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UPDATE: Sessions Denies Lying On Russia, Pleads Hazy Memory

Look in the story for who and what to know for today’s hearing

 

THE LATEST on testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (all times local):

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a raised voice and animated tone, told Congress on Tuesday he never lied under oath about Russian interference in the 2016 election and suggested that sleep deprivation and the “chaos” of the Trump campaign clouded his recollections of campaign contacts with Russians.

In more than five hours of testimony, Sessions sought to explain away apparent contradictions in his public statements by portraying President Donald Trump’s campaign as an exhausting operation and said he could not be expected to remember specific encounters from more than a year ago. But he did say that recent media reports have triggered in him a memory, which he had not previously revealed, of a conversation with a campaign adviser last year about a proposed Russian government meeting.

“In all of my testimony, I can only do my best to answer all of your questions as I understand them and to the best of my memory,” Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee. “But I will not accept, and reject, accusations that I have ever lied. That is a lie.”

The oversight hearing divided along stark partisan lines. Republicans questioned Sessions about the Justice Department’s openness to the idea of a special counsel to investigate Clinton Foundation dealings and an Obama-era uranium deal, while Democrats grilled him on the evolving explanations about his own foreign contacts about how much he knew of communication during the campaign between Trump associates and Russian government intermediaries.

Sessions, who recounted an exchange with one adviser but did not remember another conversation he was said to have had, led a foreign policy council during the Trump campaign and has struggled since January to move past questions about his knowledge of Russian outreach efforts during the election effort.

Those questions have only deepened since the guilty plea last month of George Papadopoulos, a former Trump adviser who served on the council Sessions chaired and who proposed in Sessions’ presence arranging a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. As well, another aide, Carter Page, told Congress in private statements that he had alerted Sessions about a meeting he planned in Russia during the campaign.

Sessions said he had no recollection of the conversation with Page. And he said that though he did not initially recall a March 2016 conversation with Papadopoulos, he now believes after seeing media reports about it that he told Papadopoulos that he was not authorized to represent the Trump campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government.

Papadopoulos was arrested by the FBI and pleaded guilty to lying to authorities about his own foreign contacts during the campaign.

“After reading his account and to the best of my recollection,” Sessions said, “I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he would not authorize to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government for that matter.

“But I did not recall this event which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago,” he added, “and I would gladly have reported it had I remembered it because I pushed back against his suggestion that I thought may have been improper.”

Sessions insisted that his story had never changed and that he had never been dishonest. But he also suggested to the committee that it was unfair to expect him to recall “who said what when” during the campaign.

“It was a brilliant campaign, I think, in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day from day one,” Sessions said. “We traveled some times to several places in one day. Sleep was in short supply and I was still a full-time Senator … with a very full schedule.”

The oversight hearing came one day after the Justice Department said Sessions had directed federal prosecutors to look into whether a special counsel might be merited to investigate allegations that the Clinton Foundation benefited from an Obama-era uranium transaction involving a Russia-backed company.

On Tuesday, Sessions said that any such review would be done without regard to political considerations.

“A president cannot improperly influence an investigation,” Sessions said in response to questions from the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

“And I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced,” he added. “The president speaks his mind. He’s bold and direct about what he says, but people elected him. But we do our duty every day based on the law and the facts.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday he is unfamiliar with an FBI report about black extremists that has alarmed some lawmakers. The revelation prompted an uncomfortable exchange for the nation’s top prosecutor, whose political career has been dogged by questions about race.

The 12-page FBI intelligence assessment, written in August, describes “black identity extremist” groups the FBI says are increasingly targeting law enforcement after police killings of black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Foreign Policy first reported on the assessment, which drew outrage from some black lawmakers.

Rep. Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, pressed Sessions on the report during an oversight hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, explaining that activists are concerned they’ll be unfairly labeled for protesting.

“Do you believe there is a movement of African-Americans that identify themselves as black identity extremists, and what does that movement do?” she asked.

Sessions said he hadn’t seen the findings of the report but added: “I’m aware that there are groups that do have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity, and some have transformed themselves even into violent activists.”

He struggled to answer when asked the same about white groups.

“It’s not coming to me at this moment,” he said. Bass pointed to the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazism. Sessions said he didn’t know whether the FBI had similar intelligence assessments on those groups. Nor would he say whether the group Black Lives Matter, which often rallies after racially charged encounters with police, is an “extremist group.”

“I have not so declared it,” he said.

The exchange was significant for Sessions, a Republican former Alabama senator who has faced questions about race throughout decades of public life, including during his confirmation hearings this year. Allegations of racially charged comments cost him a federal judgeship in the 1980s. And while he has described the accusations as hurtful and unfair, civil rights groups remain skeptical about his commitment to their interests. Many of his changes to department policy have been favorable to local law enforcement groups, which are among his strongest allies.

Bass asked what he would do to protect the rights of those who protest police.

“This department will not unlawfully target people,” he said.

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10:45 a.m.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions says that he does not remember speaking to Carter Page during the 2016 presidential campaign about a trip that the former foreign policy campaign adviser took to Russia.

Page told the House intelligence committee earlier this month that he had informed some members of the Trump campaign about the trip, including Sessions. He said he mentioned in passing to Sessions that he was visiting Russia and Sessions had no reaction.

Page’s trip has drawn scrutiny in probes of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.

Sessions said he doesn’t challenge Page’s recollection, but doesn’t remember the conversation. He said the Trump campaign “was a brilliant campaign in many ways. But it was a form of chaos every day from day one.”

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10:45 a.m.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions says the Justice Department “can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents.”

Sessions’ statement was in response to questions from members of the House Judiciary Committee asking about President Donald Trump’s tweets suggesting that Sessions investigate Democratic rivals.

Sessions on Monday left open the possibility that a special counsel could be appointed to look into Clinton Foundation dealings and an Obama-era uranium deal.

But before the committee Tuesday, he denied Trump has influenced his decision-making. Sessions says that would be improper.

Sessions told the committee: “I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced” despite the president’s “bold” comments.

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10:22 a.m.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he thinks he told former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos that he wasn’t authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government.

Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about foreign contacts. He was part of a foreign policy council that Sessions chaired, and charging documents in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation indicate that Papadopoulos told the council that he could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

An attendee at the meeting recalled that Sessions quickly shut the conversation down.

Sessions said that to his recollection, “I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter.”

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4:17 a.m.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is leaving open the possibility that a special counsel could be appointed to look into Clinton Foundation dealings and an Obama-era uranium deal. The Justice Department made the announcement Monday in responding to concerns from Republican lawmakers.

In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, which is holding an oversight hearing Tuesday, the Justice Department said Sessions had directed senior federal prosecutors to “evaluate certain issues” raised by Republican lawmakers. President Donald Trump has also repeatedly called for investigations of Democrats.

The prosecutors will report their findings to Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

For Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday presents a risk — and an opportunity.

The risk lies in testifying under oath, for the fourth time this year, about his awareness of Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election while he served as a top surrogate for President Trump.

The opportunity stems from his interrogators — a committee led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who’s been reluctant to pile on Sessions this year. Other GOP members of the panel are die-hard Trump supporters who have suggested firing special counsel Robert Mueller, the man leading the ongoing criminal investigation.

On the eve of the hearing, Sessions appeared to throw those Republicans — and his boss — a bone. The Justice Department sent a letter Monday night informing Goodlatte that it had directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate “whether any matters merit the appointment of [another] special counsel.” Earlier this year, Goodlatte had demanded a DOJ investigation into “alleged unlawful dealings at the Clinton Foundation” and other scandals focused on Democrats.

There’s a twist, though: Sessions has already promised to recuse himself from any investigations into Hillary Clinton or the Clinton Foundation, given his campaign role. So the letter may raise yet another sensitive area on a hearing agenda already packed with them.

Here’s what to watch for in Tuesday’s hearing:

 

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1. The Russia tightrope

At his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions testified, “I’m not aware” of communications between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. In October, at a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the attorney general said he didn’t have talks with Russians as a surrogate for then-candidate Trump: “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did. I don’t believe that happened.”

What’s more, another person at the table that day, J.D. Gordon, said he does remember Papadopoulos floating the idea of a conversation between Trump and Putin. But, Gordon said, Sessions shot down the idea.

“These facts appear to contradict your sworn testimony on several occasions,” House Democrats wrote Sessions last week.

In other words, the attorney general will be walking a tightrope: reckoning his inability to remember those events with his denials of Russian outreach to the Trump campaign. And it’s never a good thing when the top law enforcement officer in the country faces persistent questions about his credibility.

2. Boundaries with the White House

Trump recently told a radio interviewer he was “very frustrated” with the Justice Department and wishes he were able to direct the DOJ and the FBI to investigate his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, among other things.

“The saddest thing is that, because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump told WMAL in Washington, D.C. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI.”

Now it appears the Justice Department is indeed looking into the matter.

But already this year, Trump’s White House has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of the Justice Department’s historical, post-Watergate independence. The president asked his former FBI Director James Comey to go easy on an investigation of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, Comey later testified. Trump floated the idea of dropping a prosecution against another ally, former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom the president went onto pardon. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway traveled to the Justice Department to watch a news conference unveiling criminal charges against Chinese fentanyl sellers.

And last week, the top executive at AT&T, Randall Stephenson, said the company was preparing to litigate after the Justice Department signaled it wanted tough conditions to approve the company’s merger with Time Warner. Those conditions could include the divestiture of DirecTV or the sale of CNN, which the president has criticized as “fake news.”

Both Trump and the Justice Department said the antitrust decision was made without interference from the White House. But Democrats and some DOJ veterans said those assertions are difficult to square with a pattern of breaches already this year.

3. Reviews from the audience

As attorney general, Sessions will be speaking to multiple audiences.

They include his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, where he served as a Republican senator from Alabama; the 100,000-odd lawyers, investigators and staff members who work for the U.S. Justice Department; and perhaps, most importantly, his boss, President Trump.

Six lawyers who have spent years in and outside the Justice Department described morale in the institution as poor, after a series of critical comments and tweets from Trump this year, and the attorney general’s public silence in the face of them.

As for the president, he has made Sessions a frequent target of his ire, especially since the attorney general recused himself from the Russia probe in March and a special counsel was named to take over that investigation.

“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Trump told the New York Times in July.

The president will be returning from his long trip to Asia on Tuesday, giving him time to formulate some views of Sessions’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, and perhaps to share them on Twitter.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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