Attorney General steps back from Trump-Russia investigation but questions remain over contacts with Russian Ambassador
Developments on Day 42 of the Trump Administration:
Attorney General: I Will Not Lead Trump-Russia Investigation
A day after revelations of his contact with a Russian ambassador — and the possibility that he lied under oath about the meetings — Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he will not lead an investigation of links between Donald Trump’s associates and Russian officials.
The Trump Administration has been beset by far-reaching claims about meetings between the President’s associates and Russians during after the 2016 election, as Moscow was intervening with computer hacking, dissemination of stolen information, and propaganda to damage Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton. The revelations have already led to the dismissal of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
On Wednesday, Sessions came under fire after The Washington Post wrote of his two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in July and September 2016. The new Attorney General had said in his confirmation hearings that he never met a Russian official during the campaign, a statement he repeated in a written answer to a further query by Senator Patrick Leahy.
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Sessions maintained that he had not misled Senators at his confirmation hearing:
Let me be clear. I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea that I was part of a quote, “continuing exchange of information” during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false.
That is the question that Senator Franken asked me at the hearing, and that’s what got my attention….And that is the question I responded to.
However, he said that because of his involvement with the Trump campaign — and not because of the breaking controversy over the meetings with the Russian Ambassador — “I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.”
Sessions insisted that he had not spoken about campaign matters with the Ambassador in September, as US agencies were investigating Russian interference in the election.
But he was vague and stumbling about why Kislyak approached him and what was discussed:
It was just normal things, such as I started off by saying — I don’t remember a lot of it, but I do remember saying I’d gone to Russia with a church group in 1991, and he said he was not a believer himself but he was glad to have church people come there. Indeed, I thought he was pretty much of an old-style Soviet type ambassador.
And so, we talked about a little bit about terrorism as I recall.
And somehow the subject of the Ukraine came up.
Sessions’ staff insisted on Wednesday that the discussion was part of Sessions’ role on the Armed Services Committee, but 20 of the other 26 committee members have said they never met Kislyak. The other six made no reply to an inquiry by The Washington Post.
Protesters outside the Justice Department
Donald Trump said before the press conference that he had “full confidence” in Sessions and that the Attorney General would not recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation. He said he was “not aware” of any Sessions-Kislyak meetings.
Afterwards, Trump issued a statement via Twitter:
Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional.
This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win. The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and now, they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!
Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said Sessions had not gone far enough with the recusal: “He left me with more questions than before he started [the conference].”
He questioned Sessions’ explanation of his statement in the confirmation meetings: “Give me a break.”
The new chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, called for Sessions’ resignation and went farther in his challenge to the Administration: “This now makes at least two members of Trump’s administration who have talked to the Russians before the elections and lied about it.
And the cover up goes deeper. Those who lied about Trump team’s Russian ties include the VP, chief of staff, AG, and the President himself.
These actions put Americans in danger. We need the truth now on how this White House is working hand in hand with Vladimir Putin.
— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) March 2, 2017
Russia responded angrily to descriptions of Ambassador Kislyak as a “spy” in some US media outlets. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov warned that the coverage of the Sessions-Kislyak meetings is “an emotional atmosphere [that] leads to resistance to the idea of some kind of US-Russia dialogue”.
Kushner & Flynn Met With Russian Ambassador in December
The White House discloses that Trump’s son-in-law and key advisor Jared Kislyak and National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn met Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in December to “establish a line of communication”.
The belated revelation appears to be a White House attempt to rationalize the contacts with Kislyak, who met Trump associates throughout 2016. The exposure of five conversations between Flynn and Kislyak on December 29 — assuring the Russians that the incoming Administration would deal with new sanctions imposed that day by President Obama and asking Moscow to refrain from a harsh response — eventually led to the National Security Advisor’s dismissal after 24 days in office.
USA Today revealed on Thursday that two other Trump campaign members — J.D. Gordon, the director of national security, and Carter Page, a member of the national security advisory committee — spoke with Kislyak on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in July, where Attorney-General Jeff Sessions also met the Ambassador.
The Trump advisors reportedly lobbied members of a Republican subcommittee to change the GOP platform’s language that called for the supply of arms to the government of Ukraine, which is being challenged by separatists backed by Russia.
In January, Gordon denied any lobbying on the Ukraine measure. However, on Thursday he told CNN that he had done so for language that “Donald Trump himself wanted and advocated”.
Trump Transition Cancelled Ethics Course
Documents show Donald Trump’s transition team cancelled a ethics, leadership, and management course for senior White House staff and appointees, including Cabinet members.
The program, in place since 2000, coveres confirmation hearings, complying with existing laws and orders, dealing with scrutiny from the media, and collaborating with lawmakers and agencies.
The General Services Administration told bidders for the program that it did “not accurately reflect the current needs of the Presidential Transition Team”.
Carson and Perry Confirmed as HUD and Energy Secretaries
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Texas Governor Rick Perry are confirmed in Cabinet positions.
Carson was approved as Housing and Urban Development Secretary 58-41, with six Democrats and one independent joined with the Republicans to approve the nomination.
Before Trump announced Carson’s selection, an aide told the media that the doctor was not interested in joining the Cabinet because he “feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency”.
Perry, approved 62-37 as Energy Secretary, once called for the department’s elimination.
EPA Withdraws Request Over Methane Emissions by Oil and Gas Wells
The Environmental Protection Agency withdraws a request that operators of oil and gas wells provide extensive information about their equipment and methane emissions.
The announcement is a first step towards reversing an Obama Administration effort, launched on November 10, to investigate methane emissions, responsible for about a quarter of global warming to date.
The EPA on Thursday cited a letter sent by the attorneys general of several conservative and oil-producing states complaining that the information request “furthers the previous administration’s climate agenda and supports…the imposition of burdensome climate rules on existing sites, the cost and expense of which will be enormous”.
The decision comes days after Scott Pruitt, who joined numerous changes to the EPA as Oklahoma Attorney General, became head of the agency. The EPA also faces a 20% staff cut and elimination of 38 programs in the Trump Administration’s draft budget.
Pruitt said on Thursday, “Today’s action will reduce burdens on businesses while we take a closer look at the need for additional information from this industry.”
VP Pence Used Private E-Mail, Was Hacked as Indiana Governor
E-mails show Vice President Mike Pence, as Governor of Indiana, routinely used a private e-mail account to conduct public business and was hacked in summer 2016.
Pence used the account to consult with top advisers on topics ranging from security gates at the governor’s residence to the state’s response to terror attacks across the globe. In one e-mail, Pence’s top homeland security adviser relayed an update from the FBI about the arrests of several men on federal terror-related charges.
The Trump campaign and other critics of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for President, claimed she was unfit for office — and even should be imprisoned — because of her use of a private e-mail server while she was Secretary of State.
Pence’s office in Washington said Thursday:
Similar to previous governors, during his time as Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence maintained a state email account and a personal e-mail account. As Governor, Mr. Pence fully complied with Indiana law regarding email use and retention. Government emails involving his state and personal accounts are being archived by the state consistent with Indiana law, and are being managed according to Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.