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Sessions heatedly denies improper Russia contacts

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions heatedly denied on Tuesday having an undisclosed meeting with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. or conversations with any Russian officials about the U.S. election that sent Donald Trump to the White House. He vowed to defend his honor “against scurrilous and false allegations.”

Testifying at a Senate hearing, Sessions, who was a close Trump adviser during the battle for the presidency, said it was a “detestable and appalling lie” to suggest that he participated in or was aware of any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

In his dramatic appearance before former colleagues, Sessions also contradicted a contention made by former FBI Director James Comey at a hearing before the same panel last week. Comey told the intelligence committee that, after an encounter with President Trump in which he said Trump pressured him to back off an investigation into the former national security adviser, Comey “implored” Sessions to make sure he was never left alone with the president again — but that Sessions didn’t respond.

“He didn’t recall this, but I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policy regarding appropriate contacts with the White House,” Sessions said.

The former Alabama senator defended himself against accusations that he misrepresented himself during his confirmation hearing by saying he hadn’t met with Russian officials during the campaign. Sessions argued that in the context of that hearing, “my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it.”

Sessions said he recused himself from the Justice Department’s current Russia investigation only because of a regulation that required it because of his involvement in the Trump campaign. He never, he insisted, knew anything about the Russia probe or had any role in it.

“Many have suggested that my recusal is because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself, that I may have done something wrong,” Sessions added. “But this is the reason I recused myself. I felt I was required to under the rules of the Department of Justice.”

And while he had recused himself from the Russia probe, Sessions insisted, “I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations.”

Despite Sessions’ statement about the reasons for his recusal, the attorney general did not actually step aside from the Russia probe until March 2, the day after The Washington Post reported on his two previously undisclosed meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Days after that, Sessions also corrected his confirmation hearing testimony to inform the committee about the two meetings with Kislyak.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon asked Sessions about suggestions arising from Comey’s testimony last week that there was something “problematic” about his recusal.

Wyden asked Sessions what problematic issues existed.

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

Sessions lent his support to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is now in charge of the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. “I have confidence in Mr. Mueller,” he said.

At a separate hearing Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, overseeing that effort since Sessions stepped aside, said he’s seen no basis for firing Mueller, the former FBI director he appointed as special counsel.

He said he would agree to dismiss Mueller only if there were a legitimate basis to do so, and an order from the president would not necessarily qualify. Mueller also won votes of support Tuesday from the top two Republicans in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both of whom said they have confidence in him.

As for his role in Comey’s firing, Sessions told senators that he and his second-in-command, Rosenstein, had a “clear view …   that we had problems there, and it was my best judgment that a fresh start at the FBI was the appropriate thing to do. And when asked I said that to the president.”

Asked about Trump’s own contention that the president fired Comey with the Russia probe in mind, and regardless of any recommendation from anyone else, Sessions said:  “I guess I’ll just have to let his words speak for themselves. I’m not sure what was in his mind specifically.”

Sessions refused to say whether he had ever discussed the Russia investigation with Trump, arguing that he could not disclose private communications with the president.

Democratic senators pressed Sessions on the legal rationale for his refusal to discuss those private conversations, as Sessions acknowledged that Trump had not asserted executive privilege around the hearing. He asserted that “I am protecting the right of the president to assert if it he chooses and there may be other privileges that may apply.”

Trump supporters turn on special counsel Mueller

WASHINGTON — High-profile supporters of President Donald Trump are turning on special counsel Robert Mueller, the man charged with investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign.

As Mueller builds his legal team, Trump’s allies have begun raising questions about the former FBI director’s impartiality, suggesting he cannot be trusted to lead the probe. The comments come amid increasing frustration at the White House and among Trump supporters that the investigation will overshadow the president’s agenda for months to come — a prospect that has Democrats salivating.

Trump cannot directly dismiss Mueller. That decision would fall to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who testified Tuesday in a Senate budget hearing that he would only fire Mueller for good cause and has seen no evidence of that.

Still, Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a Trump friend, suggested the president was already thinking about “terminating” Mueller from his position as special counsel.

“I think he’s weighing that option,” Ruddy said in an interview Monday with Judy Woodruff of “PBS NewsHour.”