been some published account of Mr. Page talking with Russians but I’m not sure," he said.

So much for “yes” or “no.”

— Joy Y. Wang

Sessions, Refusing to Answer Questions, Takes Cue From Coats, Rogers

Like Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Michael Rogers did last week, Sessions is refusing to answer some questions but he is not claiming national security and the president did not assert executive privilege.

Coats' and Rogers' unwillingness to respond to the committee resulted in a testy exchange with Senator Angus King, I-Maine, who continued his mission to get witnesses to answer questions Tuesday. 

— Greta Van Susteren

King: Can't Have It Both Ways On Executive Privilege

Independent Maine Sen. Angus King pressed Sessions again on his determination not to answer questions about his conversations with the president, adding his name to the list of senators arguing Sessions lacked all legal right to do so.

“The president hasn’t asserted [executive privilege], you said you don’t have the power to exert,” King said, arguing that the attorney general was trying to have it "both ways." Executive privilege allows a president, or executive branch members, to withhold information from subpoenas and other requests because of its ties to the administration and its work.

Sessions pushed back: “I am protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses, or there may be other privilege ... It would be premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice—”

King interjected to press Sessions about the testimony he'd given earlier in the session — that the president had asked for his opinion on James Comey’s role at the head of the FBI — and asked why that wasn’t confidential.

Sessions insisted that he spoke about that interaction because the president had already spoke about it publicly. 

—Jane Timm

Dem Senator Slams Sessions: ‘You Are Obstructing’

Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich repeatedly pushed back against the Attorney General’s claim that he could not speak about conversations with the president because Trump might want to invoke executive privilege.

“My understanding to this, you took an oath…to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and now you’re not telling the truth,” the senator from New Mexico said, arguing that Sessions had no legal standard for claiming “appropriateness” as his reason for refusing to answer questions.

“You are obstructing," he said defiantly, as Sessions insisted that he could refuse to answer questions without executive privilege being invoked. 

“It’s my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the president when he has not had the opportunity to approve such an answer," Sessions said. 

—Jane C. Timm

Sessions Goes Head-to-Head With Oregon Democrat

Sessions had a tense exchange with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.

The attorney general insisted he was not "stonewalling" in front of the committee — something the Oregon Democrat had suggested in sharp terms — and decried the "innuendo" swirling around him after last week's testimony from former FBI chief James Comey.

Referencing part of Comey's testimony, Wyden asked Sessions what facts would make his involvement in the Russia investigation "problematic."

"Why don't you tell me! There are none," Sessions replied.

Wyden then asked Sessions why he signed a letter recommending the firing of Comey and whether that violated his recusal from the Russia investigation.

"It did not violate my recusal, it did not violate my recusal — that would be the answer to that," Sessions said.

Wyden responded: "That answer does not, in my view, does not pass the smell test."

— Daniel Arkin

Sessions: Comey Could Handle Himself

Sessions repeatedly dodged questions from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on a private meeting the president had with the then-FBI Director James Comey, saying only that he was one of the last individuals to leave the room and that Comey was still in the room. Comey previously testified under oath that the president asked Sessions and other officials to leave.

“I left, it didn’t seem to me to be a major problem, I knew that Director Comey…could handle himself,” Sessions said, mere minutes after describing his conviction that Comey would have to be removed from his position in favor of a "fresh start" because he was performing well at his job. 

Asked if he knew if the president records conversations in the Oval Office and if there would be an obligation to preserve those recordings if so, Sessions said he did not know —  but they “probably” would have to be preserved. 

—Jane C. Timm

Sessions: 'Conceivable' I Had 3rd Meeting With Russian Ambassador to U.S.

In response to a question from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Sessions said it's "conceivable" he had a third meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington last April.

"It's conceivable that occurred," Sessions said. "I just don't remember it."

Former FBI Director James Comey told senators in a closed hearing last Thursday that Sessions may have had a third interaction with Kislyak, a source familiar with the closed session told NBC News.

— Daniel Arkin

Sessions Confirms Some Facts About Comey’s Private Trump Chat

Sessions did not dispute that the president had met privately with former FBI Director James Comey in February, and that Comey had expressed concerns about meeting privately with the president the very next day. 

Sessions said he was not told the contents of the meeting, but suggested he felt Comey was simply hoping to stick to historic protocols about FBI relations with the White House.

— Jane C. Timm

What It Sounds Like When a Former Colleague Appears Before the Senate

I was curious what the tone would be of the opening statements, since Attorney General Sessions was a colleague before taking the role in Trump's administration.

Ranking Member Senator Mark Warner was cordial but stern. Sessions' opening statement was broad and anticipatory — meaning he was anticipating all the questions the senators would have for him and tactically wanted to get out ahead of those questions with his opening statements.

— Greta Van Susteren 

No Contact With Special Counsel Mueller, Sessions Says

Sessions Defines the Scope of His Recusal

Sessions: Collusion Allegations Are ‘Appalling and Detestable Lie”

In his opening remarks, Sessions came out swinging against the allegations that there was anything improper about his work with the Trump campaign or his conversations with Russian officials.

"Let me state this clearly: I have never met with or had any conversations with Russians or any foreign officials concerning any ... interference with any campaign or election. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign. I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor over 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process is an appalling and detestable lie," he said. "I recused myself from any investigation into the campaigns for President, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations."

Politifact Checks Sessions' Claim About Russia Meetings

In his opening statement, Sessions said it was "false" that he had not answered a question from Sen. Al Franken about contacts with Russia truthfully during his confirmation hearing to become Trump's attorney general. 

Politifact tweeted with the context.

Burr to Sessions: This Is Your Chance to Set the Record Straight

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr laid out what he hoped to address during Sessions' testimony on Tuesday in his opening remarks. 

Here's what he said:

Attorney General Sessions, this venue is your opportunity to separate fact from fiction and to set the record straight on a number of allegations reported in the press. For example, there are several issues that I am hopeful we will address today:

  1. Did you have any meetings with Russian officials or their proxies on behalf of the Trump campaign or during your time as Attorney General?
  2. What was your involvement with candidate-Trump’s foreign policy team, and what were their possible interactions with Russians?
  3. Why did you decide to recuse yourself from the Government’s Russia investigation? And,
  4. What role, if any, did you play in the removal of then-FBI Director Comey?