WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice last year with the top Russian diplomat in Washington whose interactions with President Donald Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn led to Flynn's firing, according to the Justice Department.
Sessions did not mention either meeting during his confirmation hearings when he said he knew of no contacts between Trump surrogates and Russians. A Justice official said Sessions didn't mislead senators during his confirmation.
The revelation prompted key Democrats to call for Sessions' resignation, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Sessions should "clarify his testimony and recuse himself."
House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, in an interview with MSNBC, also said Sessions should recuse himself for "the trust of the American people."
The attorney general strongly pushed back against the reports, saying he never discussed campaign-related issues with anyone from Russia.
"I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign," he said in a statement. "I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
Asked by NBC News on Thursday morning if he would recuse himself in investigating any potential ties between Trump's campaign and Russian officials, Sessions said he would do so "whenever it's appropriate."
Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington, according to current and former senior U.S. government officials.
Russian officials dispute this characterization.
Sessions met with Kislyak twice, in July on the sidelines of the Republican convention, and in September in his office when Sessions was a member of the Senate Armed Services committee. Sessions was an early Trump backer and regular surrogate for him as a candidate.
The Washington Post first reported on Sessions' meetings with the official.
Leading Democratic lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, called for Sessions to resign after the news broke, with Pelosi characterizing his comments in his confirmation as "apparent perjury."
Kislyak's potential proximity to Russian spying is one reason why Flynn's interactions with him, and Flynn's failure to disclose what he discussed with Kislyak, raised concerns among intelligence officials.
In his confirmation hearing to become attorney general, Sessions was asked about Russia and he responded at the time that he "did not have communications with the Russians."
Sessions' spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said there was nothing "misleading about his answer" to Congress because the Alabama Republican "was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign -- not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee."
"Last year, the Senator had over 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian, German and Russian ambassadors," Isgur Flores said in the statement.
A Justice Department official confirmed the meetings, but said Sessions met with the ambassadors "in his capacity as a senator on the Armed Serviced Committee."
"This is the latest attack against the Trump Administration by partisan Democrats," a White House official said. "(Attorney) General Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony."
In reaction to the report, Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, also called for Sessions' resignation.
"There is no longer any question that we need a truly independent commission" to investigate potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, Cummings said.
"It is inconceivable that even after Michael Flynn was fired for concealing his conversations with the Russians that Attorney General Sessions would keep his own conversations for several weeks."
Cummings called Sessions' claim during his confirmation hearing that he did not have communications with the Russians "demonstrably false."
Minnesota Democrat Sen. Al Franken, who asked Sessions about Russia at the confirmation hearing, said if the reports of Sessions' contacts with Kislyak were true, then Sessions' response was "at best misleading."
"It's clearer than ever now that the attorney general cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately," Franken said.
News of Sessions' contacts with Kislyak came as the New York Times reported Wednesday evening that officials under former President Barack Obama had sent information throughout government about potential Russian contact with Trump's associates and interference in the 2016 election.
The officials did so, the Times reported, in order to preserve the information after Obama left office.
"This situation was serious, as is evident by President Obama's call for a review -- and as is evident by the United States response," Obama spokesman Eric Schultz said. "When the (intelligence community) does that type of comprehensive review, it is standard practice that a significant amount of information would be compiled and documented."
Two days before Trump's inauguration, the State Department sent Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a batch of documents related to Russian attempts to meddle in elections worldwide, two sources familiar with the matter said.
Cardin spokesman Sean Bartlett said the senator had received the classified documents on request and that they were shared with both Republican and Democratic committee staffers.