NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — President Trump said Thursday he "wasn't aware at all" that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had twice met with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign.
Speaking to reporters during a tour of the USS Gerald Ford, Trump said he still had "total" confidence in Sessions despite a new controversy over his attorney general's testimony that he had no contact with the Russian government during the campaign. Asked whether he believed Sessions testified truthfully, Trump said, "I think he probably did."
Trump was in Newport News, Va., on Thursday to talk about defense spending.
The president also said he didn't think Sessions should recuse himself from the growing investigation into contacts between members of his staff and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Sessions, while a senator campaigning for Donald Trump last year, met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak even as U.S. intelligence agencies were looking into whether the Russian government was engaged in a propaganda campaign to influence the election.
Sessions' contacts with the Russian ambassador will likely draw the interest of federal investigators involved in the ongoing inquiry into communications between Trump associates and Russian government officials, said a federal official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. .
That acknowledgement could weigh heavily on whether the attorney general decides to continue to oversee the probe or cede control of it to another authority. Sessions scheduled a press conference for Thursday afternoon to discuss the matter.
Some federal lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer of New York already have raised the prospect that Sessions could be a witness in the inquiry.
A White House aide said senior Trump officials were unaware of Sessions; meetings with the ambassador until Wednesday night. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday morning while the White House prepared to respond to the reports. .
Trump and other White House aides have repeatedly denied any contact between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
The ties between Sessions' staff and the current White House are many. Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller was Sessions' communications director before joining the Trump campaign in January 2016, and former Sessions chief of staff Rick Dearborn was director of the Trump transition and is now Trump's deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs.
It's not unusual or illegal for a senator to speak with a foreign ambassador, and the Justice Department acknowledges that Sessions did so twice in 2016: first in July at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and again in September in his Senate office. But the acknowledgement that the White House was in the dark about the contacts could raise new questions about the White House vetting of nominees for Cabinet positions.
Sessions denied any contacts with Russian officials in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians," he said.
In an interview with Fox News Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Sessions was “100% straight with the committee” and that Democrats were playing politics.
Sessions was perhaps Trump's most loyal supporter in Congress last year, and he chaired Trump's national security advisory committee.