Attorney General Jeff Sessions hasn’t been interviewed by the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and hasn’t even been asked to answer questions, he told Congress on Wednesday.
Testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Sessions also vehemently rejected suggestions by Democratic senators that he violated his recusal from the Russia probe by recommending then-FBI Director James B. Comey be fired, or that he misled Congress about contacts with Russia’s ambassador last year.
“I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country,” Mr. Sessions said.
He began the five-hour hearing by telling his former colleagues he would “not be able” to discuss the content of his conversations with Mr. Trump. The attorney general’s decision frustrated Democratic lawmakers intent on learning more about Mr. Comey’s dismissal.
“Did the president ever mention to you his concern about lifting the cloud on the Russia investigation?” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
“That calls for a communication that I’ve had with the president and I believe remains confidential,” Mr. Sessions said.
Mr. Sessions referred lawmakers back to letters sent by himself and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in which they explained doubts they had about Mr. Comey’s ability to lead the bureau as a result of his handling of the Hillary Clinton email server investigation.
Mr. Comey bucked Justice Department protocol by announcing publicly that the Clinton email investigation was being closed without any criminal charges.
“I don’t think it’s been fully understood the significance of the error Mr. Comey made on the Clinton matter,” Mr. Sessions said.
Other Democrats wondered whether Mr. Sessions broke his recusal by joining in the Comey firing recommendation, given the FBI was leading the probe.
“If you were recusing yourself from any investigation or issues that related to Secretary Clinton and the email investigation, why did you write a memo to the president exclusively relying on that matter?” said Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat.
“The attorney general does not recuse himself from supervision of the FBI, a $7 billion agency he is responsible for, because he may have recused himself of one or more matters the FBI is working on,” Mr. Sessions said, adding that the Clinton case was closed at the time Mr. Comey was fired.
“I’m confidant I was not required to recuse myself on whether or not to keep Director Comey,” Mr. Sessions said.
The Comey firing is now part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia meddling investigation, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, wanted to know if Mr. Sessions had spoken to investigators. Mr. Blumenthal said he had information that the special counsel had requested an interview.
Mr. Sessions initially said he was “not aware” of any request, then later, after a staffer handed him a note, said he could confirm no interview request had been made.
“Maybe you better check your source,” Mr. Sessions told Mr. Blumenthal.
The attorney general also sparred Wednesday with lawmakers over the evolution of statements he made about his contact with Russian officials — from initially denying any contact during the course of the Trump campaign to later admitting he had meetings with the Russian ambassador.
“You answered no, you concealed your own contact with Russian officials at a time when such contacts were of great interest to the committee,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, of questions the committee asked Mr. Sessions to address during his confirmation hearing earlier this year.
The attorney general defended his response, saying he believe it was correct given the context.
“I took that to mean, not any casual conversation, but ‘Did I participate with the Russians about the 2016 election?’ ” Mr. Sessions said. “Every one of your previous questions talked about improper involvement and I felt the answer was no.”
Mr. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, continued to press Mr. Sessions about the meetings with the ambassador, asking whether there was any talk of interference in the election or any policy or election matters.
“I don’t think there was any discussion about the details of the campaign other than it could have been that in that meeting, in my office, some comment made about what Mr. Trump’s positions were,” Mr. Sessions said.