Updated at 11 a.m. ET
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Jeff Sessions to resign as attorney general after reports that Sessions spoke to Russia’s ambassador twice last year, while Sessions was working as a top adviser and surrogate for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The news was first reported by The Washington Post, and has since been confirmed by NPR’s Carrie Johnson.
“There cannot be even the scintilla of doubt about the impartiality and fairness of the attorney general, the top law enforcement official of the land,” Schumer said. “Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country Attorney General Sessions should resign.”
Schumer also said Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente should appoint an independent prosecutor to look into Russia’s attempted influence in the 2016 election to ensure the integrity of the investigation. If that doesn’t happen, Schumer said Congress should revive its own power to name an independent prosecutor, which was created in 1978 after Watergate and lapsed following the Kenneth Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Schumer also called on the Justice Department inspector general to begin an immediate investigation.
Many Democrats have been demanding a Sessions recusal from the probe since before he was attorney general and have repeated that demand at every development, including the recent resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, who stepped down after making misleading statements about his own contacts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to Vice President Pence and other top White House officials.
Now, the Democrats are being joined by two influential Republicans.
Two top House Republicans said Thursday that Sessions should recuse himself from the federal investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence last year’s presidential election; those two are House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
McCarthy later tried to walk back his comments, telling Fox News that his statement earlier on MSNBC saying it would be “easier” if Sessions recused himself was not a demand for him to do so.
Chaffetz tweeted Thursday morning that “AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.” That’s a reference to the fact that during his confirmation hearing, Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee that “I did not have communications with the Russians” over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign.
McCarthy, the second-ranking Republican in the House who is a loyal ally of President Trump and a trusted deputy to House Speaker Paul Ryan, said something similar in an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “I think the trust of the American people — you recuse yourself in these situations, yes,” he said, responding to a question.
“I don’t have all the information in front of me. I don’t want to prejudge. But I just think for any investigation going forward you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation. That there’s no doubt within the investigation.”
Panelist Mark Halperin then cut in, asking, “Does that require his recusal, congressman?”
“I think it would be easier from that standpoint, yes,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy later tried to walk back those comments in an interview on Fox News. “I’m not calling on him to recuse himself,” McCarthy said. “I was asked on Morning Joe if he needs to recuse himself as going forward. And as you just heard, Attorney General Sessions said he would recuse going forward [when] appropriate, and that’s all my answer was.”
For his part, Sessions is denying the story. “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” he said in a statement issued by the Justice Department on Wednesday night. “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
Sessions advisers are telling multiple media outlets that conversations did take place — but they were conversations Sessions had in his capacity as a senior lawmaker, not as a Trump adviser. They also point out that Sessions was not asked directly in his confirmation hearing whether he spoke to Russian officials, though he offered a categorical denial in his answer.
“I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself,” Sessions told NBC News this morning as he made his way to a vehicle. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Some Republicans want to know more before calling on Sessions to recuse himself. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., spoke to NPR’s Morning Edition and said, “I’m not interested in being part of a witch hunt, but I also will not be part of a cover-up.”
“It is potentially the case that there is going to be Justice Department recommendations or referrals based on anything regarding the campaign,” Rubio said. “Depending on what more we learn about these meetings, it could very well be that the attorney general, in the interest of fairness and in his best interest, should potentially ask someone else to step in and play that role.
Other Democrats started calling on Sessions to resign even before Schumer. Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, are calling for Sessions’ outright resignation.
“After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign,” Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday night. “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign.”
“This is the No. 1 law enforcement officer in the country. He sets the example for U.S. attorneys all over this country, and he also is the person who is in charge of the FBI,” Cummings told NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursday.