Jeff Sessions says he will step aside from hacking inquiry

Donald Trump defends US attorney general amid Russian ambassador controversy

US attorney general Jeff Sessions says he is recusing himself from any investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election because he was involved with President Donald Trump's campaign. Video: Reuters

 

US attorney general Jeff Sessions has agreed to remove himself from any current or future investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, following allegations that he misled the US senate in his confirmation hearing about his past contacts with Russia.

After a day of deepening crisis over the revelation that Mr Sessions met the Russian ambassador to Washington on two occasions last year during the presidential election campaign, but failed to reference these meetings during his senate confirmation hearing, Mr Session said that he “never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign”.

Announcing his decision to recuse himself from current and future investigations relating to last year’s presidential election, Mr Sessions said he believed he had answered the question he had been asked by Democratic senator Al Franken on the subject during his confirmation hearing.

“In my reply to the question I was honest and correct as I understood it at the time. I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That was not . . . my intent.”

At his testy confirmation hearing, Mr Sessions had been asked by Democratic senator Al Franken: “If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government, in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

He replied: “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. And I’m unable to comment on it.”

Mr Sessions also said during his speech on Thursday that his two conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in July and September last year, including a meeting in his office, had not been in any way connected to the presidential campaign.

He also denied any contact with the Russian government in relation to the election, in a written statement submitted to the senate.

Calls to resign

US president Donald Trump’s brief honeymoon with the media following his first address to Congress came to an abrupt end as Mr Sessions faced calls to resign from Democrats and Republicans over the undisclosed contacts with Russian officials.

The Washington Post broke the news on Thursday that Mr Sessions did not state during his confirmation hearing that he had contact twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the US.

It was then confirmed by the justice department that Mr Sessions met Sergei Kislyak in July and September last year as part of his role on the senate armed services committee.

In his first comments on the controversy on Thursday morning, Mr Sessions said he did not meet “with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign”, adding that “the remarks are unbelievable to me and are false, and I don’t have anything else to say about that”.

One of the meetings was a private discussion between Mr Sessions, then a senator, and the Russian ambassador in his office during a period when the FBI believe Russia was involved in a cybercampaign to disrupt the US presidential election.

Mr Trump said he had “total” confidence in Mr Sessions as calls for the attorney general to resign or recuse himself mounted on Thursday.

Asked if Mr Sessions should recuse himself, he said “I don’t think so.”

Recusal

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer led calls for Mr Sessions to resign, saying that as the department of justice should be beyond reproach, he should step aside for the good of the country.

“Attorney general Jeff Sessions had weeks to correct the record that he made before the judiciary committee but he let the record stand,” Mr Schumer said.

Some senior Republicans called on the former Alabama governor to recuse himself from federal investigations into alleged Russian interference in the US election.

As attorney general, Mr Sessions oversees the US justice department, including the FBI, which has been leading investigations into the allegations of the Russian meddling and any links to Mr Trump’s associates.

Majority House leader Kevin McCarthy said that Mr Sessions should step aside from the investigation in order to “maintain the trust of the American people”.

The chairman of the house oversight and government reform committee, Jason Chaffetz, also tweeted: “AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”

But justice department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores insisted that there was “absolutely nothing misleading about his answer” at the confirmation hearing.

Russia links

The latest allegation of links between the Trump administration and Russia came just hours after the house intelligence committee agreed the terms of reference for an inquiry into alleged links between Russia and the US election.

Mr Trump’s administration has been dogged by alleged ties with Russia.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign last month after it emerged that he had discussed the possible lifting of sanctions on Russia with Mr Kislyak before Mr Trump’s inauguration.

Mr Sessions was a controversial choice as the country’s top justice official, amid accusations of racial comments he had made in the past.

During his confirmation hearing last month, Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren was banned from speaking after she read a letter from the late wife of Martin Luther King, opposing Sessions’ appointment as a federal judge in 1986.

Additional reporting: Agencies