Jeff Sessions spoke with Russian ambassador during campaign, Justice Department says
Democrats pounce on perceived omission, Sessions and Justice Department says it wasn't campaign-related
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had two conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the presidential campaign season last year, contact likely to fuel calls for him to recuse himself from a justice department investigation into Russian interference in the election.
Sessions, an early supporter of President Donald Trump and a policy adviser to the Republican candidate, did not disclose those communications at his confirmation hearing in January when asked whether "anyone affiliated" with the campaign had contact with the Russians.
Sessions released a statement late Wednesday night in response to the reports, saying he "never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign."
The attorney general said: "I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
Sessions had meetings last year with more than 25 foreign ambassadors in his role as a member of the Senate armed services committee, and had two separate interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the justice department said.
One was an office visit in the fall, and the other occurred in a group setting following a Heritage Foundation speech that Sessions gave during the summer.
Revelations of the contact, first reported by the Washington Post, triggered calls from members of Congress for Sessions to back out of any involvement in the FBI's probe.
"If reports are accurate that Attorney General Sessions — a prominent surrogate for Donald Trump — met with Ambassador Kislyak during the campaign, and failed to disclose this fact during his confirmation, it is essential that he recuse himself from any role in the investigation of Trump campaign ties to the Russians," said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. "This is not even a close call; it is a must."
"At best, misleading'
At the confirmation hearing in January, Minnesota Senator Al Franken alerted Sessions to allegations of contact between Russia and Trump aides during the 2016 election. He asked Sessions what he would do if there was evidence that anyone from the campaign was in touch with Russia.
Sessions said he was "unaware of those activities."
"I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have, did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it," Sessions said.
Justice department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said "there was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer."
"He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the armed services committee," she said.
Separately in January, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a 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 simply, "No."
Franken, in a statement Wednesday night, said he was troubled that the new attorney general's response to his question was "at best, misleading."
He said he planned to press Sessions on his contact with Russia.
"It's clearer than ever now that the attorney general cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately," Franken said.
But Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House, said Sessions needs to go "after lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians."
"Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign," she said.
Sessions was just confirmed as attorney general over three weeks ago, after a Senate vote of 52-47.
The White House did not immediately comment.
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