WASHINGTON — Even as a handful of Republicans in Congress are calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from ongoing Russian investigations, most are still standing by their former colleague — going as far as to suggest that reports of him failing to disclose meeting with the Russian ambassador are nothing more than a Democratic "witch hunt."
“Listen, we’re not in the business of investigating individual senators that say they were doing Senate business,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr told reporters Thursday. “Jeff Sessions has to decide whether his role as attorney general he can participate in anything to do with Russian involvement — potential involvement — in our elections. I’ll leave it up to Jeff Sessions to make that decision.”
Other Republican lawmakers said Sessions should give them more information. “If he met the Russian ambassador as a senator, he needs to tell us what they talked about,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. But Graham dismissed the idea that anything nefarious was going on.
“He's an honest man,” he said of Sessions. “So I'm not going to suggest that he misled the committee because all of the questions were about campaign contacts.”
Graham, however, did say that if in fact there was an FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and there’s “enough evidence to suggest prosecution or possible criminal prosecution of anybody based on the contacts, then somebody other than Attorney General Sessions should make that decision because of his contacts with the campaign.”
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis was also quick to defend his former colleague’s integrity. “There’s no way I think he lied in the hearing," he said. "Not at all. That’s a false narrative. I completely reject it. The question has to do with appearances, and I care less about appearances that the media may perceive than what the American people think. And that’s what we need to get down to."
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, whose committee is conducting the investigation into Russian election involvement, said it was an issue to be handled between the Senate and Sessions. "I think it would be at this point up to the attorney general to, I guess, clarify with the Senate if there's some disagreement."
Democrats, meanwhile, have been quick to say that Sessions should recuse himself from a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, if not resign outright. More than a dozen Democratic members have called for him to step down.
And some GOP lawmakers said even appearances of impropriety were sufficient reason for Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation. It’s not unusual for lawmakers to meet with foreign ambassadors; it’s something several House and Senate members pointed out that they themselves do with some regularity. But given how many questions remain about Russian involvement in the election and potential contact with Trump campaign officials, some Republicans said Sessions ought to remove himself from the investigation.
“Given the apparent contradictions, I think it’s best that he recuse himself on the matter,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman had a similar take. “I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was among the first Republicans to call for Sessions to recuse himself, tweeting Thursday morning that Sessions “should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.” Asked if he was urging other Republicans to follow his lead, Chaffetz said he was staying out of it.
“They can make up their own decisions,” Chaffetz said. "I just stated my opinion."
Speaker Paul Ryan said Sessions would only need to recuse himself if he were the subject of a Department of Justice investigation himself. “If he’s not, I don’t see any purpose or reason for doing this,” he said at his Thursday press conference. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy initially seemed to break with Ryan and call for Session to recuse himself, but his office clarified later Thursday that he was saying Sessions only ought to do so if he felt it was necessary.
But some Republicans dismissed the situation out of hand and deemed the uproar Thursday morning to be nothing more than a Democratic attack on the Trump administration.
“To me this is another case of Sen. Schumer and the Democrats trying to delegitimize the president and his cabinet. It’s a witch hunt,” said New York Rep. Chris Collins, an early and avid Trump supporter. “I certainly know Sen. Sessions well — when you peel this back there is, in my opinion, no issue even worth discussing.”
“I'm disappointed Democrats are distorting the facts to impugn AG Sessions' character,” said Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton in a statement.
Iowa Rep. Steve King said this was simply Democrats being unreasonable.
“Schumer is playing politics, Nancy Pelosi is playing politics," he said. "I think they look ridiculous calling for the resignation of a man who gave an honest answer to a question that was asked by [Sen.] Al Franken."
Democrats have made clear they will try to make this an issue for Republicans moving forward, attacking vulnerable House members for failing to call for Sessions’ recusal. But perhaps the biggest issue for Republicans may be the optics of this investigation into Russian election involvement that has played out in a steady stream of media reports, rather than behind closed doors in the Senate or House Intelligence Committee, as many lawmakers might have liked.
“Somebody is leaking this crap, and it's putting people like me in a terrible spot,” said Graham. “So I'm going to meet with the FBI director and I'm going to look him in the eye and he's going to tell me if there is an investigation or not. And if he doesn't tell me, he's going to have a hard time.”
Lissandra Villa contributed reporting.