Jeff Sessions testifies: Refuses to say whether he spoke to Trump about Comey's handling of Russia investigation – Washington Post

By , Devlin Barrett and ,

Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeatedly refused to answer questions from senators Tuesday about his private conversations with President Trump, including whether he spoke to Trump about former FBI director James B. Comey’s handling of the investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race.

In a number of testy exchanges with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions said he would not answer many of their questions because of a long-standing Justice Department policy that he said protects private conversations between Cabinet secretaries and the president.

The attorney general confirmed elements of Comey’s dramatic testimony before the same panel last week while disputing others. Sessions said he was in an Oval Office meeting in February with Comey and Trump when the president said he wanted to speak to Comey privately — and he acknowledged that Comey came to talk to him the next day about the meeting.

At other times, though, Sessions frequently said he couldn’t recall specifics, particularly when asked about his meetings with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.

Above all, Sessions, who served as a senator from Alabama before taking the attorney general post, tried to clear his name and win the sympathy of his former colleagues.

He opened his testimony with a fiery assertion that he never had any conversations with Russians about “any type of interference” in the 2016 presidential election.

“I was your colleague in this body for 20 years,” Sessions said. “The suggestion that I participated in any collusion . . . is an appalling and detestable lie.”

The attorney general seemed to understand the import of each of his words as the highest-ranking Trump administration official so far to testify publicly on the FBI investigation and Comey’s firing. During one line of questioning by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), he told her in a flash of anger not to rush his answers because “you’ll accuse me of lying” and said she was making him “nervous.”

Sessions took particular aim at news reports about a possible meeting he had with a Russian official during an April 2016 event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where Trump gave a pro-Russia speech. He acknowledged being at the event and said he had conversations with people there, but did not remember any conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it,” Sessions said.

He said that he had met twice with Kislyak — once during the Republican National Convention and once in his Senate office — and that he did not disclose that during his confirmation hearing. He said, however, that he did not remember any other meetings with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign and did not remember any conversations with Russian officials about the Trump campaign.

“Certainly not one thing happened that was improper in any one of those meetings,” Sessions said.

When asked to explain why he wrongly claimed in his confirmation hearing that he never met with Russians, Sessions said he was flustered by the question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) after many hours of testimony.

The attorney general has since recused himself from the Russia investigation — a decision he sought to cast Tuesday as resulting from his role as an adviser on the Trump campaign, rather than because of any inappropriate interaction with Russian officials.

“I recused myself from any investigation into the campaigns for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” he said.

But Sessions’s answers seemed to contradict each other at times, particularly when it came to his recusal.

A March 2 email by Sessions’s chief of staff said that he would not be involved in “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for the president of the United States.” Yet two months later, he played a direct role in Trump’s decision to fire Comey, citing Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation during the 2016 race.

“The recusal involved one case in the Department of Justice and the FBI,’’ said Sessions, referring to the FBI’s Russia investigation and offering a different description of the scope of his recusal. “I’m the attorney general of the United States. It’s my responsibility to ensure that the department is run properly. I do not believe it is a sound position that if you recuse from a single case, you can’t make a decision about the leadership of that agency.”

Sessions previously told senators explicitly that he would recuse himself from matters related to Clinton — though Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Tuesday that the case was already closed and therefore not part of the recusal.

When asked about his conversation with Comey on the day the president spoke to Comey alone, Sessions described the exchange differently than the former FBI chief did in his testimony last week.

Comey testified that after what he called a “disturbing” private talk with Trump, he went to Sessions. Without telling the attorney general that Trump had suggested the FBI drop its probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Comey told Sessions, “It can’t happen that you get kicked out of the room and the president talks to me.’’ The president has denied asking Comey to drop the Flynn matter.

Comey said that the attorney general didn’t say anything but that Sessions’s body language gave him the sense that he was powerless to do anything.

Sessions said he did respond, telling Comey “that the FBI and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contact with the White House.’’

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) suggested that the attorney general was ducking critical questions in his testimony.

“I believe the American people have had it with stonewalling. Americans don’t want to hear that answers to relevant questions are privileged or off limits,” Wyden said. “We are talking about an attack on our democratic institutions, and stonewalling of any kind is unacceptable.”

Sessions shot back: “I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.”

Wyden noted that Comey had said it was “problematic” for Sessions to oversee the Russia probe, for reasons he did not explain in a public setting.

Sessions became angry again when Wyden pressed him to explain what facts might be “problematic” about his involvement in the probe.

“Why don’t you tell me? There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none,” Sessions said. “This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”

Earlier Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appeared before lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He responded to questions regarding comments Monday from Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a friend of Trump, that the president might fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Mueller was recently appointed to lead the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

Rosenstein said that if the president ordered him to fire Mueller, he would comply only if the request was “lawful and appropriate.”

Rosenstein, who has been on the job for six weeks, said only he could fire Mueller and only if he found good cause to do so. He described Mueller as operating independently from the Justice Department in his investigation.

Julie Tate and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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Jeff Sessions finds a shield in executive privilege — but it might not be a strong one – Washington Post

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s repeated refusal to answer lawmakers’ skeptical inquiries Tuesday draws on a long legal and political tradition: Private deliberations involving the president and his top advisers often can be kept out of public view.

But analysts disagreed on whether the attorney general was appropriately using executive privilege to advance a worthy goal, or merely suggesting it as a shield to fend off questions he did not want to take.

Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee lambasted the attorney general for failing to provide responses, particularly when they were not asking about classified material or ongoing investigations.

[Jeff Sessions testifies: Refuses to say whether he spoke to President Trump about Comey’s handling of Russia investigation]

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said he believed Sessions’s reasoning for not commenting was faulty: There was no “appropriateness bucket,” he said, for declining to answer a legitimate congressional inquiry. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said Sessions was being improperly “selective” in what he revealed.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Sessions was “stonewalling,” and the public was frustrated by it.

The president undoubtedly has the right to assert executive privilege and stop an adviser from revealing details of deliberations, and Justice Department policies on releasing information to the public note the concept of “deliberative process privilege,” which is meant to “encourage open, frank discussions on matters of policy between subordinates and superiors.”

Legal analysts, though, were split on whether Sessions did so correctly on Tuesday. Importantly, Sessions said Trump had not yet asserted executive privilege, and he himself had no power to claim it.

But Sessions said he did want to reveal details that the president might want out of the public eye, if he were given more time to consider.

“It’s my judgment that it would be inappropriate for me to answer and reveal private conversations with the president when he has not had a full opportunity to review the questions and to make a decision on whether or not to approve such an answer,” Sessions said.

Scott L. Fredericksen, a former federal prosecutor and associate independent counsel now in private practice at Foley & Lardner, said Sessions had taken a “legitimate position . . . to protect the confidentiality of his conversations with the president.”

“I think there’s fairly good history that the Department of Justice resists revealing internal deliberations and discussions, whether it be investigations or policy, as a matter of separation of the executive from the legislative branch,” he said.

But Cornell Law School professor Jens David Ohlin said Sessions’s reasoning did not make sense.

“His justification for refusing to answer the questions was completely incoherent. He claimed executive privilege but then denied that he had done so,” Ohlin said. “It made no sense whatsoever. He’s basically trying to have his cake and eat it, too: claim executive privilege but then pretend that he didn’t. His position has no basis in law, common sense, or logic.”

Sessions declined to detail his conversations with the president on a number of topics — including the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and possible discussions of pardons or the Russia investigation. He did, though, offer some specifics on why Comey was fired — a point King said showed he was being choosy in what he was willing to discuss.

Legal analysts agreed it was the president who would have to invoke privilege — although Fredericksen said Congress would have to push the issue if the members really wanted answers. Ultimately, Fredericksen said, a court might determine whether the information is public or not, but all involved would probably want to avoid that outcome.

Last week, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers also declined to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee about their conversations with the president.

Coats, like Sessions, said he did not know whether the White House would block his participation in the questioning by asserting executive privilege.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) pressed Sessions to promise that he would at least provide documentation to help the committee’s investigation, but Sessions allowed only that he would review Justice Department rules.

President Richard M. Nixon famously invoked the notion of executive privilege to try to withhold White House tapes of himself and others discussing the Watergate scandal, and he resigned not long after he lost in the Supreme Court and was ordered to turn the materials over.

More recently, President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege to block Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. from releasing documents in the Fast and Furious scandal. A House panel voted to hold Holder in contempt, and a federal judge eventually rejected Obama’s privilege claim — ruling that it was undercut by public disclosures about the case.

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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Trump calls House healthcare bill 'mean' – The Hill

President Trump called the House’s ObamaCare repeal bill “mean” and said it should be more generous during a meeting with Republican senators Tuesday, according to a Senate GOP aide. 

The comments, which were first reported by The Associated Press, were striking given that Trump has previously praised the House bill and celebrated its passage at the White House. 

“This is a great plan,” Trump said last month during a Rose Garden ceremony attended by House Republicans the day the bill passed the lower chamber.

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It is unclear what effect Trump’s comments about the House bill might have. Senate Republicans were already planning to make the bill more generous, for example by increasing tax credits for low-income people. 

In the public section of the meeting, Trump said: “I really appreciate what you’re doing to come out with a bill that’s going to be a phenomenal bill to the people of our country: generous, kind, with heart. That’s what I’m saying.”

“His message was that there’s a sense of urgency about this,” Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneOvernight Tech: Uber CEO taking leave of absence | Senators unveil goals for driverless car bill | Court strikes down FCC prison phone caps | Verizon closes Yahoo dealTrump calls House healthcare bill ‘mean’Overnight Regulation: FDA puts new nutrition labels on holdMORE (R-S.D.) said after the meeting with the president. “We can’t afford to fail; we’ve got to get it done, and he’s certainly fine with the Senate taking a different direction than what the House [did].”

Thune said Trump did not lay out policy specifics of what he’d like to see in the bill, nor did he set a deadline for passing legislation through Congress. 

The White House pressured the House to vote quickly on its healthcare bill in the spring, creating a tense process that Thune said Senate Republicans were looking to avoid.

Thune said the Senate did not want to encounter a “false deadline and not be able to meet it and all the publicity that would go with that.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has been more wary of Medicaid cuts in the healthcare bill than some other Republicans, said Trump did not try to pressure him to support a specific bill. 

“He just mostly listened,” Portman said.

Asked if any differences were resolved in the meeting, which included centrists such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and more conservative members, Portman said, “No, but that wasn’t the purpose of it.”

One issue that did come up was the funding of ObamaCare subsidy payments to insurers known as cost-sharing reductions. Trump has previously threatened to cut off the payments as a way to bring about the collapse of the healthcare law. Some Republican lawmakers want to fund the payments to ensure stability, though. 

“That issue got raised and I think he’s open to suggestions,” Thune said of Trump. “We had some of our members that brought that up.”

Thune said the group also discussed an effort he is leading to increase the tax credits in the bill to give more assistance to low-income and older people than the House bill did. 

“The president is very interested in getting a health reform bill through the Senate and he wants us to get moving on it,” Thune said. 

This story was updated at 5:41 p.m.

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Sessions: Comey made 'stunning' decision to supersede ex-AG Lynch – Washington Post

FILE PHOTO – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) gestures as FBI Director James Comey looks on before his first meeting with heads of federal law enforcement components at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S. on February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended his decision to recommend former FBI director James B. Comey be fired, calling Comey’s decision to supersede then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s authority “stunning.”

“It violates fundamental powers,” Sessions said of Comey’s decision to announce himself the termination of the FBI’s probe into former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server instead of deferring to Lynch.

When Comey defended that decision publicly to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions explained: “That was additional confirmation that the director’s thinking was not clear.”

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Senate leadership, walked Sessions through a timeline of his decision to fire Comey, concluding that because Sessions  recused himself from DOJ probe two months before Comey was dismissed, the Russia probe couldn’t have played a role in his thinking – even if the president said it played a role in his.

“I’m not going to try to guess” whether Trump fired Comey because of Russia. But Sessions refuses to say if Trump told him Russia was why.

— James Hohmann (@jameshohmann) June 13, 2017

Cornyn also quoted Comey’s own words back to Sessions, asking if the former FBI director was right when he said the president can fire an FBI director for any reason, or for no reason at all.

“Yes and I think that was probably good for him to say,” Sessions said, remarking that he believed the next FBI director – the administration has named Christopher Wray as Trump’s pick for the job – would be “new and excellent” in the post.

“I think that statement was probably a valuable thing for director Comey to say, and I appreciate that he did,” Sessions said.

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Sessions Testimony: Suggestion of Colluding With Russians an 'Appalling' Lie – New York Times

[Video: Watch Live: Jeff Sessions Testifies Before Senate Committee Watch on YouTube.]

Watch Live: Jeff Sessions Testifies Before Senate Committee
Video by The New York Times

Attorney General Jeff Sessions started his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee with an emotional appeal to his former colleagues. He called any suggestion that he colluded with Russians during the election an “appalling” lie. “Please colleagues, hear me on this,” he said.

• Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the committee, said Mr. Sessions’s testimony was his opportunity to “separate fact from fiction.”

The Run-Up

The podcast that makes sense of the most delirious stretch of the 2016 campaign.

• Mr. Burr’s Democratic counterpart, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, quickly challenged Mr. Sessions’s previous denial of contact with the Russians. “The fact is that you did indeed have interactions with Russian government officials during the course of the campaign,” Mr. Warner said.

• Mr. Rosenstein faced vigorous questioning about reports that President Trump was considering dismissing the special counsel in the Russia inquiry, Robert S. Mueller III.

• Mr. Rosenstein told senators he would not carry out any order from the president to fire Mr. Mueller unless there were good cause to do so.

Track our briefing here throughout the day for the latest updates and live video once the hearing begins.

Rosenstein vows to protect integrity of Russia inquiry.

Mr. Rosenstein began his testimony parrying questions from Democrats about both Mr. Sessions and the role of Mr. Mueller. He said that if Mr. Trump demanded that he fire Mr. Mueller, he would refuse unless there was just cause.

“I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe that those are lawful and appropriate orders,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “If there were good cause, I would consider. If there were not good cause, it would not matter what anybody says.”

Mr. Rosenstein made his remarks in response to questions from several senators after a friend of Mr. Trump’s said on Monday that he was considering whether to fire Mr. Mueller. Mr. Rosenstein appointed Mr. Mueller as special counsel and is overseeing his investigation because Mr. Sessions has recused himself.

At the hearing, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, noted that the Justice Department regulations for special counsels placed restrictions on firing Mr. Mueller: Only the attorney general — here, Mr. Rosenstein — may do so, and only for good cause, say, if Mr. Mueller committed misconduct or violated department rules.

Ms. Shaheen asked Mr. Rosenstein whether he had seen any sign that Mr. Mueller had committed some breach that would constitute good cause for firing him.

“No, I have not,” Mr. Rosenstein replied, adding: “You have my assurance that we are going to faithfully follow that regulation, and Director Mueller is going to have the full independence he needs to conduct that investigation.”

Soon after, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, asked him what he would do if Mr. Trump ordered him to fire Mr. Mueller, leading to his response that he would not do so unless there were good cause in accordance with the regulation.

Mr. Rosenstein did not say what he would do if Mr. Trump first ordered the department to rescind the regulation, which would permit Mr. Mueller to be fired for any reason.

Democrats accuse Sessions of misleading senators.

Mr. Sessions may have sent a stand-in to the Appropriations Committee, but that did not stop Democrats there from venting their frustrations at him.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s top Democrat, criticized Mr. Sessions for opting to testify in front of the Intelligence Committee instead of appearing as planned to make the case for the Justice Department’s budget, saying attorneys general do not “cower” when called upon by Congress.

Mr. Leahy said he had questions about the role of Mr. Sessions in the firing of Mr. Comey, as well as what he called “false testimony” by Mr. Sessions about his interactions with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing — questions he could not ask Mr. Rosenstein.

“I won’t mince words,” he said to Mr. Rosenstein. “You’re not the witness we were supposed to hear from today. You’re not the witness who should be behind that table. That responsibility lies with the attorney general of the United States.”

Echoes of the ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’

Even as Mr. Rosenstein vowed to “defend the integrity” of the special counsel investigation, including by refusing any order to fire Mr. Mueller without good cause, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, spotted a potential issue that has no clear answer: What if Mr. Trump fired Mr. Rosenstein and then worked down through the Justice Department until he found someone willing to do it?

That possibility has historical precedent: In “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, President Richard M. Nixon fired the attorney general and his deputy because they were unwilling to remove the Watergate special prosecutor, stopping only when the official next in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, was willing to do what the president wanted.

If something like that happened again, Mr. Van Hollen asked, and Mr. Mueller believed he had not been fired for any legitimate good cause, what protection did the Justice Department regulation provide? Would the fired special counsel have recourse, for example, to contest his firing in the courts?

Mr. Rosenstein said he hoped there would never be a need to answer what would happen next if someone at the Justice Department did not adhere to the rules. Comparing it to a law school hypothetical, he said, “I would be reluctant to answer it without doing some research first.”

But no one at the hearing brought up what would happen if the White House directed the Justice Department to change the rules first — by revoking the special counsel regulations — so that Mr. Mueller could then be fired for any reason, just as ordinary senior Justice Department officials can.

Rosenstein declines to address scope of Sessions’s recusal.

Mr. Rosenstein demurred when pressed by Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, to describe the scope and limits of Mr. Sessions’s recusal.

Mr. Schatz noted that when Mr. Sessions announced his recusal in early March, he phrased it in terms of investigations that touched on the 2016 presidential campaigns. But the senator asked where the boundaries of that were, suggesting that it was murky whether potential counterintelligence matters about Russia that did not involve the campaign, or potential criminal matters like obstruction of justice allegations, fell into it.

Mr. Rosenstein suggested that he would control what issue reached Mr. Sessions because of how the Justice Department hierarchy works: Matters go through the Office of the Deputy Attorney General before getting to the Office of the Attorney General. But he refused to detail the scope and limits of Mr. Sessions’s recusal beyond what had already been said, saying he had a responsibility not to talk publicly about what investigations were focusing on.

“I know what we’re investigating,” Mr. Rosenstein said of Mr. Sessions. “He does not.”

Ryan supports Mueller investigation.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on Tuesday that Mr. Mueller should be allowed to continue his work.

“I think the best thing to do is to let Robert Mueller do his job,” Mr. Ryan said at a news conference. “I think the best vindication for the president is to let this investigation go on independently and thoroughly.”

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Sessions Testimony: Suggestion of Colluding With Russians an 'Appalling' Lie – New York Times

[Video: Watch Live: Jeff Sessions Testifies Before Senate Committee Watch on YouTube.]

Watch Live: Jeff Sessions Testifies Before Senate Committee
Video by The New York Times

Attorney General Jeff Sessions started his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee with an emotional appeal to his former colleagues. He called any suggestion that he colluded with Russians during the election an “appalling” lie. “Please colleagues, hear me on this,” he said.

• Mr. Sessions said he would not discuss his direct conversations with Mr. Trump, saying, that “consistent with longstanding Department of Justice practice, I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect confidential communications with the president.”

The Run-Up

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• Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the committee, said Mr. Sessions’s testimony was his opportunity to “separate fact from fiction.”

• Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Mr. Burr’s Democratic counterpart, quickly challenged Mr. Sessions’s previous denial of contact with the Russians. “The fact is that you did indeed have interactions with Russian government officials during the course of the campaign,” Mr. Warner said.

Sessions rejects any suggestion of Russian collusion.

In his opening statement, Mr. Sessions said any suggestion that he participated in or was aware of any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to undermine the democratic process “is an appalling and detestable lie.”

Mr. Sessions also denied talking to any Russian official in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington at an event in April 2016, rejecting reports that he may have had an undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, at that event. He said he recalled no private conversations with any Russian officials at that reception and “if any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador, I do not remember it.”

The Huffington Post reported on March 8 that Mr. Sessions and Mr. Kislyak had attended that event, at which Mr. Trump was also present, but that it was not clear whether the two had spoken. CNN has more recently reported that there continue to be questions about whether there was such a meeting. The issue matters because Mr. Sessions testified at his confirmation hearing that he did not communicate with the Russians in 2016, but it later emerged that he had at least two contacts with Mr. Kislyak; the question is whether there was a third. (Mr. Sessions has said his answer at the hearing was accurate in context.)

Sessions refuses to talk about communications with Trump.

Mr. Sessions refused to talk about direct communications with Mr. Trump, saying, “I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I have with the president.”

Pressed by Mr. Warner, though, Mr. Sessions clarified that Mr. Trump had not invoked executive privilege — a constitutional doctrine that permits a president to shield his confidential communications with subordinates. Rather, he said it was a matter of longstanding Justice Department practices to keep those discussions secret.

“I’m not able to comment on conversations with high officials in the White House,” Mr. Sessions said, denying that he was “stonewalling.”

As the testimony unfolded, that played out in several ways. For example, at one point, Mr. Sessions refused to say whether he had discussed the F.B.I. investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election with Mr. Trump.

At another, asked by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, about the account the account of James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, that Mr. Trump had cleared the Oval Office after a Feb. 14 meeting — including asking Mr. Sessions to leave — Mr. Sessions said that would be a White House communication he could not comment on. But when Mr. Rubio asked if Mr. Sessions remembered seeing Mr. Comey stay behind, Mr. Sessions replied, “Yes.”

Sessions contests Comey’s account of discussion.

Mr. Sessions offered a different account of what he said when Mr. Comey approached him following a meeting on Feb. 14 in the Oval Office with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Comey recounted that after a routine counterterrorism meeting, Mr. Trump cleared the room of everyone else — including Mr. Sessions — and then made comments that Mr. Comey interpreted as an improper request to drop an investigation into Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser. Afterward, Mr. Comey said, he “implored” Mr. Sessions never to leave him alone with the president again, but Mr. Sessions did not respond.

After Mr. Comey’s testimony last week, the Justice Department released a statement contesting Mr. Comey’s account that Mr. Sessions had merely remained silent, and Mr. Sessions himself on Tuesday said directly and under oath that he did respond.

“While he did not provide me with any of the substance of his conversation with the president, Mr. Comey expressed concern about the proper communications protocol with the White House and with the president,” Mr. Sessions said. “I responded to his comment by agreeing that the F.B.I. and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.”

He added: “I was confident that Mr. Comey understood and would abide by the department’s well-established rules governing any communications with the White House about ongoing investigations. My comments encouraged him to do just that, and indeed, as I understand, he did.”

Sessions said he would not have any role in Mueller’s tenure.

Under questioning from Mr. Warner, Mr. Sessions said he would not have anything to do with any effort, should one emerge, to fire Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel, since he is recused from the Russia investigation Mr. Mueller is leading.

“I wouldn’t think that would be appropriate for me to do,” he said.

As things stand, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein is the acting attorney general for the purpose of overseeing the Russia investigation, and so oversees Mr. Mueller. Still, Mr. Sessions was involved in recommending the firing of Mr. Comey — a decision Mr. Trump said he made while thinking about the Russia investigation — despite being recused from it.

Sessions defends his recusal decision.

Mr. Sessions defended his involvement in the decision to fire Mr. Comey, explaining that his recusal did not prevent him from having a say in his department’s management decisions.

“It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render an attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations,” he said.

He argued that he recused himself not because of “any sort of wrongdoing,” but in accordance with department regulations regarding his involvement with Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.

“This is the reason I recused myself,” he said, holding up a copy of the rule. “I felt I was required to under the rules of the Department of Justice.”

But Mr. Sessions made it clear that would not stop him from defending himself.

“I recused myself from any investigation into the campaign for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false accusations,” he said.

Democrats accuse Sessions of misleading senators.

Mr. Sessions sent a stand-in to the Appropriations Committee, Mr. Rosenstein, but that did not stop Democrats there from venting their frustrations at him.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s top Democrat, criticized Mr. Sessions for opting to testify in front of the Intelligence Committee instead of appearing as planned to make the case for the Justice Department’s budget, saying attorneys general do not “cower” when called upon by Congress.

Mr. Leahy said he had questions about the role of Mr. Sessions in the firing of Mr. Comey, as well as what he called “false testimony” by Mr. Sessions about his interactions with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing — questions he could not ask Mr. Rosenstein.

“I won’t mince words,” he said to Mr. Rosenstein. “You’re not the witness we were supposed to hear from today. You’re not the witness who should be behind that table. That responsibility lies with the attorney general of the United States.”

Echoes of the ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’

Even as Mr. Rosenstein vowed to “defend the integrity” of the special counsel investigation, including by refusing any order to fire Mr. Mueller without good cause, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, spotted a potential issue that has no clear answer: What if Mr. Trump fired Mr. Rosenstein and then worked down through the Justice Department until he found someone willing to do it?

That possibility has historical precedent: In “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, President Richard M. Nixon fired the attorney general and his deputy because they were unwilling to remove the Watergate special prosecutor, stopping only when the official next in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, was willing to do what the president wanted.

If something like that happened again, Mr. Van Hollen asked, and Mr. Mueller believed he had not been fired for any legitimate good cause, what protection did the Justice Department regulation provide? Would the fired special counsel have recourse, for example, to contest his firing in the courts?

Mr. Rosenstein said he hoped there would never be a need to answer what would happen next if someone at the Justice Department did not adhere to the rules. Comparing it to a law school hypothetical, he said, “I would be reluctant to answer it without doing some research first.”

But no one at the hearing brought up what would happen if the White House directed the Justice Department to change the rules first — by revoking the special counsel regulations — so that Mr. Mueller could then be fired for any reason, just as ordinary senior Justice Department officials can.

Ryan and McConnell support Mueller investigation.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on Tuesday that Mr. Mueller should be allowed to continue his work.

“I think the best thing to do is to let Robert Mueller do his job,” Mr. Ryan said at a news conference. “I think the best vindication for the president is to let this investigation go on independently and thoroughly.”

Later Tuesday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also voiced support for Mr. Mueller.

“I have a lot of confidence in Bob Mueller,” he told reporters. “I think it was a good choice.”

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How Trump could fire the special counsel (if he were foolish enough to try) – Washington Post


Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller (center) talks with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), second from right, on Capitol Hill, Sept. 16, 2009, before the start of the committee’s FBI oversight hearing. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Given all that we’ve seen transpire over the past two years (the second anniversary of Trump’s campaign announcement is on Friday), it’s surprising that we can still be surprised. Yet, when reports emerged on Monday evening that President Trump might be considering the ouster of Robert Mueller as special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, it was hard not to be taken aback. Last week, the talking points released for James B. Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill had Trump’s allies insisting that they were “pleased the investigative process is moving forward.” Now, speculation that the most significant investigation would be uprooted?

As with so many things in Washington, firing Mueller would be complicated. Unlike many things in Washington, though, that complexity is by design.

At Lawfareblog, Jack Goldsmith walked through what it would take for Trump to cast aside Mueller. With his permission, we’ve used his guide to create a simplified flowchart of how that might work.

How Mueller was appointed

We have to start with a reminder of how Mueller ended up as special counsel in the first place.

Mueller was appointed under the provisions of a set of regulations drafted in 1999, after an existing law, the Ethics in Government Act, expired. Those provisions allow the attorney general to appoint an investigator who operates largely but not entirely outside of the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice.

In this case, that responsibility fell to Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who was confirmed shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from anything involving the investigation into Russian meddling.

With Sessions out of the picture, Rosenstein appointed Mueller last month.

How Mueller could be ousted

So let’s now assume that Trump actually decides to fire Mueller. Below, a flowchart of how that might progress, with each step labeled. Those labels are explained below.

1. The first question is whether Trump even bothers trying to follow the existing process for ousting Mueller. Goldsmith’s analysis points to an argument that Trump could simply say that the mandates of those regulations violate his constitutional powers and fire Mueller directly. (An assessment from Marty Lederman at the Just Security blog rejects this idea outright.) Such a move would be challenged, understandably, but if it is somehow upheld by the courts, Mueller would be out.

If it isn’t, or if Trump doesn’t take this unusual step? We continue.

2. Another question is whether Sessions tries to find some loophole allowing himself to no longer be bound by the recusal he announced in March. He didn’t consider himself bound by that recusal when drafting a letter to Trump advocating Comey’s firing, even though he was actively investigating the Russian meddling, but it’s harder to see how he could simply re-inject himself in the special counsel decision. That said, there doesn’t appear to be anything preventing him from doing so — with the exception of political repercussions that would almost certainly include impeachment.

3. Let’s assume that we go through the normal process. As in the first diagram, the firing of Mueller falls to Rosenstein.

It’s highly unlikely that Rosenstein would agree with Trump that Mueller needs to be removed, for reasons we’ll get to in a second. If he didn’t agree, he could reject Trump’s request — and risk being fired. Or he could follow the tradition established in 1973 when the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than comply with President Richard Nixon’s demand that the special investigator looking at Watergate be fired.

4. If, on the other hand, Rosenstein (or any of the other people in the chain of command that follows below) decided to comply with Trump, they would have one of two options for doing so, according to Goldsmith. Either they’d have to throw out the regulations binding the firing of Mueller (see Goldsmith’s post for a lot of detail on this) or they’d have to establish cause for firing him.

If either of those things is done, Mueller is fired. But the former would be exceptional and, given the bounds of the possible causes for firing special counsel — “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies” — it’s unlikely that a viable case for firing Mueller could be made in good faith at this point. If a cause can’t be found by Rosenstein, it’s hard to see how he could continue in that position.

Rosenstein asked if he’s seen “good cause” to fire Mueller: “No, I have not.”

— Rick Klein (@rickklein) June 13, 2017

5. With Rosenstein and Sessions out of the picture, the decision falls to Rachel Brand, who faces the same decisions as Rosenstein. If she ends up leaving the picture, it falls to Dana Boente, acting assistant attorney general for national security. If he demurs or won’t dump the regulations/can’t find cause, we keep going.

In 1973, the third person in line was the solicitor general, Robert Bork, who agreed with Nixon’s decision. It’s not clear if the acting solicitor general, Jeffrey B. Wall, would be part of this line of succession. If any other Justice officials are confirmed in the period between our writing this and Trump’s decision to fire Mueller, those officials could be slotted in here.

6. At this point, Goldsmith writes, an executive order signed by Trump in March comes into play. It outlines the order of succession in the Department of Justice, running through three U.S. attorneys as next-in-line to leadership. (The first is the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who happens to be Dana Boente.)

As acting heads of the department, they’d be faced with the same choice as Rosenstein. If each of them demurred, it’s not really clear what would happen — though it’s likely that this might prompt Trump to appeal to the option in step one, ignoring the regulations entirely.

What’s outlined above is simply the process by which Mueller could legally be removed from his position. What’s not considered (beyond that aside for Sessions) are the political repercussions. While Congress has given Trump a decent amount of leeway on the Russia investigation to this point, Trump’s explicitly removing the person leading an outside inquiry would almost certainly significantly heighten the political pressure he faces.

But as we’ve seen over the past two years: That doesn’t mean he won’t do it.

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Trump's friend Christopher Ruddy says President considering firing Mueller – CNN

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Federal appeals court upholds freeze on Trump's travel ban – Washington Post

By and ,

A West Coast federal appeals court upheld the freeze on President Trump’s travel ban Monday, declaring that Trump had exceeded his lawful authority in suspending the issuance of visas to residents of six Muslim-majority countries and suspending the U.S. refu­gee program.

A three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled against the administration unanimously. Their ruling is another blow to Trump — though the administration has asked the Supreme Court to step in and save the ban in a different case.

[Trump’s latest tweets will probably hurt effort to restore travel ban]

The ruling by the 9th Circuit was both logistically and symbolically important — keeping in place the broadest blockade on Trump’s order and creating new legal and practical paths for the directive to die.

Unlike other courts in the past, the three judges did not dwell on Trump’s public comments, nor did they declare that the president had run afoul of the Constitution because his intent was to discriminate. Instead, they ruled that Trump’s travel ban lacked a sufficient national security or other justification that would make it legal, and that violated immigration law.

They offered no opinion on whether the ban was constitutional.

“There is no finding that present vetting standards are inadequate, and no finding that absent the improved vetting procedures there likely will be harm to our national interests,” the judges wrote. “These identified reasons do not support the conclusion that the entry of nationals from the six designated countries would be harmful to our national interests.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that he disagreed with the court’s decision, and that the president was within his authority to issue the order.

“Recent attacks confirm that the threat to our nation is immediate and real,” Sessions said. “President Trump knows that the country he has been elected to lead is threatened daily by terrorists who believe in a radical ideology, and that there are active plots to infiltrate the U.S. immigration system — just as occurred prior to 9/11. The President is committed to protecting the American people and our national security, and we are proud to support his mission to put America first by defending his right to keep us safe. That is why the Department of Justice will continue to seek further review by the Supreme Court.”

Neal Katyal, one of the lawyers representing those challenging the ban, said on Twitter that the decision was a “complete win” and noted it was different from previous victories in other cases.

Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit had upheld a separate freeze on Trump’s ban on constitutional grounds, that freeze did not apply to the portion of Trump’s order dealing with refugees. The 9th Circuit was considering a freeze that did, and concluded that Trump had not provided sufficient justification to either temporarily suspend refu­gee admission or lower the refu­gee cap for fiscal 2017 to 50,000.

The opinion also clarified that the administration could conduct an internal review to assess vetting procedures.

That could be construed as a victory for Trump: The appeals court said a federal judge in Hawaii was wrong to restrict his administration from conducting such a review. But Hawaii, which had successfully challenged the ban, earlier in the day had told the Supreme Court it had no objection to such a move.

“The executive is free to engage in any manner of study, review, upgrade or revision of its existing vetting procedures,” the state argued, adding, “so long as the order did not use these provisions to justify or expand a veiled Muslim ban, they would survive judicial review.”

If the travel ban is to be salvaged, the Supreme Court would have to move quickly.

[Trump proposed a 120-day travel ban to improve vetting. It’s been 129 days.]

That is because the measure is supposed to be temporary — barring the issuance of new visas to residents of six Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending the U.S. refu­gee program for 120 days so officials could review vetting procedures. The Justice Department had argued that it felt blocked from conducting such a review by the Hawaii judge, meaning the clock had essentially stopped.

That clock will presumably now run again, though whether it will start from 90 or something short of that remains unclear. With a Supreme Court recess looming, the ban could expire before the justices reach a decision — unless they grant the Justice Department’s request to stay the injunctions on the ban.

Trump seemed to suggest on Twitter recently, though, that he viewed the measure not as a temporary one.

“People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” he wrote. Trump’s press secretary had previously disputed calling the measure a ban, and the Justice Department has sought in court to characterize it as a “temporary pause.”

Most Supreme Court practitioners and experts said they would be surprised if the court turned down a petition from the government on a matter of national security — though the justices might feel less pressure to come to a decision on the merits of the executive order before the end of June.

In a filing with the court Monday concerning the 4th Circuit decision, ACLU lawyer Omar C. Jadwat said the administration had shown by its actions that there was no immediate danger to the country in not having the travel ban in place. And he argued there is a “looming mootness” question because no court has stayed the executive order in its entirety. Jadwat asserted the order is set to expire June 14.

The ACLU filing said the 4th Circuit, and other courts that have halted the executive order, had little choice. “To allow the ban to go forward, the courts would have had to ignore a mountain of publicly available evidence — even though everyone else in the country, including those of the disfavored faith, could not ignore it. They would have had to set aside this Court’s precedents and turn their backs on their traditional and crucial role in disputes where constitutional liberties are at stake.”

The 9th Circuit opinion was written by judges Michael Daly Hawkins, Ronald M. Gould and Richard A. Paez, all appointed by President Bill Clinton. The judges heard arguments in the case last month and focused much of their questioning on the president’s campaign trail and other public comments, which other judges have cited as evidence the president meant to discriminate against Muslims in imposing a ban.

Trump earlier this month doubled down on some of those comments, deriding the revised travel ban as a “watered down” version of the first and calling the new measure “politically correct.” Legal analysts said that might ultimately hurt his case; one tweet was cited in a footnote in the opinion Monday.

In their ruling, though, the 9th Circuit judges criticized the Trump administration not for its public opining, but for its lack of a real justification for the directive.

The latest version of the ban — which Trump signed after revoking an order that banned residents of seven Muslim-majority countries — describes conditions in the countries affected and says that more than 300 people who entered the country as refugees were the subject of active counterterrorism investigations.

[Trump administration’s latest rationale for travel ban: National security officials asked for it]

The judges noted that a Department of Homeland Security report concluded citizenship was an “unreliable” threat indicator, and most foreign-born extremists are radicalized years after coming to the United States. The judges said the president had broad authority to set immigration policy, but it was “not unlimited.”

“In conclusion, the Order does not offer a sufficient justification to suspend the entry of more than 180 million people on the basis of nationality,” the judges wrote. “National security is not a ‘talismanic incantation’ that, once invoked, can support any and all exercise of executive power.”

The 9th Circuit was the court that upheld the freeze on Trump’s first travel ban, and it has since become a focus of the president’s ire.

When U.S. District Judge William Orrick blocked his executive order on stripping federal funding from sanctuary cities, Trump incorrectly attributed the decision to the 9th Circuit as he wrote on Twitter: “First the Ninth Circuit rules against the ban & now it hits again on sanctuary cities — both ridiculous rulings. See you in the Supreme Court!” Orrick is a ­lower-court judge whose rulings would be reviewed by the 9th Circuit.

Trump then wrote that the circuit had a “terrible record of being overturned” — a claim that is highly debatable — and he said later that he had “absolutely” considered breaking up the court.

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Sessions' loyalty to Trump will be put to the test – Politico

Jeff Sessions has been a staunch ally of Donald Trump as an early surrogate of the real estate mogul’s unconventional campaign and now as attorney general, carrying out the president’s unapologetically populist agenda.

That loyalty will be put to the test on Tuesday.

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Sessions has so far avoided public testimony on his connections to the Russia probe engulfing the Trump administration — but his hastily arranged appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee could finally unlock some answers to questions that have chased the attorney general for weeks.

Last week’s testimony from James Comey raised more questions about Sessions, especially when the fired FBI director hinted at — but declined to publicly share — information about the attorney general that Comey said would have made Sessions’ involvement in the Russia probe “problematic.”

It remains unclear exactly how much Sessions will divulge Tuesday, considering other DOJ officials — including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — cited special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe as they declined to respond to queries at a similar Intelligence hearing last week.

Still, Tuesday’s hearing is a chance for Sessions to personally push back on the record against reports of additional undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador that could add to the scandal that prompted his recusal from the probe in the first place.

Here are five things to watch as Sessions testifies on the evolving Russia controversy, which marks his first public appearance on Capitol Hill as attorney general:

“I have a recollection of him just kind of looking at me — and there’s a danger here I’m projecting onto him, so this may be a faulty memory,” Comey said last week. “But I kind of got — his body language gave me the sense like, what am I going to do?”

A Justice Department spokesman following Comey’s testimony said that Sessions did respond, pressing the FBI and DOJ to be sure to follow proper protocol regarding White House communications.

How broad is Sessions’ recusal?

Sessions is supposed to remain an arm’s length away from any investigation that touches on last year’s political campaign — yet was involved in Comey’s firing, which Trump later acknowledged had to do with the FBI director’s oversight of the federal Russia probe.

In the weeks since Comey’s dismissal, Democrats have demanded answers that can reconcile those two factors. Tuesday could be their best opportunity to pin down an answer.

An e-mail released by the Justice Department last week from Sessions’ chief of staff, Jody Hunt, said the attorney general has “decided to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”

But Democrats will insist on more specifics of what exactly that recusal entails.

What’s the impact on the Trump-Sessions relationship?

The president hasn’t exactly been giving his attorney general a vote of confidence in recent days — a surprise dynamic between the two men who have been fierce political allies well before Trump snagged the GOP presidential nomination.

Reports surfaced last week that Sessions had privately offered to resign amid sustained furor from Trump that the attorney general had recused from the Russia investigation, thereby removing a loyalist from overseeing the probe. And White House officials repeatedly declined to say whether Trump retained confidence in Sessions, stirring even more speculation about a growing rift between the two men.