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.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Eric Tucker

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.”

SU­SAN WALSH / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

DOUG MILLS / NEW YORK TIMES

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.

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