Thursday, March 2, 2017

CONYERS Concerns With President Trump and Attorney General Sessions Comments On Investigation Recusal

By John Conyers, Jr.

Dean of the U.S. House
of Representatives
John Conyers, Jr.
After listening to comments from President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, I have the following concerns:

First, the Attorney General’s recusal should not be limited to only investigations involving the Trump Campaign. Under 28 CFR § 45.2, the Attorney General is required to recuse himself from a criminal investigation when he has a “personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution,” and must also recuse himself from any investigation where his participation would “create an appearance of a conflict of interest likely to affect the public perception of the integrity of the investigation or prosecution.”

Serious allegations of misconduct involving President Trump and his associates occurred subsequent to the presidential election--including but not limited to communications between General Flynn and the Russian government, potentially improper contact between White House aides and officials within the Justice Department, and misstatements by the Attorney General himself.

Just as importantly, we need to ensure that any investigation involving issues which overlap between the campaign and the Administration are fully and fairly investigated, including what influence the Russian government, Russian intelligence and Russian financial interests may have with regard to Mr. Trump and his Administration, and whether there have been any efforts to cover-up the same.

As such, the Attorney General must recuse himself from any and all investigations involving the campaign, the transition, and the Trump Administration.

He must obviously step aside from any investigation in which he himself may be a target.

Second, I am not persuaded by the Attorney General's effort to explain his misstatements to the Senate Judiciary Committee, in response to questions asked verbally by Senator Franken and in writing by Senator Leahy, and it is not at all clear that an after-the-fact clarification to the Committee will resolve this matter.

As every Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee wrote today, the question of whether or not the Attorney General’s statement constitutes perjury should be reviewed by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.

Third, I am troubled by President Trump’s statement that he does not think Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself from any Russia-related investigations. It was wholly inappropriate for the President to discourage the Attorney General or anyone else from recusing themselves from any ongoing criminal investigation--let alone an investigation in which he and members of his Administration are potential suspects.

Such statements fly in the face of applicable DOJ guidelines. They also smack of an attempted cover-up. Today’s events and statements also make abundantly clear, as I and many other Members have stated previously, that we need an independent, non-partisan commission to review the entire matter.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will recuse himself from any probe related to 2016 presidential campaign


Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday he will recuse himself from any investigations related to the 2016 presidential campaign, which would include any Russian interference in the electoral process.

Speaking at a hastily-called press conference at the Justice Department, Sessions said he had met with department ethics officials soon after being sworn in last month to evaluate the rules and cases in which he might have a conflict.

“They said that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation,” Sessions said. He added that he concurred with their assessment, and would thus recuse himself from any existing or future investigation involving Trump’s campaign.

The announcement comes a day after The Washington Post revealed that Sessions twice met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and did not disclose that fact to Congress during his confirmation hearing.

Sessions spoke twice with Russian ambassador during Trump's presidential campaThen-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice in 2016 with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, but did not mention this during his confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general. Sessions was asked about possible contacts between President Trump's campaign and the Russian government. (Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)


At that hearing, Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign, and said, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Democrats had been calling for weeks for Sessions to step away from the investigation, though he had resisted pressures to do so. On Thursday, some high-level Republicans joined in saying the former senator should recuse himself.

Sessions said discussions about his recusal began before the revelation of his meetings with Kislyak. He said he and ethics officials had agreed on Monday to meet for a final time Thursday.

Sessions defended his comment on meetings with Russian officials to Franken as “honest and correct as I understood it at the time,” though he also said he would “write the Judiciary Committee soon — today or tomorrow — to explain this testimony for the record.” His explanation, he said, was that he was “taken aback” by Franken’s question — which referenced a breaking news story about contacts between Trump surrogates and Russians.

“It struck me very hard, and that’s what I focused my answer on,” he said. “In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said I did meet one Russian official a couple times. That would be the ambassador.”

In a statement issued Wednesday night, Sessions said he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.” A spokeswoman confirmed his meetings with Kislyak but said there was nothing misleading about what Sessions said to Congress.

The spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, said Sessions did not meet with Kislyak as a Trump supporter, but rather, in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee. One meeting was in September; the other in July, when Sessions was approached after an event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention.

Asked earlier Thursday whether Sessions should recuse himself, Trump added: “I don’t think so.”
But several top Republican lawmakers believe Sessions should recuse himself from ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including potential contacts between Trump campaign officials and associates and Russian officials.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Sessions met twice with Kislyak in 2016. When asked during his confirmation hearing about what he would do as attorney general if there were contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian authorities, Sessions answered by saying that he had not been in contact with Russian officials during the campaign.

The meetings occurred during the height of concerns about Russian interference in the U.S. election and at a time when Sessions was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as a top Trump surrogate and adviser.

Democrats called on Sessions to resign, and several said he had perjured himself in his confirmation hearing. The swift response among some Republicans, although more muted, signaled increasing concern about the potential political fallout.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) tweeted early Thursday that “AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”

Chaffetz later told reporters: “Let’s let him clarify his statement, and I do think he should recuse himself.” Asked whether his committee would investigate the matter, he said, “There are things we are looking at.”

Other calls for Sessions to step down came from across the GOP spectrum. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who formally introduced Sessions at his confirmation hearing, said he should recuse himself from ongoing probes of Russian involvement. So did Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), who is held in high regard at the White House.

Republican Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.), Raúl R. Labrador (Idaho) and Barbara Comstock (Va.) agreed. Comstock, who represents a swing district in Northern Virginia and is a former Justice Department official, said that Sessions “needs to clarify any misconceptions from his confirmation hearing on the matter.”

The episode marks the second time in Trump’s nascent administration when the truthfulness of one of its top officials has come under scrutiny. In February, Trump fired his national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, after The Washington Post reported that he had not fully disclosed his contacts with Russian officials.

According to Justice Department officials, Sessions met with Kislyak twice in 2016, including a private meeting in September in his office.

In a statement following the revelations, Sessions denied that he had met with “any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign.” He added: “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

On Thursday morning, Sessions told NBC News, “I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself. There’s no doubt about that.”

And White House press secretary Sean Spicer pushed back against calls for Sessions to recuse himself, telling Fox News, “He was 100 percent straight with the [Judiciary] committee, and I think that people who are choosing to play partisan politics with this should be ashamed of themselves.”

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) also noted that ongoing investigations have found no evidence that “an American or a person in the Trump campaign was involved or working with the Russians.”

“Should he recuse himself? I think he answered that question this morning,” Ryan told reporters during his weekly news conference. “If he himself is the subject of an investigation, of course he would. If he is not, I don’t see any purpose or reason for doing this.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) shared conflicting views on Sessions during back-to-back television interviews Thursday. Asked whether Sessions should recuse himself, he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “I think the trust of the American people — you recuse yourself in these situations, yes.”

But McCarthy later told Fox News: “I’m not calling on him to recuse himself. I was asked on ‘Morning Joe’ if he needs to recuse himself as going forward. As you just heard, Attorney General Sessions said he would recuse himself going forward — appropriate, and that’s all my answer was.”

Sessions has focused his response to the allegations on the substance of his conversations with Kislyak, which he said did not include talk about the campaign.

Many Democrats considered that a direct contradiction of Sessions’s testimony in January, when he told Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that he had not spoken to Russian officials.

But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who considers Sessions a close friend, said, “I don’t think Jeff Sessions is a liar” and argued that Sessions had not misled the Judiciary Committee “because all of the questions were about campaign contacts.”

But Sessions “does owe it, quite frankly, to all of us to tell us what he talked about” with Kislyak, Graham said.

Fallout from Session’s statements came as FBI Director James B. Comey made a previously scheduled visit to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Intelligence Committee. But Comey was once again unwilling to confirm whether the FBI is exploring ties between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, according to Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat.

“We can’t do a complete job unless the director is willing to discuss anything that they are investigating,” Schiff said. “At this point we know less than a fraction of what the FBI knows.”
But Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, said Comey was “very upfront” with lawmakers.

“There’s a lot more information … the FBI and intelligence agencies need to provide to our committees” to aid ongoing congressional investigations, Nunes said. He added that he had “no reason to believe that any information” would be withheld from his committee.

Nunes also refused to call for Sessions’s resignation, describing that outcry as “a disagreement between the attorney general and some United States senators.”

Senators who deal regularly with defense, foreign affairs or intelligence matters often meet with foreign officials. But as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sessions was less likely to meet with foreign ambassadors than foreign military leaders. The Post has spoken to all senators who served on the armed services panel in 2016. All of them said they had not met with Kislyak last year.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he met with Kislyak in 2016, but in the earlier part of the year before the presidential campaign intensified.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) agreed Thursday that there’s nothing unusual about lawmakers interacting with foreign diplomats but said that Sessions must be removed from any oversight of investigations of Russia’s alleged interference.

“It would be of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality if this administration were to sanction him to investigate himself,” Schumer told reporters as he joined other top Democrats in calling on Sessions to resign.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement released late Wednesday that “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country.” On Thursday, more than 100 House Democrats followed suit. Every Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee also called for a criminal investigation of Sessions’s comments during his confirmation hearing.

In an acknowledgment that Sessions is unlikely to step down, Schumer and other Democrats focused mostly on ensuring impartial investigations of Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

“Better for the country if he resigns, but let’s get an investigation going,” he said.

Schumer also said that the Justice Department’s inspector general should investigate whether Sessions made any attempts to thwart any ongoing Russia-related investigations. If lawmakers were not satisfied with the choice of independent counsel, Democrats would seek to revive an expired independent counsel law, but would rewrite it to empower a three-judge panel like the D.C. Circuit Court — not the attorney general — to appoint the special prosecutor.

Some Democratic senators called on Sessions to appear again before the Judiciary Committee to explain his relationship and conversations with Russian officials under oath. Others are encouraging congressional tax-writing committees to use their authority to review Trump’s tax returns for any sign of Russian connections.

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