WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday denied, again, lying to Congress about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. He said he had forgotten about a campaign round-table in which an aide touted his Russian connections and suggested arranging a meeting for Donald Trump in Moscow.
But even as Sessions remained hazy on the details, he was adamant that he had swiftly rejected the aide’s suggestion.
“I have always told the truth,” Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee, adding that he stood by his previous testimony because “I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports.”
Sessions, a former senator and an architect of Trump’s policies on trade and immigration, was supposed to be an influential force in the administration. Instead, he has twice amended his sworn testimony, creating a distraction for the White House and renewing questions about whether the Trump administration is concealing its connections with Russia.
A special counsel, Robert Mueller, is investigating whether anyone close to Trump worked with Russian operatives to influence last year’s presidential election.
In October, Sessions testified that he knew of nobody in the Trump campaign who had contacts with Russians. “And I don’t believe it happened,” he said then.
Court documents in the special counsel investigation have since shown that Sessions led a round-table discussion last year in which a campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, discussed his Russian ties and suggested setting up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Sessions said he now remembers the round-table discussion and that Papadopoulos attended, but, he said, “I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said.” Sessions seemed more certain about his own response to Papadopoulos: “I pushed back against his suggestion.”
He offered an impassioned defense of his previous testimony, saying he did not intentionally mislead anyone about fleeting and forgotten meetings. “You’re accusing me of lying about that?” he said. “I would say that’s not fair, colleagues.”
“I don’t think it is right to accuse me of doing something wrong,” he added.
Democrats criticized Sessions for what they said was repeatedly making inaccurate statements. During his confirmation hearings in January, Sessions told the Senate that he had not had any contact with Russians. He has since acknowledged meeting privately with the Russian ambassador. Sessions said again Tuesday that he believed the question was asked in the context of Russian election interference, and he answered in that spirit.
Congressional Republicans, who have consistently been his most important allies, came to Sessions’ defense. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida said. When it appeared earlier this year that Trump was about to fire him, his former Senate colleagues formed a human shield, saying they would not confirm a replacement.
Sessions has fallen from favor at the White House, where Trump blames him for Mueller’s investigation. The president believes that if Sessions had not recused himself from the Russia investigation, there would have been no need for a special counsel. White House officials believe Sessions’ poor performances before Congress have only made things worse.
Even as Trump has acknowledged that he is not supposed to involve himself in Justice Department decision making, he has called for prosecutors to investigate Hillary Clinton and members of the Obama administration.
Sessions appeared to have received the message. In a Nov. 13 letter sent to the House Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department said it would examine allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced a 2010 decision to allow a Russian agency to buy a U.S. company that owned access to uranium in the United States.
Sessions sidestepped questions about whether the president’s comments were appropriate.
“I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced. The president speaks his mind. He’s a bold and direct about what he says,” Sessions said. “We do our duty every day based on the law and the facts.”
The letter regarding the uranium deal gave a boost to conservatives who have been calling for a special counsel to investigate Clinton. But Sessions did not entirely endorse the idea. When Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said it looked like there was already enough evidence to investigate, Sessions responded: “'Looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.”
Democrats repeatedly questioned Sessions’ independence and honesty. “I don’t want to hear in a few days or a few weeks that your answers, Mr. Attorney General, have changed,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois.
Sessions testified a day after the Atlantic magazine revealed that Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, had exchanged private messages on Twitter with WikiLeaks during the campaign. WikiLeaks published a trove of embarrassing Democratic emails that had been stolen by Russian hackers.
The Twitter conversations undercut statements made last year by Vice President Mike Pence, who was Indiana’s governor at the time. Asked during an appearance on the “Fox & Friends” program on Fox News whether the Trump campaign was “in cahoots with WikiLeaks,” Pence categorically denied it.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “I think all of us have, you know, had concerns about WikiLeaks over the years.”
A spokeswoman for Pence circulated a press statement saying he had not been aware of anyone associated with the campaign being in contact with WikiLeaks until the reports about it surfaced Monday.
Sessions also waded into the controversy over the man running for his former Senate seat from Alabama. The candidate, Roy Moore, faces accusations from five women that he made sexual or romantic advances on them when they were teenagers.
“I have no reason to doubt these young women,” Sessions said. Moore has denied the allegations.
His remarks are more bad news for Moore, who has all but been abandoned by Washington Republicans. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has declared: “I believe the women.” And the leader of the Senate Republican campaign arm, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, said that the Senate should vote to expel Moore if he wins.