How Washington is reacting to Jeff Sessions’ Russia revelation

BY    | Updated: Mar 2, 2017 at 4:50 PM
Attorney General Jeff Sessions holds his first meeting with heads of federal law enforcement components at the Justice Department in D.C. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Attorney General Jeff Sessions holds his first meeting with heads of federal law enforcement components at the Justice Department in D.C. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The Justice Department confirmed late Wednesday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, two separate times during the presidential election. By Thursday afternoon, Sessions announced he would recuse himself from any investigation into Russian and the 2016 election.

Why it matters: This appeared to contradict the attorney general’s sworn statements during his confirmation hearings in January.

  • During the hearings, he was asked whether anyone from the Donald Trump campaign had contact with Russia. Testifying under oath, he said he was “unaware of those activities.”
  • Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Sessions’ response to Franken was not “misleading” because the attorney general was asked about contact between Russian and the Trump campaign, and not about meetings he scheduled as a part of the Armed Services Committee.
  • Watch Sessions’ testimony and exchange with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) below:

    Video by PBS NewsHour

    What Sessions says:

    In a news conference Thursday, Sessions said he didn’t mislead the Senate during his hearing. “That is not my intent. That is not correct,” he told reporters.

    Video by PBS NewsHour

    • Sessions said there was a difference between meeting with Russian officials as a senator and meeting with them as a member of the Trump campaign.
    • He said in his testimony, he “should have slowed down and said ‘but I did meet with one Russian official a couple of times.'”
    • Earlier in the day, when NBC News asked Sessions about the reports on Thursday, he said in passing, “I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign.”

      • The response echoed an earlier statement from Sessions that flatly called the news “false.”
      • He added: “I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself … there’s no doubt about that.”

      What’s next: Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will now handle anything related to the probes into Russia.

      The revelation prompted bipartisan calls for Sessions’ recusal from the ongoing DOJ investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. After Thursday’s conference, some Democrats continued to call for Sessions to resign.

      • Some in Congress have called for more clarification from the attorney general.Others have accused him of “lying under oath.”
      • The Associated Press reported that Sessions will explain his testimony in a letter to a Senate panel.

      READ MORE: What we know about U.S. investigations into Russia and possible ties to Trump’s campaign

      Here’s a breakdown of what members of Congress are saying about whether Sessions should recuse himself.

      THE YEAS

      Video by PBS NewsHour

      House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) both called for Sessions’ resignation.

      “After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign,” Pelosi wrote in a statement. “There must be an independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal and financial connections to the Russians.”

      Pelosi said at least 100 House Democrats have called for the attorney general to resign.

      Video by PBS NewsHour

      In a news conference today, Schumer, too, called for an independent special prosecutor to handle the Russia inquiry going forward. Schumer added that he was “heartened” to hear some Republicans making similar demands.

      “Sessions had weeks to correct the record he made before the judiciary committee, but he let the record stand,” the senator said.

      House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) tweeted that the attorney general should add clarity to his testimony and recuse.

      Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)

      Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)

      Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.)

      Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called for an “independent review by a credible third party” and for Sessions’ recusal. “We need a clear-eyed view of what the Russians actually did so that all Americans can have faith in our institutions,” he said in a statement.

      Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.)

      Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.)

      Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.)

      Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho)

      Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.)

      THE NAYS

      Speaking from Newport News, Virginia, Trump said he had “total” confidence in Sessions. When asked whether Sessions ought to recuse himself, the president said, “I don’t think so.”

      A reporter asked whether the attorney general spoke truthfully to the Senate. Trump said, “I think he probably did.”

      THE INBETWEENERS

      If Sessions is the subject of a DOJ investigation into Russian interference, then he should recuse himself, House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Thursday.

      Video by PBS NewsHour

      Ryan also said that Congress has been “presented with no evidence that anyone on the Trump campaign or an American was involved in colluding with the Russians.”

      • Ryan said it was common for senators to meet with ambassadors all the time. DOJ confirmed that Sessions, as senator and senior member of the Armed Services Committee, had more than 25 conversations with ambassadors last year, the Associated Press reported.
      • “Democrats are letting their hair on fire to get [the press] to cover the story, to keep repeating the same story,” he told reporters today.

      Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

      In a CNN town hall with Sen. John McCain on Wednesday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “I don’t know that there’s anything between the Trump campaign and the Russians. I’m not going to base my decision based on newspaper articles.”

      He added that a special prosecutor ought to be instated should investigators find anything on that front.

      House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

      House Majority Leader Sen. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) originally told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show that it “would be easier” for the investigation if Sessions recused himself.

      A short time later, on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends,” he walked back from his initial statement, saying, “I’m not calling on him to recuse himself.” He then blamed the media for twisting his words.

      Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

      In a statement, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he takes Sessions at his word.

      “I’ve talked to at least twenty ambassadors in the last six weeks. It would have been very normal for Sessions, as a senator, to have talked to the Russian ambassador without discussing the election,” he wrote.

      He said he planned to go to CIA headquarters in the next week to review documents and intelligence himself.

      WATCH: Jeff Sessions recuses himself from Russia investigation

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