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WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions heatedly denied on Tuesday that he had any undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador or conversations with Russian officials about the U.S. elections. He vowed to defend his honor "against scurrilous and false allegations."
Testifying at a Senate hearing, Sessions said it was a "detestable and appalling lie" to suggest that he participated in or was aware of any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
In his dramatic appearance before former colleagues, Sessions also contradicted a contention made by former FBI Director James Comey at a hearing before the same panel last week. Comey said that, after an encounter with President Donald Trump in which he said Trump pressured him to back off an investigation into the former national security adviser, Comey "implored" Sessions to make sure he was never left alone with the president again -- but that Sessions didn't respond.
"He didn't recall this, but I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policy" regarding contacts with the White House, Sessions said.
The former Alabama senator defended himself against accusations that he misrepresented himself during his confirmation hearing by saying he hadn't met with Russian officials during the campaign. Sessions argued that in the context of the hearing, "my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it."
Sessions said he recused himself from the Justice Department's Russia investigation only because of a regulation to require the step because of his involvement in the Trump campaign. He never, he insisted, knew anything about the Russia probe or had any role in it.
While he had recused himself from the Russia probe, Sessions said, "I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations."
Despite Sessions' statement about the reasons for his recusal, the attorney general did not actually step aside from the Russia probe until March 2, the day after The Washington Post reported on his two previously undisclosed meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Days after that, Sessions also corrected his confirmation hearing testimony to inform the committee about the two meetings with Kislyak.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon asked Sessions about suggestions arising from Comey's testimony last week that there was something "problematic" about his recusal.
Wyden asked Sessions what problematic issues existed.
"Why don't you tell me? There are none, Sen. Wyden, there are none," Sessions insisted, his voice rising. "This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don't appreciate it."
Sessions lent his support to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is now in charge of the Justice Department's Russia investigation. "I have confidence in Mr. Mueller," he said.
At a separate hearing Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, overseeing that effort since Sessions stepped aside, said he's seen no basis for firing Mueller, the former FBI director he appointed as special counsel.
He said he would agree to dismiss Mueller only if there were a legitimate basis to do so, and an order from the president would not necessarily qualify.
As for his role in Comey's firing, Sessions told senators that he and his second-in-command, Rosenstein, had a "clear view ... that we had problems there, and it was my best judgment that a fresh start at the FBI was the appropriate thing to do. And when asked I said that to the president."
But Sessions said that despite his sense of problems at the FBI, he never raised that with Comey. And asked about Trump's own contention that he fired Comey with the Russia probe in mind, and regardless of any recommendation from anyone else, Sessions said: "I guess I'll just have to let his words speak for themselves. I'm not sure what was in his mind specifically."
Sessions refused to say whether he had ever discussed the Russia investigation with Trump, arguing that he could not disclose private communications with the president.
On another hot-button issue, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked Sessions whether Trump records his conversations in the White House. Trump has suggested there might be tapes of his encounters with Comey; Comey said last week that "lordy" he hopes there are.
"I do not" Sessions said when asked whether he knows whether the president records his conversations.
"I don't know Sen. Rubio, probably so," Sessions added, when Rubio asked whether any such tapes would have to be preserved.
Comey had also said that Sessions had lingered in the Oval Office following a group meeting, just before the private encounter during which Comey has said Trump asked him to pull back on his investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. As Trump tried to shoo everyone out to talk alone with Comey, Sessions lingered, in Comey's account. Comey suggested this indicated the attorney general's awareness that it was improper for Trump and Comey to meet alone together, given the specter of the Department of Justice's investigation into Russia's election meddling and possible ties with the Trump campaign.
But Sessions disputed that was why he lingered, suggesting there was really nothing to it.
"I do recall being one of the last ones to leave, I don't know how that occurred," Sessions said. "I eventually left."
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Sadie Gurman and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed.