Trump denounces ‘total witch hunt’ after his attorney general removes himself from Russia investigation
The decision by Jeff Sessions leaves the Trump administration at the mercy of an Obama appointee who will decide whether to proceed with special prosecutor
US President Donald Trump has branded the decision of his attorney general Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from investigations into Russia’s alleged meddling in the US election as the result of a “total witch hunt” by Democrats, even after Sessions himself said it was the “right and just” thing to do.
For the second time in less than a month, a key member of Trump’s team has been hobbled by communications with the Russian ambassador to the US.
Sessions called a press conference on Thursday to announce that he was following the advice of senior Justice Department advisers by withdrawing from oversight of any investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential race. He made the announcement just hours after Trump said Sessions should not recuse himself.
Sessions’ decision now leaves the administration at the mercy of acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente - an Obama appointee - who will decide whether to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Trump campaign’s reported links to Russia.
Late Wednesday, the Washington Post revealed that Sessions had met Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice last year, and omitted that from his testimony at his confirmation hearing in January. Instead, he told the hearing that he “did not have communications with the Russians”.
Trump, however, stood behind Sessions, one of his earliest supporters.
“Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional,” Trump said in a statement released Thursday evening. “This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win. The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and 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!”
The fast-moving developments unsettled a Trump administration still working to put behind it the resignation last month of national security adviser Michael Flynn – forced out for lying about his contacts with Kislyak – and left some analysts wondering whether the recusal was enough to ensure an honest probe of Russian-Trump connections.
“This needs to be handled by career prosecutors reporting to a special prosecutor,” said Richard Painter, the White House ethics officer during the administration of President George W. Bush. “It’s way too explosive to be handled by political appointees.”
Members of Congress also expressed concern about whether Justice Department officials could be relied on to help investigations into Russian election meddling being carried out by the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees.
Representative Adam Schiff, the Californian who is the senior Democrat on the House committee, expressed dissatisfaction with FBI Director James Comey’s appearance before the committee Thursday, the first witness the committee has called in its probe.
“In order for us to do our investigation in a thorough and credible way, we’re going to need the FBI to fully cooperate, to be willing to tell us the length and breadth of any counter-intelligence investigations they are conducting,” Schiff said. “At this point, the director was not willing to do that.”
What role Sessions might have played in Comey’s reluctance to offer details was uncertain, Schiff said. “It was unclear whether that decision was a decision he was making on his own or a decision that he is making in consultation with the Department of Justice,” Schiff said.
In announcing he would no longer play a role in probes into links between Russia and Trump’s campaign, Sessions insisted that testimony he’d given to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January was accurate. But he said his staff at the Department of Justice had concluded “that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.”
“I have studied the rules and considered their comments and evaluation. I believe those recommendations are right and just,” he said.
It was unknown whether Sessions consulted Trump before announcing his recusal. But shortly before, the president announced that he had “total” confidence in his attorney general, and he should not recuse himself. When asked whether Sessions had testified truthfully to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump responded, “I think he probably did.”
At the news conference where he announced his recusal, Sessions described a meeting in his office in September. He said he had only a vague memory of his conversations with Kislyak, though he did recall mentioning that he’d been to Russia on a church mission trip and Kislyak had replied that he wasn’t a religious man. Sessions said two members of his staff had been present for the meeting, but he did not identify them.
As the attorney general, Sessions runs the Department of Justice, which oversees the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI is at the centre of the probes into Russian attempts to influence the election.