Republicans on Capitol Hill struggled to defend Attorney General Jeff Sessions as information began to leak out suggesting he lied under oath during his confirmation hearing about his contacts with the Russian government.
As senators hustled to their first series of votes on Thursday morning, their reactions ranged from caution to confusion as they tried to find a balance between defending their former colleague and the ongoing scandal about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I have not had a chance to adequately look into it,” said Sen. John McCain.
“We’ll learn more about it,” added Sen. Marco Rubio. “I'd like to talk to him.”
“I think that’s premature,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, when asked whether Sessions should recuse himself. “What we need to do is complete the investigation the Senate Intelligence Committee is having on a bipartisan basis because we really don’t know what the facts are.”
Asked about the discrepancy between Sessions’s testimony in his confirmation hearing and revelations that Sessions had met with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Cornyn demurred.
“We don’t know what happened, so I think that’s why the investigation is so important,” he said. “I think a bipartisan intelligence committee investigation is the way to go.”
But the dam is beginning to break. As outraged Democrats called for Sessions’s resignation, Republicans began to budge — with some prominent lawmakers calling for the attorney general to recuse himself from ongoing investigations into Russia’s election interference.
“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,” Sen. Rob Portman said Thursday morning.
“We need an independent review by a credible third party and that Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation into Russia. We need a clear-eyed view of what the Russians actually did so that all Americans can have faith in our institutions,” said Republican Rep. Darrell Issa.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, echoed those sentiments in a statement, saying, "Sessions should recuse himself to ensure public confidence in the Justice Department's investigation. He should also clarify his statements to the Judiciary Committee with respect to his communications with the Russian ambassador."
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader, also has said that Sessions should recuse himself.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the only Democrat to vote for Sessions to become attorney general, told The Daily Beast that if the attorney general lied about his contacts with the Russian government, he would have no choice but to resign.
"I voted for him because I did trust him, absolutely. And I've said, point blank, when it came out about the Mike Flynn investigation, I called Jeff and said, 'Jeff, you should recuse yourself — get the heck out of the way!'
“And he said he would take the matter into consideration. And I said, 'You better do more than take it under consideration — you should do it,’” Manchin said. "If it comes down to he lied, then there's no way that Jeff can continue on."
The Sessions revelations come at the end of a nearly normal week for Republicans who had spent it talking about policy goals and President Trump’s well-received address to Congress, rather than dealing with the fallout of the most recent administration scandal.
But Wednesday evening, The Washington Post reported that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador twice last year during the presidential campaign, which he did not disclose during his confirmation hearing.
“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign," Sessions said Thursday morning, calling any allegations otherwise to be "false." He has acknowledge
Sessions’s claim not to recall meetings with Amb. Sergey Kislyak does not pass the smell test, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Ambassador Kislyak is not someone you easily forget. He is a very large man, he's got an interesting personality. And you know if you meet with him or talk with him,” she said.
Still, Sessions wasn’t without ardent defenders like Sen. Ted Cruz, who dismissed the issue entirely.
“Much of this is simply political theater, Democrats trying to attack the new administration rather than working together on a positive agenda for the country,” he said Thursday morning.