Trump Says Sessions Has His Full Confidence as Questions MountBy , , and
Attorney general denied Russian contact at nomination hearing
Democrats step up calls for Sessions to resign over disclosure
President Donald Trump said he has “total” confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions and sees no need for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. politics.
Trump voiced his support for Sessions in response to a shouted question before speaking at an event aboard a Navy aircraft carrier in Virginia. The attorney general has come under fire from Democrats and some Republicans after the Justice Department acknowledged that last year, at a time he was acting as a prominent surrogate for Trump’s campaign, Sessions had contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Trump said he “wasn’t aware at all” about the contacts. Asked whether Sessions should remove himself from inquiries into Russia’s attempts to influence the election, Trump said, “I don’t think he should do that at all.”
The furor over Sessions is forcing the Trump administration to defend a new front in its battle to deflect or refute allegations that his close associates had unexplained contacts with Putin’s government at the same time Russia was trying to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Sessions scheduled a news conference in Washington at 4 p.m. Washington time.
"He didn’t do anything that wasn’t part of his job," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters aboard Air Force One. Trump isn’t concerned that Sessions didn’t alert the White House to the contacts with the ambassador during his confirmation as attorney general, Spicer said.
“Why would we want to know everything he did conducting himself on behalf of the people of Alabama?”
Along with renewed pressure from members of both parties for a full investigation of Russia’s role in the election, some Republicans broke ranks with the president.
“Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe,” Senator Rob Portman, of Ohio, said Thursday in a statement. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, of Utah, made similar calls.
Representative Brian Mast, a Florida Republican in his first term, went even further.
"If he cannot commit to ensuring this process is completed with full transparency and integrity, he should resign," Mast said in a statement.
The chorus punctured the afterglow from Trump’s address to Congress earlier this week and puts added pressure on a White House still reeling from the ouster of Trump’s national security adviser last month over his contacts with Russia’s ambassador. Multiple investigations are underway by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, other agencies and congressional committees into a variety of allegations related to Russia’s interference with the election and possible contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
The Justice Department confirmed Wednesday that Sessions twice had conversations last year with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak but said they were related to his role as a senator and member of the Armed Services Committee. Sessions testified during his Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 10 that he had no contacts with Russian officials.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York joined House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez in calling Thursday for Sessions to resign.
"Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign," Schumer said at a news conference in Washington. He also said Sessions may well become a subject of an investigation. “The information reported last night shows beyond a shadow of a doubt he cannot possibly lead an investigation into Russian interference in our elections let alone come close to it.”
All the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to FBI Director James Comey asking for a criminal investigation into whether Sessions committed perjury. Comey also was coming under fire over whether he’s providing Congress with enough information.
After Comey met in private with the House Intelligence Committee for three hours Thursday, the panel’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, told reporters that the FBI director still was refusing to answer all of their questions, hampering the committee’s nascent investigation into Russian election interference. Schiff also said Comey had withheld information from the eight lawmakers who get briefed on the most sensitive issues facing the nation.
“If we’re to get quarterly counterintelligence briefings, then we need the confidence of knowing that they are briefing us on the most significant issues,” Schiff said. “I think at this point we know less than a fraction of what the FBI knows.”
Sessions continued to have support from many top Republicans. House Speaker Paul Ryan said that he saw no reason for Sessions to recuse himself at this point.
“If he himself is the subject of an investigation, of course he would” recuse himself, Ryan told reporters Thursday. “If not, I don’t see any purpose or reason for doing that.”
Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, of North Carolina, was among several Senate Republicans who also brushed aside calls for Sessions to step down or for Trump to appoint a special prosecutor.
"We’re not in the business of investigating individuals, senators, that say they were doing Senate business,” Burr told reporters Thursday. “Jeff Sessions has to decide whether his role as attorney general, whether he can participate in anything to deal with Russian involvement, potential involvement in our elections, and I trust Jeff Sessions to make that decision.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz labeled the controversy “political theater” on MSNBC.
Democrats say Sessions wasn’t truthful when he was asked by Minnesota Senator Al Franken, during a Jan. 10 confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, what he would do if he learned that anyone tied to the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government during the course of the campaign.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions said at the hearing, adding that he had “been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Sessions was visited by Kislyak in his Capitol Hill office on Sept. 8, the Justice Department said in its statement, but received him in his role as a senator. He also met with the envoy among a small group of ambassadors after an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation in July at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
“His responses to me weren’t accurate,” Franken said Thursday on MSNBC.
A Sessions spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, rejected accusations that he had misled lawmakers. “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,” she said. “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.”
On Thursday, Sessions was asked about the allegations by an NBC News crew. “I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign,” Sessions said.
Trump said Sessions “probably did” testify truthfully at his nomination hearing.
The conversations with Kislyak, first reported Wednesday by the Washington Post, have raised fresh questions about which Trump associates had contacts with Russian government officials during the presidential campaign and what was discussed.
Graham Weighs In
Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, weighed in with a call for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation of Trump campaign ties to Russia during a CNN town hall Wednesday night.
“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 this decision about Trump,” he said.
Graham also said that if the FBI discovered any sign of potential criminal activities, a special prosecutor should be appointed to handle the matter.
Sessions is the second Trump administration official to face tough questions about his contact with Kislyak. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired by Trump after it was revealed he had not accurately portrayed the content of his conversations with the Russian envoy to other administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence.
The revelation that Sessions and Kislyak met came shortly after a report in the New York Times that the British and Dutch governments provided information to the U.S. government describing meetings between associates of Trump and Russian officials in European cities.
The story also described a deliberate campaign by Obama administration political appointees to spread information about Russia’s alleged attempts to interfere in the election, as well as revelations that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications discussing contacts with Trump associates.
Eric Schultz, a spokesman for former President Barack Obama, confirmed that Obama administration officials had sought to document intelligence related to possible Russian interference in the campaign.
“This situation was serious, as is evident by President Obama’s call for a review -- and as is evident by the United States response,” Schultz said in an email. “When the intelligence community does that type of comprehensive review, it is standard practice that a significant amount of information would be compiled and documented.”
Trump administration officials have repeatedly insisted that there was no collusion between the president’s team and the Russian government. They’ve dismissed questions about the matter as payback by Democrats upset over the election results, and have said that intelligence officials -- including at the FBI -- have concluded there was no consistent contact during the campaign between Trump allies and the Kremlin.
“I think that Russia’s involvement and activity has been investigated up and down,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday. “So the question becomes at some point, if there’s nothing to further investigate, what are you asking people to investigate?”