Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied meeting with Russian officials during the course of the presidential election to discuss the Trump campaign, he told NBC News in exclusive remarks early Thursday.
"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."
Sessions was also asked whether he would step aside from investigating alleged ties between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government — as a growing chorus of Democrats and some Republicans have demanded.
"I have said whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself," he said. "There's no doubt about that."
The Latest on Sessions
- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are calling for Sessions to resign and a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate the alleged Russian meddling in last year's election.
- House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that he supports Sessions' decision to recuse himself if he becomes part of an investigation into Russia, but there's been no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.
- House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz wants Sessions to recuse himself.
President Donald Trump told reporters he has "total" confidence in Sessions and that he doesn't think he should have to recuse himself.
A spokeswoman for Sessions confirmed Wednesday night that he had met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before the presidential election last year, but in his capacity as a then-senator — raising questions about whether he misled fellow senators during his attorney general confirmation hearing in January.
Spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores told NBC News that Sessions, who was a prominent Trump surrogate, did have a conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year. The meeting was first reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., questioned Sessions at his confirmation hearing about whether he or anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign spoke with the Russians.
"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," Sessions responded at the time.
Flores said "there was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer" because Sessions was asked about "communications between Russia and the Trump campaign" and not about meetings he took as a senator with the Armed Services Committee.
But Sessions' response is giving some Republican lawmakers pause.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who serves as the chairman of the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform, said on MSNBC that Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation precisely "because of how he answered his question in his testimony."
Sessions had a private meeting with the Russian ambassador last September as part of his capacity as a senator, the officials with the Justice Department told NBC News.
The other encounter came after he gave a speech during a Heritage Foundation event in July during the Republican National Convention, and a group of ambassadors approached him. He did not have a one-on-one meeting with the Russians at the time, the officials said.
The White House responded Thursday that "partisan Democrats" were pouncing on Sessions unfairly.
"General Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony," White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. "It's no surprise Senator Al Franken is pushing this story immediately following President Trump's successful address to the nation."
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer was among the more prominent Democrats demanding Sessions step down and have a special prosecutor appointed to investigate the alleged Russian interference in November's election.
"There's nothing wrong about meeting with the Russian ambassador," Schumer told reporters. "If there was nothing wrong, why not come clean and tell the entire truth?"
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, questioned why Sessions would even meet with the Russians.
"I've been on the Armed Services Com for 10 years. No call or meeting w/Russian ambassador. Ever," she said in a tweet Thursday that she later clarified after it was reported that she had met with a Russian ambassador in 2013. She said it was part of a meeting with about a dozen other senators.
Democrats have called for a select committee or special prosecutor to delve further into whether the Russians yielded influence on the campaign in favor of the Republican nominee Donald Trump. Most Republican lawmakers have stopped short of demanding such an investigation.
But questions have been mounting over Russia, from initial allegations that Moscow meddled in the November election to reports that Trump's presidential campaign staffers had contact with the Russians to former national security adviser Mike Flynn resigning over his contact with the Russian ambassador.
During the election, Trump repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also has close ties to Putin while he was Exxon Mobil CEO, and Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, resigned in August amid questions about his links with pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.
If Sessions were to be called as a potential witness in any investigation, he must decide whether to recuse himself in the case, appoint a special prosecutor or do nothing.
Franken said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday that Sessions' comments were "at best extremely misleading" and he must clarify them in a press conference.
"Then we can see if he should resign or not," said Franken, who supports Sessions recusing himself.
House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also said on "Morning Joe" that he thought Sessions should consider recusing himself from Russia-related investigations.
"I just think for any investigation going forward, it would be easier," McCarthy said.
Meanwhile, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz came out in defense of Sessions and branded the brewing controversy as a "nothingburger" on "Morning Joe."
Cruz, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he has met with six different ambassadors in the last two months, although none were with Russia.
"I know that meeting with a foreign ambassador is part of the routine," Cruz said, adding "there isn't any credible allegations that Jeff did anything wrong meeting with a Russian ambassador."