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Sessions questioned in Russia probe as FBI accused of bias
[WASHINGTON] US attorney general Jeff Sessions was named on Tuesday as the first known member of Donald Trump's cabinet to be questioned over ties between the president's campaign and Russia, as Republicans hit back with allegations of anti-Trump bias in the FBI investigation.
The Justice Department confirmed that Mr Sessions - who has downplayed the notion that Russia meddled in Mr Trump's favour in the 2016 election - was heard for several hours last week, in a sign that special counsel Robert Mueller's probe has reached new levels inside the administration.
But Mr Mueller's probe also came under fierce attack after the Justice Department admitted the loss of five months of text messages between two investigators on the Russia probe - agent Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page - who are known to have expressed hostility towards Mr Trump.
The FBI's loss of the private text messages has sparked accusations of a Watergate-like coverup from Republicans, who claim that Mr Mueller's probe - which is also looking into possible obstruction of justice by Mr Trump himself - is biased against the president.
"We know that Strzok and Page had an intense anti-Trump bias," said Congressman John Ratcliffe on Fox News on Monday.
"We learned today about information that in the immediate aftermath of his election, there may have been a 'secret society' of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI, to include Page and Strzok, that would be working against him." Trump himself tweeted Tuesday about the issue.
"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!"
REVISITING 2016 PROBE OF CLINTON
Republicans are calling for a second independent investigation, parallel to Mr Mueller's, into the FBI's 2016 decision not to recommend charges against Mr Trump's Democratic election rival Hillary Clinton for her misuse of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Mr Strzok and Ms Page were both involved in the Clinton probe. At the time they were having an affair, and Republicans in Congress have obtained some 50,000 text messages between them in which they express political preference for Mrs Clinton and disdain for Mr Trump.
In June 2017, Mr Strzok was named a top investigator on Mr Mueller's team, but was dismissed after two months after the affair and text messages came to light.
In recent weeks the Justice Department released to Congressional investigators 384 pages of their texts. But on Monday it admitted that messages between December 14, 2016 and May 17, 2017 were lost due to technical issues.
In a statement, three senior House Republicans called the thousands of text messages they did receive "extremely troubling."
"Rather than clearing up prior FBI and DOJ actions, these recently produced documents cause us to further question the credibility and objectivity of certain officials at the FBI."
Mr Mueller, himself a former FBI director, has already issued indictments for several former Trump aides, and speculation is that he could press Mr Trump himself to agree to be interviewed.
Last week he interviewed Mr Sessions, who as a senior campaign official had several interactions with Russia's former ambassador in Washington.
He also oversaw the campaign's team of foreign policy advisors, including George Papadopoulos, who had extensive Russian contacts and was the first person indicted in Mueller's probe.
Mr Mueller's interest in Mr Sessions also might include what he knows about any attempts by Mr Trump to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Mr Sessions played a key role in the May 9, 2017 firing of FBI director James Comey, whose pursuit of the Russia meddling case angered Trump.
The Washington political news website Axios reported Monday that Mr Sessions, at Mr Trump's bidding, has most recently pressured FBI director Christopher Wray to fire his deputy Andrew McCabe over his alleged anti-Trump bias.
Axios said Mr Wray threatened to resign if Mr McCabe was fired - a report strongly denied by the president on Tuesday.