Four key takeaways from Jeff Sessions' testimony before the House
Attorney General Jeff Sessions made his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. What was billed as a routine Justice Department oversight hearing was anything but typical.
After providing other congressional committees with more than 20 hours of testimony since being nominated, Sessions answered nearly four hours of questions from House lawmakers. Those questions largely focused on the special counsel probe of Russian election interference and requests from Republicans to reopen investigations into Hillary Clinton and other members of the Obama administration.
Below is a summary of the four new things the public learned from Attorney General Sessions' testimony before Congress.
'NOT ENOUGH BASIS' FOR A SPECIAL COUNSEL TO INVESTIGATE HILLARY CLINTON
In recent months, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and other Republicans on the committee have sent two letters to Sessions, one in July and another in September, requesting the appointment of a second special counsel to look into the FBI and Department of Justice's handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal.
Since then other members have been pushing for a deeper Department of Justice probe into a host of other Clinton-related scandals. Rep. Jim Jordan pressed Sessions asking whether the Justice Department would appoint a special counsel to investigate the 2010 sale of a U.S. company, Uranium One, to the Russian-owned energy giant, Rosatom or the recent admission by the Democratic National Committee that it paid former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to produce a dirty political dossier on then-candidate Donald Trump.
At the end of a long list of alleged Clinton and Obama-era abuses, Sessions stated that "at this point, there is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel."
The attorney general went on to explain that certain exceptional standards had to be met to warrant such an appointment, adding that "sometimes we have to study what the facts are and to evaluate whether it meets the standards."
Media reports suggested that the attorney general's office had directed "senior federal prosecutors" to evaluate the issues raised by Goodlatte and House Republicans about Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.
Sessions confirmed that he sent a formal reply to the Judiciary Committee Republicans on Monday saying the Department of Justice would bring in "independent prosecutors to review a host of matters" addressed in the July and September letters.
"Hopefully we can decide if there are matters that need to be investigated," Sessions told Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), noting that some matters may need to be closed, others open, and some may require more resources and more agents. "I don't believe that is giving in to politics. I believe that I should evaluate your request on the merits."
Ahead of the hearing, all Judiciary Committee Democrats warned Sessions against reopening investigations into Hillary Clinton or members of the Obama administration. Ranking Democrat John Conyers argued that a new special investigation would be used to "cater to the president's political needs," noting the threat of the Trump administration prosecuting a political opponent "resembles...a banana republic."
Sessions responded to his critics asserting that the Department of Justice "can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents."
The attorney general further argued that the president cannot use his position to "improperly influence an investigation" adding that he personally has not been and would not be "improperly influenced" by Donald Trump.
'I DO NOT RECALL,' CAMPAIGN 'CHAOS': SESSIONS DEFENDS PRIOR TESTIMONY ON RUSSIA
Democratic members of the House committee finally had their chance to pepper Jeff Sessions with questions about his contacts with Russians during while a member of the Trump campaign and transition team. In his multiple appearances before Congress, Sessions said he did not have contact with Russian officials during the campaign, only to revise his testimony to reflect information that he could "not recall" while under oath.
On Tuesday, Sessions held firm to his previous statements, arguing against his accusers that his answers before Congress "have not changed."
"I have always told the truth and I have answered every question as I understood them to the best of my recollection," he stated.
Since Sessions' most recent appearance before the Senate in October, three individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign have been indicted by Special Counsel Mueller, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos. Democrats latched onto revelations that campaign staffer Papadopolous pitched the idea of a Trump meeting directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a March 2016 foreign policy meeting.
According to press reports and Sessions' recollection, he "shut down" Papadopolous' suggestion. When pressed further on other campaign officials' responses to proposed Trump-Putin meeting, Sessions stated, "I do not recall."
Half-way through the hearing, Democrat Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) pointed out that Sessions had already said "I do not recall" nearly thirty times. Growing increasingly frustrated with the attorney general's responses, Jeffries asked Sessions whether "the intentional failure to remember" constitutes a criminal act. Sessions agreed it was, but fought back against the insinuation that he had perjured himself before Congress.
In his various appearances before Congress, new information has continuously emerged about contacts Sessions had with the Russian ambassador and with members of the campaign who were dealing with the Russian government. In response to those accusations, Sessions adopted a new defense of his faltering memory, telling lawmakers that the Trump campaign was so chaotic that it was near impossible to keep track of all the meetings.
Sessions described the Trump campaign as "brilliant in many ways," continuing, "but it was a form of chaos every day from day one."
Later he told lawmakers that his inability to recall the detailed workings of the Trump campaign's foreign policy team was because, "we were not a very effective group, really."
ALABAMA SENATE RACE: 'I HAVE NO REASON TO DOUBT' MOORE ACCUSERS
In a surprise statement, Jeff Sessions weighed in on the heated special election in Alabama for his old Senate seat where Judge Roy Moore has been accused by five women of inappropriate sexual conduct.
"I have no reason to doubt these young women," Sessions said.
Two of Moore's accusers, Leigh Corfman and Beverly Young Nelson were 14 and 16-years-old respectively when Moore allegedly molested them. Three other women who have not been named publicly were also under the age of consent when approached by Moore.
Roy Moore has denied the allegations against him arguing that he is the subject of a "witch hunt."
Sessions added that in response to the women's' claims against Moore, the Department of Justice would Department of Justice "will evaluate every case as to whether or not it should be investigated." Sessions stopped short of issuing any other recommendations, saying he was advised by ethics lawyers to avoid weighing in on the campaign.
Sessions added his voice to a growing number of Republican officials who have publicly supported Moore's accusers. Nearly a dozen Senate Republicans have strongly denounced Moore's behavior and called for him to bow out of the Senate race. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took one of the strongest positions, telling reporters earlier this week that he believed Moore's accusers and the candidate "should step aside" from the race.
Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (Colo.) further stated that if Moore does not withdraw from the race and wins on December 12, "the Senate should vote to expel him."
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT HAS 27 LEAK INVESTIGATIONS, 'WILL CONTINUE TO PRESS' CASES
Since taking office the Trump administration has been beleaguered by officials leaking damaging information to the press, including classified information.
Currently, the Department of Justice has 27 open investigations looking into leaks of classified information. According to Sessions, that is three times the number of leak investigations this year as had been opened during the past three years.
Indictments have been brought in four cases, Sessions said, "and we will continue to press those cases."
The attorney general was unable to comment on which leaks were being investigated or whether former FBI director James Comey was being investigated for leaking information about his meetings with President Trump. Sessions merely stated that the problem has reached "epidemic proportions."
A few Republican lawmakers pressed Sessions on the so-called "unmasking" of Trump administration officials. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn had his name released to the press in the context of a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador. This prompted a number of conservatives to blame members of the Obama administration, like Susan Rice, for using the intelligence community to undermine Trump's administration.
Sessions refused to confirm or deny the existence of specific leak investigations but insisted that releasing the identity or content of an American's conversation intercepted by the National Security Agency is "contrary to the law" and "a very grave offense."
Of the four indictments for leaking classified information, Sessions only spoke of the widely publicized case of Reality Winner, a 25-year-old NSA contractor from Georgia who leaked a classified document purporting to show a successful Russian cyberattack against local U.S. election officials before the 2016 election.
Sessions also addressed concerns that the leak investigations could put investigative journalists in jeopardy. President Trump has repeatedly attacked the press and referred to the "fake news media" as "the enemy of the American people."
Maryland Democrat Peter Roskam asked Sessions to commit to not prosecute investigative journalists who maintain the confidentiality of their sources, some of whom may be leaking sensitive information.
Sessions committed to "respecting the role of the press." He added that his Department of Justice has not "yet" had any conflicts with the press, "but there are some things that the press seem to think they have an absolute right to, [that] they do not have an absolute right to."