SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz was among the first high-ranking Republicans in Congress to call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from investigations into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
In a Twitter post early Thursday morning, Chaffetz said, "AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself." Later, he told MSNBC his concern was how Sessions answered questions during his confirmation hearing.
Hours later, Sessions announced he would not be part of any investigations “related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States” and said he did not mean to mislead Congress about his contact with Russian officials.
Other members of Utah's congressional delegation said before Sessions' announcement that they trusted him to make the right decision.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement that Sessions "was asked whether he had communicated with Russian officials about the presidential campaign and he said ‘no.’ Having served with Jeff for 20 years and knowing him to be a man of honor and integrity, I take him at his word."
Hatch said the attorney general "has since said he would recuse himself wherever necessary. I trust the men and women leading the Intelligence Committee investigation, and I trust Sen. Sessions to do the right thing.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, expressed a similar sentiment in a statement.
“Attorney General Sessions said this morning that he will recuse himself any time and every time it's warranted by the circumstances. This is someone I trust. I trust him enough to make that determination to know when that needs to be made,” Lee said.
Chaffetz, chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been criticized for not launching an investigation into ties between President Donald Trump's administration and Russia.
He told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards last month he has already taken on the Trump administration on other issues, but the question of Russian influence was best handled by the House Intelligence Committee.
Chaffetz's tweet came only minutes after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told MSNBC that Sessions should stay out of any investigation to maintain “the trust of the American people.”
In January, Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath that he had not met with any Russian officials. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Sessions spoke twice last year with Russia's ambassador to the United States.
AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself— Jason Chaffetz (@jasoninthehouse) March 2, 2017
The newspaper said the then-senator met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in his Senate office last September "at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race."
When asked by MSNBC whether his call for Sessions to step aside from any investigation was because of the meetings or because of his testimony, Chaffetz said it was "because of how he answered the question in his testimony."
"Look, based on what we’ve read, and the information is not complete, I think the attorney general should further clarify, and I do think he’s going to need to recuse himself at this point," he told the cable news network.
Later, the Washington Post reported Chaffetz was asked whether his committee would investigate the matter and he responded by saying, "There are things we are looking at.”
Chaffetz has been under fire from angry constituents complaining he was not treating the new Republican president the same way he has Trump's Democratic opponent in last year's race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
At a town hall meeting last month, a raucous crowd chanted: "Do your job!"
He reacted to that Thursday, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
"Chaffetz has been on the hot seat. He has received significant pressure from his constituents and from others to hold administration officials to account," Karpowitz said. "This indicates to me he's being responsive to some of the pressure."
Still, the political science professor said, a single tweet is not likely to satisfy those concerned that Chaffetz has applied a partisan "double standard" in choosing not to go after Trump as aggressively as he has Clinton.
And, Karpowitz said, the recusal call "is not some sort of bucking of his own party because there are other members of his party saying similar things. But it is the first sign we’ve seen that he is willing to take some action."
Chaffetz said the issues related to Trump that he has gotten involved in include seeking a Department of Justice investigation into what he has called the "mishandling" of classified information.
The concern, he said, is how such information ended up in news reports about Trump's now former national security adviser Michael Flynn's ties to Russia, as well as a look into fees Flynn received for one or more speeches in Russia.
Even though Chaffetz isn't up for re-election until 2018, there are already efforts to unseat him, including chaffetzout.com, which calls itself a "nonpartisan, grass-roots organization dedicated to preventing Trump puppet Jason Chaffetz from holding public office."