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Jeff Sessions shifts ground on Russia contacts under Senate questioning

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has given a new account of his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 election, conceding it was possible that they had discussed Donald Trump’s policy positions.

Under intense questioning by the Senate judiciary committee, Sessions departed from his previous blanket denials about contacts with Russian officials, saying he did “not recall” elements of the conversations in three meetings in 2016 with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and conceded for the first time that substantive issues may have been discussed.

In a series of testy exchanges with Democratic senators, the attorney general also amended his previous insistence that he had no Russian contacts. This time, he said: “I did not have a continuing exchange of information” with Russians.

Sessions said he was not aware of any collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Kremlin in efforts to influence the election, the subject of a special counsel investigation and several congressional inquiries. However, he said he had not been informed about a meeting on 9 June 2016, between the president’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager with a Russian lawyer offering damaging material about Hillary Clinton. The attorney general said he had only read about it “in the papers” and not paid much attention.

Sessions has formally recused himself from issues related to the Russia investigation, a decision which angered the president, but he was interrogated on Wednesday on how rigorously he had observed his recusal. The attorney general is in a potentially perilous situation as lying to Congress is a felony and his previous testimony could form part of an investigation into obstruction of justice by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Sessions said he had not been interviewed by Mueller but he was tentative and hesitant in his answers on his contacts with Mueller’s team, leaving open the possibility that he had been asked for an interview.

Sessions, who had helped run Trump’s campaign, declared at his Senate confirmation hearing in January: “I didn’t have communications with the Russians.” It later emerged that he had met Kislyak at a campaign event at a Washington hotel in April 2016, then at the Republican national convention in July and in his Senate office in September last year.

In March this year, after reports of those meetings surfaced, he said he did “not recall” conversations with Kislyak or other Russian officials “regarding the political campaign”. However, in July, the Washington Post reported US intelligence intercepts of Kislyak’s accounts of the conversation to his superiors in Moscow that indicated that they had discussed campaign and policy issues.

The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy asked Sessions whether he had talked with Kislyak about policies or positions of the Trump campaign or future presidency.

“I’m not sure about that,” the attorney general replied. “I met with the Russian ambassador after I made a speech at the Republican convention ... We had an encounter there and he asked for an appointment in my office later. I met with 26 ambassadors in the last year and he was one of them.”

“He came into my office with two of my senior defence specialists and met with me for a while,” Sessions went on. “I don’t think there was any discussion about the details of the campaign. It could have been at that meeting in my office or at the convention that some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were. I think that’s possible.”

Asked if he had discussions with Russian officials about “emails”, an apparent reference to Democratic party emails hacked by Russia (according to US intelligence) and published by the WikiLeaks group, Sessions replied: “I do not recall any such thing.”

Moments earlier, Leahy had asked Sessions: “You’re our nation’s top lawyer. Is there a difference between responding ‘no’ and ‘I do not recall’? Is that legally significant?” Sessions agreed there was a significant difference.

“The attorney general got himself into deeper water in his answers to Senator Leahy,” said Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor and co-editor of the Just Security website. “Sessions’ response to Leahy effectively amounts to an admission that he was either not truthful in his written replies during his confirmation hearing when he said emphatically that he did not have certain conversations with the Russians or else he was not truthful in his later testimony when he said he could not recall the content of these conversations.”

“Also Sessions now admits he may have discussed candidate Trump’s positions with the Russians during the elections, which directly contradicts what Sessions said in his statement in March,” Goodman added. “Sessions’ testimony appears to be an admission that the Washington Post report got it right, that he had indeed discussed campaign matters with the Russian ambassador.”