Attorney General Jeff Sessions did the right thing Thursday by recusing himself from any investigations involving President Donald Trump's campaign. He wisely followed the advice of Justice Department lawyers and rejected the president's opinion that he should not step aside. That should clear the way for an objective investigation either by a special prosecutor or an independent commission to get to the bottom of Russia's interference in the presidential election.
Sessions, who often acted as a surrogate for the Trump campaign, could not possibly have overseen an objective investigation into whether Trump's campaign aides or advisers were involved with Russia's interference in the election. Multiple U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia attempted to tilt the election in Trump's favor by hacking into the Democratic National Committee's computers to discredit Hillary Clinton. There certainly would have been at least an appearance of a conflict for Sessions to oversee an investigation, and Americans need to know exactly what happened without worrying the results are politically tainted.
In a news conference, Sessions said he had asked Justice Department ethics lawyers to review the situation and advise him — and that meeting had been scheduled for Thursday. That was convenient, because the Washington Post reported late Wednesday that Sessions met twice in 2016 with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Yet during his confirmation hearings, Sessions said he had not been in contact with any Russian officials during the campaign. With the Post's revelation and both Republicans and Democrats calling for Sessions to recuse himself, the attorney general had little choice.
Sessions still has some questions to answer. He said during the news conference that he truthfully answered Sen. Al Franken's questions during the confirmation hearing that he had no discussions with Russians because he was referring to campaign activities. He said he and his staffers met the Russian ambassador in his Senate office in September after the ambassador's staff requested the meeting. Sessions recalled discussing Russia's involvement in the Ukraine, but he said he did not recall any specific political discussions and that he was meeting him in his role as a senator. Yet the presidential campaign was in high gear, and the meeting came at the peak of a Russian cyber campaign to interfere with the U.S. presidential election, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. At the very least, Sessions' responses during his confirmation hearing were misleading.
This is not the first time a member of Trump's team has been questioned about truthfulness regarding contact with Russian officials. Last month, Trump forced out national security adviser Michael Flynn after the Post reported Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence and others by denying he discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador before Trump's inauguration. The FBI had questioned Flynn about those conversations, which Flynn had denied.
Trump has repeatedly denied any coordination between his campaign and Russian officials, but that is not good enough. Interference in U.S. elections by foreign nations cannot be tolerated, and with the integrity of the electoral system at stake the American people need clarity. Sessions acted responsibly by recusing himself. Now the president and Congress should do the right thing by embracing an independent investigation.