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Why most Democrats in Congress are no longer demanding that Sessions step down

Kate Irby, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats will have an excellent opportunity to question Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- again -- about the Donald Trump campaign's contacts with Russia when he appears Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee. Prominent on their list of queries: Why did Sessions never previously mention he had been in a March 2016 meeting when George Papadopoulos, a member of Trump's foreign policy team, said "he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin," according to a court document filed this month?

What Congress' most prominent Democrats are unlikely to do, however, is call for Sessions to resign -- unlike earlier this year, when Democratic leadership was adamant that Sessions should resign over not telling Congress about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States. Now, as additional information has surfaced that contradicts prior statements Sessions made under oath, that leadership has remained silent.

The difference? Robert Mueller's appointment as special counsel in May. Removing Sessions, who has recused himself from authority over Mueller's investigation, could give Trump the opportunity to appoint a new attorney general who is not recused, and therefore could impede the investigation.

"Democratic folks do not want to make common cause with those on the far right who want to do damage to the special counsel," said Norm Eisen, the White House ethics czar under former President Barack Obama. "Removing Sessions would be destabilizing to the investigation, and Democrats don't want to upset the apple cart."

In early March, both Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., vehemently called for Sessions to step down following a Washington Post report that said Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice while he was a foreign policy adviser for the campaign. Sessions had testified during his confirmation hearing in January that he "did not have any communications with the Russians." Sessions said after the report was published that he and Kislyak had not discussed campaign matters.

"Now, after lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the attorney general must resign," Pelosi said in a statement at the time. Schumer echoed Pelosi in a press conference, saying Sessions needed to resign "for the good of the country."

But public calls by leading Democrats for Sessions to quit mostly ceased after Mueller's appointment to look into Russia's meddling in the presidential election and whether the campaign assisted -- though there are exceptions, including the Congressional Black Caucus, which voted to call on Sessions to resign in July just as the Post reported that Kislyak said he and Sessions had discussed campaign-related matters. Staff members for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said those senators still believe Sessions should resign.

Pelosi's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment asking if she still believed Sessions should go. Schumer's office pointed to an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Nov. 2, in which he said Sessions needed to "come back" before Congress, but not that Sessions should resign. Neither publicly called for Sessions' departure following the July report or when a document released with Papadopoulos' guilty plea in the Russia probe revealed that Sessions had been part of a meeting at which Papadopoulos offered to help set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page has also testified to Congress on Nov. 2 that Sessions was aware Page had taken trips to Moscow during the campaign.

Sessions was asked in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October if he believed any Trump campaign surrogates had communications with the Russians. He responded, "I did not -- and I'm not aware of anyone else that did. I don't believe that it happened."

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