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Jeff Sessions’s Russia testimony problem keeps getting worse

We keep learning that he hasn’t told the full story.

Saul Loeb/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 is set to testify before the House Judiciary Committee today. And when he’s been asked about Russia in previous sworn testimony, he’s repeatedly gotten tripped up.

Several times this year, Sessions has tried to downplay allegations and reports that the Trump presidential campaign — which he advised — had inappropriate contacts with Russians. He’s done this under oath, before congressional committees, in multiple sessions.

Yet we keep learning that he hasn’t told the full story.

The latest problem for Sessions stems from news that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians.

According to a court document unsealed in late October, Papadopoulos now admits that during a March 31, 2016, meeting with Trump and other campaign foreign policy advisers, 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 (pictured here):

People who attended the meeting are now telling reporters that it was Sessions himself who shot down Papadopoulos’s idea for a Trump-Putin meeting. “Sen. Sessions shut down that discussion because it was a bad idea,” Trump campaign adviser J.D. Gordon said.

Yet somehow, in hours of sworn congressional testimony in which Sessions was repeatedly asked about whether people on the Trump campaign had contacts with Russians, he never saw fit to mention this exchange. (Furthermore, after this, Papadopoulos spent months trying to arrange meetings with Russian officials and a trip to Russia.)

Now, CNN’s Manu Raju, Evan Perez, and Marshall Cohen report that Sessions is “under renewed scrutiny” on Capitol Hill about whether his testimony was forthcoming enough here — and about whether he may have been hiding anything else.

Sessions testified he had “did not have communications with the Russians,” but he met with the Russian ambassador

This may feel familiar, because Sessions has been in this position before. Back during his confirmation hearing for the attorney general job, in January, he had this exchange with Sen. Al Franken (D-MN):

FRANKEN: 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.

That answer has dogged Sessions ever since. In early March 2017, it emerged that Sessions had in fact had one meeting with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in September 2016, and had also encountered him at an event at the Republican convention two months earlier. That sure seemed to contradict his statement that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”

To explain this, Sessions argued that his sit-down meeting with Kislyak was in the course of his Senate business, not his work for the Trump campaign, and that the other encounter was inconsequential. He’s also said Franken’s question came at the end of a “rambling” discussion after six hours of testimony, suggesting he was taken off guard and the Kislyak meeting didn’t immediately come to mind.

Still, in the wake of this controversy, Sessions announced that he’d recuse himself from all investigative matters related to the presidential campaign.

Yet when James Comey testified to the Senate months later, shortly after his firing as FBI director, he hinted there may be more to the story of Sessions’s recusal. "We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” he said.

Sessions also testified that he’s unaware of Trump surrogates communicating with Russians

Since then, Sessions has testified again before Congress on these topics. On October 18, he had this exchange with Franken in which he outright claimed he did not believe Trump surrogates ever communicated with the Russians (an exchange Marcy Wheeler recently flagged at the Intercept):

FRANKEN: 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.

That statement stood out for its broadness — it disavowed any knowledge of any Trump surrogates having communications with the Russians.

But to most other questions on the topic, Sessions deliberately tried to frame his statements in a less sweeping way. For instance, take this testimony in June:

SESSIONS: 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.

Note that Sessions was careful there not to deny contacts with Russians — or even contacts with Russians about the campaign. The denial there is about conversations with Russians about “interference” with the campaign. It’s more specific.

Now we know that some Trump surrogates did communicate with Russians

In late October, we learned that for months during the 2016 campaign, foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was in contact with people he believed were connected to the Russian government, as he tried to set up a meeting with Russian government officials or a trip to Russia. He emailed several different Trump campaign advisers to tell them about these efforts, and at least one campaign official — national co-chair Sam Clovis — appeared to encourage them. And, perhaps most concerningly, he got a tip that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”

There are general questions about whether Jeff Sessions knew about any of this. There are also questions about a pair of specific interactions he had with Papadopoulos and with another Trump adviser with curious Russian connections, Carter Page.

The March 31, 2016 meeting: As mentioned above, Sessions attended a March 31 meeting with Trump himself and the foreign policy advisers, at which Papadopoulos said he had Russian connections and could arrange a meeting with Putin. Here’s Gordon’s on-the-record account of what happened there (given to One America News Network):

GORDON: At that meeting, everybody had a chance to brief Mr. Trump for about 5 minutes on a topic within their area of expertise. So George goes after me, he introduces himself as George Papadopoulos, who works in the energy sector. He thanked Mr. Trump for having him on the campaign. And then he said, I can introduce you to President Putin.

So there’s a discussion at the table. And Sen. Sessions shut down that discussion because it was a bad idea. And he said, I’d prefer if no one ever speaks about this again. And frankly I thought that was the end of it. Sen. Sessions thought it was the end of it.

Sources close to Sessions have anonymously suggested that he didn’t mention this in his testimony because the interaction didn’t leave a “lasting impression” on him.

But Sen. Franken, for one, isn’t buying it. “If your statements at the March 31 meeting were reported accurately, it would signal that you reacted strongly to Mr. Papadopoulos,” Franken wrote in a letter to Sessions on November 2. “Such a strong reaction also suggests that Mr. Papadopoulos’s comments during the meeting would have been memorable to you.”

The Capitol Hill Club dinner in summer 2016: There are also reports that both Sessions and Papadopoulos attended another meeting of Trump foreign policy advisers, for a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club in late June or early July. (Per the Washington Post, the two sat next to each other.)

Also attending the dinner was Carter Page — another Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who tended to say very positive things about Vladimir Putin and was soon planning to travel to Moscow (though, he’s said, not as an official campaign representative).

In early November, Page testified to a closed-door session of the House Intelligence Committee that during that dinner, he told Sessions that he was headed to Russia soon. But in discussing his testimony with CNN afterward, he portrayed the interaction as inconsequential:

PAGE: 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. Completely unrelated to my limited volunteer role with the campaign and as I've done dozens of times throughout my life. Understandably, it was as irrelevant then as it is now. If it weren't for the dodgy dossier and all the chaos that those complete lies had created, my passing comment's complete lack of relevance should go without saying.

But of course, this is another addition to the list of Russia-related interactions that Sessions failed to recall during congressional testimony.

So what’s Sessions’s excuse?

The defense Sessions’s allies are putting out is that these were all brief and unmemorable interactions, during which nothing of substance occurred, that took place during a hectic campaign.

Furthermore, the general line from both Sessions allies and Trump’s team is that Papadopoulos and Page were low-level people who were just freelancing in their outreach to Russians.

“I was surprised to learn what George Papadopoulos was up to during the campaign,” Gordon, who worked with Sessions during the campaign, told the Washington Post. “He obviously went to great lengths to go around me and Sen. Sessions.”

And it’s true that no one has yet proven 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. (Papadopoulos emailed some Trump campaign aides about what he was doing, but we’ve had no indication that Sessions got those emails.)

But Sessions’s continued forgetfulness under oath certainly raises the question of whether he knows more about the story of Trump campaign contacts with Russia than he’s chosen to say.

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