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Sessions Expected to Face Sharp Questioning in Senate

Attorney General Jeff Session, right, and Vice President Mike Pence attend a Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump, June 12, 2017.

Now it’s Jeff Sessions’ turn in the spotlight.

Less than a week after fired FBI Director James Comey delivered riveting testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee about a series of what he described as "awkward" and "inappropriate" interactions with President Trump, Sessions, the attorney general, appears before the same panel Tuesday to take issue with some of Comey’s statements.

But while Sessions says he wants to address the “matters” brought up by Comey during his testimony last Thursday, Democrats are aiming for a broader line of questioning that will include his meetings with the Russian ambassador to Washington during the 2016 presidential campaign and his role in Comey's firing on May 9.

AG Sessions to Testify Before Senate Committee Probing Trump Campaign's Russia Ties
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“The attorney general of the United States needs to tell the American people why he testified untruthfully about his Russian contacts, and he needs to explain all of his conversations with the Russians that have been concealed, and also why he failed to protect the FBI and why he participated in firing the FBI director when he had recused himself because of those Russian conversations,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal.

Sessions' testimony, his first since he recused himself from the Russian investigation in early March, comes less than a week after Comey recounted during widely viewed testimony before the intelligence panel how Trump had sought to pressure him into dropping an investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Trump’s request, Comey testified, came during an unusual, one-on-one February 14 Oval Office conversation that followed other senior officials briefing Trump on counter-terrorism, including Sessions. Comey later complained to the attorney general about what he described as a "highly inappropriate" meeting, but he said Sessions "did not reply."

In a closed session that followed his public testimony, Comey told senators that Sessions may have had a third meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, leading officials to conclude the attorney would have to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, several media outlets reported.

The Department of Justice has dismissed the purported third meeting between Sessions and Kislyak and denied Sessions ignored Comey's complaint.

FILE - Russia's ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, speaks with reporters in Washington.
FILE - Russia's ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, speaks with reporters in Washington.

Nevertheless, Sessions will face tough questioning about whether he perjured himself when he failed to disclose the meetings, said Jed Shugerman, a professor of at Fordham University School of Law in New York.

"That was a problem already. The problem only gets deeper if there is in fact a third contact he did not report," Shugerman said.

Sessions has denied charges that he misled the senators about his contacts with Kisliyak.

Another key question on senators' minds: Sessions' role in Comey's firing. The White House had initially said Trump fired Comey on the recommendations of Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But Trump later said he dismissed Comey because of the Russia investigation.

Stephen Gillers, a professor of law at New York University, said Sessions has not answered why he played a role in Comey's firing given that he had recused himself from the Russia investigation.

"If he was recused, as he says he was, he should not have participated in the Comey firing," Gillers said.

Trump was never happy with Sessions' March 2 decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Sessions reportedly threatened to resign as tensions with Trump grew.

FILE - President Donald Trump speaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions as they attend the National Peace Officers Memorial Service on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S.
FILE - President Donald Trump speaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions as they attend the National Peace Officers Memorial Service on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S.

The Department of Justice says Sessions has adhered to the terms of his recusal from the Russia investigation, but Democrats are likely to press the attorney general about it.

"I believe that answer should be made to the American people," said Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.

The recusal likely will limit the scope of his answers.

"What can he possibly tell the Senate committee if indeed he’s done what he said he was going to do, which would include staying away from any intelligence on the ongoing investigation," Gillers said.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Sessions asked that his appearance be open to the public.

"He believes it is important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him and looks forward to answering the committee's questions,” she said.

The testimony will be scrutinized as much for what Sessions says as what he declines to say.

Shugerman said Sessions is unlikely to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-recrimination in order to avoid answering certain questions. "He's trying to defend his reputation and hold on to his job," Shugerman said.

Asked if the White House thought Sessions should invoke executive privilege to avoid answering questions about his conversations with Trump, press secretary Sean Spicer said, "It depends on the scope of the questions."

Spicer did not explicitly endorse Sessions' appearance, saying in response to a question, "We're aware of it, and we'll go from there."

VOA's Michael Bowman contributed to this article.

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