WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended himself fiercely Tuesday from any suggestion that he has lied in his testimony before Congress about his knowledge of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
"I will not accept — and reject — accusations that I have ever lied," Sessions testified under oath before the House Judiciary Committee. "That is a lie."
Sessions added: "I have at all times conducted myself honorably ... I've always told the truth."
Sessions' testimony at the House hearing was his first appearance before Congress since two former Trump campaign advisers testified that they told Sessions about their contacts with Russia. Those revelations — from former advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page — appeared to contradict previous testimony that Sessions gave to the Senate.
Sessions said Tuesday that he did not recall talking to Page last year about Page's planned trip to Moscow and only remembered a March 2016 meeting with Papadopoulos after seeing news reports about it. He said he made it clear to Papadopoulos that his suggestion that he arrange a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian officials "may have been improper."
On Oct. 18, Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had no knowledge of any contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Russians with ties to the Kremlin.
“I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did,” Sessions told the Senate panel. “I don’t believe that happened.”
Jeff Sessions faces House questions on Russian election meddling
However, Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading a criminal investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, later unsealed documents revealing that Papadopoulos admitted to the FBI he attended a national security meeting in March 2016 with then-candidate Donald Trump, Sessions and other advisers.
At that meeting, which Sessions chaired, Papadopoulos told the group he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. No such meeting ever took place, Trump campaign officials have said.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October to making false statements and “material omissions” to the FBI about numerous communications he had with allies of the Russian government, according to a court document unsealed by Mueller.
"I had no recollection of this meeting with Mr. Papadopoulos until I saw news reports," Sessions said Tuesday. "I do now recall the meeting at Trump Tower."
Sessions said he could not recall what Papadopoulos said. However, Sessions said he "believes I made clear to him" that he should not represent the campaign to the Russians or anyone else.
"I pushed back against his suggestion (of arranging a meeting between Trump and Russian officials) that I thought may have been improper," Sessions said.
In response to a question from Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., Sessions said he is "confident" he never exchanged texts or emails with Papadopoulos during the campaign.
The attorney general said it's difficult for him to recall details from a year ago in part because the Trump campaign was so chaotic.
"It was a brilliant campaign in many ways, but it was a form of chaos in many ways from Day One," Sessions testified, noting that he was still doing his job as a senator while advising the campaign. "Sleep was in short supply."
Last week, the House Intelligence Committee released a transcript of its closed-door interview with Page in which the former Trump adviser said he told then-senator Sessions that he was traveling to Moscow to give a speech at the New Economic School.
"I mentioned it briefly to Senator Sessions as I was walking out the door (of the Capitol Hill Club for Republicans)," Page testified. "I forget the exact date, but it was the Thursday night before I flew to Moscow to give my speech. So I mentioned it to him in passing ... as we were walking out the door."
It was on that trip that Page met with Russian deputy prime minster Arkadiy Dvorkovich and several Russian lawmakers, according to the transcript.
Sessions said Tuesday that, in regard to Page, "while I do not challenge his account, I have no recollection" of speaking with him at the Capitol Hill Club.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked Sessions: "He told you he was going to Russia. He was on the (Trump campaign's) national security team. You didn't tell him not to go?"
Sessions replied, "Am I supposed to tell him not to go on a trip?"
"Mr. Page said that after the meeting was over, he said he was going to Russia and I had no response," Sessions said. "I don't think that means I've done anything dishonest."
After a similar question from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Sessions reacted angrily.
"Does that (conversation with Page) establish some sort of improper contact with Russians?" Sessions snapped. "He's not Russian, you know."
Democrats in both the House and Senate say they are troubled by inconsistencies between what Sessions has told them and the testimony of Page and Papadopoulos, even though that testimony does not prove that Sessions was involved in any collusion with Russians.
"Over the past 10 months, the attorney general has testified before the Senate on three occasions about his knowledge of and contacts with Russian operatives," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a speech on the Senate floor Monday. "But he still has not gotten his story straight ...This is a problem."
Sessions' problems with his former colleagues in Congress began at his confirmation hearing in January when the former Alabama senator failed to mention at least two contacts he had with the Russian ambassador while he was advising Trump's campaign.
When those contacts were later disclosed, Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and appointed Mueller to lead the inquiry — a move that angered Trump.
While Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee pressed Sessions on the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia, several Republican members said before the hearing that Sessions should resign unless he appoints a special counsel to investigate key figures in the Obama administration.
Conservative GOP Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida said in a Fox News op-ed Monday that Sessions should appoint a second special counsel to investigate actions taken by former FBI director James Comey and former attorney general Loretta Lynch related to the closure of the email investigation that dogged Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The FBI investigated Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of State but never charged her with any crime.
"It’s time for Jeff Sessions to name a Special Counsel and get answers for the American people," the two congressmen wrote. "If not, he should step down."
In a letter to Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., on Monday, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said that Sessions has directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate Republican members' requests for a special counsel. GOP members had sent letters to Sessions in July and September detailing their request.
"These senior prosecutors will report directly to the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, as appropriate, and will make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any matters merit the appointment of a Special Counsel," Boyd wrote.
Sessions essentially repeated that statement Tuesday and added that he could not confirm or deny that any investigations have been opened into Obama administration activities or actions taken by Clinton.
He told Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, that he could not answer Jordan's questions about whether the FBI helped fund the now-famous dossier alleging ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
The dossier was written by former British spy Christopher Steele, who was hired by Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on Trump during last year's presidential campaign. Fusion GPS was hired by a law firm representing Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Jordan and other conservatives believe the FBI may have helped fund Steele, who, as a former British intelligence officer, may have worked in cooperation with the FBI in the past. Sessions said he could not comment on that because he has recused himself from anything involving the Russia investigation. There has been no evidence to support the claim that the FBI helped pay for the dossier.