Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally recused himself Thursday from any Department of Justice investigation into alleged Russian government meddling in the 2016 election.
“I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign,” Sessions said during a press conference Thursday afternoon.
Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will take over any investigations into the matter.
Democrats accused Sessions of lying under oath about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak while he served as a key adviser during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Sessions said he spoke with senior career officials at the Justice Department and “asked for their candid and honest opinion about what I should do about certain investigation.”
He continued: “My staff recommended recusal. They said that since I had involvement with the campaign that I should not be involved with any campaign investigation.”
The attorney general added: “I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating to the campaigns of the president of the United States.”
Sessions insisted none of his conversations with the Russian ambassador were related to the presidential campaign.
“Let me be clear: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” he said. “And the idea that I was part of a ‘continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false. That is the question that Sen. [Al] Franken asked me at the hearing, and that … is the question that I responded to.”
Watch Sessions’ statements beginning around the 8:27 mark:
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said: “Attorney General Sessions has repeatedly said that he would recuse himself from cases as appropriate, and today he has done so. Sessions is a man of honor and integrity, and after having had the time to review the DOJ rules, he came to the reasonable conclusion to recuse himself from any current or future investigations related to the presidential campaign. Although not legally mandated, this decision puts the issue behind him and ensures that the department’s law enforcement will be free from even the appearance of impropriety.”
At least eight House Republicans – who are up for re-election in 2018 and are being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – demanded Thursday that Sessions recuse himself from any investigations into Russian contact. They included GOP Reps. Brian Mast (Fla.), Mike Coffman (Colo.), Martha McSally (Ariz.), Darrell Issa (Calif.), Ryan Costello (Pa.), Barbara Comstock (Va.), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) and Frank LoBiondo (N.J.). Nearly all of them are from districts won by Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton in November.
Democrats hope they can stir up anti-Trump resentment and use it to target Republicans in swing districts as they attempt to regain control of the House.
All day Thursday, several Democrats had been demanding Sessions recuse himself and even resign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded Sessions resign from his cabinet post earlier in the day.
“Jeff Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing before the Senate,” Pelosi said, the Hill reported. “Under penalty of perjury, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, ‘I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.’ We now know that statement is false.”
Pelosi continued: “Now, after lying under oath to Congress under 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.”
According to various media, Sessions spoke to Sergey Kislyak privately while Trump was running for the high office. The Washington Post also reported Sessions spoke again to Kislyak in July during an event that included the participation of other ambassadors as well.
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In July, a Sessions spokesperson told the newspaper that then-Sen. Sessions was speaking to the ambassador as a member of the Armed Services Committee, and not on behalf of Trump.
“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement. “Last year, the senator had over 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian, German and Russian ambassadors. 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.”
But Pelosi is not alone in her call for Sessions to leave.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is also demanding Sessions’ resignation, while also calling for a special prosecutor and an inspector general probe.
“There cannot be even the scintilla of doubt about the impartiality and fairness of the attorney general,” he said. “It’s clear Attorney General Sessions does not meet that test … for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who serves as the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, said similarly.
““When Senator Sessions testified under oath that ‘I did not have communications with the Russians,’ his statement was demonstrably false, yet he let it stand for weeks – and he continued to let it stand even as he watched the president tell the entire nation he didn’t know anything about anyone advising his campaign talking to the Russians,” Cummings said, in a written statement. “Attorney General Sessions should resign immediately, and there is no longer any question that we need a truly independent commission to investigate this issue.”
Other Democrats, meanwhile, have simply called for Sessions to step aside from his oversight of an investigation into other contacts allegedly made between members of Trump’s team and Russia’s government, all in the lead-up to the election.
The Trump administration responded to the demands and outrage by labeling the attacks as political partisanship.
Trump said, “I don’t think so,” when asked by reporters on Thursday if the attorney general should step aside from the investigation, adding that he retains “total” confidence in Sessions.
“This is the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats. [Attorney General] 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,” a White House official said, in a statement.
Sessions, meanwhile, issued a statement saying he never discussed election topics with Kislyak.
“I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” he said, in a statement released shortly before midnight. “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
Even some in the Republican camp have weighed in, however, and suggested the issue is tainted.
“AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, tweeted early Thursday.
“It is potentially the case that there is going to be Justice Department recommendations or referrals based on anything regarding the campaign, said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in an interview on NPR. “Depending on what more we learn about these meetings, it could very well be that the attorney general, in the interest of fairness and in his best interest, should potentially ask someone else to step in and play that role.”
“I think, the trust of the American people, you recuse yourself in these situations,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday. “I don’t have all the information in front of me, I don’t want to pre-judge, but I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sessions couldn’t be trusted to investigate the Trump administration.
“If there is something there and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make that decision about Trump,” said Graham during an appearance on CNN.
Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., said he wished Sessions had been “more clear about the meeting” during the confirmation process.
“I think as he’s going through the campaign with Mr. Trump though, he was acting in his official capacity as a senator, you want to disclose that information and I think it should have been more clear during his confirmation process that he did have the meetings,” Duffy said Thursday morning on CNN’s “New Day.”
Richard Painter, the former White House ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush, issued a scathing statement against Sessions that ran on Twitter. The tweet referenced statements Sessions previously gave the Senate about his contacts with Russian figures.
“Misleading the Senate in sworn testimony about one’s own contacts with the Russians is a good way to go to jail,” Painter tweeted.
Before Session’s recusal, House Speaker Paul Ryan said it is common for members of Congress to meet with ambassadors and that Sessions should only recuse himself if he is the subject of an investigation.