WASHINGTON – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions removed himself on Thursday from any investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because he was involved with President Donald Trump’s campaign.
But Sessions, a long-time U.S. senator before becoming the country’s top law enforcement official, said he did nothing wrong by not disclosing during Senate testimony that he had met last year with Russia’s ambassador. He said the meetings were in his capacity as senator, not as a campaign aide.
“I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign,”Sessions told reporters at a hastily arranged news conference. Several fellow Republicans in Congress had called for the move, while Democrats urged him to resign.
Sessions said he had been weighing recusal — ruling himself out from any role in the investigations — even before the latest twist of the controversy over ties between Trump associates and Russia that has dogged the early days of his presidency.
The move means Sessions, a powerful member of Trump’s inner circle, will not be briefed on details of the investigation. Should the Federal Bureau of Investigation decide to move forward with charges, Sessions would not be in a position to weigh in on whether or not the Department of Justice should take the case.
The controversy comes as Trump and Republicans who control Congress are trying to move past early administration missteps and focus on issues important to them, including immigration, tax cuts and repealing the Obamacare healthcare law.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia hacked and leaked Democratic emails during the election campaign as part of an effort to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor. The Kremlin has denied the allegations.
Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn last month after revelations that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak before Trump took office and that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Sessions responded to a question from Democratic Senator Al Franken that he did not “have communications with the Russians” during the presidential campaign.
But on Wednesday night, the Washington Post revealed that Sessions, who was a senior campaign aide of Trump’s, received Kislyak in his Senate office in September.
The other encounter was in July at a Heritage Foundation event that was attended by about 50 ambassadors, during the Republican National Convention, the Post said.
Sessions said he was “honest and correct” in his answer to Franken, drawing a distinction between his role as a senator and his role as a campaign aide.
“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said, but added that he felt that he should not be involved in investigating a campaign in which he had had a role.
‘ALICE IN WONDERLAND’
Before the news conference, Trump stood by his attorney general, saying he had “total” confidence in Sessions. Asked whether Sessions should step aside from the investigations, Trump told reporters, “I don’t think so.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Sessions of breaking the law by lying under oath during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Sessions had misled Congress over his contacts with the ambassador and should resign for the good of the country, adding it would be like “Alice in Wonderland” if the administration were to approve Sessions’ investigating himself.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee asked the FBI to launch a criminal investigation into Sessions’ statements to Congress about his communication with Russian officials.
Sessions is one of many “subjects” of a wide-ranging government investigation of any contacts between the Trump’s campaign and associates and Russia, said two U.S. officials familiar with the investigation.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sessions was not now a “target” of the probe by the FBI, the Treasury Department, the CIA and the National Security Agency.
The investigation, one of the officials said, has a number of subjects because of the numerous contacts between associates of Trump, including Flynn, and the Russian Embassy in Washington as well as Russian and some Ukrainian businessmen and companies.
Trump called frequently during his campaign for improved relations with Russia, drawing criticism from Democrats and some Republicans. Ties with Russia have been deeply strained in recent years over Moscow’s military interference in Ukraine, military support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and President Vladimir Putin’s intolerance of political dissent.
Trump has accused officials in former Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration of trying to discredit him with questions about Russia contacts. The White House dismissed the revelation of the Sessions meetings as a partisan attack, saying on Thursday that Sessions’ contacts with the ambassador had been as a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The Russian Embassy to the United States, shrugging off the uproar, said on Thursday it was in regular contact with “U.S. partners.”
JULIA EDWARDS AINSLER