Jeff Sessions says special counsel has not interviewed him

Last Updated Oct 18, 2017 9:52 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- 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 against Clinton.

He said he was further galled when Comey, one week before his firing, insisted to Congress that he would have taken the same actions again.

  • Sessions claimed Special Counsel Robert Mueller hasn't interviewed him
  • The attorney general said he wouldn't discuss any "confidential" conversations that he's had with President Trump
  • Sessions defended his handling of Comey's firing

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. CBS News' Paula Reid confirmed with the Justice Department that Sessions has not yet been interviewed by the special counsel. 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 Comey.

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 permits expire.

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 panel.

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.

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Sessions can't answer whether his office has been contacted for an interview with a special counsel

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, repeatedly asked Sessions if the special counsel has requested an interview with him and said he would get back to him within the next few hours after the hearing.

"I don't recall that I've ever been asked for an interview," Sessions said at one point.

Sessions won't say whether he spoke with state officials who threatened to sue the administration if they didn't end DACA

Sessions won't say whether he spoke with state officials who had threatened to sue the Trump administration if it did not end a program protecting young immigrants who were brought into the country as children and now living in the U.S. illegally.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked Sessions whether he discussed the threatened lawsuit with the Texas attorney general before President Donald Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Sessions says such conversations would be "work product" that should not be revealed. It was yet another line of questioning Sessions refused to answer. Lawmakers are asking about his role in ending the Obama-era program that protected hundreds of thousands of young people.

He also won't discuss his private conversations with Trump, citing longstanding Justice Department tradition.

Sessions says he wants the special counsel to complete Russia probe

Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, asked if Sessions wants the special counsel to succeed.

"I want him to complete his investigation, professionally, yes," Sessions said, adding that he would cooperate with him and would meet with him if asked. 

Sessions claims that Special Counsel Robert Mueller hasn't interviewed him

Sen. Patricky Leahy, D-Vermont, asked Sessions if Mueller has interviewed Sessions regarding Comey's firing as FBI director, the Russia investigation or his contact with Russian officials. 

At first, Sessions said he wasn't sure if he should answer the question without clearing it with the special counsel and then asked Leahy what he thinks. 

"No," Sessions said after a few seconds.

Leahy asked again if he's been interviewed by Mueller in any capacity.

"The answer is no," Sessions said.

Hatch responds to joint "60 Minutes" and Washington Post report

Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican from Utah, said that the report claimed that legislation that he and other lawmakers championed gutted the Drug Enforcement Agency's enforcement authority and that they snuck the bill through Congress even though no one knew anything about it.

"These allegations are complete baloney," Hatch said.

Sessions denies nor confirms communications he's had with Trump regarding Comey

Sessions would neither confirm nor deny a conversation he's had with the president regarding why he decided to fire Comey. He said that it hasn't been "fully understood" the "error" that Comey made on the matter involving Hillary Clinton and the investigation into her use of private email servers as secretary of state.

Sessions says he won't discuss "confidential" conversations with Trump

Sessions told senators he won't discuss "confidential" conversations he had with President Donald Trump.

Sessions told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during an opening statement of his oversight hearing Wednesday that the president is entitled to have private conversations with Cabinet secretaries.

Members of the committee have told Sessions that they intend to press him on his conversations with Trump, particularly about the firing in May of FBI Director James Comey.

At a separate hearing in June, Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would not disclose his communications with Trump.