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Jeff Sessions Testifies He Never Discussed Election With Russians

Updated at 5:37 p.m. ET

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a Senate committee Tuesday that any suggestion he colluded with Russia during last year's U.S. presidential campaign was an "appalling and detestable lie."

Sessions spent more than 2 1/2 hours before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which included several testy exchanges with Democratic senators who accused him of obstructing their investigation.

Throughout the questioning, Sessions defended himself and refused to discuss any details of conversations he has had with President Trump. In his opening statement, Sessions said:

"Let me state this clearly, colleagues: I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign."

The attorney general on March 2 recused himself from the FBI investigation into Russia's role in the election, saying he felt he was required to do so because he had been a prominent figure in Trump's campaign.

"Many have suggested that my recusal is because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself, that I may have done something wrong," he said, stressing this was not the case.

"The suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government, or 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," Sessions said.

His testimony came just six days after James Comey, the fired FBI director, appeared before the same committee. Comey discussed a host of issues surrounding Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, though his remarks also raised questions that were directed at Sessions on Tuesday.

Comey referred frequently to the attorney general and included the tantalizing tidbit that there were "facts that I can't discuss in an open setting." Sessions requested an open hearing, though he made clear in his opening remarks and several times during his testimony that there were some things he would not discuss, including confidential conversations with the president.

Democratic senators expressed frustration with Sessions on several occasions.

In one tense exchange, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said, "I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don't want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged or off limits."

"I am not stonewalling," Sessions said. "I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice" on private discussions with the White House.

Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the committee, raised his concerns in his opening statement:

"Our committee will want to hear what you are doing to ensure that the Russians — or any other foreign adversaries — cannot attack our democratic process like this ever again. I am concerned that the president still does not recognize the severity of the threat. He does not acknowledge the unanimous conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia massively intervened in our election."

Before he became attorney general, Sessions served two decades as a Republican senator from Alabama. But his former Democratic colleagues pressed him repeatedly on his contacts with Russia and his role in the dismissal of Comey — who led the FBI's probe on Russia until he was ousted.

The attorney general has acknowledged two meetings last year with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. But he denied reports that he had a third, previously undisclosed meeting with Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington in April 2016.

"I did not have any private meetings, nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel," said Sessions.

He was asked about the event several times, and said at one point, "If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it."

In his testimony last week, Comey said he and Trump had a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office on Feb. 14 about the investigation into the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

According to Comey, Trump said of Flynn: "He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

After that meeting, Comey said, he told Sessions he did not want to be left alone with Trump, because he didn't think it was appropriate for the president and the FBI director to have such private meetings. The FBI is part of the Justice Department that Sessions heads.

Sessions confirmed Comey's account, but he placed less emphasis on the Trump-Comey meeting.

"I believe it was the next day that [Comey] said something, expressed concern, about being left alone with the president," Sessions said. "But that in itself is not problematic. He did not, at that time, tell me any details about anything that was said that was improper. I affirmed his concern that we should be following the proper guidelines of the Department of Justice, and basically backed him up in his concerns."

Earlier, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Sessions why, after recusing himself from the Russia inquiry, he signed a letter last month recommending that President Trump fire Comey.

Sessions said he agreed with a letter drafted by his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, that Comey should be replaced. Sessions added his own letter to that effect, and both documents were sent to Trump, who then fired Comey later on the same day, May 9.

However, Sessions refused to say whether he ever spoke with Trump about firing Comey.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.