WASHINGTON • US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has vehemently denied any collusion with Russia to tilt the election in Mr Donald Trump's favour, branding the suggestion an "appalling and detestable lie".
In closely watched congressional testimony, Mr Sessions angrily denounced allegations that he acted improperly during meetings with Russian officials - or that he knew of any attempt at collusion by members of the Trump campaign team.
And he repeatedly refused to reveal whether he had spoken to the President regarding Mr James Comey's handling of the probe into Russian election meddling - which the former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director believes to be the reason he was fired.
A Trump loyalist and early backer of the billionaire businessman's presidential bid, Mr Sessions has recused himself from all ongoing Russia investigations.
But the nation's top law enforcement official - who recommended Mr Comey's dismissal last month - has himself become a focal point in the crisis roiling the White House.
Mr Sessions kicked off his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee by asserting that he had "never met or had any conversations with any Russians" about interference in last year's presidential race.
"I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign. The suggestion that I participated with any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country... is an appalling and detestable lie."
The appearance was Mr Sessions' first sworn public testimony since being confirmed as attorney-general in February. During the 21/2-hour hearing, he engaged in testy exchanges with several senators who pressed him for details on his discussions with Mr Trump - which he refused to provide in the name of confidentiality.
Some Democrats grew impatient. "You are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering that question," charged Senator Martin Heinrich. "Your silence... speaks volumes." Mr Sessions said: "I am not stonewalling."
Testifying last week before the same panel, Mr Comey recalled that Mr Trump had asked him to "let go" of a probe into one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn - exposing the President to accusations of obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offence. Mr Flynn was sacked two weeks into the job amid concerns that he lied over his Russian contacts.
Mr Trump has recently expressed frustration with Mr Sessions, who has come under pressure over his own Russia contacts.
While the Justice Department has said Mr Sessions recused himself in March because of his involvement in Mr Trump's campaign, Mr Comey testified that the FBI knew of information that would have made it "problematic" for Mr Sessions to be involved.
But the Attorney-General pushed back hard when asked what those problematic matters could be, retorting: "There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty."
Barely a month after Mr Trump dismissed Mr Comey, there are rumours that he may seek to sack Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed following the FBI chief's ouster to head the agency's Russia investigation.
Mr Sessions declined to comment, stating only that he had "confidence" in Mr Mueller.
A White House spokesman said later that Mr Trump "has no intention" of dismissing Mr Mueller.
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