WASHINGTON -- U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has denied any suggestions he colluded with Russian officials during last year's U.S. presidential campaign, telling senators that any such suggestion was an "appalling and detestable lie."
Sessions' June 13 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee was the latest in a series of dramatic congressional hearings that have gripped Washington for weeks now and helped hobble President Donald Trump’s administration.
Sessions, who heads the U.S. Justice Department, is one of several past and current associates of Trump whose interactions with Russian officials have come under scrutiny by Congress and the FBI.
Pressure had been building on Sessions to speak openly before the Senate committee since before last week's momentous testimony by FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump on May 9.
Along with ongoing probes by the Senate committee and a similar one in the House, the FBI has been conducting a criminal investigation since July 2016. Among the Trump associates under investigation by the bureau is Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Sessions, who was one of Trump's earliest campaign supporters, has admitted to meeting with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, at least twice in 2016.
But he denied holding a third meeting, and he dismissed suggestions from some members of Congress and other officials that there was anything improper in his interactions with Russian officials.
"To suggest that I participated in any collusion is an appalling and detestable lie," Sessions told the committee.
Trump fired Comey on May 9, and bragged to Russian officials a day later about it, according to news reports.
Comey himself testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, suggesting possible conflicts of interest or even obstruction of justice. Comey said he felt pressure from Trump to end the FBI investigation of Flynn.
Sessions had recused himself from oversight of the FBI's Russian probe, owing to his meetings with Kislyak.
However, he ultimately co-signed the letter recommending Comey's firing, something Comey suggested was unusual.
In his appearance before the Senate committee, Sessions appeared to contradict a contention Comey made during his hearing.
Comey recounted a one-on-one meeting with Trump during which he said Trump suggested he back off the investigation of Flynn. Comey said he was uncomfortable and that he "implored" Sessions to make sure he was never left alone with Trump again. He said Sessions didn't respond to that request.
Comey "didn't recall this, but I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policy regarding appropriate contacts with the White House," Sessions told the panel.
The furor that resulted from Comey’s firing led to the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.
Mueller's efforts came under new scrutiny on June 12, when a Trump confidante said Trump was considering firing Mueller.
If Trump moved to remove Mueller, it would spark a massive uproar in Congress: outrage among Democrats and a deep concern among Republicans.
"I have confidence in Mr. Mueller," Sessions told the Senate panel.
The man who appointed Mueller as the special counsel, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, told another Senate hearing earlier on June 13 that he had seen no basis for firing Mueller.
Rosenstein testified that he was the only person who had the authority to fire Mueller and he said he would agree to dismiss Mueller only if there were a legitimate basis to do so.
"I'm not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are proper and appropriate orders," Rosenstein told senators.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that that Russia waged a widespread hacking-and-propaganda campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election. Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, imposed sanctions on Russian officials, kicked out nearly three dozen diplomats, and seized Russian compounds in Maryland and New York as a result.
Those intelligence conclusions, and persistent allegations of improper interaction between members of Trump and Russian officials, have helped undermine Trump's call for better relations with Moscow.
Congress, meanwhile, has moved closer to cementing existing sanctions on Moscow, and imposing new ones for Russia's alleged interference in last year's election, among other issues.
The Kremlin, which has repeatedly denied the U.S. accusations about election interference, has threatened retaliatory measures if new sanctions go forward, including seizing U.S. Embassy property in Moscow.