WASHINGTON — The White House didn't know that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had twice met with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign until the story broke Wednesday night, a White House official said.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Sessions, while a senator campaigning for Donald Trump last year, met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak even as the Russian government was engaged in a propaganda campaign to influence the presidential election.

The aide spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday morning while the White House prepared to respond to the reports. President Trump is traveling to Newport News, Va., on Thursday to talk about defense spending..

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.

Sessions was perhaps Trump's most loyal supporter in Congress last year, and he chaired Trump's national security advisory committee.

Contributing: Donovan Slack and David Jackson