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Recusing himself, Sessions says he never meant to mislead on Russia meetings

March 2, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced at a press conference Thursday that he would recuse himself from any investigations into the Trump campaign. That decision came after a Washington Post report that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. twice last, during the period he was a senator and Trump campaign adviser. Lisa Desjardins reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The nation’s new attorney general has spent this day under growing fire. And now, Jeff Sessions says someone else will oversee any investigation of Russian meddling in the election and of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

LISA DESJARDINS: The new attorney general, three weeks on the job, came to the Justice Department briefing room this afternoon to make his statement.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. Attorney General: My staff recommended recusal. They said that, since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.

I have studied the rules and considered their comments and evaluation. I believe those recommendations are right and just. Therefore, I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.

LISA DESJARDINS: This after The Washington Post reported that, during the campaign, when Jeff Sessions was a senator and Trump campaign adviser, he met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. twice.

Then-Senator Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors last year. Two of those were with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian envoy.

At his news conference, Sessions took issue with any suggestion of impropriety.

JEFF SESSIONS: Let me be clear: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.

LISA DESJARDINS: He also defended answers he gave during his Senate confirmation.

Minnesota Democrat Al Franken cited U.S. intelligence documents.

SEN. AL FRANKEN, D- Minn.: These documents, also allegedly, say — quote — “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

JEFF SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.

LISA DESJARDINS: This afternoon, Sessions said he never meant to be misleading.

JEFF SESSIONS: My reply to the question of Senator 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. That is not my intent. That is not correct.

LISA DESJARDINS: But Democrats in Congress weren’t buying it.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer:

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: I don’t think that is the way most think people would interpret it. And that’s why we need to have a thorough investigation.

LISA DESJARDINS: Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that Sessions resign.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: The standard for remaining attorney general and certainly for conducting investigations is not just, did you break the law? You have to be above reproach.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., House Minority Leader: He has proved that he is unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust.

LISA DESJARDINS: Seventeen Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee formally asked for a criminal investigation of Sessions for allegedly lying to Congress. Democrats are also pushing for a special prosecutor in the case. But there was also pressure from Republicans. Several called for Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation before he eventually did so.

But Speaker of the House Paul Ryan played down such talk.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: Asked him questions. But, honestly, we meet with ambassadors all the time. I mean, I did a reception about 100 yards that way with like 100 ambassadors last year.

LISA DESJARDINS: And this afternoon, Sessions’ boss weighed in, in Newport News, Virginia, aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Total.

LISA DESJARDINS: The president said he believes Sessions probably did speak truthfully to the Senate. He also said he didn’t think Sessions should recuse himself, but, 90 minutes later, the attorney general did just that.

The revelations come just two weeks after then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced out. He’d told Vice President Mike Pence that he didn’t meet discuss sanctions with a Russian official, when, in fact, he had.

And in a further development, The New York Times reported today officials in the Obama administration rushed to spread intelligence of any contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians before leaving office. Their goal? To ensure a trail remained for investigators.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lisa Desjardins joins me now.

Lisa, this happened late in the afternoon, about a 4:00 press conference. What was the reaction to this from the people on the Hill that you have spoken to?

LISA DESJARDINS: There’s a full spectrum of reaction on Capitol Hill, Hari.

There are some Republicans who say they do not believe that Attorney General Sessions should have recused himself. These are folks that are his colleagues. They see him as an honest man. And they were saying all day long that he shouldn’t do anything new.

But there are other Republicans who will tell you privately that they are relieved, that they saw this as a problem for their party, especially at a time when they’re trying to focus on other things, like, oh, the Affordable Care Act.

Those Republicans, one told me privately, are hoping that this means there will be a pause in the daily questions they have been receiving on Russia.

And that brings us to the third reaction up here, Democrats. They have a different plan. They do not plan on pausing these questions. And, in fact, House and Senate Minority Leaders Pelosi and Schumer instantly sent out responses saying that they are again demanding a special prosecutor. They say that Attorney General Sessions’ recusal just adds to the need for a special prosecutor.

And they are still calling for him to resign.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so it sounds like some critics are doubling down.

What about some of the reports that we also had later this afternoon about more meetings between members of the Trump camp and Russians?

LISA DESJARDINS: These were new developments today as well. The New York Times reporting, quoting a White House official, Hope Hicks, as confirming that Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, was at a meeting with the Russian ambassador, and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, at Trump Tower.

This gets confusing, because now we’re seeing more and more players here, but this is significant, because now we’re adding more members of the Trump team who were meeting with this Russian ambassador. At that point, it was Kushner, Flynn and the ambassador at Trump Tower in December.

That’s when the Obama administration was working on ramping up sanctions, a very critical timeline there. And I think overall it just adds to the map in this entire kind of Russia-Trump situation.

But I will say the White House says that Mr. Kushner met with many international dignitaries, and the Russian ambassador was just one.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Lisa Desjardins joining us from Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

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