US Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not disclose during his confirmation hearing that he held two meetings with Russia's US ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, the "Washington Post" reported late on Wednesday, citing Justice Department officials.
One of the encounters took place in September, during the height of Russia's efforts to interfere with the US presidential election and tilt it in Republican Donald Trump's favor. The other meeting is believed to have taken place in July. Although he was then a senator from Alabama, Sessions served as Trump's top foreign policy advisor at the time of the reported meetings.
Accusations of nefarious links between the Trump administration and Russia have dogged the young presidency, while federal investigators have vowed to probe possible collusion between the two sides.
"I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign," Sessions said in a statement. "I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
As attorney general, Sessions is responsible for overseeing the Justice Department and FBI's investigations into Russian hacking of Democratic Party operatives.
However, the allegations could spur calls for a special counsel to investigate Russia's suspected role in the election and links to administration instead.
On Thursday, the Kremlin reacted to the reports without confirming or denying the story.
"I am not familiar with the issue, I don't know if the meetings happened or not, and if they have, I don't what the topics were," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
"The ambassador's job is to hold as many meetings as possible," he added.
Peskov also noted that the tempers in the United States are running high and that it was "necessary to wait for the emotions to settle down and things start heading in a constructive direction."
"We definitely do not want to get involved in this emotional issue in any way," Peskov said. He also restated that that Russia had "never interfered, does not interfere and has no intention of interfering into the internal affairs of other countries, especially when it comes to election campaigns."
During his Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for the attorney general post, Sessions was asked by Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, what he would do if anyone linked to the Trump campaign had communicated with Russia. "I'm not aware of any of those activities," Sessions said, adding that he had "been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."
Sessions was also asked in writing whether he had been in contact anyone connected to any part of the Russian government concerning the 2016 election, either before or after election day. The Alabama senator responded with a resounding "no."
Justice Department spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, maintained that Sessions' answers in the hearing were not misleading as he had more than 25 meetings with foreign ambassadors as a member of the Armed Services Committee. His July meeting with Kislyak reportedly occurred in a group setting where he was approached following a speech.
"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," Flores said.
Calls to resign
Following the "Washington Post's" allegations, Franken said: "If it’s true that Attorney General Sessions met with the Russian ambassador in the midst of the campaign, then I am very troubled that his response to my questioning during his confirmation hearing was, at best, misleading.
“It is now clearer than ever that the attorney general cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately,” Franken added.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded Sessions' resignation. accusing him of "lying under oath" and being "not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country."
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, emphasized that "it is essential" for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Moscow. Schiff had announced earlier on Wednesday that the House Intelligence Committee had committed to launching such a cross-party investigation.
Just last month, the White House was last month forced to acknowledge that Trump's former security advisor, Michael Flynn, had misled officials over his contacts with Russia's US ambassador. Flynn said he did not discuss sanctions with Kislyak. Leaked materials later showed that Flynn had done precisely that and was subsequently forced to step down.
dm,dj/bw (AP, Washington Post, Reuters, dpa, Interfax)