Attorney General Jeff Sessions defiantly ripped any idea he had colluded with Russia during the election as "an appalling and detestable lie" and said Tuesday, while he recused himself from the Moscow probe, "I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false accusations."
"At all times throughout the course of the campaign, the confirmation process and since becoming attorney general, I have dedicated myself to the highest standards," Sessions, 70, a former six-term Republican senator from Alabama, told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In denying any meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Sessions said "I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States.
"Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign. I did not have any private meetings, nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel.
"I did not attend any meetings at that event separate prior to the speech I attended by the president.
"The suggestion that I participated with any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie."
Sessions appeared before the committee to rebut testimony by former FBI Director James Comey last Thursday, who reportedly told senators privately that Sessions had met with Kislyak a third time – at the Mayflower Hotel – during the campaign.
Sessions also contradicted a key part of Comey's testimony last week, that after an encounter with President Donald Trump in which he said Trump pressured him to back off an investigation into the former national security adviser, Comey "implored" Sessions to make sure he was never left alone with the president again – but that Sessions did not respond.
"He didn't recall this, but I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policy" regarding White House contacts, Sessions said.
President Trump fired Comey last month – and Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe in March after acknowledging he had met twice with Kislyak.
"So many have suggested that my recusal is because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself, that I may have done something wrong," Sessions said.
"But this is the reason I recused myself: I felt I was required to under the rules of the Department of Justice and as a leader of the Department of Justice, I should comply with the rules, obviously."
Sessions did not initially disclose his Russia meetings during his confirmation hearing in January – and he defended himself Tuesday against accusations he misrepresented himself during the hearing.
In the context of the hearing, "my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it," the attorney general told senators.
At the outset of his testimony, Sessions told senators he would not disclose any private conversations with President Trump.
"Consistent with long-standing Department of Justice practice, I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I have had with the president," Sessions said.
Sessions also defended Trump's firing of Comey in May – and his role in it, despite the recusal – saying "a fresh start at the FBI was probably the best thing" after the former director announced the findings of the Hillary Clinton email probe without Justice Department approval.
"When Mr. Comey declined the Clinton prosecution, that was really a usurpation and a stunning development," Sessions told senators. "The FBI is an investigative team. They don't discuss prosecution policies.
"That was a thunderous thing – and he also commented at some length on the declination on the Clinton prosecution, which you shouldn't do.
"If you decline, you decline and don't talk about it."
He said other actions by Comey's leadership "indicated to me a lack of discipline and caused controversy on both sides of the aisle, and I had come to the conclusion that a fresh start was appropriate and did not mind putting that in writing."
Regarding the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, Sessions said he could not comment on reports this week Trump might fire him but said "I have confidence in Mr. Mueller.
"I have known Mr. Mueller over the years," Sessions said. "He served 12 years as a FBI director. I knew him before that."
In several testy exchanges with committee Democrats, Sessions beat back accusations he was stonewalling the panel, hinting he was invoking executive privilege.
Democrats asked about some of his conversations with Trump and called on the attorney general to respond to Comey's accusation last week his involvement in issues related to the Russia investigation despite his recusal was "problematic."
"I am not stonewalling," a visibly angry Sessions told Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. "I'm following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.
"You don't walk in to any hearing or committee meeting and reveal confidential communications with the president of the United States, who is entitled to receive confidential communications.
"To be accused of stonewalling for not answering, I would push back on that.
"Mr. Comey, perhaps he didn't know, but I basically recused myself on the first day I got into the office," Sessions continued.
"I never accessed any files. I never learned the names of investigators. I never met with them. I never asked for any documentation.
"I made an honest and proper decision to recuse myself," he said.
When Wyden insisted Sessions "was not answering the question," the attorney general retorted: "Well, what is the question?"
The senator then asked Sessions on what issues Comey might have seen as "problematic" because of the recusal.
"Why don't you tell me," the attorney general responded. "There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty.
"This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me – and I don't appreciate it."
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