WASHINGTON D.C. — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a raised voice and animated tone, told Congress on Tuesday he never lied under oath about Russian interference in the 2016 election and suggested that sleep deprivation and the "chaos" of the Trump campaign clouded his recollections of campaign contacts with Russians.
In more than five hours of testimony, Sessions sought to explain away apparent contradictions in his public statements by portraying President Donald Trump's campaign as an exhausting operation and said he could not be expected to remember specific encounters from more than a year ago. But he did say that recent media reports have triggered in him a memory, which he had not previously revealed, of a conversation with a campaign adviser last year about a proposed Russian government meeting.
"In all of my testimony, I can only do my best to answer all of your questions as I understand them and to the best of my memory," Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee. "But I will not accept, and reject, accusations that I have ever lied. That is a lie."
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The oversight hearing divided along stark partisan lines. Republicans questioned Sessions about the Justice Department's openness to the idea of a special counsel to investigate Clinton Foundation dealings and an Obama-era uranium deal, while Democrats grilled him on the evolving explanations about his own foreign contacts about how much he knew of communication during the campaign between Trump associates and Russian government intermediaries.
Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, asked Sessions about President Trump's dismisal of U.S. intelligence leaders as "political hacks".
“Mr. Sessions do you consider the leaders of our intelligence community, past and present, as ‘political hacks’?’ Jayapal asked. See Sessions' answer at the 2:39 mark in the video below.
Sessions, who recounted an exchange with one adviser but did not remember another conversation he was said to have had, led a foreign policy council during the Trump campaign and has struggled since January to move past questions about his knowledge of Russian outreach efforts during the election effort.
Those questions have only deepened since the guilty plea last month of George Papadopoulos, a former Trump adviser who served on the council Sessions chaired and who proposed in Sessions' presence arranging a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. As well, another aide, Carter Page, told Congress in private statements that he had alerted Sessions about a meeting he planned in Russia during the campaign.
Sessions said he had no recollection of the conversation with Page. And he said that though he did not initially recall a March 2016 conversation with Papadopoulos, he now believes after seeing media reports about it that he told Papadopoulos that he was not authorized to represent the Trump campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government.
Papadopoulos was arrested by the FBI and pleaded guilty to lying to authorities about his own foreign contacts during the campaign.
"After reading his account and to the best of my recollection," Sessions said, "I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he would not authorize to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government for that matter.
"But I did not recall this event which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago," he added, "and I would gladly have reported it had I remembered it because I pushed back against his suggestion that I thought may have been improper."
Sessions insisted that his story had never changed and that he had never been dishonest. But he also suggested to the committee that it was unfair to expect him to recall "who said what when" during the campaign.
"It was a brilliant campaign, I think, in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day from day one," Sessions said. "We traveled some times to several places in one day. Sleep was in short supply and I was still a full-time Senator ... with a very full schedule."
The oversight hearing came one day after the Justice Department said Sessions had directed federal prosecutors to look into whether a special counsel might be merited to investigate allegations that the Clinton Foundation benefited from an Obama-era uranium transaction involving a Russia-backed company.
On Tuesday, Sessions said that any such review would be done without regard to political considerations.
"A president cannot improperly influence an investigation," Sessions said in response to questions from the committee's top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.
"And I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced," he added. "The president speaks his mind. He's bold and direct about what he says, but people elected him. But we do our duty every day based on the law and the facts.