Trump’s attorney general recuses himself from any campaign probes

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By Julia Edwards Ainsley and Richard Cowan | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
removed himself on Thursday from any investigations into alleged
Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because
he was involved with President Donald Trump’s campaign.

But Sessions, a long-time U.S. senator before becoming the
country’s top law enforcement official, said he did nothing
wrong by not disclosing during Senate testimony that he had met
last year with Russia’s ambassador. He said the meetings were in
his capacity as senator, not as a campaign aide.

“I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the
Trump campaign,” Sessions told reporters at a hastily arranged
news conference. Several fellow Republicans in Congress had
called for the move, while Democrats urged him to resign.

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 his presidency.

The move means Sessions, a powerful member of Trump’s inner
circle, will not be briefed on details of the investigation.
Should the Federal Bureau of Investigation decide to move
forward with charges, Sessions would not be in a position to
weigh in on whether or not the Department of Justice should take
the case.

The controversy comes as 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 allegations.

Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn last
month after revelations that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions
on Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak before Trump
took office and that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence
about the conversations.

During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Sessions
responded to a question from Democratic Senator Al Franken that
he did not “have communications with the Russians” during the
presidential campaign.

But on Wednesday night, the Washington Post revealed that
Sessions, who was a senior campaign aide of Trump’s, received
Kislyak in his Senate office in September.

The other encounter was in July at a Heritage Foundation
event that was attended by about 50 ambassadors, during the
Republican National Convention, the Post said.

Sessions said he was “honest and correct” in his answer to
Franken, drawing a distinction between his role as a senator and
his role as a campaign aide.

“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian
intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said, but
added that he felt that he should not be involved in
investigating a campaign in which he had had a role.

‘ALICE IN WONDERLAND’

Before the news conference, Trump stood by his attorney
general, saying he had “total” confidence in Sessions. Asked
whether Sessions should step aside from the investigations,
Trump told reporters, “I don’t think so.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Sessions of
breaking the law by lying under oath during his Senate
confirmation hearing.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Sessions had
misled Congress over his contacts with the ambassador and should
resign for the good of the country, adding it would be like “Alice in Wonderland” if the administration were to approve
Sessions’ investigating himself.

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 wide-ranging
government investigation of any contacts between the Trump’s
campaign and associates and Russia, said two U.S. officials
familiar with the investigation.

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, has 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.

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.

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
revelation of the Sessions meetings as a partisan attack, saying
on Thursday that Sessions’ contacts with the ambassador had been
as a member of the Armed Services Committee.

The Russian Embassy to the United States, 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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