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Sen. Coons Wants Sessions To Answer Senate Panel's Russian Questions

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions now says he will have nothing to do with investigations into President Trump's campaign and possible communication with Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

JEFF SESSIONS: The reason I believed I should recuse myself is because I was involved in the campaign to a degree, I think, it would have been perceived is that I wouldn't be objective in participating in an investigation that might involve the campaign. I do not confirm or deny any investigation. I just felt like I should clear the air. And we were moving toward that end even before this latest flap.

GREENE: That was Attorney General Sessions on Fox News. Now let's talk about that latest flap he mentioned. Some Democrats are actually calling for Sessions to resign. They say he testified at his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had no contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, when in fact he spoke twice with Russia's ambassador.

We have Delaware Senator Chris Coons on the line. He's a Democrat, member of the Judiciary Committee where Sessions appeared. That committee is also leading one of the probes into Russia's involvement in the U.S. elections. Senator Coons, welcome back to the program.

CHRIS COONS: Thanks, David, great to be on with you.

GREENE: So do you want the attorney general to resign?

COONS: Well, I think the most important thing here is that the attorney general has recused himself from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in our election. I wish and hope that the attorney general will come back to the Judiciary Committee and testify in person about why he gave untruthful answers before. I am a member of the Foreign Relations committee, as you mentioned. And I remember the only time that I've been in a room with the Russian ambassador.

Senator Sessions and some of his defenders have suggested that senators meet with ambassadors all the time, and it's completely innocent that he forgot he had met with the Russian ambassador twice. Senator McCaskill, who's also on Armed Services, said yesterday that she's been on Armed Services Committee for 10 years and has never met the Russian ambassador, so...

GREENE: Now, wait a minute, though. There have been fact-checkers, though, that found that Senator McCaskill did actually meet with Russia's ambassador. I know she's defended herself saying this was not a one-on-one meeting, but you bring up that example. It seems like this can be, you know, a little murky.

COONS: I was actually in the meeting that I think she's referring to. This was a large group meeting of dozens of senators and a large group of ambassadors to talk about the Iran deal, the JCPOA. And I can understand how she might have forgotten that. Here's the difference. The defense was offered that senators meet with ambassadors every day, and that's not the case. It's certainly not the case that you meet one-on-one with the Russian ambassador every day or even every year. And it's certainly not the case that when asked under oath in front of the Judiciary Committee one could casually forget that you have recently twice met with the Russian ambassador.

GREENE: So are you saying Sessions intentionally misled the committee?

COONS: I think it's important that we get to the bottom of what he was thinking when he gave this answer. It was certainly not a full and truthful answer. And I think we need to focus on the main issue here, which is that he's recused himself from an ongoing investigation. The little audio clip that you played just a few minutes ago, he did say, I am neither confirming nor denying an investigation.

GREENE: Right.

COONS: And press reports are suggesting that the CIA, NSA and FBI are all looking into contacts between senior-level Trump campaign officials, which includes Jeff Sessions and Russian intelligence and senior Russian officials.

GREENE: Senator, you know, you say you want Sessions to come back before the committee. I mean, he has already explained that he answered that question based on his role as a campaign adviser, not as a senator, when he says the contact with Russia's ambassador was as a senator. So he has at least tried to explain that. He's now recusing himself. I mean, what else is left here? Doesn't this risk looking like, in President Trump's words, a witch hunt?

COONS: Well, I think it's important to set the record straight. Senator Sessions, during his confirmation process, really wasn't fully forthcoming in his answers to many of our questions. And I do think it's worth pressing him on some of the issues that he didn't fully answer. I also think, to your point, it's important for us to focus on the main issue here, which is fully investigating Russia's intrusion into our election. Senator Rubio - Republican Senator Rubio of Florida and I went to the floor together on Wednesday and gave a joint speech about the importance of facing Russian aggression because there are upcoming elections - the Dutch elections, French elections, German elections - in Europe where there is active Russian interference, both overt and covert, that looks very similar to what happened in our election.

I've heard from ambassadors and representatives from those three countries who are gravely concerned that the United States not only failed to defend its own democracy in its own election but that we're not helping defend the democracies of our vital NATO allies in Europe. And all of this is in the service of the larger long-term goal of Vladimir Putin, which is to divide the United States and Europe.

GREENE: If I may, Senator, I want to play you a little more of the interview with the attorney general and Tucker Carlson on Fox News last night. Here's another exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: Did the campaign believe that the Russian government, the Putin government, favored Trump over Clinton in this race?

SESSIONS: I have never been told that - I've never been told that.

CARLSON: Do you think they did?

SESSIONS: I don't have any idea, Tucker. You'd have to ask them.

GREENE: So the attorney general oversees the FBI, Senator. I mean, do you think Sessions recusing himself means he has nothing to do with the FBI looking into Russian meddling in any way?

COONS: That's what it should mean. He should fully and effectively recuse himself from this investigation. And any evidence going forward that what he's doing is directly or indirectly interfering, trying to stonewall or trying to shut down this investigation, would be grounds for removal.

GREENE: Well, I mean, the FBI part of the intelligence community that has basically concluded that the Russian government was trying to meddle and favorite a candidate - could the attorney general somehow change the official position of an intelligence agency that works under him?

COONS: The attorney general does have the ability to direct the FBI to stop a particular investigation. And after a number of troubling incidents under the Bush administration where there was politicization of investigations and of some of the U.S. attorney offices, there was a new set of ground rules adopted by the Department of Justice to prevent such inappropriate interference by an attorney general in the future.

GREENE: So are you worried about that here?

COONS: I'm concerned. I am encouraged that the attorney general has now publicly said he would recuse himself. And now I think we need to monitor whether he does in fact effectively recuse himself from this investigation.

GREENE: OK. Senator Chris Coons is a senator from the state of Delaware, a Democrat, and he spoke to us from his office in Wilmington. Senator, thanks so much as always. We really appreciate the time.

COONS: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "BUS RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.