WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday he will step aside from any investigations into President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, but he denied he had misled the Senate by failing to disclose he met twice with the Russian ambassador.
Under Democratic pressure to resign, Sessions held a late afternoon news conference to defend his actions and to announce he would remove himself from any probes, as some of his former Senate Republican colleagues and Democrats were urging him to do.
Sessions acted after the Justice Department late Wednesday confirmed that last year he had two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the United States, but when asked in his confirmation hearing if he had contacts with Russia about the campaign, Sessions said no.
“I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in,” Sessions said at the Justice Department. “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.”
Sessions’ announcement, made on short notice, helped shore up support among some Senate Republicans, but did nothing to sway Senate Democrats from continuing to call for the appointment of a special prosecutor to conduct the investigation.
“His actions today were the right thing to do,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman, adding asking Sessions to resign was “nonsense.”
Yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remained silent about Sessions, issuing no statement despite repeated queries.
And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sessions was right to recuse himself, but should have done it when he was sworn in. Schumer added that acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, a career prosecutor, must appoint a special prosecutor.
Some Democrats charged that Sessions had lied in his hearing and said he might be guilty of perjury, while several Republicans said they would wait to hear Sessions’ explanation before judging his actions. A White House official said, “This is the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.”
Trump, however, said he had “total” confidence in Sessions as he toured an aircraft carrier Thursday. Trump told reporters he “wasn’t aware at all” that Sessions had spoken to the Russian ambassador. When asked if Sessions told the truth in his hearing, Trump said, “I think he probably did.”
The Justice Department late Wednesday acknowledged to several publications that during the campaign Sessions had two meetings with Kislyak, but said both were in Sessions’ role as a senator and Armed Services Committee member.
In July, Sessions met with Kislyak and other ambassadors after making a speech as a Trump surrogate to a Heritage Foundation event at the Republican National Convention. And in September, Sessions met with him in his office.
Sessions said Thursday the meeting at his office had been set up at the Russian ambassador’s request. He said two of his senior aides, both retired Army colonels, and maybe a younger staffer or two, were in the room for the meeting with Kislyak.
During the meeting, Sessions said he recalled telling the ambassador about his 1991 visit with a church group, some talk about terrorism and a “testy” discussion about Ukraine. Sessions declined to speculate about Kislyak’s motivation for seeking the meeting.
“I do not remember a lot of it,” Sessions said, later adding, “But I do not recall any specific political discussions.”
Sessions also defended his answers to questions at his confirmation hearing.
“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. That is the question that Senator Franken asked me at the hearing,” he said, referring to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).
“I did not respond by referring to the two meetings, briefly after a speech, and one with two of my professional staffers with the Russian ambassador, where no such things were discussed,” he said, adding his response was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
Sessions said he would send a written explanation to the Judiciary Committee.