Report

While Sessions Met Kislyak, Other Campaigns and Senators Kept Moscow at Arm’s Length

Other top lawmakers, including Republicans, didn’t see the point in meeting with Russian officials.

kislyak

After Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, raised eyebrows for his front-row seat at Donald Trump’s first foreign-policy speech last April, embassy representatives made a hurried overture to the campaign of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

The response was a noncommittal “we’ll see,” one former campaign official said, describing it as a “slow roll.” In the end, no one from the former secretary of state’s campaign met with Kislyak or any other Russian official, nor had any intention to do so, several former Clinton campaign officials told Foreign Policy Thursday. But the Russians’ timing wasn’t coincidental, the official said.

“Note the timing of it: When they attempted to reach out, it was being very publicly reported about Kislyak that he actually featured so prominently — they were spooked,” the former campaign official said. “We never pursued any contact with them. Because, why?”

That moment in a chandelier-hung Washington, D.C., ballroom has taken on new significance now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has become latest Trump administration official to fall under suspicion for misrepresenting communication with Russian officials. During his confirmation hearing, Sessions had said that while he was a Trump surrogate, he didn’t have any contact with the Russians, though in fact he’d met with Kislyak at least twice, in July and on Sept. 8, and potentially at the April speech.

Sessions ultimately recused himself Thursday from any investigations into ties between Russia and Trump while continuing to insist his meetings with Kislyak were a routine part of his role as a senator and not in his capacity as one of the Trump campaign’s closest national security advisors.

Sessions said in a press conference at the Department of Justice on Thursday that he’d spoken truthfully, because he “never had meetings with Russian operatives or government intermediaries about the Trump campaign.”

But among those vying for the presidency, the Trump campaign seems to be alone in meeting with Kislyak or other Russian government officials. That appears to undermine Sessions’s defense amid continued calls by lawmakers for his resignation as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

Trump’s main rival during the Republican primary, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who served with Sessions on the Armed Services Committee, made sure to keep Moscow at arm’s length, officials told FP.

Among others running for president, neither Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) met with any Russian officials. Senior national security leaders including Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) never held such meetings as Sessions did, either, officials told FP. And of the 26 senators on the Armed Services Committee, only Sessions met with Kislyak in 2016, according to the Washington Post

What’s more, he used campaign funds for travel to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, where he spoke with Kislyak, according to the Wall Street Journal, making it doubtful the trip was part of his Senate business.

Trump, for his part, had vowed “total” confidence in Sessions, just before the attorney general recused himself Thursday. Later, Trump lashed out on Twitter, saying the native Alabamian is an “honest man” and Democrats have “lost their grip,” amid a leak-fueled “witch hunt.”

Cruz, a fellow conservative, also defended the staunch-right former Alabama senator and attorney, saying he should’ve been more precise in his confirmation testimony but simply misspoke. Cruz called the story a “nothingburger” Thursday morning, noting he’d met with six ambassadors in the last month alone. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who asked Sessions the pointed question in the hearing, likely met with foreign leaders as well, Cruz said.

But other Republicans — including Cruz himself — were careful not to cultivate any contact with the Russian government in the heat of the presidential election.

Cruz’s Senate office confirmed that in the course of his presidential campaign, in which he finished runner-up to Trump for the GOP nomination, as well as throughout his own tenure on the Armed Services Committee, the native Texan never had any calls or meetings with Kislyak or any other Russian official, nor did they seek one.

A former Cruz campaign advisor told FP Thursday that the senator had made clear he thought Moscow was taking advantage of a “weak” Russia policy under former President Barack Obama.

“For that reason, a meeting would not have been logical on their side,” the advisor said. If such a call had come from the Russian Embassy, “I wouldn’t have taken it but never got put into that position.… I expect the Russians knew that perfectly well.”

Rubio, a noted Russia hawk who also battled Trump for the nomination, told reporters Thursday: “I have never met the Russian ambassador,” though he added, “but I’ve had meetings with ambassadors all the time.” Rubio’s office did not say whether he’d met with any other Russian official outside of Kislyak or whether his campaign had any contact.

Sanders, the runner-up for the Democratic nomination, like his Senate office and campaign, had “zero contact” with Kislyak or “anyone else in the Russian government,” spokesman Michael Briggs told FP.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Clinton’s vice presidential nominee and member of the foreign relations and armed services committees, has not met one-on-one with the Russian ambassador or any other government official, his office said. In 2015, Kaine attended a meeting with a group of senators and ambassadors from the “P5+1” countries — including Russia — who’d negotiated the Iran deal. Franken was among them, but the Minnesota senator’s office drew a sharp contrast between him and Sessions.

“Here’s what Sen. Franken did not do,” spokesman Michael Dale-Stein told FP. “Sen. Franken did not work on behalf of the Trump team, which has a clearly inappropriate relationship with the Russian government, and he did not mislead the American public and Congress under oath.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a senior Armed Services Committee member, drew criticism for saying in her 10 years on the defense panel, she never met or spoke with the Russian ambassador — “Ever.” — adding that such officials call the Foreign Relations Committee. She later acknowledged that she had spoken to Kislyak as part of negotiations around the Iran nuclear deal but added that she’d never met him one-on-one.

Some top lawmakers did meet with Kislyak and other Russian officials, but said it was part of their Senate business. Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, advised Trump during the campaign and was considered a potential secretary of state pick until he withdrew his name. He hosted more than a dozen officials and three ambassadors last month alone, according to his office.

In early 2016, he met with Kislyak “to discuss interparliamentary dialogue,” and before that, at the end of 2015, he met with his counterpart from the Russian Federation Council.

“There is nothing unusual about a member of the Senate meeting with a foreign diplomat,” Corker reiterated after Sessions’s announcement. “I continue to have full confidence in him serving as attorney general.”

Other Republicans made clear why they’ve had little contact with the now famous Russian envoy. McCain and other members of the Foreign Relations Committee met with Kislyak in 2014 — to “express outrage” at Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Since then, spokeswoman Julie Tarallo said, “Sen. McCain has seen no value in further engagement with Ambassador Kislyak.”

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola