Sessions recuses himself from Russia probe
WASHINGTON (AP) --Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he will recuse himself from a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 White House election.
Sessions faced mounting pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to step aside after revelations that he had twice talked with Moscow's U.S. envoy during the presidential campaign. Sessions' conversations with the ambassador seem to contradict his sworn statements to Congress during his confirmation hearings.
The Justice Department said there was nothing improper about the meetings. Sessions insisted he never met with Russian officials to discuss the campaign.
Sessions said this week he would recuse himself when appropriate.
When attorneys general have recused themselves in the past, investigations were handled by lower-ranking but still senior political-appointees within the Justice Department.
Copyright 2017: Associated Press
(NBC NEWS)---Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied meeting with Russian officials during the course of the presidential election to discuss the Trump campaign, he told NBC News in exclusive remarks early Thursday.
"I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign," he said, "and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that."
Sessions was also asked whether he would step aside from investigating alleged ties between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government — as a growing chorus of Democrats and some Republicans have demanded.
"I have said whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself," he said. "There's no doubt about that."
Sessions' spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday night that he had met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before the presidential election last year in his capacity as a then-senator — raising questions about whether he misled fellow senators during his attorney general confirmation hearing in January.
Spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores told NBC News that Sessions, who was a prominent Trump surrogate, did have a conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year. The meeting was first reported by The Washington Post.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., questioned Sessions during his confirmation hearing about whether he or anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign spoke with the Russians.
"I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it," Sessions responded at the time.
Flores said "there was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer" because Sessions was asked about "communications between Russia and the Trump campaign" and not about meetings he took as a senator with the Armed Services Committee.
But Sessions' response is giving some Republican lawmakers pause.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who serves as the chairman of the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform, said on MSNBC that Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation precisely "because of how he answered his question in his testimony."
Sessions had a private meeting with the Russian ambassador last September as part of his capacity as a senator, the Justice Department told NBC News.
The other encounter came after he gave a speech during a Heritage Foundation event in July during the Republican National Convention, and a group of ambassadors approached him. He did not have a one-on-one meeting with the Russians at the time, the Justice Department said.
The White House responded Thursday that "partisan Democrats" were pouncing on Sessions unfairly.
"General Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony," Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. "It's no surprise Senator Al Franken is pushing this story immediately following President Trump's successful address to the nation."
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, was among the Democrats questioning why Sessions would even meet with the Russian ambassador.
"I've been on the Armed Services Com for 10 years. No call or meeting w/Russian ambassador. Ever," she tweeted Thursday.
Democrats have called for a select committee or special prosecutor to delve further into claims of Russian interference in November's election and whether the Russians yielded influence on the campaign in favor of the Republican nominee Donald Trump. Most Republican lawmakers have stopped short of demanding an investigation.
But questions have been mounting over Russia, from initial allegations that Moscow meddled in the November election to reports that Trump's presidential campaign staffers had contact with the Russians to former national security adviser Mike Flynn resigning over his contact with the Russian ambassador.
During the election, Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also has close ties to Putin, and Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, resigned in August amid questions about his links with pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.
If Sessions were to be called as a potential witness in any investigation, he must decide whether to recuse himself in the case, appoint a special prosecutor or do nothing.
Franken said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday that Sessions' comments were "at best extremely misleading" and he must clarify them in a press conference.
"Then we can see if he should resign or not," said Franken, who supports Sessions recusing himself from any investigation.
House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also said on "Morning Joe" that he thought Sessions should consider recusing himself from Russia-linked investigations.
"I just think for any investigation going forward, it would be easier," McCarthy said.
Meanwhile, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz came out in defense of Sessions, and branded the brewing controversy as a "nothingburger" on "Morning Joe."
Cruz, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he has met with six different ambassadors in the last two months, although none were with Russia.
"I know that meeting with a foreign ambassador is part of the routine," Cruz said, adding "there isn't any credible allegations that Jeff did anything wrong meeting with a Russian ambassador."
But Richard Painter, who served as the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007, tweeted a warning to Sessions late Wednesday: "Misleading the Senate in sworn testimony about one own contacts with the Russians is a good way to go to jail."
Copyright 2017: NBC News
U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin released the following statement:
“If America’s top law enforcement official and the Trump Administration are truly committed to law and order, they will understand that this principle starts with them. It is deeply disturbing that Attorney General Sessions was not open and honest with the Senate and the American people about his communications with the Russian government while our American intelligence community and law enforcement were conducting investigations of possible ties between Trump associates and Russia, and Vladimir Putin and the Russian government’s intervention in our election.
“Two weeks ago, I called for Attorney General Sessions to recuse himself from Justice Department investigations and to appoint an independent Special Counsel. Now, with revelations that Attorney General Sessions had communications during the campaign with the Russian government, he must recuse himself and appoint an independent Special Counsel to investigate communications and possible ties between the Trump campaign, Trump transition team and Trump Administration, with the Russian government and individuals with connections to the Russian government.
“I also remain very concerned that President Trump refuses to release his tax returns because he has something to hide from the American people. He must release his tax returns, and if he doesn’t, then Congress should use every tool available to reveal whatever secrets he is keeping from the American people.
“We need a full, independent, impartial, transparent investigation into all the facts.”