Attorney general Jeff Sessions will recuse himself from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, after revelations that he held two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador last year.
Sessions took the decision despite support from Donald Trump, who described the controversy as “a total witch hunt”.
Amid mounting calls for his resignation, Sessions told a press conference on Thursday that he decided not to participate in any investigations “related in any way to the campaign for president of the United States” after meeting with senior department officials.
Sessions insisted that he had not misled senators during his confirmation hearing and claimed it was “totally false” to suggest he had met with “Russian operatives” to discuss Trump’s election campaign.
“I have now decided to recuse myself,” he said, adding: “I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in.”
The announcement came as Sessions faced growing pressure from both Republicans and Democrats amid claims that he “lied under oath” after about twice speaking with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, during the presidential campaign, in apparent contradiction to his testimony to Congress.
The conversations between Sessions, who was the first senator to endorse Trump and a vocal surrogate for him when he was a candidate, occurred as Russia was allegedly meddling in the US election to undermine faith in the American electoral process and help elect Trump.
Earlier on Thursday, Trump, while touring the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R Ford in Newport News, Virginia, said that he had “total” confidence in Sessions and that his attorney general should not recuse himself.
In a statement released in the evening, followed by a series of tweets with a nearly identical statement, the president called Sessions “an honest man”, adding: “He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional.”
The statement went on: “The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and now they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!”
Democrats have continued to demand Sessions’s resignation. “Recusal is not good enough,” said Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee. “Attorney General Jeff Sessions must resign now, and a special prosecutor must be appointed immediately.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House minority leader, also demanded Sessions leave his post, saying his “narrow recusal and his sorry attempt to explain away his perjury are totally inadequate. He is clearly trying to maintain his ability to control the larger investigation into the sprawling personal, political and financial grip Russia has on the Trump administration.”
While senior Democrats spoke of resignation and possible perjury charges, some Republicans were also beginning to break ranks.
“Great decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any potential investigation involving 2016 campaign,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said on Twitter after the press conference. “It’s the best decision for the country and DOJ. I have full confidence in Jeff Sessions serving as Attorney General.”
Earlier on Thursday, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, had resisted calls from within his own Republican party and said he did not see “any purpose or reason” for Sessions to recuse himself from an investigation unless the attorney general became the subject of the inquiry.