(Reuters) - In more than two hours of testimony before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had some harsh words for fired FBI director James Comey. But if special counsel Robert Mueller is looking for near-contemporaneous corroboration of Comey's state of mind after a critical and disputed conversation with President Trump, Sessions provided it.
During the hearing, the AG criticized Comey’s “usurpation” of authority when the FBI director disclosed the outcome last summer of the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server. Sessions stood by his May 9 memo to President Trump in which he said Comey should be removed to give a “fresh start” to the FBI. The AG also disputed Comey’s account of Sessions’ reaction when the FBI director asked the AG not to leave him alone with President Donald Trump.
Sessions also, however, confirmed that Comey appeared to be concerned about being asked to do something improper after a meeting with President Trump on April 14.
We don’t know whether special counsel Mueller is investigating a potential obstruction of justice case based on Comey’s assertion that Trump asked him at that April 14 meeting to drop the FBI’s investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. If Mueller is probing Comey’s account, however, it’s significant that Sessions essentially corroborated Comey’s state of mind after that private conversation with President Trump.
President Trump said in a press conference last week that he did not ask Comey to drop the Flynn probe. In a tweet, he said he felt vindicated by the fired FBI director's testimony, despite Comey’s “false statements and lies.”
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Trump's personal counsel Marc Kasowitz, declined to comment in response to an email query about Sessions’ testimony. Peter Carr, a spokesman for special counsel Mueller, also declined to comment.
In Sessions' testimony Tuesday, the AG did dispute some of the particulars of Comey’s story about his interactions with President Trump. The former FBI chief said in his testimony last week that Sessions lingered at an April 14 Oval Office meeting in which Trump asked Comey to stay, after dismissing everyone else. Comey said he sensed the AG might have been concerned the president was going to make an improper request.
According to Comey, once everyone else had left the room, President Trump asked him to drop the Flynn investigation.
In Tuesday’s testimony, Sessions agreed that he was one of the last men to leave the Oval Office that day but said in response to questions from Senator Marco Rubio that he didn’t have “a major problem” with a private meeting between Comey and Trump. “I knew Jim Comey could handle himself well,” Sessions said.
The AG also disputed Comey’s account of his response when the former FBI director approached him after the April 14 meeting. Comey testified that Sessions just nodded when Comey asked the AG to be sure he wasn’t left alone with the president again. Sessions said Tuesday that he and his chief of staff remembered the response differently. According to the AG, he told Comey that the FBI director should follow Justice Department protocol on contacts between the White House and DOJ.
“I think he’s incorrect,” Sessions told Senator Roy Blunt about Comey’s recollection.
Sessions said Comey did not tell him why he was agitated. Comey testified that he could not discuss the specifics with Sessions because the AG was recused from the FBI’s investigation of possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. (Comey said he raised concerns with the acting deputy AG but did not receive a response before he was fired.)
Sessions did not accuse Comey of either false statement or lies. He seemed to go out of his way to limit his criticism of Comey’s handling of the Clinton e-mail case.
Most importantly, Sessions said he interpreted Comey’s request not to be left alone with the president “as concern he might be asked something improper.”
When two participants in a conversation offer different accounts - as Trump and Comey apparently do of their April 14 meeting - "the most obvious thing the government looks for is corroboration," said a white-collar defense lawyer. He said Sessions' account of his conversation with Comey after that meeting seems to back Comey. Sessions' testimony, he said, is all the more notable because he is "someone on the side of the president."
To be sure, that’s not outright vindication of Comey’s description of his conversation with the president. Those specifics can only be verified if, as the president has hinted, audiotapes exist. But in his testimony, Sessions confirmed under oath that a man he regarded as an experienced and unflappable prosecutor was unnerved by his private meeting with the president.