By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. 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 U.S. 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 milestone in an investigation that has hung over Trump’s year-old presidency.
Mueller’s office also interviewed former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey shortly after Trump fired Comey in May 2017, a person familiar with the matter said. Comey’s firing led to Mueller’s appointment by the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein, to take over the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy and served as a campaign adviser before the Republican president appointed him as the top U.S. law enforcement official. Trump has openly criticized Sessions for recusing 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.
Mueller’s team is expected to be interested in meetings between Sessions and Kislyak during the campaign, as well as the attorney general’s involvement in Trump’s firing of Comey, an episode central to the question of whether Trump may have committed obstruction of justice.
Trump, asked by reporters about Sessions’ interview, said, “I’m not at all concerned.”
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 declined to comment. Comey could not be immediately reached for comment.
The source familiar with Comey’s interview said it was part of his handover to Mueller of the Russia investigation and questions whether Trump sought to obstruct justice by firing him. The handoff, the source said, also included Mueller’s team collecting all the material Comey had gathered during the initial stages of the investigation.
In a memos Comey wrote about his meetings with Trump, Comey recounted how the president asked him to end an FBI probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to a charge brought by Mueller of lying to the FBI.
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.”
Asked about Mueller’s investigation, White House spokesman Raj Shah told Fox News, “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.”
‘HONEST AND CORRECT’
Democrats have accused Sessions of lying to Congress by failing to disclose meetings with Kislyak during the campaign. Sessions has now acknowledged meetings with Kislyak including one in his Senate office and another at a event at the Republican National Convention, and did not rule out a “brief interaction” with Kislyak at an event at a Washington hotel.
His public account of other matters related to Russia also has evolved. Sessions initially testified to Congress he was unaware of any Trump campaign contacts with Russia, but in November 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.
Trump fired Comey after 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.
Sessions’ participation in a March 31, 2016, meeting of Trump’s national security campaign advisers could 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.
Sessions has said he now recalls the proposal by Papadopoulos, and told Congress he pushed back against the idea.
Sessions was the latest high-level current or former Trump administration figure to be interviewed by Mueller’s team. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon also has agreed to be interviewed by Mueller’s investigators.
Trump this month refused to commit to being interviewed by Mueller, saying “I’ll speak to attorneys” about the matter.
Mueller has charged four people in his wide-ranging investigation. In addition to Papadopoulos and Flynn, 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.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Makini Brice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Will Dunham)