Sessions faces grilling about Russia’s outreach to Trump campaign
WASHINGTON — After months of dismissing questions about the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 election, Jeff Sessions on Tuesday will have to address recent revelations that he knew about some aspects of Russia’s outreach to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee have already indicated they’ll ask the former Alabama senator about his role in meetings and conversations about Trump aides’ travels to Russia and attempts to set up a meeting between the then-Republican presidential nominee and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sessions has come under intensifying scrutiny about his repeated denials or shifting answers to questions about what he knew about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Among them:
— During Sessions’ January 10 confirmation hearing, the incoming attorney general told Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” He separately told Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in writing that he had not been in contact with any Russian government officials about the election, but subsequent reports showed that Sessions met at least twice with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign.
— In June, Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee he had never discussed with Russians “any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States” and didn’t know of any such conversations by anyone with the Trump campaign.
— Last month, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had no “improper involvement” with Russians and that he never discussed anything that might be construed as collusion. He also said he wasn’t aware of whether any campaign surrogates had any interactions with Russians. “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did,” he said.
But a recent plea agreement reached by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and fresh testimony from a former Trump foreign policy aide indicate Sessions did know of some contacts between campaign officials and Russians.
In the plea deal with George Papadopoulos, prosecutors said the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser — who admitted to lying to FBI agents about contacts with Russians — interacted with high-level campaign officials about those contacts. Papadopoulos told prosecutors he raised the notion of a meeting between Trump and Putin during a March 2016 meeting of the foreign policy team, which was led by Sessions.
Sessions has not commented publicly, but people close to him have since said Sessions was the one who shot down the proposed meeting between Putin and Trump, who was also present for the conversation.
Another Trump campaign foreign policy aide, Carter Page, later told House investigators he had informed Sessions about his own trip to Moscow. He said he mentioned it to the then-senator following a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club shortly before he left town.
House Democrats have already signaled they have questions about Sessions’ accuracy. In a letter from the Judiciary Committee’s 17 Democrats, the lawmakers described Sessions’ statements as “inconsistencies” and told him to be prepared to answer for them.
The Alabaman also could face questions about Trump’s decision earlier this year to fire FBI Director James Comey, which the president later said he did out of frustration with the Russia investigation. That firing, which Sessions weighed in on despite having recused himself from all campaign-related matters, led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
Senate Democrats who have interrogated him remain frustrated by Sessions’ evasion of questions that touch on his private conversations with Trump about the matter, even though the president has not claimed the discussions were subject to executive privilege. Sessions has said he won’t talk about the conversations in case Trump later decides to claim privilege.
Though Sessions, a former senator, has generally warm relationships with his former colleagues — including Democrats — he doesn’t have the same connection with House Democrats and may be in for a bruising, lengthy hearing. It’ll be a test of his endurance: there are 41 members of the committee who will each be offered a chance to question the Justice Department head.
Though Sessions’ answers on Russia will be the most anticipated of the hearing, he’ll also be pressed on a variety of high-stakes subjects that will extend the hearing further. Among them: Trump’s public calls for DOJ to investigate Hillary Clinton, controversial surveillance programs handled by the FBI, terrorism, civil forfeiture, race relations between police and minority communities, and allegations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore, who is running for Sessions’ old Senate seat from Alabama.
Elana Schor and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.