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Questions and answers about perjury, Sessions' statements

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By SADIE GURMAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General Jeff Sessions twice spoke with the Russian envoy to the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign, a fact that seemingly contradicts sworn statements he made to Congress during his confirmation hearings. The revelation prompted calls for Sessions to resign or recuse himself from a probe into Trump campaign contacts with Russia. Some Democrats demanded an investigation into whether the nation's top law enforcement official 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.

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

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

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."

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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?

Sessions voted to impeach Bill Clinton for perjury when the former president was accused of lying to a grand jury about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, saying at the time that the decision weighed heavily upon him.

"It is crucial to our system of justice that we demand the truth," Sessions said after Clinton's acquittal in 1998. "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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Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report from New York.

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