WASHINGTON • US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last week as part of the special counsel investigation, the Justice Department confirmed on Tuesday, making him the first member of President Donald Trump's Cabinet to be interviewed in the inquiry.
The interview occurred as Special Counsel Robert Mueller is increasingly focused on Mr Trump's conduct in office and on whether he obstructed the investigation itself, according to two people briefed on the matter.
In recent weeks, Mr Mueller has told the President's lawyers that he will most likely want to interview Mr Trump about the firing of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey, and about former national security adviser Michael Flynn, one of the people said.
Mr Mueller's investigators have asked current and former Trump administration officials about what Mr Trump cited as reasons for Mr Comey's firing, and why Mr Trump was so concerned about having someone loyal to him oversee the Russia investigation, people familiar with the interviews said.
For Mr Sessions, the interview was the latest in a balancing act that has lasted nearly a year.
He has sought to get back in Mr Trump's good graces by pursuing investigations into issues such as leaks to the news media, and relaying Mr Trump's displeasure about senior FBI leadership to the bureau's current director Christopher Wray.
But Mr Sessions has also tried to present a veneer of independence in congressional testimony, and has now met investigators in Mr Mueller's inquiry, which has for months cast a shadow over the Trump White House.
"I am not at all concerned," Mr Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about the development involving Mr Sessions.
Stanford University law professor David Sklansky said it would be hard to see how Mr Mueller could carry out the investigation without interviewing Mr Sessions.
"The focus of the investigation is on ties between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials, and Sessions was in the middle of that," he said.
News of Mr Sessions' interview set off a day of revelations that highlighted Mr Trump's charged relationship with his top law enforcement officials.
According to a person briefed on the matter, Mr Comey met Mr Mueller's investigators last year to answer questions about memos that he wrote detailing interactions with the President that had unnerved him.
In remarks to the media in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Mr Trump denied a report that Mr Wray had threatened to resign.
"He didn't at all," Mr Trump said of Mr Wray, adding: "He did not even a little bit. Nope. He is going to do a good job."
The report, by the website Axios, said that Mr Sessions was pressuring Mr Wray, at the President's behest, to clear the FBI of loyalists to Mr Comey.
But Mr Wray responded that he needed to move at his own pace to make changes, and that if Mr Sessions and the President wanted replacements made more quickly, someone else would have to do it, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
Mr Wray's tenure has been tense as the President has repeatedly fanned suspicion about whether the FBI's work is politically motivated, including in the Russia investigation.