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Some of California's Republicans are in a tight spot. Russia and Jeff Sessions aren't making that easier

Some of California's Republicans are in a tight spot. Russia and Jeff Sessions aren't making that easier
Clockwise from top left: GOP Reps. Ed Royce, Steve Knight, Darrell Issa and Mimi Walters. (Los Angeles Times, Associated Press)

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield on Thursday morning showed just how sticky the investigation into Russia's alleged involvement in the 2016 election has become for some Republicans.

"I think the trust of the American people, you recuse yourself in these situations, yes," McCarthy said on left-leaning MSNBC's "Morning Joe" when asked if Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from investigations into the election allegations. The evening before, a Washington Post story showed he did not disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador when asked about them during his Senate confirmation hearing.

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In the next hour, the Republican McCarthy was on right-leaning "Fox & Friends," saying he never called on Sessions to relinquish control. McCarthy said the attorney general should just clarify what happened.

"I'm not calling on him to recuse himself …. It's amazing how people spin things so quickly," McCarthy said. "It's amazing how this story comes out right after a great speech by this president, the timing. In his role as senator, he's going to meet with a lot of ambassadors. That's his job."

By day's end, Sessions had indeed recused himself from investigations into the presidential election won by his boss, Republican President Trump. But California's 14 Congressional Republicans, half of whom are facing potentially tight battles to keep their seats in 2018, remained split — or noticeably silent — on what to do about Sessions.

California's two Democratic senators and dozens of the state's 38 Democratic House members quickly called on Sessions to recuse himself from Justice Department investigations into Russia's election meddling, with many going further and saying he needs to resign. Even centrist Democrats like San Diego's Rep. Scott Peters said Sessions should resign.

Just four of California's Republican House members called for Sessions to recuse himself on Thursday.

A week ago, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista suggested Sessions should recuse himself, and added a special prosecutor could be necessary, during an appearance on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher." On Thursday, he made sure everyone knew he was ahead of the pack — at least within the GOP.

"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," Issa said in a statement. "We need a clear-eyed view of what the Russians actually did so that all Americans can have faith in our institutions."

Later Thursday, Republican Reps. Ed Royce of Fullerton, Mimi Walters of Irvine and Steve Knight of Santa Clarita joined Issa, but only in his call for Sessions to recuse himself.

The four are among the seven Republican-held California districts national Democrats plan to target in 2018. Voters in each of the districts picked Hillary Clinton for president, and Issa won his ninth term with just 1,600 more votes than his challenger. Others, like McCarthy, are in districts that solidly voted for Trump, but have been encountering big protests at their town halls and offices, many focused on Trump and the GOP's plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

Some of them are facing the most heated confrontations in their districts in years, and urging Sessions to recuse himself may be the first steps they're taking to distance themselves from a president who is very unpopular in California.

Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, David Valadao of Hanford, Jeff Denham of Turlock and Paul Cook of Yucca Valley, did not respond to requests for their thoughts on Sessions.

Valadao and Denham are on Democrats' target list in 2018. Though Clinton won their districts, they've consistently won reelection and may not be too concerned. McClintock and Cook represent solidly red seats, although Cook faced a challenge from tea party favorite Tim Donnelly, a former state assemblyman, in the primary.

Another target for Democrats is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who represents a coastal Orange County district that went for Clinton. But he's also well established in his district, a well-known Russia dove and is unimpressed by the Sessions kerfuffle.

"Big deal! Sessions is one of the most honorable figures on the Washington political scene. There is absolutely nothing wrong with him, as a senator or a campaign adviser, to have met briefly with the Russian ambassador to understand issues that might confront the next administration," he said in a statement, explaining that Sessions might not have understood the questions asked about his Russia contacts during the confirmation hearing.

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Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who chairs the House intelligence committee, would not say during a news conference Thursday morning if he thought Sessions should relinquish control over an investigation. Nunes was a member of Trump's transition team and, with a solidly Republican district, has for months been tempering expectations about the investigation into Russia's role in the election.

"I have no idea, because we have no idea what — what he did or didn't do. So I think it's up to the attorney general… to talk to the senators if there's some disagreement there," Nunes told reporters.

Republican Duncan Hunter of Alpine, who was rumored as a potential cabinet candidate and is also from a safe Republican district, took the strongest stance in defense of Sessions: He accused the Democrats of being on a political "witch hunt" against Trump and his administration, saying that Sessions, who was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee before he became attorney general, had every right to meet with the Russian ambassador.

Hunter suspects Sessions' failure to disclose the meeting during his confirmation hearing was either an "unconscious mistake" or a misunderstanding. The attorney general likely interpreted the question to be about whether he met with the Russian ambassador on behalf of the Trump campaign, Hunter said.

"I don't think he needs to recuse himself, but if he decides to just to calm everyone fears, that's fine too," Hunter said in a telephone interview.

Even with Sessions' recusal, California's vulnerable Republicans are likely to continue to feel pressure on the Russia investigation.

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Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, appeared at the news conference midday Thursday with Nunes and had a decidedly different take than his fellow committee leader, saying for the first time that a special prosecutor should be appointed. That's a step beyond simple recusal, which still allows Sessions' deputy to be involved in the case. Later in the day, Schiff called on Sessions to resign.

"After reviewing Attorney General Session's testimony during his confirmation hearing and his statements this afternoon, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the Attorney General should step down," Schiff said in a statement. "As a Senator, Mr. Sessions demanded complete and truthful testimony by those appearing before him for confirmation, and I do not believe he met his own rigorous standard."

With that, Schiff joined a chorus of other Democratic voices — including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Sen. Kamala Harris — who are still calling for the attorney general to step down.

Twitter: @philwillon 

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UPDATES:

5:41 p.m.: This article was updated with additional response and other details.

This article was originally published at 2:45 p.m. 

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