GOP lawmakers split on whether Sessions can still oversee Russia probe
With President Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions facing questions over his reported meetings with a Russian diplomat, could he possibly face jail time and will he recuse himself? Nathan Rousseau Smith (@fantasticmrnate) explains. Buzz60
WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans split Thursday on whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation of the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia after revelations that he met twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States while serving as a Trump adviser.
Sessions had told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings that he had not met with any Russian officials.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Sessions does not need to recuse himself unless he is 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.
But several other leading Republicans said Sessions should not be overseeing the Justice Department probe of Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
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."
Similarly, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., called on Sessions to "explain his interactions with the Russian ambassador and then recuse himself from the DOJ's Russia probe."
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."
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 on 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, who was a U.S. senator from Alabama and Trump campaign adviser when he met with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, 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 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. "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. Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said, "The fact that he spoke with Russians and then, under oath, denied it is unacceptable. If the attorney general refuses to recuse himself, he should resign."
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 on Thursday, 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. If not, the panel may have to consider issuing subpoenas to compel testimony from agency officials, he said.
"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."
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said there is "nothing unusual about a member of the Senate meeting with a foreign diplomat."
"On the other hand, I do believe Attorney General Sessions should clarify comments made during his confirmation hearing," Corker said. "He has said he will recuse himself whenever appropriate.”
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.
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.”
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, Michael Collins, Eliza Collins