AG Sessions removes himself from Russian probes

"I did and have done what I promised," the U.S. attorney general said of his previous pledge to recuse himself from cases if it's warranted.
By Doug G. Ware, Andrew V. Pestano and Allen Cone  |  Updated March 3, 2017 at 6:14 AM
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March 2 (UPI) -- U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday announced he will not participate in any federal investigation into allegations the Russian government interceded in November's presidential election.

Sessions announced the recusal Thursday afternoon at the Department of Justice.

The attorney general's decision followed news reports Wednesday revealing at least two meetings between him and Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak over the summer while he was a U.S. senator and President Donald Trump's campaign adviser.

Under oath at his confirmation hearings in January, Sessions did not disclose the meetings -- and further testified that he "did not have communications with the Russians." When asked whether he had been in contact with anyone connected to Moscow's government, Sessions said simply, "No."

Sessions promised to clarify his confirmation testimony but denied having improper contact with any Kremlin officials during the time period in question.

"Let me be clear -- I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign," he said at Thursday's news conference. "The idea that I was a part of a, quote, 'continuing exchange of information' during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries of the Russian government is totally false."

Nonetheless, in response to bipartisan calls for his recusal -- and some for his resignation -- Sessions said Thursday he will not be an active participant in any current or future investigations into the Russian electoral matter.

Sessions said he plans to "write the Senate Judiciary Committee soon, today or tomorrow, to explain" and clarify his January testimony.

"At my [Senate] confirmation hearing, I promised that if a specific matter arose where I believe my impartiality might reasonably be questioned I would consult with the [Justice] department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed. ... I did and have done what I promised," he continued.

Sessions said he sought and complied with advice from justice officials on the proper response to the situation.

"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. "I have taken no actions regarding any such matters, to the extent they exist.

"This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation."

Republican and Democratic leaders reiterated their calls for the recusal earlier Thursday.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Sessions "should clarify his testimony," and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said it "would be easier" to investigate the alleged contact between Sessions and Russian officials if he was not part of the inquiries.

"I think, the trust of the American people, you recuse yourself in these situations," McCarthy said. "I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation ... that there's no doubt within the investigation."

President Donald Trump, aboard an aircraft carrier in Virginia on Thursday afternoon, said he has "total" confidence in Sessions -- and joined House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in saying there isn't a need for Sessions' recusal.

About 5 1/2 hours after Sessions' news conference, Trump posted four back-to-back tweets on Twitter.

"Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional," Trump wrote. "This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win. The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and now, they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!"

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he wants to learn more about the alleged Russian contact -- particularly why it wasn't revealed by Sessions during his confirmation hearing.

"Why did he not disclose that when asked specifically about it at the hearing? Obviously, that is something that is important and needs to be addressed," Rubio told NPR on Thursday. "It could potentially call into question whether or not the attorney general can do the job or whether an independent counsel would be necessary. We're not at that stage yet."

When asked if Sessions should remove himself from the picture, Rubio said that he thought it would be appropriate "in the interest of fairness" -- but cautioned "we are not there yet ... but we could be."

The Democratic Party's top leaders in the House and Senate are calling for Sessions' immediate resignation, based on the allegation he lied in his testimony.

"[He] lied under oath during his confirmation hearing before the Senate," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement, reiterating her longstanding calls for further investigation into potential Trump ties to Moscow. "Now, after lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the attorney general must resign. Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign."

"The information reported last night makes it clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that Attorney General Sessions cannot possibly lead an investigation into Russian interference," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said earlier Thursday, emphasizing that Sessions had weeks to correct his testimony but failed to do so. "It would be of Alice in Wonderland quality if this administration were to sanction him to investigate himself.

"For the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.'

Sarah Isgur Flores, director of public affairs at the Justice Department, said nothing was "misleading about his answer" to Congress because he "was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign -- not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee."

Flores said Sessions last year had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian and German ambassadors.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that although she's been on the Senate Armed Services Committee for 10 years, she has never had a call or a meeting with a Russian ambassador, adding that such diplomats call members of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Thursday called the allegations a "shame," and said U.S. news media are attempting to mislead public opinion -- a claim that Trump has repeated for months.

"What is going on in the Western -- particularly in the U.S. -- media, is just some manifestation of media vandalism," she said. "First of all, it's an attempt of total disinformation."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the reports suggesting Kislyak could be a spy or recruiter should be ignored.

"These are once again anonymous media speculations which constantly work up this situation," he told reporters. "The only thing that can be offered to all in this situation is simply not to respond to these anonymous, unfounded false stories, and be guided only by official statements."

Kislyak is the same Russian diplomat at the center of the controversy that surrounded former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was ultimately forced to resign over communications the two had in December.

Relations with the Kremlin have been under intense scrutiny by U.S. officials in recent months. The CIA and FBI have said Russians launched cyberattacks against Democratic targets -- such as the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the campaign of party nominee Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 election. Based on prior investigations, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are in agreement that Moscow ordered the breaches -- with at least tacit approval from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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