DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Big news from the Justice Department late yesterday - Attorney General Jeff Sessions called a press conference to announce that he will play no role in an investigation into Russian meddling in last year's presidential election.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEFF SESSIONS: I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.
GREENE: Now, we should remember, this follows reports that in his Senate confirmation hearing Sessions failed to disclose two separate meetings with the Russian ambassador during the election campaign while he was acting as an adviser to Donald Trump. With us to talk us through this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, good morning.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So let's start with the recusal here. Why is the attorney general saying that he is stepping away from any investigations?
JOHNSON: Because he played an important role in Donald Trump's campaign. Jeff Sessions said he thought he should clear the air and recuse himself. Sessions once again denied he had ongoing conversations about the campaign with Russians, but he said he met with career ethics lawyers at the Justice Department about a week ago, had another meeting yesterday afternoon where he made a final call. There's some question about why it took that long. Jeff Sessions appeared on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News last night. He said his meeting with the Russian ambassador was above board.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")
SESSIONS: And I don't believe anybody that was in that meeting would have seen or believed I said one thing that was improper or unwise.
GREENE: Yeah. And he has said he was in that meeting as a senator and not as as an adviser to Donald Trump's campaign, which is an important point that he has made. And, I mean, Carrie, lawmakers from actually both political parties - I mean, they've been putting a lot of pressure on Jeff Sessions to recuse himself. Does this settle it now? Has it gone far enough for them?
JOHNSON: Well, Sessions seems to have taken the advice of one of his friends in the United States Senate, Republican Susan Collins from Maine. She said earlier yesterday he needed to step aside from these investigations. And she also wanted him to send a letter to the Judiciary Committee clarifying his testimony last month. Jeff Sessions has said he will do that. That seemed to be enough for Republicans, but, David, Democrats are not convinced this investigation is going to be insulated from political interference - many of them still calling for Sessions to resign, pointing out it's a bad move for the nation's top law enforcement officer to be accused of misleading Congress. They want an independent special prosecutor to take over this case.
GREENE: And that would be a really big move, would it not? Because, I mean, we have a history of special prosecutors, and it's a history that isn't - hasn't always been good.
JOHNSON: Yeah. People who've been around Washington - or even paying attention to politics for more than 10 or 20 years - know back in the '90s there were a series of independent counsels. They spent millions and millions of dollars investigating the Bill Clinton administration top to bottom. By the end of that period, even some of those prosecutors, like Kenneth Starr, testified it wasn't worth the time and effort. More recently, though, some kind of modified special prosecutors have been used to look into the outing of a CIA operative during the George W. Bush years and the firings of U.S. attorneys. Sometimes they bring criminal charges and sometimes they don't.
GREENE: I feel like, Carrie, we often talk about this investigation into the Russian meddling in the election, but we don't hear much about it. How far along is that investigation? What do we know about it?
JOHNSON: We don't know much. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was careful not to confirm any investigation exists or to say what or who's being investigated. And when the Fox News host pressed him last night on whether Russia was trying to tip the scales on the election, Jeff Sessions said he, quote, "didn't have any idea, you'd have to ask them" - the Russians.
Now, David, that contradicts what the U.S. intelligence community has publicly concluded about Russia's intentions - kind of an odd thing for the attorney general to do. And on Capitol Hill, FBI director has been kind of reticent as well about describing the scope of his ongoing investigation. Congressman Adam Schiff of California, a Democrat, said Comey offered no major details about the scope of the investigation. He's complaining that lawmakers need more information and cooperation from the FBI in order to figure out what they need to be investigating and how they don't get in the FBI's way.
GREENE: Well, if the FBI, the Justice Department, investigating; Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, now recusing himself, who's in charge here?
JOHNSON: Well, for now, career prosecutor Dana Boente of Virginia. He's the acting deputy attorney general. Donald Trump's nominee to fill that job permanently, Rod Rosenstein, does not get a Senate hearing until next week, so Dana Boente could be in charge now for a while.
GREENE: And we should say, Carrie, not much budging from the White House. I mean, President Trump has stood by Attorney General Sessions, saying he has full confidence and even saying that this is a, quote, "witch hunt."
JOHNSON: Yeah, Donald Trump on Twitter last night said that Jeff Sessions is an honest man. Any mistake was not intentional, and he believed that Sessions could have been a little more accurate - didn't seem to be a big problem for the president at all.
GREENE: OK. A story that we're obviously going to be following much more as the days go ahead. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joining us. Carrie, thanks as always.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.