Jeff Sessions, the US attorney-general, failed to disclose during his confirmation hearings that he twice met the Russian ambassador while acting as a close adviser to Donald Trump during last year’s presidential campaign.
Mr Sessions met Sergey Kislyak on September 8 in the then senator’s private office in the US Capitol building, after having spoken with him briefly two months earlier at an event sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation. He denied any meetings with Russian officials while testifying before the Senate in January.
The meetings occurred as the Kremlin was mounting an increasingly aggressive effort to interfere with the US election in an effort to improve Mr Trump’s chances of winning, US intelligence agencies concluded this year.
Mr Sessions attempted to clarify the discrepancy between his sworn Senate testimony and the new revelations, saying he had never met Russian officials “to discuss issues of the campaign”.
Speaking outside his home on Thursday morning, Mr Sessions said he would recuse himself from federal investigations into the Trump-Kremlin ties “whenever it’s appropriate”.
“I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign,” he told NBC News. ”Those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false.”
The revelation of Mr Sessions’ contacts comes as the president was enjoying favourable reviews for his address on Tuesday to a joint session of Congress. Mr Trump has denied any links between his campaign aides and Russia, saying this week that he had not “called Russia in 10 years”.
But the issue threatens to engulf one of his most senior cabinet officials after already triggering multiple Federal Bureau of Investigation and congressional inquiries and forcing the resignation of Michael Flynn, his national security adviser. The retired army general was dismissed after making similar contradictory statements about his contacts with Mr Kislyak.
Top Democrats last month called for Mr Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation of the Trump campaign in favour of an independent probe. After the Washington Post reported the attorney-general’s undisclosed meetings on Wednesday night, Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, called on Mr Sessions to step down.
“After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians . . . Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign,” said Ms Pelosi.
During his testimony before the Senate judiciary committee on January 10, Mr Sessions, who chaired Mr Trump’s national security advisory committee, spoke under oath about published reports of continuing contacts between campaign surrogates and Russian officials.
Asked by Senator Al Franken what he would do if he saw evidence of such contacts, Mr Sessions replied: “I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians.”
Mr Franken said late on Wednesday that Mr Sessions should recuse himself and explain the contradictions between his testimony and his new account.
“There’s a dark cloud over the Trump administration and there are a lot of questions still unanswered,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened between Russia and the Trump team, and I believe we need thorough and impartial investigations to get to the bottom of it.”
Mr Sessions has resisted previous calls to step aside, and Sarah Isgur Flores, his spokeswoman, insisted he had done nothing wrong. “There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” she said. “Last year, the senator had over 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the armed services committee . . . He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign, not about meetings he took as a senator.”
The White House jumped to the attorney-general’s defence in a way it did not do with Mr Flynn.
“This is the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats. [Attorney] General Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate armed services committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony,” a White House official said. “It’s no surprise Senator Al Franken is pushing this story immediately following President Trump’s successful address to the nation.”
The Post reported that it contacted all 26 members of the armed services committee and none of the 20 who responded had meetings with Mr Kislyak in 2016.
The disclosure intensified pressure on the president to name a special prosecutor to the Russian investigation. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has battled with Mr Trump since the campaign, said Mr Sessions was too close to the president to decide whether or not criminal charges ultimately were warranted.
“There may be nothing there, but if there’s something there the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then, for sure, you need a special prosecutor,” Mr Graham said on CNN. “If that day ever comes, I’ll be the first one to say it needs to be somebody other than Jeff.”
Mrs Pelosi called for an “independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal and financial connections to the Russians”.
In addition to the Russian diplomat, Mr Sessions met the British, South Korean, Japanese, Chinese and German ambassadors, said Ms Flores.
Mr Sessions’ meetings with each of the foreign diplomats focused on bilateral relations, including any outstanding issues between the two countries. “Ambassadors would often make superficial comments about election-related news, but it was not the substance of their discussion,” said the Department of Justice.
In July, Mr Sessions spoke at the Heritage Foundation event to a group of more than 50 ambassadors. Following his speech, “a small group of ambassadors approached the senator as he was leaving the stage”, the DoJ official said. “He spoke to them while they stood together as a group.”
Some of the diplomats thanked Mr Sessions for his comments and invited him to various events. “He made no commitments,” the official added.