US Attorney General Jeff Sessions will recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the US election, but maintains he answered all questions at his confirmation hearing truthfully and will therefore not resign.
Mr Sessions fronted the media on Friday following pressure from Democrats to quit after he failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador during his Senate confirmation hearing.
On Friday, the Attorney General confirmed he had twice met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, once briefly after a speech and on another occasion with two of his own staffers in Washington.
It also emerged on Friday that then-incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn also had a once undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador to the US, as did Jared Kushner.
Mr Kushner is Mr Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor.
Mr Flynn was in contact with the ambassador during the campaign and the transition, the New York Times reported. He was asked to resign by Mr Trump earlier in February when it emerged he mislead Vice President Mike Pence about his communication with other Russian diplomats.
Mr Sessions denied misleading the Senate, but said he would recuse himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign. The FBI is currently probing the campaign’s alleged links to Russia.
“My reply to the question of the senator was honest and correct as I understood it at the time,” Mr Sessions told reporters.
“I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct.”
Mr Sessions said he would recuse himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States”.
Earlier, US President Donald Trump said he had “total” confidence in Mr Sessions, despite reports of his meetings with the Russian ambassador to the US.
Top Democrats had demanded Mr Sessions resign from his position and he recuses himself from the investigation he is leading into Russian interference in the presidential election.
“After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney-General must resign,” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement on Thursday (AEST).
“Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign.
Nancy Pelosi calls for Jeff Sessions to resign pic.twitter.com/tFI9yIRpVu
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 2, 2017
Mr Sessions spoke twice last year to Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said.
One of the meetings was a private conversation between Mr Sessions and Mr Kislyak that took place in the senator’s office in September, at the height of what US intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the US presidential race.
The other meeting occurred in a group setting after a Heritage Foundation speech that Mr Sessions gave during the northern summer.
Democrat Senator Al Franken, who asked Mr Sessions about Russia’s involvement at his confirmation, has also joined calls for the Attorney-General to step aside.
— House OversightDems (@OversightDems) March 2, 2017
Senator Franken said in a statement Mr Sessions misled the American public after he failed to disclose his contact with Russian officials.
“The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened between Russia and the Trump team,” he said.
“It’s clearer than ever now that the Attorney-General cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately.”
“We need Attorney-General Jeff Sessions – who should have never been confirmed in the first place – to resign. We need it now.”
Sessions denies Russia wrongdoing
Mr Sessions was asked during his Senate confirmation hearing in January what he would do if he learned that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he answered.
“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Watch Jeff Sessions during his confirmation below:
Here's the video of Sessions denying **under oath** that he had communications with the Russians. pic.twitter.com/YFxCgqjQo6
— CAP Action (@CAPAction) March 2, 2017