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Jeff Sessions’s evasive new testimony on Russia contacts, explained

He says he now recalls more than he did before.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is worn in before testyfying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on November 14, 2017, in Washington, DC, on oversight of the US Justice Department. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images) Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Capitol Hill to give sworn testimony on Tuesday, and he had some explaining to do.

Sessions’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee was his first since news of two indictments and a guilty plea in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation became public late last month. That and other recent news cast doubt on Sessions’s previous sworn statements that he didn’t know about Trump campaign contacts with Russia.

Sessions testified back in January that he “was not aware of” any Trump campaign communications with the Russian government, and that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” And he testified just last month that he was “not aware of” any Trump campaign surrogates who had communications with the Russians, adding, “And I don’t believe it happened.”

But a court document unsealed in late October revealed that George Papadopoulos, a young Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, had bragged about his Russian contacts and proposed setting up a meeting with Putin during a March 2016 meeting that Sessions had attended.

Furthermore, another Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, recently testified to Congress that in June 2016, he told Sessions that he was planning to travel to Russia. (Page traveled to Moscow the following month, but has made inconsistent statements about how many Russian officials he interacted with there.)

Taken together, we now know that at least two Trump campaign aides talked about outreach to Russia in Sessions’s presence. And that’s a big problem for an attorney general whose past sworn testimony strongly implied those types of events had never taken place.

In his testimony Tuesday, Sessions admitted to remembering his interaction with Papadopoulos about Russia. He said he still has no recollection that Page mentioned his planned trip to Russia but doesn’t dispute Page’s version of events. Sessions described both exchanges as passing comments with junior advisers that led to no follow-up that he was aware of.

This time around, Sessions seems to have learned from his previous stumbles on Capitol Hill. He repeatedly used the phrase “I don’t recall,” and rather than denying that he and Trump staffers had any contacts with Russians, he gave the more limited denial that he knew anything about conversations with Russians related to “interference” with the elections.

Why the Papadopoulos plea was a problem for Sessions

Tuesday’s hearing capped months of congressional anger toward Sessions because of his prior testimony in January and added testimony in October that he wasn’t aware of any Trump campaign surrogates communicating with the Russian government.

We’ve recently learned more about what happened at a March 2016 meeting of Trump campaign foreign policy advisers — pictured below — that raises questions about those denials:

Papadopoulos — third from left in the photo — has now told the FBI that at this meeting, he said he had connections that could help set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.

Sessions, who chaired the Trump campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee, was at that meeting (he’s on the far left), which means he would have heard a campaign staffer talk about outreach to Russia.

After the late October revelation of Papadopoulos’s plea, Sessions allies put out a new account of this meeting in the press. In this account, Papadopoulos did bring up potentially meeting with Putin, and it was Sessions who actually shot him down, arguing that it was a bad idea.

On Tuesday, then, Sessions told lawmakers that he remembered the interaction in general terms — but was foggy on the details.

“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at the Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at his meeting,” Sessions testified.

Yet though he says he doesn’t remember exactly what Papadopoulos said, he says he does recall that it involved some sort of “ability to negotiate with Russians” and that he “pushed back” against this.

“I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government,” Sessions said.

If that’s a full and accurate account of what happened, Sessions probably doesn’t come off looking so bad.

But if there’s more to the story, that could be a problem for him. Papadopoulos told the FBI that he continued to reach out to Russian contacts to try to arrange a possible trip there, and even got a tip that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “emails.”

Sessions testified, however, that he was not aware of these later communications. “I don’t believe I had any knowledge of any further contacts,” he said Tuesday, “and I was not in regular contact with Mr. Papadopoulos.”

Sessions says he doesn’t remember an interaction with Carter Page, but he doesn’t dispute it took place

Another new revelation Session had to explain was Carter Page’s recent testimony that after a June 2016 dinner for the Trump foreign policy team, he told Sessions that he was heading to Russia soon. (Page was another Trump campaign foreign policy adviser with a history of Russian business ties who tended to say very positive things about Vladimir Putin.)

Page has portrayed his interaction with Sessions as inconsequential. “Back in June 2016, I mentioned in passing [to Sessions] that I happened to be planning to give a speech at a university in Moscow,” he told CNN recently.

But of course, this added to the list of Trump campaign/Russia interactions that Sessions failed to recall during his previous congressional testimony.

So in his new appearance, Sessions took a slightly different approach. He said he still doesn’t remember this interaction with Page, but said that if it did happen, the exchange was so inconsequential that it didn’t stick in his mind.

“He said it was a brief meeting as he was walking out the door. I am not able to dispute that,” Sessions said.

Sessions says it was a busy time then, so some things have slipped his mind

In explaining his faulty previous testimony to Congress, Sessions portrayed both his exchange with Papadopoulos and his apparent interaction with Page as brief interactions that occurred during a hectic campaign.

“All of you have been in a campaign. But most of you have not participated in a presidential campaign. And none of you had a part in the Trump campaign,” Sessions said. “It was a brilliant campaign in many ways. But it was a form of chaos every day from day one. We traveled all the time, sometimes to several places in one day. Sleep was in short supply.”

And though Sessions’s continued forgetfulness under oath has become the butt of jokes, there’s still no evidence that he was aware of any legally or ethically problematic interactions between the Trump team and the Russian government during the campaign.

For instance, no one has shown that Sessions was aware of Papadopoulos’s continued efforts, after that March 31 meeting with Trump, to work his Russian contacts in hopes of setting up a meeting or trip. And no one has shown that Sessions was tipped off that the Russians could have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “emails,” as Papadopoulos was told by one of his Russia-tied contacts.

But it also may be revealing that Sessions has so narrowed his denials of late. During his June testimony, he made the following statement, which he read word for word again during his newest appearance:

I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.

That denial only asserts that he doesn’t know of any conversations with Russians related to “interference.” That, in turn, leaves open the possibility that he knows about even more Trump campaign contacts with Russians than he’s so far admitted. And that means the saga of Jeff Sessions — and his continued troubles on Capitol Hill — won’t be ending anytime soon.