Attorney General Jeff Sessions was interviewed for hours last week in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, the Justice Department confirmed Tuesday.
The interview came as Mueller is investigating whether President Donald Trump's actions in office, including the firing of FBI head James Comey, constituted obstruction of justice. Mueller is also investigating contacts between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia, and can recommend charges on any wrongdoing he uncovers.
Sessions is thought to be the highest-ranking Trump administration official to be interviewed by Mueller's team.
He is seen as a potentially important witness given that Trump initially said he fired Comey last May at the recommendation of the Justice Department.
While speaking to reporters in the Oval Office about trade tariffs, Trump said he was "not at all concerned" about the Sessions interview and that he had not spoken to the attorney general about the interview.
Trump also said FBI Director Christopher Wray was "going to do a good job," in response to a question about a report late Monday by Axios.com indicating Wray offered to resign due to conflicts between Trump's White House and the FBI over the Russia investigation. Trump denied that the resignation offer ever occurred.
Last year, Trump and the administration originally cited Comey's mishandling of the Clinton investigation as the reason for the director's removal, but the president soon admitted in an interview it was because of "this Russia thing," the investigation that has dogged his administration.
Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in early March after acknowledging that he had had two previously undisclosed encounters with the Russian ambassador during Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. He said it would be improper for him to oversee a probe into a campaign for which he was a vocal and prominent supporter.
Rosenstein appointed Mueller, a former FBI director, to take over the Russia investigation one week after Comey was fired.
Sessions's interview was first reported by the New York Times.
The report came not long after Trump tweeted about missing text messages involving an FBI agent reassigned from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
Trump on Tuesday called news the FBI was missing five months' worth of texts from the agent, Peter Strzok, "one of the biggest stories in a long time."
Strzok was removed from Mueller's team following the discovery of anti-Trump text messages exchanged with an FBI lawyer.
Trump overstated the number, suggesting incorrectly the number of missing messages was "perhaps 50,000." The Justice Department says that's the overall number of messages found on FBI servers.
The FBI has said a technical system glitch caused messages between December 2016 and May 2017 to not have been properly stored.
New text messages highlighted in a letter to Wray by Senator Ron Johnson, the Republican chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security and governmental affairs committee, are from the spring and summer of 2016 and involve discussion of the investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server. They reference Attorney General Loretta Lynch's decision to accept the FBI's conclusion in that case and a draft statement that former FBI Director James Comey had prepared in anticipation of closing out the Clinton investigation without criminal charges.
The FBI has declined to comment.
Wray, Rosenstein reject bias claim
Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent who also worked the Clinton email case, was reassigned last summer from the team investigating ties between Russia and Trump's Republican presidential campaign after Mueller learned he had exchanged politically charged text messages — many anti-Trump in nature — with an FBI lawyer also detailed to the group. The lawyer, Lisa Page, left Mueller's team before the text messages were discovered.
The Justice Department in December produced for reporters and Congress hundreds of text messages that the two had traded before becoming part of the Mueller investigation. Many focused on their observations of the 2016 election and included discussions in often colourful language of their personal feelings about Trump, Clinton and other public figures. Some Republican lawmakers have contended the communication reveals the FBI and the Mueller team to be politically tainted and biased against Trump.
Wray, as well as Rosenstein during a recent grilling from Republican congressmen at a committee hearing, have rejected those assertions.
In addition to the communications already made public, the Justice Department on Jan. 19 provided Johnson's committee with 384 pages of text messages, according to a letter from the Wisconsin lawmaker that was obtained by The Associated Press.
But, according to the letter, the FBI told the department that its system for retaining text messages sent and received on bureau phones had failed to preserve communications between Strzok and Page over a five-month period between Dec. 14, 2016, and May 17, 2017. May 17 was the date that Mueller was appointed as special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.
The explanation for the gap was "misconfiguration issues related to rollouts, provisioning, and software upgrades that conflicted with the FBI's collection capabilities."
In Johnson's letter to Wray, he asks whether the FBI has any records of communications between Strzok and Page during that five-month window and whether the FBI had searched their non-FBI phones for additional messages. He also asks for the "scope and scale" of any other records from the Clinton investigation that have been lost.
The contents of these text messages between top FBI officials are extremely troubling in terms of when certain key decisions were made by the DOJ and the FBI, by whom these decisions were made, and the evident bias exhibited by those in charge of the investigation.— @TGowdySC
The omission of text messages between December 2016 and May 2017, a critical gap encompassing the FBI's Russia investigation, is equally concerning.— @TGowdySC
One of the messages references a change in language to Comey's statement closing out the email case involving Clinton, Trump's Democratic opponent in the 2016 presidential election.
While an earlier draft of the statement said Clinton and President Barack Obama had an email exchange while Clinton was "on the territory" of a hostile adversary, the reference to Obama was at first changed to "senior government official" and then omitted entirely in the final version.
Strzok said in a July 1 text message that the timing of Lynch's announcement "looks like hell." And Page appears to mockingly refer to Lynch's decision to accept the FBI's conclusion in the case as a "real profile in courag(e) since she knows no charges will be brought."
Days later, on July 5, Comey announced the FBI's recommendation that no criminal charges were merited.
Over the past several months Mueller investigators have spoken with other key people close to the president, including White House Counsel Don McGahn, former chief of staff Reince Priebus and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Mueller has conveyed interest in speaking with the president, and White House attorney Ty Cobb said that is "under active discussion" with Trump's individual lawyers.