Attorney General Jeff Sessions, facing sharp criticism over his failure to disclose two meetings he had with the Russian ambassador during last year’s election campaign, said today that he would recuse himself from any investigation into Russian contacts with the Trump campaign.
“I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in,” Sessions said at a hastily called press conference at the Justice Department.
The embattled attorney general said he had already been planning to take that step, after consulting with top Justice Department ethics advisers, even before the Washington Post reported Wednesday night that he had failed to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee about the two meetings he had last year with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Sessions, in response to a question during his confirmation hearing about reports of “a continuing exchange of information” between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, volunteered that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” Sessions, who was a senator at the time, was also a key adviser to Donald Trump during the campaign.
At Thursday’s press conference, the attorney general strongly defended his testimony, saying he never intended to mislead the judiciary committee and did not consider his meetings with Kislyak relevant, because they did not discuss anything related to the Trump campaign.
“My reply was honest and correct as I understood it at the time,” said Sessions. Still, he said, he will write the Senate Judiciary Committee “today or tomorrow” and “explain this testimony for the record.”
The meetings at issue involved two sessions with Kislyak, one a brief one at the Republican National Convention, and another one, requested by the ambassador, in his office in Washington in early September with senior staff members present.
That session grew “testy,” Sessions said, when the ambassador sought to defend Russia’s conduct in Ukraine and he turned down the ambassador’s invitation to join him for a later lunch meeting. Neither of the meetings included discussion of the Trump campaign, he said.
“Let me be clear: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” said Sessions. “And the idea that I was part of a ‘continuing exchange of information’ during the campaign, between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, is totally false.
“That is the question that Sen. [Al] Franken [D-Minn.] asked me at the hearing, and that’s what got my attention. … That is the question I responded to. … That’s what got my attention.”
Whether Sessions’ actions will put an end to the controversy over his meetings is not yet clear. And it injects an air of uncertainty into ongoing FBI investigations into the Russian hacking of the 2016 election and suspected contacts between persons associated with the Trump campaign and possible Russian operatives. Those questions only continue to grow: the New York Times reported late Thursday that Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, and Michael Flynn, who was fired last month as national security adviser, had their own previously undisclosed meeting with Kislyak at Trump Tower to “establish a line of communication” with Moscow.
For the time being, the acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, who had been President Barack Obama’s U.S. attorney in northern Virginia, will take charge of the investigation. But next Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to hold a confirmation hearing for Rod Rosenstein, currently the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, to become deputy attorney general. Assuming he is confirmed, Rosenstein, a Justice Department veteran who was originally appointed by President George W. Bush and kept on by Obama (and who once served on the staff of Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr), will become the relevant decision maker on the Russian investigation at the Justice Department.
The developments came on a day that top Democrats, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, demanded Sessions’ resignation. Sessions “is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign,” Pelosi said.
Even some senior Republicans, for example House oversight chair Rep. Jason Chaffetz, urged Sessions to recuse himself and clarify his testimony. But after Sessions’ press conference, the attorney general picked up support from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Attorney General Sessions did the right thing by recusing himself,” Goodlatte said in a statement. He is “an honorable man who believes in preserving the integrity of the justice system.”
Sessions has another even more important backer: President Trump, who stood behind the embattled attorney general earlier in the day, saying he had “total” confidence in him.
During his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing, Franken asked Sessions what he would do if evidence surfaced “that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.”
Sessions’ response was: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Sessions was later asked in written questions by Sen. Patrick Leahy: “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day?”
Sessions’ one-word response was “No.”
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