The Senate intelligence committee wanted to know about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ contact with Russian officials while working on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The only problem was that he didn’t seem to remember much.
Throughout his hearing on Tuesday afternoon, Sessions said repeatedly that he could not answer questions about whether he met with Russian diplomats because he simply could not remember.
Sessions recused himself from the federal government’s investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election after the public learned that he had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before his appointment as attorney general, meetings he did not disclose before his confirmation vote.
There have been media reports of an additional meeting with Kislyak during or after an event at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel in April 2016.
During his opening statement on Tuesday, Sessions said the following:
“I did not have any private meetings nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel.”
“I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials.”
“If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it.”
Throughout the hearing, Sessions responded to dozens of questions with variations on “I don’t recall,” “I don’t remember” and “I don’t believe.”
In summary, Sessions said he does not remember meeting the Russian ambassador but that he would not have had an inappropriate conversation with him if it in fact did happen.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., picked up on this pattern and addressed it head on.
“You have several times this afternoon prefaced your responses by saying to the best of your recollection,” she said.
Harris asked Sessions if he had looked over any written documents — such as his calendar, emails written correspondence or notes — to refresh his memory in preparation for the hearing.
Sessions said he did not keep notes on many events during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, but said he would supply the committee with “appropriate” documents after consulting with lawyers of the Justice Department.
“I tend to refresh my recollection but so much of this is in a wholesale campaign of extraordinary nature that you’re moving so fast that you don’t keep notes, you meet people,” he said. “I didn’t keep notes of my conversation with the Russian ambassador at the Republican convention.”
According to Harris, Sessions must have prepared for the hearing and most of the questions asked were predictable. Therefore, she suggested, it would have been reasonable for him to have consulted with his lawyers to see what information he could share with the committee and what was classified.
Then she returned to questioning Sessions on the possibility of further meetings with Russians.
“Did you have any communications with Russian officials for any reason during the campaign that have not been disclosed in public or to this committee?” she asked.
“I don’t recall it, but I have to tell you, I cannot testify to what was said as we were standing at the Republican convention before the podium where I spoke. I don’t have a detailed memory of that,” he said.
“Did you have any communication with Russian businessmen or any Russian nationals?”
“I don’t believe I had any conversation with Russian businessmen or any Russian nationals, although a lot of people were at the convention. It’s conceivable that somebody came up to me.”
As Harris started to proceed to the next question, Sessions said that he needs to qualify his answers so he can answer correctly to the best of his ability. He said that committee members will accuse him of lying if he doesn’t.
“I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous,” he said.
Sessions didn’t reserve this use of highly tempered language for his memory. At times, he seemed almost determined not to provide any statements without caveats or qualifications.
Although he heads the Justice Department, Sessions declined to give a straight answer when Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked if he thinks that Russia interfered with the 2016 elections.
“It appears so. The intelligence community seems to be united in that,” Sessions said. In response to another question, he said he had never been briefed on the matter as attorney general.
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