Trump’s attorney general Sessions recuses himself from Russia probe, amid outcry over meetings with ambassador
Decision to remove himself from any investigation comes in spite of Trump expressing full confidence in Sessions, and seeing no need for recusal
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions will step aside from any further involvement in the investigation of Russian interference in the US presidential election, he announced at a news conference Thursday.
His announcement came amid mounting calls from fellow Republicans for Sessions to recuse himself from any role in the investigation. Those calls began when news broke that Sessions had failed to disclose his contacts during the campaign year with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Sessions said he had not had meetings with Russian officials. In fact, he had at least two conversations with the ambassador, including one meeting in Sessions’ office in September.
Just hours before the Sessions press conference, US President Donald Trump had said he had “total” confidence in Sessions. “I don’t think so,” he told reporters during a visit to Newport News, Virginia, when asked whether Sessions should step aside from the investigations.
Answering questions from reporters, Trump said he “wasn’t aware at all” that Sessions had spoken with the Russian ambassador. Asked whether Sessions testified truthfully to the Senate, Trump said, “I think he probably did.”
Sessions defended his meeting with Kislyak, saying he had not discussed campaign-related issues.
“I don’t recall any specific political discussions,” he said.
In the news conference, Sessions said that even before the news of his meetings with Kislyak became public, he had consulted with career Justice Department officials and had already planned to make a decision Thursday on whether to recuse himself.
“I asked for their candid and honest opinion about what I should do,” he said. “My staff recommended recusal.”
The officials he consulted “said that since I had involvement in the campaign, I should not have any involvement” in any investigation of campaign-related matters.
“I believe those recommendations are right and just … therefore I have recused myself,” he said.
Sessions answered questions near the end of a day filled with demands from Democrats that he resign as attorney general, and steps by congressional Republicans away from him. Two senior House GOP leaders called for Sessions to recuse himself.
The FBI and other US agencies have been looking into whether people associated with the Trump campaign may have had contacts with Russian officials during the election year. Sessions, as attorney general, oversees the FBI.
Sessions met in his Senate office with Kislyak in September, Justice Department officials confirmed. Two pair also met briefly after a speech in the summer at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
At his Senate confirmation hearings in January, however, Sessions did not disclose those meetings. When asked by Democrat Senator Al Franke whether anyone on the Trump campaign had contacts with Russian government officials, Sessions said he was “unaware of those activities.”
“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign,” he said, “and I didn’t have, did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
He also denied it in a written questionnaire, responding to a question from Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, about whether Sessions “had been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day.”
Sessions replied, “No.”
Justice Department officials aggressively defended Sessions, categorising his meeting with the ambassador in his Senate office in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee. They discussed relations between the two countries, but did not delve into the campaign, the officials said.
“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” said spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores, adding that the former senator routinely met with representatives of foreign governments. “He 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.”
But top Republicans nonetheless began calling for him to recuse himself from any role in the investigation of potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
“I think (for) the trust of the American people, you recuse yourself in these situations,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Thursday on MSBNC’s Morning Joe.
McCarthy’s remarks made him the highest-ranking member of his party to say that Sessions should step aside from the investigation. His comments highlighted the growing unease in Congress over the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.
Top Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said Sessions had perjured himself and must resign.
Republicans did not go that far, but several influential members of the party said Sessions should play no role in the Russia investigation.
McCarthy, in the Morning Joe interview, said that “I think (for) the trust of the American people you recuse yourself in these situations.”
After adding that he did not want to “prejudge” the situation, McCarthy said that “for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation.”
Obtaining that trust “would be easier” if Sessions recused himself, McCarthy added. Recusal is the legal term for an official stepping aside from any role in a specific matter.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, tweeted Thursday that Sessions “should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”
Many lawmakers want an independent commission or special prosecutor to investigate Russian involvement in the campaign and the question of whether anyone close to Trump was involved.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are conducting separate investigations. Republican leaders in Congress have resisted efforts to broaden the investigation or create a special panel, preferring to keep the investigations more closely held in the intelligence committees.
Even Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz, while dismissing calls for the attorney general to step aside as “political theatre,” declined to say he was confident Sessions could lead the probe.
“His answer at the hearing could have been more clear,” Cruz said.
Sessions is the second top Trump administration official to come under fire for his discussions with the Russian ambassador.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned after he admitted misleading Vice-President Mike Pence about the nature of his contacts with Kislyak.
Flynn spoke to Kislyak shortly after the Obama administration levied sanctions against Moscow in December after concluding it had interfered in the election. Flynn initially denied discussing the sanctions, and Pence repeated those assurances on national television. Later, Flynn admitted he had indeed discussed the matter with Kislyak, triggering his resignation just three weeks into Trump’s presidency.
The US intelligence community issued a report in January, shortly before Trump took office, saying that the Russian government was seeking to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the hopes of boosting Trump’s chances.
The Russians targeted the Democratic National Committee and a top Clinton campaign official, stole emails and leaked them, officials have said.