Attorney General Jeff Sessions Thursday bowed to pressure from Republicans and Democrats alike and recused himself of any investigations into Russia's role in the presidential election — but he doubled down on whether he misled Congress in not disclosing two meetings with the Moscow ambassador last year.
"I have decided to recuse myself from any present or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaign of the president of the United States," Sessions told reporters at the Justice Department.
He added that his announcement "should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation."
The attorney general said he made his decision about recusal after his staff recommended that he step away from any investigation related to the Trump campaign, since he had been involved in the campaign.
Sessions also slammed any suggestion that he tried to mislead the Senate Judiciary Committee in his January confirmation hearing on his Russian contacts.
"That is not my intent," he said. "That is not correct."
"The idea that I was part of a 'continuing exchange of information during the campaign between the Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government' is totally false."
Sessions acknowledged, however, that he should have been more careful in his testimony.
"I should have slowed down and said, 'But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times,'" he told reporters.
He said Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente would handle such matters.
Sessions has been under fire since The Washington Post and CNN reported Wednesday that the Justice Department said that he had met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year.
Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse President Donald Trump's campaign last year, he was a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee at the time. He also sat on the Judiciary Committee.
One meeting with the ambassador occurred in July during the Republican National Committee in Cleveland — and the other came in September in Sessions' office on Capitol Hill.
The Justice Department has maintained nothing improper occurred in Sessions' contacts or his answers to Congress, while the continuing allegations of Russian interference in American politics ignited Democratic calls for the former four-term Alabama senator not only to recuse himself but to resign.
The White House has stood behind Sessions throughout the controversy, with President Trump telling reporters in Virginia that he had "total" confidence in the attorney general and — adding that "I don't think so at all" when they asked him about recusal.
In January, Sessions did not disclose the meetings in his confirmation hearing. He had been asked by Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota what he would do if "anyone affiliated" with the campaign had contact with Russian officials.
Sessions replied that he had no communications with the Russians, and answered "no" in a separate written questionnaire when asked about contacts regarding the election.
"Let me be clear," Sessions told reporters on Thursday. "I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign."
Franken's question, he said, "had gotten my attention — and that was the question I responded to.
"I did not respond by referring to the two meetings — one very brief after a speech and one with two of my senior staffers with the Russian ambassador in Washington — where no such things were discussed."
Sessions said that his response to Franken's question "was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.
"I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment," he added. "That is not my intent. That is not correct."
The attorney general said that he would write the Judiciary Committee this week to "explain this testimony for the record."
Democrats called for Sessions to resign, while Republicans said that he should recuse himself from any probe of Russian-related hacking during the election.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California accused the attorney general of "lying under oath" — and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York called for a special prosecutor for a Moscow probe.
Meanwhile, more than a half dozen Republican lawmakers, including some who said they were personally close to Sessions, urged him to recuse himself from any Justice Department probe.
"If there is an investigation, he probably shouldn't be the person leading it," Oklahoma Sen. Tom Cole said.
"Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend," Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said, "but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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