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Under Pressure Over Russia, AG Jeff Sessions Will Recuse Himself from Campaign Investigations

Emily Stewart

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will recuse himself any investigations into U.S. presidential campaigns on Thursday after coming under pressure regarding contacts with Russia's ambassador during Election 2016.

The former Alabama senator announced the decision in a press conference on Thursday, telling reporters the decision came after a pre-planned meeting on the matter set earlier in the week. He said he will recuse himself from any existing or future investigations into the presidential election and sought to downplay concerns over wrongdoing.

"I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign, and the idea that I was part of a 'continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government' is totally false," he said. He said he could not recall discussing the campaign with the Russian ambassador, adding that ambassadors can be "pretty gossipy."

A growing chorus of voices, including Republicans, were calling for the former Alabama senator to recuse himself from investigations into contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government after a Washington Post report late Wednesday revealed Sessions spoke twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year.

Sessions denied having "communications with the Russians" during the course of the presidential campaign at his Senate committee confirmation hearing in January when responding to a question from Democratic Senator Al Franken on the matter. He also responded "no" to a question in a written questionnaire presented by Democratic Senator Pat Leahy asking whether he had been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election.

Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, who serves as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, on Twitter called for Sessions to clarify his testimony and recuse himself.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy gave mixed signals on the matter, telling MSNBC's "Morning Joe" early Thursday "it would be easier" for Sessions to recuse himself, only to walk back his statement less than an hour later, telling "Fox & Friends" he's not calling for a recusal. "It's amazing how people spin things so quickly," he said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan hedged on recusal as well. He said in his weekly Capitol Hill news conference Sessions will "of course" recuse himself if he is the subject of an investigation. "But if he's not, I don't see any purpose or reason to doing this," he said.

Republican Senator Rob Portman said in a statement it would be best for Sessions and the country to recuse himself from the DOJ probe. Republicans Raul Labrador and Justin Amash have called for Sessions' recusal as well.

"Obviously he is going to need to clarify and likely recuse himself from any investigation with regard to the Russians," Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Reuters.

Some Democratic lawmakers have gone even further and argue Sessions should resign, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Representative Elijah Cummings and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer joined them.

"There cannot be even a scintilla of doubt about the impartiality and fairness of the attorney general, the top law enforcement official of the land," the New York Democrat told reporters. "It's clear Attorney General Sessions does not meet that test. Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign."

Democratic Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday sent a letter to the FBI calling for a criminal investigation into Sessions. They also reiterated a February request for a full briefing from FBI Director James Comey on Russia's involvement in U.S. elections.

A White House official slammed the Sessions allegations as an attack by partisan Democrats in a statement: "This is the latest attack against the Trump Administration by partisan Democrats. 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. It's no surprise Senator Al Franken is pushing this story immediately following President Trump's successful address to the nation."

President Trump told reporters Thursday he has "total" confidence in Sessions and didn't think he should recuse himself. He said he wasn't aware Sessions spoke to the Russian ambassador and that he think he "probably" testified truthfully to the Senate.

"This is a serious issue that has arisen, and it shows no signs of going away," said Scott Fredericksen, senior white collar criminal defense partner at Foley & Lardner LLP and former federal prosecutor and independent counsel. "This will have a substantial impact on [Sessions'] ability to implement the policies and changes that I think he expects to bring to the Department of Justice."

Questions over Sessions' contacts are the latest development in an ongoing storyline on Trump and Russia.

The Trump administration has been dogged by allegations of ties to Russia and contacts with the country during and after the campaign. The New York Times reported in February that Trump campaign aides were in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the election, and Michael Flynn was forced to resign as National Security Advisor just weeks into the administration amid controversy over contacts with Russia. U.S. intelligence found Russia intervened in the 2016 election in Trump's favor.

"President Trump and Attorney General Sessions would be wise to not only have Sessions recuse himself but to push for a special prosecutor to ensure that integrity, independence and impartiality are upheld in the entire investigation," said Evan Siegfried, a New York-based Republican strategist. "The White House has long maintained no wrongdoing was committed, and it would be in their interest that the special prosecutor confirms this. Furthermore, doing so would be politically advantageous for Trump as he would look like he is being non-partisan as well as avoiding looking weak by ultimately having a special prosecutor after House and Senate Republicans have called for it."

"Any time there is a charge or an allegation that somebody in the position of an attorney general has, whether intentionally or not, misled Congress, it's a big deal," said Robert Amsterdam, an international lawyer at Amsterdam & Partners LLP. "This is a big deal independently of the whole Russia thing, let alone when you add all of the Russia elements to it."

Amsterdam, whose formerly represented Russian Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Yukos oil company head who was later imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, said that many fail to notice the policy similarities between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sessions aside.

"Military buildup, problems on telling the truth, delegitimizing of NGOs, the xenophobia, attacks on the European Union, economic nationalism," he said. "It is as if Trump is using Putin's playbook."

Attorney General Sessions on Thursday told NBC News he will recuse himself "whenever it's appropriate." 

"The issue is whether he can be trusted to investigate himself," said Fredericksen. 

Updated with Sessions' announcement, letter from House Judiciary Committee Democrats, comments from Fredericksen and remarks from Trump.

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