Among the agencies involved: The FBI, which now answers to … Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Hence the calls for his recusal in Russia matters even from some Republicans today.
It sure is interesting that so many different major papers had Russia stories dropping last night, the evening of Trump’s best day of president so far. WaPo had the big scoop about Sessions meeting twice with the Russian ambassador; the Times had a scoop about Obama officials scrambling to preserve evidence of the Russian hackings just in case Team Trump sought to bury it; and now here’s the Journal with news that Sessions was one of the Trump campaign associates investigated for communicating with Russians last year. Note that no conclusions are drawn by the paper about culpability, or even whether the investigation into Sessions is ongoing. It’s a pure attempt to cast suspicion on him in tandem with the WaPo piece without any evidence of actual wrongdoing.
U.S. investigators have examined contacts Attorney General Jeff Sessions had with Russian officials during the time he was advising Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the matter…
The focus of the U.S. counterintelligence investigation has been on communications between Trump campaign officials and Russia. The inquiry involving Mr. Sessions is examining his contacts while serving as Mr. Trump’s foreign-policy adviser in the spring and summer of 2016, one person familiar with the matter said.
The investigation is being pursued by the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Treasury Department, officials have said. Counterintelligence probes seldom lead to public accusations or criminal charges…
The FBI’s role in the investigation into Mr. Sessions’ conversations left the agency “wringing its hands” about how to proceed, said one person familiar with the matter.
According to his spokesman, Sessions … didn’t know that his communications with Russians were being scrutinized. He and Comey are going to have a fun meeting today. The million-dollar question here: Did the feds find any other contacts between Sessions and Russians besides the two we already know about it or was it just the two meetings with the ambassador, Kislyak, that have now been disclosed? I highlighted the bit about “spring and summer of 2016” because that seems to offer a clue. Sessions’s spokesman acknowledged that he talked briefly with Kislyak in July, at a Heritage event during the Republican convention, along with several other ambassadors. WaPo reported last night that Sessions also met with Kislyak in his office on September 8th, albeit supposedly (per Sessions’s team) to talk business related to his role on the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump campaign surrogate. (That’s important for reasons Jazz explained here about Sessions’s exchange with Al Franken under oath during his confirmation hearing.) That’s summer and either late summer or early fall, depending on how you want to categorize early September. So what contacts did Sessions have with Russia in spring 2016, per the Journal story? Was there another office meeting with Kislyak or was there some private communication with someone we don’t know about yet? Sessions’s answer to Franken is defensible based on what we know now, but if he had more contact with Russians and didn’t disclose it, hoo boy. Four words, my friends: Attorney General Chris Christie.
There’s another question raised by WaPo. One can understand why a member of the Armed Services Committee might want to talk to an ambassador (or, more likely, might grant an ambassador’s request for a meeting), but it should be noted that 20 other members of the Committee didn’t meet with Kislyak last year. Sessions’s meeting might not be improper but it was unusual:
The Washington Post contacted all 26 members of the 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee to see whether any lawmakers besides Sessions met with Kislyak in 2016. Of the 20 lawmakers who responded, every senator, including Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), said they did not meet with the Russian ambassador last year. The other lawmakers on the panel did not respond as of Wednesday evening…
Steven Hall, former head of Russia operations at the CIA, said that Russia would have been keenly interested in cultivating a relationship with Sessions because of his role on key congressional committees and as an early adviser to Trump.
Yeah, that’s the gray zone here. Did Kislyak seek out Sessions to talk statecraft or did he seek him out to talk Trump and what Sessions’s role in the new administration might be? Because if it’s the latter, it makes Sessions’s distinction between official business and campaign business in his answer to Franken even more dubious. Katherine Miller remembered last night that September 8th, the day of the meeting with Kislyak, was the day after Trump had famously praised Putin at NBC’s commander-in-chief forum. Was that a coincidence or did Trump’s comments inspire Kislyak to seek out his most prominent surrogate in the Senate? An administration official told NBC last night when asked about Sessions’s meeting with Kislyak that “ambassadors would often make superficial comments about election-related news” but that it wasn’t the substance of their discussion. So they did talk about “election-related news,” but just not much? How much?
I find it exceedingly hard to believe that Sessions, who’s been a Russia hawk in the past, was up to no good in any of this, although his incomplete answer to Franken was a bad, damaging mistake. And needless to say, if there are other contacts yet to be revealed that he didn’t disclose, he’s in trouble. Dan McLaughlin’s right that he’s going to end up recusing himself from the Russia probe, especially now that we know that his own investigators looked at him as part of it. Why he doesn’t do it right now is unclear. Probably he just doesn’t want to piss off Trump by seeming “weak” at a moment when he’s taking heat from all sides. Better to ride it out and then quietly recuse. Or am I wrong and Jake Tapper’s right? Exit quotation:
One cannot overstate how bothered POTUS will be by this Sessions story (with GOPers now calling for recusal) stepping on his good news cycle
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) March 2, 2017
Update: I neglected to mention that Kislyak is the same Russian official whom Mike Flynn spoke to about sanctions in late December, a conversation that ended up with Flynn resigning after he allegedly misled Mike Pence about it. One open question about Kislyak: Did he approach any Trump surrogates before the election to talk about what Russia policy might look like under a Trump administration? Did the topic of, for instance, relief from Ukraine-related sanctions come up during his chat with Sessions, someone who was obviously headed for a cabinet position if Trump won? If so, how would that affect the truthfulness of the answer Sessions gave Franken?