WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday
strongly defended President Donald Trump’s firing of James
Comey, linking the FBI director’s abrupt dismissal to his
handling of the Hillary Clinton email server investigation. But
he refused to discuss any private conversations he had with the
president leading up to Comey’s firing and would not say if he
had discussed with the president an FBI investigation into
potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Sessions, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said
it was “the first time I’m aware of” in which an FBI director
had performed the traditional role of Justice Department
prosecutors by announcing on his own the conclusion of a
federal investigation — that no charges would be brought
He said he was further galled when Comey, one week before his
firing, insisted to Congress that he would have taken the same
Sessions’ insistence that Comey’s firing was motivated by
displeasure over the Clinton email case is consistent with the
initial White House explanation. But Trump himself has at times
appeared to undercut that explanation, saying he would have
fired Comey even without the recommendation of the Justice
Department and that he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when
he dismissed him on May 9.
Trump has accused Comey of having prematurely exonerated
Clinton, even though the Justice Department’s own explanation
for the firing cited his decision to effectively reopen the
probe days before the November election.
The FBI’s investigation is now being run by the Justice
Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller. After initially
balking at the question, Sessions said that he had not been
questioned by Mueller’s team of investigators. He has been seen
as a possible witness in the case given his involvement in the
firing of Comey.
Sessions stressed at the outset that he would not discuss any
private conversations with the president and he largely abided
by that principle, deflecting questions not only about the
Russia investigation but also about the president’s pardon of
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, among other topics.
The Russia probe has shadowed much of Sessions’ tenure as
attorney general, even though he recused himself in March
because of his role as a stanch Trump campaign ally. It was a
central focus the oversight hearing, too, as lawmakers
repeatedly pressed Sessions about his contacts with the former
Russian ambassador to the U.S., his discussions with Trump
about the investigation and his involvement in the firing of
Though he refused to say whether he discussed with Trump
Comey’s involvement in the Russia investigation, or his private
conversations with Trump, Sessions did say that the president
had asked him and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for
their recommendations about what to do with Comey.
“He did ask for our written opinion and we submitted that to
him,” Sessions said under questioning from Sen. Dianne
Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat. “It did
not represent any change in either one of ours opinions.”
The routine oversight hearing is Sessions’ first before the
committee since his January confirmation, and it comes as has
worked quickly to reshape the department with an intense focus
on immigration, drugs, gangs and violent crime.
He also faced questions from lawmakers about his swift undoing
of Obama-era protections for gay and transgender people and his
rollback of criminal justice policies that aimed to reduce the
federal prison population, among other changes he has made in
nine months since taking office.
Sessions has tried to pressure so-called sanctuary cities into
cooperating with federal immigration authorities by threatening
to withhold grant money, and he was the public face of the
Trump administration’s decision to end a program benefiting
hundreds of thousands of young people who entered the U.S.
illegally as children. Congress is seeking a legislative
solution to extend the protections before recipients’ work
It is standard policy for attorneys general to appear each year
before the Justice Department’s congressional overseers on the
House and Senate judiciary committees. Yet, in a reflection of
the extent to which the Russia investigation and his own role
as a Trump campaign ally have dominated public attention,
Sessions made his first appearance on Capitol Hill as attorney
general before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Democratic senators have already made clear they want Sessions
to detail his private conversations with Trump, particularly in
the run-up to the Comey’s firing, or announce that Trump is
invoking executive privilege to protect those communications.
Sessions repeatedly refused to discuss his talks with Trump
during his three-hour appearance before the Senate intelligence
He did not say he was using executive privilege, but rather
adhering to longstanding tradition of Justice Department
leaders to refrain from revealing the contents of private
conversations with the president. That explanation left many
Democrats unsatisfied and is unlikely to put to an end demands
for detailed accounts of those conversations.