Sessions’s abstention came one day after The Washington Post reported Sessions had failed to disclose two meetings during the presidential campaign with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, during his Senate confirmation process. In an exchange with Minnesota Democrat Al Franken at his confirmation hearing in January, he’d said he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
On Tuesday, Sessions strongly disputed insinuations he had committed perjury with that statement. “I wanted to refute immediately any suggestion that I was a part of such an activity,” Sessions testified, referring to Franken’s question about reports of contact between Trump campaign officials and the Russians. “I replied, ‘Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.’” From his perspective, it seems, that did not cross the line into perjury, as some Democratic lawmakers subsequently claimed.
In his opening remarks, Sessions similarly denied he spoke with Russian officials during a foreign-policy address by Trump at Washington, D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel, a possible effort to refute rumors on Capitol Hill that there was an undisclosed third meeting with Kislyak at that gathering. “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 testified. “If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it.”
Senators also briefly asked Sessions whether Trump is planning to fire the special counsel, a move that would likely precipitate a political and legal crisis beyond even Comey’s dismissal last month. Chris Ruddy, a close Trump confidant, said Monday that the president was mulling Robert Mueller’s dismissal. Under Justice Department rules, that would require Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s approval, though he said during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing earlier on Tuesday that he hasn’t seen the “good cause” required to remove Mueller. Sessions, for his part, offered only partial assurance that Mueller would remain. “I have confidence in Mr. Mueller,” Sessions said. But he then declined to discuss “future hypotheticals.”
Another eyebrow-raising moment at Comey’s hearing last week was when he discussed Session’s recusal—the part Wyden focused his questioning on Tuesday—and how he didn’t tell Sessions what Trump requested about Flynn. “Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons,” Comey told senators, referring to his leadership team at the FBI. “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
Comey’s statement implied that there are reasons for Sessions’s recusal that might not be publicly known, but the attorney general forcefully rebuffed suggestion there’s anything to know. In doing so—just as in his refusals to answer questions—Sessions only seemed to prolong the game of he said-he said that’s characterized the national drama over Russia and the Trump campaign.