US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday he would stay out of any probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election but maintained he did nothing wrong by failing to disclose he met last year with Russia’s ambassador.
Sessions, a longtime U.S. senator who was an early and high-ranking player in President Donald Trump’s campaign before becoming the country’s top law enforcement official, announced the decision after several fellow Republicans in Congress suggested the move would be appropriate.
“I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign,” Sessions told reporters at a hastily arranged news conference.
Sessions said he had been weighing recusal – ruling himself out from any role in the investigations – even before the latest twist of the controversy over ties between Trump associates and Russia that has dogged the early days of the Trump presidency.
The president backed Sessions, saying Democrats had politicized the issue and calling the controversy a “total witch hunt.”
Sessions’ announcement did nothing to quell concerns among congressional Democrats, a number of whom called for Sessions to step down.
Trump and Republicans who control Congress are trying to move past early administration missteps and focus on issues important to them, including immigration, tax cuts and repealing the Obamacare healthcare law.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia hacked and leaked Democratic emails during the election campaign as part of an effort to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor. The Kremlin has denied the allegations.
Sessions denied he had contact with Russian officials when he was asked directly during his Senate confirmation hearing to become attorney general whether he had exchanged information with Russian operatives during the election campaign.
He told reporters he was “honest and correct” in his response, although he acknowledged he “should have slowed down” and mentioned he had met with the ambassador in his role as a senator.
“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said, adding he felt he should not be involved in investigating a campaign in which he had had a role.
In a statement on Thursday night, Trump said Sessions “did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional.”
Sessions’ meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak were disclosed on Wednesday night by the Washington Post. Sessions received Kislyak in his Senate office in September and also met him in July at a Heritage Foundation event at the Republican National Convention that was attended by about 50 ambassadors.
Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn last month after disclosures that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with Kislyak before Trump took office and that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
The recusal means Sessions, a powerful member of Trump’s inner circle, will not be briefed on details of any probe. Should the Federal Bureau of Investigation decide to move forward with charges, Sessions would not be in a position to weigh in on whether the Department of Justice should take the case.