Jeff Sessions met with the Russians while advising the Trump campaign, but didn’t tell Congress about it
Attorney General Jeff Sessions met privately with the Russian ambassador in September at the height of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, appearing to contradict what he said under oath before the Senate earlier this year.
The newly revealed contact, first reported by The Washington Post and later confirmed by Sessions’ spokeswoman, raises new questions about the connections between Donald Trump and the Russian government during the presidential campaign.
It also makes us wonder how truthful Sessions was during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. When Democratic Sen. Al Franken asked Sessions about Trump campaign officials’ connections with the Russian government, Sessions said: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
But Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak publicly in July and again privately in September of last year, according to The Washington Post. Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, tweeted Wednesday night that “[m]isleading the Senate in sworn testimony about one’s own contacts with the Russians is a good way to go to jail.”
Misleading the Senate in sworn testimony about one own contacts with the Russians is a good way to go to jail https://t.co/qH0s6sTMJ9
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) March 2, 2017
The Wall Street Journal quickly followed the Post’s report with its own story that federal investigators had examined contacts that Sessions had with Russian officials while he advised the Trump campaign. It is not clear whether the investigation remains ongoing.
Sessions’ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores explained in a statement to the Post that Sessions did not mislead the committee because he only met with Kislyak “as a senator and member of the Armed Services Committee” and not as a Trump campaign official. The Post contacted all the senators on the Armed Services Committee and 19 said they did not have any interaction with Kislyak last year. The other seven had yet to respond as of Wednesday evening.
Flores later tweeted out a statement attributed to Sessions himself, saying: “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.”
Statement from Attorney General Sessions: pic.twitter.com/kZic12DW0R
— Sarah Isgur Flores (@whignewtons) March 2, 2017
Kislyak is the same Russian official that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn talked to about sanctions levied against Russia by the Obama administration for Russia’s interference in the presidential election. Flynn resigned two weeks ago after media reports revealed he had not been forthright with the public about the nature of those conversations. The White House said Flynn had also misled Vice President Mike Pence.
Here's the issue: Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, is considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies and spy-recruiters.
— Shimon Prokupecz (@ShimonPro) March 2, 2017
The revelations about Sessions prompted immediate outrage among congressional Democrats, some of whom went so far as to call for his resignation. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that Sessions’ false testimony made him “not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign.”
Franken, who questioned Sessions at his hearing, issued a statement saying “I am very troubled that his response to my questioning during his confirmation hearing was, at best, misleading.”
Franken and many other Democrats declared that, at the very least, Sessions had to recuse himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russian officials.
This is another clear sign Sessions must recuse himself from an investigation into Russia’s influence in the White House. https://t.co/awI9zM0VgB
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) March 2, 2017
It remains unclear how Republicans will react to these latest revelations. With the exceptions of Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have not joined their Democratic colleagues in calls for a special prosecutor, a special committee, or requests for Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation. They have instead said that the House and Senate Intelligence Committees should handle the inquiries into Russian interference in the election. They have assured critics that they will follow the evidence wherever it takes them.
If Republicans’ priority is to protect President Trump, they are right to be wary of ceding control of the investigation. Special prosecutors are unpredictable and can become extreme political liabilities. Bill Clinton’s attorney general appointed a special prosecutor in 1994 to investigate the Whitewater affair and that investigation eventually uncovered what became the Monica Lewinsky scandal and, ultimately, impeachment.
After Clinton’s impeachment trial, one senator explained his vote to convict the president this way: “It is crucial to our system of justice that we demand the truth. I fear that an acquittal of this president will weaken the legal system by providing an option for those who consider being less than truthful in court.”
That senator was Jeff Sessions of Alabama.