Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he is removing himself from an investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
His announcement came after requests from leading Democrats and some Republicans that he step aside. The requests followed a report from The Washington Post that Sessions met twice with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. He had told a Senate committee that he did not have any contact with Russian officials.
Sessions said he did not believe he had misled the committee because he did not represent the Trump campaign at the meetings. But he said he should have mentioned the two meetings with the Russian ambassador.
He denied that the two meetings were related to the presidential campaign.
Investigations are underway over charges the Russian government “hacked” into Hillary Clinton and Democratic campaign computers and released embarrassing information to help winning candidate, Republican Donald Trump.
Sessions, as the federal government’s top law enforcement official, would have overseen the investigation, unless he “recused” himself and turned over the investigation to someone else.
Sessions said his Justice Department staff had recommended that he recuse himself. He agreed with that recommendation and said it was the right thing to do because he was part of the Trump campaign.
Sessions said Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will handle all matters related to any investigation into Russian interference with the presidential campaign.
On Thursday, Trump said he has "total" confidence in Jeff Sessions.
Trump told reporters he “wasn’t aware” Sessions met with the Russian ambassador, but said he believed he had spoken truthfully to the Senate.
Before Sessions' announcement, some congressional Republicans said they agreed with Democrats that Sessions should not oversee the investigation. The two top congressional Democrats went further, saying Sessions should resign as American’s top law enforcement official because he misled Congress.
Why is this important?
Matthew Dallek is a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington D.C.
He said, “Any attempt to manipulate the outcome of an election in a democracy is by definition a big deal.”
And it has long been established, Dallek said, that when an attorney general’s ability to conduct a fair and impartial investigation is questioned that someone else should take over.
Robin Kolodny is a professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Temple University in Pennsylvania. She said a fair investigation is important because Americans want to know if the Trump campaign encouraged or worked with Russian officials to release unfavorable information about Hillary Clinton and other Democrats.
Sessions, a longtime U.S. senator from Alabama, was one of the first members of Congress to back Trump’s presidential campaign. He became a top campaign adviser, and after the election, Trump nominated him for attorney general.
Sessions says he did nothing wrong
The Washington Post centered its story on Sessions’ confirmation hearing on January 10 when Senator Al Franken of Minnesota asked what Sessions would do if he received evidence of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Sessions answered, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have, did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Franken said that, at the very least, Sessions had misled him and the Senate.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, had sent Sessions a written question asking if he had been in contract with any Russian officials “about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?”
Sessions replied with a single word, “No.” His aide, Sarah Flores, said he was being truthful to both Franken and Leahy. She said Sessions' contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States related to Senate responsibilities, not the Trump campaign.
The issue of how to respond to The Washington Post story about Sessions divided Republicans, who hold the majority in both houses of Congress. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was among the Republicans asking Sessions to give the investigation to someone else.
"Somebody other than Jeff needs to do it,” Graham said.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan said that Sessions should recuse himself only if he is connected directly to the investigation.
Congressional Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said Sessions should resign.
“Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign,” Pelosi said.
Bruce Alpert reported this story for VOA Learning English with additional materials from VOA’s Ken Bredemeier and other sources. Hai Do was the editor.
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Words in This Story
hack - v. to secretly get access to the files on a computer or network in order to get information
embarrassing - adj. information or actions that would make someone look bad or silly
recuse - v. to step aside from a job or responsibility
confidence - n. faith in someone’s ability to do a job
further - adv. to a greater degree or extent
manipulate - v. to use or change information in a skillful way or for a particular purpose
big deal - n. something of major importance
impartial - adj. not taking sides in a matter
surrogate - n. a person that represents someone or some group