Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.
When Republican senators arrived at the Capitol on Thursday morning, they were inundated with a tidal wave of questions regarding revelations published the previous night that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador in 2016 but then said in his confirmation hearing that he did not have contact with the Russians during the 2016 campaign.
As the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate burst out of the gate accusing Sessions of perjury and demanding his resignation, Republicans fell into three camps: most gave a full-throated defense of Sessions and dismissed the accusations as a Democratic stunt; a handful called for Sessions to recuse himself from ongoing investigations of Russian meddling in U.S. politics, and a few key lawmakers said that Sessions should recuse himself only if the attorney general himself is the subject of an investigation.
As reporters tried to corner the GOP lawmakers Thursday morning in the narrow marble hallways of the Capitol, some pretended to be on the phone or sprinted to the nearest elevator to avoid questions. Others said they had not looked into the allegations deeply enough to offer a comment.
But several, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), stopped and spoke at length in defense of their former colleague.
“This is political theater,” he told reporters. “Democrats are feigning outrage about a perfectly ordinary meeting between a sitting U.S. senator and a foreign ambassador.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was similarly dismissive, telling reporters Thursday that “Democrats are lighting their hair on fire to get you to cover this story, to try and keep repeating the same story.”
According to the Washington Post, Sessions met with the Russian ambassador in July and again September, at the same time he had a prominent role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The meetings also occurred amid what U.S. intelligence agencies have said was a broad Russian government effort to interfere in the US election and ultimately tip it in Trump’s favor.
At confirmation hearing in January, Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee: “I did not have communications with the Russians.”
He later responded to written questions from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT):
“His answer at the hearing could have been more clear,” Cruz allowed. “He misspoke.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), a member of the Judiciary Committee that interviewed and confirmed Sessions, told reporters Thursday that “there is no way” he believes Sessions lied or misled Congress. “That’s a false narrative I’ve completely rejected.”
Many senators deferred to the wisdom of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is demanding documents from the executive branch and conducting their own investigation. Leading Democrats on that committee, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who also is the committee’s ranking member, are calling for Sessions to either recuse himself or resign. As Feinstein noted to TPM: “He did not tell the truth under oath.”
Yet the GOP members of the committee struck a different tone. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) accused his fellow committee members of jumping the gun as facts continue to unfold.
“What I am stunned by is the rapid move to assume the worst on something we know almost nothing about,” he told reporters. “It seems like a very vague conversation that everyone seems to have about Jeff Sessions, like they’re trying find something rather than something that is actually there.”
The Senate Republican caucus huddled behind closed doors over lunch on Thursday, and emerged trying to present a confident and united front regarding the controversy.
“Every one, every individual, has great confidence in Jeff Sessions,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) told reporters. “We believe he is a man of integrity.” Asked if any Republicans are discussing calling for his resignation, as more than 100 Democratic lawmakers have, he replied, “Zero. Absolutely none.”
But a small handful of Republicans said Thursday that it would help the integrity of the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in U.S. politics for Sessions to recuse himself from overseeing the proceedings.
“Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) in a statement. “Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself to ensure public confidence in the Justice Department’s investigation,” added Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) posted on social media that Sessions “should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the former chair of that committee, agreed.
Perhaps out of concern that more damaging information could emerge in the days to come, some Republican lawmakers left themselves some wiggle room to call for Sessions to recuse himself if certain conditions emerge.
At his usual Thursday press conference, Speaker Ryan said he has confidence in Sessions to oversee the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference: “If he himself is the subject of an investigation, of course he would [recuse himself]. But if he’s not, I don’t see any purpose or reason to doing this.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. investigators have examined contacts Attorney General Jeff Sessions had with Russian officials during the time he was advising Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.” Citing unnamed sources, the Journal reported, “The contacts were being examined as part of a wide-ranging U.S. counterintelligence investigation into possible communications between members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team and Russian operatives.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), confronted by reporters Thursday in the basement of the Capitol, expressed frustration at learning about the investigation into Sessions from the press instead of directly from intelligence agencies.
“I am tired of reading about innuendo. Somebody is leaking this crap,” Graham said. “And it’s putting people like me in a terrible spot. So I’m going to meet with the FBI director today, and I’m going to look him in the eye, and he’s going to tell me there’s an investigation or there’s not, and if he doesn’t tell me, he’s going to have a hard time.”
Upon further questioning, Graham said Sessions ought to recuse himself “if there ever becomes enough evidence to suggest prosecution, or possible criminal prosecution of anybody” connected with the Trump campaign, including Sessions himself.
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.