As members of the Trump campaign team defend themselves from questions about contact with Russians, a common explanation has been: 1) It's normal to meet with foreign officials and 2) We forgot about those meetings, because they were so normal.
To which former U.S. intelligence officials and security experts say: Those meetings are not normal, at least not in this extraordinary moment.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has given a version of this argument before: During his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions first told Congress he didn't remember meeting with any Russian officials.
When The Washington Post reported he had met with Russian officials, Sessions said he didn't recall meeting about politics with Russians. It now appears that wasn't true, either.
The Post reported Friday that Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, told his bosses in Moscow that he and Sessions talked extensively about politics and policy when they met during the 2016 presidential election, according to U.S. officials who intercepted the conversations.
Sessions has a few options to explain why he keeps misremembering his meetings with Russians during the campaign. Either the Russians got it wrong, or he forgot about the substance of those conversations or didn't think they were substantial enough to mention.
In a campaign where Russians were actively trying to help his candidate win, the latter argument would not hold water, according to what former U.S. intelligence chiefs have testified about Russia.
Right around the time these meetings were taking place, the CIA director started to notice that the Russians were talking about actively, aggressively trying to influence the U.S. presidential election against Hillary Clinton.
Then-CIA director John Brennan also noticed that the Russians were reaching out to Trump campaign officials. His “radar” went off, he told Congress in May: “I know what the Russians try to do. They try to suborn individuals, and they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to try to act on their behalf, either wittingly or unwittingly. And I was worried by a number of contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons.”
Anyone with reasonable knowledge of the Russian government should know that any conversation with a high-ranking Russian official is likely to be reported back to the Kremlin -- and potentially intercepted by U.S. spy agencies.
Sessions definitely qualifies as someone who would have “reasonable knowledge of the Russian government.” He's been in public service nearly his entire adult life, including 20 years in the Senate. He's served on committees that have some focus on Russia, most recently the Senate Armed Services Committee. He may not have had access to the same intelligence the CIA director did about the Russians, but he wasn't clueless either. It's hard for him to say these meetings were normal or forgetful.
Let's take another example of Trump campaign members forgetting their contacts with Russia to underscore why that argument doesn't make sense: Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has revised his security clearance forms several times to mention his contacts with Russian officials.
Kushner doesn't have the political experience that Sessions does. But he was reportedly in the meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and several Russians with ties to the Kremlin — the one where Trump Jr. was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton and told this was part of a Russian government effort to help his father win.
Mark Zaid, a lawyer who specializes in security clearances, said there are legitimate reasons Kushner might not have included some of those officials and meetings on his form. (If the meeting only lasted five minutes, he arguably didn't need to report it, for example.)
But it defies logic to say you simply forgot about those meetings, especially when filling out a 127-page form designed to get at any politically sticky situations with foreign governments, ethics expert Melanie Sloan said.
“The fact that they can remember everything else suggests they have something to hide,” she said, “that they are deliberately trying to hide contacts with Russia, and there are serious questions about whether they were conspiring with the Russian government to win the presidency.”
As Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House's Intelligence Committee, said in March before much of the above was public knowledge, every new layer revealing the depth of the Trump campaign and Russia's relationship makes it look more suspicious:
“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians use the same techniques to corrupt U.S. persons that they employed in Europe and elsewhere.”
And the Trump campaign's categorization of these extraordinary meetings as normal only makes things look more suspicious.