Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on Thursday from any Justice Department investigations into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, as well as any inquiries into ties between the Donald Trump campaign and Russian officials.
“I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaign for president of the United States,” Sessions said at a press conference at the DOJ. “This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.”
Going forward, Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will handle all campaign-related investigations. Trump’s permanent nominee for the post, Rod Rosenstein, has a confirmation hearing on March 7.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak two times last year. Since then, the attorney general has faced growing bipartisan demands from Congress that he recuse himself from the investigations.
Sessions previously told the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath that he had not had any “communications with the Russians” during the presidential campaign.
According to the Washington Post, Sessions met with Kislyak in July 2016 at the Republican National Convention, and again in September in Sessions’ Senate office. Following the publication of the Post story, Sessions insisted that the meetings were held in his capacity as a senator and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and not as a Trump campaign adviser.
When asked Thursday about his Sept. 8 meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sessions said the two talked about “normal things,” noting terrorism and Ukraine came up in conversation.
“I don’t recall any specific political discussion,” Sessions said. He added that he turned down an invitation for a longer lunch with Kislyak. “Ambassadors are always out there trying to find out things,” he said of diplomats in general.
Trump said in a statement late Thursday that while he believed Sessions said nothing wrong, the attorney general could have phrased his answers during the Senate hearing more accurately. Trump also took a swipe at Democrats, saying they are “overplaying their hand.”
“It is a total witch hunt!” he declared.
Earlier in the day, Trump said he didn’t think Sessions should recuse himself from investigations and that he had “total” confidence in his attorney general. But Trump also admitted that he only learned of the meetings between Sessions and Kislyak on Wednesday night, from The Washington Post.
Asked whether he believed Sessions had told the truth in his confirmation hearings, the president said “he probably did.”
In response to a question about his testimony on Thursday, Sessions said he was surprised by the question about the Russian meetings. “In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘I did have one meeting with the Russian ambassador.’”
He chose to recuse himself, he said, because “I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in.”
Read Sessions’ full statement below:
“During the course of the confirmation proceedings on my nomination to be Attorney General, I advised the Senate Judiciary Committee that ‘[i]f a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with Department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed.’
“During the course of the last several weeks, I have met with the relevant senior career Department officials to discuss whether I should recuse myself from any matters arising from the campaigns for President of the United States.
“Having concluded those meetings today, 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.
“I have taken no actions regarding any such matters, to the extent they exist.
“This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.
“Consistent with the succession order for the Department of Justice, Acting Deputy Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dane Boente shall act as and perform the functions of the Attorney General with respect to any matters from which I have recused myself to the extent they exist.”
This article has been updated to include Trump’s statement.