US Attorney General Jeff Sessions will appear on Tuesday before a Senate panel to testify over alleged Russian meddling in the presidential elections a day after Washington agreed on new sanctions against Moscow.
Sessions will likely face tough questions at the open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing over his dealings with Russian officials during the campaign and whether he had a role in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
Until a statement on Monday from committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, it had been unclear whether Sessions would testify in an open or closed setting.
Initially, Sessions expected to testify in a closed-door session, said two sources familiar with the attorney general’s thinking. But he left the decision up to Burr, the sources said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said that Sessions requested the open setting because “he believes it is important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him.”
Comey told the same panel last week that the FBI had information in mid-February on Sessions that would have made it “problematic” for the attorney general to continue leading a federal probe into Russian attempts to influence the presidential election.
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.
Tuesday’s testimony will be the first for 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.
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 Sessions had answered honestly because the encounters were part of his job as a senator and not as a surrogate of the Trump campaign.
Sessions, an early supporter of 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 Comey on May 9, Trump was trying to hinder the FBI’s Russia probe. The former FBI chief added fuel to that accusation with his testimony last week. Trump has denied he tried to interfere with the probe.
In his testimony, Comey said he had asked Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump following meetings where he said Trump had asked Comey for his loyalty. The attorney general may also face questions on that.
Russia has denied interfering in the US election. The White House has denied any collusion with Moscow.
On Monday, Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed on a new package of sanctions on Russia amid the firestorm over Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.
Top lawmakers on two committees — Banking and Foreign Relations — announced the deal, which would require a congressional review if a president attempts to ease or end current penalties. The plan also calls for strengthening current sanctions and imposing new ones on corrupt Russian actors, those involved in human rights abuses and those supplying weapons to the regime of Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Penalties also would be slapped on those responsible for malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government.
The batch of sanctions would be added to a bill imposing penalties on Iran that the Senate is currently debating.
A procedural vote on the Russia sanctions is expected Wednesday, and the measure is expected to get strong bipartisan support.
The legislation also allows new penalties on key elements of the Russia economy, including mining, metals, shipping and railways.
The White House said last week it has no plans to scale back existing sanctions against Russia, as relations have soured.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Trump administration “is committed to existing sanctions against Russia” and will keep them in place “until Moscow fully honors its commitments to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Monday underscored the distrust between Moscow and Washington, telling the House Armed Services Committee that he’s seen nothing to indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is interested in cooperation with the United States.
“Mr. Putin has chosen to be a strategic competitor,” Mattis said.