Jeff Sessions’s recusal from any investigations related to the Trump campaign seemed to do little to quell the rancorous partisan debate over Russian meddling in the election — with Republicans trying to put the controversy to rest while Democrats pushed for the attorney general to answer more questions under oath and take more steps to ensure the independence of probes that might implicate associates of the president.
On Friday, the president jumped more fully into the back-and-forth, swiping at Democrats who themselves had met with Russian officials — as his attorney general had done — and calling, perhaps facetiously, for them to be investigated.
President Trump and his aides unearthed a more-than-decade-old photo of Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) indulging in a doughnut and a cup of coffee with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to New York City.
“We should start an immediate investigation into @SenSchumer and his ties to Russia and Putin,” Trump posted on Twitter. “A total hypocrite!”
The president followed his first message with another tweet calling for a second investigation into the ties of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Russia. The missive, which Trump sent three times in an effort to correct typos, cited a news story about Pelosi’s 2010 meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which she did not acknowledge when asked about whether she had ever met the ambassador.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, requested that the Justice Department inspector general investigate Sessions’s decision to recuse himself in a broad probe that would also assess his involvement before he stepped aside.
The back-and-forth came a day after Sessions declared at a hastily called news conference that he would recuse himself from any investigations related to the Trump campaign, on which he served as a key adviser. He said he had been talking about doing so since he had taken over as attorney general and only finalized his decision Thursday.
His news conference was scheduled less than 24 hours after The Washington Post reported that Sessions had twice met with Kislyak during the presidential campaign. At his January confirmation hearing, Sessions had said he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
That revelation sparked a political firestorm in Washington, with some Democrats calling for Sessions to resign and even Republicans declaring that he should probably recuse himself from any probes related to Trump and Russia. Defending himself on Fox News on Thursday night, Sessions said his response was specific to a particular question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).
Franken, referring to a freshly posted CNN report, had asked what Sessions would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign.
“I think it was an honest answer,” Sessions said on Fox News. “I thought I was responding exactly to that question.”
The resurgence of questions about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials abruptly ended a period of high spirits for Trump after his well-received address to Congress on Tuesday. The coordinated rebuttal reflects the administration’s desire to stanch the bleeding.
But even Sessions has stumbled in his effort to put the controversy in the rearview mirror. In his Fox News appearance, for example, he said that he did not know whether Putin and his government favored Trump over Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.
That assessment differs from the view of U.S. intelligence agencies, which released a report in January declaring that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
The report also said Moscow did so in part because it “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
“Did the campaign believe that the Russian government, the Putin government, favored Trump over Clinton in this race?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked the attorney general.
“I have never been told that,” Sessions responded.
“Do you think they did?” Carlson said.
“I don’t have any idea, Tucker. You’d have to ask them,” Sessions said.
The FBI — which Sessions now supervises — CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence all joined in the report that concluded Russia had favored Trump. Spokespeople for each agency declined to comment.
A Justice Department spokesman also declined to comment on Sessions’s remarks.
John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA, said, “Many within the intelligence community would be surprised that the attorney general would not recall their conclusion that the Russian hacking was intended in part to favor Trump’s election.”
Asked whether the matter would upset members of the intelligence community, McLaughlin said, “I think they’re beyond outrage at this point.”
With Sessions stepping aside, any investigation of Trump and potential contacts between his associates and Russia will be supervised by Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia appointed by President Barack Obama who — at least for now — is serving as the acting deputy attorney general.
Trump had appointed Boente as the attorney general for a brief time before Sessions was confirmed but after acting attorney general Sally Yates was fired over her refusal to defend the president’s now-frozen travel ban. Boente is expected to be replaced soon by Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney in Maryland, whose confirmation hearing is scheduled for next week.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — who had previously urged Sessions’s recusal — said either directly or through staffers that they were satisfied with Sessions’s decision.
Pelosi countered that Sessions’s “narrow recusal and his sorry attempt to explain away his perjury are totally inadequate.”
“He is clearly trying to maintain his ability to control the larger investigation into the sprawling personal, political and financial grip Russia has on the Trump administration,” she added.
Some Democratic leaders said that they would not be satisfied until Sessions was replaced with a special counsel. That is a more dramatic step in which the attorney general would appoint someone outside the Justice Department to supervise the case.
“There is no choice but for Mr. Boente to appoint a special prosecutor,” Schumer said in a statement. “He is still in the President’s chain of command and could be fired at will by the President, who has already fired the first person in this position.”
Sessions has said he will update his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Grassley, the chairman, said that he would be satisfied with a letter “to clear up any confusion regarding his testimony so we can put this issue to bed once and for all.”
A Justice Department spokesman said that Sessions would make the update in writing Monday so he could respond to questions raised by Democrats, who asked why he did not correct the record of his contacts with Kislyak before they were publicly reported and why his recusal was limited to campaign-related matters.
“In light of the letter received from Senators late this afternoon, the Attorney General will respond to their questions along with his amended testimony on Monday,” the spokesman, Peter Carr, said in a written statement.
Grassley said that he requested the letter from Sessions, and applauded his recusal as “the right thing to do” because otherwise, his conversations would “be used against him to discredit” any investigation. Grassley added that “any talk of resignation is nonsense.”
Democrats — including all those on the Judiciary Committee — said that they want to hear a fuller explanation, under oath and in public, from Sessions as to what transpired. In a tweet responding to Trump’s tweet showing a picture of him and Putin, Schumer wrote, “Happily talk re: my contact w Mr. Putin & his associates, took place in ’03 in full view of press & public under oath. Would you & your team?”
“And for the record, they were Krispy Kreme donuts,” Schumer added.
Greg Miller contributed to this report.