Sessions recuses himself from Russia probe

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsJustice Department developing strategies to shut down ‘sanctuary cities’: report Sally Yates slams Sessions on criminal justice reform Preet Bharara emailed DOJ about phone call from Trump: report MORE on Thursday recused himself from any investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, bowing to mounting bipartisan pressure for him to do so given his contacts with Moscow’s U.S. envoy during the campaign.

Sessions said he made his decision after consulting with officials at the Justice Department, who recommended he should no longer participate in the probe.

“I have now decided to recuse myself of any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States,” he said during a hastily arranged news conference at the department’s headquarters in Washington.

Sessions denied he intentionally misled senators when he told them at his confirmation hearings that he did not communicate with Russian officials during the campaign. 

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He also said he did not “recall any specific political discussions” with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Sessions’ decision is an attempt to put the controversy to rest, but it’s unlikely to quiet scrutiny of Trump associates’ alleged ties to Russia, which have become a near-constant distraction for the administration. 

Democrats calling for Sessions to resign as attorney general promised to keep the heat on, with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) saying the recusal was not enough.

“Attorney General Sessions’s narrow recusal and his sorry attempt to explain away his perjury are totally inadequate,” Pelosi said in a statement. “He must resign immediately.” 

The Sessions news set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill, and complicated Trump’s plan to harness momentum generated by his well-received joint address to Congress on Tuesday.

Hours before the Sessions press conference, Trump threw his full support behind his embattled attorney general, who was a loyal campaign surrogate, and insisted he should not recuse himself from the inquiry. 

“I don’t think so,” Trump said when asked by reporters during a tour of the USS Gerald R. Ford in Virginia whether Sessions should remove himself from matters related to Russia. 

Trump had hoped to move past the Russian story just over two weeks ago, when he fired retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser for misleading senior officials about his conversations with Kislyak. 

But Sessions’ talks with the Russian envoy, which were revealed Wednesday night by The Washington Post, have placed the capital’s focus squarely back on the Russia probe and raised new questions about whether the administration can handle it fairly. 

GOP Sens. Rob PortmanRob PortmanSanders: GOP healthcare bill is a 'moral outrage' Opioid crisis threatens GOP ObamaCare repeal A tale of two drug bills — one proposed bill will worsen the drug prices crisis MORE (Ohio), Susan CollinsSusan CollinsGOP at decisive moment on Planned Parenthood Sunday shows preview: Senate healthcare debate heats up GOP Medicaid cuts will be disastrous for millions with Alzheimer’s MORE (Maine) and Dean HellerDean HellerGOP at decisive moment on Planned Parenthood Trump: ‘I cannot imagine’ GOP senators don’t back healthcare bill Bill Clinton issues warning on opioid crisis: ‘It’s going to eat us all alive’ MORE (Nevada) all said it would be best for the investigation if Sessions stepped aside. 

That call was echoed by House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzChaffetz: Threats against lawmakers should be taken seriously Gowdy won't use Oversight gavel to probe Russia The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Utah), who also said Sessions should publicly clarify testimony he gave during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

At least eight House Republicans who are Democratic targets in 2018 joined calls for Sessions’ recusal. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerWarren cautions Dems against infighting FCC advances proposal to unmask blocked caller ID in threat cases Trump: Pelosi's leadership good for the GOP MORE (D-N.Y.) called on the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to head up the probe, a move the White House has resisted. 

Trump officials have repeatedly dismissed the Sessions accusations as partisan attacks against the president in the aftermath of his speech. 

“He was 100 percent straight with the committee,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said of the attorney general during an interview with Fox News. “I think this is Democrats trying to push a false narrative for political purposes.” 

Republican lawmakers were hopeful that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself, combined with congressional probes into Russia, would allow work to continue on their domestic agenda.  

“I think they're sort of moving a little beyond it,” said Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerPolicymakers forget duty to protect taxpayers from financial failures Overnight Defense: GOP chairman moves ahead with 0B defense bill | Lawmakers eye 355 ship navy | Senate panel seeks answers on shoot down of Syrian jet Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump tweetstorm on Russia probe | White House reportedly pushing to weaken sanctions bill | Podesta to testify before House Intel MORE (R-Tenn.), who previously warned that the frenzy surrounding Russia turning into a “distraction” for Trump. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's 12:30 Report GOP senator surprises top Dem with birthday cake MORE (R-Iowa) said Sessions’s decision was “the right thing to do” and praised him for offering to send a letter to his panel further explaining his testimony. 

The Justice Department on Wednesday night admitted Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador twice during the campaign, most recently in September.

That appeared to contradict statements he made during his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing. 

Sen. Al FrankenAl FrankenDrug pricing order would cut regulations Dems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Congress poised to prohibit airlines from forcibly removing customers MORE (D-Minn.) asked Sessions what he would do if there was evidence that Trump associates communicated with the Russian government during the election.

“I'm not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions responded. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Sessions denied that he misled lawmakers during his confirmation hearings, saying the conversations occurred in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee and not as a Trump campaign surrogate, which he said he believed Franken’s question was about. 

“My reply to the question of Sen. Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time,” the attorney general said. “I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct.”

Federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies are continuing to investigate their conclusion that Russian meddled in the 2016 election, in part by hacking Democratic political groups, in order to boost Trump. 

Investigators are reportedly examined communications between Trump associates, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, for any signs of collusion with the Russian election effort. Thus far no proof has been found. 

But the probe has had political consequences for Trump, who has had to deal with questions surrounding close confidants such as Flynn and now Sessions. 

Jordain Carney contributed.