WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he is recusing himself from the federal investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
“I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States,” he said.
Sessions made the announcement during a news conference Thursday after consulting with Justice Department lawyers.
He faced mounting calls to recuse himself or resign following reports that he was in contact with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the 2016 campaign.
As CBS2’s Dick Brennan reported, Sessions now admits to meeting twice with Russia’s ambassador before the election, but maintains he wasn’t lying when he failed to mention those meetings while under oath during his confirmation hearings.
“Let me be clear: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said. “The idea that I was part of a ‘continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian goverment’ is totally false.”
“In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘Yes, I did meet with one Russian official a couple of times,'” he added.
The Justice Department confirmed to CBS News that Sessions spoke with the Russian ambassador twice during the campaign, but said those conversations were part of many discussions he had with foreign ambassadors as a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will now handle any matters related to the investigation, the Associated Press reported.
Earlier in the day, President Donald Trump said he “wasn’t aware” that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had been in contact with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump said however he had “total” confidence in Sessions.
Asked if Sessions should recuse himself, Trump said “I don’t think so.”
The Justice Department said Wednesday night that the two conversations took place last year when Sessions was a senator.
One was an office visit that occurred in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The department says the other occurred in a group setting with other ambassadors following a Heritage Foundation speech.
Revelations of the contact were first reported by The Washington Post.
Sessions, an early supporter of President Donald Trump and a policy adviser to the Republican candidate, did not disclose those discussions at his confirmation hearing in January when asked what he would do if “anyone affiliated” with the campaign had been in contact with officials of the Russian government.
Sessions replied that he had not had communication with the Russians.
“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two during the campaign, and I did not have conversations with the Russians,” he said.
In a statement issued Wednesday night, Sessions said, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
He continued to deny the allegations Thursday.
“Well, I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign. And those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don’t have anything else to say about that,” Sessions told MSNBC.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores also said Wednesday night that “there was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer.”
“He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee,” Flores said.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the reports “the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.”
She added, “General Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony” to the Senate Judiciary Committee at a confirmation hearing in January.
Referring to questions on this issue that Democratic Sen. Al Franken raised with Sessions at that hearing, she said, “It’s no surprise Senator Al Franken is pushing this story immediately following President Trump’s successful address to the nation.”
Several Republicans and Democrats had called for Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation or to resign following the revelations.
“He did not tell the truth under oath before the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate, and you just don’t do that,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California.
Among them was Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. He said a special prosecutor is needed to investigate the allegations of Russian interference and also look into whether the investigation has already been compromised by Sessions.
“Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign,” Schumer said.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Sessions of “lying under oath” and demanded that he resign.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren also called for Sessions to resign. She said there should be an independent special prosecutor named to oversee an investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told MSNBC that Sessions “is going to need to recuse himself at this point,” adding that Sessions “should further clarify.”
In a statement, Republican congressman Darrell Issa of California joined Chaffetz in calling on Sessions to recuse himself now. Issa said, “We need a clear-eyed view of what the Russians actually did so that all Americans can have faith in our institutions.”
“I would recuse myself if I were in his shoes right now, pending his ability to clarify what actually occurred,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida also joined the growing chorus of Republicans calling upon Sessions to recuse himself. Graham said, “Somebody other than Jeff needs to do it.”
Graham also told reporters he is meeting Thursday with FBI Director James Comey and will demand to know whether there is an investigation into the Russia contacts.
Franken is calling for an “independent prosecutor” to investigate any links the Trump campaign may have had with the Russian government and says Sessions must “come forward with the truth.”
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri called on Sessions to resign and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said he should recuse himself.
Another member of Trump’s team, Michael Flynn was fired as national security adviser after allegations he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about conversations with the Russian ambassador.
CBS News has now learned that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also met with the Russian ambassador in December. White House officials describe that meeting as an “inconsequential hello.”
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)