(The Washington Post)

“I DID not have communications with the Russians.” At the least, Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled Congress when he said this in his January confirmation hearings. The Post reported Wednesday night that Mr. Sessions had contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on at least two occasions — once after he spoke at a Heritage Foundation event at the Republican National Convention last July, and again in Mr. Sessions’s Senate office in September.

At a Thursday afternoon news conference, Mr. Sessions began by reading a prepared statement arguing that his declaration was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time.” That, he claimed, was because he was referring to his role as Trump campaign surrogate, not his position as a senator who regularly meets ambassadors. In fact, his extemporaneous response to a question was more fitting: “In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘but I did meet one Russian official a couple of times.’ ” Yes: If not at that time, then at least following the hearing, when Mr. Sessions and aides should have reviewed the testimony he had just given — under oath — and noticed that his statement was deeply misleading. Imagine Republicans’ reaction if Hillary Clinton had attempted to spin her way out of a dubious statement in such a hair-splitting way.

The Post reached out to the other 26 Senate Armed Services Committee members, where Mr. Sessions served, and all 20 who responded, including Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), said they did not meet with the Russian ambassador last year. Even so, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a Thursday morning news conference, there are a variety of plausible and appropriate reasons Mr. Sessions may have met with Mr. Kislyak. The damning issue is that Mr. Sessions misled senior government officials and the public about his contacts. This was the same lapse that brought down former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and it underlines broader questions about the opaque relationship between Mr. Trump and the regime of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. Those questions remain unanswered.

Mr. Sessions at least announced Thursday that he would recuse himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.” He should have taken this step weeks ago — and it should extend to any probe of after-the-election conversations between Mr. Kislyak and Mr. Flynn. Mr. Sessions should appoint a special counsel capable of conducting a thorough and unbiased inquiry into all of the contacts between Mr. Trump and his associates and Russia — including Mr. Sessions’s.

The attorney general promised to provide the Senate Judiciary Committee with a full explanation of his misleading testimony. The integrity of the committee’s work is now at stake, and its members owe themselves and the public nothing less than a thorough probe. Beyond that, what is still needed is a broader investigation into Russia’s attempted interference in the election. If ongoing investigations by congressional intelligence committees are stymied by partisanship, an independent commission should be empaneled.