Attorney General Jeff Sessions held a news conference Thursday afternoon aimed at stopping the bleeding caused by revelations that he had not told the full truth about his contacts with Russian officials during the course of the 2016 presidential campaign. The big news was that Sessions is recusing himself from any FBI investigations into the attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 election.
But there was one big question that Sessions struggled to answer: Why, when asked by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken about contacts between Trump campaign surrogates and Russian operatives during his confirmation hearings, did he say he himself hadn't had any contact?
Sessions said Thursday that the answer he provided Franken was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
Um, okay. Here's the original exchange.
FRANKEN: Okay. CNN has just published a story, and I'm telling you this about a news story that's just been published. I'm not expecting you to know whether or not it's true or not. But 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: Sen. 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.
Pressed Thursday on that answer, Sessions offered this: “I was taken aback about this brand new information ... it struck me very hard and that's what I focused my answer on. In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said I did meet one Russian official a couple of times.”
That is different than what Sessions said — via a spokeswoman — on Wednesday night as the story was breaking. “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss the issues of the campaign,” Sessions said then. “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
His statement Wednesday night suggests that Sessions was trying to separate out then Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions from key Trump surrogate Jeff Sessions. That he may have met with the Russian ambassador in his Senate capacity but not in his capacity as a senior Trump campaign adviser. That is, of course, a distinction without a difference.
Sessions's explanation on Thursday is that he was flustered by Franken's question, was unfamiliar with the breaking news it referenced and, as a result, it slipped his mind that he had taken two meetings with Sergey Kislyak.
The second explanation — from Thursday — is the better one in that it actually makes some sense. But, it still doesn't totally get at what I am wondering, which is: How did Sessions so badly misunderstand Franken's question about meetings with Russians in the first place?
Sessions's answer now is that he simply got rattled and missed it. What's difficult about that is that nominees for Cabinet jobs are drilled time and again about weak spots — of which Russia surely was one for this administration — as they prepare for their confirmation hearings. Could any question about Russia truly have shaken Sessions so badly that he totally forgot that he met with the Russian ambassador not once but twice between July and September?
Sessions would have prepared for his confirmation hearing. He would have known the question was coming and would have rehearsed his answer.
— Rick Tyler (@rickwtyler) March 2, 2017
That appears to be his story and he's likely to stick to it. But given all the smoke surrounding Trump surrogates and their interactions with Russian officials, it's a hell of a thing to misunderstand.