2 Mar 2017

US Attorney-General under fire over Russia talks

9:11 pm on 2 March 2017

US Democrats have called on Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to resign after it was reported he failed to disclose two meetings with Russia's ambassador.

Jeff Sessions

US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions' nomination to the position by Donald Trump was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 52 to 47 in February. Photo: AFP

The former senator spoke twice last year with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, encounters he did not disclose during his confirmation hearing to become attorney-general, according to a report in the Washington Post. The report cited Justice Department officials.

One of the meetings was a private conversation between Mr Sessions and Mr Kislyak in the then-senator's office in September.

This was at the height of what US intelligence officials have said was a Russian cyber campaign to upend last year's presidential election, which was won by Donald Trump in November.

Mr Sessions stressed today he had "never met any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign".

But Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Mr Sessions of "lying under oath" and demanded he resign.

Other Democrats called on him to step aside from an investigation by the FBI - which he oversees as attorney-general - into the alleged Russian interference.

The news broke soon after a congressional committee agreed to launch an investigation into Russia's involvement.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence inquiry will scrutinise contacts between Mr Trump's presidential election campaign and Moscow, members confirmed.

The White House has denied any improper behaviour during the campaign and did not comment immediately on the latest development.

Mr Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired last month after he allegedly discussed US sanctions on Russia with Mr Kislyak before Mr Trump took office. Mr Flynn misled US Vice-President Mike Pence about the conversations.

As attorney-general, Mr Sessions oversees the Justice Department, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI has led investigations into Russian meddling and any links to Mr Trump's associates. Mr Sessions has so far resisted calls to recuse himself.

When Mr Sessions spoke with Mr Kislyak in July and September, he was a senior member of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee and one of Mr Trump's top foreign policy advisers, according to the Post.

Mr Sessions played a prominent role supporting Mr Trump after formally joining the campaign in February 2016.

At his 10 January confirmation hearing, Democratic Senator Al Franken asked Mr Sessions what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign, the Post reported.

"I'm not aware of any of those activities," Mr Sessions responded, according to the Post.

He added: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

Officials said Mr Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers' questions. He did not remember in detail what he discussed with Mr Kislyak, according to the Post.

"There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer," Mr Sessions' spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, told the Post.

Justice officials said Mr Sessions met with Mr Kislyak on 8 September in his capacity as a member of the armed services panel, rather than in his role as a Trump campaign surrogate, the Post reported.

"He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign - not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee," Ms Flores told the Post.

- Reuters / BBC

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