Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday emphatically denied accusations that he had lied under oath about his contact with Russian officials or his knowledge of the country’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections while working for President Donald Trump’s campaign.
But some lawmakers challenged Sessions’ memory as he testified before the House Judiciary Committee, asking him for “yes” or “no” answers and pushing him to abandon what became a repeated refrain during the more than five-hour hearing: “I don’t recall.”
While questions remain over what Sessions did and didn’t know about the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia during the 2016 election, here’s what we learned during Tuesday’s hearing.
What happened in that March 2016 meeting with ex-aide George Papadopoulos?
When former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last month to misleading FBI agents about his contact with Russia, he said he disclosed his contact with the country and offered to set up a meeting with Vladimir Putin during a March 2016 meeting with campaign officials. Sessions was present.
Lawmakers grilled Sessions on why he hadn’t mentioned that meeting in previous appearances before Congress, including at an Oct. 18 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Sessions maintained he had “always told the truth,” but he had not until recently recalled the March 2016 meeting with Papadopoulos, after reading about it in news reports. Sessions still has “no clear recollection of the details of what he said during that meeting.” The attorney general said in his opening statement that the pace of the campaign and his Senate workload could make recalling specific encounters difficult.
Sessions said he “gladly would have reported” the interaction with Papadopoulos in his earlier testimonies had he recalled it.
Lawmakers also raised a June 30, 2016, dinner for Trump campaign members at the Capitol Hill Club, which was paid for by Sessions’ Senate campaign. Carter Page and George Papadopoulos both attended the event. Page testified earlier this month that he had informed Sessions about the meeting.
Sessions said he was “not able to dispute” Page’s testimony, but “had no memory of his presence at a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club or any passing conversation he may have had with me as he left.”
“Does that establish some sort of improper contact with the Russians?” Sessions asked during a heated exchange with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “He’s not Russian either, you know?”
What is Sessions’ relationship with Trump?
Lawmakers returned several times to Sessions’ relationship with Trump. On several occasions, they held up posters or showed screen shots of the president’s tweets on Russia investigations, asking whether those kinds of messages influenced the attorney general’s decisions.
“Who do you work for? Do you work for the American people or the president of the United States?” Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., asked.
“The president makes a decision, and if it’s lawful, we enforce it,” Sessions said during one portion of the hearing.
Sessions said the president does not influence his decision-making. He also said the Justice Department should not be used by the president to retaliate politically against members of Congress or other opponents.
Deutch also asked what power the president had to block investigations into his own campaign, or to remove special counsel Robert Mueller — a move Trump had reportedly considered if Mueller started looking into his personal finances.
Sessions said department employees should be able to conduct their business without fear of retribution from the president or other cabinet employees.
But the attorney general said he could not answer whether the president could pardon ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, his son Donald Trump Jr., or any other cabinet or family member before the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation.
Lawmakers also zeroed in on new reports that suggest the White House approached the Department of Justice about its review of a deal between AT&T and Time Warner Inc., which owns CNN, the news network that has frequently been the target of Trump criticism. The department indicated this week that it may sue to block the deal.
Sessions says he has no reason to doubt women accusing Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct
Moore is running for Sessions’ former Senate seat in Alabama. Sessions did not elaborate on what action, if any, the DOJ might take if Moore is elected.
What does it take to appoint a second special counsel to investigate the Clinton Foundation?
Sessions’ testimony came a day after the Justice Department wrote to committee chair Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., saying it would consider a request from him and other Republican committee members to appoint a second special counsel to investigate possible wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation.
There have been only two special counsels appointed under the federal law authorizing the position: John Danforth, who investigated a 1993 FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas, and Mueller.
Sessions said appointing another special counsel would require evidence and a “factual basis that meets the standards of a special counsel,” referring to the DOJ manual.
But Sessions also said appearances are “not enough” of a basis to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Clinton Foundation.
How does Sessions’ testimony compare to his previous appearances before Congress?
Several lawmakers returned to Sessions’ testimony before a Senate committee in October, when he said he did not have any contact with Russian officials and did not know of any other Trump campaign officials that had done so, either.
The news about the Papadopulos plea called that testimony into question.
“You were either lying then, or you are lying now,” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said.
House members brought up Sessions’ prosecution decades ago of a young police officer who had given incorrect information during his statements on the stand, though the officer later corrected his testimony.
But Sessions defended his congressional testimony, saying at one point that “I have always tried to answer the questions fairly and accurately.”
A few new statistics
27: The number of DOJ investigations into leaks of classified information currently underway, according to Sessions, who called the issue a problem of “epidemic proportions.”
4: The number of indictments this year in cases involving leaks of classified information, according to Sessions.
10: Around the number of investigations Sessions said he has recused himself from since becoming Attorney General.
40: the number of letters the House Judiciary Committee has sent to the Trump administration asking for information necessary “to carry out our oversight responsibility,” according to ranking member John Conyers, D-Mich. More than a dozen of those letters have gone directly to the attorney general, he said.
Zero: The number of “substantive responses” Conyers said the committee had received. “We can disagree on matters of policy, Mr. Attorney General, but you can not keep us in the dark forever.”
What we still don’t know:
Did the FBI pay Christopher Steele for the dossier on Trump? Session was asked several times about the Department of Justice’s role in developing that dossier, but declined to answer.
Why did the FBI issue a report on “black identity extremists?”
Though the hearing focused largely on Russia, it also covered a range of other topics.
Several lawmakers asked Sessions why the FBI had issued a report on “black identity extremists” targeting law enforcement. At one point, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., asked Sessions why such a report existed for black people but not for whites.
Sessions said he was unfamiliar with the report, but added that DOJ “will not unlawfully target people.”
What is the DOJ doing about future interference in U.S. elections?
While specific inquiries about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election are under Mueller’s purview, Sessions said he had not followed through on requests to provide more information on what the Justice Department was doing to prevent future interference, from Russia or other countries.
“I should be able to give you better information today than I am,” he said.