Sessions recuses himself from probe
Attorney general agrees he won’t be part of any inquiry into Russia’s role in election. Trump stands by appointee; Democrats seek resignation, call for special prosecutor.
WASHINGTON — Under intensifying pressure, Attorney General Jeff Sessions abruptly agreed Thursday to recuse himself from any investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He acted after revelations that he twice spoke with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, then failed to say so when pressed by Congress.
Sessions rejected any suggestion that he had tried to mislead anyone about his contacts with the Russian, saying, “That is not my intent. That is not correct.”
But he did allow that he should have been more careful in his testimony during his confirmation hearing, saying, “I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times.’ ”
The White House has stood by Sessions in the latest controversy to dog President Donald Trump’s young administration, though officials say they first learned about his contacts with the ambassador from a reporter Wednesday night. Trump himself said Thursday he had “total” confidence in Sessions and didn’t think he needed to recuse himself — not long before Sessions did.
One of Sessions’ conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak occurred at a July event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. At that same event, the ambassador also spoke with Carter Page, who briefly advised Trump’s campaign on foreign policy, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion.
Last month, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after he misled administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about conversations he had with Kislyak.
Trump has been trailed for months by questions about potential ties to Russia, and allegations of Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. election to help him defeat Hillary Clinton. Though leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies have endorsed the accounts, the new president and his campaign officials have blamed such contentions on Democratic sore losers and have heatedly denied any contact with Russian officials concerning the election.
While there is nothing necessarily nefarious or even unusual about a member of Congress meeting with a foreign ambassador, typically members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meet with foreign ambassadors, not Armed Services Committee lawmakers, such as Sessions, whose responsibility was oversight of the military and the Pentagon.
The latest development, first reported Wednesday night, came directly after what had been the high point of Trump’s young presidency: a well-received address to Congress on Tuesday night that energized Republicans and appeared to wipe away some lawmakers’ concerns about the administration’s tumultuous start.
But by Thursday morning, Sessions faced a rising chorus of demands that he resolve the seeming contradiction between his two conversations in the summer and fall with Kislyak and his sworn statements to Congress in January, when he said he had not had communications with Russians during the campaign.
The Justice Department said he met with Kislyak in his role as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not in his role as a Trump adviser with the campaign, and that his answers were based on that understanding.
On Thursday, Sessions said he did not recall whether Trump or the presidential election came up at the meeting. He also said he recognized that his critics believed he had made a false statement. Declaring that was “not my intent,” he said he would write to the Judiciary Committee to explain his testimony for the record.
The attorney general, an early backer and key adviser for Trump’s campaign, said he decided to recuse himself from any investigations after his staff recommended he do so. Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will handle such matters for now.
Sessions added that his announcement “should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation” — though it has been widely reported that the FBI is conducting such a probe.
Some Democrats called for Sessions not only to recuse himself but to resign.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had accused Sessions of lying under oath, repeated her call for his resignation after he recused himself.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said a special prosecutor should be appointed to examine whether the federal investigation had been compromised by Sessions. Democrats also sought a criminal perjury investigation.
More than a half dozen Republican lawmakers, including some who consider themselves personally close to Sessions, urged him to recuse himself.
Sen. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said he didn’t believe Sessions could have colluded with Russia, but “If there is an investigation, he probably shouldn’t be the person leading it.”
The Justice Department acknowledged two separate Sessions interactions with Kislyak, both coming after cybersecurity firms had concluded that Russian intelligence agencies were behind cyberhacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
The first occurred after a Heritage Foundation event during the Republican National Convention in July, when the department says a group of envoys — including the Russian ambassador — approached Sessions.
The second was a September conversation, which the department likened to the more than 25 discussions Sessions had with foreign ambassadors last year as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said it was normal for Russian diplomats to meet with U.S. lawmakers. A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said meetings with American political figures were part of the embassy’s “everyday business.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at a news conference Thursday, says he met the Russian ambassador in his role as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump adviser with the campaign, and that his confirmation hearing answers were based on that understanding.
Demonstrators protest against Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday at Justice Department headquarters in Washington. The acting deputy attorney general will now handle any Russian probe.