Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions will step aside from overseeing the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the presidential election amid signs of growing unease among fellow Republicans over where the inquiry may lead.
Sessions announced his action, which he said he had been considering for weeks, during a hastily arranged news conference at the Justice Department on Thursday afternoon.
The move came just hours after top Democrats called for his resignation because he had failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador, and a growing number of Republicans had urged him to recuse himself from the inquiry.
Sessions’ action marks the second time in less than a month that a top Trump administration official has been tripped up by failure to disclose a meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Last month, President Trump ousted Michael Flynn, his national security advisor, after news reports revealed that Flynn had spoken with the ambassador and then had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about the talks.
Meetings between Trump associates and Russian officials are a sensitive subject because the FBI and other U.S. agencies have been investigating Russia’s efforts to meddle in last year’s presidential election. An intelligence report issued in January, shortly before Trump took office, assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the meddling, which included cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee, to hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump.
The FBI is also investigating whether people associated with the Trump campaign may have had contacts with Russian officials during the election year.
Sessions, as attorney general, oversees the FBI, but with his recusal, responsibility for overseeing the investigation will now pass to Dana Boente, a career prosecutor and the department’s acting deputy attorney general. Boente briefly served as acting attorney general after Trump fired his predecessor, Sally Yates, for refusing to defend the president’s ban on travel from seven mostly Muslim countries.
The attorney general began his news conference with a blunt statement saying he had no ties to the Russian government.
“Let me be clear. I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, he had studied the department’s ethics rules and weighed the advice of career Justice Department staffers. They had urged Sessions, who had been a vocal Trump supporter, to withdraw because he had “involvement with the campaign” and should not oversee any investigation involving it, he said.
“I believe those recommendations are right and just,” he said. “A proper decision, I believe, has been reached.”
Earlier in the afternoon, Trump said that he had “total” confidence in Sessions and that he did not think the attorney general needed to step away from the investigation, but Sessions said that the ethics rules left him little choice.
“I should not be involved investigating a campaign I had a role in,” he said.
In response to the query by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Sessions testified that “I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians.” In fact, he had at least two conversations with the ambassador last year. When the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday about those conversations, the news set off a furor.
Sessions told reporters that he had tried to honestly answer Franken’s question, which he said he believed was focused on whether “there was a continuing exchange of information” between the Trump campaign and intermediaries for the Russian government.
“My reply to the question of Sen. Franken was honest and correct as I understood at the time,” Sessions told reporters. But, he said, he would send a letter to the Judiciary Committee “to explain the testimony for the record.”
Sessions described two meetings with Kislyak while he was still a U.S. senator. One was a brief encounter after a speech Sessions made in July. The second occurred in September at Kislyak’s request and took place in his Senate office, Sessions said.
Sessions described the get-together as routine and attended by at least three members of his staff. He added that he did not “recall any specific political discussion” coming up.
White House officials spent much of the day trying to defend Sessions, who won support from some Republicans.
“We’ve got to be very careful here,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
“It’s a slippery slope. All the countries in the world basically have embassies here. A lot of those countries are adversaries. But we all meet with those — many senators and congressmen meet with those ambassadors on a regular basis,” he said.
Top Democrats, however, were scathing in their assessments, saying Sessions should recuse himself or step down from the Justice Department entirely.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said that Sessions had lied under oath and must resign.
Republicans did not go that far, but as the day went on, Sessions lost support among influential party leaders who called for him to step away from any role in the investigation.
“I think [for] the trust of the American people, you recuse yourself in these situations,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said early Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Once the decision was made, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Sessions for stepping aside, but said that his failure to mention the meetings with Kislyak was hard to understand.
The Russian “is not easily forgettable,” the California Democrat told CNN. “One would remember meeting with him.”
Kislyak, 66, has been Russia’s ambassador in Washington for nearly a decade. A veteran diplomat, he has also long been reputed to be a Russian intelligence agent.
In addition to the FBI’s inquiry of Russia’s efforts to manipulate the U.S. election, the House and Senate intelligence committees are also attempting to investigate.
Those efforts have been endangered by the FBI’s failure to share enough information about its findings, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said.
“We cannot represent to the American people that we’re doing a thorough job if the Department of Justice or the FBI is unwilling to tell us what indeed they’ve looked at, what leads they have followed, where they have found substance and where they have not," Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) told reporters shortly after his committee was briefed by FBI Director James B. Comey.
In a separate interview, Schiff said that Comey had declined to answer many of the lawmakers’ questions and that such reticence “can’t persist.”
“If we’re going to do our job, the FBI is going to have to fully cooperate with us, and that means they can’t say, 'We’ll tell you about this but we won’t tell you about that,’” Schiff said.
Democrats and some Republicans have called for an independent panel to investigate Russia’s actions. The Republican leadership has resisted that idea, preferring to keep the inquiry in the hands of the intelligence committees.
Times staff writers David Lauter and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.
4:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional comments and details.
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with Sessions saying he’ll recuse himself.
12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with Sessions’ plans to hold a news conference.
12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from President Trump.
8:50 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Republican senators.
This article was originally published at 7:05 a.m.