U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from federal investigations into the relationship between the Russian government and the Trump administration Thursday, after a Washington Post article revealed the former senator had at least two meetings with the Russian ambassador he did not disclose to Congress.
Sessions said he’d met with DOJ officials in the last few weeks to discuss whether it would be appropriate for him to recuse himself from investigations into contact between Donald Trump’s campaign staff and Russian officials during the 2016 election and its immediate aftermath.
“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,” Sessions said in a statement.
Sessions’ remarks came as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle called on President Trump’s attorney general to recuse himself from investigations into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Contact between the Trump campaign and Russia has been under intense scrutiny since intelligence agencies asserted in December that the Kremlin had meddled in the election with the intention of favoring Trump.
Sessions did not disclose the meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak under questioning during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January.
Earlier on Thursday, Sessions conceded he had met with Kislyak but only in his capacity as a senator, rather than as perhaps the most prominent surrogate for Trump on the campaign trail.
But at the press conference he provided some additional detail about that meeting, which took place Sept. 8. Sessions said Kislyak had requested a meeting, and that their respective staffers had scheduled it. During the meeting, Sessions said he and two of his senior staffers “listened to the ambassador, and what his concerns might be.”
“They were just normal things,” Sessions said. “I don’t remember a lot of it.” Sessions recalled how he told Kislyak that he had gone to Russia with a church group in 1991. “He said he was not a believer himself, but he was glad to have church people come there,” Sessions said. “He was pretty much of an old-style, Soviet-style ambassador.”
“We talked a little bit about terrorism, as I recall,” Sessions added. “Somehow, the subject of the Ukraine came up.”
Sessions recalled that things got a little heated. “It got to be a little bit of a testy conversation,” he said, adding that the ambassador invited him to lunch but he declined the offer. “Most of these ambassadors are pretty gossipy, and this was in the campaign season,” Sessions said. “But I don’t recall any specific political discussions.”
Just weeks ago, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after media reports revealed that he had also failed to disclose conversations with Kislyak prior to Trump taking office. Flynn and Kislyak reportedly discussed sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Sessions, during the press briefing, said that he was “taken aback” by Sen. Al Franken’s question about allegations of communication between the Trump campaign and Russia, and as a result he did not give a clear answer. “Sen. Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities, Sessions responded during his confirmation hearing. “I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians.”
On Thursday, Sessions said he was “struck” by the question. “In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘but I did meet one Russian official a couple times’.”
Trump, during a visit to the USS Gerald Ford in Newport News, Virginia earlier in the day, told reporters that he had “total” confidence in Sessions, and that he did not think that his attorney general should recuse himself from the investigation into alleged campaign ties with Russia.
Some top Democrats on Thursday, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have called for Sessions to resign. A shorter list of Republicans called for Sessions to recuse himself, while others were silent or defended Trump’s attorney general:
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine
Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa.
Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla.
Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J.
Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.)
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.