U.S. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself Thursday from overseeing the FBI probe into the Kremlin's attempts to interfere with the presidential election to tip it in favour of Donald Trump after it was revealed that Mr. Sessions had met with Russia's ambassador during the campaign and did not disclose the meeting during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Mr. Sessions insisted he had done nothing wrong, even as his actions put the Trump administration again under siege for its ties to Moscow.
The latest flare-up in the firestorm over connections between Mr. Trump's circle and Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime came a mere 24 hours after the President won plaudits for a disciplined speech to Congress laying out his agenda, upending whatever brief calm he may have enjoyed.
Mr. Trump called the criticisms of Mr. Sessions a "witch hunt" and contended he made an honest mistake.
"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," Mr. Trump said in a statement.
"The Democrats are overplaying their hand. It is a total witch hunt!"
Mr. Sessions's conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, came to light a little more than two weeks after Mr. Trump was forced to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn for speaking with Mr. Kislyak and misleading the administration about it.
At a news conference on Thursday at the Justice Department, Mr. Sessions insisted he was only recusing himself because it would be inappropriate for someone involved in a presidential campaign, as he was with Mr. Trump's, to oversee an investigation into Russia's actions during the election.
"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 of the United States," he said.
Earlier in the day, the President told reporters covering a speech on an aircraft carrier that he had "total" confidence in Mr. Sessions, a key Trump ally and one of the first heavyweight politicians to back his White House bid.
The Washington Post first revealed, on Wednesday night, Mr. Sessions's conversations with Mr. Kislyak. Mr. Sessions met privately with the ambassador in Mr. Sessions' office last September, when he was a senator and member of the Armed Services Committee. He also spoke with Mr. Kislyak and a group of other ambassadors at the Republican National Convention in July.
The contacts appear to contradict Mr. Sessions's testimony to the Senate during his confirmation hearings in January. In response to a question from Senator Al Franken about whether "anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government," Mr. Sessions said 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 did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it," Mr. Sessions testified.
Mr. Sessions insisted Thursday this did not constitute a lie – because he understood Mr. Franken to be asking whether anyone had met with Russian officials in their capacity as a member of Mr. Trump's campaign. Mr. Sessions said that, because he met with Mr. Kislyak in his capacity as a senator, he did not feel obliged to disclose the meeting when asked that question.
"I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign," he said.
Stephen Sestanovich, who served as a U.S. ambassador-at-large to the countries of the former Soviet Union during the administration of Bill Clinton, said Mr. Sessions's attempt to draw a distinction between his role as a senator and his role on Mr. Trump's campaign did not hold water.
"It's no good for Sessions to say he wasn't meeting Kislyak as Trump's adviser or representative. Believe me, that's why the ambassador wanted to see him – to be able to tell Moscow everything he could about the campaign," he wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Sessions's recusal is unlikely to dampen the calls from Democrats for Mr. Sessions to resign and for a further investigation of his contacts with Mr. Kislyak. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the situation is "far past recusal" because Mr. Sessions "lied under oath."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Mr. Sessions's contacts. The department has the power to put in place such a prosecutor, who could probe the situation and decide whether charges are warranted.
But doing this would be tricky as Mr. Sessions is in charge of the department, said Victoria Nourse, a former Senate legal adviser and Justice Department lawyer who is now a law professor at Georgetown University.
"It is a very unusual situation because Sessions would have to appoint a special counsel to investigate himself," Prof. Nourse said.
She said a more likely outcome, if the controversy fails to die down, is for the White House to instead appoint an independent commission to investigate and issue a report – a tactic former president Ronald Reagan used during the Iran-Contra affair – to let off some steam.
The fallout from Mr. Sessions's actions could be particularly acute in the Senate, which may take it as a personal affront that he appeared to have misled them, Prof. Nourse said.
"When you do something like this, you lose credibility with a number of senators," she said. "The other part of this is: These [the Russians] are our enemies. So his loyalty to the United States is under question."
Alina Polyakova, of the Atlantic Institute think tank in Washington, said Mr. Flynn's and Mr. Sessions's situations appear to be pulling back the curtain on a larger gambit by the Russian government.
"They have been very strategically identifying individuals who they think could be allies in the new administration," she said. "This, to me, seems to fulfill a pattern."
Acting Deputy Attorney-General Dana Boente will perform any duties that would otherwise have been performed by Mr. Sessions in relation to the FBI investigation.