WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/CBS News) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that he recused himself from investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election because of a Department of Justice regulation, but says he did not recuse himself from defending his honor against “scurrilous and false allegations.”
As CBS2’s Alice Gainer reported, Sessions testified Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his role in the Trump campaign and his decision to recuse himself, as well as responding to former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony last week.
The attorney general said he was abiding by a DOJ regulation, which states “that Department employees should not participate in the investigations of a campaign if they have served as a campaign adviser.”
He said that his recusal, however, “does not and cannot interfere” with his ability to oversee the Justice Department, including the FBI.
Comey, during his testimony to the Senate last week, hinted there might be more to Sessions’ recusal.
“We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting,” Comey said.
Sessions was sworn in as attorney general in February, but did not recuse himself until March. Comey testified that he knew of reasons why it would be problematic for Sessions to remain involved in the Russia investigation before Sessions recused himself.
Sessions angrily defended the timing of his recusal. When by asked by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) about the “problematic” matters with respect to the recusal,” Sessions said: “Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden! There are none! I can tell you that for absolute certainty.”
Early on, Sessions adamantly defended himself against the suggestion that he personally colluded with the Russians in the 2016 presidential election. He called it “an appalling and detestable lie.”
As CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported, Sessions ridiculed the idea that he was involved in some kind of campaign cloak-and-dagger.
“It’s just like ‘Through the Looking-Glass,” Session said. “I mean, what is this?”
Sessions also said it was false that he did not answer a question at his confirmation hearing honestly.
During an exchange with U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Sessions did not mention two meetings he had with Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. He said Tuesday that Franken asked a “rambling question” and that his decision not to mention those meetings was a “fair and correct response.”
Sessions then said, “It was only in March of this year that a reporter asked my spokesperson whether I had ever met with any Russian officials. This was the first time that question had been posed. On the same day, we provided that reporter with the information related to the meeting I and my staff had held in my Senate office with Ambassador Kislyak, as well as the brief encounter in July after a speech that I had given during the convention in Cleveland, Ohio. I also provided the reporter a list of all 25 foreign ambassador meetings I had held during 2016. In addition, I provided supplemental testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain this. I readily acknowledged these two meetings. Certainly nothing improper occurred.”
Sessions also said he did not recall having a third private meeting with Russian officials.
“I did not have any private meetings nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel,” he said. “Prior to the speech, I attended a reception with my staff that included at least two dozen people and President Trump. Though I do recall several conversations I had during that pre-speech reception, I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian Ambassador or any other Russian officials.”
He added, “If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian Ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it. After the speech, I was interviewed by the news media, which had gathered as I remember in a different room, and then I left the hotel.”
When asked whether Comey requested that Sessions not leave him alone with President Donald Trump, Sessions replied there’s “nothing wrong with the president” having a conversation with the FBI director, but added it is “problematic” for any DOJ official to speak to any White House or Cabinet official about ongoing investigations.
Sessions also said he and Trump discussed Comey’s firing before he was confirmed as attorney general, saying the FBI needed a fresh start. He said this when discussing the memo prepared by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who Sessions said evaluated Comey’s job performance and noted “some serious problems with it.”
Regarding Comey, Sessions said the Trump administration took issue with Comey’s announcement that he was declining to prosecute in the Hillary Clinton email scandal last year. Sessions called Comey’s handling of the case a “breathtaking usurpation” of a power that belongs to the attorney general rather than the head of the FBI.
Regarding his recommendation that Comey be fired, Sessions said, “It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render an Attorney General unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations.”
Sessions said doubts about Comey’s performance were subject to a bipartisan discussion dating back before the election. The attorney general said Democrats were unhappy about the way Comey conducted himself, “and in retrospect in looking at it, I think it was more egregious than I may even have understood at the time.”
Wyden at one point asked Sessions why he signed a letter affirming Rosenstein’s memo recommending the termination of Comey as FBI director when he had recused himself from the Russia investigation.
“It did not violate my recusal,” Sessions said. “The letter that I signed represented my views that had been formulated for some time.”
Wyden said his response “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Sessions was also asked if there are tapes of the president’s private conversations with Comey, as Mr. Trump suggested last month but refused to confirm Monday.
The Secret Service revealed Monday it is unaware of any recording devices inside the Oval Office.
Sessions was asked further whether he believed that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. Sessions said it “appears” as if that occurred and acknowledged that the intelligence community was united in that conclusion.
He added that he has never been briefed on Russia’s cyberattacks against the election.
The Justice Department said Sessions requested the hearing not be behind closed doors because he believes it’s important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him, CBS News’ Weijia Jiang reported.
The last time the attorney general testified on Capitol Hill was during his confirmation hearing in January when he said he did not communicate with Russians.
Lawmakers have asked the FBI to investigate whether Sessions committed perjury.