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Sessions jokes about investigations into Russia contacts: ‘Is Ambassador Kislyak in the room?’

WASHINGTON — Standing before a friendly audience of conservative lawyers Friday afternoon at the Mayflower Hotel, Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the elephant in the room.

“Is Ambassador Kislyak in the room?” Sessions joked, causing roars of laughter throughout the banquet hall. “Any Russians?”

The attorney general's dealings with Russian officials, including former ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, have loomed large over his 11-month tenure at the Justice Department. But Sessions had a bounce in his step Friday as he took aim at "judicial activism" of judges legislating from the bench and took a moment to tick through the changes he's made to return Justice Department to the "rule of law" in a wide-ranging speech at Federalist Society's national convention.

"Elections really do have consequences," Sessions said with a smile.

"Judicial activism puts the prejudices and politics of the judge about the law, making him into a Constitutional Convention unto himself," he added.

Despite the fact that four of President Donald Trump's judicial nominees have received a rare "not-qualified" rating by the American Bar Association and come under fire for controversial blog postings, Sessions said Trump has been appointing "extremely well-qualified" lawyers who will be "neutral umpires, calling balls and strikes."

Sessions also had words of encouragement for those who might get "frustrated" watching TV at night and "have to take Rolaids."

"I get frustrated, too," Sessions said, but vowed his "department will not make decisions based on politics" and will not confirm investigations to get a few "cheap headlines."

The attorney generally announced Friday that the department will no longer issue regulatory guidance memos that "bind private parties without undergoing the rule-making process."

"Under the attorney general's memo, the department may no longer issue guidance documents that purport to create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities outside the Executive Branch," the department said in a statement.

Friday's announcement formalized a process Sessions had already begun in reality back in February, when he withdrew Obama-era guidance on protections for transgender students that required public schools to allow them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.

It does not, however, affect internal Justice Department guidance memos to U.S. attorneys, for example.

In October, Sessions instructed federal prosecutors that the department would no longer interpret a 1964 federal civil rights law as protecting transgender workers from employment discrimination.