Sessions Changes his Story on Russian Contacts in Senate Testimony

On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions changed his story yet again about what he discussed with Russian officials during the 2016 election. While he initially denied having any communications with Russian officials during the campaign, after it was revealed in March that he twice met with Russian Amb. to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, Sessions modified his account to that he did not discuss the Trump campaign with Russian officials. Then, the Washington Post reported in July that Sessions and Kislyak had discussed Trump campaign-related issues. In response, Sessions’ spokesperson said that he had not had conversations with Russian officials “concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.” And, finally, in his appearance before the Congress on Wednesday, Sessions changed his story yet again, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that he did not discuss “the details of the campaign” with Kislyak, though it was possible he did discuss “Trump’s positions.”

This represents the fourth narrative that Sessions has presented to Congress and the public on the issue.

First, at his confirmation hearing in January, he told Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) that he had “been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians,” as well as responding to a written question from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that he had not “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election.”

Second, following the March revelation of Sessions’ two meetings with Kislyak during the campaign, Sessions released a public statement saying that “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” and he added, “no such things were discussed.”

Third, in June, after FBI Director James Comey reported that Sessions may have met with Kislyak a third time, Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he did not recall whether he had communications with Russian officials:

HARRIS: Did you have any communications with Russian officials for any reason during the campaign that have not been disclosed in publicor 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.

This was later was thrown into question by a July report that indicated intelligence intercepts of Russian officials’ communications showed Kislyak told officials in Moscow that Sessions did discuss campaign issues with him. In response, a Justice Department spokesperson released a statement saying that Sessions’ discussions were not “concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.”

Over time, Sessions has narrowed the scope of his denial. First, he denied having any communications with the Russians in response to Sen. Franken’s question during his confirmation hearing. Then, he narrowed his denial to not discussing the Trump campaign with Kislyak. After the intelligence intercepts were reported, indicating they did discuss the campaign, Sessions narrowed his denial to not discussing “election interference with any campaign or election.” Now, he allows that that Trump campaign positions could have been discussed, but not campaign “details.” Sessions’ continual shifting of the goal posts suggests a desire to create ambiguity about the contacts that actually occurred between Sessions and Kislyak, while allowing Sessions to continue to deny any impropriety before Congress and the public.

Below is a transcript of part of the exchange between Leahy and Sessions:

LEAHY: …Later in March, when you did disclose such meetings, you said you did not recall what was said at the meetings. Now, your answer to my question was an emphatic “no.” It wasn’t “I don’t recall.”

Now, you’re a lawyer. I’m a lawyer. You’re, in fact, our nation’s top lawyer. Is there a difference between responding “no” and “I do not recall?” Is that legally significant?

SESSIONS: … yes, certainly, it is…

LEAHY: OK. So, then, if you could not recall, then you could not have answered my question — my first question yes or no, if later you said you don’t recall what was discussed.

Now, the reason I asked that: U.S. intelligence intercepts reported in July appear to reveal that you did, in fact, discuss campaign issues with the Russian ambassador, including Candidate Trump’s position on Russian-related issues.

So let me ask you this: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian-connected official any of the following: e-mails, Russian interference, sanctions like the Magnitsky Act — you know, the so-called adoption issue — or any policies or positions of the campaign or Trump presidency? This is since the 2016 campaign.

SESSIONS: Senator Leahy, I want to be accurate, so I don’t want to have any ambiguity about your questions, but that’s a lot of questions. So let’s think about this. I have never had a meeting with any Russian officials to discuss any kind of coordinating campaign efforts.

LEAHY: Not my question. Let’s take it separate by — piece by piece. Did you discuss any of the following: e-mails?

SESSIONS: Repeat the question again about e-mails.

LEAHY: Since the 2016 campaign, have you discussed with any Russian-connected official anything about e-mails?

SESSIONS: Discuss with them? I don’t recall having done any such thing.

LEAHY: Have you discussed with them Russian interference in our elections?

SESSIONS: No.

LEAHY: Have you discussion — discussed anything like sanctions like the Magnitsky Act — what they call the adoption issue?

SESSIONS: I don’t believe I’ve ever had any discussion at any time about the Magnitsky Act.

LEAHY: Have you discussed with them any policies or positions of the campaign or Trump presidency?

SESSIONS: On — I — I’m not sure about that. If — I met with the Russian ambassador after I gave a speech at the Republican convention. He was right in front of the speakerphone, and we had a few — we had an encounter there. And that — he came — he asked for an appointment in my office later.

I met with 26 ambassadors in the last year, and he was one of them. He came into my office with two of my senior defense specialists and met with me for a while. And I don’t recall any conversation about — what was this last subject? Let me get it right. You asked me…

LEAHY: Any policies or positions of the campaign or the Trump presidency.

SESSIONS: I don’t think there was any discussion of — about the details of the campaign, other than — it could’ve been that, in that meeting in my office, or at the convention — that some comment was made about what Trump’s positions were. I think that’s possible.

Image: Getty/Chip Somodevilla 

 

About the Author(s)

Artin Afkhami

Associate Editor at Just Security (2017-2018). You can follow him on Twitter (@artinafkhami).