Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under oath at his confirmation hearing, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he didn’t communicate with Russians during the 2016 campaign. But a new report by Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Miller for the Washington Post found that Sessions did speak with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.
Justice Department officials told the Post that Sessions, in fact, spoke twice with Kislyak, including, the Post reported, “at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.”
That goes against what Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, the Post noted:
At his Jan. 10 Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he responded. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Here is that moment in video form:
Here’s the money shot of Sessions lying to Franken (if you believe the WaPo report). pic.twitter.com/0vK12oMed1— Jamie O'Grady (@JamieOGrady) March 2, 2017
A word of caution: Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of the blog Lawfare, said on Twitter that there’s probably not enough for a perjury charge. He argued that there is enough ambiguity about whether Sessions, at his hearing, meant he had no communication with Russia as part of his work as a campaign surrogate versus his work as a senator. If he was speaking exclusively about his work on the behalf of the campaign, Sessions could argue that his work as a US senator was a separate matter.
“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” Sessions spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said. “Last year, the senator had over 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian, German and Russian ambassadors. He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.”
Sessions, for his part, made a similar argument in his statement: “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
Sessions seems to misunderstand the allegations in his statement. It’s not whether he met with Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign, but whether he spoke with them in any capacity despite telling Congress he had no communications with Russians. His spokesperson’s statement and his own statement only deny that he spoke with Russian officials as a campaign surrogate, but he still apparently communicated with a Russian official as a senator.
The Post report suggests that Sessions’s contact with Kislyak, even as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time, was unusual. Among the 20 (of 26) members of the committee who responded to the Post, none of them met with Russia’s ambassador last year.
The blockbuster report is just the latest in a string of controversies surrounding the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. Last month, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after it was revealed that he talked to Kislyak in December and may have suggested that Trump would lift sanctions against Russia — a potential violation of the Logan Act, which bans people outside the executive branch from making foreign policy on behalf of the US administration. (Flynn and Trump were not in office at the time of the call.) And in general, there have been questions about just how involved Trump’s team was with Russia’s hacks of the emails of Democrats and the Clinton campaign.
Democrats responded to the report by calling on Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation into Trump’s ties to the Justice Department. And Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, called on Sessions to resign.
“[A]fter lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the attorney general must resign,” Pelosi said. “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign. There must be an independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal, and financial connections to the Russians.”
For more on the growing Trump-Russia scandal, read Vox’s explainer.