For the second time in less than a month, a key member of President Donald Trump’s team has been hobbled by communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday that he was following the advice of senior Justice Department advisers by withdrawing from oversight of any investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election. The decision came after it was revealed that Sessions had offered possibly misleading testimony about his contacts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his confirmation hearing in January.
The news unsettled a Trump administration still working to put behind it the resignation last month of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn – he’d also been sidelined for lying about his contacts with Kislyak – and left some analysts wondering whether the recusal was enough to ensure an honest probe of Russian-Trump connections.
“This needs to be handled by career prosecutors reporting to a special prosecutor,” said Richard Painter, the White House ethics officer during the administration of President George W. Bush. “It’s way too explosive to be handled by political appointees.”
Trump, however, stood behind Sessions, one of his earliest supporters.
“Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional,” Trump said in a statement released Thursday evening. “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!”
Members of Congress also expressed concern about whether Justice Department officials could be relied on to help investigations into Russian election meddling being carried out by the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Californian who is the senior Democrat on the House committee, expressed dissatisfaction with FBI Director James Comey’s appearance before the committee Thursday, the first witness the committee has called in its probe.
“In order for us to do our investigation in a thorough and credible way, we’re gonna need the FBI to fully cooperate, to be willing to tell us the length and breadth of any counterintelligence investigations they are conducting,” Schiff said. “At this point, the director was not willing to do that.”
What role Sessions might have played in Comey’s reluctance to offer details was uncertain, Schiff said. “It was unclear whether that decision was a decision he was making on his own or a decision that he is making in consultation with the Department of Justice,” Schiff said.
In announcing he would no longer play a role in probes into links between Russia and Trump’s campaign, Sessions insisted that testimony he’d given to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January was accurate. But he said his staff at the Department of Justice had concluded “that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.”
“I have studied the rules and considered their comments and evaluation. I believe those recommendations are right and just,” he said.
It was unknown whether Sessions had consulted Trump before announcing his recusal. Shortly before, the president announced that he had “total” confidence in his attorney general. When asked whether Sessions had testified truthfully to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump responded, “I think he probably did.”
But other Republicans had been critical of Sessions throughout the day, with many calling for him to step aside from any investigation into Russian election meddling.
Democrats went further, demanding that Sessions resign as attorney general.
We are far past recusal. . . . Anything less than resignation or removal from office is unacceptable,
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself,” the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, tweeted early in the day. That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who made headlines a week ago by saying Sessions’ involvement in the Trump campaign disqualified him from overseeing the investigation.
“We need an independent review by a credible third party,” Issa said in a statement Thursday.
As the day wore on, more and more Republicans appeared concerned.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Sessions “an honest man” and said, “I’m not going to suggest he misled the committee.” Still, he suggested, “Now that we know he did talk to the Russians twice, he needs to tell us what he talked about.”
At the news conference where he announced his recusal, Sessions said he had only a vague memory of his conversation with Kislyak, though he did recall mentioning that he’d been to Russia on a church mission trip and Kislyak had replied that he wasn’t a religious man. Sessions said two members of his staff had been present for the meeting, but he did not identify them.
As the attorney general, Sessions runs the Department of Justice, which oversees the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI is at the center of the probes into Russian attempts to influence the election.
Lindsay Wise, Alex Daugherty, Greg Gordon, Kevin G. Hall, McClatchy special correspondent Peter Stone and Rob Hotakainen contributed to this article.