Donald Trump has thrown his support behind his beleaguered Attorney General – saying he has total confidence in Jeff Sessions even as Mr Sessions recused himself from an investigation into Russia's alleged interference in the US election.
Mr Sessions had been under intense pressure to remove himself from the probe into alleged cyber-meddling following reports he twice met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the election. Under sworn testimony to senators, Mr Sessions had previously said there had been no meetings. Mr Sessions insisted he had done nothing wrong but said he would play no part in the investigation.
”I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign,” he said, as senior Republicans called for him to remove himself to avoid a conflict of interest and Democrats called for him to resign.
But ahead of a speech on the USS Gerald Ford at Newport Mews, where he said he would expand naval spending, Mr Trump stood by the country’s most senior law enforcement official and said he had “total” confidence in him.
Asked if Mr Sessions should recuse himself from the investigation, he said: “I don’t think so.” He said he was not aware of Mr Sessions' contacts with the Russian envoy.
The heat on Mr Sessions emerged after the Washington Post revealed Mr Sessions spoke twice last year with Mr Kislyak - once in July and the second time in the former senator’s office in September.
In January, giving testimony during a senate confirmation hearing, Mr Sessions was asked what he would do if he learned of evidence that showed anyone linked to the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he said. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Mr Sessions’ team has pushed back at suggestions that Mr Sessions had lied to, or mislead the senators. A spokesperson said Mr Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the senators’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Mr Kislyak.
On Thursday morning, when concerned by NBC, Mr Sessions said he had not discussed the political campaign with Mr Kislyak. He also suggested that he would stand down from any probe if he felt he could not properly do his job.
“I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign, and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don’t have anything else to say about that,” he said.
The revelation that Mr Sessions gave answers that may not have been truthful sparked calls among Democrats for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s alleged cyber-meddling in the presidential election - an operation supposedly done by Moscow to try and benefit Mr Trump. On Thursday, it was also reported two other senior figures in the Trump camp - foreign policy advisor Mike Flynn and campaign strategist Jared Kusher - had also met with the Russian Ambassador last December. The New York Times said the meeting at Trump Tower was held to "establish a line of communication” between the new administration and the Russian government.
In his post as Attorney General, Mr Sessions oversees the Justice Department and the FBI, which have been leading investigations into possible links between Mr Trump’s associates and Russian officials.
The Democrats, scrambling for traction in a political environment now dominated by the Republicans, sought to seize on the revelations, and insisted that Mr Sessions position had become untenable.
Hoping to force the ousting of Mr Sessions, whose resignation would mark a second scalp to Democrats following the departure last month of Mr Flynn, US Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said it was time for him to go.
And we need Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who should have never been confirmed in the first place – to resign. We need it now.— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) March 2, 2017
“His integrity and independence have been questioned, it would be better for the country if he resigns,” Mr Schumer told a news conference. “There's nothing wrong with meeting with the Russian ambassador. If there was nothing wrong, why don't you just tell the truth.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said there was no reason for Mr Sessions to recuse himself, let alone resign. “People playing politics with the issue should be ashamed of themselves,” he told Fox News.
At least three House Republicans, congressmen Jason Chaffetz, Darrell Issa and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said they wanted Mr Sessions to withdraw from the inquiry.
However, Mr Trump indicated he had not intention of asking him to do so. Mr Sessions, previously a senator from Alabama, was one of the first on Capitol Hill to throw his support behind Mr Trump’s bid for the White House.
Reuters said that speaking to reporters as he toured the ship, docked in Virginia, Mr Trump said he “wasn’t aware at all” that Mr Sessions had spoken with the Russian ambassador. Asked whether he testified truthfully to the Senate, Mr Trump said: “I think he probably did.”