WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday he will recuse himself from “any existing or future” investigation into matters related to the 2016 presidential campaign, responding to calls from lawmakers that he do so after reports surfaced that he misled Congress about his contacts with a Russian ambassador last year.
Instead, Acting Deputy Attorney General Dane Boente will oversee any potential investigations into Trump’s campaign, according to a Justice Department press release.
At a press conference on the seventh floor of the Justice Department headquarters in Washington Thursday afternoon, Sessions defended himself against allegations that two meetings he held with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year were improper, saying it is common for senators to meet with foreign diplomats.
Sessions said he did not recall discussing the Trump campaign with Kislyak when the two met in his office in September, though he acknowledged that ambassadors are “pretty gossipy” and that the meeting took place during the campaign.
“I never had any conversations with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said at the press conference.
Sessions said the two talked about the concerns Kislyak, whom Sessions described as an “old style Soviet-type,” had about his region, including the ambassador’s claim that Russia had done nothing wrong in Ukraine. It “got to be a little bit of a testy conversation” when they broached the topic of Ukraine, though Kislyak extended a lunch invitation that the then-senator declined, Sessions said at the press conference.
“We listened to the ambassador and what his concerns might be,” Sessions said.
Sessions also defended himself from charges, mostly hurled by Democrats, that he lied during his confirmation hearing when he said he did not have communications with Russian officials.
When he told Sen. Al Franken during his confirmation hearing that he “did not have communications with the Russians,” he meant communications specifically related to the campaign, Sessions said at the press conference.
“My reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time,” Sessions said. “I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent, that is not correct.”
Sessions said he would explain the testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee “today or tomorrow.”
The decision to ultimately recuse himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign came after meetings with department ethics officials, which Sessions said predated the Washington Post story that broke Sessions’ meeting with Kislyak.
“Having concluded those meetings today, I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States,” Sessions said, reading a prepared statement.
He insisted that his decision to recuse himself should not confirm the existence of an active investigation.
Earlier in the day President Donald Trump said he didn’t think Sessions needed to recuse himself, but at the press conference Sessions said the decision was based on a more thorough review of ethical guidelines than they were able to conduct.
“They don’t know the rules, the ethics rules, most people don’t, but when you evaluate the rules, I feel like I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in,” Sessions said.
The press conference comes as a response to fury of calls from Capitol Hill that Sessions recuse himself from investigations into Trump’s campaign given both his status as the first senator to endorse Trump and the newly raised Russia contacts.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, joined by other lawmakers in the his party, called on Sessions to resign at an earlier press conference Thursday.
While Republicans largely stood by Sessions’ side Thursday, some, including Sen. Susan Collins, said Sessions should recuse himself from any Trump-related investigation.