Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday strongly defended U.S. President Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey, linking the FBI director’s abrupt dismissal to his handling of the Hillary Clinton email server investigation.
Sessions, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was “the first time I’m aware of” in which an FBI director had performed the traditional role of Justice Department prosecutors by announcing on his own the conclusion of a federal investigation — that no charges would be brought against Clinton.
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He said he was further galled when Comey, weeks before his firing, insisted to Congress that he would have taken the same actions again.
Under questioning by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sessions refused to say whether he also discussed with Trump Comey’s involvement in the Russia investigation.
Though Sessions refused to discuss his private conversations with Trump, he said the president had asked him and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for their recommendations about what to do with Comey.
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“He did ask for our written opinion and we submitted that to him,” Sessions said under questioning from Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat. “It did not represent any change in either one of ours opinions.”
Comey’s firing received new attention earlier in the day when Trump tweeted, based on newly released private FBI emails, that Comey had prematurely exonerated Clinton.
The routine oversight hearing is Sessions’ first before the committee since his January confirmation, and it comes as has worked quickly to reshape the department with an intense focus on immigration, drugs, gangs and violent crime.
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He was likely to face questions from lawmakers about his swift undoing of Obama-era protections for gay and transgender people and his rollback of criminal justice policies that aimed to reduce the federal prison population, among other changes he has made in nine months since taking office.
Sessions has tried to pressure so-called sanctuary cities into cooperating with federal immigration authorities by threatening to withhold grant money, and he was the public face of the Trump administration’s decision to end a program benefiting hundreds of thousands of young people who entered the U.S. illegally as children. Congress is seeking a legislative solution to extend the protections before recipients’ work permits expire.
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Lawmakers were expected to ask him about the investigation into Trump campaign connections to Russia, which continues to cast a shadow over his tenure. Sessions recused himself from that probe, a decision that still frustrates Trump, who subjected him to a solid week of blistering public criticism this summer.
He could also be asked about any communication he’s had with the team of investigators led by Robert Mueller, the Justice Department’s special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation.
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It is standard policy for attorneys general to appear each year before the Justice Department’s congressional overseers on the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Yet, in a reflection of the extent to which the Russia investigation and his own role as a Trump campaign ally have dominated public attention, Sessions made his first appearance on Capitol Hill as attorney general before the Senate Intelligence Committee. There, he faced hours of questioning about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States and his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Democratic senators have already made clear they want Sessions to detail his private conversations with Trump, particularly in the run-up to the Comey’s firing, or announce that Trump is invoking executive privilege to protect those communications. Sessions repeatedly refused to discuss his talks with Trump during his three-hour appearance before the Senate intelligence panel.
He did not say he was using executive privilege, but rather adhering to longstanding tradition of Justice Department leaders to refrain from revealing the contents of private conversations with the president. That explanation left many Democrats unsatisfied and is unlikely to put to an end demands for detailed accounts of those conversations.