WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave his version Tuesday of parts of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony expressing his concerns about meeting alone with President Trump, while emphatically denying to his former Senate colleagues that he colluded with Russia during the presidential campaign.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One as President Trump flew back from Milwaukee today that he watched parts of the hearing, “thought that Attorney General Sessions did a very good job and, in particular, was very strong on the point that there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.”
The Sessions testimony unfolded as the FBI has been conducting an ongoing investigation into Russia’s campaign operations since July, and special counsel Robert Mueller has been compiling a team of prosecutors to start his investigation.
On April 27, 2016, Trump gave a foreign policy address at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington at which he, Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were among attendees at a VIP reception. CNN reported that Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee in closed session last week that Sessions and Kisylak could have met on the sidelines, as indicated by intercepts of Russian communications.
Sessions told the committee that the reception area included “two to three dozen people” and said he didn’t remember having a conversation with Kislyak. “Certainly, I can assure you, nothing improper, if I’d had a conversation with him,” he said. “And it’s conceivable that that occurred. I just don’t remember it.”
“I didn’t have any formal meeting with him,” the attorney general said later in the hearing. “I’m confident of that. But I may have had an encounter during the reception.”
Sessions, who had been named to Trump’s national security advisory board the previous month, said he “came there as a interested person, very anxious to see how President Trump would do in his first major foreign policy address — I believe he’d only given one major speech before, that one, maybe, at the Jewish AIPAC event.”
“So it was an interesting time to — for me to observe his delivery and the message he would make,” he added. “That was my main purpose of being there.”
During his opening statement, Sessions told senators: “I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you, and I — and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion — that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to 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.”
Testifying before the committee last week, Comey recounted a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting in which he said “the attorney general lingered by my chair” before leaving the room, at which point Trump, according to the former FBI director, said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting [Mike] Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey says that “shortly” after the Oval Office meeting, he was speaking with Sessions on the subject of Trump’s concerns about leaks when he “took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the president and me.”
“I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply,” he added. Comey said FBI leadership decided not to tell Sessions about the Flynn request as they “concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations.”
Comey told the committee that the FBI leaders “were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
Sessions gave his version of the meeting Tuesday. “We were there, I was standing there, and without repeating any conversation that took place, what I do recall is that I did depart, I believe everyone else did depart, and Director Comey was sitting in front of the president’s desk and they were talking,” he said.
“So that’s what I do remember. I believe it was the next day that he said something, expressed concern about being left alone with the president. But that in itself is not problematic. He did not tell me at that time any details about anything that was said that was improper,” he continued.
“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, in that he should not carry on any conversation with the president or anyone else about an investigation in a way that was not proper.”
Sessions said he hasn’t had any interactions with Mueller since the former FBI director was named special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation.
On reports that Trump was considering Mueller’s dismissal, Sessions said, “I have known Mr. Mueller over the years. He served 12 years as FBI director. He — I knew him before that. And I have confidence in Mr. Mueller but I am not going to discuss any hypotheticals or what might be a factual situation in the future that I’m not aware of today, because I know nothing about the investigation and fully recuse myself.”
Asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for the confidential reasons Comey didn’t want to discuss the Flynn conservation with the attorney general, Sessions replied, “Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty.”
“This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it, and I’ve tried to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I’ve appeared before, and it’s really a — people are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters, and I’ve tried to be honest,” he added.