Jeff Sessions on Tuesday appeared to suggest there was “not enough basis” to appoint a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton, a day after the Department of Justice confirmed the attorney general had authorized senior prosecutors to evaluate an inquiry into the Clinton Foundation.
Testifying before the House judiciary committee, Sessions also acknowledged he now recalled a meeting during the 2016 presidential election in which George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump’s campaign, disclosed ties to Russia.
It was revealed earlier this month that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the nature of his contacts with the Russians and had been cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Although Sessions claimed on Tuesday he only remembered the meeting with Papadopoulos after reading news reports earlier this month, his comments contradicted earlier claims made under oath that he was unaware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russians.
Sessions appeared to push back on Trump’s repeated insistence that the FBI should focus on investigating Clinton as opposed to potential collusion between his own presidential campaign and Russia.
“The Department of Justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents. That would be wrong,” Sessions said when asked about Trump’s tweets calling on the DoJ to investigate his former rival in the 2016 presidential race.
“The president speaks his mind. He is bold and direct about what he says,” Sessions added. “We do our duty every day based on the facts.”
Trump and Republicans have been clamoring for the DoJ to examine the sale of a uranium company to a Russian agency in 2010. The deal, which was approved by the state department when Clinton was at its helm, has been newly seized upon by Trump and Republicans despite no evidence of impropriety.
Sessions said appointing a separate special counsel to investigate Clinton would require “a factual basis”.
In a heated exchange with Jim Jordan, a Republican congressman from Ohio who asked what it would take to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations against Clinton, Sessions said: “We will use the proper standards, and that’s the only thing I can tell you.
“You can have your idea, but sometimes we have to study what the facts are, and to evaluate whether it meets the standards it requires.”
A fiery Jordan continued to allege misconduct by Clinton. Citing additional reports that her campaign and the Democratic National Committee funded the Fusion GPS dossier into Trump’s ties to Russia, Jordan maintained it “looks like” there was enough evidence to warrant naming a second special counsel.
Sessions tersely responded: “I would say ‘looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.”
Sessions later sought to clarify his comments, stating: “I did not mean to suggest I was talking a side one way or the other on that subject.”
A justice department spokesman also said Sessions was not taking a position on the merits of a special counsel against Clinton, but rather that he was explaining the process.
“The attorney general was clarifying the legal basis for appointing special counsel, not passing judgment on whether it applied in any specific investigation,” Ian Prior, a spokesman for Sessions, told the Guardian.
Sessions’ comments are nonetheless unlikely to go unnoticed by Trump, who has publicly expressed regret for tapping Sessions as his attorney general. Over the summer, Trump launched a series of unprecedented attacks against Sessions, whose decision to recuse himself from the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the US election angered the president.
Trump has used his megaphone on Twitter to repeatedly demand that the justice department investigate Clinton for everything from the uranium deal to her campaign’s role in funding research cited in the Steele dossier to her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Sessions made clear he or the relevant official at the justice department would name a special counsel to oversee an inquiry into Clinton if required.
During his confirmation hearing in the Senate earlier this year, Sessions had sworn under oath that he would recuse himself from any potential investigations pertaining to Clinton due to his role as a top surrogate on Trump’s presidential campaign.
Sessions reaffirmed his commitment on Tuesday. He said: “I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced.”
He nonetheless demurred when asked to explicitly say whether he had recused himself from any such inquiry into Clinton at the moment.
“To announce recusal in any investigation would reveal the existence of that investigation, and the top ethics officials have advised me I should not do so,” he said.
The renewed scrutiny over Clinton comes as the federal investigation into Russian interference in the US election has intensified. Earlier this month, Robert Mueller indicted two top Trump campaign officials – Paul Manafort and business associate Richard Gates, on 12 charges that included conspiracy against the US. It was also revealed that former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to perjury about his communications with the Russians.
Sessions’ testimony marked his most extensive public comments on the Russia investigation since Mueller handed down the indictments through a grand jury in Washington, escalating significantly the federal inquiry into whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Moscow to swing the presidential election against Clinton.
Sessions recused himself from the FBI’s investigation in March after it was revealed he failed to disclose at least two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the US, during the campaign. Sessions made no mention of the meetings during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, telling lawmakers while under oath in January that he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign”.
During his testimony on Tuesday, Sessions denied he had misled members of Congress while claiming he simply did not recall many of the communications between Trump campaign officials and Moscow that have since been made public.
“In all of my testimony, I can only do my best to answer all of your questions as I understand them and to the best of my memory,” Sessions said.
“But I will not accept, and reject, accusations that I have ever lied under oath. That is a lie.”
Sessions employed a similar defense when questioned on court documents which revealed he led a meeting in March of 2016 in which Papadopoulos acknowledged his own ties to Russia and offered to facilitate an encounter between Trump and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
“I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports,” Sessions said, while adding he still lacked a “clear recollection” of what exactly Papadopoulos said during the meeting.
Sessions’ memory was nonetheless far more clear on one aspect of his interactions with Papadopoulos – specifically that he discouraged the latter from setting up a meeting between Trump and Putin.
“After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter,” Sessions said.
“But I did not recall this event, which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago, and would gladly have reported it.”
Democrats have accused Sessions of lying under oath and called for him to resign. Sessions disputed the notion he intentionally misled members of Congress, pointing to the demanding schedule he kept as a top surrogate for Trump’s presidential campaign while also fulfilling his role at the time as a US senator for Alabama.
“Most of you have not participated in a presidential campaign. And none of you had a part in the Trump campaign,” Sessions said.
“It was a brilliant campaign in many ways. But it was a form of chaos every day from day one.”