FBI investigated Jeff Sessions for possible perjury over Russia denials

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions attending a law enforcement roundtable on sanctuary cities held by President Donald Trump on March 20, 2018.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions attending a law enforcement roundtable on sanctuary cities held by President Donald Trump on March 20, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The FBI investigated Attorney General Jeff Sessions for possible perjury last year over congressional testimony in which he said he had no contacts with Russians, according to three people familiar with the case.

In fact, Sessions later acknowledged, he had personally met the Russian ambassador to the United States during the campaign and was aware that George Papadopoulos, a campaign adviser, had developed Russian ties, too. FBI agents were aware of both inaccuracies in real time. And last March, when Congress asked the FBI to investigate the attorney general, agents began doing so, two of the people said.

Andrew McCabe, the FBI's deputy director at the time, authorised the investigation, the two people said. McCabe himself was recently fired for showing "lack of candor" in an internal investigation.

Sessions rejected McCabe's appeal and fired him hours before his retirement was to take effect, jeopardising his pension.

The investigation into Sessions began before Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate Russia-related matters. Sessions' lawyer, Chuck Cooper, said no investigation is being conducted now.

"The special counsel's office has informed me that after interviewing the attorney general and conducting additional investigation, the attorney general is not under investigation for false statements or perjury in his confirmation hearing testimony and related written submissions to Congress," Cooper said in a statement.

The investigation was first reported by ABC News.

Perjury investigations based on congressional referrals are common, and the FBI frequently investigates but seldom charges. But the fact that the attorney general himself was a focus of the Russia investigation, even if only peripherally and temporarily, shows how entangled the Trump administration has become in the case. Sessions is recused from any aspect of the investigation.

The investigation also adds a new layer to McCabe's firing. McCabe's lawyers have said that he did not lie and acted quickly to fix any inaccuracies or misunderstandings. Sessions has offered a similar defense, saying he never intended to mislead Congress.

A spokeswoman for McCabe, Melissa Schwartz, had no comment.

A person close to Sessions said the attorney general was not aware of the investigation into his congressional statements at the time that he fired McCabe. The investigation never came up during the negotiations over whether Sessions would fire McCabe, according to two people with knowledge of those discussions.

The testimony in question surfaced as part of Sessions' confirmation hearing in January 2017.