WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday he will recuse himself from a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 White House election.
Sessions faced mounting pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to step aside after revelations that he had twice talked with Moscow's U.S. envoy during the presidential campaign. Sessions' conversations with the ambassador seem to contradict his sworn statements to Congress during his confirmation hearings.
The Justice Department said there was nothing improper about the meetings. Sessions insisted he never met with Russian officials to discuss the campaign.
Sessions had said ealier this week he would recuse himself when appropriate.
When attorneys general have recused themselves in the past, investigations were handled by lower-ranking but still senior political-appointees within the Justice Department.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said before the announcement that Sessions did not need to recuse himself unless he was the subject of the investigation.
"If he’s not, I don't see any reason or purpose to doing this," the Wisconsin Republican said Thursday.
And President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday he had "total confidence" in Sessions. He also didn't think think the attorney general should have recused himself.
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Two Republican senators, both considered moderate, had called for Sessions to recuse himself.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Thursday, “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. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed.
"Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself to ensure public confidence in the Justice Department's investigation," she said. "He should also clarify his statements to the (Senate) Judiciary Committee with respect to his communications with the Russian Ambassador."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, tweeted Thursday that "AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chaired the Oversight Committee before Chaffetz, said Thursday: “The news breaking overnight reaffirms what I called for in an interview last Friday, that we need an independent review by a credible third party and that Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation into Russia. We need a clear-eyed view of what the Russians actually did so that all Americans can have faith in our institutions."
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Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who was re-elected in November in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 1 percentage point, also said Sessions should not lead the probe.
"Attorney General Sessions must recuse himself from any investigation into potential contacts between Trump presidential campaign allies and Moscow,” Lance said on Facebook Thursday. “And Attorney General Sessions must, at the very least, clarify his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee immediately.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said in an appearance on MSNBC that the attorney general should recuse himself in order to maintain "the trust of the American people." But later Thursday morning he appeared on Fox & Friends to walk back his comments.
"I'm not calling on him to recuse himself," McCarthy said. He explained that he was merely repeating Sessions' position that the attorney general should recuse himself if and when that becomes appropriate.
Sessions on Thursday told NBC News "I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign." He also repeated his prior statements that he will recuse himself from an investigation if it becomes necessary at some point.
Sessions, who was a U.S. senator from Alabama and Trump campaign adviser when he met with the Russian ambassador, has denied discussing campaign-related matters with Russian officials.
"I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign," Sessions said in a statement released late Wednesday. "I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
Sessions was asked directly during his confirmation hearings whether he had had any contact with Russian officials while serving as an adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, and he said that he had not.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Sessions "one of the most honest people I ever met" but added that he needs to explain his contacts with the Russians.
"The question for him is why did you meet with the Russians, why didn’t you disclose it, and move on," Graham said. "If the day ever comes where somebody has to decide whether to move forward with a legal case in the Trump-Russia connection, if there is any, I don’t think it can be Attorney General Sessions … because he was involved in the campaign."
Some Democrats were calling on Sessions to resign from office, while others were asking only that he recuse himself from any investigation involving Russia and Trump.
"After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., referring to Sessions' testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing. "Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign. There must be an independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal and financial connections to the Russians."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed. "Attorney General Sessions had weeks to correct the record that he made before the Judiciary Committee," Schumer said at a press conference Thursday. "But he let the record stand. There cannot be even the scintilla of doubt of the impartiality and fairness of the attorney general, the top law enforcement official of the land ... The Department of Justice should be above approach. For the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called late Wednesday for a special counsel to be appointed since Sessions made "false statements."
"Given AG Sessions’ false statements about contacts with Russian officials, we need a special counsel to investigate Trump associates' ties to Russia," Wyden said.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he needed to review Sessions' testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee before he could say whether he thinks Sessions should resign. He did say, however, that he now believes an independent prosecutor must be appointed to investigate any ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Schiff also said that he was disappointed that FBI Director James Comey, in a closed-session briefing with the Intelligence Committee, would not give members a "full counter-terrorism briefing" on the scope of the agency's Russia probe, including who the targets of that investigation are. He said he hopes the FBI will give a more detailed briefing to committee members soon.
"We're going to need the FBI to fully cooperate," Schiff said.
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told reporters that he, like Schiff, wants to review Sessions' testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I have no idea (whether Sessions should recuse himself) because I have no idea what he did or didn't do," Nunes said. "I think he needs to talk to the senators if there's some disagreement there."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed support for both Sessions and the committee's investigation. He said he takes Session "at his word" that he never spoke to Russian officials about the presidential election.
"It would have been very normal for Sessions, as a senator, to have talked to the Russian ambassador without discussing the election." Blunt said.
Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said, “The attorney general has said he would recuse himself when needed and I trust him to make what he feels is the appropriate decision.”