U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said the allegations that he lied about his connections with Russia during his confirmation hearing were false, but still stepped aside from Russia probe. USA TODAY NETWORK
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, facing withering criticism for failing to disclose meetings with Russia’s envoy to the United States during the former Alabama senator’s confirmation hearing, recused himself Thursday from overseeing the continuing FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in last year’s election.
Amid mounting calls from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers for the attorney general to either step aside from the inquiry or resign, Sessions said he was ceding oversight of the probe to acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente.
"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,'' Sessions said in a hastily called news conference at the Justice Department.
Sessions said he came to the decision after huddling Thursday with top Justice aides, who raised his close connections to the campaign of President Trump, who a year ago had named the former Alabama senator chairman of the campaign's National Security Advisory Committee.
"It was the right and just thing to do,'' he said.
On Thursday night, Trump issued a statement supporting Sessions.
"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 said. "This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win."
Trump added: "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!"
Some federal lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York already have raised the prospect that Sessions could be a witness in the inquiry.
The attorney general's decision was prompted by disclosures that he met twice last year with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak while the FBI was investigating Russia's attempts at disrupting the election. He later failed to disclose those encounters during his January confirmation hearing when asked by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., whether he was aware of any contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russian government officials.
He provided a similar response to a written question submitted by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as part of the confirmation process.
When the Sessions meeting were disclosed late Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers, including Schumer, pounced, suggesting that Sessions provided false testimony under oath — an act that warranted his resignation.
At the Justice Department Thursday, Sessions disputed any suggestion that he had misled senators during his confirmation hearing as "totally false."
At the time he was questioned about contacts with Russian officials, Sessions said he had not thought of himself during those meetings as acting as a Trump surrogate.
"My answer to Sen. Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time," Sessions said, adding that he first was "taken aback'' by the inquiry and should have "slowed down'' his consideration before providing an answer. He promised to clarify his remarks with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the coming days.
The attorney general, who took office just three weeks ago, denied discussing campaign-related matters when he encountered Kislyak in July during an event at the Republican National Convention and later during a September meeting in his Senate office in Washington.
He said the September meeting was sought by Russian officials and included at least two senior advisers from his Senate staff, both retired Army colonels. Sessions did not specifically recall the purpose of the meeting or whether there was any mention of the then-contentious election campaign, but he recalled some discussion about terrorism and described Kislyak as "a Soviet-type'' diplomat.
Sessions said the conversation "got to be testy'' when it turned to Russia's aggression in the Ukraine. It concluded with the ambassador extending Sessions an invitation to lunch, which the attorney general said he did not pursue.
Later Thursday, in an interview on Fox News, Sessions he was "not sure...what was on (the ambassador's) mind'' when Kislyak arranged the meeting. Though, he called the news reports disclosing the meetings Wednesday night "hyped beyond measure.''
Sessions' recusal announcement, however, may not entirely separate himself from the FBI inquiry.
The encounters with the Russian ambassador will likely draw the interest of federal investigators involved in the ongoing inquiry into communications between Trump associates and Russian government officials, a U.S. official said Thursday. The official is not authorized to comment publicly.
The White House did not learn of the attorney general's contacts until late Wednesday, just before they were first disclosed in a report by the Washington Post. On Thursday, as the criticism intensified, President Trump pledged that Sessions had his "total'' support and did not believe that he needed to disqualify himself from overseeing the ongoing Russia investigation.
Nevertheless, the attorney general was watching support from even his staunchest defenders in Congress begin to show signs of cracking as he huddled with top aides to consider how to respond.
Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, both members of the Judiciary Committee which considered Sessions' confirmation, lauded the attorney general's action.
"Great decision,'' Graham said.
"AG Sessions is a good and honest person, who has done the right thing,'' Cornyn said in a tweet.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, meanwhile, called Sessions' announcement as "a sorry attempt to explain away his perjury,'' and renewed her earlier call for him to resign.
The firestorm that has engulfed the attorney general comes less than a month after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was dismissed when it was determined that he had misled Vice President Pence and other top Trump administration officials about his pre-inaugural contacts with the same Russian envoy.
In that instance, Flynn had repeatedly denied that he had discussed sanctions leveled against Russia by the Obama administration. Flynn's conversation, however, had been intercepted by federal authorities. Fearing that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail for not truthfully disclosing the subject of his discussion with Kislyak, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the White House about the contents of the discussion.
Even as Flynn faced scrutiny in the days leading up to his dismissal for his contacts with Kislyak, Sessions told Fox News Thursday that it had never occurred to him that he might have to amend his testimony about his own Russian contacts made at his Senate confirmation hearing.
"I didn't give that a thought,'' Sessions said. "No one ever mentioned that to me.''
On Thursday, the New York Times reported that Flynn and Jared Kushner, Trump's son in law and a White House adviser, met with Kislyak in December to "establish a line of communication."