Mr. Sessions also denied talking to any Russian official in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington at an event in April 2016, rejecting reports that he may have had an undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, at that event. He said he recalled no private conversations with any Russian officials at that reception and “if any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador, I do not remember it.”
The Huffington Post reported on March 8 that Mr. Sessions and Mr. Kislyak had attended that event, at which Mr. Trump was also present, but that it was not clear whether the two had spoken. CNN has more recently reported that there continue to be questions about whether there was such a meeting. The issue matters because Mr. Sessions testified at his confirmation hearing that he did not communicate with the Russians in 2016, but it later emerged that he had at least two contacts with Mr. Kislyak; the question is whether there was a third. (Mr. Sessions has said his answer at the hearing was accurate in context.)
Rosenstein vows to protect integrity of Russia inquiry.
Hours before, Mr. Sessions’s top deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee faced difficult questions about reports that Mr. Trump was considering firing Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel.
He said that if Mr. Trump demanded that he fire Mr. Mueller, he would refuse unless there was just cause.
“I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe that those are lawful and appropriate orders,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “If there were good cause, I would consider. If there were not good cause, it would not matter what anybody says.”
Mr. Rosenstein made his remarks in response to questions from several senators after a friend of Mr. Trump’s said on Monday that he was considering whether to fire Mr. Mueller. Mr. Rosenstein appointed Mr. Mueller as special counsel and is overseeing his investigation because Mr. Sessions has recused himself.
At the hearing, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, noted that the Justice Department regulations for special counsels placed restrictions on firing Mr. Mueller: Only the attorney general — here, Mr. Rosenstein — may do so, and only for good cause, say, if Mr. Mueller committed misconduct or violated department rules.
Ms. Shaheen asked Mr. Rosenstein whether he had seen any sign that Mr. Mueller had committed some breach that would constitute good cause for firing him.
“No, I have not,” Mr. Rosenstein replied, adding: “You have my assurance that we are going to faithfully follow that regulation, and Director Mueller is going to have the full independence he needs to conduct that investigation.”
Soon after, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, asked him what he would do if Mr. Trump ordered him to fire Mr. Mueller, leading to his response that he would not do so unless there were good cause in accordance with the regulation.
Mr. Rosenstein did not say what he would do if Mr. Trump first ordered the department to rescind the regulation, which would permit Mr. Mueller to be fired for any reason.
Democrats accuse Sessions of misleading senators.
Mr. Sessions may have sent a stand-in to the Appropriations Committee, but that did not stop Democrats there from venting their frustrations at him.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s top Democrat, criticized Mr. Sessions for opting to testify in front of the Intelligence Committee instead of appearing as planned to make the case for the Justice Department’s budget, saying attorneys general do not “cower” when called upon by Congress.
Mr. Leahy said he had questions about the role of Mr. Sessions in the firing of Mr. Comey, as well as what he called “false testimony” by Mr. Sessions about his interactions with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing — questions he could not ask Mr. Rosenstein.
“I won’t mince words,” he said to Mr. Rosenstein. “You’re not the witness we were supposed to hear from today. You’re not the witness who should be behind that table. That responsibility lies with the attorney general of the United States.”
Echoes of the ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’
Even as Mr. Rosenstein vowed to “defend the integrity” of the special counsel investigation, including by refusing any order to fire Mr. Mueller without good cause, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, spotted a potential issue that has no clear answer: What if Mr. Trump fired Mr. Rosenstein and then worked down through the Justice Department until he found someone willing to do it?
That possibility has historical precedent: In “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, President Richard M. Nixon fired the attorney general and his deputy because they were unwilling to remove the Watergate special prosecutor, stopping only when the official next in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, was willing to do what the president wanted.
If something like that happened again, Mr. Van Hollen asked, and Mr. Mueller believed he had not been fired for any legitimate good cause, what protection did the Justice Department regulation provide? Would the fired special counsel have recourse, for example, to contest his firing in the courts?
Mr. Rosenstein said he hoped there would never be a need to answer what would happen next if someone at the Justice Department did not adhere to the rules. Comparing it to a law school hypothetical, he said, “I would be reluctant to answer it without doing some research first.”
But no one at the hearing brought up what would happen if the White House directed the Justice Department to change the rules first — by revoking the special counsel regulations — so that Mr. Mueller could then be fired for any reason, just as ordinary senior Justice Department officials can.
Rosenstein declines to address scope of Sessions’s recusal.
Mr. Rosenstein demurred when pressed by Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, to describe the scope and limits of Mr. Sessions’s recusal.
Mr. Schatz noted that when Mr. Sessions announced his recusal in early March, he phrased it in terms of investigations that touched on the 2016 presidential campaigns. But the senator asked where the boundaries of that were, suggesting that it was murky whether potential counterintelligence matters about Russia that did not involve the campaign, or potential criminal matters like obstruction of justice allegations, fell into it.
Mr. Rosenstein suggested that he would control what issue reached Mr. Sessions because of how the Justice Department hierarchy works: Matters go through the Office of the Deputy Attorney General before getting to the Office of the Attorney General. But he refused to detail the scope and limits of Mr. Sessions’s recusal beyond what had already been said, saying he had a responsibility not to talk publicly about what investigations were focusing on.
“I know what we’re investigating,” Mr. Rosenstein said of Mr. Sessions. “He does not.”
Ryan supports Mueller investigation.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on Tuesday that Mr. Mueller should be allowed to continue his work.
“I think the best thing to do is to let Robert Mueller do his job,” Mr. Ryan said at a news conference. “I think the best vindication for the president is to let this investigation go on independently and thoroughly.”