Jeff Sessions Under Fire From Both Republicans and Democrats Over Undisclosed Russia Contacts

Amid the furor over the disclosure, Sessions, the new U.S. attorney general, responded: 'I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign.'

Jeff Sessions being sworn in at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jan. 10, 2017.
Molly Riley / AFP

Both Democrats and Republicans fired criticism at newly-minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday - though President Donald Trump offered his support - over Sessions' failure to disclose two meetings with the Russian ambassador during Trump's campaign for office.

Sessions defended himself on NBC News on Thursday, saying that he had not met with any Russians during the presidential election to discuss "any political campaign."

"I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign," he said, "and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that."

"I have said whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself," he told NBC. "There's no doubt about that."

On Thursday, several congressional Republicans called on Sessions to recuse himself from investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election after it emerged he met last year with Russia's ambassador but did not disclose the contacts in Senate testimony.

U.S. President Trump, however, offered support to Sessions, saying he believed he had been truthful during his testimony to Congress.

Leading Democrats separately demanded the resignation of Sessions, the top law enforcement official in Republican President Donald Trump's administration and a close adviser to Trump's 2016 election campaign.

The two meetings with the ambassador, first reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday evening, were confirmed by the Justice Department, which said there was nothing untoward in the encounters.

During sworn testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Sessions responded to a question from Democratic Senator Al Franken that he did not "have communications with the Russians" during the course of the presidential campaign.

Sarah Isgur Flores, a Sessions spokeswoman, said Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors last year as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer," she said in a statement. "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."

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia hacked and leaked Democratic emails during the election campaign as part of an effort to tilt the vote in Trump's favor.

Allegations over contacts between Trump aides and Russia before his inauguration, and the charge of Russian interference, have swirled around the early days of Trump's presidency. Trump, who frequently called during his campaign for better ties with Russia, has accused former officials in the administration of former Democratic President Barack Obama of trying to discredit him.

Sessions, a former U.S. senator, received Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in his office in September, the Post reported. The other encounter was in July at a Heritage Foundation event that was attended by about 50 ambassadors, during the Republican National Convention, the Post said.

Sessions now heads the Justice Department as attorney general. The FBI, part of the department, has been leading investigations into the allegations of the Russian meddling and any links to Trump's associates.

Republican Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, said on Twitter that Sessions "should clarify his testimony and recuse himself."

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 House Republican, told MSNBC, "I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation," McCarthy said.

Asked if that meant Sessions should recuse himself from the investigation, McCarthy said: "I think it would be easier from that standpoint, yes." In a later interview with Fox News, McCarthy said he was not calling for Sessions to recuse himself, saying he would leave the decision to Sessions.

For his part, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told a CNN town hall meeting in Washington: "If there were contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, they may be legitimate; they may be OK. I want to know what happened between the Trump campaign, the Clinton campaign and the Russians," 

"When it comes to Russia, he has a blind spot. The bottom line is that Putin is disrupting democracy everywhere," Graham said.

Speaking at the same event, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain commented: "Have no doubt, what the Russians tried to do to our election could have destroyed democracy," adding: "And that's why we've got to pay a hell of a lot more attention to the Russians and the things they're doing in Europe -- and right now, they're trying to determine the outcome of the French election, and they're using cyber."

In a separate case, Trump fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, last month after it emerged that the retired lieutenant general had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with Kislyak before Trump's swearing-in on Jan. 20, and then misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.