JUDY WOODRUFF: It has been another day of high-stakes testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions today denied any wrongdoing in his contacts with Russian officials during last year’s campaign or in his conduct since becoming attorney general. He acknowledged that then FBI Director James Comey was concerned about being left alone with President Trump after a February meeting.
He declined to discuss any conversations he had with the president on firing Comey. And he defended his handling of his recusal from the investigation into Russian meddling in the election.
Sessions also said he still doesn’t remember a meeting with the Russian ambassador at a Trump speech in Washington last year. And he said he never meant to mislead anyone during his confirmation hearings.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. Attorney General: Let me state this clearly, colleagues. I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any 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. I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you. 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.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The attorney general also struck sparks today when he declined several times to discuss conversations he had with President Trump about firing James Comey or about recusing himself in the Russia matter.
Democrats, including Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, were visibly frustrated.
JEFF SESSIONS: I’m not able to share with this committee private communications
SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH, D-N.M.: Because you’re invoking executive privilege?
JEFF SESSIONS: I’m not able to invoke executive privilege. That’s the president’s prerogative.
SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH: Well, my understanding is, you took an oath, you raised your right hand here today and you said that you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And now you’re not answering questions. You’re impeding this investigation.
JEFF SESSIONS: I am protecting the president’ constitutional right by not giving it away before he has a chance to …
SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH: You’re having it both ways.
JEFF SESSIONS: And, secondly, I am telling the truth in answering your question, in saying it’s a longstanding policy of the Department of justice …
JEFF SESSIONS: … even and to make sure the president has full opportunity to decide these issues.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, in another, separate hearing today, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, pledged to defend special counsel Bob Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the election.
Conservative media executive and Trump ally Christopher Ruddy told the NewsHour last night that the president has been considering firing Mueller.
But in exchanges with Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham, Rosenstein said that he wants to put that speculation to rest.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: If President Trump ordered you to fire the special counsel, what would you do?
ROD ROSENSTEIN, Deputy Attorney General Nominee: Senator, I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders. If there were good cause, I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: Do you know any reason for a cause to fire Mr. Mueller as of this date?
ROD ROSENSTEIN: No, I do not, Senator.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: And that would be your decision if that ever happened, right?
ROD ROSENSTEIN: That’s correct.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we are joined now by our Capitol Hill correspondent, Lisa Desjardins. She was in the room for both of today’s Senate hearings. And Carrie Johnson, correspondent for NPR, she covers the Justice Department.
Thank you both.
Lisa, I’m going to start with you.
You were in the room. Tell us what you were seeing and what you were hearing that we couldn’t see on television.
LISA DESJARDINS: Well, this extraordinary week just continued.
It was a rather remarkable hearing, and not just because there was yet again a line going out the door and down the hallway to attend it, but I think because we saw very serious questions, Judy, from both Republicans and Democrats about Attorney General Sessions and about the role of the Trump administration and Trump campaign in their meetings with Russia.
I took away that this was a serious investigation, that senators are trying to show the American people, in particular with this very public hearing, that they’re tackling this, but there are still a lot of questions left after today’s hearing as well, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Carrie Johnson, as I said, you cover the Justice Department. You have been watching this from that perspective. What did you hear new today in the testimony by the attorney general?
CARRIE JOHNSON, NPR: For Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, a qualified or limited success today. He was able to defend himself with respect to some of the allegations swirling around about him.
He denied he had a meeting with the Russian ambassador last year at the Mayflower Hotel. He denied he had tried to lean on the FBI director, fired FBI Director James Comey, and he also denied that he had misled Congress when he testified in his confirmation hearings earlier this year that he only had a couple meetings with the Russians.
And he tried to clear up all of those mistakes that he had made, I think with some success today, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Carrie, I was struck that he — sorry you’re having microphone troubles.
All right, let me go back to Lisa Desjardins just a minute while Carrie gets the earpiece straightened out.
So, Lisa, I know you have been talking to these senators on the committee in the days and weeks leading up to this. For them, how critical was this testimony by the attorney general? Is this just one more step along a long road of this investigation?
LISA DESJARDINS: I think the answer that it was both critical and it is just one more step along the road of this investigation.
Judy, I think we’re at the point where each one of these kinds of hearings is critical. And, to be honest, many of these senators say they’re not exactly sure where all of this is leading yet. They’re still asking these first rounds of questions to see who else do they need to talk to and about which event.
And I think, Judy, the questions remaining from today’s hearing especially are, did President Trump directly order Mr. Sessions to write that memo endorsing James Comey’s firing, and what conversations did they have about that? Did President Trump indicate why he wanted Mr. Comey fired?
As you played in the bite, Mr. Sessions refused to answer any communication questions about his talks with Mr. Trump, and that’s something I think we’re going to see played a lot. He was never able to give a legal justification for refusing to answer. Instead, he I basically leaving an opening for the president to later invoke executive privilege, but, Judy, he hasn’t done so yet.
And his attorney general hasn’t answered these questions.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Carrie, back to you now.
Again, you have been following this very closely. What questions do you still have that the attorney general either wasn’t able to or didn’t answer today?
CARRIE JOHNSON: The attorney general never said whether the president discussed with him in connection with firing James Comey anything regarding the Russia investigation. The attorney general refused to answer whether the president had brought up with him the idea of pardoning anyone in the Trump campaign who may have had contacts with the Russians last year.
And the attorney general really didn’t have a good answer for why he left James Comey hanging to defend himself after the president pressured him in the Oval Office on the Russia probe, so lots of questions remaining for Jeff Sessions on those topics as it relates to his interactions with President Trump. And I think some of the Democrats on the committee today vowed to get answers to those questions, come hell or high water.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Carrie, just a quick question of clarification. You said he didn’t address pardoning anyone in connection with the Russia investigation. What are you referring to?
CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, he was asked questions by Democrats today, Jeff Sessions was, about whether — you know, this investigation is early, but whether he had talked with the president at all about the president using his power, very vast power, to grant a pardon to anyone who may have engaged in wrongdoing in connection with Russia in the campaign.
No names were mentioned. We know that several people, including President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, are under investigators’ crosshairs right now. We know that Flynn, in fact, has tried to seek immunity, so far without success.
Sessions was asked whether the idea of pardoning anybody came up, and he declined to answer that question as part of the confidential conversations he was having with the president. I want to know more about that. I think lawmakers do, too.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Carrie Johnson, as we said, who covers the Justice Department for NPR, our own Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, thank you both.