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Jeff Sessions Denies Discussing Election With Russians In Senate Testimony

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Questions have swirled around Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his interactions with Russian officials while he was a Trump campaign surrogate and about what role he played in President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. Now, today the attorney general got to answer those questions, and he pushed back forcefully.

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JEFF SESSIONS: Let me state this clearly, colleagues. 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.

CORNISH: Sessions testified before the same Senate committee that heard from James Comey just last week. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us in studio. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So let's go back to that issue of contacts with the Russian ambassador. What did Jeff Sessions have to say about that?

LIASSON: Well, Sessions has disclosed two meetings with the Russian ambassador while he was a campaign surrogate, and he insists they were done in his capacity as a senator, not as a surrogate even though he was one at the time. There was a suggestion that there may have been a third meeting that he never disclosed. That's the one that the FBI director, James Comey, alluded to in his open testimony, and he reportedly told senators about it behind closed doors. But Sessions denies that and denied that very emphatically in this heated exchange with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.

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RON WYDEN: Mr. Comey said that there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic, and he couldn't talk about them. What are they?

SESSIONS: I - that - why don't you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty.

WYDEN: We can...

SESSIONS: You tell - this is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don't appreciate it. And I've tried to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I've appeared before. And it's really - people are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters, and I've tried to be honest.

LIASSON: So very, very emphatic in defending himself. I think if Donald Trump was watching this testimony, which we understand he probably was today, he was probably pretty happy because Jeff Sessions really pushed back hard. He also refused categorically to talk about any conversations that he had with the president. He didn't declare executive privilege, but he did say it was the policy of the Department of Justice not to talk about conversations with the president.

CORNISH: The other big topic along those lines was about James Comey's firing. What did Sessions have to say there?

LIASSON: Well, he stuck to his - the reasons he gave for Comey's firing in that memo where they blamed Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Today, Sessions said that he thought it was inappropriate that Comey decided not to prosecute her.

The reason why this is really important is because he was asked subsequently by Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, if you were recused from all things Russia and from the Russia investigation, why were you involved in firing the guy, James Comey, who was conducting the Russia investigation? And he said, I was only recused from Russia. He said of course he didn't think he should be fired because of Russia - it was because the FBI needed a, quote, "fresh start" - even though President Trump has contradicted him and said that he did fire Comey because of Russia.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, in the last 24 hours or so, some allies of President Trump have floated the idea that the president might consider firing special counsel Robert Mueller. He's the man running the Russia investigation. Is there anything to this?

LIASSON: Well, one of the president's friends, Chris Ruddy, who's the CEO of Newsmax, a conservative website, said that the president was considering this, said he never actually spoke to the president about it, but he reported that it was under consideration. Now, in order to do this, Donald Trump would have to order the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to fire Mueller. And Rosenstein, it turns out, was testifying on Capitol Hill today about another matter, and he was asked about this in another hearing. And here's what he said.

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ROD ROSENSTEIN: Senator, I'm not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders. Under the regulation, special counsel Mueller may be fired only for good cause, and I am required to put that cause in writing. And so that's what I would do. If there were a good cause, I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn't matter to me what anybody says.

LIASSON: So he's pushing back pretty hard against the idea that he could be ordered to fire - that he would follow orders to fire Mueller. By and large, Republicans across the board say firing Mueller would not be a good thing, including Chris Ruddy, who started the whole story going. And today on a trip to Wisconsin, the president was asked many times by reporters shouting questions if he still had confidence in Mueller, and he did not answer.

CORNISH: And a reminder that trip was policy-related, right? This White House...

LIASSON: Policy-related...

CORNISH: ...Still has an agenda.

LIASSON: The White House still has an agenda. This week is supposed to be workforce development week. He was in Wisconsin to talk about workforce training. He also met with Obamacare victims for a couple of minutes. He did that in Ohio last week. And he had lunch with lawmakers where he talked about the Obamacare replacement bill. He is reported to have said that the White House Bill was too mean, and the Senate should make it more generous. But he also said he was very optimistic about a bill passing the Senate.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.