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In Senate Testimony, Sessions Cites Confidentiality of Trump Conversations

Attorney General Jeff Sessions dodged questions at a Senate hearing Wednesday regarding the firing of FBI Director James Comey, alleged Russia meddling in the 2016 election and the controversial pardoning of an Arizona sheriff, citing the confidentiality of his conversations with President Donald Trump.

"Did the president ever mention to you his concern about lifting the cloud on the Russia investigation?" asked Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif.

"Senator Feinstein, that calls for communication that I’ve had with the president, and I believe it remains confidential," Sessions replied during often contentious testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I do not confirm or deny the existence of any communication with the president," Session added when pressed repeatedly by Feinstein about the firing of Comey in May.

Watch Sessions Act Coy With Senate on Special Counsel Questions 2:48

He also repeated a similar refrain of no comment when asked about Trump's pardoning of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio in August.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee's chairman, and Feinstein, the committee's ranking Democrat, specifically wanted Sessions to answer questions about the behind-the-scenes decision leading up to Comey's removal.

"The American people have a right to know why he was fired," Grassley said of Comey.

When Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June, he also cited confidentiality when asked about his role in the administration regarding high-profile decisions.

Lawmakers grew frustrated with Sessions on Wednesday, particularly Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who said the attorney general had "misled" the committee when asked in June if he had had any contacts with the Russians during the 2016 election.

"I would never accuse you of colluding with the Russians, but you concealed your own contacts with Russians when contacts were of great interest to the committee," Leahy said.

Sessions said he met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. after the GOP convention and later on two other occasions, but that the meetings were not related to the 2016 campaign or Russian sanctions.

"I felt the answer was 'no,'" Sessions said. "I didn't meet with any Russian about the election."

Image: Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Carolyn Kaster / AP

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., also grilled Sessions with rapid-fire questions about his role in the campaign and his previous testimony denying any contact with Russians during the campaign.

"First it was 'I did not have communications with Russians,' which was not true. Then it was 'I never met with any Russians to discuss any political campaign,' which may or may not be true. Now it’s 'I did not discuss interference in the campaign,' which further narrows your initial blanket denial about meeting with the Russians," Franken said to a visibly irked Sessions.

"I don’t have to sit in here and listen to his charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break," Sessions said, before repeating that he did not do anything improper during the campaign.

The attorney general also said that Robert Mueller, the special counsel who took over the Justice Department’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in last year’s election, has not interviewed him.

But, Sessions said, he would "absolutely" welcome being interviewed to see the probe come to an end.

While much of the hearing focused on the Russia investigation and Sessions' role in Comey's firing, tensions flared between the attorney general and lawmakers over immigration, particularly funding for sanctuary cities and the DACA program.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sessions squabbled over the Justice Department's threat to pull funding from so-called sanctuary cities, particularly Chicago, whose sky-high murder rate has been frequently criticized by the administration.

"You want to cut back these funds because you want the city of Chicago to play the role of immigration police on federal and civil laws," Durbin said. "Mr. Attorney General, you are not helping us solve the murder problem in Chicago by taking away these federal funds."

Sessions reiterated the administration's position that it wants cities to work with the federal government to notify immigration agents when an undocumented immigrant is arrested, which some cities say could hurt police relations with immigrant communities.

"I do think the murder rate is a cloud over the city," Sessions said. "How does that make the city of Chicago safer if you don't remove criminals that are in the county illegally?"

"You want to cut off federal funds to (Chicago) and come here and criticize the murder rate," Durbin responded. "You can't have it both ways."

Sessions also refused to go into detail about the administration's decision to rescind the DACA program in September.

Sessions, who was the public face of the decision, has called DACA an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch."

The Obama-era program allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to remain in the country, while also giving Congress a six-month window to possibly save the policy.