Attorney General Jeff Sessions will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for an oversight hearing. This is the first time Sessions will come before the Senate since news outlets reported that his discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential election included campaign-related issues—which, if true, would contradict what Sessions has previously told the Senate.
Important to watch: The most recent Sessions’ spokesperson statement in response to those news stories does not specifically deny the accuracy of those reports (see below).
What’s at stake: Lying to Congress is a felony, and special counsel Robert Mueller may have jurisdiction here since these statements materially relate to the investigation of Trump campaign relationships with Russia. There is also a delicate political balance here, since what is also at stake is Sessions’ continued survival in his position, with the president perhaps looking for a way to push him out the door.
The following Timeline reviews Sessions’ public accounts of his meetings with Kislyak over time.
Mar. 3, 2016 – Trump names Sessions chairman of his national security advisory committee.
Jan. 10, 2017 – During Sessions’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Al Franken directly asks Sessions what action he would take as Attorney General if it were confirmed that Trump campaign officials communicated with the Russian government. In response, Sessions denies having any communications with the Russians:
FRANKEN: […] CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week …. These documents also allegedly say quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if 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?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. 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.
Jan. 17, 2017 – Sessions submits on-the-record written responses to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s questions submitted to him after the confirmation hearing. Sessions denies again that he was connected to any part of the Russian government with respect to the 2016 election:
e. Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?
[Note: it is important here that the question given to Sessions specifically inquired into contact “about the 2016 election.” Session’s denial of any such contact is contradicted by the most recent news reports, discussed below (July 21, 2017).]
Mar. 1, 2017 – The Washington Post reports that Justice Department officials have revealed that Sessions spoke twice with Russian Amb. Kislyak last year, interactions he denied during his confirmation hearings when directly asked about potential contacts between the campaign or himself and Russia.
The first interaction took place in July 2016 at a small diplomacy conference called Global Partners in Diplomacy, which occurred on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention after Sessions had given his speech there. It was attended by multiple Trump national security advisors and foreign ambassadors, and Sessions reportedly briefly interacted with Kislyak at this event.
The second interaction was a private discussion between Sessions and Kislyak in Sessions’ Senate office in September.
Mar. 2, 2017 – Sessions announces that he is recusing himself from any investigations into charges that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. He denies that his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak involved discussions about the Trump campaign:
SESSIONS: […] Let me share a few thoughts. First, about the comments that I made to the committee that have been said to be incorrect and false. Let me be clear. I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea that I was part of a, quote, continuing exchange of information during the campaign between trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false. That is the question that Senator Franken asked me at the hearing and that’s what got my attention is he noted it was the first, just breaking news. 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 staff — staffers, professional staffers with the Russian ambassador in Washington. Where no such things were discussed. In my reply to the question — my reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time. I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct. I will write the judiciary committee soon, today or tomorrow, to explain this testimony for the record.
Mar. 6, 2017 – Sessions submits supplemental testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in connection with his responses during his confirmation process to questions about Russian contacts:
My answer was correct. As I noted in my public statement on March 2, 2017, I was surprised by the allegations in the question, which I had not heard before. I answered the question, which asked about a “continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” honestly. I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian Ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them.
As I discussed publicly on March 2, 2017, I spoke briefly to the Russian Ambassador at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2016. This was at the conclusion of a speech I had made, when I also met and spoke with other ambassadors. In September 2016, I met with the Russian Ambassador at my Senate office in the presence of members of my professional Senate staff. I do not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador, or any other representative of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasion.
The Judiciary Committee received a letter dated March 3, 2017, from Committee Democrats that asks other questions. The letter asks why I did not supplement the record to note any contact with the Russian Ambassador before its disclosure. Having considered my answer responsive, and no one having suggested otherwise, there was no need for a supplemented answer.
[Note: Sessions’ defense is that his answer to Sen. Franken (and to Sen. Leahy) is that he thought the questions were whether his meetings with Russian officials involved campaign matters, and he was denying that he had any contact with Russian officials on that topic. This is where the more recent news reports suggest Sessions may have made false statement in his supplemental testimony. Sessions also provides himself some wiggle room by not denying these topics arose, but by saying he does not recall any such discussions.]
May 25, 2017 – CNN reports that the Justice Department has revealed that Sessions did not disclose his 2016 meetings with Russian officials when he applied for a security clearance. The forms require disclosing any contact an applicant or his family has had with a foreign government or its representatives over the past seven years.
[Note: It is also a federal crime to intentionally make a false statement on US government security clearance forms.]
May 31, 2017 – CNN reports that congressional investigators are looking into whether Sessions met with Kislyak a third, undisclosed time during the presidential campaign. The meeting reportedly took place at the Mayflower Hotel on Apr. 27, 2016, where Trump was delivering his first major foreign policy address as a presidential candidate. Prior to the speech, Sessions, Kislyak, and other diplomats and campaign organizers reportedly met for a small VIP session.
In response, DOJ Spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores tells CNN:
The Department of Justice appointed special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter…We will allow him to do his job. It is unfortunate that anonymous sources whose credibility will never face public scrutiny are continuously trying to hinder that process by peddling false stories to the mainstream media. The facts haven’t changed; the then-Senator did not have any private or side conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel.
[Note: The spokesperson’s response seems to be a narrow denial: the use of the terms “private or side conversation” leaves open other possibilities. Her statement does not deny Sessions’ involvement in a group/public conversations with the Russian Ambassador on this third occasion. This occasion was also clearly marked as a campaign event, which would cast doubt on Sessions’ prior statements to Congress that his discussions with Russian officials did not involve campaign matters.]
June 8, 2017 – CNN reports that former FBI Director James Comey testifies in a closed Senate hearing that Sessions may have had a third, undisclosed meeting with Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 2016. Comey reportedly explained to the committee that he had not wanted to discuss the issue during his public testimony.
June 13, 2017 – Opening remarks: Sessions testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in connection with the Russia investigation.
In his prepared remarks, the Attorney General first denies that any private meetings with Kislyak took place at the Mayflower Hotel:
Now, let me address some issues directly: I did not have any private meetings nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel. I did not attend any meetings at that event. Prior to the speech, I attended a reception with my staff that included at least two dozen people and President Trump. Though I do recall several conversations I had during that pre-speech reception, I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian Ambassador or any other Russian officials. If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian Ambassador during that reception, I do not remember it.
Importantly, he adds that he denies any meetings or conversations with Russian officials concerning electoral interference:
Let me state this clearly: I have never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign. I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for over 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.
[Note: Sessions here oddly denies only conversations with Russian officials about election interference. He is not denying conversations about campaign matters. He has, in a sense, shifted his story significantly. In his press statement on March 2 and his supplemental testimony on March 6, he denied these conversations related to any campaign matters.]
Sessions also addresses the accuracy of his response to Sen. Franken’s confirmation hearing question:
Relatedly, there is the assertion that I did not answer Senator Franken’s question honestly at my confirmation hearing. That is false. This is how it happened. He asked me a rambling question that included dramatic, new allegations that the United States intelligence community had advised President-elect Trump that “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.” I was taken aback by these explosive allegations, which he said were being reported in breaking news that day. I wanted to refute immediately any suggestion that I was a part of such an activity.
Please hear me now. It was only in March of this year that a reporter asked my spokesperson whether I had ever met with any Russian officials. This was the first time that question had been posed. On the same day, we provided that reporter with the information related to the meeting I and my staff had held in my Senate office with Ambassador Kislyak, as well as the brief encounter in July after a speech that I had given during the convention in Cleveland, Ohio. I also provided the reporter a list of all 25 foreign ambassador meetings I had held during 2016. In addition, I provided supplemental testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain this. I readily acknowledged these two meetings. Certainly nothing improper occurred.
June 13, 2017 – Q&A testimony: Sessions engaged in two exchanges with senators during the hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on this specific topic.
Q&A with Chair of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr:
BURR: You reported two other meetings with the ambassador, one in July on the sidelines of the Republican convention, I believe and one in September in your senate office. Have you had any other interactions with government officials over the year in a campaign capacity? I’m not asking you from the standpoint of your single life, but in the campaign.
SESSIONS: No, Mr. Chairman. No. I’ve racked my brain to make sure I could answer those questions correctly and I did not. I would just offer for you that the — when asked about whether I had any meetings with Russians by the reporter in March, we immediately recalled the conversation and the encounter I had at the convention and the meeting in my office and made that public. I never intended not to include that. I would have gladly have reported the meeting and encounter that may have occurred and some say occurred in the Mayflower if I had remembered it or if it actually occurred, which I don’t remember that it did.
Q&A with Sen. Kamala Harris:
HARRIS: Did you have any communications with Russian officials for any reason during the campaign that have not been disclosed in public or to this committee?
SESSIONS: I don’t recall it, but I have to tell you, I cannot testify to what was said as we were standing at the Republican convention before the podium where I spoke.
HARRIS: My question —
SESSIONS: I don’t have a detailed memory of that–
HARRIS: It is a relates to your knowledge.
SESSIONS: To the best of my knowledge.
July 21, 2017 – The Washington Post reports that Russian Amb. to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak informed his government superiors that he discussed Trump campaign-related issues, including policy issues important to the Russian government, with Jeff Sessions during the campaign, contradicting Sessions’ public accounts of their meetings. Kislyak’s characterizations were reportedly intercepted by the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores responds in a statement:
Obviously I cannot comment on the reliability of what anonymous sources describe in a wholly uncorroborated intelligence intercept that the Washington Post has not seen and that has not been provided to me, but the Attorney General stands by his testimony from just last month before the Senate Intelligence Committee when he specifically addressed this and said that he never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.
As discussed above, Sessions now denies only that his conversations with Russian officials concerned election interference. But that is not the question. The question has become whether Sessions discussed any campaign matters with Russian officials. He has thus changed his story significantly. In his press statement (on March 2, 2017) and his supplemental testimony (on March 6, 2017) he denied his conversations with Russian officials related to any campaign matters.
In Sessions’ favor, his spokesperson is correct that his most recent Senate testimony denied these conversations were about election interference. But that also gets Sessions in deeper water in another respect. Reflecting back on that testimony (on June 13) in light of what we now know (due to the Post‘s July 21 story), Sessions gave the appearance that he was still denying the conversations concerned the campaign—but his carefully prepared remarks instead had shifted in what many will see as deceit or obfuscation. At least on Wednesday, senators will have an opportunity to ask Sessions about these inconsistencies, Sessions will have an opportunity to explain, and Mueller will have an opportunity to watch.