Attorney General Jeff Sessions just announced that he will recuse himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign — a response to the heat he's taken after it was revealed that he failed to disclose contacts with Russia's ambassador last year.
The move is clearly intended to stanch the bleeding. But in the course of making his announcement, Sessions didn't do himself too many favors.
In his initial statement, Sessions maintained that he had done nothing wrong. He said that his response at his confirmation hearing to Sen. Al Franken's (D-Minn.) question about contacts with Russia “was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.” But he also said that he would nonetheless update the record to clear things up, and he conceded at the end of the news conference: “In retrospect, I should've slowed down and said I did meet with one Russian official a couple times — that would be the ambassador.”
So he didn't do anything wrong, but he should've done something else and will fix it. And also, the “as I understood it at the time” is pretty weasel-wordy. It sounds as though Sessions is saying he misunderstood the question, which is perhaps the best explanation he can offer, given how broad and unprompted his denial was. This is also, notably, something that could come up were he ever charged with perjuring himself. To commit perjury, you have to know you were lying; misunderstanding the question would apparently be his defense.
Sessions also opted to make some somewhat off-color and casual comments about the matter.
At one point, while discussing whether he and the ambassador talked about the campaign, Sessions said he couldn't recall having done so but that “most of these ambassadors are pretty gossipy.”
Sessions also volunteered the fact that Ukraine came up in their conversation, saying things “got a little testy” when they discussed it. But then he said he couldn't remember basically anything else about the Ukraine discussion.
At one point early in the news conference, Sessions said there were two senior staffers in his meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Washington. Later, he mentioned that there might also have been a third, more junior staffer.
He at one point acknowledged that Kislyak may have sought the meeting because of his ties to the Trump campaign.
"Ambassadors are always out trying to find out things and advance their agenda,” he said.
Sessions also left open the possibility that there might have been other contacts with Russian officials, saying only, “I meet a lot of people” when asked to account for any other possibly undisclosed meetings. That will lead to all kinds of questions about more contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
And indeed, mere minutes after he spoke these words, the New York Times has reported on another previously unknown meeting between the Russian ambassador and top Trump transition aides Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner in December. And USA Today reported on a separate meeting between top Trump aides and Kislyak during the Republican National Convention.
And finally, the fact that Sessions opted to recuse himself is strange, especially given that White House press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier in the day that there was nothing to recuse himself for, and that less than two hours before Sessions's news conference, Trump was asked about a possible Sessions recusal from the Russia investigation and said, “I don't think so.”
Sessions said he had informed the White House of his recusal and said this: "I did share with White House counsel, and my staff has, that I intended to recuse myself this afternoon. But I feel like -- because they didn't -- they don't know the rules, the ethics rules, most people don't and -- but when you evaluate the rules, I feel like that I am -- I should not be involved investigating a campaign I had a role in."
In other words, there are about as many questions as there were before Sessions spoke — if not more. And Sessions's casual phrasing continues to be doing him no favors.