Trump Says He Has 'Total' Confidence In Attorney General Sessions
Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
President Trump says he has 'total' confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, responding to reports that Sessions spoke twice with Russia's ambassador to the United States last year.
At the time, Sessions was an adviser to then-presidential candidate Trump, a source familiar with the matter tells NPR's Carrie Johnson. At his recent Senate confirmation hearing, when Sessions was asked about contact between Trump's campaign and Russia, he said he had not "had communications with the Russians."
The apparent clash between the accounts is prompting calls for Sessions to recuse himself from any inquiry into Russia's involvement in the U.S. presidential campaign — and, from some quarters, for him to resign his current post.
When journalists asked Trump about Sessions during the president's visit to the USS Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Va., Trump said he "wasn't aware" Sessions had spoken to the Russian ambassador — and to a question about whether the attorney general should recuse himself, Trump replied, "I don't think so."
Asked whether Sessions had told the truth to the Senate, Trump said, "I think he probably did."
Thursday morning, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., added his voice to those calling for Sessions to recuse himself, saying on MSNBC that the move would bolster public trust in the investigation's integrity. He also said Sessions needs to clarify the nature of the meetings.
Responding to the reports, Sessions didn't outright deny the meetings took place; instead, he insisted on a distinction between his roles as a senator and as part of Trump's inner circle, saying in a brief statement issued by the Justice Department, "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
When he was up for confirmation by his colleagues in the Senate in January, Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., what he would do as attorney general about claims that "anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign" was in contact with the Russian government last year.
In his reply, Sessions said in part, "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians." He didn't comment on what he would do as the top federal law enforcement officer if anyone from the campaign was accused.
The Post reported:
"One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator's office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race."
A person familiar with the matter told NPR's Carrie Johnson that on another occasion, after Sessions made a speech at the Heritage Foundation, he spoke with a small group of ambassadors including the Russian ambassador, that the group invited him to some events it was sponsoring, and that he made no commitments.
The Journal said, "U.S. investigators have examined contacts [Sessions] had with Russian officials during the time he was advising Donald Trump's presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the matter." The paper said it was unclear what came out of the probe and whether it was still going on.
In a statement released Wednesday night, Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said that Sessions had replied to Franken in the context of his work as a Trump adviser, not as a senator:
"There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer. Last year, the Senator had over 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian, German and Russian ambassadors. He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign—not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tweeted a call for Sessions to resign Wednesday night. Also last night, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said that Sessions should recuse himself from the FBI's investigation — particularly when it comes to deciding whether to launch prosecutions.
Reports of Sessions' meeting with Kislyak come weeks after President Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned following disclosures of his discussions with the Russian ambassador that took place in December — before Trump and his staff were legally entitled to conduct foreign policy. Flynn said he left his post because he had "briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information" in not revealing he had spoken about U.S. sanctions with the diplomat.
In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that it's not unusual for diplomats to meet with legislators, and he suggested that the current situation is too chaotic to evaluate.
"We see a highly emotional atmosphere," Peskov said, according to state-run Tass media. "But before making any evaluations, we should wait for everyone to calm down and the situation to stabilize."