NEWPORT NEWS: President Donald Trump declared "total" confidence in his attorney-general on Thursday (Mar 2) in the face of mounting calls for his resignation over undisclosed contacts with Russia during the US election campaign.
Revelations that Attorney-General Jeff Sessions met twice last year with the US ambassador to Russia - a direct contradiction of his Senate confirmation testimony - appeared to come as a surprise to the White House.
Speaking to reporters aboard the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford, Trump said he "wasn't aware" of Sessions' meetings with the Russian envoy, Sergey Kislyak.
But asked whether he retained confidence in Sessions, Trump responded: "Total."
The revelations ignited calls by Democratic leaders for the attorney-general's resignation, and the naming of a special prosecutor to investigate possible connections between Trump's entourage, Moscow, and Russian interference in last year's election.
"The fact that the attorney-general, the top cop in our country, lied under oath to the American people is grounds for him to resign," Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, said. "He has proved that he is unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calls for the resignation of US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images/AFP)
"The Department of Justice should be above reproach," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. "For the good of the country, Attorney-General Sessions should resign."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says Attorney-General Jeff Sessions should resign for the good of the country. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP)
Even some prominent Republican lawmakers joined in calling for Sessions to recuse himself from Justice Department and FBI investigations into allegations of Russian election meddling and contacts with Trump campaign advisers.
"AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself," Jason Chaffetz, a member of the House Government Oversight Committee, tweeted.
AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself— Jason Chaffetz (@jasoninthehouse) 2 March 2017
But Trump said Sessions was "probably" truthful when he told the Senate Jan 10 that he did not have communications with the Russians.
And asked whether Sessions should recuse himself, Trump said, "I don't think so."
Sessions denied any wrongdoing but told NBC News: "I have said whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself. There's no doubt about that."
"I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign, and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that."
House Speaker Paul Ryan said he saw "no purpose" in Sessions recusing himself unless he becomes a subject of investigation.
He insisted that no evidence has been presented so far that any Americans were involved in the campaign meddling by the Russians.
Dashing administration hopes for a feel-good reboot after a chaotic start, the latest controversy erupted as the White House was basking in the after-glow of Trump's well-received speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
Trump's softer tone in the address was seen as a tactical retreat from the whirlwind of conflicts and controversies that unsettled his first 40 days in office.
The Washington Post revealed late Wednesday for the first time that Sessions met Kislyak in July and September, just as accusations of Russian interference in the election were mounting.
That directly contradicted Sessions' statement during his Senate confirmation hearing Jan 10.
When asked about the Trump campaign's alleged contacts with the Russians, Sessions said, "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."
A White House official rejected the Post report as "the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats."
"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."
In Moscow, the Kremlin said it was unaware of any specific meetings between Sessions and the Russian ambassador ahead of the US election, but that any such encounters would have been routine.
It was the second time Kislyak has emerged at the center of the Russia controversies.
Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign Feb 13 after it was reported that he had talked to the Russian ambassador the same day that outgoing president Barack Obama was expelling 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the election meddling.
Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of the talks, which eventually led Trump to sack the retired general.
The New York Times reported two weeks ago, citing US intelligence sources, that three Trump campaign staff - including campaign chief Paul Manafort - had communicated with Russian intelligence officers over the past year.
The White House also labeled that report "false" and has accused Democrats, the media and the intelligence community of a political effort to undermine the Trump administration.
US intelligence chiefs have concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind a hacking and misinformation campaign to hurt Hillary Clinton and boost Trump's chances to win the Nov 8 presidential election.
But they have not made their evidence public, and the Kremlin denies it.