Sessions recuses himself from investigation into Russian influence of 2016 election

(CNN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised to recuse himself from any current or future investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The nation's top cop said he did not mislead the Senate during his confirmation hearing to become attorney general, and said his recusal was only to avoid the appearance of impropriety, not an admission of guilt. His staff recommended he step aside from any investigation related to Russian contacts.

"I feel I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in," Sessions said.

In a rebuke of calls for him to resign from his post, Sessions said he never discussed the 2016 presidential election with Russian diplomats, and that he did not intend to mislead senators during his confirmation hearing.

The attorney general added that he was not confirming whether there was an investigation or not.

"This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation," he said.

Earlier in the day, President Donald Trump told pool reporters aboard the USS Gerald Ford he has "total confidence" in Sessions Thursday afternoon.

Trump made the comments amid the revelation Sessions met with a Russian diplomat despite denying in a hearing he had any contact with Russians.

Sessions reportedly met twice last year with ambassador Sergey Kislyak despite saying he had not met with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearings in January.

The president also indicated to pool reporters that he thinks Sessions shouldn't recuse himself, a call that several Republicans had been making Thursday.

A senior White House official said the Oval Office found out about the meetings through media reports, CNN reported.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-CA, said he doesn't have evidence that members of Donald Trump's presidential campaign made improper contact with Russian officials, he said during remarks after a meeting with FBI Director James Comey.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, complained that Comey was less than forthcoming in helping with the House's investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election, including contacts with the Trump campaign.

The Democrats on the House Judiciary committee called for an immediate criminal investigation into Sessions' statements via letter to Comey and to the D.C. U.S. Attorney and that the investigation "consider any involvement or knowledge the Trump Administration and Trump campaign may have regarding these matters."

"Efforts by Attorney General Sessions to assert that his testimony was not false or even misleading because he met with the Russian Ambassador in his capacity as a senator, rather than a campaign representative, appear to be disingenuous at best as the questions put to him did not in any way ask if the meeting was campaign related," the letter stated.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, said Thursday that Sessions should resign and a special prosecutor should investigate possible connections between Russia and President Donald Trump's campaign.

Sessions' spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday he met with Kislyak before the presidential election last year. President Donald Trump's administration is again responding to reports of contact between his campaign and the Russians.

The communication reportedly involved Sessions and Kislyak, a diplomat considered by U.S. intelligence to be Moscow's top spy and spy recruiter in Washington.

Sessions said Thursday morning he will recuse himself if he feels it necessary in any forthcoming investigations.

"I have said whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself. There's no doubt about that," he told NBC News.

He also denied wrongdoing.

"I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign," he said, "and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that."

While some Democrats want Sessions to resign, Republicans have joined the chorus asking for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, said during a Thursday news conference that Sessions should recuse himself if he is the subject of a probe, but also pushed back on allegations of impropriety in the Trump administration, saying he hasn't seen evidence "that anybody in the Trump campaign ... was involved in any of this.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah said he wants more clarification from Sessions in addition to recusal.

House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy said Sessions should not participate in investigations for "the trust of the American people," he told MSNBC Thursday morning.

Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi released a statement Thursday calling on Sessions to resign, saying he "lied under oath during his confirmation hearing before the Senate."

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday he was unaware of any meetings between Sessions and Kislyak, but said meetings like that are routine, he told Business Insider.

"I don't know the details of any meetings," Peskov said. "(But) the ambassador's job is to hold as many meetings as possible."

Sen. Al Franken, D-MN, who asked Sessions about Russian contacts, said he is going to be "directly pressing Attorney General Sessions to answer some tough questions about his contact with Russia and his testimoney before the Judiciary Committee," he said in a Facebook post.

He also said on CNN that Sessions, at best, answered his question last month "in a seriously misleading way," but would not say that he thought Sessions lied under oath.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, discussed the revelations Wednesday.

"It may have been an innocent contact. I don't know if he has to disclose everyone he's ever talked to as special prosecutor," Graham said.

The revelation seems to conflict with what Sessions said under oath during his confirmation hearings.

When Sen. Al Franken, D-MN, asked Sessions about reports of communication between the Trump campaign and Russians, Sessions denied any knowledge.

"Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I've been called a surrogate a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians," he said.

Sessions' spokeswoman says that Sessions with Kislyak in his capacity as an Armed Services Committee member and not as a Trump surrogate.

Some lawmakers are calling for Sessions to recuse himself from any Russia investigation while others, like Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, are calling for Sessions to resign.

"A lie is a lie is a lie, period. He knows the law. He's probably prosecuted people for telling untrue statements to the FBI and others," Cummings said.

The White House came to Sessions' defense, casting the story as a partisan attack by Democrats.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, resigned Feb. 13 after reports that he addressed sanctions against Russia with Kislyak.

Flynn gave what he called "incomplete information" to Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the Trump administration regarding his calls with Kislyak.

Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster was appointed national security adviser after Flynn's resignation. Trump had planned to offer the job to Adm. Robert Harward, but Harward turned it down.

Copyright 2017 CNN, U.S. Senate Drug Caucus. All rights reserved. Raycom News Network contributed to this report.