U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday he would recuse himself from any investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because he was involved with President Donald Trump's campaign.
But Sessions, who was a longtime U.S. senator before becoming the country's top law enforcement official, said he did nothing wrong when he did not disclose during Senate testimony that he had met last year with Russia's ambassador.
"I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign," Sessions told reporters in the latest twist of the controversy over ties between Trump associates and Russia that has dogged the early days of his presidency.
"Since I had involvement with campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation."
However, Sessions didn't confirm whether the Justice Department is conducting any investigations into the election.
We are far past recusal. Jeff #Sessions lied under oath. Anything less than resignation or removal from office is unacceptable.— @NancyPelosi
He also reiterated that his meetings were related to his role as senator, not as a campaign surrogate.
"I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign."
Sessions made the comments at a hastily arranged news conference after several of his fellow Republicans in Congress called for him to recuse himself from investigations and Democrats called for his resignation.
One of Sessions's conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak occurred at a July event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. At that same event, the ambassador also spoke with Carter Page, who briefly advised Trump's campaign on foreign policy, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion.
Separately, a White House official said Thursday that Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in New York in December. The official described that sit-down as a brief courtesy meeting.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia hacked and leaked Democratic emails during the election campaign as part of an effort to tilt the vote in Trump's favour. The Kremlin has denied the allegations.
The White House maintained its confidence in Sessions, with, U.S. President Donald Trump saying he had "total confidence" in the attorney general and didn't think he should recuse himself from any Russia investigations.
Trump also said he "wasn't aware" that Sessions had spoken to Russia and said that he "probably did" speak truthfully to the Senate.
In a statement released Thursday evening, the president said Sessions could have been more accurate when talking about his contact with Russians, but the Democrats were blowing up the issue.
"Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional," Trump said in a statement.
"It is a total witch hunt!"
Late Thursday, Trump reiterated his statement on Twitter adding that the Democrats have "lost their grip on reality."
Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not....— @realDonaldTrump
...intentional. This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed.....— @realDonaldTrump
...to win. The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election, and now they have lost their grip on reality. The real story...— @realDonaldTrump
...is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total "witch hunt!"— @realDonaldTrump
White House support
The U.S. president made the comments aboard the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier while preparing to deliver a speech about his proposed defence buildup.
Shortly before Sessions spoke, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Sessions was simply doing his job as a former senator when he spoke with the Russian ambassador.
Sessions's conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak seem to contradict his sworn statements to Congress during his confirmation hearings.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California accused Sessions of "lying under oath," and she and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Sessions should step down.
"We are far past recusal," Pelosi said via Twitter.
Schumer said the Justice Department should appoint a special prosecutor to examine the federal investigation into the Kremlin's meddling in the U.S. election has been compromised by Sessions.
"Attorney General Jeff Sessions had weeks to correct the record that he made before the Judiciary Committee, but he let the record stand," Schumer told reporters.
"Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country Attorney General Sessions should resign," he said.
- Putin, Trump discuss rebuilding U.S.-Russia ties
- Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn quits over Russian contacts
Sessions — who was an early supporter and adviser of Trump during his run for the White House — was asked during his confirmation hearings in January what he would do if evidence emerged that anyone "affiliated with the Trump campaign" had been in contact with Moscow.
Sessions noted he had "been called a surrogate" of the campaign and that he "did not have communications with the Russians." He said he was unable to comment further.
His wording changed slightly in a statement issued late Wednesday, when Sessions said he had not met with Russians "to discuss issues of the campaign."
Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned last month, following reports that he had misled Vice-President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russia.
Carson confirmed for cabinet
Separately, Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, won Senate confirmation and was sworn into Trump's Cabinet as housing secretary.
Six Democrats and one independent joined 51 Republicans in voting for Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Carson is the 17th of 22 of Trump's Cabinet and Cabinet-level nominations to win Senate approval. The Senate also voted 62-37 to move ahead on the nomination of former Texas governor Rick Perry to be energy secretary, who was also sworn in Thursday.