When Jeff Sessions testifies today before the Senate Intelligence Committee, he’ll face tough questions about whether he committed perjury the last time he spoke to the Senate. And as of this morning, Sessions’s alibi suddenly looks a lot less plausible.
During Sessions’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, he told Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) that “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in (the Trump campaign), and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
The Washington Post later reported that Sessions’s remarks (spoken under oath) weren’t quite true: He had at least two meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the months leading up to the presidential election. Sessions strenuously denied he’d committed perjury in his confirmation hearings — because he maintained he’d met with Kislyak as a senator, not as an adviser to presidential candidate Trump.
It turns out the line between his two roles might not have been as sharply drawn as Sessions makes it out to be.
According to Julia Ioffe at the Atlantic, the meetings with Kislyak were part of a bigger story. Sessions — who wasn’t known in the Senate as a leader on foreign affairs — suddenly started meeting routinely with foreign ambassadors after he became an official adviser to the Trump campaign, and continued doing so in the months leading up to the presidential election.
And to those ambassadors, the point of the meeting wasn’t just to meet with Sen. Jeff Sessions of the Armed Services Committee — it was to meet with Jeff Sessions, national security adviser to the Republican nominee for president of the United States:
…one European diplomatic source present at one of the 2016 meetings with Sessions told me that his country’s ambassador was meeting with Sessions because “he just wanted to know the policies of the Trump team at that time, and Sessions wanted to have feedback.”
Sessions’s meetings with Kislyak make more sense now — but his explanation for them seems much sketchier
During his long time in the Senate, Sessions “was not a major or influential figure” on foreign policy (according to a former Republican Senate staffer who worked on the issue). Instead, he distinguished himself on issues like immigration and criminal justice — and Sessions was drawn to Trump’s tough rhetoric and willingness to offend on those issues back when most people in Washington were still hoping Trump would go away.
Suddenly upon formally joining the Trump campaign in March 2016 and being named the symbolic head of Trump’s policy operation, Sessions found himself (as a former Trump campaign operative tells Ioffe) “the go-to person for all the foreign-policy people trying to give their advice to the campaign.”
And among those “foreign-policy people” were foreign policy people: ambassadors trying to strike up relationships with both the Trump and Clinton campaigns, in the hopes of having an in with the next president.
Ambassadors’ meetings with Sessions apparently weren’t clearly delineated from Sessions’s work on the Senate Armed Services Committee — but they weren’t clearly delineated from his work on the campaign, either. “He was double-headed all the time,” a European diplomat told Ioffe.
“In the second half of April alone,” Ioffe writes, “Sessions met with eight ambassadors.” During the two months of 2016 when he wasn’t officially affiliated with the Trump campaign, and through his first six weeks as an official adviser, he’d met with none.
Seen this way, Sessions’s meetings with Kislyak seem less suspicious. He wasn’t deliberately seeking out and cultivating a relationship with the Russian ambassador, he was just building relationships with many ambassadors, most of whom had (logic suggests) taken more interest in meeting with him now that he had Trump’s ear.
Ironically, though, that’s exactly why Sessions’s pattern of behavior since the election now looks so much sketchier.
Kislyak wasn’t the only ambassador Sessions left off his security-clearance form. He omitted many meetings with foreign ambassadors in 2016. He justified the omission by claiming all the meetings, like the encounters with Kislyak, had taken place as part of his regular Senate duties. But if Sessions only started taking the meetings after he got named to the campaign — and if the ambassadors only asked for the meetings because Sessions was close to Trump — that omission starts looking less like an honest mistake and more like an attempt to cover up a bunch of foreign contacts.
So does his decision to answer Franken, under oath, saying he hadn’t met with any representatives of the Russian government — and then to defend it by saying he wasn’t a campaign surrogate when he met with Kislyak.
Whether or not Sessions thought he was meeting with Kislyak as a Trump campaign adviser, if Kislyak (like the other foreign ambassadors Sessions met with) thought as much, it may well have been why Kislyak was meeting with him.