Under fire, Trump’s attorney general removes himself from campaign probes

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By Julia Edwards Ainsley and Richard Cowan | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON 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 appropriate.

“I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the
Trump campaign,” Sessions told reporters at a hastily arranged
news conference.

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 allegations.

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.

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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