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Top US law officer Jeff Sessions under fire over Russia links

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-03-2017 Chris Strohm

Washington: The White House dismissed as a partisan attack Democratic calls for attorney general Jeff Sessions to resign over allegations that he lied during his confirmation hearing about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador to the US while serving as a prominent surrogate for Donald Trump’s campaign.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer joined House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in calling Thursday for Sessions to resign.

“Because the department of justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, attorney general Sessions should resign,” Schumer of New York said at a news conference in Washington. He also said Sessions may well become a subject of an investigation. “The information reported last night shows beyond a shadow of a doubt he cannot possibly lead an investigation into Russian interference in our elections let alone come close to it.”

The justice department confirmed Wednesday that Sessions twice had contact last year with ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Sessions testified during his Senate confirmation hearing 10 January that he had no contacts with Russian officials.

The revelation prompted Republican senator Lindsey Graham and House oversight committee chairman Jason Chaffetz to join Democrats in calling on Sessions to recuse himself from any probes into Russian interference in the US election. Top Democrats in Congress including House minority leader Pelosi called for Sessions’ resignation.

California senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the judiciary committee, said Sessions must either recuse himself from any probes into Russian interference in the US election or resign. Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said Sessions must resign.

Several Senate Republicans rejected calls for Sessions to step down or for Trump to appoint a special prosecutor.

“We’re not in the business of investigating individuals, senators, that say they were doing Senate business,” Senate intelligence chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina told reporters. “Jeff Sessions has to decide whether his role as attorney general, whether he can participate in anything to deal with Russian involvement, potential involvement in our elections, and I trust Jeff Sessions to make that decision.”

A White House official who asked not to be identified on Thursday said Sessions met with the ambassador in his official capacity as a member of the Senate armed services committee. The official said that is consistent with Sessions’s testimony.

Democrats say Sessions wasn’t truthful when he was asked by Senator Al Franken during a 10 January confirmation hearing before the Senate judiciary committee what he would do if he learned that anyone tied to the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government during the course of the campaign.

“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions said, adding that he had “been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians”.

As an Alabama Republican senator, Sessions was visited by Kislyak in his Capitol Hill office on 8 September, the justice department said in its statement. He also met with the envoy as part of a small group of ambassadors after an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation in July at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

A Sessions spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, rejected accusations that he had misled lawmakers. “Last year, the senator had over 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian, German and Russian ambassadors,” she said. “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.”

The justice department rejected suggestions that Sessions was misleading in his testimony, saying that as a senator he discussed relations between the US and Russia during the September meeting with Kislyak. Ambassadors would often make superficial comments about election-related news, but those were not the substance of talks, it said.

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