Attorney General Jeff Sessions bowed to pressure Thursday and recused himself from a Justice Department investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the presidential election, but he remained adamant that his testimony at a confirmation hearing was forthright despite not disclosing contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Stepping aside from the probe into Russian hacking and alleged ties between President Trump’s campaign and the former Cold War foe, however, failed to satisfy Democrats, who are demanding Mr. Sessions resign and face perjury charges.
Mr. Sessions’ decision also did not abate calls for a special prosecutor or independent counsel to probe an alleged Russia connection, despite the lack of evidence of any involvement by the Trump campaign in such efforts.
“I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president,” Mr. Sessions said at a press conference at the Justice Department.
Acting Deputy Attorney General Dane Boente is the next in line to handle any matters from which Mr. Sessions recuses himself.
The department is investigating Russian email hacking that intelligence officials believe was intended to hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and therefore benefit Mr. Trump.
The House and Senate intelligence committees also are investigating Russian involvement in the election.
Mr. Sessions has been under pressure to recuse himself from any investigating of a Russian connection since his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing, where the veteran senator and former Alabama attorney general was pilloried by Democrats as a racist, sexist and homophobe.
Mr. Sessions said that he had scheduled Thursday to decide the recusal question days before the story broke Wednesday night about his meeting twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign, which appeared to contradict his confirmation hearing testimony.
Justice Department staff recommended he recuse himself, he said, solely because of his involvement in the Trump campaign, where he was a prominent surrogate and chairman of the campaign’s national security advisory committee.
“They said since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation,” said Mr. Sessions.
The fracas that engulfed Washington over his meetings with the Russian ambassador, which occurred in the course of Mr. Sessions’ duties as a U.S. senator and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, prompted several Republican lawmakers to back calls for recusal.
Democrats and liberal groups went further to demand his ouster.
“It would be better for the country if he resigns,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
He also called for an investigation by a special prosecutor, Justice Department inspector general or independent counsel to “assess if agents of [the Russian] government have penetrated to the highest levels of our government.”
Some Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, have joined the push for a special prosecutor. But the White House and GOP leadership on Capitol Hill remain steadfastly opposed to unleashing an open-ended investigation of the administration.
Just hours before the announcement, President Trump stood firmly in support for his attorney general. He told reporters that he continued to have “total” confidence in Mr. Sessions and that he didn’t think a recusal was necessary.
Mr. Trump made the brief remark vouching for Mr. Sessions as he toured the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, which is under construction in Newport News, Virginia.
He also said that he “wasn’t aware” of the meeting with Mr. Kislyak during the campaign but believed Mr. Sessions testified truthfully at the confirmation hearing.
At the press conference Mr. Sessions said he understood the White House took a different view.
“They don’t know the ethics rules; most people don’t,” he said. “But when you evaluate the rules, I feel like I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in.”
Mr. Sessions met with Mr. Kislyak once at his Senate office in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a second time in a group setting with other ambassadors following a Heritage Foundation speech, according to the Justice Department.
Beyond those two meetings, Mr. Sessions said he did not believe that he had been in contact with anyone else working on behalf of the Russian government.
His answer at the confirmation hearing, he said, was focused on the question of whether there had been constant contact between Trump campaign surrogates such as himself and Russian intelligence officers.
“I was taken aback a little bit about this brand-new information, this allegation that a surrogate — and I had been called a surrogate for Donald Trump — had been meeting continuously with Russian officials,” he said. “It struck me very hard, and that’s what I focused my answer on.”
He said that in retrospect he should have “slowed down” and acknowledged the meeting with one Russian official outside campaign activities.
During the confirmation hearing, Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, asked Mr. Sessions, “If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
Mr. Sessions replied that he was “not aware of any of those activities.”
“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it,” he said at the time.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy also asked Mr. Sessions about contacts with the Russian government in written follow-up questions after the hearing.
“Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” the Vermont Democrat wrote.
Mr. Sessions gave a one-word reply: No.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Sessions’ decision to recuse himself was “the right thing to do” to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
However, he balked at the rush to force out Mr. Sessions, a Senate colleague for decades.
“First and foremost, any talk of resignation is nonsense,” he said. “We all know Attorney General Sessions to be an honest and forthright public servant.”