Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday he was unaware that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, had met during the presidential campaign but described meetings of the sort as routine for diplomats.
“I don't know the details of any meetings,” Mr. Peskov told reporters, according to Reuters. “[But] the ambassador's job is to hold as many meetings as possible.”
His comments followed a Washington Post report citing Justice Department officials who said Mr. Sessions and Mr. Kislyak had met on two separate occasions during the presidential campaign, fueling calls for Sessions’ resignation from Democrats who accused him of lying during his confirmation as attorney general.
According to the officials cited by the Post, Sessions met the Russian ambassador on two occasions: once, at a public Heritage Foundation event in July, and again in September, this time in private, at the office of the then-senator and senior member of the chamber’s Armed Forces Committee.
Meetings between presidential campaign officials and foreign officials are indeed a common part of election seasons. But concerns about possible Russian interference in the 2016 campaign turns scrutiny on what may have been discussed by Sessions and Kislyak – as well as whether Sessions should recuse himself from oversight of an ongoing Justice Department and FBI investigation into possible ties between that interference and the Trump campaign.
And it comes weeks after President Trump's security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign following the revelation that he had discussed US sanctions against Russia in a meeting with Kislyak before Mr. Trump took office, while misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the conversation.
"If reports are accurate that Attorney General Sessions – a prominent surrogate for Donald Trump – met with Ambassador Kislyak during the campaign, and failed to disclose this fact during his confirmation, it is essential that he recuse himself from any role in the investigation of Trump campaign ties to the Russians," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, according to the Associated Press.
"This is not even a close call; it is a must," he added.
Other Democrats went so far as to call for his resignation, with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California accusing him of "lying under oath about his own communications with the Russians."
In a statement to the Post on Wednesday night, Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores described the attorney general’s confirmation hearing claim that he "did not have communications with the Russians" as referring to his capacity as a campaign adviser.
In a separate statement to the newspaper, Sessions said he "never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” adding, "I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
The Russian embassy responded similarly to Peskov when asked about contacts between Kislyak and Sessions.
"The embassy doesn't comment on numerous contacts with local partners, which occur on a daily basis in line with diplomatic practice," embassy spokesman Nikolai Lakhonin told Russia's Interfax news agency.
Alexey Pushkov, a Russian senator, mocked controversy over Sessions as evidence of US paranoia.
"Almost the entire U.S. elite is, it turns out, linked to Russia. Including the attorney general," Mr. Pushkov wrote on social media, according to Reuters. "Paranoia knows no bounds."
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.