WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans, straining to defend the Trump administration amid investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, resisted growing calls on Thursday for a special prosecutor or select congressional committee to review the matter, even as Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any inquiry.
That decision followed a day in which Republicans mostly closed ranks around Mr. Sessions, a well-liked former Senate colleague, amid revelations that he spoke with the Russian ambassador last year, seemingly contradicting testimony from his confirmation hearing in January.
Initially, the fallout seemed to spawn fissures among Republicans: Several, including Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine, were quick to call for Mr. Sessions’s recusal, defying party leaders — including President Trump — who had said earlier on Thursday that they saw no reason for it.
But by day’s end, consensus appeared to have been restored: Mr. Sessions would step aside in any investigation. And that, Republicans suggested, would be enough, at least for now.
None joined the chorus of Democrats, led by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, demanding Mr. Sessions’s immediate resignation.
A Timeline of Jeff Sessions’s Trump Ties and Meetings With Russia
Mr. Sessions’s actions and the surrounding events.
And it was not clear that the episode would alter the landscape of investigations on Capitol Hill.
“First and foremost, any talk of resignation is nonsense,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, before which Mr. Sessions testified.
He praised Mr. Sessions as “an honest and forthright public servant,” and thanked him for pledging to send a letter to the committee “to clear up any confusion regarding his testimony.”
Democrats were unmoved.
“They only do the right thing when they are caught doing the wrong thing,” Mr. Schumer said of the Trump administration.
For weeks, Republicans have held the line in defense of their president. Leaders have said that any investigation of ties between Mr. Trump’s team and Russian officials should be conducted through normal channels — placing one vocal Trump campaign supporter in charge of the primary Senate inquiry and, until this week, another at the head of any Justice Department review.
“My concern is,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said, “why are our Democratic senators so doggone rude” to Mr. Sessions?
Speaker Paul D. Ryan said he saw no need for Mr. Sessions to recuse himself unless he was under investigation, accusing Democrats of “lighting their hair on fire” to keep connections between Mr. Trump and Russia in the news.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader from New York, on Thursday called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
And so far, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has shown no signs of budging from his longstanding resistance to calls for a select committee. His office did not respond to questions about whether his position had changed.
The result, though, is that the controversy has focused attention once again on an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by its Republican chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, an often outspoken Trump supporter during the campaign.
In a statement on Thursday, Mr. Burr said he would trust Mr. Sessions to “make what he feels is the appropriate decision as to his involvement in any investigation into Russian active measures and the 2016 election.”
Even before Thursday, the Intelligence Committee inquiry had been viewed skeptically.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Mr. Burr spoke with the White House about Russia-related news reports and engaged with news organizations to dispute reports that associates of Mr. Trump had consistent contact with Russian intelligence operatives during the campaign.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, expressed “grave concerns” about Mr. Burr’s contact with the White House. But despite Democrats’ deep reservations about Mr. Burr’s capacity to carry out a comprehensive investigation, many party leaders still view the committee’s work as the best hope of holding Mr. Trump and his associates to account.
On Thursday, Mr. Schumer said that if the Justice Department would not appoint an independent special prosecutor, Congress should intervene by reviving an independent counsel law put into place after Watergate. He also asked the department’s inspector general to begin an immediate inquiry into Mr. Sessions “to discover if the investigation has already been compromised.”
Mr. Schumer sought to distinguish between Mr. Sessions’s meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, which he called appropriate, and the “very inappropriate” step of misleading Congress. (One Democrat, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, invited criticism on Thursday for saying that she had never held a call or meeting with the Russian ambassador, despite previously describing two such conversations on Twitter. She blamed Twitter’s character limit for the confusion.)
At his confirmation hearing, Mr. Sessions said he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the presidential campaign. But the Justice Department now acknowledges that Mr. Sessions twice communicated with Mr. Kislyak last year: once after a speech at the Republican National Convention and once in his office.
The Democrats’ message on Thursday was echoed among even the most moderate corners of their caucus. Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the lone Democrat who voted to confirm Mr. Sessions, said that the attorney general should resign if he lied under oath.
In the House, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee demanded an immediate criminal investigation into Mr. Sessions in a letter to James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, and Channing D. Phillips, the United States attorney for Washington.
Republicans did not join the effort, but several chided Mr. Sessions, particularly those hailing from moderate districts.
Representative Darrell Issa of California said the developments reinforced the need for “an independent review by a credible third party.”
Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said he would let Mr. Sessions decide whether it was appropriate to recuse himself or appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the election. Credit Al Drago/The New York Times
Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado said Mr. Sessions had made a “grave omission” in not disclosing his meetings with the ambassador.
And Representative Brian Mast of Florida said Mr. Sessions should resign “if he cannot commit to ensuring this process is completed with transparency and integrity.”
Still, in both chambers, Republicans generally resisted impugning Mr. Sessions too forcefully. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma lamented that “the implication is somehow he’s colluding behind the scenes.”
“We don’t have any facts,” he added.
On this point, some Democrats seem to agree, with more than a hint of frustration. Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the F.B.I. for withholding information from lawmakers related to its investigation into Russian interference.
“I would say at this point, we know less than a fraction of what the F.B.I. knows,” he said.
The committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Devin Nunes of California, raised a separate concern: rushing to conclusions about anyone who has contact with Russian diplomats.
“I’m sure some of you are in contact with the Russian Embassy, so be careful what you ask for here,” he told reporters. “Do you want us to conduct an investigation on you or other Americans because you were talking to the Russian Embassy?”
(New York Times)
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