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Trump Defends Attorney General Jeff Sessions In Virginia


Today the White House pushed back against reports that the attorney general may have misled Congress about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. President Trump was in Virginia delivering remarks on an aircraft carrier about his plans to boost defense spending where he tried his best to keep the focus on that issue. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions - he's now holding a press conference this hour at the Justice Department.

NPR's Tamara Keith joins us now to talk through the latest. And Tamara, let's just start at the beginning because concerns are being raised today about how - because of how these reports about Sessions compare to his congressional testimony, right? That's at the heart of this.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: That's right. And I'm going to play you a little bit of the audio. This happened during Sessions' confirmation hearing to become attorney general. He was testifying under oath, and he was asked by Minnesota Democrat Al Franken about news reports that had broken that very day that there had been ongoing contact during the campaign between people in Trump's campaign orbit and Russia. Here's the tape.


AL FRANKEN: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

JEFF SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.

KEITH: The Washington Post first reported, and NPR has independently confirmed that Sessions did in fact have contact with the Russians or at least one Russian, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, who he met with in September. Sessions argues he was just talking to the ambassador in his role as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and didn't even talk about the campaign. And a spokeswoman has released a list of numerous conversations that Sessions had with various ambassadors for various different countries.

CORNISH: Now, we mentioned that the president was out speaking today at an event. Did he weigh in on this controversy?

KEITH: Yes. It happened before he delivered his speech. He was touring the aircraft carrier Gerald Ford, and he responded to several questions reporters lobbed in his direction. The first question was whether he had confidence in Sessions.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general, sir?


KEITH: He's saying total confidence. He also said that he didn't think Sessions should recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the election and said he wasn't aware that Sessions had spoken to the Russian ambassador. When asked whether Sessions should have spoken truthfully about his contact with the ambassador, Trump said that Sessions, quote, "probably did."

CORNISH: So what are you hearing from Capitol Hill in terms of whether he should recuse himself or resign?

KEITH: Yeah, so most Democrats are coalescing around calling for Sessions to resign. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke today. And in addition for calling for his resignation, he's calling for the appointment of an independent, impartial special prosecutor.


CHUCK SCHUMER: The main point I am making here is, we need an investigation to get to the bottom of this. Better for the country if he resigns, but let's get a real investigation going.

KEITH: But Republicans are divided. Some like House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Ohio Senator Rob Portman say Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation into Russian meddling in the election. But others are echoing things that the White House has been saying - that this is much ado about nothing and Democrats playing politics. Here's House Speaker Paul Ryan.


PAUL RYAN: I think part of what is happening - I think Democrats are lighting their hair on fire to get you to cover this story to try and keep repeating the same story. I think they're trying to get this coverage going. There's nothing new that we have seen here.

KEITH: And Ryan also said that if Sessions is the subject of the investigation, that he should recuse himself but otherwise that he doesn't need to.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.