Jeff Sessions maintained his meetings with the Russian ambassador were in his capacity as a senator
The attorney general received a question about Russian ties during his confirmation hearing
Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended his answers about Russian contacts to the Senate Judiciary Committee as “correct” in a letter Monday, as he sought to tamp down questions after it came to light that he had met with the Russian ambassador twice last year.
Sessions defended his response to Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken at his confirmation hearing in a letter the Department of Justice released Monday, saying his answer was “correct,” and he “did not mention communications (he) had had with the Russian ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them.”
The attorney general had been under fire since late last week, when it was reported that he met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice during the course of the election, during which he was a surrogate for President Donald Trump. But Sessions maintained that his meetings with Kislyak were in his capacity as a senator, not related to the campaign.
Sessions said in the letter that he “spoke briefly” to Kislyak on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and also met with Kislyak in his office in September, a meeting that was attended by his Senate staff, he said.
Sessions said he does not recall talking about the campaign.
“I do not recall any discussions with the Russian ambassador, or any other representative of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasion,” he wrote in the letter.
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he thought it would be better for Sessions to face the committee in person, adding that he was “disappointed” in the answers Sessions provided in response to his questions.
“The longer there are unresolved questions about the attorney general – his conduct and his independence – the longer we’re going to be distracted working on that issue,” Coons said.
Sessions recused himself last week from any investigation of Russian contacts related to the presidential campaign after his meetings with the Russian ambassador were disclosed. In Monday’s letter, he also said his recusal covers investigations of “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.”
The attorney general noted that Franken asked him during his confirmation hearing what he would do “if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.”
Sessions had replied: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I didn’t have – did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
“I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian Ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them,” Sessions said in his letter.
The attorney general did not address a written question he had answered from Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, which asked explicitly: “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?”
The question was presaged by a statement that some of Trump’s nominees or senior advisers had ties to Russia.
Sessions replied “no,” without any elaboration.
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a question about why Sessions’ letter did not address his written response to Leahy.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley thanked Sessions for his letter, saying it helped to “clear up confusion.”
“I appreciate Attorney General Sessions’ quick action to clear up confusion about his statement and I look forward to confirming the team who can help him carry out the functions of the department, like going after sex offenders, protecting Americans against terrorists and criminal activity, and stopping drug traffickers,” the Iowa Republican said.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.