US Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Congress Tuesday that the Justice Department could soon appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton, a move repeatedly called for by President Donald Trump.
Sessions' comments indicated that Republicans were seeking to mount a counter-offensive to the probe into Russian election meddling -- and whether or not Trump's campaign colluded with Moscow to sway the 2016 contest.
Democrats lashed back that Sessions risked politicizing the Justice Department in reviving the probe into Clinton's use of a personal email server as secretary of state -- a case it decided last year not to prosecute -- in a bid to divert attention from the Russia probe.
In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions insisted the decision whether to investigate Trump's former rival for the presidency was not political.
"We intend to do our work according to the established principals of the Department of Justice. We will not be infected by politics or bias," he told the committee.
"We will make only decisions that are right and just and not going to use the department to unlawfully advance political agenda."
- Reviving the Clinton emails case -
Late Monday the department sent political shockwaves across Washington when it revealed it was reviewing the FBI's handling last year of the probe into the Democrat Clinton's use of a personal server for official and in some cases classified emails, in breach of government rules.
It also said, in a letter to the Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, that it was mulling a probe into the foundation of former president Bill Clinton and its ties to firms involved selling US uranium rights to a Russian state company.
In his testimony, Sessions promised the committee that his department would decide quickly -- and independently -- whether to take action on the cases, including appointing a special prosecutor.
"Do I have your assurance that these matters will proceed fairly and expeditiously?" Goodlatte asked him.
"Yes, you can, Mr. Chairman, and you can be sure that they will be done without political influence and they will be done correctly and properly," Sessions responded.
- Politicizing justice? -
But Sessions' testimony raised concerns that Trump -- who had vowed if elected to have his attorney general name a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton -- may be exerting pressure in that direction.
Since becoming president, he has repeatedly called for justice authorities to take action against his former rival.
"Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems," he tweeted on November 3.
"At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper," he added.
Sessions angrily rebuffed the suggestion that he was doing Trump's bidding.
"We will comply with the law with regard to special prosecutor appointments," Sessions insisted. "I will fulfill my duty as attorney general."
But Democrats warned any such appointment would signal an unacceptable politicization of the country's justice system.
"If the AG bends to pressure from President Trump and his allies, and appoints a special counsel to investigate Trump’s vanquished rival, it could spell the end of the DOJ as an independent institution," Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said on Twitter.
"When everything is going wrong, what's the Republican response? Investigate Hillary! Familiar refrain…." tweeted Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
- Backtracking on Russia -
Meanwhile, faced with fresh revelations from the Russia probe led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller, Sessions denied lying in previous testimony that he had no knowledge of contacts between Trump's campaign and Moscow.
Citing a poor memory, he said he had forgotten a March 2016 meeting between Trump and his foreign policy advisory team, led by Sessions. One of the advisors, George Papadopoulos, has since admitted to investigators that he had multiple contacts with Russians and that his contacts were discussed in the meeting.
"I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said during that meeting," Sessions testified.
"After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter."
The attorney general nevertheless insisted that did not mean he was changing his story. "I will not accept and reject accusations that I have ever lied under oath. That is a lie."
Sessions himself was forced to recuse himself from the Russia probe earlier this year after it emerged he had failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings.