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Sessions recuses himself from Russia probe

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsHarris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' Sessions, top DOJ officials knew 'zero tolerance' would separate families, watchdog finds 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 PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' MORE (Ohio), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds GOP senators say only a few Republicans will vote to convict Trump MORE (Maine) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play 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 ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records 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 SchumerChuck SchumerCapitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? Schumer calls for DOJ watchdog to probe alleged Trump effort to oust acting AG Student loan forgiveness would be windfall for dentists, doctors and lawyers 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 CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerGOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Former GOP senator: Republicans cannot let Trump's 'reckless' post-election claims stand Cornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' MORE (R-Tenn.), who previously warned that the frenzy surrounding Russia turning into a “distraction” for Trump. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyOn The Money: Treasury announces efforts to help people get stimulus payments | Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury | Judge sets ground rules for release of Trump taxes Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury Finance Committee vote on Yellen nomination scheduled for Friday 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 FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenHarrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans The Hill's Morning Report - Fearing defeat, Trump claims 'illegal' ballots 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.