AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he will recuse himself from any investigations related to the presidential campaigns.
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JEFF SESSIONS: When you evaluate the rules, I feel like that I should not be involved investigating a campaign I had a role in.
CORNISH: Sessions spoke under pressure. News broke late yesterday revealing that he had failed to disclose at his confirmation hearing that he had two contacts with the Russian ambassador. The FBI has been investigating Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. And with us to talk about the controversy is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey there, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So Sessions has only been leading the Justice Department for a couple of weeks. So how is he already facing so much pressure?
JOHNSON: Well, one thing is a Washington Post story that broke late last night that we confirmed here at NPR. It said Sessions had two contacts with the Russian ambassador last year - a brief chat in July and an office meeting September 2016. Now, Jeff Sessions was asked about an investigation of campaign contacts with Russia in his confirmation hearing. He volunteered that in his role as a surrogate for Trump, he never talked with the Russians.
But the Post story raised questions about his credibility and veracity and whether he could continue to oversee whatever the FBI is investigating about Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. Democrats had even called for his resignation. Even his Republican friends like Susan Collins of Maine said Sessions should not touch the Russia investigation and correct his Senate testimony. Sessions has said he will do that soon.
CORNISH: So what reasons did he give about why he decided to recuse himself from investigations concerning Russia?
JOHNSON: Well, Sessions told reporters this afternoon he never had meetings with Russian operatives or intermediaries about the Trump campaign. He seems to be drawing a line between his role as one of Donald Trump's earliest and most loyal supporters and his job in the Senate where he served on the Armed Services Committee.
Sessions said he did decide to recuse himself because of ethics rules at the Justice Department. He said he's taken no action so far on any matters. He didn't give a lot of detail about who or what exactly is under investigation.
CORNISH: And the White House - how are they responding to all this?
JOHNSON: Well, President Trump told reporters today he has total confidence in Sessions and didn't think he needed to step aside. Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered this view to "Fox & Friends."
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SEAN SPICER: There's nothing to recuse himself. He was 100 percent straight with the committee. And I think that people who are choosing to play partisan politics with this should be ashamed of themselves.
JOHNSON: And Audie, speaking of partisan politics, there was a big protest outside of the Justice Department today. A lot of Democrats were reaching out to me this afternoon, reminding me, as a senator, Jeff Sessions repeatedly called on the Obama attorneys general to recuse themselves in a lot of politically sensitive investigations.
CORNISH: All right, so now that he says he's going to recuse himself, who actually will oversee these investigations?
JOHNSON: This is a good question 'cause it's still relatively early in the Trump administration. Jeff Sessions is the only political appointee at the Justice Department who's been confirmed by the Senate. The nominee to be his number two, the deputy attorney general, is only getting his hearing next week.
So until then, the acting deputy attorney general will be Dana Boente. He's a career prosecutor from Virginia - might be familiar because he stepped in to run the Justice Department after Donald Trump fired an Obama holdover, Sally Yates, earlier this year. Dana Boente's now overseeing the matter. Democrats are likely to be calling, though, for someone completely independent to lead this investigation moving forward.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.