Cracks in Republican unity began to appear Thursday as several high-ranking congressional Republicans called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election. The majority of Republicans, however, are resisting such calls, wary of undermining the new Republican administration.
The disarray came as the party scrambled to respond to the revelations that Sessions, a high-profile surrogate for Donald Trump on the campaign trail, met twice with the Russian ambassador during last year’s presidential race and neglected to disclose those meetings to Congress when asked during his confirmation hearings.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was even in conflict with himself on how to respond. On Thursday morning as he was asked about Sessions on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he said, “I think the trust of the American people [is at stake]; you recuse yourself in these situations, yes.” Later, on “Fox and Friends,” he backtracked: “I’m not calling on [Sessions] to recuse himself.”
Whichever side McCarthy is on, he has plenty of company with fellow Republicans on either side.
Sen. Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, told reporters Thursday that he thinks “it would be best for [Sessions] and for the country to recuse himself from the [Department of Justice] Russia probe.”
House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz tweeted Thursday morning that Sessions should “clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”
And Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado said Sessions had made a “grave omission by not disclosing his meeting with the Russian ambassador last year” and must recuse himself.
Those Republicans were joined by several longtime Trump critics, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. Rep. Darrell Issa reiterated his call for an independent third party to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
But several high-profile Republicans resisted such calls and said Sessions can decide when and if he should recuse himself. Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is leading the Senate investigation into Russian election interference, told a scrum of reporters Thursday, “I trust Jeff Sessions.”
The White House press secretary told VICE News Thursday that Sessions did not disclose his meeting because it was “in the regular course of his work on the Armed Services Committee” and not as a campaign surrogate. Burr echoed this defense to reporters on Thursday, saying, “We’re not in the business of investigating individual senators that say they were doing senate business.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah also defended Sessions and attacked Democrats, several of whom have called for the attorney general to resign. “My concern is, why are our Democratic Ssnators so doggone rude to a former senator,” he told VICE News.
House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to split the difference and said Sessions should recuse himself if the attorney general is the subject of an investigation and that currently is not the case. He did not comment on whether Sessions should recuse himself from the broader investigation into Russia and redirected further questions to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Democrats have been calling on Sessions for weeks to recuse himself from any investigations into connections between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government, arguing that his advisory role on the campaign makes it impossible for him to be impartial.
As some Republicans are now arguing for recusal, many Democrats are now saying that is insufficient and are demanding an independent special prosecutor or special committee to thoroughly investigate the Russia issue. Republicans are resisting such calls, for now.