During two hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has tangled with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) concerning his knowledge of possible communications between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials.

On Monday, court documents were unsealed that show that George Papadopoulos, whom Donald Trump had named as a key foreign policy adviser in March 2016, had pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 to charges of lying to the FBI about his contacts with foreign officials, including people purporting to work with the Russian government. One filing describes how, at a meeting on March 31, 2016, that was attended by Trump and Sessions, Papadopoulos said “he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin.”

News reports have quoted sources familiar with the meeting as saying that Trump questioned Papadopoulos about this possibility but that Sessions tried to shut down the conversation. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said the president has no recollection of specifics of the meeting.

As a reader service, here is how Sessions has answered when asked whether he knew of contacts between the campaign and Russian officials. The Papadopoulos plea has raised new questions about whether Sessions withheld information from lawmakers.

Jan. 10, 2017

Franken: “CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that, quote, ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say, quote, ‘There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’ Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious, and 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?”
Sessions: “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 didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”

Analysis: Sessions has said he was responding to the first part of Franken’s question — that “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

In other words, he maintains he was not answering the final part of the question — whether “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.” Sessions said later he should “have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.’ ” But he said that meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were strictly in his capacity as U.S. senator and were not about the Trump campaign.

The Washington Post reported in July that Kislyak told his superiors in Moscow that during two conversations with Sessions he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, during the 2016 presidential race, according to communications intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies. Sessions has insisted he “conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.”

Oct. 18, 2017

Franken: “Now, was that what you’re saying that you still — you don’t believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians? Is that what you’re saying?”
Sessions: “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”
Franken: “And you don’t believe it now?”
Sessions: “I don’t believe it happened.”

Analysis: In light of the Papadopoulos guilty plea, this exchange could prove problematic for Sessions. The March 2016 meeting placed both Sessions and Trump at the table with Papadopoulos as he allegedly touted his Russian contacts to pitch a meeting between Putin and Trump. But what loomed larger in Papadopoulos’s mind might have not made as much of an impact on others around the table.

“It seems clear that the people who remember the conversation believed that Papadopoulos was proposing a prospective idea of using his ‘Russian contacts’ to try to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin, which was immediately rejected by then-Senator Sessions,” said a source familiar with Sessions’s recollection told The Fact Checker. “At the time, of course, Papadopoulos was some 29-year-old that nobody had ever heard of and who struck people in the room as someone who didn’t have a lot of credibility. As far as Sessions seemed to be concerned, when he shut down this idea of Papadopoulos engaging with Russia, that was the end of it, and he moved the meeting along to other issues.”

Yet The Washington Post also reported that “Papadopoulos sat at the elbow of Sessions, then a senator and one of Trump’s top campaign advisers, during a dinner for campaign advisers weeks before the Republican National Convention.” The source said Papadopoulos may have been at the dinner but that Sessions “has no clear recollection of this person” and “doesn’t recall any further interactions with him, including any phone calls or emails.” The source insisted that Papadopoulos’s remarks at the March 2016 meeting “did not leave a lasting impression.”

The meeting took place more than 1½ years ago. The court documents do not indicate whether Papadopoulos said he had been in contact with Russians, only that he had Russian contacts. But this is yet another instance in which new information emerges that raises questions about Sessions’s previous testimony before Congress. One can imagine that the next time Sessions testifies, he will be asked for more details of the meeting and his interactions with Papadopoulos.
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