WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, facing withering criticism for failing to disclose meetings with Russia’s envoy to the United States during the former Alabama senator’s confirmation hearing, recused himself Thursday from overseeing the continuing FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in last year’s election.
His role in the investigation will now be handled by Dana Boente, the acting deputy attorney general.
Sessions said Thursday that he did not meet with Russian operatives during the campaign and that his recusal should not be seen as an admission that there is any investigation taking place.
Sessions’ decision came after growing numbers of Republican lawmakers joined Democratic members of Congress in calling for the new attorney general to either step aside from the inquiry or resign.
The attorney general, who took office less than a month ago, has denied discussing campaign-related matters when he encountered Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in July during an event at the Republican National Convention and later during a September meeting in his Senate office in Washington, Justice officials confirmed.
At the time of those meetings, the FBI was deeply engaged in an investigation into Russia’s intervention in the American election process and Sessions was serving as chairman of the National Security Advisory Committee.
Sessions later did not disclose those encounters with the Russian envoy during his confirmation hearing in January when asked by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., whether he was aware if campaign officials had any contact with Russian government officials.
He provided a similar response to a written question submitted by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores has said there was “absolutely nothing misleading about his answer because the then-senator took those meetings in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Sessions was the only one of the 26 committee members who met with Kislyak last year.
“I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign," Sessions has said. "I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
Nevertheless, the attorney general was watching support from even his staunchest defenders in Congress begin to erode since disclosures about the meetings were first reported late Wednesday by The Washington Post when he moved to step aside.
The firestorm that has engulfed the attorney general comes less than a month after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was dismissed when it was determined that he had misled Vice President Pence and other top Trump administration officials about his pre-inaugural contacts with the same Russian envoy.
Dr. Mary Curtin is a Diplomat-in-Residence with the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota. She first explains what an Ambassador does.
"So, their job is to make a positive impression about their country and their country's policies with policy-makers."
Curtin says it's not unusual for Senators to meet with Ambassadors.
"The question then becomes what, at that moment, were they talking about. It could be a number of things. Russia from the beginning has tried very hard to convince the United States and other European countries to lift the sanctions we put on them," Curtain concluded.