Attorney General Jeff Sessions very publicly and repeatedly butted heads with Democratic Senator Al Franken on Wednesday after being questioned over the accuracy of previous testimony regarding his communications with the Russians during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
In one of several very heated exchanges AG Sessions had with Democratic senators during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Franken, D-Minn., grilled the attorney general and suggested his answers and reasoning have changed.
“The goal post has been moved. First it was ‘I did not have communications with Russians’ – which was not true. Then it was ‘I never met with Russians to discuss any political campaign’ – which may or may not be true. Now it is ‘I did not discuss interference in the campaign’ which further narrows your initial blanket denial about meeting with the Russians,” Franken said.
Sessions was visibly frustrated, and responded that, “Without hesitation, I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.”
Senator Franken attempted to begin a second round of questioning before Jeff Sessions could respond in full to the first, but Sessions shot back.
“Mr. Chairman, I do not have to sit in here and listen to his charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break,” Sessions said, noting that Franken’s “lead in” to his questioning was “very, very troubling,” and that he needed more time to respond.
Senator Franken’s initial line of questioning referred to a report that was published around the time of Sessions’ testimony this summer, to which Sessions said Wednesday he responded on the spot.
The report alleged that United States intelligence agencies had intercepted Russian communications that shed light on “substantive discussions on policy matters important to Moscow.” Sessions, at the time, said he “did not have any private meetings” and he did not “recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel.”
Franken suggested that the Justice Department did not comment on that report.
But after Sessions’ testimony Wednesday, the Justice Department told Fox News that Franken’s claim that they “declined to comment on the veracity” of a July 21, 2017 Washington Post story that claimed Sessions met with the Russian ambassador at the Mayflower Hotel and discussed the Trump campaign was “not accurate.”
Sessions continued to say Wednesday that his initial response was “refined directly to the suggestion of a continuous exchange of information” between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.
“Which did not happen, at least not to my knowledge, and not with me, and that’s why I responded the way I did,” Sessions said. “And I’m disappointed, yes—you can say what you want to about the accuracy of it, but I think it was a good faith response to a dramatic event at the time and I don’t think it’s fair for you to suggest otherwise.”
But Senator Franken pressed on—even sparring, briefly, with committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, over the amount of time Sessions had to respond in relation to the time he was given for questioning.
Sessions slammed Franken for having “10 minutes” of “improperly framing” the situation and his responses.
“I have committed myself to a high level of public service to reach the highest level of ethics and decency in my service,” Sessions said. “You have now gone through this long talk that I believe is totally unfair to me.”
The attorney general also had heated exchanges with other Democratic senators, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., over Chicago violence and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., over whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested an interview with him.
A DOJ official later responded, “Not true,” to the latter claim.
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