US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is testifying publicly at a Senate panel, setting up another potentially dramatic hearing on possible ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential race.
Mr Sessions is likely to face tough questioning from Senate Intelligence Committee members over his dealings with Russian officials during the campaign and whether he had a role in the firing of former FBI director James Comey, who testified last week before the same panel.
In his opening statement Mr Sessions said: “Let me state this clearly: I have never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.
“Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.”
He called the suggestion he colluded with Russia a “detestable lie”.
Until a statement yesterday from committee Chairman Richard Burr, it had been unclear whether Mr Sessions would testify in an open or closed setting.
Mr Comey told the panel last week that the FBI had information in mid-February on Mr Sessions that would have made it “problematic” for him to continue leading a federal probe into Russian attempts to influence the presidential election.
Mr Sessions recused himself from that inquiry in March after media reports that he had been in two previously undisclosed meetings last year with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
Today’s testimony is the first for Mr Sessions in a congressional hearing since he became attorney general.
During his nomination hearing in January, the former senator told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had no contacts with Russian officials as part of the Trump campaign.
Mr Sessions is likely to be questioned over the truthfulness of his answers in January.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said after media reports emerged in March of the meetings that Mr Sessions had answered honestly because the encounters were part of his job as a senator and not as a surrogate of the Trump campaign.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a member of both the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees, has said Mr Sessions should answer questions about his January testimony.
Intelligence committee members are also likely to ask Mr Sessions about a possible third undisclosed meeting with Mr Kislyak that is now under investigation, according to media reports.
Mr Sessions, an early supporter of Mr Trump’s election campaign, will be the most senior government official to testify to the committee on the Russia issue, which has dogged the Republican president’s early months in office.
Critics charged that by firing Mr Comey on 9 May, Mr Trump was trying to hinder the FBI’s Russia probe and the ex-FBI chief added fuel to that accusation with his testimony last week.
Mr Trump has denied he tried to interfere with the probe.
In his testimony, Mr Comey said he had asked Mr Sessions not to leave him alone with Mr Trump following meetings where he said Mr Trump had asked Mr Comey for his loyalty.
The attorney general may also face questions on this.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said Mr Sessions requested the open setting because “he believes it is important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him”.
Media reports last week said Mr Sessions offered to resign because of tensions with Mr Trump over his decision to recuse himself from the FBI’s Russia probe.
The matter is also being investigated by several congressional panels, including the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Russia has denied interfering in the US election.
The White House has denied any collusion with Moscow.
Watch proceedings live on RTÉ’s News Now from 7.30pm (approx)