Attorney General Jeff Sessions vigorously defended himself Tuesday against “false charges” that he was untruthful in previous testimony about his role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and any connections to Russian operatives.
“I will not accept, and reject accusations I have ever lied,” Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing lasting more than 5 hours. “That is a lie.”
The Russia probe was a major focus of a Justice Department oversight hearing featuring the spirited former senator, who has been embroiled in the special counsel and congressional investigations while he takes the Justice Department in a sharply conservative direction.
As he did last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the attorney general faced more heat from panel Democrats about statements he made about Russian meddling in the election. It was his first appearance before House lawmakers as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Watch: Sessions: ‘I Reject Accusations That I Have Ever Lied’
Top Democrat John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, pointed out that Sessions had said during his confirmation hearing in January that he “did not have communications with Russians” while advising the Trump campaign. Conyers also noted last month Sessions testified that an exchange between Trump surrogates and Russian operatives “did not happen, at least to my knowledge, and not with me.”
“We now know, of course, that neither of those statements is true,” Conyers said in his opening statement.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., displayed a photo of Sessions sitting next to George Papadopoulos, a campaign foreign policy adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians closely tied with the Kremlin.
Papadopoulos reportedly suggested Trump meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin or that he represent the campaign with Russia and foreign officials, something Sessions testified Tuesday he had no recollection of until he saw news reports.
Nadler’s rapid-fire questions about Sessions’ interactions with Papadopoulos led to some terse exchanges. “I have to be able to answer if I can’t answer completely,” Sessions said.
Sessions told the committee during opening statements he has no clear recollection of the details of what Papadopoulos said at the meeting, but would have gladly reported it “had I remembered it, because I pushed back against his suggestion that I thought may have been improper.”
Sessions attributed much of the controversy about his answers to questions about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians to the frenetic pace of the 2016 election.
“It was a brilliant campaign, I think, in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day from day one,” Sessions testified. “We traveled sometimes to several places in one day, sleep was in short supply, and I was still a full-time senator with a very full schedule.”
“I have been asked to remember the tales from a year ago, such as who I saw on what day and what meeting and who said what to when,” Sessions said, drawing a few chuckles in the room.
Sessions also told the committee there has to be a factual basis to meet the standards of appointment of a second special counsel to look into the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, something Judiciary Chairman Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and other Republicans requested earlier this year.
“‘Looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel,” Sessions said during questioning from Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “You can have your idea but some time we have to study what the facts are and to evaluate whether it meets the standard that requires a special counsel.”
Rep. Luis V Gutiérrez, D-Ill., also pressed Sessions on whether he would appoint a second special counsel, pointing out that Trump during a presidential debate said if he won he would instruct his attorney general to investigate Clinton.
Will Sessions fulfill that campaign promise?
“I’ll fulfill my responsibilities under the law,” Sessions said. “We will comply with the law with regard to special prosecutor appointments.”