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'My Story Has Never Changed,' Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tells House Committee

Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits for the beginning of a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits for the beginning of a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Updated at 6:25 p.m. ET

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday that his "story has never changed" about his and other Trump campaign officials' connections to Russia.

"I will not accept, and reject accusations that I have ever lied," Sessions said. "That is a lie!"

Sessions told a Democratic lawmaker he stands by earlier testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia. But at the same time, the embattled attorney general said that he now recalls telling a foreign policy aide to the campaign that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government.

The hearing was Sessions' first before the House Judiciary Committee as attorney general, but he has frequented other congressional panels investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, giving almost "20 hours" of testimony this year by his count.

He has been under intense scrutiny since his confirmation hearing earlier this year, when he claimed he "did not have communications with the Russians" during the campaign. He has since clarified that statement, after reporting by The Washington Post revealed he had twice met with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

He now says he had no meetings with the Russians to discuss matters related to the campaign.

"My story has never changed; I've always told the truth; I've answered every question to the best of my recollections," he said in his opening remarks to lawmakers. "It was a brilliant campaign, in many ways, but it was a form of chaos every day from Day 1."

Another contradiction sprouted up after Sessions' Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in October. The attorney general was asked about whether he or any surrogates from the Trump campaign were in communication with Russian government officials, and he responded, "I did not, and I'm not aware of anyone else that did, and I don't believe it happened."

But documents unsealed roughly two weeks ago as part of Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe showed that a Trump campaign foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos, told investigators that he had attended a meeting led by Sessions in March 2016, where Papadopoulos said he had Russian contacts and offered to try to arrange a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Tuesday, Sessions seemingly denied remembering the meeting took place, while also remembering his own actions in the meeting:

"Frankly, I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports. I do now recall ... the March 2016 meeting at the Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting. After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government for that matter. But I did not recall this event, which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago, and I gladly would have reported it had I remembered it, because I pushed back against his suggestion that I thought may have been improper."

The House Judiciary Committee's priorities in the hearing were clearly divided along partisan lines. While Democrats focused most of their time and questions on Russia, Republicans questioned Sessions on topics ranging from crime rates, immigration and marijuana to the possibility of appointing a special counsel to investigate accusations against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Sessions sent a letter to Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the committee, on Monday that said he was directing senior prosecutors to determine whether the accusations merit new investigations or a special counsel.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pressed Sessions, listing a number of well-documented Republican talking points: accusations about Hillary Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey and the 2010 Uranium One deal approved by the Obama administration, in which a Russian company bought a company with access to uranium in the United States.

"I guess my main question is: What's it going to take," Jordan said, "to actually get a special counsel?"

"You can have your idea," Sessions said. "But sometimes we have to study what the facts are and to evaluate whether it meets the standard that requires a special counsel."

Jordan continued pressing, however, saying many of the issues looked like they "warranted a second special counsel."

"I would say, 'looks like' is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel," Sessions replied.

In a line of questioning from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, the ongoing controversy in Alabama involving GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore came up.

Sessions told the committee that he has "no reason to doubt these women" who have accused Moore, the GOP nominee for Sessions' Senate seat in a December special election, of seeking romantic relationships and sexual contact with them as teenagers, when he was in his 30s.

Also under questioning from Jackson Lee, Sessions told lawmakers he stands by his previous testimony regarding the Trump campaign and Russia given to the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year.

Sessions' uneasy relationship with race and racial issues was also brought to the forefront again on Tuesday, in an exchange with Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.

Bass brought up an FBI report, dated Aug. 3 and first obtained by Foreign Policy, that coined the term "Black Identity Extremists" and told of fears about racially motivated attacks on police officers by African-Americans.

Sessions said he had not read the report and that he was not aware of any reports on "white identity extremists." He also said he would not comment on whether he considers the Black Lives Matter movement a "Black Identity Extremist" group.

"You should know that a lot of activists around the country are very concerned that we're getting ready to repeat a very sad chapter of our history, where people who are rightfully protesting what they consider to be an injustice in their community ... are now being targeted and labeled as extremists and are going through periods of surveillance and harassment," Bass said, asking Sessions what the Justice Department was going to do to protect citizens' rights to protest.

"This department will not unlawfully target people," Sessions responded.

Bass finished by asking Sessions to revisit the report because, while she acknowledged groups like the ones discussed in the report did exist decades ago (the Black Liberation Army was named in the report), she did not feel as though any "Black Identity Extremist" groups actually still existed now.

Sessions also fielded questions from both Democrats and Republicans about the planned acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T; Time Warner is the parent company of CNN, a media outlet frequently criticized by President Trump.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.