Attorney General Jeff Sessions interviewed by Mueller's team as part of Russia investigation

WASHINGTON – Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators have interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions in connection with the wide-ranging inquiry into Russia's interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump sought to obstruct justice, a Justice Department spokesman said Tuesday.

Sessions, who was accompanied by his private attorney Charles Cooper, was questioned for several hours last week, said Justice spokesman Ian Prior, who declined to elaborate on the nature of the questioning.

The attorney general is the first Trump cabinet official known to be interviewed by Mueller's team, and while long expected, marks a significant step in the federal inquiry. 

Sessions, a former Alabama senator, played an early role as national security adviser in Trump's presidential campaign and could have been privy to strategy about potential diplomatic strategy and outreach to Moscow. 

Mueller is examining whether Trump obstructed justice in the abrupt dismissal of FBI chief James Comey, who had been managing the Russia inquiry. 

Sessions, whose own election-year meetings with Kislyak prompted his recusal from the Russia probe and cleared the way for the special counsel's appointment, would also be a key witness in the investigation into whether the president sought to stymie the federal investigation. 

The attorney general himself has also been the focus of blistering public attacks by the president for his decision to recuse from the Russia inquiry. The extraordinary criticism raised questions about whether Trump was seeking to drive his top Justice official from office as a way to wrest control of the investigation from Mueller, who was appointed after Sessions' recusal for failing to immediately disclose his meetings with Kislyak. 

Disclosure of Sessions' interview comes as a person close to Comey who was not authorized to speak about the probe acknowledged that the former FBI director also has been questioned by Mueller's team. Like Sessions, Comey was long expected to be called by Mueller as a key witness in the examination of possible obstruction.

Comey documented meetings and telephone contacts with Trump prior to his dismissal, including encounters in which the new president allegedly asked his then-FBI director to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his contacts with Kislyak. Trump also allegedly asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty.

After firing Comey, Trump summoned then-acting director Andrew McCabe to the Oval Office. At that May meeting, Trump asked McCabe whom he voted for in the 2016 election, The Washington Post reported Tuesday

McCabe found the conversation "disturbing," the paper reported, citing unnamed officials.

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Trump said he's "not at all" concerned about the interview, addressing questions from reporters after an Oval Office event on tariffs. 

Sessions could prove a pivotal witness in the seemingly-shifting messages from the White House and Trump himself on Comey's firing.

The White House originally said Trump fired Comey due to his controversial handling of the investigation into former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's use of private email when she was secretary of State, on the recommendation of Justice Department leadership. Sessions, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, endorsed Comey's firing. 

Yet, Trump later acknowledged in an interview with NBC that he dismissed Comey in part because of his handling of the Russia probe.  

The attorney general's recusal immediately drove a wedge between Trump and Sessions, the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump's candidacy.

That rift has only festered, with Trump subsequently acknowledging that he would not have appointed Sessions as the nation's chief law enforcement officer had he known that the attorney general would step aside from the Russia inquiry. 

Last summer, it appeared that Trump was moving to dismiss Sessions when the president publicly assailed his attorney general in a series of tweets as "weak." At one point, Sessions offered his resignation, but Trump refused to accept it.

Yet the president has continued to attack the Justice Department and FBI for not pursuing a further inquiry into Clinton's emails.  

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Comey announced in July 2016 that he would not recommend criminal charges against Clinton, only later to reopen the inquiry days before the election. While no charges were ever brought, Comey's actions prompted a firestorm of criticism from the Clinton who blamed the former FBI director for contributing to her defeat.

Trump also derided Sessions for not providing adequate cover from Mueller's inquiry, which he has repeatedly branded as a "witch hunt" and accused the FBI of being politically biased against him.

Just hours before news of Sessions' testimony broke, Trump took to Twitter to cite reports that the FBI has been unable to recover text messages involving two bureau officials who have been critical of him and who were once part of Mueller's team.

"In one of the biggest stories in a long time, the FBI now says it is missing five months worth of lovers Strzok-Page texts, perhaps 50,000, and all in prime time. Wow!" he said.

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Trump was referring to Sessions's acknowledgement Monday that the FBI's information system failed to preserve five months of text messages between counter-intelligence official Peter Strzok and colleague Lisa Page who had disparaged then-candidate Donald Trump in text messages during the 2016 election.

The discovery of the communications earlier this year prompted Strzok's removal from Mueller's team. Page, meanwhile, had returned to her post at the FBI before the text messages were discovered by investigators working with the Justice Department's inspector general.

The inspector general has been conducting a review of the Justice Department's handling of the Clinton email inquiry. 

It is unclear whether Sessions' interview signals that Mueller's inquiry is winding to a close.

Sessions' interview comes as the special counsel is negotiating with Trump's attorneys for testimony from the president, to include the circumstances surrounding the firings of both Comey and Flynn.

Two officials familiar with Trump's role in the investigation said they have been expecting the attorney general to be interviewed for some time and do not have an issue him testifying. The officials, who were not authorized to comment publicly about the investigation, noted that Trump recommended Comey's firing back in May because of performance issues – and maintained that the president could did not obstruct justice because he knew at the time the Russia investigation would continue with or without Comey.

While the Sessions interview was expected, the officials were not given advance notice of last week's meeting.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing, and his aides say they are hopeful the investigation will be completed soon. 

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