U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he may soon appoint a special counsel to investigate an Obama-era deal in which a Russian company bought a Canadian firm that owned about 20 percent of U.S. uranium supplies.
In testimony on November 14, Sessions told the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee that he would decide quickly on whether a special investigation is merited.
"We will comply with the law with regard to special-prosecutor appointments," and make a decision "without political influence," Sessions said.
President Donald Trump and some Republicans in Congress have called on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to look into the 2010 sale of a controlling stake in Canada's Uranium One to Russia's Rosatom state nuclear company.
Trump last month complained that the news media had ignored the uranium deal while focusing on whether any of his campaign aides colluded with Russia during last year's presidential campaign.
"That's your real Russia story," Trump said. "Not a story where they talk about collusion and there was none."
The department informed the committee on November 13 that Sessions had directed senior federal prosecutors to look into allegations that Hillary Clinton -- Trump's Democratic opponent in last year's presidential election -- and the Clinton Foundation family charity benefited from the 2010 transaction.
Uranium One had mines and owned land in a number of U.S. states that altogether accounted for about 20 percent of U.S. uranium production capacity.
The deal was reached while Clinton was secretary of state. Some Republicans have charged that Clinton approved the deal after the foundation received a $145 million donation from executives involved in the uranium deal.
The State Department was one of nine federal agencies and a number of additional independent federal and state regulators that had to sign off on the deal.
Democrats say that several committees of Congress have already examined the deal closely and found that Clinton had very little say in the transaction and that President Barack Obama, not Clinton, was the only person who could have vetoed it.
Moreover, since Russia doesn’t have the legal right to export uranium from the United States, analysts have said its main goal in acquiring the Canadian firm was likely to gain access to its uranium assets in Kazakhstan.
Democrats said that the timing of the department's move to reopen a probe into the years-old Uranium One deal suggests it is intended to distract attention away from the ongoing special-counsel investigation into possible connections between Trump's campaign and Russian officials.
The move was announced as Sessions, a key adviser during Trump's campaign, was testifying under tough questioning from Judiciary Committee Democrats about meetings and contacts with Russian officials he knew about during the campaign.
"When everything is going wrong, what's the Republican response? Investigate Hillary! Familiar refrain," tweeted Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
"If the [attorney general] bends to pressure from President Trump and his allies, and appoints a special counsel to investigate Trump's vanquished rival, it could spell the end of the [Department of Justice] as an independent institution," Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said on Twitter.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Vox, and Reuters