Questions and answers about perjury, Sessions' statements

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Posted: Mar 02, 2017 7:52 PM
Questions and answers about perjury, Sessions' statements

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreed Thursday to recuse himself from any investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The move came after revelations that Sessions twice spoke with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, a fact that seemingly contradicts sworn statements he made to Congress during his confirmation hearings.

Sessions rejected any suggestion that he tried to mislead anyone about his contacts with the Russian, but added that he "should have slowed down and said 'but I did meet with one Russian official a couple of times.'"

Some Democrats demanded an investigation into whether Sessions committed perjury.

But perjury is difficult to prove, and experts say Sessions would have a good defense if he needed one.

Some questions and answers about the allegations:

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IS THIS A CASE OF PERJURY?

That's tough to say. Such a case would likely come down to splitting hairs over what Sessions said under oath, what he believed he was saying, and what he believed he was being asked.

During Sessions' confirmation hearing in January, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked the then-Alabama senator what he would do if evidence emerged that anyone from the Trump campaign had been in touch with the Russian government during the 2016 race.

Sessions replied he was "not aware of any of those activities" and that he himself, sometimes called a campaign surrogate, "did not have communications with the Russians."

Franken on Thursday said Sessions' response to his query was "at best, misleading." House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California accused him of "lying under oath." House Judiciary Committee Democrats sent a letter to FBI Director James Comey calling for a criminal investigation.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Sessions' answer was not misleading because he believed he was being asked about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign, not about those he had as a senator.

The disagreement underscores the difficulty in proving someone has committed perjury. Prosecutors must show not only that a person spoke falsely but that he intended to be misleading about an indisputable fact.

Sessions said Thursday said he didn't mean to mislead lawmakers. "That is not my intent," he said. "That is not correct."

Sessions could reasonably argue he thought he was being asked about his campaign-related contacts as opposed to congressional or diplomatic contacts, said Benjamin Wittes, a senior Brookings Institution fellow.

"He may have just screwed up," said Wittes. "It's not a crime to be wrong under oath."

An ambiguous question can kill a perjury case, which is why so few materialize from testimony given before Congress.

Lawmakers "are not the most precise questioners. It's not like a deposition or grand jury, where a professional prosecutor is asking the questions," said Stanley Brand, a Washington attorney and former House general counsel. "Inartful questions and elusive answers. You have to pursue those."

But, as Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer pointed out, Sessions could have corrected the record in the weeks after his confirmation hearing. Sessions said Thursday he would be sending the Senate Judiciary Committee a letter doing that.

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COULD HE BE CHARGED WITH MAKING 'FALSE STATEMENTS'?

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Judiciary Committee Democrat, asked Sessions in a written questionnaire whether "he had been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day."

Sessions replied with one word: "No."

That statement could be examined under a separate "false statements" statute, which differs from perjury in that it applies to statements that are not made under oath. But prosecutors would still have to prove Sessions knowingly and willfully gave a misleading answer.

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WHAT HAS SESSIONS HIMSELF SAID ABOUT PERJURY?

The House impeached Bill Clinton after he had been accused of lying to a grand jury about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. As a senator Sessions voted for conviction on a count of perjury and a count of obstruction. Clinton was acquitted.

"It is crucial to our system of justice that we demand the truth," Sessions said after Clinton's acquittal in 1999. "I fear that an acquittal of this president will weaken the legal system by providing an option for those who consider being less than truthful in court. Whereas the handling of the case against President Nixon clearly strengthened the nation's respect for law, justice and truth, the Clinton impeachment may unfortunately have the opposite result."

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WHAT ARE SOME OTHER RECENT CASES?

Republicans asked for a perjury investigation of Hillary Clinton for telling Congress there was nothing in her private email marked classified. That was not accurate, but FBI Director James Comey said it was "possible that she didn't understand what a 'C' meant when she saw it in the body of the email like that," which would hurt a perjury case.

The Justice Department in 2013 rejected Republican suggestions that Attorney General Eric Holder committed perjury when he told Congress he had never been involved in a potential prosecution of the news media.

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Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that Sessions voted for conviction in the Senate, not for impeachment in the House.