WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that he has “always told the truth” in describing his knowledge of Trump campaign contacts with Russians – though he acknowledged he now recalls an interaction with a lower-level Trump adviser who has said he told Sessions about contacts who could help arrange a meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When asked previously about whether he believed surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians, Sessions said, speaking before the House Judiciary Committee. “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”
Now, Sessions said he recalled a March 2016 meeting with Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos, in pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents, has admitted he told Trump and a group of other campaign officials, including Sessions, that he had contacts who could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.
“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting,” Sessions said. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized 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, 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.”
The House committee’s top Democrat vowed to press him about his and other former Trump campaign aides’ dealings with Russians leading up to the 2016 election.
In his opening statement, U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., went through Sessions’s public statements on Russia-related matters, highlighting instances in which what Sessions said did not comport with other evidence.
In recent weeks, unsealed court documents have called into question the attorney general’s previous testimony about his interactions with Russians, and his knowledge of others’ interactions, when he was an official with the Trump campaign. Democrats have said they plan to ask Sessions about what they see as the discrepancies, some of which he has yet to address publicly.
“I hope the attorney general can provide some clarification on this problem in his remarks today,” Conyers said.
From Republicans, Sessions is likely to face inquiries on a host of matters they want investigated – including alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia.
On Monday, the attorney general sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., saying that he had directed senior federal prosecutors to explore at least some of the matters, then report back to him and his top deputy on whether any of them necessitated the appointment of a second special counsel. Goodlatte said in his opening remarks that he felt Sessions had generally done a good job in his first nine months as attorney general, though he noted his tenure had “not been without difficulty.”
“You clearly understand that the department you lead must have the confidence of the American people, even when your decisions are not always well received,” Goodlatte said.
Testimony before Congress has proved to be something of a thorn in Sessions’s side. At his confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Sessions claimed he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the campaign. When The Washington Post later revealed he had twice spoken with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, he revised his account, saying he had no meetings with Russians “to discuss issues of the campaign.”
The Post later reported that Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors that he and Sessions discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow. And at his latest appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions seemed to shift his position again. That time, he said he conducted no “improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country,” though he allowed it was possible in one of his conversations “some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were.”
In addition to the meeting with Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee recently that he told Sessions of his plans to travel to Moscow. Sessions said he no memory of that interaction. Page has said that the interaction was brief and forgettable and that his trip was unconnected to his campaign work.
The hearing is the first time Sessions will testify before the House Judiciary Committee, and members are also likely to press the attorney general on all the ways he has reshaped the Justice Department in his nine months on the job.