WASHINGTON -- U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- under mounting criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers over his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the 2016 presidential election campaign -- says he will recuse himself from any investigations related to the campaign.
"I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States," Sessions told a Washington news conference on March 2.
Hours after the announcement, President Donald Trump called congressional demands for Sessions to step away from the investigation or resign "a total witch hunt." The president conceded, however, that Sessions could have been more accurate in portraying his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
Trump said that Sessions "did not say anything wrong" when he failed to mention meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during a confirmation hearing in January for his appointment as the top U.S. prosecutor.
"Jeff Sessions is an honest man. ... He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional," Trump said in a statement. "The Democrats are overplaying their hand."
Sessions made the announcement after a growing number of lawmakers from both parties said Sessions should recuse himself from investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign.
Sessions said he made his decision after consulting with Justice Department officials for "several weeks" about whether to step away from any potential decisions related to investigating the 2016 presidential campaign.
Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will handle any matters related to any such investigations.
Top House and Senate Democrats, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, have said recusal is not enough and have openly called for Sessions' resignation -- charging that he lied under oath during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating allegations of collusion between Russia and Trump's campaign, became the latest to call for Sessions' resignation, saying he "clearly misled" Congress.
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions said under oath that he had not been in contact with anyone from the Russian government during the 2016 election campaign, and that he did not know of any members of Trump’s campaign team who had.
But on March 1, he appeared to reverse himself after The Washington Post reported that he had met at least twice with Kislyak during the campaign period.
During the news conference, Sessions insisted that his meetings with the Russian ambassador were conducted in his capacity as senator and not as an adviser to the Trump campaign.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the Justice Department and the F.B.I. on March 2 calling for "an immediate criminal investigation into these statements, which could potentially implicate a number of criminal laws, including lying to Congress and perjury."
Sessions, who was a key adviser to Trump's campaign, denied wrongdoing on March 2, saying that he didn't discuss the election campaign with Kislyak during his meetings.
He insisted during the March 2 news conference that he had answered truthfully during his confirmation hearing in a response to a question by Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota.
"I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign," Sessions said on March 2.
"And the idea that I was part of a quote 'continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government' is totally false," he added, referencing the question Franken asked him during the hearing.
In January, U.S. intelligence agencies released a report saying they had assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an "influence campaign" seeking to undermine faith in the U.S. electoral system and denigrate Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Shortly before the news conference, Trump said he had "total" confidence in Sessions.
News reports say the FBI is investigating communications and business ties that several current and former Trump aides had with Russian officials.
As the U.S. attorney general, Sessions is empowered to oversee any investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Sessions said his recusal from overseeing investigations does not confirm the existence of any ongoing investigation.
The Reuters news agency, citing two U.S. officials, reported on March 2 that Sessions is one of many "subjects" of a government investigation of any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Sessions was not now a "target" of the probe by the FBI, the Treasury Department, the CIA, and the National Security Agency.
Russian has tried to keep its distance from the controversy over the meetings between Sessions and Kislyak.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on March 2 that he was unaware of such meetings but that if they did take place, there was nothing suspicious about them.
On March 3, Peskov echoed Trump's criticism of the scrutiny that U.S. lawmakers have trained on contacts between members of Trump's campaign and Russian officials.
Citing Trump's "witch hunt" remark, Peskov said: "After such an exhaustive definition by President Trump, we have nothing to add."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also used the "witch hunt" term, saying, "I can only cite the quote that media outlets have distributed today: All of this strongly resembles a witch hunt or the McCarthy era, which we thought had long since passed in the United States as a civilized country."
With reporting by Reuters