WASHINGTON (AP) -- A growing number of Republicans joined Democratic leaders on Thursday in calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to step aside from an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 White House election.
Top Democrats demanded that Sessions resign as the nation's top law enforcement officer after the revelation that he had twice talked with Moscow's U.S. envoy during the campaign. Sessions' conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak seem to contradict Sessions' sworn statements to Congress during his confirmation hearings.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Sessions of "lying under oath," and she and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Sessions should step down. Schumer said the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to examine the federal investigation into the Kremlin's meddling in the U.S. election has been compromised by Sessions.
"There's nothing wrong with meeting with the Russian ambassador. If there was nothing wrong, why don't you just tell the truth?" Schumer told reporters. "It was definitely extremely misleading to say the least"
The conversations that Sessions had with Kislyak seem to contradict sworn statements Sessions gave to Congress during his confirmation hearings.
"I have said that, when it's appropriate, I will recuse myself" from the investigation, Sessions told MSNBC on Thursday.
At least three Republicans -- Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Darrell Issa of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma -- have said they want Sessions to withdraw from the inquiry.
The attorney general "is going to need to recuse himself at this point," Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told MSNBC.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, said he thought Sessions "needs to clarify what these meetings were." He said it isn't unusual for members of Congress to meet with ambassadors, but he added that if a question arose about the integrity of a federal investigation, "I think it'd be easier" for an attorney general to step away.
Sessions, an early supporter of President Donald Trump's candidacy and a policy adviser during the campaign, did not disclose those discussions at his Senate confirmation hearing in January when asked what he would do if "anyone affiliated" with the campaign had been in contact with officials of the Russian government.
Sessions replied that he had not had communications with the Russians.
In a statement late Wednesday, Sessions said: "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said "there was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer."
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders earlier called the disclosure of the talks with Kislyak as "the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats." She said 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."
Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors last year in his role as a U.S. senator and senior member of the Armed Services Committee, and had two separate interactions with Kislyak, the department confirmed.
One was a visit in September in his capacity as a senator, similar to meetings with envoys from Britain, China, Germany and other nations, the department said.
The other occurred in a group setting following a Heritage Foundation speech that Sessions gave during the summer, when several ambassadors -- including the Russian ambassador -- approached Sessions after the talk as he was leaving the stage.
Revelations of the contacts, first reported by The Washington Post, came amid a disclosure by three administration officials that White House lawyers have instructed aides to Trump to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian meddling in the American political process.
The officials who confirmed that staffers were instructed to comply with preservation-of-materials directions did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose the memo from White House counsel Don McGahn.
At the confirmation hearing in January, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Sessions about allegations of contact between Russia and Trump aides during the 2016 election. He asked Sessions what he would do if there were evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign had been in touch with the Russian government during the campaign.
Sessions replied he was "unaware of those activities."
Then he added: "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."
Flores, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said that response was not misleading.
"He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign -- not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee," she said in a statement.
Franken said in a statement he was troubled that the new attorney general's response to his question was "at best, misleading." He said he planned to press Sessions on his contact with Russia.
"It's clearer than ever now that the attorney general cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately," Franken said.
Separately in January, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, asked Sessions in a written questionnaire whether "he had been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day."
Sessions replied simply, "No."
Sen Franken released the following statement Wednesday evening:
“Many Americans are rightly concerned by the Trump team’s close ties with the Russian government and the role that Russia played in interfering with our presidential election. There’s a dark cloud over the Trump administration and there are a lot of questions still unanswered.
“When then-Senator Jeff Sessions testified under oath during his confirmation hearing to become attorney general, he explicitly told me that he had not been in contact with Russian officials in the course of the presidential campaign. But according to a report from the Washington Post, he actually met with the Russian Ambassador during that time period. If that's true, then I am very troubled that his response to my questioning during his confirmation hearing was, at best, misleading.
“In light of these revelations, I'm going to be directly pressing Attorney General Sessions to answer some tough questions about his contact with Russia and his testimony before the Judiciary Committee.
“The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened between Russia and the Trump team, and I believe we need thorough and impartial investigations to get to the bottom of it. It's clearer than ever now that the attorney general cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately.”