Attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 10, 2017, in the first day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Top Democrats now say that because he misled the committee about his visits to Russia, he should resign. (Andrew Harnik, The Associated Press)

Top Democrats call for Jeff Sessions to resign

WASHINGTON — Top Republicans said Thursday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from federal investigations of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Update: Sessions agreed to recuse himself from an investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election

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

Later, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement, “Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also initially said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Sessions should bow out.

Asked whether Sessions should recuse himself in this situation, McCarthy replied “I think the trust of the American people — you recuse yourself in these situations, yes.”

McCarthy was pressed a second time about whether he was calling for Sessions to recuse himself and he confirmed that he believed the situation required a recusal.

“I think it would be easier from that standpoint, yes,” McCarthy said.

But McCarthy later said his comment had been misinterpreted, telling Fox News’ “Fox and Friends,” “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.”

The comments from prominent Republicans follow revelations that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador during election season. Under oath in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions had said that he had not met with any Russian officials.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., joined growing Democratic calls for Sessions to either resign or at least recuse himself from any investigations into Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections.

“Attorney General Sessions cannot possibly lead an investigation into Russian interference in our elections or come anywhere near it. With these revelations, he may indeed become the subject of it,” Schumer told reporters. “Better for the country if he resigns, but let’s get an investigation going.”

Schumer insisted that the Justice Department’s inspector general carry out an investigation of Sessions himself regarding any previous communications with Russian officials and what related steps, if any, he has taken since assuming leadership of the department.

According to Justice Department officials, Sessions, a top Trump supporter, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice in 2016, including one September meeting in his office.

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

McCarthy and Chaffetz are the first prominent Republicans to call for Sessions to recuse himself. Some Democrats went further, calling on Sessions to resign, demanding an independent investigation and, in a few cases, accusing Sessions of lying under oath.

“After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement released late Wednesday. She added that “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country.”

The demands by Pelosi, Schumer and others are a clear sign that Democrats have lost all faith in the Trump team to carry out the Russia-related investigations.

Though Congress has the power to appoint a special prosecutor, it has traditionally deferred the choice to Justice Department officials. This time, however, Democrats want to ensure that a non-political Justice Department official makes the selection.

The second in command at the Department of Justice is Dana Boente, an Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia who Trump tapped to serve as Acting Attorney General when he fired former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

Schumer called for legislation to give Congress a better backstop if lawmakers aren’t satisfied with the choice, by rewriting the independent counsel law. The new legislative proposal would be more narrowly tailored than the previous independent counsel law that has long since expired. Under the New Democratic plan, a three-judge panel would be tasked with appointing the prosecutor, according to Schumer aides.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is also demanding a special counsel to investigate the Trump administration for ties to Russia, “given AG Sessions’ false statements about contacts with Russia.”

And House Oversight and Government Affairs ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings, Md., called for Sessions to resign. He criticized the attorney general for keeping “secret” his conversations with Kislyak, even after then-national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the same Kremlin official.

“When Senator Sessions testified under oath that ‘I did not have communications with the Russians,’ his statement was demonstrably false, yet he let it stand for weeks,” Cummings remarked in a statement. “Attorney General Sessions should resign immediately, and there is no longer any question that we need a truly independent commission to investigate this issue.”

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This is the second time in Trump’s young administration that the truthfulness of one of his top advisers has come under scrutiny. Last month, Trump fired Flynn after revelations that he had misled the administration, specifically Pence, regarding his contacts with Russian officials. Before news of those contacts surfaced, Pence had defended Flynn in a television interview. The revelation that Flynn had lied to Pence prompted a number of Hill Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., to call for his resignation.

Sessions has focused his response to the allegations on the substance of his conversations with Kislyak, which he said did not veer into the realm of discussing the campaign.

But many Democrats heard in that a direct contradiction of Sessions’s testimony in January, when he told Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that he did not speak to Russian officials.

Republicans were more cautious, so far stopping short of calling for an outside investigation. Currently, the House and Senate intelligence panels as well as the FBI are investigating Russian interference in the election and the potential for ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said at a CNN town hall Wednesday night that if there is any substance to the allegations, then Sessions cannot be the person to assess them because he was one of Trump’s senior campaign advisers.

“If there is something there and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make that decision about Trump,” Graham said. He stressed that Sessions’s contacts with the Russian ambassador could have been “innocent.”

“There may be nothing there,” he continued. “But if there’s something there that the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then for sure you need a special prosecutor. If that day ever comes, I’ll be the first one to say it needs to be somebody other than Jeff.”

Several Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday night questioned whether Sessions had lied under oath when he testified at his confirmation hearing in January that he had not had any communications with Russian officials. Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., asked whether the former senator provided false statements in his testimony to lawmakers.

On Twitter, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. – a leading progressive and Trump antagonist – repeated calls for a special prosecutor to probe Russian influence in the elections and ties to Trump. She also called on Sessions to resign.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, also weighed in with a tweet: “I’m thinking Jeff Sessions is not the right person to investigate Jeff Sessions.”

The Washington Post’s Mark Berman contributed to this report.

Karoun Demirjian covers defense and foreign policy and was previously a correspondent based in the Post’s bureau in Moscow, Russia. @karoun

Abby Phillip is a national political reporter covering the White House for The Washington Post. @abbydphillip