Attorney General Jeff Sessions disputed aspects of fired FBI Director James Comey’s attention-grabbing testimony Thursday evening, denying that he remained silent in the face of Comey’s complaint about improper interventions with the FBI on the part of President Donald Trump.
"During his testimony, Mr. Comey confirmed that he did not inform the Attorney General of his concerns about the substance of any one-on-one conversation he had with the President," Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday, Comey testified that Sessions vacated the Oval Office along with other officials so Trump could meet one-on-one with Comey. The former FBI director claimed he later told Sessions he should not have left him alone with the president.
In written testimony released Wednesday, Comey said he’d told Sessions the situation was inappropriate and should never happen again. "He did not reply," Comey’s statement said.
In his appearance Thursday, Comey said he didn’t remember precisely what Sessions did beyond that.
"I don’t remember real clearly. I have a recollection of him just kind of looking at me. It was a danger I’m projecting on to him so this might be a faulty memory … His body language gave me a sense like: what am I going to do?"
Prior insisted Sessions did respond.
"Mr. Comey said, following a morning threat briefing, that he wanted to ensure he and his FBI staff were following proper communications protocol with the White House," the spokesman said. "The Attorney General was not silent; he responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House."
Prior also noted that Comey testified he never told Sessions what Trump allegedly said at the unusual on-on-one: asking him to let "go" the investigation of dismissed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Comey said he omitted this information because he expected Sessions to recuse himself shortly from the probe into alleged Russian influence on the 2016 campaign.
Through the Justice spokesman, Sessions also took issue with Comey’s statement that he was unaware of any directive to the FBI indicating the details of Sessions’ March 2 recusal.
The Justice Department released an email sent that day by Sessions’ chief of staff, Jody Hunt, to Comey and other top Justice officials.
"After careful consideration following meetings with career Department officials over the course of the past several weeks, the Attorney General has decided to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States. The Attorney General’s recusal is not only with respect to such investigations, if any, but also extends to Department responses to Congressional and media inquiries related to any such investigations," Hunt wrote.
The Justice Department also appeared to take issue with Comey’s suggestion that Sessions’ recusal might have been necessary due to facts the ex-FBI chief wouldn’t discuss publicly.
"Our judgment, as I recall, is that [Sessions] was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic," Comey said.
Prior said Sessions stepped back solely because of the prominent role he played in the Trump campaign.
"Given Attorney General Sessions’ participation in President Trump’s campaign, it was for that reason, and that reason alone, the Attorney General made the decision on March 2, 2017 to recuse himself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States," the spokesman said.