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White House Continues To Deal With Fallout From Russia Investigation

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Questions have swirled around Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his interactions with Russian officials while he was a Trump campaign surrogate and about what role he played in President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. Today the attorney general got to answer those questions, and he pushed back forcefully.

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JEFF SESSIONS: Let me state this clearly, colleagues. I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States.

CORNISH: Sessions testified before the same Senate committee that heard from James Comey just last week. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us in the studio now. Hi there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: And I want to ask you first about Sessions and his contacts with the Russian ambassador. How did he explain that?

LIASSON: Well, he explained them as normal conversations that he would have with any kind of a foreign representative or ambassador. He was very, very adamant that he did not participate in any way, shape or form in colluding with the Russian government. Here's a little bit of what he said today.

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SESSIONS: The suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country which I have served with honor for 35 years or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process is an appalling and detestable lie.

LIASSON: And just to remind our listeners, the reason why this is an issue is because the attorney general had several contacts with Russian officials that he failed to disclose even when asked about them. And that is the reason that he had to recuse himself from anything having to do with the Russian investigation that former FBI Director James Comey was running before he was fired.

CORNISH: Another big topic of course was Comey himself and his firing. What did Session (ph) have to say?

LIASSON: Well, that was really interesting. First of all, Sessions absolutely refused to talk about any conversations he had with the president about this, any kinds of communications at all. He said he wasn't claiming executive privilege. Only the president can do that. But this is the procedure of the Department of Justice - that they never discuss communications with the White House.

But he did say that he believed that Comey should be fired and not because of the Russia investigation. He stuck to the content of that original memo that Rod Rosenstein had written and that Comey sent to the president after the president, we now learned, had already desired - decided to fire Comey that Comey's problems were about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. He said he believed that a fresh start was necessary.

There was a very heated exchange about - Comey had testified that there were some reasons, some problematic things that that made Comey believe that Sessions would have to recuse himself even before he did. But Sessions pushed back against. That he said, that's secret innuendo; I don't appreciate it. When asked by Susan Collins of Maine, why were you involved in the firing of Comey If you had recused yourself from everything having to do with the Russia investigation, he said that was just a tiny part of my responsibilities as attorney general. The Russian investigation was just one thing, but I - Comey was fired for other reasons that I was not recused from.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, in the last 24 hours, some allies of President Trump have floated the idea that the president might consider firing special counsel Robert Mueller. And this is the man who's currently running the Russia investigation. So what's the latest on that?

LIASSON: Well, that was really interesting. Yesterday, Chris Ruddy, who's the CEO of Newsmax, a conservative website, was on PBS, said that the president was considering or had considered the possibility of firing Bob Mueller. He's - he has said he had never actually spoken to the president about this but that that was something the president was considering.

Now, first of all, the president probably has considered firing almost everybody that he's ever - that has ever worked for him. But if the president was to do something like that, he'd have to order the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to do it. And Rod Rosenstein, as it turns out, was also testifying on Capitol Hill in another hearing, and he was asked about that. Would he fire Bob Mueller? And here's what Rod Rosenstein said.

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ROD ROSENSTEIN: Senator, I'm not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders. Under the regulation, special counsel Mueller may be fired only for good cause, and I am required to put that cause in writing. And so that's what I would do. If there were a good cause, I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn't matter to me what anybody says.

LIASSON: So he pushed back pretty hard against that idea. I can tell you that a chorus of Republican lawmakers have been saying that firing Mueller would not be a good thing at all. I suppose the president could fire Rod Rosenstein and keep on firing deputy AGs until he found one a la Nixon in the Saturday Night Massacre who would fire Mueller. But it doesn't sound like that is happening anytime soon.

CORNISH: And the White House - are they still pushing their agenda, their policy agenda?

LIASSON: Absolutely. The president is doing something called workforce training week, workforce development week. He went to Wisconsin today to talk about workforce training. He also met with Obamacare victims. He had a brief 10-minute meeting with them. This is very similar to a meeting he had with Obamacare victims in Ohio. He lunched with lawmakers, and he talked about how the repeal and replace bill to replace Obamacare is coming along really nicely. He sounds a lot more optimistic than Republicans are in the Senate.

CORNISH: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.