(Bloomberg) -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been interviewed by investigators for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, making him the highest-ranking Trump administration official questioned in the criminal probe into whether anyone tied to the president helped Russia meddle in the 2016 election.
The interview came as Sessions weathers a rocky relationship with President Donald Trump and is under pressure from Republicans to look into allegations that some FBI agents and Justice Department officials have a political bias against the president.
With its operations under scrutiny, the FBI announced on Tuesday the departure of its chief of staff, James Rybicki. Sessions had asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to make a fresh start within the senior ranks of the FBI, prompting Wray to warn at one point that he would resign if pressured to do so, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Sessions was interviewed by Mueller’s team last week, Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in an email after the interview was reported by the New York Times. Mueller’s inquiry encompasses whether Trump obstructed justice by interfering in the Russia probe, including when he fired former FBI Director James Comey last May.
Mueller also interviewed Comey last year, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
Sessions is entangled in Mueller’s investigation in multiple ways. The former Republican senator recused himself last March from any matters associated with the 2016 election, including the Russia investigation, after the disclosure that he had met with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. while he was a leading adviser for Trump during the campaign. The recusal angered Trump, who said he wouldn’t have nominated Sessions as attorney general had he known that would happen.
Sessions also played a role in Comey’s firing, discussing the decision with Trump beforehand and helping to write a memo that Trump initially cited as justification to do so.
In November, Sessions was interviewed behind closed doors by the House Intelligence Committee and drew the anger of the panel’s top Democrat for refusing to say whether Trump ever told him to take action to hinder investigators looking into Russian election interference. Sessions maintained that he couldn’t answer because Trump might eventually assert executive privilege for their conversations.
“It was disturbing to me the attorney general would not answer the question,” Representative Adam Schiff of California said at the time.
Sessions has responded to Republican lawmakers who demanded that he pursue allegations that the Russia inquiry was tainted from the start by animus against Trump within the FBI.
Much of that has turned on the disclosure of anti-Trump text messages that two FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, exchanged during the 2016 presidential campaign. On Tuesday, Trump seized on the Justice Department’s disclosure that messages they exchanged from December 2016 to May 2017 couldn’t be recovered because of a technical failure.
“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!" Trump tweeted.
Sessions vowed get to the bottom of what happened with the messages. “If any wrongdoing were to be found to have caused this gap, appropriate legal disciplinary action measures will be taken,” Sessions said in a statement Monday.
Page left the Russia investigation before Mueller took it over in May, and Mueller removed Strzok once the anti-Trump texts were discovered.
Sessions asked Wray during a phone call in December to consider making changes at the leadership level of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to the person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified recounting the discussion. Wray pushed back and said he would consider resigning if the pressure on him escalated, the person said.
Rybicki and McCabe
Still, leadership changes at the FBI have been under way since December. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe has decided to resign in the spring, while Rybicki decided to take a job outside government. McCabe and Rybicki were both loyal aides to Comey, who confided in them about his interactions with Trump.
“Jim Rybicki notified me last month that he will be leaving the FBI to accept an opportunity in the corporate sector,” Wray said in a statement Tuesday. “His many years of dedication to the Bureau and DOJ, his levelheaded judgment and earnest professionalism, and his steady good cheer have been an asset to us all and have contributed greatly to the safety and security of our nation."
Wray also announced that former federal prosecutor Zachary Harmon would become his chief of staff.
Rybicki was interviewed by members of the House Judiciary and the Oversight and Government Reform committees for several hours behind closed doors last week. That two-committee investigation is looking into decisions made by the Justice Department and the FBI in its 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and handling of classified material while heading the State Department.
Rybicki also is expected to testify to the House Intelligence Committee before the end of this month. The panel’s Republican chairman, Devin Nunes of California, included Rybicki on a list of FBI and Justice Department officials to be interviewed in relation to allegations that the FBI’s initial Russia campaign interference probe was spearheaded by anti-Trump elements in the bureau and was mishandled at various junctures.
Some lawmakers also want to question Rybicki about whether he could vouch for Comey’s claim that the president pressed him to shut down the federal criminal investigation of Trump’s then-national security advisor Michael Flynn.
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