WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday he would recuse himself from a federal investigation into alleged 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 seemed 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 had said earlier 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.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday defended Sessions, saying the attorney general was simply doing his job as a former senator when he spoke with the Russian ambassador.
Spicer told reporters aboard Air Force Once that Sessions did not mislead in sworn statements he made to Congress during his confirmation hearing.
At the hearing in January, Sessions was asked about allegations of contact between Russia and Trump aides during the 2016 election.
Sessions said he was “unaware” that anyone from the Trump campaign had been in touch with the Russian government — despite his own conversations.
Spicer said that Session had been asked the question with respect to Sessions’ role as a surrogate for the campaign — not his role as senator.
The White House spokesman said conversations with ambassadors are part of regular Senate business.
Before Sessions announced his decision, top Democrats had demanded that he go further and resign as the nation’s top law enforcement officer after revelations regarding his communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Sessions of “lying under oath.” She and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Sessions should step down. Schumer said the Justice Department should appoint a special prosecutor to examine whether the federal investigation into the Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. election has been compromised by Sessions.
“There’s nothing wrong with meeting with the Russian ambassador,” Schumer said. “If there was nothing wrong, why don’t you just tell the truth? It was definitely extremely misleading, to say the least.”
Sessions, an early supporter of President Donald Trump’s candidacy and a policy adviser during the campaign, did not disclose his contact with Kislyak at his Senate confirmation hearing in January when asked what he would do if “anyone affiliated” with the campaign had been in contact with officials of the Russian government.
Sessions replied that he had not had communications with Russian government officials, and answered “no” in a separate written questionnaire when asked about contacts regarding the election.
In a statement late Wednesday, Sessions said: “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
At least three House Republicans — Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Darrell Issa of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma — had earlier said they wanted Sessions to withdraw from the inquiry. And GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said that while Sessions was a former colleague and a friend, “I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself.”
The attorney general “is going to need to recuse himself at this point,” Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told MSNBC.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, said he thought Sessions “needs to clarify what these meetings were.” He said it isn’t unusual for members of Congress to meet with ambassadors, but he added that if a question arose about the integrity of a federal investigation, “I think it’d be easier” for an attorney general to step away.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Sessions should only recuse himself if he is a subject of the probe.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the disclosure of the talks with Kislyak “the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.” She said 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.”
It was during the confirmation hearing in January that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Sessions about allegations of contact between Russia and Trump aides during the 2016 election. He asked Sessions what he would do if there were evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign had been in touch with the Russian government during the campaign.
Sessions replied he was “unaware of those activities,” then adding: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have, did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Separately in January, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, asked Sessions in the written questionnaire whether “he had been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day.”
Sessions replied simply, “No.”
In his role as a U.S. senator and senior member of the Armed Services Committee, Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors last year and had two separate interactions with Kislyak, the Justice Department confirmed.
One was a visit in September in his capacity as a senator, similar to meetings with envoys from Britain, China, Germany and other nations, the department said.
The other occurred in a group setting following a Heritage Foundation speech that Sessions gave during the Republican National Convention, when several ambassadors — including Kislyak — approached him after the talk as he was leaving the stage, according to the Justice Department.
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he did not know about the meetings, but he said it was normal for Russian diplomats to meet with U.S. lawmakers.
Likewise, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry told AP that meetings with American political figures were part of the embassy’s “everyday business.”
Revelations of the contacts, first reported by The Washington Post, came amid a disclosure by three administration officials that White House lawyers had instructed aides to Trump to preserve materials that could be connected to possible Russian meddling in the American political process.
The officials, who confirmed that staffers were instructed to comply with preservation-of-materials directions, did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose the memo from White House counsel Don McGahn.