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Republicans Tamp Down Sessions Criticism While Democrats Ramp it Up

Republicans critical of Sessions over meetings with a Russian official are satisfied with his announcement to recuse himself from some investigations.
Image: Sessions departs following a press conference at the Department of Justice
Attorney General Jeff Sessions departs following a press conference at the Department of Justice on March 2, 2017 in Washington. Sessions addressed the calls for him to recuse himself from Russia investigations after reports surfaced of meetings he had with the Russian ambassador during the U.S. presidential campaign. Also pictured is Sessions' Chief of Staff Jody Hunt (L).Win McNamee / Getty Images

Congressional Republicans are muting their criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions one day after a handful of key GOP officials broke ranks with him and President Donald Trump over Sessions' contacts with a Russian official.

Since Sessions' decision Thursday to recuse himself from investigations involving Trump campaign contacts with Russia, critical Republicans have either supported his decision or refrained from commenting. Democrats, meanwhile, are intensifying calls for accountability, demanding more answers about his and the administration's ties to Russia.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman was one of a handful of Republicans who called for Sessions to recuse himself on Thursday and now says he is satisfied with the decision.

“He thinks Jeff Sessions did the right thing and that his recusal will enhance the credibility of DOJ’s investigation,” said Portman’s spokesperson Kevin Smith.

Related: Sessions Will Submit Amended Testimony, Address Senators' Questions

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's office pointed NBC News to his comments Thursday morning, before Sessions announced his recusal, where he said, "I don't want to pre-judge, but I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, head of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who also called on Sessions to step aside from an investigation, has remained silent after Session's Thursday announcement. So has Rep. Darrell Issa who had called for a special prosecutor into the matter. Requests into their office for comment went unanswered Friday.

But Democrats continue to call for a whole range of actions, from resignation to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the entire matter.

Related: Democrats Say Recusal Not Enough For Sessions

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is among those who say Sessions should step down.

“I found his explanations simply not credible. You don’t, I think, treat a visit in your office by the Russian Ambassador as something casual, something not memorable, and when you’re asked about your contacts with the Russians in the Senate, that should have been disclosed,” Schiff on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said. “It’s a conclusion I reach reluctantly.”

Schiff is one of about 100 House members who have called on Sessions to step down, including House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"The recusal is an admission that something is wrong," Pelosi said Friday morning at a breakfast event hosted by Politico Playbook.

Related: Sessions Recuses Himself From Probe of Russian Election Interference

While resignation is not likely, some Democrats are also pushing for a special prosecutor, insisting that Sessions’ recusal doesn’t do enough to separate the Justice Department from an investigation.

Sessions said he will stay out of any investigation relating to the Trump campaign, but Democrats say that Sessions recusal should be much broader. And they argue that even the acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, should not oversee any investigations either. They say that the Obama appointee’s direct reporting chain to the White House shrouds any possibility of independence.

“It’s clear that this administration cannot be independent when it comes to looking at what Russia did in our past presidential election so I’m calling for an independent commission – bipartisan appointed – to take this outside of Congress and with respect to any criminal activity that may have occurred, a special council should be appointed to make sure that Attorney General sessions has nothing to do with this investigation,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said on MSNBC.

All nine Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in a letter called on Sessions to return to return to the committee to clarify his answers to Sens. Al Franken and Patrick Leahy when he said he had no communications with the Russians.

But the idea was shot down by Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who said there are no plans to ask Sessions to come before the committee.

"Attorney General Sessions did the right thing by recusing himself, and he did exactly what he said he’d do regarding potential recusals when he was before our committee," Grassley said in a statement.

Sessions will provide amended testimony on Monday and will respond to questions, Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement Friday in response to the letter filed by the nine Democratic committee members.

Democrats said that Sessions could have committed perjury if he lied under oath, but to be prosecuted for perjury it has to be done consciously.

Both Sens. Angus King, I-Maine and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said earlier Friday that Sessions should "clarify" his questions under oath.

"For him to correct that record and avoid a perjury prosecution if one is required under the record right now. The question of the FBI investigation will concern whether or not perjury was committed in the Judiciary Committee,” Blumenthal said on MSNBC.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is also calling on the Justice Department Inspector General to investigate Sessions’ first three weeks as attorney general. They want to know if Sessions did anything to influence, direct or hinder any investigation in those three weeks.

And the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings next week on the nominations of Sessions’ deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. Democrats are likely to use the hearings as another means to call attention to Sessions and any role that the Department of Justice plays in an investigation.