U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday he did nothing improper in meeting twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, and that any suggestion he colluded with Moscow officials in last year’s presidential election campaign is an “appalling and detestable lie.”
Sessions, in opening remarks before the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the election to help President Donald Trump win, said he decided to remove himself from oversight of the criminal investigation of the Russian interference because of rules at the Justice Department prohibiting his involvement because he was a key campaign adviser to Trump.
The attorney general said he now has “no knowledge” of the criminal investigation being headed by Robert Mueller, a former director of the FBI who was named as special counsel in the case by Sessions’ Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who assumed oversight of the Russia probe after Sessions recused himself.
“I have confidence in Mr. Mueller,” Sessions said, but added he had no idea whether Trump does, even as news accounts circulate that Trump is considering firing Mueller, who was appointed less than a month ago.
Declined to discuss some topics
Sessions declined repeatedly to discuss his talks with the president, saying they were private.
Sessions said he met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, once at last year’s Republican National Convention and later in his Senate office, but neither time about Trump’s campaign, but rather in his capacity as a U.S. senator at the time before Trump nominated him as the country’s top law enforcement official.
He said he had no recollection of any conversations with Kislyak at a Washington hotel where both attended a Trump foreign policy speech.
The attorney general said he never heard any suggestions during the campaign that Russia was somehow interfering to help Trump defeat his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Sessions’ testimony came hours after Rosenstein told a different Senate panel that without “good cause” he would ignore any attempt by Trump to fire Mueller.
Rosenstein said he would not comply with any Trump order to oust Mueller absent a compelling reason and that no such reason currently exists.
Rosenstein offered his assurances as U.S. news accounts quoted Republican allies of Trump suggesting that the president is considering firing Mueller, whose appointment, when it was announced, drew widespread praise from both Republicans and opposition Democrats. Now, however, some Republicans are suggesting that Mueller ought to be dismissed, pointing to his selection of key investigators who made campaign donations to Clinton.
A key Trump supporter, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, said, “Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair.”
However, another Republican, House Speaker Paul Ryan, told reporters, “I think the best case for the president is to be vindicated by allowing this investigation to go on fairly and independently. So I think the best advice will be to let Robert Mueller do his job.”
Rosenstein said he is the only Justice Department official who could dismiss Mueller because Sessions has recused himself from oversight.
“As long as I’m in this position, he’s not going to be fired without good cause,” Rosenstein said. “I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe they are lawful,” and that “it wouldn’t matter what anybody said.”
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California told Rosenstein, “It would be catastrophic” if Trump fired Mueller.
Rosenstein assured Feinstein the firing of Mueller would not occur without his consent.
“I appointed him and I believe it was the right decision, and I’m going to stand by that,” Rosenstein said.
WATCH: Sessions on discussions between president, FBI director
The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing is the latest step in multiple ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential election and Trump’s firing of another FBI chief, James Comey, who was heading the investigation into Russian meddling when Trump dismissed him a month ago.
Comey said during his own appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that he thought Trump violated the normal separation of criminal investigations from White House oversight by urging him to end the investigation into Russia’s activities.
Comey said Trump told him he hoped Comey would “let go” of his investigation of the president’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and also asked Comey to pledge his personal loyalty and to “lift the cloud” of the Russia probe.