WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the country's top prosecutor, recused himself Thursday from all investigations related to the 2016 presidential campaign, after a whirlwind day on Capitol Hill where members of both parties questioned his ability to be impartial.
The tone of the day was set by overnight news reports revealing that Sessions met with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of Russia twice in 2016, including a September meeting in Sessions' office. The new information contradicted Sessions' sworn testimony during his January confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that hearing, Sessions said he "did not have communications with the Russians."
In an attempt to defend himself from charges he lied under oath, Sessions insisted he thought his meetings with Kislyak were not worthy of mention. "I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign," Sessions said Thursday. "The idea that I was part of a 'continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government' is completely false."
Nonetheless, he recused himself from all his department's campaign-related investigations, which are primed to focus on Russia's influence on the presidential election.
At the end of his press conference Thursday, Sessions acknowledged that during his testimony "I should have slowed down and said, 'but I did meet one Russian official a couple times.' "
Meanwhile, a new report from The New York Times later Thursday described how two other high-level Trump officials — senior adviser Jared Kushner and former national security adviser Michael Flynn — also met with Kislyak in December, before President Trump was inaugurated.
It is commonplace for incoming administration officials to meet with foreign diplomats during the presidential transition. However, Trump associates and Russians are under increased scrutiny as the FBI investigates Russian interference in the election and the extent to which Trump's campaign was involved.
At the press conference, Sessions said he met with Russian officials in his role as senator, not as a Trump campaign surrogate.
"My staff recommended recusal," Sessions said. "They said that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation. . . . I believe those recommendations are right and just."
The Sessions news marks the third time that a high-ranking Trump official has been accused of impropriety related to Russia. Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager, resigned in August over his support of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Retired General Flynn resigned his national security adviser post last month after reporters revealed he misled Vice President Mike Pence about the extent of his contacts with Kislyak, the same Russian ambassador Sessions met.
Critics of Sessions' actions, which include many Democrats and some Republicans, said the attorney general's recusal decision was too little, too late — and was forced by news reports on the private meetings.
Many congressional Democrats — including Massachusetts' entire congressional delegation — spent Thursday calling for Sessions' resignation, and the late afternoon recusal is expected to do little to damper the chorus.
"We are far past recusal," tweeted Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader. "Jeff #Sessions lied under oath. Anything less than resignation or removal from office is unacceptable."
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said that Sessions was "right" to recuse himself but that "he should have done so the moment he was sworn in."
"This episode has echoes of General Flynn's firing and continues a troubling pattern with this administration. They only do the right thing when they are caught doing the wrong thing," Schumer said in a statement.
Schumer and other members of the Democratic leadership said the investigation calls for a special prosecutor. Because Sessions has stepped away, Dana J. Boente, the acting deputy attorney general, has taken over campaign-related investigations.
Democrats want Boente to appoint someone completely removed from the Trump apparatus.
"A lesson in Washington politics: It's not the crime, it's the coverup," said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the assistant minority leader. The administration needs to "clear the decks; bring in a special prosecutor; let the FBI complete its investigation. I think it should go further with an independent commission."
Still, Sessions' recusal takes pressure off congressional Republicans, who were in damage-control mode earlier Thursday. The news of his meetings with Kislyak caused even Sessions' ardent supporters, such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine, to call for him to step away from the federal investigations.
In a statement, Collins said Sessions "should also clarify his statements to the Judiciary Committee with respect to his communications with the Russian ambassador."
House Republican leaders also called for further clarification, which Sessions has agreed to provide in writing.
Earlier in the day, GOP Representative Jason Chaffetz, who leads the House oversight committee, and Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority leader, asked for Sessions to step away from the investigations, to maintain ''the trust of the American people."
House Speaker Paul Ryan deflected the question.
"Should he recuse himself? I think he answered that question this morning, which is, if he himself is the subject of an investigation, of course he would. But if he's not, I don't see any purpose or reason to doing this," Ryan said.
However, in the closely knit Senate, a legislative body that prides itself on the cordiality among members, lawmakers were less direct. Sessions served as a senator for two decades, and many in the GOP caucus said they were offended by their Democratic colleagues, some of whom said Sessions may have committed perjury.
"There is no big smoking gun at this point that we know of," said Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma. "Should we do thorough investigations? Absolutely we should, but I'm just appalled at the rapid rush to judgment on something that we have almost no facts out there."
Others wanted Sessions to disregard the pressure altogether.
"I think the attacks on Jeff Sessions are naked politics," said Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. "He's a man of integrity. He's a man of principle and I think he will make an excellent attorney general."
Some Democrats called for reviving an old law regarding independent counsel. As proposed by Schumer, the law would allow a three-judge panel to appoint a special prosecutor in certain instances.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would endorse the idea of the independent counsel law.
"Certainly it looks like [Sessions] at best was extraordinarily misleading before the Senate and it sure looks like he didn't tell the truth," Wyden said. "The special counsel law is about ensuring that you conduct an independent inquiry, and, as far as I'm concerned, as of now, Jeff Sessions cannot supervise this investigation because it looks like he's hip-deep in the middle of the problem."
Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts said the debates amount to one thing: "mounting pressure" on Sessions and Trump.
"My feeling is that he should resign as attorney general," Markey said.
In a tweetstorm Wednesday night, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said the American people should not stand for anything less. She accused Sessions of misleading Congress in his original testimony.
"It's a simple q: "Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election?' " Warren tweeted. "Jeff Sessions answered "No . . . Now Jeff Sessions is AG — the final say on the law enforcement investigation into ties between the Trump campaign & Russia? What a farce.' "