US attorney general removes himself from Russia inquiry
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday he would recuse himself from any investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election because he was involved with President Donald Trump's campaign.
But Sessions, who was a long-time US 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 Sergey Kislyak.
"I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign," Sessions told reporters in the latest twist of the controversy over ties between Trump associates and Russia that has dogged the early days of his presidency.
US 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 favour. The Kremlin has denied the allegations.
Sessions made the comments at a hastily arranged news conference, after several of his fellow Republicans in Congress called for him to recuse himself from investigations 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.
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.
But on Wednesday night, the Washington Post revealed that Sessions, who was a senior Trump campaign aide, received 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.
Already, one member of Trump's top team - short-lived national security adviser Mike Flynn - has been forced to resign after controversy over his contacts with Kislyak.
Now Sessions has been forced to recuse himself from any investigation related to the Trump campaign - whose ties with Russia are under scrutiny from all sides - after he admitted to two encounters with Kislyak in the run-up to the vote.
In Washington's febrile atmosphere, where disgruntled foreign policy and intelligence officials are stirring opposition to Trump, some reports have even described Kislyak as a spy master.
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.
Asked whether Sessions should step aside from the investigations, Trump told reporters, "I don't think so."
The US president said on Thursday that Sessions could have been more accurate in what he said about his contacts with Russian officials but blamed Democrats for blowing up the controversy for political reasons.
"Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. 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. It is a total witch hunt!"
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 interference in Ukraine, military support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and President Vladimir Putin's intolerance of political dissent.