US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has agreed to recuse himself from an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
His comments came a day after the Washington Post reported that Sessions, a former senator who advised Donald Trump's campaign on foreign policy and other issues, met the Russian ambassador in July and September, just as accusations of Russian interference in the election were building.
FRANKEN: OK. CNN has just published a story and I'm telling you this about a news story that's just been published. I'm not expecting you to know whether or not it's true or not. But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, "Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr Trump."
These documents also allegedly say quote, "There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government."
Now, again, I'm telling you this as it's coming out, so you know. But if it's true, it's obviously extremely serious and 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?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, 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 didn't have - did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it.
At a news conference on Thursday, Sessions drew a distinction between his conversations with Sergey Kislyak in his role as a senator and his role in the Trump campaign.
He said the decision to recuse himself from a federal investigation came at the urging of senior career officials in the justice department.
"I feel I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in," Sessions said.
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His critics say his two conversations with Kislyak contradict Sessions' statements during his confirmation hearing, when he told Congress he had not had communications with Russians during the campaign.
Calling for Sessions to resign, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused him of "lying under oath".
The White House stood behind Sessions, with Trump saying he had "total" confidence in his attorney general.
He said Sessions could have been more accurate in what he said about his contacts with Russian officials but blamed Democrats for blowing up the controversy for political reasons.
"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 in a statement.
"The Democrats are overplaying their hand," Trump continued. "It is a total witch-hunt!"
Al Jazeera's Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Virginia where the president visited a Navy aircraft carrier and addressed shipbuilders on Thursday, said that while Democrat politicians will not be satisfied with Sessions' recusal, Trump supporters will have a different reaction.
"We often talk about Washington being something of a bubble. Once you go outside, it is a very different political reality," our correspondent said.
"Many Trump supporters know they have an imperfect president, they know there may be problems with his cabinet, but they don't care. What they care about is what the president came to talk about today, and that is job creation. For them, what matters is putting food on the table, having a regular paycheck, and anything beyond that is simply background noise."
The Justice Department has maintained that there was nothing improper about Sessions' contacts or his answers to Congress.
Trump has been trailed for months by questions about potential ties to Russia. He has vigorously denied being aware of any contacts his associates had with Russia during the campaign and has also insisted he has no financial ties to Russia.
His national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned last month following reports he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russia.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies