U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appearing at a high-stakes Senate hearing, on Tuesday denounced as "an appalling and detestable lie" the idea that he colluded with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Sessions testified about his dealings with Russian officials and whether he intentionally misled Congress as the Senate Intelligence Committee probes the Russia matter.
"I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected with the Trump campaign," Sessions said.
"The suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for over 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie," he said.
As Sessions entered the crowded hearing room, a swarm of news photographers clicked away with their cameras. Sessions is the most senior member of President Donald Trump's administration caught up in the controversy over whether associates of the president colluded with Russia to help Trump win the election.
The committee's chairman, Republican Richard Burr, told Sessions the hearing was "your opportunity to separate fact from fiction" and "set the record straight on a number of allegations reported in the press."
Even before Sessions testified, attention in Washington swiveled to whether Trump might seek to fire Robert Mueller, the former FBI director named last month by the Justice Department to head a federal probe into the Russia issue.
Such a move would be complicated and potentially politically explosive. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the person who would be responsible for carrying out any such dismissal, told a different congressional panel on Tuesday he would not fire Mueller without good cause and he had seen no such cause.
Sessions appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee just five days after James Comey, whom Trump fired as FBI director on May 9, told the panel Trump ousted him to undermine the agency's investigation of the Russia matter. Sessions had written a letter to Trump recommending Comey's firing.
Burr said he wanted to know from Sessions what meetings he had with Russian officials or their proxies on behalf of the Trump campaign, why he recused himself from the Russia investigation and what role, if any, he played in the firing of Comey.
The testimony by Comey marked the latest chapter in a saga that has dogged the Republican Trump's first five months as president and distracted from his domestic policy agenda including major healthcare and tax cut initiatives.
Sessions, a former Republican U.S. senator and an early supporter of Trump's presidential campaign, is expected to be asked to explain why he told senators in January that he had no dealings with Russian officials last year while serving as an adviser to candidate Trump.
In March he acknowledged he met twice last year with Russia's ambassador to Washington, Sergei Kislyak. His staff said Sessions did not mislead Congress because the encounters were part of his job as a U.S. senator, not as a Trump campaign representative. But the revelations prompted Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation in March.
The abrupt dismissal of Comey prompted Trump's critics to charge that the president was trying to interfere with a criminal investigation.
The attorney general will also face questions about whether he met Kislyak on a third occasion. Several media outlets have reported that Comey told the Intelligence Committee in closed session last week that the FBI was examining whether Sessions met with Kislyak at a Washington hotel last year. The Justice Department has denied such a meeting occurred.
Trump has been publicly dismissive of the Russia investigation for months. A Trump confidant, Chris Ruddy, told "PBS NewsHour" on Monday the president was weighing whether to fire Mueller.
Amid the firestorm over Comey's dismissal, the Justice Department's Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to oversee the probe into Russian election interference and any collusion by Trump aides. Russia has denied interfering in the U.S. election. The White House has denied any collusion.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the election to help Trump in part by hacking and releasing damaging emails about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
If Trump were targeting Mueller, dismissing him would not be a simple matter. Trump could recommend to the Justice Department that the special counsel be fired. Since Sessions is recused from these matters, he would likely would send such a recommendation to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein.
In a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Rosenstein offered assurances about Mueller. "I am confident that he will have sufficient independence," he told a Senate panel evaluating a Justice Department budget request.
Rosenstein told the panel he had seen no evidence of good cause for letting Mueller go, and that lacking such evidence he would not follow any theoretical order to fire him.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Andy Sullivan, Amanda Becker, Warren Strobel, Steve Holland, Daqvid Alexander and Mohammad Zargham; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman)