Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday bowed to intense political pressure and recused himself from any investigation related to President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Sessions acted after it emerged that he had failed at his Senate confirmation hearing to disclose two pre-election meetings with Russia's ambassador to Washington, at a time when Moscow was accused of interfering in the presidential race.
"I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States," Sessions told reporters.
Sessions said the decision followed his promise to the Senate Judiciary Committee to avoid any semblance of a conflict of interest between his new role and previous position as a strong supporter of the Trump campaign. It was also the result of consultations with career Justice Department officials, he said.
The attorney general's news conference was the culmination of a day of steadily rising political pressure over the issue. Democrats demanded he resign and accused him of lying to Congress. Many Republicans, feeling the political heat and growing increasingly concerned that the Russian drama was about to spin out of control, had been forced to call for Sessions to offload ultimate responsibility for an FBI probe into links between Trump's campaign and Russia.
Sessions went ahead and did just that, despite strong support from the White House.
Aboard an aircraft carrier in Virginia, Trump told reporters he had "total" confidence in Sessions. Asked if Sessions should recuse himself, the President said: "I don't think so."
Thursday evening, the President released a statement supporting Sessions.
"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. "This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win. The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and now, they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!"
White House spokesman Sean Spicer meanwhile billed the day of controversy arising from news of the meetings between Sessions and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak as a "partisan thing that we've seen over and over again."
"This continues to be a question of: there's no there there," Spicer said.
If nothing else, Thursday's intrigue served as another reminder that questions over Trump's attitude toward Moscow and the Kremlin's apparent operation to sow discord in last year's election are issues that will return again and again to confound the White House.
In this case, questions about Russia served to halt the President's victory lap after his well-received address to Congress on Tuesday night.
The Russian drama has already led to the departure of another Trump ally and top political appointee -- former national security adviser Michael Flynn -- also over contacts with Russian ambassador Kislyak.
Earlier on Thursday, Democrats had sensed new vulnerabilities for the administration over Russia -- and relished taking the battle to Sessions.
"(That) the top cop in our country lied under oath to the people is grounds for him to resign," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday. "He has proved that he is unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust."
Several Republicans, many of them increasingly uneasy about the implications of the evolving Russian drama, had called on Sessions to recuse himself from any probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
"Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself to ensure public confidence in the Justice Department's investigation," said Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who introduced Sessions at his confirmation hearing in January.
"I think the attorney general should further clarify his testimony. And I do think he should recuse himself," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Rep. Darrell Issa of California also called for Sessions to recuse himself.
But Sessions appeared to take the edge off Republican anxiety with his late afternoon news conference.
"Attorney General Sessions did the right thing by recusing himself," said Republican House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, told CNN: "I think if he made that judgment I think that's in the best interest of everything. I'm glad he did it quickly."
Sessions met on two separate occasions with Russia's ambassador to Washington, encounters the Alabama Republican did not disclose during his confirmation hearing on January 10.
At the hearing, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken asked Sessions what he would do if there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government.
"I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians," Sessions said.
Franken told CNN's "New Day" on Thursday that statement appears to be false.
"I am going to be sending (Sessions) a letter to have him explain himself, but he made a bald statement that during the campaign he had not met with the Russians," Franken said. "That's not true."
On Twitter, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren warned that Sessions should never have been confirmed at all, but now there is reason to remove him.
"Now Jeff Sessions is AG -- the final say on the law enforcement investigation into ties between the Trump campaign & Russia? What a farce. This is not normal," she tweeted. "This is not fake news. This is a very real & serious threat to the national security of the United States."
With Sessions' decision, oversight of any probe involving Trump's 2016 campaign will likely fall to acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente. Democrats would prefer the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate questions about Russia but appear to lack sufficient leverage to bring about such a step.
Sessions: 'This allegation is false'
Sessions has drawn a distinction between his role as a Trump surrogate and his duties as a senator and strongly denied ever discussing campaign-related issues with anyone from Russia.
"I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign," he said in a statement. "I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
Sessions' spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said there was nothing "misleading about his answer" to Congress because he "was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign -- not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee."
"Last year, the senator had over 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian, German and Russian ambassadors," Isgur Flores said in the statement.
Meetings with Russian ambassador
According to the Justice Department, Sessions met with Kislyak in July on the sidelines of the Republican convention, and in September in his office when Sessions was a member of the Senate Armed Services committee. Sessions, then the junior senator from Alabama, was an early Trump backer and regular surrogate for him as a candidate.
Kislyak is considered by U.S. intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies and spy recruiters in Washington, according to current and former senior U.S. government officials.
Kemlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov stated that Russia has never interfered and has no plans to ever interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries, speaking to journalists Wednesday.