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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

US attorney general questioned by special counsel Russia investigation

Jeff Sessions is the most senior member of the Trump administration to be interviewed

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the House Judiciary Committee.. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the House Judiciary Committee.. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

US attorney general Jeff Sessions was questioned last week by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office investigating potential collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the justice department revealed on Tuesday.

The interview marked the first time that Mr Mueller’s team is known to have interviewed a member of the president’s cabinet, and is another milestone in an investigation that has hung over Mr Trump’s year-old presidency.

Mr Mueller’s office also interviewed former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey shortly after the president sacked Mr Comey in May last year, a person familiar with the matter said. The FBI director's removal led to Mr Mueller’s appointment to take over the Russia investigation.

Mr Sessions was the first US senator to endorse Mr Trump’s candidacy and served as a campaign adviser before the Republican president appointed him as the top US law enforcement official. The two have an uneasy relationship: the president openly criticised Mr Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation last March after media reports that the attorney general had failed to disclose 2016 meetings with Moscow’s then-ambassador to Washington, Sergei Kislyak.

The special counsel’s team is expected to be interested in meetings between Mr Sessions and Mr Kislyak during the campaign, as well as the attorney general's involvement in the president’s sacking of Mr Comey, an episode central to the question of whether Mr Trump may have committed an obstruction of justice.

When asked about Mr Sessions’s interview, the president said: “I’m not at all concerned.”

Ian Prior, a justice department spokesman, confirmed a report in the New York Times that Mr Sessions was quizzed for hours last week but did not provide details. A lawyer representing Mr Sessions declined to comment, nor could Mr Comey be reached for comment.

The source familiar with Mr Comey’s interview said it was part of his handover to Mr Mueller of the Russia investigation and questions whether the president sought to obstruct justice by sacking him. The handover, the source said, also included the special counsel’s team collecting all the material that the former FBI director had gathered during the initial stages of the investigation.

In a memo. Mr Comey wrote about his meetings with Mr Trump, recounting how the president asked him to end an FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to a charge brought by Mr Mueller of lying to the FBI.

US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign using hacking and propaganda to attempt to tilt the race in favour of Mr Trump. Russia has denied it. The president has denied any collusion with Russia, and has called the investigation a “witch hunt” and “hoax”.

Asked about Mr 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".

Mr Sessions was the latest high-level current or former Trump administration figure to be interviewed by the investigators. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon has also agreed to speak to Mr Mueller’s investigators.

Mr Trump this month refused to commit to being interviewed, saying “I’ll speak to attorneys” about the matter.

Mr Mueller has charged four people in his wide-ranging investigation. In addition to Trump campaign associate George Papadopoulos and Mr Flynn, Mr Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Mr Manafort’s business partner, Rick Gates, have been charged with counts including failing to register as foreign agents and conspiracy to launder money.