US Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday vehemently denied any collusion with Russia to tilt last year’s election in Donald Trump’s favour, branding the suggestion an “appalling and detestable lie.”
In closely-watched congressional testimony, Sessions angrily denounced allegations he acted improperly during meetings with Russian officials — or that he knew of any attempt at collusion by members of the Trump campaign team.
And he repeatedly refused to reveal whether he had spoken to the president regarding James Comey’s handling of the probe into Russian election meddling — which the former FBI director believes to be the reason he was fired.
A Trump loyalist and early backer of the billionaire businessman’s presidential bid, the 70-year-old Sessions has recused himself from all ongoing Russia investigations.
But the nation’s top law enforcement official — who recommended Comey’s dismissal last month — has himself become a focal point in the crisis roiling the White House.
Sessions kicked off his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee by asserting that he had “never met with or had any conversations with any Russians” about interference in the 2016 presidential race.
“I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign,” he said. “The suggestion that I participated with any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country… is an appalling and detestable lie.”
The appearance was Sessions’s first sworn public testimony since being confirmed as attorney general in February.
During the two-and-a-half hour hearing, he engaged in testy exchanges with several senators who pressed him for details on his discussions with Trump — which he refused to provide in the name of confidentiality. Some Democrats grew impatient, warning Sessions was stonewalling on vital issues.
“You are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering that question,” charged Senator Martin Heinrich. “Your silence… speaks volumes.” Sessions responded: “I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.”
Testifying last week before the same committee, Comey recalled that Trump had asked him to “let go” of a probe into onetime national security advisor Michael Flynn — exposing the president to accusations of obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offence.
Flynn was sacked two weeks into the job amid concerns he lied over his Russian contacts, becoming the first high-profile victim of the scandal that has overshadowed Trump’s young presidency.
Trump has recently expressed frustration with Sessions, who has come under pressure over his own Russia contacts.
While the Justice Department has said Sessions recused himself in March because of his involvement in Trump’s campaign, Comey testified that the FBI knew of information that would have made it “problematic” for Sessions to be involved.