WASHINGTON -- U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions insisted he answered truthfully when he earlier said that he had no contacts with "anyone connected to the Russian government" about the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, although he acknowledged he had meetings with the Russian ambassador at the time.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 18, Sessions said he believed the previous questions referred to whether he actively participated with the Russians in the U.S. presidential election, "not any casual conversation."
"I did not meet with them in any way about the elections," Sessions insisted.
Sessions is one of several past and current Donald Trump associates whose interactions with Russian officials have come under scrutiny after U.S. intelligence services determined that Moscow actively interfered in the U.S. presidential election to support Trump.
The contacts included interactions with Sessions, former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
At least two congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating Russia’s actions during the presidential election and if there was any collusion between Trump's team before or after the November 2016 election.
In March, Sessions, who heads the Justice Department, was forced to recuse himself from any Russia-related investigations due to his own interactions with Russian officials before Trump's January 20 inauguration.
Sessions told the Senate panel he would not comment on his private conversations with Trump about the probe into Russian election meddling or the firing of former FBI Director James Comey until the president specifically waived his claim to executive privilege.
Comey was fired by Trump in the midst of the Russia investigation, leading to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
Sessions has admitted to having met with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, at least twice after initially failing to disclose the meetings.
'History Will Judge'
Kislyak's contacts with senior members of Trump's team during and after the presidential campaign raised concerns by many Democrats and others after the reports of possible Russian meddling surfaced. Kislyak has since left his post as Russia’s ambassador to Washington.
In his October 18 testimony, Sessions was grilled by Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat-Vermont) on his previous answers in response to written questions, leading to a heated exchange between the senator and Sessions.
"I asked you in writing whether you’d been in contact with anyone in the Russian government about the 2016 election. You answered emphatically, 'No,'" Leahy said.
"We later learned about several meetings between you and Russian Ambassador Kislyak…during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign," Leahy added.
"Do you understand why members of this committee consider your answer 'No' was false testimony?
"I’ve never accused you of colluding with Russians, but you clearly, in your answer 'No,' you concealed your own contact with Russian officials at a time when such contacts were of great interest of the committee," Leahy said.
Sessions responded by insisting that "I believe my answer was correct."
"The entire context of all your questions dealt with interference in the campaign by Russian officials," Sessions added.
"I took [the question] to mean not any casual conversion, but did I participate with Russians about the 2016 election -- that something was wrong."
Sessions also said he has not been questioned by special counsel Mueller's team in the Russia investigation, a probe Trump has often called a “witch hunt.”
Sessions declined to directly say whether he considered it to be a witch hunt, but said, "I think he [Mueller] will produce the work in the way he thinks is correct and history will judge."