Under fire, Trump's attorney general
removes himself from campaign probes
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[March 03, 2017]
By Julia Edwards Ainsley and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney
General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday he would stay out of any probe
into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election but
maintained he did nothing wrong by failing to disclose he met last year
with Russia's ambassador.
Sessions, a longtime U.S. senator who was an early and high-ranking
player in President Donald Trump's campaign before becoming the
country's top law enforcement official, announced the decision after
several fellow Republicans in Congress suggested the move would be
"I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump
campaign," Sessions told reporters at a hastily arranged news
Sessions said he had been weighing recusal - ruling himself out from any
role in the investigations - even before the latest twist of the
controversy over ties between Trump associates and Russia that has
dogged the early days of the Trump presidency.
The president backed Sessions, saying Democrats had politicized the
issue and calling the controversy a "total witch hunt."
Sessions' announcement did nothing to quell concerns among congressional
Democrats, a number of whom called for Sessions to step down.
Trump and Republicans who control Congress are trying to move past early
administration missteps and focus on issues important to them, including
immigration, tax cuts and repealing the Obamacare healthcare law.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia hacked and
leaked Democratic emails during the election campaign as part of an
effort to tilt the vote in Trump's favor. The Kremlin has denied the
Sessions denied he had contact with Russian officials when he was asked
directly during his Senate confirmation hearing to become attorney
general whether he had exchanged information with Russian operatives
during the election campaign.
He told reporters he was "honest and correct" in his response, although
he acknowledged he "should have slowed down" and mentioned he had met
with the ambassador in his role as a senator.
"I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries
about the Trump campaign," Sessions said, adding he felt he should not
be involved in investigating a campaign in which he had had a role.
In a statement on Thursday night, Trump said Sessions "did not say
anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but
it was clearly not intentional."
Sessions' meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak were disclosed
on Wednesday night by the Washington Post. Sessions received Kislyak in
his Senate office in September and also met him in July at a Heritage
Foundation event at the Republican National Convention that was attended
by about 50 ambassadors.
Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn last month after
disclosures that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with
Kislyak before Trump took office and that Flynn misled Vice President
Mike Pence about the conversations.
The recusal means Sessions, a powerful member of Trump's inner circle,
will not be briefed on details of any probe. Should the Federal Bureau
of Investigation decide to move forward with charges, Sessions would not
be in a position to weigh in on whether the Department of Justice should
take the case.
CALLS TO RESIGN
House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi urged Sessions
to resign and said "his narrow recusal and sorry attempt to explain away
his perjury" were inadequate.
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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a news conference at
the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2017.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee,
said Sessions' explanation for failing to tell the Senate about his
meetings "is simply not credible." He called on Sessions to step
down and said the Justice Department should name an independent
prosecutor to investigate Russian interference.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee asked the FBI to launch a
criminal investigation into Sessions' statements to Congress about
his communication with Russian officials.
Sessions is one of many "subjects" of a government investigation of
any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, two U.S.
officials familiar with the probe said.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sessions was
not now a "target" of the probe by the FBI, the Treasury Department,
the CIA and the National Security Agency.
The investigation, one of the officials said, had a number of
subjects because of the numerous contacts between associates of
Trump, including Flynn, and the Russian Embassy in Washington as
well as Russian and some Ukrainian businessmen and companies.
At least two other officials in Trump's campaign said they also
spoke with the Russian ambassador at a conference on the sidelines
of the July convention last July, USA Today reported on Thursday.
Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner also met with Kislyak
in December at Trump Tower in New York, an administration official
said on Thursday, confirming a report in the New Yorker.
While there is nothing legally wrong with such meetings, the
reported contacts raise questions about the White House's repeated
statements that it knew of no further contacts with Russian
officials beyond those by Flynn.
Trump has accused officials in former Democratic President Barack
Obama's administration of trying to discredit him with questions
about Russia contacts. The White House dismissed the disclosure of
the Sessions meetings as a partisan attack, saying his contacts with
the ambassador had been as a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Trump called frequently during his campaign for improved relations
with Russia, drawing criticism from Democrats and some Republicans.
Ties with Russia have been deeply strained in recent years over
Moscow's military interference in Ukraine, military support for
President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and President Vladimir Putin's
intolerance of political dissent.
With his administration on the defensive over Russia, Trump's
enthusiasm seems to have cooled, and his top foreign policy advisers
have begun talking tougher about Moscow.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, shrugging off the uproar, said on
Thursday it was in regular contact with "U.S. partners."
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Ayesha Rascoe, Steve Holland,
Julia Edwards Ainsely, Patricia Zengerle and John Walcott)
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