Jeff Sessions' recusal shows political pressure still applies in Donald Trump's Washington
Since Trump's election, it has sometimes felt like the laws of politics no longer apply. The president overcame every sort of political scandal you can imagine to win the White House, and faced even more controversy before he was sworn in. But Thursday was a reminder that political pressure can still work. Sessions' recusal from investigations relating to Trump and Russia is only the latest example of the new administration bending to political forces.
Sessions announced Thursday afternoon he would not take a role in any government investigations focused on Russian activities before the election or Trump campaign contacts with Russians. (Sessions did not confirm or deny those investigations are taking place.) But during his press conference, Sessions misrepresented the line of questioning from Sen. Al Franken that lead to the Alabaman saying he had no contacts with Russians during the campaign. The attorney general faced criticism all day after news broke Wednesday night that he met twice with the Russian ambassador before the election — meetings he did not disclose in his confirmation hearings. And the answers Sessions gave during that process are exactly the reason he's not out of the woods yet. (It came out Friday that Sessions paid for travel expenses to the Republican National Convention with campaign funds, the location of one of the meetings between Sessions and the Russian ambassador, even though Sessions said the meeting was not campaign related.)
Pressure mounted throughout the day Thursday as a growing number of Republicans called for Sessions to recuse himself. By the afternoon, House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and dozens of other elected Republicans said Sessions should step aside if he was felt he was too connected to the investigation. With Sessions out of the picture, oversight of any Justice Department inquiries into Russian activities and the Trump campaign will fall to the deputy attorney general.
Through all of Thursday's controversy, Trump stood firmly behind Sessions, calling him "an honest man" on Twitter. (The president also started a Twitter spat with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over ties to Russia. Schumer met with Vladimir Putin in New York City in 2003.) But despite assurances from the president that there's nothing to the Russia story, questions keep popping up. A short while after Sessions' press conference, the White House announced that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-incoming, now-fired national security adviser Michael Flynn had met with the Russian ambassador personally in Trump Tower after the election.
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Sessions isn't done yet:
• Today: Facing pressure from Democrats and Republicans, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any government investigation that involves President Donald Trump and Russia.
• More: That may not be good enough. Many Democrats remain adamant that Sessions should resign his post at the Department of Justice.
• Did you know? Vice President Mike Pence used a private email server — and it got hacked.
• Even more: The latest executive order on immigration will not come this week, but deportations continue anyway.
• Trump's agenda today: Flying to Orlando, Florida. Holding a listening session with parents and teachers. Heading to West Palm Beach, Florida. Attending the Republican National Committee's spring retreat dinner.
Democratic opposition holds firm
Republicans are looking to move on, but Democrats aren't ready quite yet. More than 130 Democrats have called on Sessions to resign. Sen. Al Franken sent Sessions a letter saying, "If it is determined that you lied to the committee and the American people under oath during your confirmation hearing, it is incumbent upon you to resign from your position as attorney general."
Some senators said that Sessions needs to appear again before the Senate Judiciary Committee and explain his earlier denials. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the committee, told Mic Thursday he will speak with the committee's Republican leadership about bringing Sessions back in to answer more questions.
The Democratic push for a special prosecutor is also not likely to die down, as Congress Democrats say they continue to face obstruction on digging into Russia. Rep. Adam Schiff said Thursday that FBI Director James Comey is not giving the House Intelligence Committee all the details. "We're gonna need the FBI to fully cooperate," Schiff said. "At this point, the director was not willing to do that."
Mike Pence and his private email account
Here's a little dose of high irony. During his time as governor of Indiana, Mike Pence used an unprotected AOL email account for sensitive government information. IndyStar confirmed the existence of the account, which had been under scrutiny since after the election, through public records requests. Questions about the unsecured account had swirled since June, when an apparently random hacking attack sent emails to Pence's contacts.
Ramping up deportations
Daniela Vargas had just finished speaking out about her father and brother being detained in an immigration raid last week when she was detained by the federal government. Now 22, Vargas came to the United States with her family when she was 7 years old. She was protected for a time by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a Barack Obama-era program that Trump has said he will not end. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Vargas' detention was part of a routine immigration enforcement operation. Then, on Friday, ICE arrested a father of four as he dropped his children off at school. The man is an undocumented immigrant.
This is the latest example of the administration's moves on immigration. Trump is also ramping up the hiring of border patrol and immigration enforcement officials, and stories like Vargas' have been increasing in recent weeks.
News and insight you cannot miss:
• Within the next three weeks, Republicans plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and vote on implementing their replacement plan. House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a closed-door meeting with the GOP that the Senate and White House support this timeline. (Politico)
• Meanwhile Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul was banging on doors in the Capitol to demand access to the House proposal to repeal and replace the ACA. Paul has warned Republicans to not push through legislation that members of Congress have not been able to read first. (CNN)
• The Washington Post breaks down the impact of a 10% budget cut to non-defense and non-entitlement programs in the federal government. The graphics demonstrate the massive impact of spending on the military, Social Security and Medicare.
• Steve Bannon wants the U.S. to exit the Paris climate accord — but Rex Tillerson and Ivanka Trump see things differently. It looks like the White House is coming to a showdown over policy around climate change. (New York Times)
• Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, the administration is looking at cutting the climate protection budget by 70%. (Mic)