Attorney General Jeff Sessions told lawmakers Tuesday that he now recalls the meeting with former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, but maintained that he did not lie under oath when he said he was unaware of communications between campaign officials and Russians during the 2016 presidential election.
"I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said during that meeting," Sessions said in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, which conducts oversight of the Department of Justice.gi
According to court records, Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about his contacts with Kremlin-connected Russians as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, disclosed his connections to Russia during that March gathering of Donald Trump's foreign policy advisers and suggested he could coordinate a meeting between the then-candidate and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sessions attended the foreign policy advisory meeting, as did Trump, but Sessions said he had no memory of it until he read about it in news reports of Papadopoulos' guilty plea.
"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 Tuesday. "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."
Sessions also said that he "pushed back" on the idea of a meeting between Trump and Putin.
Tuesday's grilling marked Sessions' first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. In his opening statement, he vigorously denied accusations that he lied in previous testimony to Congress about his and other campaign officials' communications with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election.
"My answers have never changed. I have always told the truth, and I have answered every question as I understood them and to the best of my recollection, as I will continue to do today," Sessions said. "But I will not accept and reject accusations that I have ever lied under oath. That is a lie."
Sessions told the Senate in January that he did not have contacts with Russians during the campaign. However, it was later revealed that he met with the Russian ambassador on multiple occasions in 2016. In an October Senate hearing, Sessions said he met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. after the Republican National Convention and later on two other occasions, but that those meetings were not related to the 2016 campaign.
Sessions' early defense did not deter Democrats, who took turns interrogating Sessions over the apparent discrepancies in his previous statements on Russia and what is now known.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., had a heated exchange with Sessions over his previous testimony.
"Either you're lying to the U.S. Senate or you're lying to the U.S. House of Representatives," Lieu said.
"My answer to that question, 'I did not meet with the Russians,' was explicitly responding to the shocking suggestion that I, as a surrogate, was meeting on a continuing basis with Russian officials and the implication was to impact the campaign in some sort of nefarious way," Sessions said.
"And all I did was meet in my office with the ambassador, which we didn't discuss anything like that," he added.
He was also questioned by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., about the number of times Sessions told Congress that he "did not recall" something — reminding the attorney general that he had suggested Hillary Clinton could be guilty of perjury because she told the FBI she could not recall details related to her use of a private email while secretary of state.
"I have a copy of the transcript of your testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October. You stated under oath, 'I don't recall' in some form or fashion 29 times. Is that correct?" Jeffries said.
"I have no idea," Sessions said.
Jeffries asked Sessions if he said "I don't recall" 36 times at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in June and "at least 20 times" at Tuesday's House hearing.
"I have no idea," Sessions said.
Meanwhile, Republicans pressed him to expand on the letter Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent to the committee chairman Monday.
The letter revealed that Sessions has ordered senior federal prosecutors to evaluate whether a special counsel should be appointed to investigate concerns raised by Republicans, including alleged unlawful dealings by the Clinton Foundation and the sale of a uranium company.
Sessions refused to say Tuesday whether the DOJ would re-open the investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state, or whether a second special counsel should be appointed to probe Republican concerns.
"This Congress has a right to ask for information. It's my responsibility to evaluate it," Sessions said in response to a question from Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. "If a special counsel is required I — or anyone else in the department — that has the responsibility would name one. Or else we would have to say it's not required."
The department will make such decisions "without regard to politics, ideology or bias," Sessions said, adding later that he stood by his previous statement that he would recuse himself from any investigation involving Clinton and the 2016 election.