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Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions defends Russia testimony and says he didn’t mislead Congress

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Holds Press Conference At Justice
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary committee Monday to clarify his testimony about his meetings with the Russian ambassador.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions sought Monday to clarify his denial to the Senate about contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, a misstatement that led him to recuse himself from overseeing federal investigations into meddling by the Kremlin in the U.S. election.

Reports that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador twice during the campaign sparked a storm of demands last week on Capitol Hill for the former U.S. senator from Alabama to recuse himself from the investigations or resign.

He announced his recusal on Thursday and promised to send a letter to clarify his January testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In the letter, Sessions told his former colleagues that he had correctly answered a question when he said he “did not have communications with Russians” during the campaign.

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Sessions reiterated what he told reporters last week: that he had focused on part of the question posed by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that sought to determine what the attorney general would do about “continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

Sessions said in the letter that he answered honestly.

“I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them,” Sessions wrote.

The FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating whether anyone on then-candidate Donald Trump’s team colluded with Russia’s government while the Kremlin was hacking Democratic Party computers and seeking to disrupt the campaign.

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The issue has cast a cloud over the fledgling Trump administration, which has denied any improper contacts. President Trump ousted his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, last month for misleading the White House about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign.

The Justice Department disclosed last week that Sessions also met twice with Kislyak in 2016, first after a speech at the Republican National Convention in July and then in a private sit-down meeting in Sessions’ Senate office in September.

Justice Department officials have said that Sessions had conversations with more than two dozen foreign ambassadors and that his meeting with Kislyak was not unusual. They said he met the Russian diplomat in his capacity as a member of the the Armed Services Committee, not as a representative of the Trump campaign.

The day before his sit-down with the Russian, he met the Ukranian ambassador, for example, they said.

In comments to reporters, Sessions described his encounters with Kislyak as pro forma discussion. He described Kislyak as an “old-style, Soviet-type ambassador” and added that their conversation grew testy over Russia’s support for separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

A U.S. intelligence report issued on Jan. 6, before Trump took office, assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the election-related meddling in an effort to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump.

FBI officials have not publicly discussed their investigation, and no evidence indicates that they have discovered wrongdoing by any Trump associate. Even so, the inquiry has disrupted the early weeks of Trump’s administration.

Trump added fuel to the controversy over the weekend by tweeting that President Obama had ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower during the campaign. Neither he nor his aides have offered any proof, and Obama and James R. Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said the claim was false.

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FBI Director James B. Comey told fellow law enforcement officials that he is concerned that Trump’s charge could tarnish the bureau by suggesting agents had conducted an illegal wiretapping campaign on a political candidate.

Former and current officials have said no such wiretaps were directed at Trump, his campaign or Trump Tower.

FBI surveillance of Russian operatives is routine, however, and could have picked up Americans speaking or writing to Russians who were monitored by U.S. counterintelligence agencies.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told ABC News on Monday that Trump was not willing to accept Comey’s denials on the wiretapping allegations.

“You know, I don’t think he does,” Sanders said of Trump. “I think he firmly believes that this is a story line that has been reported pretty widely by quite a few outlets.”

The fallout from Trump’s tweets came as Democrats continued to seek answers from Sessions about his contacts with Kislyak.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, last week called on Sessions to answer questions in person from lawmakers and asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate Sessions’ testimony, his contacts with Russian officials and his decision to recuse himself.

“He has not explained why he failed to come forward and correct the record before reports of his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak became public, why there was a delay in recusing himself until those public disclosures, and why he only recused himself with respect to campaign-related investigations and not Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration,” Feinstein said.

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Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) blocked the move to call Sessions to testify, saying that there were no plans to question Sessions until an annual oversight hearing in coming months.

Sessions wrote that before he decided to recuse himself, he had consulted with Justice Department officials over the effect of his role as a former Trump campaign surrogate.

Justice Department officials recommended that Sessions recuse himself, the attorney general said, because of his connection to Trump and the campaign. “I believe these recommendations are just and right,” he said.

Follow @delwilber on Twitter

del.wilber@latimes.com

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