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What You Need to Know About Trump’s Potential Russia Ties, Featuring Jeff Sessions and the Russian Ambassador

Contrary to his confirmation hearings, Trump's attorney general did indeed have contact with a Russian official during the campaign.

By and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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The saga surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump’s potential ties to Russia took yet another turn Wednesday, possibly ensnaring another top administration official.

The U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former U.S. senator and early Trump booster, is facing growing calls to recuse himself from investigations into the Trump campaign’s Russia links after he apparently withheld information from the Senate about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. Others are demanding his resignation over the misleading statements, which were made under oath during his confirmation hearing in January.

“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee in response to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who asked, “If there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this [2016] campaign, what would you do?” He now says he spoke with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak in July and September, although there were conflicting reports as to whether it was in person or by phone.

The saga surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump’s potential ties to Russia took yet another turn Wednesday, possibly ensnaring another top administration official.

The U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former U.S. senator and early Trump booster, is facing growing calls to recuse himself from investigations into the Trump campaign’s Russia links after he apparently withheld information from the Senate about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. Others are demanding his resignation over the misleading statements, which were made under oath during his confirmation hearing in January.

“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee in response to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who asked, “If there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this [2016] campaign, what would you do?” He now says he spoke with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak in July and September, although there were conflicting reports as to whether it was in person or by phone.

“Given AG Sessions’ false statements about contacts with Russia, we need a special counsel to investigate Trump associates’ ties to Russia,” Sen. Ron Wyden (R-Ore.), member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi went a step further. “After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign,” she said in a statement.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at a CNN town hall with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) Wednesday night that Sessions’s meetings with Kislyak could have been “innocent” — but if it wasn’t he would join Democrats in calling for Sessions’ recusal of an investigation into Trump’s Russia ties. “If there is something there and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make that decision about Trump,” Graham said. On Thursday, Graham told reporters he intended to meet with FBI Director James Comey, to “look him in the eye” and ask whether there is an investigation into Trump’s potential ties to Russia.

Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Thursday that the FBI so far is not cooperating with the House investigation, and said he wants a special prosecutor in place of Sessions.

On Thursday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) became the first Republican senator to call on Sessions, “a former colleague and a friend,” to recuse himself from a Department of Justice investigation.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) also said Sessions should recuse himself, as did Sessions’s personal friend, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Sessions wouldn’t need to recuse himself from an investigation if Sessions himself was not the subject of the investigation. He added he had seen no evidence that an American colluded with Russians to meddle in the elections — though he said Russia indeed attempted electoral interference. “Democrats are lighting their hair on fire” to get this story covered, he said, later adding, “We meet with ambassadors all the time.”

Late Wednesday, Sessions released a statement saying, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss the issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.” The Washington Post, which first reported Sessions’ conversation with Kislyak, did not specify that they had discussed the campaign. But an anonymous Trump administration official reportedly said that the election was discussed, but in “superficial” terms and that it was not the “substance of their discussion.” Sessions told NBC News on Thursday, “I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign.” He also said he would recuse himself “whenever it’s appropriate.”

His spokesperson said he met the Russian ambassador in the course of his work as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. A spokesperson from the Department of Justice repeated to Foreign Policy that both interactions were conducted in the normal course of Sessions’s work as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Indeed, Sessions met with the Ukrainian Ambassador, too. The Ukrainian embassy’s press office told FP, “The Ambassador briefed the Senator on the situation in Crimea and called for support to Ukraine in the Senate” on Sept. 7, the day before he met Kislyak — and the same month the Trump team avoided meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko when he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. (Ukrainian representatives had extended an invitation to both presidential candidates, but only Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton agreed to meet.)

However, Sessions did not deny speaking with Ukrainian officials during his confirmation hearings, and U.S. intelligence does not believe Ukraine tried to influence U.S. elections.

Further, twenty members of the Senate Armed Services Committee told the Post they did not meet with the Russian ambassador last year. One, Claire McCaskill, said she has not met with a Russian ambassador in 10 years, and that speaking with ambassadors is under the purview of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not the Senate Armed Services Committee. (However, she actually tweeted not once but twice in the past that she was meeting with the Russian ambassador.)

The Sessions flap comes as the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, formerly divided as to whether or not a probe into Trump’s potential ties to Russia was warranted, announced Wednesday it would indeed investigate both the Russian link and intelligence leaks. This is in addition to a potential Senate investigation as well as ongoing intelligence investigations.

Sessions is not the first member of the Trump administration to come under fire for contacts with Russia. Trump asked his first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, to step down after it became clear he lied to U.S. Vice President Michael Pence about whether or not he discussed lifting sanctions on Russia with (who else?) Kislyak as a private citizen last December. Flynn was forced to resign less than a month into his tenure.

As the new revelations of Sessions’s meetings with Kislyak broke, the New York Times also reported the British and Dutch governments provided information on meetings between Russian officials and Trump associates. U.S. intelligence officials also tracked Russian officials’ communications describing meetings with Trump associates.

The White House denounced the new scandal over Sessions as “the latest attack against the Trump Administration by partisan Democrats,” adding Sessions was simply doing his job as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Trump said he has “total” confidence in Sessions. However, he also had “full confidence” in Flynn before asking for his resignation.

Further, an unnamed senior White House official apparently found out about Sessions’s contact with Kislyak from the press.

The Kremlin did not throw the White House a line. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “I don’t know the details of any meetings. (But) the ambassador’s job is to hold as many meetings as possible,” and also only official reports (that is, not the media), should be trusted. The response is similar to what Peskov said with respect to Flynn’s departure, shortly before reportedly ordering state media to stop its effusive coverage of Trump: “This is a domestic issue of the United States.”

Update, March 2, 2017, 11:55 am ET: This piece was updated to include comment from the Department of Justice, as well as additional reactions from Lindsey Graham and Jason Chaffetz.

Update, March 2, 2017, 1:03 pm ET: This piece was updated to include calls for recusal for Collins and Schiff, and also with the unnamed White House official’s comment that he/she learned about Sessions’s meetings from the press.

Update, March 2, 2017, 2:51 pm ET: This piece was updated to include Trump’s professed confidence in Sessions.

Update, March 2, 2017, 3:09 pm ET: This piece was updated to include comment from the Ukrainian embassy.

FP‘s Reid Standish contributed to this piece.

Photo credit: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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