Attorney General Sessions failed to disclose Russian contacts during Senate confirmation hearing
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any Justice Department investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election after he failed to disclose his contacts with the Russian ambassador while serving as a top campaign adviser for Donald Trump.
“I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States,” said Sessions.
The Attorney General announced his recusal a day after the Washington Post reported that Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice – in July and September – last year.
Sessions’s first known meeting with Kislyak took place around the time when Wikileaks released nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s server, and Trump called on Russia to hack and publish his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That will be next,” said Trump at a press conference on July 27th.
The second known meeting with Kislyak reportedly took place at Sessions’s senate office in September around the same time the U.S. intelligence community uncovered more evidence of Russia’s role behind cyberattacks intended “to influence the U.S. election”. And during the first presidential debate held in late September, Trump pointedly sided with Russia, casting doubt on allegations that the Russian government was involved the DNC hacking.
“I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia Russia, Russia, but I don’t, maybe it was. I mean, it could also be Russia, but it could also be China, it could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. Okay? You don’t know who broke in to DNC,” said Trump on Sept. 26th.
During the Sessions’s confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked by Democratic Senators Al Franken of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont whether he had contact with any Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
“[I]f there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?” asked Franken, referring to a news report that “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries of the Russian government”.
Sessions replied, “Sen. Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate in a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians. And I’m unable to comment on it.”
And when Leahy asked if Sessions 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 with a succinct and unequivocal “No”.
In light of Sessions’s admission and recusal, Leahy described the Attorney General’s misleading responses to the Senate as “an egregious breach of public trust” and suggested that Sessions may have perjured himself.
“[T]he Attorney General claimed he has never met with Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. That’s a wholly inadequate response,” said Leahy. “The Attorney General is a top adviser to the Trump campaign. He had a private, undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador during the height of concerns about Russian involvement in our election. Think about it. There were reports everywhere about concerns about Russian involvement in the election of the United States. He has an undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador. He also met with the Russian ambassador during the event of the Republican National Convention. One would think that at the Republican National Convention it’s possible that politics might be discussed.”
Sessions attempted to explain his misleading answers by claiming those meetings with Kislyak were conducted in his official capacity as a senator and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea that I was part of a ‘continuing exchange of information’ during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false,” said Sessions. “That is the question that Sen. Franken asked me at the hearing and that’s what got my attention as he noticed it – noted – that it was the first just breaking news and it got my attention and that is the question I responded to. I did not respond by referring to the two meetings – one very brief after a speech – and one with two of my senior staffers – professional staffers with the Russian ambassador in Washington where no such things were discussed.”
However, an unnamed senior Senate Armed Services Committee staff member questioned the need for Sessions to meet with Kislyak twice in three months. “Members of the committee have not been beating a path to Kislyak’s door,” the staff member told the Washington Post. “There haven’t been a ton of members who are looking to meet with Kislyak for their committee duties.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Sessions’s recusal was not enough, and he, along with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, called on the Attorney General to resign.
“Attorney General Sessions had weeks to correct the record that he made before the Judiciary Committee but he let the record stand. There cannot be even the scintilla of doubt about the impartiality and fairness of the Attorney General, the top law enforcement official of the land,” said Schumer. “Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.”
Schumer insisted the Justice Department must follow its own guidelines on conflict of interest to appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate the ties between the Trump campaign, presidential transition team, and Russia.
“It is incumbent upon the acting Deputy Attorney General to select as special prosecutor an individual who is beyond reproach, completely impartial without any significant ties to either political party,” said Schumer. “There cannot even be the shred of a connection between the Attorney General, Mr. Sessions, and this Department of Justice’s investigation into the events of 2016.”
Schumer also urged the Justice Department’s Inspector General to investigate whether Sessions had compromised or meddled in the ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“Have there been any attempts to interfere with the investigation in any way? Has the AG or his close associates closely manage the work of career officials at the Department of Justice or the FBI in the course of the investigation?” Schumer asked. “The Inspector General has the ability, the right, and the obligation to find out answers to these questions and more.”
Schumer added, “The bottom line is we have an obligation to get to the truth. We must evaluate the scope of Russia’s interference in our election and assess if agents of their government have penetrated to the highest level of our government.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community released a report concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election”.
“Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” according to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”. “We also assess Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment.”
Sessions’s recusal occurred several weeks after Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign over his contacts with Kislyak. Flynn falsely denied holding discussions with Kislyak about lifting the sanctions that former President Barack Obama imposed on Russia for meddling in the 2016 election.