Updated 5:03 p.m. | Attorney General Jeff Sessions will recuse himself from any investigation into ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, he said Thursday.
The attorney general had been dogged all day by calls from some Republicans to step aside from any inquiry — and from Democrats for him to resign — following reports that he had met with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. last year, despite saying he had not in his confirmation hearings.
Sessions said Thursday he had been meeting with Justice Department officials to discuss “whether I should recuse myself from any matters arising from the campaigns for president of the United States.
“Having concluded those meetings today, I have decided 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,” he said.
Sessions did acknowledge he should have “slowed down” during his confirmation hearings and disclosed two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to the Senate Judiciary Committee. But he said one of those meetings was a brief one after he had delivered a speech, and the other was in his former Senate office.
That latter meeting, Sessions said, included several of his senior Senate aides to “listen to” Kislyak’s “normal concerns.” The duo discussed a 1991 church trip Sessions made to Russia with a church group before the conversation turned to terrorism and the Russian takeover of the Crimea region of Ukraine, he told reporters.
In fact, Sessions said the back-and-forth over Crimea turned into a “bit of a testy situation.” Kislyak was placing blame for the Crimea crisis on all other involved parties but Russia, Sessions said, describing the Russian diplomat as an “old-style Soviet-type ambassador.”
But Sessions said, “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” reading from a prepared statement. “And the idea that I was part of ‘a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries of the Russian government’ is totally false,” he said.
The suddenly embattled attorney general said he responded to a confirmation hearing question about whether he had met with any Russian officials in a “honest and correct” manner “as I understood it at the time.”
Sessions intends to put an explanation for the testimony exclusion on paper and send it to the Judiciary panel by the end of the week.
He said he could not say whether he has met with other Russian officials because senators and top officials “meet with a lot of people.”
Trump told reporters traveling with him before Sessions spoke that he did not know about meetings between Sessions and the ambassador, but he had “total” confidence in the attorney general.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley said he had talked to Sessions on Thursday and “suggested, as I did with Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch after she met with President [Bill] Clinton on her airplane, that his recusal may be the best course of action.”
“His actions today were the right thing to do,” Grassley said. “There’s little doubt that alleged conflicts, no matter how flimsy and regardless of whether or not they are based in fact, will be used against him to discredit him and any potential investigation into alleged conversations between the campaign and the Russian government.”
The Iowa Republican called any talk of Sessions’ resignation “nonsense.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham praised Sessions’ move as a “great decision.”
“It’s the best decision for the country and DOJ,” the South Carolina Republican tweeted. “I have full confidence in Jeff Sessions serving as attorney general.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn echoed a similar sentiment.
“AG Sessions is a good and honorable person, who has done the right thing,” the Texas Republican said in a tweet.
Earlier Thursday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that it would be “easier” if Sessions were to remove himself from an investigation, but an hour later, he clarified to “Fox & Friends” that he was “not calling on him to recuse himself.”
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Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, tweeted Thursday morning that Sessions “should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”
AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself
And Rep. Darrell Issa, a former House Oversight chairman who called for an independent investigation into Russian interference last week, reiterated the need for that.
“We need a clear-eyed view of what the Russians actually did so that all Americans can have faith in our institutions,” the California Republican said in a statement.
Democrats said Sessions perjured himself when he testified in his confirmation hearing and many called on him to resign.
“After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the attorney general must resign,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement before Sessions announced his decision.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer also called for Sessions’ resignation prior to Sessions’ announcement.
“For weeks, I have said that Attorney General Sessions needs to recuse himself from any investigation,” the New York Democrat said. “With these revelations, he may very well become a subject of it.”
Other Republicans came to the attorney general’s defense.
Sen. Ted Cruz told MSNBC early Thursday that Sessions’ meeting with the ambassador was just him doing his job as a senator at the time.
“If the Russian ambassador had called and asked for a meeting, I’d guess I probably would have taken the meeting,” the Texas Republican said.
But, Cruz added, “Jeff should have been more clear” in his testimony.
New York GOP Rep. Chris Collins called the controversy just another “witch hunt” by Schumer and the Democrats in an effort to undermine Trump’s Cabinet.
Cornyn said members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (as Sessions had been) regularly meet with foreign diplomats.
“I think the question had to do with his capacity as part of the campaign, and that is where he answered truthfully to the best of my knowledge, I haven’t seen anything to indicate that he didn’t,” the Texas Republican said.
A White House official earlier Thursday told Roll Call in an email that the calls for Sessions to step down were “the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.”
“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,” the official said. “It’s no surprise Sen. Al Franken is pushing this story immediately following President Trump’s successful address to the nation.”
Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, had asked Sessions during his confirmation hearings about the allegations of contact between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government. In his response, Sessions told Franken that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
John T. Bennett, Eric Garcia, Lindsey McPherson, Bridget Bowman and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.