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Attorney General Jeff Sessions Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee


Attorney General Jeff Sessions was back on Capitol Hill today, and a lot has changed since the last time he testified on the Hill. The Russia investigations have revealed apparent inconsistencies in what Sessions says he knew about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. NPR's Ryan Lucas spent the day listening to the testimony and joins us now. Hi, Ryan.


HU: So it didn't take long for Russia to come up today. What did Attorney General Sessions have to say this time?

LUCAS: Well, he tried to get out and address the issue from the very get-go. He said in his opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee - he really struck a defiant tone. Here's what he had to say. Let's have a listen.


JEFF SESSIONS: In all of my testimony, I can only do my best to answer your questions as I understand them and to the best of my memory. But I will not accept and reject accusations that I have ever lied. That is a lie.

LUCAS: Now, here's what this all stems from. Last month, the special counsel charged a former Trump campaign aide by the name of George Papadopoulos with lying to the FBI. Now, in the court papers associated with that case, Papadopoulos says he told senior campaign officials about his efforts to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.

Now, here's the thing. Sessions was at that meeting. There's even a photograph of him there to prove it. Now, another foreign policy adviser, Carter Page - he recently told Congress that Sessions knew about Page's own trip to Russia in the summer of 2016, and here's why that's important. Sessions originally said that he didn't know of any contacts between campaign officials and Russia. And that's why Democrats were pressing him on this issue today.

HU: Yeah, and so I imagine the Democrats on the panel weren't buying Sessions' explanations.

LUCAS: Not at all, not at all. And there's some history here as to why. Remember that Sessions said at his confirmation hearing in January that he didn't have any contacts himself with Russians during the campaign. Then press reports started to come out that Sessions had indeed met with the Russian ambassador, for example. And Sessions ultimately acknowledged those meetings. He said that they were innocent. He said that he wasn't correcting. He was only clarifying his answer to an unclear question. But as I said, there is history here for Democratic skepticism, let's say.

HU: Well, what about the Republicans? What kind of questions did they have for Sessions?

LUCAS: Well, committee Republicans have long been asking the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to look into a host of matters related to Hillary Clinton. There's her handling of classified information on her private email server. There's the sale of a uranium mining company to Russia that happened when Clinton was secretary of state.

Now, the Justice Department said in a letter yesterday to the committee chairman, Bob Goodlatte, that senior prosecutors are evaluating whether there are any matters that merit a special counsel. And Goodlatte pressed Sessions on this question today, asking whether he has the attorney general's word that this will be done quickly and fairly. And this was Sessions' reply.


SESSIONS: Yes, you can, Mr. Chairman. And you can be sure that they will be done without political influence, and they will be done correctly and properly.

LUCAS: Now, that wasn't a firm enough response for some Republicans on the committee. There was one heated exchange that Sessions had with an Ohio Republican, Jim Jordan. Now, Jordan rattled off a list of Clinton's alleged misdeeds and asked very pointedly, isn't this enough to merit a special counsel. And Sessions just shot back, looks like - this is a quote - "looks like is not enough of a basis to appoint a special counsel."

HU: Real quick, Ryan - this was just a regular hearing, actually, about DOJ oversight. So was there anything else that caught your ear?

LUCAS: Well, there's been a lot of noise about leaks of classified information during the Trump administration. Some of those leaks have damaged the White House. Sessions said today that the DOJ currently has 27 open investigations into leaks, and that compares to what he said was nine open in the last three years.

HU: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.

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

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.