Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer demanded U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions step down from his post following reports that he met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year—in apparent contradiction of the former Alabama senator‘s claims during his confirmation hearings that he “did not have any communications with the Russians.”
The Washington Post broke the latest development in the tangled story of President Donald Trump’s relations with his authoritarian Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Despite his explicit denial of any interaction with Kremlin officials, Sessions in fact sat down with Kislyak in July and September, the same time that the site Wikileaks was publishing emails that U.S. intelligence officials say Russian hackers stole from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign team.
In a press conference in Washington, Schumer alluded to evidence that this cyber interference was part of concerted campaign by Putin to damage Clinton and boost Trump—and demanded Sessions immediately abdicate his role as the country’s top law enforcement official.
“It goes to the very wellspring of our democracy,” the senior senator from New York and most powerful Democrat in D.C. said. “Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.”
Sessions has maintained that his statement to the Senate about his supposed lack of communication with Russians referred only to his work as a surrogate for Trump’s presidential bid. He has insisted he met with Kislyak—and with other foreign ambassadors—in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I have never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false,” Sessions said in a statement released through a spokeswoman last night.
Schumer said repeatedly today that there was “nothing wrong” with Sessions meeting with the Russian ambassador. The issue, he asserted, was that Sessions lied under oath and failed to correct or clarify the record in the weeks that followed.
The Democratic leader further wondered whether Sessions had held other conferences with Kremlin officials and whether he disclosed his contact with Kislyak during his background check with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Schumer also repeated his calls for an independent probe of the extent of Moscow’s involvement in the election, and reports that Trump associates maintained contact with Putin allies throughout the campaign.
“There has been revelation after revelation, mystery after mystery, stories shifting like quicksand. If there is simply no ‘there’ there, why won’t they tell the truth?” Schumer asked. “We must evaluate the scope of Russia’s interference in our election, and assess if agents of their government have penetrated to the highest level of our government.”
Should the Justice Department refuse to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the matter, Schumer said his 48-strong conference would demand Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan revive an expired Independent Counsel Act. This statute, signed into law in 1978 in reaction to the Watergate scandal, orders the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to handle investigations into high-ranking executive branch officials.
Congress failed to renew the law following the controversy over Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s probes into former President Bill Clinton.
Above all else, Schumer insisted that Sessions himself must not be allowed to to investigate the Trump campaign’s Kremlin connections—a notion he said had an “Alice in Wonderland quality.”
“The information reported last night makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that Attorney General Sessions cannot lead an investigation into Russian interference in our elections, or come anywhere near it,” the minority leader said. “With these revelations, he may well become a subject of it.”
At a press conference held this afternoon, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any investigations touching the Trump campaign, even though the White House had earlier said he should not. The attorney general insisted that he and his advisers had been planning to announce that decision today even before the news of his contact with Kislyak broke last night.
Sessions gave no indication he intended to leave his post, but did say he would pen a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee amending his testimony to acknowledge his meetings with Russian ambassador. He said he could not recall the content of their conversation, only that he did not believe they discussed any political matters, and said to his knowledge he had not spoken with any other Putin emissaries or agents.
Several top Democrats, including Queens Congressman Joseph Crowley, argued afterward that recusal was insufficient and that Sessions must resign for his dishonesty. Schumer, however, did not press that demand in his statement after the press conference.
Instead, he reiterated his call for a special prosecutor.
“Attorney General Sessions is right to recuse himself, but the fact is he should have done so the moment he was sworn in,” the minority leader said in a press release. “They only do the right thing when they are caught doing the wrong thing.”
“The DOJ regulations clearly require the appointment of a special prosecutor and the administration shouldn’t ignore clear regulations a second time,” he continued.
What Schumer did not mention was a salacious dossier a former British intelligence agent compiled for Trump’s political opponents, and which Arizona Sen. John McCain shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The document alleges that Putin has blackmailed and manipulated Trump for years using a secret recording of prostitutes urinating on a mattress at the Moscow Ritz Carlton for the mogul’s pleasure.
The president has ardently denied the dossier’s claims. Still, he has frequently expressed an inexplicable affection for Putin and the Russian regime, and voiced foreign policy views in near-perfect harmony with Moscow’s propaganda and geopolitical ambitions.
Trump’s second campaign manager, Paul Manafort, resigned last summer after documents arose showing he had taken illegal payments from the government of deposed, Putin-aligned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort had previously served as a political consultant to Yanukovych.
And last month, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn resigned his role as Trump’s national security adviser when word broke that he had illegally discussed rescinding sanctions against Russia in conversations with Kislyak held prior to the president’s inauguration—and had allegedly lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the talks.
Schumer, like most Democrats, unsuccessfully opposed Sessions’ confirmation.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a tight Schumer ally, largely echoed her fellow Democrat’s remarks. She also backed up his recent critiques of Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which McConnell has charged with investigating Russia’s election interferences.
Schumer assailed Burr earlier this week for attempting to discredit news reports about Trump associates’ links to the Kremlin. Burr served as a national security adviser to the president’s campaign.
“It’s clear that Attorney General Sessions gave false testimony under oath at his hearing. This should disqualify him from leading the Justice Department,” Gillibrand said in a statement this morning. “Between Attorney General Sessions’s false testimony and the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman working with the White House to kill stories about Russian contacts, we need to get all of the facts.”
To that end, the junior senator from New York demanded a special prosecutor and resuscitated Schumer’s longstanding call for a bipartisan commission into Moscow’s meddling in American affairs.
Updated to include comment from Gillibrand and further remarks by Sessions and Schumer.