As we noted on Tuesday, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was present at a March 31, 2016, Trump campaign meeting when George Papadopoulos discussed his contacts with Russian officials and attempts to set up a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s a problem for Sessions, who under oath has denied knowledge of contacts between the campaign and Russian officials.
Democratic senators are now livid. Politico reports:
Democrats are now scrutinizing the attorney general’s repeated statements that he didn’t know of any Trump campaign surrogates who communicated with individuals connected to the Russian government. The court documents made public on Monday revealed that Papadopoulos, a member of the campaign’s national security advisory group, raised the prospect of a confab between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a March 2016 advisory group meeting that Sessions reportedly attended.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) called on Sessions to return to the Senate Judiciary Committee for testimony “under oath, to explain why he cannot seem to provide truthful, complete answers to these important and relevant questions” regarding the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) issued his own request for Sessions’ return, noting that Papadopoulos had told “his superiors in the campaign” about his interactions with the Russians.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who has grilled Sessions about his testimony and failure to be forthcoming about Russian contacts, sent off a letter on Thursday to Sessions. He reminded Sessions that “in sworn testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, you have repeatedly stated that you personally did not communicate with Russians and that you were unaware of communications between Russians and other members of the Trump campaign.” He continued:
During your confirmation hearing on January 10, 2017, when confronted with reports that there was a “continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” you stated that you were “not aware of those activities.” You also said that you personally “did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.” Senator Leahy later asked you, in writing, whether you had “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day.” You answered no. It was later revealed that you had, in fact, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign—at least three times.
On October 18, 2017, during your most recent appearance before the Judiciary Committee, I asked you to clarify your shifting explanations for your own interactions with the Russian ambassador. Once again, instead of responding only to the questions asked, you revisited the initial reports of a “continuing exchange of information” between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. You stated that when you were first confronted with this report during your confirmation hearing, you were “taken aback by this dramatic statement that I’d never heard before and knew nothing about.” You said that “a continuing exchange of information between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government…did not happen, at least not to my knowledge, and not with me.” Describing your January testimony, you said, “[a]nd I said, I’m not aware of those activities. And I wasn’t, and am not. I don’t believe they occurred.”
Sessions either has an extraordinarily poor memory, or he has been trying to conceal his knowledge of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign. Franken sent a list of questions to Sessions attempting to ferret out his explanation for these inconsistencies. I’m sure that Franken and others would like answers, but simply by raising the issue of Sessions’s truthfulness, they increase Sessions’s legal peril and highlight the leverage that the special counsel might deploy to pry out incriminating evidence against the president.
And as if that were not bad enough, CNN reports: “Former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page privately testified Thursday that he mentioned to Jeff Sessions he was traveling to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign — as new questions emerge about the attorney general’s comments to Congress about Russia and the Trump campaign.” The report continues: “Sessions’ discussion with Page will fuel further scrutiny about what the attorney general knew about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia — and communications about Russia that he did not disclose despite a persistent line of questioning in three separate hearings this year.”
Sessions could find himself in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s cross-hairs under a couple of legal theories. First, Sessions might be charged with providing incomplete information to Congress, even if a perjury charge seems a stretch. Second, Sessions allegedly knew about Russian contacts, understood Trump’s anger over former FBI director James B. Comey’s digging into Russian matters, advised Trump on firing Comey and then helped proffer phony reasons (Comey’s treatment of Hillary Clinton and FBI morale) for firing Trump’s antagonist. In that series of events may lie the basis for an obstruction-of-justice charge.
At the very least, Sessions should be concerned about his own legal exposure. Sessions eventually will be questioned by Mueller about the events leading up to Comey’s firing. Mueller will ask Sessions about Trump’s rationale for firing Comey and about concern in the administration about a probe into Russia that would entail a deep dive into Trump’s finances. Armed with Sessions’s inconsistent testimony, Mueller will apply maximum pressure on Sessions. And Sessions, who has been publicly badgered and humiliated by Trump and abhors accusations that he has behaved improperly, will have plenty of incentive to assist the special counsel.
Ironically, Trump was right — he probably shouldn’t have appointed Sessions attorney general. Sessions is now among those whose testimony could threaten Trump’s presidency.