ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Jeff Sessions returned to the Senate today where he had served for two decades. Today he came to offer a self-defense. The attorney general said he did not engage in improper conversations with Russian officials while he was campaigning for President Trump.
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JEFF SESSIONS: The suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country which I have served with honor for 35 years or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process is an appalling and detestable lie.
SHAPIRO: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the Sessions testimony and is here to talk about it. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What are the key takeaways from the attorney general's appearance in front of the Senate intelligence committee?
JOHNSON: Jeff Sessions says he may have run into the Russian ambassador last year at a campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel, but that was not a substantive meeting and nothing to worry about, certainly not the big deal the media and former FBI Director James Comey seem to be making it now. Moreover, Sessions says, he's had no contact with the special counsel Robert Mueller, who's investigating Russian interference. He says he has confidence in the Mueller probe.
And Sessions also denied that he misled Senator Al Franken of Minnesota during his confirmation hearing this year. Sessions says Al Franken's question was long and rambling and contained some new information. Sessions said he did have two meetings with the Russians. He corrected the record. It was an honest mistake. Though Franken and other Democrats consider it false testimony.
SHAPIRO: Democrats have been asking why Sessions took part in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey given that Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation. How did the attorney general answer?
JOHNSON: Jeff Sessions says that was just one investigation among thousands the FBI is conducting. It's part of his job as attorney general to oversee the FBI. And he had concerns about FBI morale and James Comey from his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe.
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SESSIONS: I recused myself from any investigation into the campaign for president, but I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations. At all times throughout the course of the campaign, the confirmation process and since becoming attorney general I have dedicated myself to the highest standards.
JOHNSON: But Ari, Jeff Sessions acknowledged he never brought up any management concerns with Comey before his surprise firing last month. And Democrats pointed out today that Sessions had praised Comey for coming forward in October to tell lawmakers he was reopening the Hillary Clinton email case. Then he went back and used it against him to fire Comey.
SHAPIRO: The attorney general would not answer any questions about conversations that he had with President Trump, but he said that was not because of executive privilege. What's going on here?
JOHNSON: Well, Democrats were trying to find out. They demanded some kind of written policy or regulation from the Justice Department. The attorney general says the privilege is the president's, not his. And he said even though the president did not assert executive privilege today he might in the future. Sessions says it's his duty to protect confidential conversations with the president. And Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, says Sessions was just trying to have it both ways. He didn't commit to testifying again either before the Senate intelligence committee or to providing any memos, copies of his schedule or other information that some of the Democrats were demanding today.
SHAPIRO: And after hours of testimony, there are still some big unanswered questions, right?
JOHNSON: Yeah. No one asked Sessions whether he in fact offered to resign after President Trump raged at him repeatedly this year after his recusal. Sessions wouldn't talk about whether Trump had been complaining, but suggested he's not intending to go anywhere for now. Sessions also did not answer whether he had ever discussed firing Comey in the context of the Russia investigation with the president. Important because the president later said that was the thing that caused him to fire Comey.
And Sessions also did not give a solid answer about why he didn't ask more questions of Comey when Comey complained to him this year about pressure from Donald Trump. He said as a longtime law enforcement officer, Sessions just thought Comey could take care of himself and handle this situation on his own.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson on testimony today from the attorney general. Thank you, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.