Pressure mounts as Sessions backs off from Russia probe

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The controversy over any Kremlin involvement in American politics is not going to fade away anytime soon. (WPVI)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions may not have been clear about his contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 election, but this much is evident: The controversy over any Kremlin involvement in American politics is not going to fade away anytime soon.

Sessions on Thursday became the second high-ranking member of the Trump administration to take a hit over conversations with Russia's envoy to the U.S., recusing himself from any probe that examines communications between Trump aides and Moscow. An early backer and key adviser for Trump's campaign, Sessions said his staff recommended that he step aside from a probe.

"I feel I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in," he said.

Sessions' action followed revelations that he twice spoke with the Russian ambassador and didn't say so when pressed, under oath, by Congress. Though he rejected any suggestion that he tried to mislead anyone, he did allow that he should have been more careful in his testimony.

"I should have slowed down and said, 'But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times,'" he said.

The recusal, despite White House support for him, followed a chorus of demands that Sessions resolve the seeming contradiction between his two conversations with Moscow's U.S. envoy, Sergey Kislyak, and his statements to Congress in January that he had not communicated with Russians during the campaign. It carried echoes of a similar controversy involving retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who two weeks ago resigned as national security adviser after misleading White House officials about his own discussions with Kislyak.

Additional communication was revealed Thursday between Kislyak and Flynn and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, at New York's Trump Tower. In addition, Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump's presidential campaign, spoke with the ambassador last summer, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said contacts with officials and lawmakers are part of any ambassador's duties and that pressure on Sessions "strongly resembles a witch hunt or the times of McCarthyism, which we thought were long over in the United States as a civilized country."

Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s led a hunt for communist traitors he believed worked in the government and the army.

The recusal means the attorney general should not receive any briefings on it and have no information to provide to Congress or the public. But Sessions' decision to leave the matter in the hands of a top deputy may not cool demands that someone from outside the department provide a fully independent set of eyes.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said a special prosecutor should be appointed to examine whether the federal investigation had been compromised by Sessions. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had accused Sessions of "lying under oath," repeated her call for his resignation after he recused himself and assailed his integrity.

"There must be an independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the full extent of the Trump political, personal and financial connections to the Russians," she said.

Trump laid the controversy at the feet of Democrats, saying they were just trying to save face. "The Democrats are overplaying their hand," the president said in a statement. "They lost the election and now, they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!"

The Justice Department acknowledged Sessions' contacts Wednesday night following a report in The Washington Post, but maintained there was nothing improper about them or his answers to Congress. Still, the emergence of the additional potential of Russian interference in American politics and the omission of the meetings caused more than a half-dozen Republican lawmakers, including some who consider themselves personally close to Sessions, to urge him to recuse himself.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who said that though he found it impossible to believe that Sessions could have colluded with Russia, "if there is an investigation, he probably shouldn't be the person leading it."

While there is nothing necessarily nefarious or even unusual about a member of Congress meeting with a foreign ambassador, typically members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meet with foreign ambassadors, not Armed Services Committee lawmakers, whose responsibility is oversight of the military and the Pentagon. Congressional contact with Russian officials was limited after the invasion of Crimea and due to Moscow's close relationship with Syria.

The Justice Department acknowledged two separate interactions Sessions had with Kislyak. Both interactions came after cybersecurity firms had concluded that Russian intelligence agencies were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

The first occurred after a Heritage Foundation event during the Republican National Convention in July, when the department says a group of envoys - including the Russian ambassador - approached Sessions. The second was a September conversation, which the department likened to the more than 25 discussions Sessions had with foreign ambassadors last year as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But Sessions did not disclose his discussions with Kislyak at his Senate confirmation hearing in January when asked by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., what he would do if "anyone affiliated" with the campaign had been in contact with officials of the Russian government.

Sessions said, "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have, did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it."

In a separate written questionnaire, he answered "no" when asked about contacts regarding the election.

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Associated Press writers Richard Lardner, Mary Clare Jalonick, Andrew Taylor and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.

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