Updated 4:30pm EST
Responding to growing pressure both from his colleagues and the public at large, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that he is recusing himself from federal investigations into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Though he continued to deny the accusation that he lied under oath as “totally false,” Sessions said he spoke with his staff and they recommended recusal. “They said that, since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be part of any campaign investigation,” Sessions said.
“This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation,” he added.
While members of his staff may have recommended the move, it appears as though Sessions’ boss, President Donald Trump, thought the recusal was wholly unnecessary.
Asked by reporters on Thursday afternoon if Sessions should submit to the demands for recusal, Trump answered, “I don’t think so at all.” And repeated, “I don’t think so at all.”
Trump said he had “total confidence” in his Attorney General and when asked by another reporter if and when he was aware that Sessions had spoken to Russia’s ambassador, Trump replied, “I wasn’t aware at all.”
Watch Sessions’ short press conference:
There is a growing clamor from within and outside the halls of power on Thursday for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to face the consequences for apparently lying under oath about his contact with the Russian government, with demands ranging from recusing himself from any investigation into foreign election interference to resigning from his post.
Meanwhile, MoveOn held an impromptu protest outside the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Thursday while leaders of pro-democracy groups are also adding their voice in the demand for accountability. At the same time, the hashtag #FireSessions continues to gain steam.
“The country’s highest officer for truth and justice has lied to the American people,” said Wendy Fields, executive director of the Democracy Initiative, a network of 58 civil rights, environmental, labor, and civic organizations. “He gave sworn testimony about his communications with Russia. He should follow [former national security advisor Gen. Michael] Flynn’s example and resign.”
— Anisha (@Anisha_S113) March 2, 2017
During a Thursday press conference, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also called for Sessions’ resignation as well as an immediate investigation by the DOJ’s inspector general into whether he influenced the ongoing investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Citing the damning reporting published by the Washington Post late Wednesday, Schumer said: “The information reported last night makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that Attorney General Sessions cannot possibly lead an investigation into Russian interference in our elections or come anywhere near it. With these revelations, he very well may become a subject of it.”
Schumer went on to say that, “because the Department of Justice should be above reproach…Sessions should resign.” But, he added , regardless of one’s views on resignation, “the most important thing we must do is to ensure the integrity of the investigation. Has it already been compromised? What can we do to ensure that it moves forward in a way that ultimately leads to the unvarnished truth?”
Considering that Republican lawmakers have heretofore refused to hold President Donald Trump and his administration to account for their questionable business ties and contacts with Russian officials, Schumer went on to outline the steps that should be taken to ensure such truth.
In addition to the inspector general probe, this includes having acting deputy Attorney General Dana Boente appoint an unbiased special prosecutor for the DOJ investigation. “If the department refuses to appoint a special prosecutor,” The Hill reported, “Schumer said Democrats will urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to pass a new version of the independent counsel law, which would give a three-judge panel authority to appoint an independent counsel.”
The national accountability organization Common Cause issued a statement similarly urging McConnell and Ryan to utilize the “independent counsel” law to request court appointment of an independent counsel.
Further, as The Nation‘s John Nichol’s pointed out on Thursday, Sessions’ offense is also grounds for impeachment if he does not willingly step down.
The issue isn’t whether Sessions spoke with the ambassador. Nor does it matter whether he did so in his capacity as a senator or in his capacity as a Trump surrogate. He was both. What matters is what Sessions told fellow senators when he was asked straightforward questions. He volunteered, “I did not have communications with the Russians.” He replied “no” to a direct inquiry about whether he had such communications. At the most, these were overt lies; at the least, these were legalistic attempts by Sessions to deceive colleagues who were charged by the Constitution with a duty to provide advice and consent regarding his nomination to serve as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer.
“The tool, impeachment, is at the ready,” Nichols continued. “It should be employed by all members of Congress who believe that constitutionally defined oaths must be upheld.”
And while some Republicans have conceded that Sessions should recuse himself from the probe, House Speaker Paul Ryan is arguing that he should only step down if he himself is investigated. As for the Trump administration, it continues to stand behind the embattled AG with press secretary Sean Spicer telling reporters Thursday that Sessions “was 100 percent straight” when he gave his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in early January.
But the matter, according to ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero, “cannot be seen as a partisan issue.”
Calling for a full investigation into whether Sessions perjured himself, Romero said: “Jeff Sessions took an oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and it is now clear that he broke that oath in his confirmation hearing. If senators of both parties allow an attorney general nominee to plainly lie under oath with no repercussions, they will render our government’s cabinet confirmation process no more than kabuki theater. This matter must not and cannot be seen as a partisan issue, as it goes to the heart of the credibility of our democracy.”
“No one is above the law,” Romero added, “certainly not those sworn to uphold it.”
Notably, that language echoes a statement made by Sessions himself in a 1999 C-SPAN interview—resurfaced by the Intercept‘s Lee Fang late Wednesday—on the perjury allegations against former President Bill Clinton.
“In America, the Supreme Court and the American people believe no one is above the law,” Sessions said at the time.
Jeff Sessions in 1999 speaking on the importance of prosecuting Bill Clinton over perjury allegations pic.twitter.com/LCV6AqZB17
— Lee Fang (@lhfang) March 2, 2017