BELEAGUERED US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has removed himself from an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election but denied he had done anything wrong.
His action followed revelations he twice met with the Russian ambassador and didn't say so when pressed by Congress.
After pressure from Democrats and Republicans earlier, Mr Sessions rejected any suggestion that he tried to mislead anyone about his contacts with the Russian, saying: "That is not my intent. That is not correct."
He did admit that he should have been more careful in his testimony, saying: "I should have slowed down and said, 'But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times.'"
Calling for Mr Sessions to resign, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi accused him of lying under oath. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said a special prosecutor should be appointed to examine whether the federal investigation into the Kremlin's meddling in the US election - and into possible contacts between Trump associates and Russians - had been compromised by Mr Sessions. Democrats also sought a criminal perjury investigation.
The attorney general said he made his decision to recuse himself after his staff recommended that he step aside from any investigation related to the Trump campaign, since he had been involved in that campaign. He said Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente would handle such matters.
Mr Sessions added that his announcement "should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation."
Air Force One landed in Washington minutes before Mr Sessions's news conference began. President Donald Trump, who had spoken earlier aboard a new aircraft carrier in Newport News, Virginia, stayed on the plane during the televised event, emerging only after Mr Sessions finished answering questions.
Read more: Trump gets ahead with St Patrick's Day hat
The White House has stood behind Mr Sessions, though officials say they first learned about his contacts with the ambassador from a reporter on Wednesday night. Mr Trump said he had "total" confidence in Mr Sessions and didn't think he needed to step aside.
The Justice Department has maintained there was nothing improper about Mr Sessions's contacts or his answers to Congress, while the continuing allegations of Russian interference in American politics spurred Democratic calls for Mr Sessions not only to recuse himself but to resign.
Mr Sessions has faced increasing demands that he resolve the seeming contradiction between his two conversations in the summer and autumn with Moscow's US envoy, Sergey Kislyak, and his sworn statements to Congress in January. Then he said he had not had communications with Russians during the campaign.
While there is nothing necessarily unusual about a member of Congress meeting with a foreign ambassador, typically members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meet foreign ambassadors, not Armed Services Committee lawmakers, whose responsibility is oversight of the military and the Pentagon. Congressional contact with Russian officials was limited after the invasion of Crimea and due to Moscow's close relationship with Syria, a pariah for much of the West
More than half-a-dozen Republican lawmakers, including some who consider themselves personally close to Mr Sessions, had urged him to recuse himself from the Justice Department probe. They include Senator Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who said that though he found it impossible to believe that Mr Sessions could have colluded with Russia: "If there is an investigation, he probably shouldn't be the person leading it."
The news comes on the heels of what had been the high point of Mr Trump's young presidency: a well-received address to Congress on Tuesday night that energised Republicans and appeared to wipe away some concerns about the administration's tumultuous start.
Mr Trump has been trailed for months by questions about potential ties to Russia. He's vigorously denied being aware of any contacts his associates had with Russia during the campaign and has also insisted he has no financial ties to Russia.