WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions acknowledged on Tuesday (Nov 14) he was aware of contact between Donald Trump’s election campaign and Russian intermediaries, again modifying a previous statement about the extent of connections to Moscow.
The comment by Sessions to a House of Representatives panel did not reveal any new link between the Trump team and Russia but it was another example of the top US law enforcement official offering a different version of events as lawmakers try to work out if the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election.
Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee that he now recalls a meeting last year with then-candidate Trump where a campaign adviser said he had connections with Moscow and could help arrange a Trump meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I do now recall” the meeting where adviser George Papadopoulos made the proposal, Sessions said, “but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said during the meeting.”
Sessions has previously told Congress he was unaware of any Trump campaign contacts with Russia, leading Democrats on Tuesday to accuse him of lying under oath.
“I will not accept and reject accusations that I have ever lied under oath. That is a lie,” Sessions told the panel.
Accusations of collusion with Russia during the election campaign have dogged Trump’s first 10 months in office.
Sessions’ testimony appears likely to keep the controversy over Russia boiling as Special Counsel Robert Mueller accelerates his investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Since Mueller’s probe began, numerous Trump advisors have acknowledged interactions with Russian intermediaries. They include Donald Trump Jr, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russian representatives.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election to help Republican Trump’s campaign.
The Kremlin denies that and Trump says there was no collusion between his campaign and Russian officials.
Sessions faced tough questioning from committee Democrats on Tuesday.
Representative Hakeem Jeffries accused Sessions of hypocrisy, saying Sessions, while he was a US attorney, had prosecuted a police officer for perjury after the officer corrected his testimony.
“The Attorney-General of the United States should not be held to a different standard than the young police officer whose life you ruined,” Jefferies said.
That prompted an angry backlash from Sessions.
“Nobody! Nobody – not you or anyone else, should be prosecuted, not me... for answering a question the way I did in this hearing. I have always tried to answer the questions fairly and accurately.”
During the March 2016 campaign meeting where Russia was discussed, Sessions shut down Papadopoulos’ idea of engaging with Russian contacts, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Sessions said that was the version of events he recalled.
“After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorised to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter,” Sessions said on Tuesday.
After that meeting, Sessions said, he did not have “any further knowledge” of additional contacts between the campaign and Russian officials.
It was not the first time that Sessions, who was a senior Trump campaign aide and Republican senator, has revised his comments about contact between the campaign and Russia.
He said during January’s confirmation hearing that he was unaware of such communications.
News reports then emerged showing that Sessions had himself met Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak at least twice in 2016.
Under pressure, Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. He told reporters he was “honest and correct” in his response in the hearing, although he acknowledged he should have mentioned he had met with the ambassador in his role as a senator.
Sessions also said on Tuesday he did not challenge a statement by another campaign foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, that he told Sessions in a brief encounter that he was about to leave for Moscow. But he said he had no memory of that conversation.
The hearing was starkly divided. Majority Republicans demanded that Sessions appoint a second special counsel to investigate a series of issues involving Trump’s election rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, including the sale of a uranium company to Russia while she was US secretary of state.
Sessions was cautious on that score. When Republican Representative Jim Jordan detailed what the controversy “looks like” to him, the attorney-general responded: “’Looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.”
Earlier, Sessions confirmed that he has asked senior federal prosecutors to look into the potential appointment of a second special counsel.
Democrats say that five congressional committees have looked into the uranium sale and found nothing improper.