U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on Thursday from investigations related to Russia's alleged influence on the 2016 presidential election amid controversy over meetings he held with the country's ambassador during that time.
Despite his recusal, Sessions maintained that he was acting as a U.S. senator at the time of the meetings, not as a senior aide to Donald Trump's presidential campagin.
“Let me be clear, I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said during a brief news conference on Thursday.
Sessions received Russia's Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in his office in September, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. The other encounter was in July at a Heritage Foundation event that was attended by about 50 ambassadors, during the Republican National Convention, the Post said.
The Justice Department confirmed the two meetings, saying they were in Sessions' capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and there was nothing untoward about them.
During his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions responded to a question from Sen. Al Franken that he did not "have communications with the Russians" during the course of the presidential campaign.
On Thursday, Sessions said he was "honest and correct" in his answer to Franken, drawing a distinction between his role as a senator and his role as a campaign aide.
Several of Sessions’ fellow Republicans in Congress had called on him to recuse himself from investigations into alleged Russian meddling before his announcement.
Democrats went further and urged Sessions' resignation and the appointment of a special prosecutor, and his announcement did little to quell those demands.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi repeated a call for him to resign, saying "his narrow recusal and sorry attempt to explain away his perjury" were totally inadequate.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman released a statement earlier Thursday, urging Sessions’ resignation.
“Attorney General Sessions – our nation's top law enforcement official – appears to have lied under oath, which in and of itself is disqualifying,” Schneiderman said in the statement. “The fact that he lied about contact with the Russian government, while seeking confirmation to lead the Department of Justice, which is investigating Russia's involvement in our election, is beyond the pale.”
Schneiderman said Sessions’ actions show a “total disregard for the rule of law and the interests of the American people.”
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Newport News, Virginia, Trump said he had “total” confidence in Sessions. When asked whether Sessions should step aside from the investigations Trump said, “I don’t think so.”
The president said he "wasn't aware at all" that Sessions had spoken with the Russian ambassador, but added that he believes Sessions “probably did” testify truthfully during his confirmation hearing.
In a statement released by the Department of Justice, Sessions said acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will perform the duties of attorney general "with respect to matters from which I have recused myself to the extent they exist."