After nearly a full day of bipartisan criticism, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into any communications between Trump campaign officials and members of the Russian government.
Sessions also said that the only meetings he had with Russian officials after endorsing Donald Trump were the two with the Russian ambassador that The Washington Post revealed on Wednesday night.
And Sessions indicated that he would have recused himself from investigations related to the 2016 campaign regardless of whether or not the Washington Post had broken the news of those two meetings.
“During the course of the last several weeks I have met with the relevant the relevant senior career department officials to discuss whether I should recuse myself from any matters arising from the campaigns for President of the United States,” he said in a statement. “Having concluded those meetings today, I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”
The press conference was precipitated by revelations that he didn’t disclose to the Senate Judiciary Committee his meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. When Sen. Al Franken asked Sessions at his confirmation hearing whether he knew of any campaign-related conversations between campaign staff and Russian officials, Sessions said he didn’t. So the revelation of those two meetings drew calls for his recusal and resignation.
“I did not respond by referring to the two meetings...where no such things were discussed,” Sessions said at the press conference. “My reply to the question of Sen. Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
“I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment,” he continued. “And that is not my intent.”
Sessions added he would write the Judiciary Committee “soon” and explain the reason he testified as he did.
At the press conference, Sessions said he and Kislyak didn't discuss campaign issues in their meeting, and that was why he didn't mention it at his confirmation hearing.
"I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign, 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," Sessions said. "That is the question that Sen. Franken asked me at the hearing, and what got my attention. He noted it was just breaking news. It got my attention. And that is the question I responded to."
When news of the meetings broke, Sessions said he “no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.” A Justice Department spokeswoman later said the meetings were in his capacity as a senator on the Armed Services Committee.
And on Thursday morning, the attorney general indicated to NBC News that he would be open to recusing himself from Russia investigations.
Sessions was the first Senator to endorse Trump, and became one of his top advisors on the campaign trail. He sported a Make America Great Again hat, gave speeches at rallies, and stood by Trump during the worst moments of his campaign—even suggesting that the “grab ‘em by the pussy” remarks didn’t describe sexual assault.
So when Trump nominated him to be attorney general, critics said Sessions would have trouble being independent of the White House. The issue was central at his confirmation process, and all nine Democrats on the Senate Judiciary signed a letter calling on him to recuse himself from any investigations into potential collusion between the Russian government and Trump campaign officials.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday evening Sessions spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice in 2016. One of those conversations was after an event at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland that the Heritage Foundation hosted for ambassadors.
Kislyak’s conversations and meetings with various members of Team Trump have caused an enormous amount of controversy.
Not only have they forced Sessions to recuse himself, but were also the reason why Trump’s first National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign. Flynn departed the administration after just weeks in the role because he had misled the vice president about his conversations with Kislyak during 2016.
And on Thursday evening, USA Today reported that two other Trump campaign advisers, Carter Page and J.D. Gordon, spoke with the ambassador during the Republican convention in July 2016.
These revelations take place in the larger context of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia tried to interfere with the American electoral process, and continuing questions about whether Donald Trump and his campaign had contacts with the Russian government.
As Sessions was meeting with Justice Department counsel Thursday, Hill Republicans were scrambling to find the right thing to say about their former colleague.
On Thursday morning, the attorney general indicated to NBC News that he would be open to recusing himself from Russia investigations.
“I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Over the course of the day, numerous Republicans and Democrats called for him to bow out. Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. Susan Collins—who introduced him at his confirmation hearing—were among the Republicans asking him to remove himself from those investigations.
Democrats, however, were adamant that Sessions recuse himself. And many also called for him to resign.
“There cannot be even a scintilla of doubt about the impartiality and fairness of the attorney general, the top law enforcement official of the land,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said at a news conference on Thursday. “It’s clear Attorney General Sessions does not meet that test. Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.”
But on the right, it wasn’t a consensus view. Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Justice Department during John Ashcroft’s time there, told The Daily Beast he thought the story was overblown.
“This is another non-story,” he said. “Since when is it improper for a sitting U.S. Senator to have contact with a foreign diplomat? This is more evidence that the Democrats, and career bureaucrats in the intelligence community (pardon my redundancy) who oppose President Trump are desperate.”
And Victoria Toensing, a Justice Department official during the Reagan administration, said the calls for Sessions to recuse were ridiculous.
“I think it’s idiotic,” she said of the criticism Sessions drew. “Do we have any evidence that in his normal course of being a senator when he met with the russian ambassador that he discussed anything about the election?”
And speaking a few hours before Sessions announced his recusal, she said she would oppose the move.
“I think that that’s a show of weakness,” she said. “The Republicans have got to learn to fight. These members of congress who are calling for him to recuse himself are idiotic.”