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Sessions vehemently denies misleading on Russia contacts, claiming memory lapse

Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted before the Senate Judiciary hearing that he has never deliberately misled Congress. Since his January confirmation hearing, he has been dogged by contradictions to his statement that he had no communications with Russians during the 2016 campaign. Lisa Desjardins offers highlights from his testimony, and Judy Woodruff talks with Carrie Johnson of NPR.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now the Sessions hearing.

    The nation’s top law enforcement official faced a battery of questions today about his shifting statements on contacts with the Russians during the Trump campaign. He spoke to the House Judiciary Committee.

    And Lisa Desjardins is back with that story.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    I will not accept, and reject, accusations that I have ever lied. That is a lie.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted from the start today that he has never deliberately misled Congress. He returned to that refrain in his opening statement, and in questioning here by Democrat Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries:

    Your story has never changed, correct?

  • Jeff Sessions:

    I believe that’s fair to say. We might — we have added — added things that I didn’t recall at the time.

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries:

    Right.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    So, my statement at the time was my best recollection.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At his January confirmation hearing, Sessions told Democratic Senator Al Franken that he’d had no communications with Russians during the 2016 campaign.

    But he’s been dogged by disclosures that contradict that statement and about his knowledge of other Trump campaign officials.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    I do now recall that the March 2016 meeting at the Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide on the foreign policy team Sessions chaired. He told prosecutors that he talked about connecting with Russia in a meeting with both Trump and Sessions.

    Sessions initially denied any such meeting, now says he remembers it.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    To the best of my 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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Papadopoulos has now pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with Russians and the campaign. Sessions has already had to amend his original answers at other Senate hearings.

    Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee pressed the point again today.

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee:

    Do you want to admit under oath that you did not tell the truth?

  • Jeff Sessions:

    I will just say this. I stand by this testimony at the Intelligence Committee. I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Today’s hearing also came the day after Donald Trump Jr. acknowledged that he communicated with WikiLeaks in the last year-and-a-half, that after WikiLeaks had released some 50,000 documents last year from the private e-mails of Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager and of Democratic Party officials.

    Yesterday, Donald Trump Jr. released the private Twitter messages he sent to WikiLeaks.

  • Rep. Eric Swalwell:

    Candidate Trump said throughout the campaign, “I love WikiLeaks.”

    Do you love WikiLeaks, Mr. Attorney General?

  • Jeff Sessions:

    I’m not a fan of WikiLeaks.

  • Rep. Eric Swalwell:

    Do you think it was appropriate that Trump Jr. communicated with WikiLeaks during the course of the campaign?

  • Jeff Sessions:

    I’m not able to make a judgment about that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sessions drew fire from both parties over whether he should appoint a special counsel for a new Clinton investigation.

    That could include the 2010 sale of Uranium One, a mining operation in the U.S. that then-Secretary of State Clinton allegedly approved in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation, and the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified information.

    Democrats decried the idea of a new probe, pointing to tweets from President Trump pushing Sessions to do it.

  • Rep. John Conyers:

    Is it common for the leader of the country to order the criminal justice system to retaliate against his political opponents?

  • Jeff Sessions:

    The Department of Justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents, and that would be wrong.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republicans, who want a new Clinton investigation, also asked Sessions to look into the so-called Russian dossier of opposition research about Mr. Trump, but Sessions pushed back.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan:

    All that, not to mention the dossier information. What’s it going to take to actually get a special counsel?

  • Jeff Sessions:

    Sometimes, we have to study what the facts are and to evaluate whether it meets a standard required for a special counsel.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins on Capitol Hill.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We take a closer look now at today’s testimony with NPR’s justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson.

    Carrie, welcome back to the program.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    This was practically an all-day affair for the attorney general, wasn’t it?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    More than five hours of testimony back and forth, Republicans centering on issues other than Russia, Democrats almost exclusively asking him a version of the same question, What did you know and why did your story change over time?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the fact is, he has had to change what he said about his knowledge of and any participation in communications with the Russians in the campaign.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    This was his fourth testimony under oath on Capitol Hill this year, Judy. Jeff Sessions vehemently denied any notion that he had intentionally tried to deceive members of Congress or lie under oath.

    Instead, he said today he had a memory lapse. He did not remember meeting — that meeting in March 2016, where George Papadopoulos had suggested a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but he said, Jeff Sessions said recent news accounts had jogged his memory and he remembered objecting to the idea of Papadopoulos speaking on behalf of the campaign or engaging in foreign policy business on behalf of the campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Including setting up a meeting between candidate Trump and the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Absolutely.

    And Sessions also mentioned that he did recall interacting with Carter Page, another foreign policy aide on the campaign. He said, what was I supposed to do, stop Carter Page from traveling? I had just made clear simply, Sessions said, that he wasn’t going to be speaking on behalf of the campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, Carrie, on the question of this WikiLeaks-Donald Trump Jr., exchange, he was asked about that, but it seems he didn’t have anything, any knowledge to offer.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Remember, Jeff Sessions is recused from the special counsel investigation into Russia.

    Sessions was asked a basic and blunt question about his take on Donald Trump Jr.’s communications with WikiLeaks. That may come under the special counsel’s purview. I think Jeff Sessions was careful in not wanting to go there under oath.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another feature, of course, today, as we heard, is the Republicans on the committee, as well as President Trump, really want him to look into some of these allegations around Hillary Clinton. They want him to appoint a special counsel.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    They do.

    And, in fact, on the eve of this hearing, the Justice Department sent a letter to Republicans on Capitol Hill saying the attorney general and his deputy had directed senior federal prosecutors to look into these allegations with respect to the Clinton Foundation, this uranium deal when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, and some other allegations with respect to Hillary Clinton in her e-mail.

    There was no commitment to name a special counsel, though, and Jeff Sessions got into a back-and-forth with Republicans about the need for a factual basis in order to launch such an investigation. Things just looking bad, Jeff Sessions said, aren’t enough to launch an investigation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Setting a higher bar.

    And, finally, Carrie, again, I was struck. They were asking him about his — Democrats were — about just how far would his loyalty to President Trump go.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    This is an open question and a sore spot for Democrats, because Donald Trump, more than any president since Richard Nixon, has openly talked about wanting to interfere with the business of the Justice Department and the FBI.

    Jeff Sessions said today he wouldn’t permit any interference, but he also refused to answer questions about whether the White House had contacted the Justice Department with respect to a merger involving AT&T and Time Warner. Time Warner’s asset, CNN, is a very big foe of the president, at least according to President Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some very, very sensitive areas.

    Carrie Johnson, NPR, thank you again.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Thank you.

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