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Jeff Sessions Decides To Recuse Himself From Election Investigations


At a press conference this afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made an announcement.


JEFF SESSIONS: I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.

CORNISH: This followed a day of swirling questions about whether the attorney general may have misled Congress about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. NPR's Tamara Keith joins us now to talk through the latest. Hey there, Tamara.


CORNISH: So what are the reasons Sessions gave for finally recusing himself? What led to this decision?

KEITH: Sessions insists that the conversations within the Justice Department about whether he should recuse himself had been going on for a while, but he said he met with senior staff today and that they recommended that because he had endorsed candidate Trump early on and had been an active surrogate for his campaign, that he shouldn't be involved in any investigations related to the campaigns.

We should say that Democrats on Capitol Hill are making it clear that they don't believe that recusal is good enough, and they feel that this recusal is particularly too narrow. They're calling on Sessions to resign, and they're also calling for an independent special counsel to handle an investigation independently.

CORNISH: I want to talk a little bit more about what kicked this all off, which is the question about whether Sessions misled Congress about meeting with the Russian ambassador in the first place, right?

KEITH: Yeah, let's go back to the moment in question. This happened during Sessions' confirmation hearing to become attorney general. He was testifying under oath, and he was asked by Minnesota Democrat Al Franken about news reports that had broken that day that there had been ongoing contacts during the campaign with people in Trump's orbit and Russia.


AL FRANKEN: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.

KEITH: Of course we now know that he did have communications with the Russians - at least one Russian, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. He met with him in September.

CORNISH: Now, when the attorney general was asked about that today at the press conference, how did he explain this discrepancy?

KEITH: He said that he met with the ambassador in his role as a senator and as a member of the Armed Services Committee just as he had met with other ambassadors from other countries. But here's how he explained the answer that he gave to Franken.


SESSIONS: I was taken aback a little bit about this brand new information, this allegation that surrogates - and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump - had been meeting continuously with Russian officials. And that's what I - it struck me very hard, and that's what I focused my answer on. And in retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, but I did meet one Russian official a couple of times. That would be the ambassador.

KEITH: And he didn't, though, later correct the record until now. It turns out that Session (ph) wasn't - Sessions wasn't the only person in the Trump camp that Kislyak met with. A senior White House official told me that during the transition period, Kislyak went to Trump Tower to meet with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. Also at that meeting was now former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. And the official tells me that the meeting lasted about 20 minutes and was what they've described as a courtesy call.

CORNISH: You talked about a White House official, but have we heard from President Trump today?

KEITH: We did. He was in Virginia, touring an aircraft carrier and responded to several questions that reporters lobbed in his direction. The first was whether he has confidence in Sessions. And...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general, sir?


KEITH: Trump also said that he didn't think that Sessions should recuse himself. Of course a couple of hours later, that's exactly what Sessions did. The White House is casting this entire dust-up as sort of pure politics being drummed up by Democrats.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.