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Citing Trump's Privacy, Jeff Sessions Fails To Answer Many Questions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was supposed to answer questions on Capitol Hill yesterday, but he ended up raising even more of them. Sessions had asked to make his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee public so his remarks would be out in the open. But time and again, he refused to answer questions from the Senate committee saying it would violate the president's right to confidentiality. There was one topic he was very clear on though.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

MARTIN: Sessions was called to testify after former FBI director James Comey raised questions about the real reasons that Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, was one of the committee members who questioned the attorney general yesterday and he returns to our program. Senator thanks for being here.

RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me again.

MARTIN: What did you learn from the attorney general yesterday?

WYDEN: Not a whole lot. The attorney general refused to answer even the most basic questions. I think the president wants to have it both ways. He won't assert executive privilege because he knows he's going to take a lot of heat for it, but his officials won't answer questions either.

It seems to me they're making a mockery out of the idea of independent oversight. We're the committee with a legal obligation to do vigorous oversight. And I think these officials are just stonewalling and the American people aren't going to accept public officials saying they don't feel like answering that question.

MARTIN: That word stonewalling was thrown out in the hearing yesterday and Jeff Sessions said that he wasn't doing that at all. You asked the attorney general about his recusal and - from the Russian investigation - and this vague suggestion that Comey had made that Sessions may have done something wrong that forced him to step down. Let's listen to some of that exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WYDEN: Mr. Comey said that there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic and he couldn't talk about them. What are they?

SESSIONS: That - why don't you tell me? They are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty.

WYDEN: We can...

SESSIONS: You tell - this is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me and I don't appreciate it.

MARTIN: So it seems to me in this exchange, he actually did answer the question. He just said that's Comey was wrong, that there are no other reasons.

WYDEN: Yeah. He basically said that the former FBI director was engaging in innuendo. But let me unpack it for you more carefully. James Comey said that FBI officials thought that Jeff Sessions should recuse himself. But in the hearing yesterday, Jeff Sessions gave two different answers. One, he wouldn't say if he knew about the concerns.

Then he said he knew with absolute certainty that there were no concerns. He can't have it both ways. The attorney general obviously got very upset with me, but you'll notice that he never answered the question. So I'm going to keep digging.

MARTIN: He also said that he recused himself because the FBI and the Department of Justice rules mandate that if you have a personal connection with someone who's being investigated - in this case members of the Trump campaign - you should step down. So he's saying that that was the reason that he left that investigation.

WYDEN: Let's make sure people understand that he recused himself from the Russian investigation. Then he was hip-deep in firing the official in charge of that investigation. Now he's saying that firing James Comey doesn't violate his recusal. That does not pass the smell test. And my view is for the nation's top lawyer, he sure didn't seem to have much of a grasp of the law or what recusal actually means.

MARTIN: The hearing revealed that the attorney general has never been briefed on the Russian meddling into the US election which may be surprising to some. Let's listen to this exchange with your colleague Senator Angus King.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGUS KING: You never asked for a briefing or attended a briefing or read the intelligence reports?

SESSIONS: You might have been very critical of me if I, as an active part of the campaign, was seeking intelligence relating to something that might be relevant to the campaign. I'm not sure that...

KING: I'm not talking about the campaign. I'm talking about what the Russians did. You received no briefing on the Russian active measures in connection with the 2016 election?

SESSIONS: No. I don't believe I ever did.

MARTIN: What did you make of that?

WYDEN: I thought it was awfully far-fetched. I mean, obviously he came in there with this sort of bizarre, baseless theory that Trump defenders somehow have attorney-client privilege with the president and the attorney general. And it shows basically that these folks think they're being paid to serve Donald Trump instead of the American people. It's a gross violation of their oaths of office.

MARTIN: Senators also grilled the attorney general on his own personal interactions with Russian officials. And Sessions said over and over that he did not recall any more meetings than the ones he has already reported. So can you close the book on that issue now?

WYDEN: Well, let's put it this way. That was the question that I was going at when I asked James Comey last week about these matters that were problematic relating to recusal. And he wouldn't answer yesterday and so the issue is still in question. And I'm going to keep digging.

MARTIN: Oregon Senator Democrat Ron Wyden from the Senate Intelligence Committee. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

WYDEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we should add that we reached out to Senate Republicans. None were available to talk with us on this issue this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.