Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice last year with the Russian ambassador to the United States, according to Justice Department officials, but he did not disclose the information in his January confirmation hearings to become attorney general.
Sessions was a Republican senator from Alabama at the time and a member of the Armed Services Committee. However, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee typically meet with foreign ambassadors, not Armed Services Committee lawmakers whose responsibility is oversight of the military and the Pentagon. Congressional contact with Russian officials was limited after the invasion of Crimea and because of Moscow’s close relationship with Syria, a pariah for much of the West, according to the Associated Press.
The news of the talks triggered concerns that Sessions, as head of the Justice Department, could end up overseeing investigations into President Donald Trump’s team’s ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime.
What Sessions said during his confirmation
Sen. Al Franken: “If there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what would you do?”
Sessions: “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.”
What Sessions is saying now
Under growing pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike, Sessions agreed Thursday to recuse himself from an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The attorney general said he made his decision after his staff recommended that he recuse himself from any investigation related to the Trump campaign, since he had been involved in that campaign. Sessions added that his announcement “should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation.”
Sessions on Thursday rejected any suggestion that he tried to mislead anyone about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, and previously stated he never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign.
He did not clarify whether he had talked via phone or another method in his capacity as a senator with a Russian representative.
What the White House is saying
At an appearance on the aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford on Thursday shortly before Sessions’ press conference, Trump told reporters that Sessions has his “total” confidence.
Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, also backed Sessions.
Spicer told reporters on AF1 there continues to be "no there there" in investigation into Trump campaign contacts with Russians— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) March 2, 2017
A White House official also summed up the reports as “the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.”
They continued, “[Attorney] General Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony.”
What politicians are saying
Republicans and Democrats alike weighed in, including calls for him to recuse himself from the investigations and calls for him to resign:
AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself— Jason Chaffetz (@jasoninthehouse) March 2, 2017
Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe.– Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in a statement.
Very troubled that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had contact with Russian official despite testifying otherwise. https://t.co/ak9sU6EOmk— Sen. Al Franken (@SenFranken) March 2, 2017
And we need Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who should have never been confirmed in the first place – to resign. We need it now.— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) March 2, 2017
We need a clear-eyed view of what the Russians actually did so that all Americans can have faith in our institutions.– Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif) in a statement.
I’m calling for a special prosecutor & a 9/11 style commission to get to the bottom of Russia's ties to the Trump admin & election hacking.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) March 2, 2017
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday pointed to Sessions’ statement on recusal and said the attorney general should remove himself only if he is the subject of an investigation.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said he needed to do more research before offering an opinion on the Sessions’ revelations.
“Until then, we’re going to keep our powder dry.”
What Russia is saying
A prominent Russian lawmaker close to the Kremlin is playing down the revelation that Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the American presidential campaign.
Alexei Pushkov, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament and former head of the lower chamber’s foreign affairs committee, said Thursday on Twitter: “It turns out that almost the entire U.S. elite has ties to Russia … Paranoia knows no bounds.”
Last month, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was just forced to resign from his position over communications with Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak — and Flynn’s subsequent misleading of Vice President Mike Pence.
Trust — not the law — was broken in that case, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said after the resignation was announced.
On Wednesday, administration officials said White House lawyers have instructed the president’s aides to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian interference in the 2016 election and other related investigations.
The instructions, which were sent to White House staff on Tuesday, came after Senate Democrats asked the White House and law enforcement agencies last week to keep all materials involving contacts that Trump’s administration, campaign and transition team — or anyone acting on their behalf — have had with Russian government officials or their associates.