President Donald Trump ordered his White House counsel to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself in the Justice Department's investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, The New York Times and The Associated Press reported Thursday night.
The Times cited two sources as saying White House Counsel Don McGahn tried but failed to persuade Sessions not to recuse himself.
The AP also cited two people familiar with the discussions as confirming details of the conversation between McGahn and Sessions.
Sessions declined, and in March he stepped aside from the inquiry, which is looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Sessions took the action after it emerged that he had failed to disclose meetings with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearing.
NBC News has confirmed aspects of the reports.
An official directly familiar with the matter told NBC News that McGahn and other White House officials called Sessions and urged him not to recuse himself. The official said the calls came after Sessions had already made his decision to recuse, based on advice from career Justice Department professionals. The official said it wasn't just McGahn but other White House officials who made calls.
A White House lawyer for Trump, Ty Cobb, said he had no comment on the Times report Thursday night.
The Sessions recusal has been a sore spot for Trump for months, with the president publicly deriding the decision and lamenting his selection of the former Alabama senator as his attorney general.
“He should not have recused himself from the Russia investigation almost immediately after he took office, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have quite simply picked somebody else,” Trump said at a press conference on July 25th. “It’s not fair to the presidency.”
When Sessions announced he was recusing himself, he said he had no improper contacts with the Russians but would withdraw because of his involvement in the Trump campaign.
Sessions' deputy, Rod Rosenstein, took over the investigation. After Trump fired FBI director James Comey two months later, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the Russia probe.
Four members of Trump's transition team or cabinet, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and national security adviser Michael Flynn, have been charged so far in the investigation.
While the White House and some Republicans in Congress have sought to downplay the seriousness and credibility of the Mueller probe, Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon appeared to lend it new credibility with explosive comments reported in a new tell-all book about the Trump administration.
NBC News reported last month that Mueller appears to be focused on possible obstruction of justice by the president, according to two people familiar with the matter.