In a Thursday afternoon press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would recuse himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns” for president in 2016.
Investigations related to the 2016 campaign would be handled by his acting deputy, Dana Boente, according to a Justice Department press release. This list would seemingly include reported investigations into Russian hacking of Democrats’ emails, and into contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
The move comes after a day of intense criticism of the attorney general, brought on by a Washington Post report that Sessions met privately with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign. The report seemed to contradict Sessions’s testimony during his confirmation hearing that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
Given that Sessions worked so closely with the Trump campaign, there have been calls for him to recuse himself from investigations that could implicate members of that campaign for some time.
The Post’s report turned those calls into a cacophony. Several prominent Republicans, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), called for Sessions’s recusal, and many Democrats are now demanding his outright resignation.
During the press conference, Sessions said he “never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries” on behalf of the Trump campaign, and that he was referring to that context specifically when he testified he had no communications with the Russians. When he did meet Kislyak, he said, “no such things” related to the election “were discussed.” He added that his testimony “was honest and correct as I understood it.”
The controversy that led to today’s announcement
During Sessions’s sworn testimony at his confirmation hearing on January 10, 2017, he had the following exchange with Sen. Al Franken (D-MN):
FRANKEN: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment.
On week later, on January 17, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) released Sessions’s written response to several follow-up questions, part of which reads:
But on Wednesday evening, the Washington Post reported that Sessions had two different interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign: a meeting at Sessions’s Senate office in September 2016, which certainly appears to contradict Sessions’s sworn testimony, and an impromptu conversation after they both attended a Heritage Foundation event during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.
Sessions’s team now acknowledges that these contacts occurred, but is claiming that Sessions’s testimony was accurate because the discussions with Kislyak took place in the course of Sessions’s senatorial business — he serves on the Armed Services Committee — and had nothing to do with the campaign. (As to how normal the contact was, the Washington Post’s Adam Entous reports that Sessions was the only one of 26 Armed Services Committee member who met with Kislyak during 2016.)
A perjury charge against Sessions certainly seems unlikely. As Zack Beauchamp writes, few cases involving lying to Congress have been prosecuted in recent years. But one top Trump aide, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, has already been forced out for Russia-related — in fact, Kislyak-related — reasons. (The Post reported that Flynn had misled then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence about whether he and Kislyak had discussed sanctions on Russia during the transition.)
So in the context of various Russia-related scandals swirling about Trump’s presidency, this looked pretty bad. By Thursday afternoon, Republican senators like Rob Portman, Susan Collins, Dean Heller, and Lindsey Graham were all calling for Sessions’s recusal, and Democrats continue to push for him to resign outright.
Sessions has not appointed a special prosecutor or special counsel
However, though Sessions is personally recusing himself, it is worth noting that he is still technically the boss of the deputy attorney general, who will run the investigation.
The current acting deputy attorney general is Dana Boente, a US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia who assumed the post after Trump fired Sally Yates in late January. Boente is holding the post temporarily while Trump’s nominee, US Attorney Rod Rosenstein, awaits Senate confirmation. Neither Boente or Rosenstein are thought to be particularly close to Trump’s inner circle.
Despite that, Democrats likely still won’t be satisfied with Sessions’s move. To ensure a truly independent investigation into matters related to the president or his top aides, they’d prefer to appoint some sort of special counsel or special prosecutor to focus on the job.
Administrations are generally reluctant to do that because they fear what such independent investigators might turn up. Even if the core of any particular scandal doesn’t end up leading to indictments, it has frequently been the case that when politicians or political aides are compelled to give sworn statements, they get nailed for misstating the facts on something or other — sometimes with very serious legal consequences.
But it’s the very independence of these investigations that makes them more likely to surface information about what actually happened — and less likely to sweep wrongdoing under the rug.