Washington: US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned last week by the special counsel`s office investigating potential collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump`s 2016 presidential campaign, the US Justice Department said on Tuesday.
The interview marked the first time that Special Counsel Robert Mueller`s office is known to have interviewed a member of Trump`s Cabinet, and is another serious development in an investigation that has hung over Trump`s year-old presidency.
Sessions was an adviser to Trump`s campaign before the Republican president appointed him as the top U.S. law enforcement official. Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe last March after media reports that he had failed to disclose 2016 meetings with Moscow`s then-ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.
Trump has openly criticized Sessions for the recusal, an action that paved the way for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the No. 2 official in the Justice Department, to appoint Mueller as special counsel in May 2017. Among other matters, Mueller is looking into whether Trump has sought to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Ian Prior, a Justice Department spokesman, confirmed a report in the New York Times that Sessions met for hours with Mueller`s team last week. Prior did not provide additional details. An attorney representing Sessions could not immediately be reached for comment.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign using hacking and propaganda to attempt to tilt the race in favor of Trump. Russia has denied it. Trump has denied any collusion with Russia, and has called the Mueller`s investigation a "witch hunt" and "hoax."
Democrats have accused Sessions of lying to Congress by failing to disclose meetings with Kislyak during the campaign.
His public account of other matters related to Russia also has evolved. Sessions had initially testified to Congress he was unaware of any Trump campaign contacts with Russia, but in November he modified that assertion, saying he was aware of contact between the campaign and Russian intermediaries.
Sessions has denied lying, saying he was "honest and correct" and not trying to mislead Congress. He has frequently said he has trouble remembering some of the meetings, and has said he has always sought to answer questions "fairly and accurately."
Sessions` participation in a March 31, 2016, meeting of Trump`s national security campaign advisers could also be of interest to Mueller.
At that meeting, which Sessions led, former campaign volunteer and adviser George Papadopoulos offered to help broker a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and is now cooperating with Mueller`s ongoing investigation.
Sessions has said he now recalls the proposal by Papadopoulos, and testified to Congress that he pushed back against the idea. Sessions said he could not recall a conversation with Trump adviser Carter Page about a planned trip by Page to Russia, but did not deny the conversation occurred.
Mueller`s team is also expected to look closely at Sessions` involvement in Trump`s firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
Trump fired Comey last May after both Sessions and Rosenstein penned a memo recommending his ouster over his prior handling of the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton`s use of a private email server. Clinton was the Democratic presidential candidate who lost to Trump in 2016.
Trump later said he fired Comey over "this Russia thing," a comment that raised questions about whether he was attempting to obstruct the FBI`s investigation. Mueller took over the investigation after being appointed special counsel.
Trump this month refused to commit to being interviewed by Mueller, saying "I`ll speak to attorneys" about the matter and that "there was absolutely no collusion."
The White House declined comment on Tuesday about the latest development in Mueller`s investigation.
"We believe it will end soon and find what we`ve known all along, which is that there was no collusion during the 2016 campaign and no findings of wrongdoing," White House spokesman Raj Shah said on Fox News.
Mueller has charged four people so far as part of his wide-ranging investigation. In addition to Papadopoulos, Trump`s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Trump`s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Manafort`s business partner, Rick Gates, have been charged with counts including failing to register as foreign agents and conspiracy to launder money.