By Paul Handley, AFP
WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump accused Democrats late Thursday of conducting a “witch hunt” against Attorney General Jeff Sessions over contacts with Russia, as the veteran senator recused himself from any probe into the election campaign. Sessions denied any impropriety or that he lied about those encounters in his Senate confirmation hearing. The attorney general told his confirmation hearing in January that he “did not have communications with the Russians” and did not know of any by other campaign staff. Sessions on Thursday clarified that his denial referred to contacts made on behalf of the campaign. He said he met Kislyak in his capacity as a senator, and discussed mainly global politics with him. Trump declared his “total” confidence in Sessions — while adding that he “wasn’t aware” of contacts between Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sessions, who was a senator actively supporting Trump’s campaign at the time. He defended Sessions again in a statement late Thursday, calling Sessions an “honest man” and accusing Democrats of carrying out “a total witch hunt!” Sessions “did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional.” Unswayed by Sessions’s account of events, top Democrats are maintaining their calls for him to step down immediately, accusing him of perjury. They also called for an independent prosecutor to investigate contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow, which U.S. intelligence says interfered in the election to hurt Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Adam Schiff, a Democratic ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, rejected Sessions’ claim that his contacts with Kislyak were unrelated to his work with the Trump campaign as “simply not credible.”
“In the midst of a Russian campaign aimed at undermining our election and as a highly visible proxy for candidate Trump, Sessions would have had to be extraordinarily naive or gullible to believe that the ambassador was seeking him out in his office for a discussion on military matters, and Sessions is neither,” he said in a statement. “I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the Attorney General should step down,” he said, echoing calls made earlier by top Democrats in both chambers of the Republican-controlled Congress.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Flynn had also met the diplomat in Trump Tower in December, with Trump son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner also in attendance. Sessions, after reviewing ethics rules for his office, said: “I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.” Despite the swirling controversy, few hard facts are publicly available on what U.S. investigators know and suspect about the contacts and about Russia’s alleged operation to disrupt the election last year. Trump’s White House has lobbied the FBI, reportedly the CIA and two Republicans who head committees leading investigations into Russia’s election meddling, to knock down media reports on the alleged links. That added to Democrats’ worries that investigations could be tainted, and lawmakers were pressing for an independent counsel to be named to study the web of allegations about Trump and Russia free from political interference.