Russia ties may be about to claim another member of the Trump Administration. New reports by the FBI indicate that Attorney General Jeff Sessions failed to disclose meetings with the Russian Ambassador when directly questioned on the subject during his Senate confirmation hearings.
Sessions was asked by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), “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?”
“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 did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it,” Sessions replied unequivocally.
Subsequent revelations from the FBI revealed Sessions’ answer to be untrue. The Wall Street Journal reports that Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak on at least two occasions. The first meeting was in Cleveland, Ohio during the Republican National Convention where then-Senator Sessions spoke at a Heritage Foundation event attended by several ambassadors. Kislyak and several other ambassadors approached Sessions after the speech for what a Sessions spokesperson called a “short and informal” conversation.
The second meeting occurred when Kislyak visited Sessions’ Senate office for an in-person meeting. A specific date for the meeting was not given, but it occurred sometime in 2016.
Sergei Kislyak was the same Russian official who had been in contact with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn was forced to resign in February after it was revealed that he had lied about his communications with the Russian ambassador.
After reports of the meeting broke, Sessions released a short statement on Twitter saying, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.” The most recent statement is a subtle change from his earlier categorical denial of any meetings at all with the Russians.
As the revelations mount, Republicans are becoming more critical of the Trump Administration’s handling of the Russia investigation. Over the weekend, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a Trump supporter during the campaign, called for a special prosecutor, telling CNN, “You are right that you cannot have somebody, a friend of mine — Jeff Sessions — who was on the campaign and who was an appointee. You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office … not just to recuse. You can’t just give it to your deputy. That’s a political appointee.”
Now Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is echoing that call. “There may be nothing there, but if there is something there, that the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then for sure you need a special prosecutor,” Graham told The Hill.
Graham added, “If there were contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, they may be legitimate; they may be OK. I want to know what happened between the Trump campaign, the Clinton campaign and the Russians.”
Earlier this morning, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) tweeted, “AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.” Chaffetz is chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
As a senator on the Armed Services Committee, Sessions had legitimate contacts with numerous foreign officials. Nevertheless, it is troubling that he would deny meeting with Kislyak at a time when there is heightened sensitivity about contacts with the Russian government. Simply disclosing the meetings would have led to fewer questions than failing to do so has done.
There are now two big questions to be answered. First, why did Sessions meet with Kislyak in the first place? Second, why did he lie about it?
As with Flynn, Sessions’ obviously false statement cuts to the core of his credibility and leaves his integrity in question. Can America trust an attorney general who lied about meeting with the representative of hostile foreign power?
It is possible that Sessions misspoke in his answer to Franken or forgot about the meeting, but these explanations have their own problems. Given Flynn’s problems with Russia, Sessions had a duty to make himself clear on his own meetings with Russia, whether or not they involved the campaign. Knowing that the subject was sure to come up, he should have researched his own contacts to refresh his memory. Instead, Sessions volunteered the information, beyond the scope of Franken’s question, that he had never met with the Russians. Even if it was an innocent mistake, his integrity and honesty are now seriously questioned.
The scandal of contacts between the members of the Trump campaign and the Russians is growing larger rather than going away. Loss of trust can be especially damaging for an administration that has promised to fight corruption and “drain the swamp.” Members of the Trump Administration should learn a lesson that Hillary Clinton never seemed to understand: The cover-up is often more damaging than the act itself.