March 2 (UPI) — Republican leaders on Thursday said Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election after reports surfaced he had contact with a Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Sessions, who heads the Justice Department, on Thursday denied meeting Russian officials during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, NBC News reported.
“I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign,” Sessions said. “Those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don’t have anything else to say about that.”
He said he would recuse himself from the investigation if “appropriate.”
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Sessions “should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said it “would be easier” to investigate the alleged contact between Sessions and Russian officials if he recused himself.
“I think, the trust of the American people, you recuse yourself in these situations,” McCarthy said. “I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation … that there’s no doubt within the investigation.”
McCarthy said he did not see “anything very serious” about the meeting between Sessions and the Russian official, adding that Sessions needs to “clarify” what occurred.
Under oath, Sessions did not disclose those conversations during his confirmation hearings — then testifying that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
“I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself,” Sessions said Thursday. “There’s no doubt about that.”
The Justice Department is investigating Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and any links to associates of Trump.
Sources within the department said those investigations said Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak in July and September while Sessions was a senior member of the Armed Services Committee and one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers during the presidential campaign.
Sessions did not mention the meetings during his confirmation hearings. When asked whether he had been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government, Sessions said “No.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he wants to learn more about Sessions’ contact, and that he hopes to talk to the attorney general personally soon.
“Why did he not disclose that when asked specifically about it at the hearing, and, obviously, that is something that is important and needs to be addressed,” Rubio told NPR on Thursday. “It could potentially call into question whether or not the attorney general can do the job or whether an independent counsel would be necessary. We’re not at that stage yet.”
When asked if Sessions should recuse himself, Rubio said that “in the interest of fairness” Sessions should recuse himself but said “we’re not there yet … but we could be.”
House Minority Leader Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took a stronger stance following the report, saying Sessions committed perjury and he should resign.
“Jeff Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing before the Senate,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Under penalty of perjury, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, ‘I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.’ We now know that statement is false.”
Sarah Isgur Flores, director of public affairs at the Department of Justice, said nothing was “misleading about his answer” to Congress because 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.”
Flores said Sessions last year had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian and German ambassadors.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that though she’s been on the Senate Armed Services Committee for 10 years, she has never had a call or meeting with a Russian ambassador, adding such ambassadors call members of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Thursday called the report a “shame,” adding that the mainstream media in the United States is attempting to mislead public opinion.
“What is going on in the Western — particularly in the U.S. — media, is just some manifestation of media vandalism,” Zakharova said. “First of all, it’s an attempt of total disinformation.”
Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said the reports suggesting Kislyak could be a spy or recruiter should be ignored.
“These are once again anonymous media speculations which constantly work up this situation,” Peskov told reporters. “The only thing that can be offered to all in this situation is simply not to respond to these anonymous, unfounded false stories, and be guided only by official statements.”