US attorney general Jeff Sessions recuses himself from Russia probe
Donald Trump has railed against a “total witch hunt” after his Attorney General stood aside from an investigation into Russian interference in the US election after it emerged he twice talked with Russia’s ambassador to Washington during the campaign.
The president said Mr Sessions could have been more accurate in what he said about his contacts with Russian officials but blamed Democrats for blowing up the controversy for political reasons.
“Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional,” Mr Trump said in a statement.
“The Democrats are overplaying their hand,” Trump said in the statement. “It is a total witch hunt!”
While his decision will defuse the immediate crisis, it still leaves a nagging sense of crisis at the heart of Mr Trump’s White House.
At a hastily arranged press conference, Mr Sessions insisted he had done nothing wrong and was acting in his capacity as a senator. But he was happy to follow the counsel of his ethics advisers at the department of justice who said he should step aside from the FBI’s investigation into hacking and ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
“I have now decided to recuse himself from any existing of future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaign for the president of the United States,” he said.
The decision was welcomed by critics on his own side – such as Lindsay Graham who called it “the best decision for the country” – but Democratic leaders were not impressed.
Nancy Pelosi, who leads the party in the House of Representatives, described it as a “sorry attempt to explain away his perjury” and repeated her call for Mr Sessions to resign.
Ms Pelosi’s statement was echoed by Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the house intelligence committee, who called for Mr Sessions to resign saying he “clearly misled” the senate about contacts with Russian officials.
Mr Schiff also said in a statement that a special prosecutor should be appointed to examine allegations of Russian meddling in the presidential campaign and links to Donald Trump’s campaign.
His announcement came only an hour and a half after Mr Trump said he had “total” confidence in his attorney general and that there was no need to recuse himself.
Mr Sessions was the first senator to back the billionaire’s upstart campaign. His hardline positions on trade and immigration are credited with shaping Mr Trump’s campaign manifesto.
But critics always questioned whether a campaign cheerleader was an appropriate choice to become the country’s most senior law officer.
Those questions grew on Wednesday night when the department of justice confirmed he had twice met the Russian ambassador before the election.
In September they met at Mr Sessions’ Senate office at a time when Russia’s hacking operation was in full effect. The other encounter was during the republican national convention, at an event attended by as many as 50 ambassadors.
Democrats seized on the way he appeared to deny under oath any meetings during his January confirmation hearings when he was asked what he would do if anyone affiliated with the campaign had been in contact with Moscow.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he said, before adding: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
But at his news conference, he said he had been answering a question about a continuing exchange of campaign information between Trump surrogates and Russia.
“I did not respond by referring to the two meetings – one very brief after a speech, and another with two of my Congressional staffers with the Russian ambassador in Washington where no such things were discussed,” he said.
Instead he explained the conversations had included a chat about a 1991 visit he made to Russia with a church group, terrorism and Ukraine rather than American politics.
Yet it continues to cast a pall over Mr Trump.
Robert Shapiro, professor of government at Columbia University, said: “We are now getting further evidence of how the Trump administration and its officials may have been engaging in a cover-up of serious misdeeds, much like how Watergate slowly unravelled during the Nixon administration.”
United States Senator from Alabama
- 24 December 1946 (age 70)
Education:BA at Huntingdon College; Juris Doctorate at University of Alabama School of Law
Mr Sessions is one of the most conservative members of the US senate, taking a particularly strong line against immigration both illegal and legal.
Supreme Court controversy
Mr Sessions was nominated to the Supreme Court by president Ronald Reagan in 1986. However, his appointment was opposed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights organisations.
Lawyers with whom he had worked testified that Mr Sessions had made racially offensive remarks and his attitude towards civil rights cases was criticised. His nomination was subsequently rejected.
Support of Trump
Mr Sessions was a major supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. He was seen as a potential vice presidential running mate for Trump, although the campaign finally chose Mike Pence for the role.
On 18 November 2016, president-elect Donald Trump announced his plan to nominate Mr Sessions as Attorney General of the United States.