WASHINGTON (AP) - A growing number of Republicans joined Democratic leaders Thursday in calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to step aside from an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 White House election. President Donald Trump said there was no need and he retains "total" confidence in Sessions.
Top Democrats demanded that Sessions go further than merely stepping aside from any investigations. They're calling for him to resign as the nation's top law enforcement officer after the revelation that he had twice talked with Moscow's U.S. envoy during the presidential campaign. Sessions' conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak seem to contradict his sworn statements to Congress during his confirmation hearings.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Sessions of "lying under oath," and she and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he should depart. Schumer said the Justice Department should appoint a special prosecutor to examine whether the federal investigation into the Kremlin's meddling in the U.S. election has been compromised by Sessions.
"If there was nothing wrong, why don't you just tell the truth?" Schumer said of sessions. "It was definitely extremely misleading to say the least"
"I have said that, when it's appropriate, I will recuse myself" from the investigation, Sessions told MSNBC on Thursday.
Trump, asked if Sessions should recuse himself, said Thursday, "I don't think so." He was questioned in Newport News, Virginia, where he was speaking aboard a new aircraft carrier.
While there is nothing unusual or necessarily nefarious about a member of Congress meeting with a foreign ambassador, senators from the Foreign Relations Committee typically meet with ambassadors rather than lawmakers from the Armed Services Committee, whose responsibility is oversight of the military and the Pentagon.
Congressional contact with Russian officials was limited for much of last year because of Russia's invasion of Crimea and Moscow's close relationship with Syria, a pariah for much of the West.
At least three House Republicans - Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Darrell Issa of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma - have said they want Sessions to withdraw from investigation of campaign contacts with the Russians. And GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said that while Sessions was a former colleague and a friend, "I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself."
The attorney general "is going to need to recuse himself at this point," Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told MSNBC.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, said he thought Sessions "needs to clarify what these meetings were." He said it isn't unusual for members of Congress to meet with ambassadors, but he added that if a question arose about the integrity of a federal investigation, "I think it'd be easier" for an attorney general to step away.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Sessions should only recuse himself if he is a subject of the probe.
Sessions, an early supporter of Trump's candidacy and a policy adviser during the campaign, was asked during his confirmation hearing in January what he would do if "anyone affiliated" with the campaign had been in contact with officials of the Russian government.
Sessions replied that he had not had communications with the Russians, and answered "no" in a separate written questionnaire when asked about contacts regarding the election.
In a statement late Wednesday, he said: "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."
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the disclosure of the talks with Kislyak "the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats." She said Sessions "met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony."
Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors last year in his role as a U.S. senator and senior member of the Armed Services Committee, and had two separate interactions with Kislyak, the department confirmed.
One was a visit in September in his capacity as a senator, similar to meetings with envoys from Britain, China, Germany and other nations, the department said.
The other occurred in a group setting following a Heritage Foundation speech that Sessions gave during the Republican National Convention, when several ambassadors - including the Russian - approached him after the talk as he was leaving the stage, according to the department.
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he did not know about the meetings but it was normal for Russian diplomats to meet with U.S. lawmakers.
Likewise, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, told AP that meetings with American political figures were part of the embassy's "everyday business."
Revelations of the contacts, first reported by The Washington Post, came amid a disclosure by three administration officials that White House lawyers have instructed aides to Trump to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian meddling in the American political process.
The officials who confirmed that staffers were instructed to comply with preservation-of-materials directions did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose the memo from White House counsel Don McGahn.
At the confirmation hearing in January, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Sessions about campaign contacts.
"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."
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