Attorney General Jeff Sessions removed himself from investigations of Russian interference with the 2016 election and contacts with associates of President Donald Trump related to the campaign, as controversy grew over the former senator’s conversations with the Russian ambassador last year.
“I have decided now to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States,” Sessions said Thursday during a news conference in Washington.
His announcement left some issues unresolved. Sessions didn’t recuse himself from probes not directly related to last year’s campaigns, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, Sarah Isgur Flores, said after Sessions spoke. She said Sessions will make decisions on any further recusals on a case-by-case basis.
Such cases could include contacts that Trump associates had with Russian officials, including those of Michael Flynn, who was fired as Trump’s national security adviser for misrepresenting his post-election conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
But Sessions won’t be briefed or included in any discussions related to matters for which he is recused, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity to expand on Sessions’s remarks.
The Justice Department confirmed Wednesday that Sessions spoke twice last year with Kislyak while serving as a prominent supporter and adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, but said it was as a senator and member of the Armed Services Committee.
Trump said earlier Thursday that he has “total” confidence in the attorney general and saw no need for him to remove himself from any investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. politics. “I don’t think he should do that at all,” the president said in response to questions from reporters at an event in Virginia.
Sessions put acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente in charge of leading any election-related investigation. Boente previously served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. While Boente was nominated for the Virginia post by former President Barack Obama, Trump’s team chose Boente to serve as acting attorney general after firing Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover who refused to enforce the president’s controversial travel ban from seven mostly Muslim countries. He has stayed on as acting deputy since Sessions was sworn in to office.
Democrats in Congress have called on Sessions to resign, which Trump aides have dismissed as a partisan attack. Although many Republican lawmakers were defending the attorney general Thursday, several influential members, including Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio, broke ranks with the administration and said Sessions must recuse himself from any role in the multiple investigations of Russian influence in the election.
While saying that he had done nothing wrong and that he answered questions during his confirmation hearings honestly, Sessions said he concluded after several weeks of consultations with career staff at the Justice Department that he shouldn’t be involved in any probe related to the 2016 campaign because of his role in it. Sessions was an early and enthusiastic Trump supporter and became a close adviser.
Sessions testified during his Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 10 that “I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Sessions said during Thursday’s news conference that he never met with any Russian official or intermediary about the Trump campaign. He said his statement to the Judiciary Committee was in the context of the question by Democratic Senator Al Franken, which he understood as being about whether he met with the Russians as a member of Trump’s campaign, not as a senator and member of the Armed Services Committee.
“That is the question I responded to,” Sessions told reporters. “My reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
Sessions added that “in retrospect, I should have slowed down” and told Franken, “I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.”
The administration was caught off-guard by the revelation that Sessions met with the ambassador.
Trump said he “wasn’t aware at all” about the contacts, which was first reported Wednesday by the Washington Post.
The controversy punctured the afterglow from Trump’s address to Congress earlier this week and puts added pressure on a White House still reeling from the ouster of Flynn. Multiple investigations are under way by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, intelligence agencies and congressional committees into a variety of allegations related to Russia’s interference with the election and possible contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Separately, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks disclosed that Flynn and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who’s now a senior adviser, had a meeting with Kislyak at Trump Tower in New York in December “to establish a line of communication,” the New York Times reported Thursday.
“They generally discussed the relationship and it made sense to establish a line of communication,” Hicks told the Times. “Jared has had meetings with many other foreign countries and representatives — as many as two dozen other foreign countries’ leaders and representatives.”
In his written statement, Sessions said his announcement shouldn’t be interpreted as confirmation of the existence or scope of any investigation. Government officials have said the Russian government was behind the hacking of Democratic Party computer systems and the release of stolen emails with the intent of influencing the election.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley said in a statement after Sessions’s announcement that he told the attorney general earlier Thursday that recusal “may be the best course of action.” He said he also asked Sessions to send a letter to the committee clarifying his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Sessions announced that he would send such a letter.
“Any talk of resignation is nonsense,” Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said.
Graham said on Twitter after the announcement, “It’s the best decision for the country and DOJ. I have full confidence in Jeff Sessions serving as attorney general.”
Democrats were unsatisfied. The party’s leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, said Sessions’s decision to recuse himself was inadequate and that he must resign.
“He is clearly trying to maintain his ability to control the larger investigation into the sprawling personal, political and financial grip Russia has on the Trump administration,” Pelosi, of California, said in a statement.
By: Chris Strohm and Toluse Olorunnipa
2 March 2017