Every day, it seems, there are new revelations of potential ties between the Trump administration and Russia. The latest twist came Wednesday when The Washington Post revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice last year with the Russian ambassador to the United States. During his confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama and early supporter of President Donald Trump who joined the campaign as a foreign policy adviser last February, said he had not had communications with any Russian officials in 2016.
On Thursday, Session rightly recused himself from an ongoing FBI investigation into whether Russia interfered in last year’s presidential election, including by hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s email servers. The FBI is part of the Department of Justice, which Sessions oversees.
Sessions’ communications with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak are troubling enough. The episode also heightens concern that there is much more that the public and Congress don’t know about the extent of the Trump administration’s Russian ties and what they mean for U.S. policymaking.
Who else from Trump’s team met with Russian officials, and what did they talk about?
Last month, Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, abruptly resigned after he misled administration officials about his conversations with Kislyak. Flynn spoke by phone with the ambassador in December about U.S. sanctions against Russia, a conversation he did not disclose. Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a senior adviser to the president, met with Kislyak in December, the White House confirmed for the first time Thursday.
This constant drip of new information about the Trump team’s ties to Russia adds urgency to an ongoing investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee into this matter. Both Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King are committee members.
Collins, who introduced Sessions at his confirmation hearing, had called upon her former Senate colleague to recuse himself from the DOJ investigation and to provide more information about his talks with the Russian ambassador. She is one of only a handful of Senate Republicans to call for recusal.
King suggested that Sessions again appear before the Judiciary Committee to clarify his comments.
At the Jan. 10 confirmation hearing, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, asked Sessions about the possibility that the Trump campaign and its affiliates had communicated with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Sessions’ answer was a sweeping denial of conversations with Russians.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he responded, under oath. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
In fact, Sessions met twice — in July and September — with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, The Washington Post reported. The September meeting was private and held in Sessions’ Senate office. During that meeting, he and the ambassador discussed “normal things,” like Sessions’ long-ago visit to Russia with a church group, the attorney general said during his press conference.
He also implied that there is nothing unusual about senators meeting with ambassadors. In general, that is true. But Russia has the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world and a long record of interference in, including military invasions of, neighboring countries as it seeks to discredit democratic forms of government. No other Armed Services Committee members who spoke with The Post said they had met with Kislyak. That’s why the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Russian officials is so unusual, and concerning.
Sessions did not elaborate on the July meeting, which occurred on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Sessions paid for the trip to Ohio out of his own re-election campaign funds rather than from a Senate or Armed Services Committee fund that would be used for official Senate business. Sessions talked with Kislyak about the Trump campaign, the Journal reported, citing someone who was at the convention.
Sessions’ decision to recuse himself, which the ethics staff at the Department of Justice recommended, is appropriate. But it is a tiny concession amid a growing, troubling pattern of revelations about the extent of White House connections to Moscow.