U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday he would recuse himself from any investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because he was involved with President Donald Trump's campaign.
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But Sessions, who was a long-time U.S. senator before becoming the country's top law enforcement official, said he did nothing wrong when he did not disclose during Senate testimony that he had met last year with Russia's ambassador. He said the meetings were in his capacity as senator, not as a campaign aide.
"I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign," Sessions told reporters at a hastily arranged news conference after several of his fellow Republicans in Congress called for him to recuse himself and Democrats urged him to resign.
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 his presidency.
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.
During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Sessions responded to a question from Democratic Senator Al Franken that he did not "have communications with the Russians" during the presidential campaign.
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But on Wednesday night, the Washington Post revealed that Sessions, who was a senior campaign aide of Trump's, received Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in his Senate office in September.
The other encounter was in July at a Heritage Foundation event that was attended by about 50 ambassadors, during the Republican National Convention, the Post said.
Sessions said he was "honest and correct" in his answer to Franken, drawing a distinction between his role as a senator and his role as a campaign aide.
Before the news conference, Trump said he had "total" confidence in Sessions. Asked whether Sessions should step aside from the investigations, Trump told reporters, "I don't think so."
Trump called frequently during his campaign for improved relations with Russia, drawing criticism from Democrats and some Republicans. Ties with Russia have been deeply strained in recent years over Moscow's military interference in Ukraine, military support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and President Vladimir Putin's intolerance of political dissent.