Russian foreign minister uses exactly the same words as Donald Trump to describe US-Kremlin allegations

Jon Sharman

There is an echo at the highest levels of Russian and American politics. Donald Trump has described the increasing pressure on his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as a "witch hunt", and the Kremlin's foreign minister later used exactly the same phrase.

Mr Sessions has recused himself from any probe that examines communications between President Trump's aides and Moscow following revelations that he spoke twice with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign and failed to say so to Congress.

The President tweeted his support for the attorney general and said on Friday: "This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win.

"Now they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total 'witch hunt!'"

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the pressure on Mr Sessions "strongly resembles a witch hunt or the times of McCarthyism, which we thought were long over in the United States as a civilised country."

Contacts with officials and lawmakers are part of any ambassador's duties, he added.

Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's spokesman, agreed with the President's statement. He told Russian state media Mr Trump's characterisation of the furore surrounding Mr Sessions was "comprehensive" and that he had "nothing to add".

Mr Peskov has used the "witch hunt" phrase before—echoing Mr Trump—to describe the storm that followed US intelligence agencies' assessment that Russia was involved in hacking during the Presidential election.

In a press conference on Thursday evening Mr Sessions said he would not oversee any investigation into links between the Trump Presidential campaign team and Russian representatives, following reports he had spoken twice with Mr Kislyak, but did not disclose the contact to senators at his confirmation hearing.

Mr Sessions is also now accused of using political funds to travel to an event where he met Mr Kislyak, despite the White House’s claim he was acting solely in his role as a senator.

He said at the press conference: "I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign."

He rejected suggestions he lied under oath during his January confirmation hearing but admitted his answer to a question by Senator Al Franken could have been more comprehensive. He added: "I should have slowed down and said, 'But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times.'"

Asked what he would have done if he discovered "anyone affiliated" with Mr Trump's campaign had been in contact with Russian representatives, Mr Sessions had said: "I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two during that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians and I’m unable to comment on it."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the controversy "partisan politics" and said Mr Sessions was "100 per cent straight with the committee".

Leading Democrats have nonetheless called for the former Alabama senator to resign. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said: "His integrity and independence have been questioned, it would be better for the country if he resigns."

Lawyers have ordered Mr Trump’s administration to save any potential evidence of alleged Russian interference in the US election.

Instructions were sent to White House staff after Democrats in the US Senate requested the administration and security agencies to keep all material on links between Mr Trump’s aides, campaign or transition team and the Kremlin.

As part of its investigation into Russia’s possible role in the presidential election, the Senate intelligence committee has also asked more than a dozen groups, agencies and individuals to preserve relevant records.

Additional reporting by agencies

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