Trump’s Russia headache gets worse, as Sessions struggles to spin undisclosed meetings

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Jeff Sessions is sworn in on Jan. 10 ahead of his confirmation hearing to become attorney general. "I did not have communications with the Russians," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath. Now he acknowledges that he spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: Jeff Sessions wakes up this morning with potentially serious legal and political problems.

— The attorney general and his team are in damage-control mode, trying to explain confusing and seemingly inconsistent statements.

— A handful of top Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Claire McCaskill, called for his resignation overnight. Others are expected to follow in the coming hours. Many more are clamoring for a special prosecutor, both to explore whether Sessions should be charged with perjury for making apparently false statements to Congress and more broadly to explore links between Trump campaign officials and Russia during the election. There is consensus among Democrats in both chambers that Sessions must, at the very least, immediately recuse himself from all Russia-related investigations to preserve the integrity of the Justice Department and the ongoing FBI investigation, something he has repeatedly resisted.

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— Notably, few Republican lawmakers are rushing to vocally defend their longtime colleague this morning. Some worry about what shoes might drop next. A few prominent Republicans are joining Democratic calls for Sessions to recuse himself, including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and the chairman of the House Oversight Committee:

AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on “Morning Joe” that Sessions should recuse himself, though he tried to walk it back later on Fox News.

— In case you missed them, four significant Russia stories popped late last night:

The Washington Post reported that then-Sen. Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during his confirmation hearing to become attorney general. “One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race,” Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller report. The second meeting happened after a Heritage Foundation event during the Republican National Convention, when the two spoke individually in Cleveland. A Sessions spokeswoman confirmed both meetings.

Testifying under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was asked in January by Al Franken what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during 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.”

There’s more: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) sent Sessions an additional written question: “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” The AG’s one-word answer could not have been more categorical: “No.”

Watch the Franken-Sessions exchange:

Sessions ‘unable to comment’ on Trump intelligence briefing reports

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Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) questioned attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) about news that intelligence officials briefed President-elect Trump on unconfirmed reports that Russia has compromising information on Trump. (Senate Judiciary Committee)

The Wall Street Journal, following The Post’s report, added that “U.S. investigators have examined contacts … Sessions had with Russian officials during the time he was advising” Trump’s campaign. “The outcome of the inquiry, and whether it is ongoing, wasn’t clear,” per Carol E. Lee, Christopher S. Stewart, Rob Barry and Shane Harris. “The contacts were being examined as part of a wide-ranging U.S. counterintelligence investigation into possible communications between members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team and Russian operatives.” Three other nuggets:

  • A spokeswoman told the Journal that the AG wasn’t aware that his communications have been under investigation until being contacted by the press.
  • The inquiry, focused on contacts Sessions had “while serving as Mr. Trump’s foreign-policy adviser in the spring and summer of 2016,” is being pursued by the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Treasury Department.
  • 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.”

The New York Times revealed that some Obama White House officials were so concerned about possible contacts between Trump associates and the Russians that they took active measures to ensure the incoming administration would not be able to “cover up or destroy” key evidence.

“American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump,” three former American officials told Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt. “Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.”

To leave as long a paper trail as possible, Obama administration officials spread information across the government. Some illustrations of how they did it from the story:

  • Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee…”
  • “At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government — and, in some cases, among European allies. This allowed the upload of as much intelligence as possible to Intellipedia, a secret wiki used by American analysts to share information.”
  • “There was also an effort to pass reports and other sensitive materials to Congress. In one instance, the State Department sent a cache of documents marked ‘secret’ to Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland days before the Jan. 20 inauguration.”

“The opposite happened with the most sensitive intelligence, including the names of sources and the identities of foreigners who were regularly monitored,” the Times reporters add. “Officials tightened the already small number of people who could access that information. They knew the information could not be kept from the new president or his top advisers, but wanted to narrow the number of people who might see the information.”

— Finally, the Associated Press reports that the White House counsel’s office has instructed all of the president’s aides to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian interference in the 2016 election and other related investigations. “The instructions, which were sent to White House staff on Tuesday, come after Senate Democrats last week asked the White House and law enforcement agencies to keep all materials involving contacts that Trump’s administration, campaign and transition team — or anyone acting on their behalf — have had with Russian government officials or their associates,” Julie Pace and Vivian Salama report. “The Senate intelligence committee, which is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, has also asked more than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals to preserve relevant records.” Congress will want to know why it took nearly a week for this order to go out after their request…

Sessions met with Russian envoy twice, encounters he did not disclose in confirmation hearings

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The previously undisclosed discussions could fuel new calls for a special counsel to investigate Russia’s alleged role in the 2016 presidential election. As attorney general, Jeff Sessions oversees the Justice Department and the FBI. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Sarah Parnass/Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

— Sessions’s spin is quite a stretch. Justice officials claim that Sessions’s secret sit-down with Ambassador Kislyak on Sept. 8 was in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump campaign surrogate. Officials told The Post’s reporters who broke the story that the attorney general did not consider the conversations relevant to Franken and Leahy’s questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak. “There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” claimed Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores (who used to be Sean Spicer’s #2 at the RNC).

But The Post’s Adam Entous contacted all 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee from 2016 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 last night.

Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who called for Sessions to resign this morning, is a senior member of that committee and a former prosecutor. “A good prosecutor would have known these facts were relevant to the questions asked,” she said in a statement. “It’s clear Attorney General Sessions misled the Senate—the question is, why? I’ve been on the Senate Armed Services Committee for 10 years, and in that time, have had no call from, or meeting with, the Russian ambassador. Ever. That’s because ambassadors call members of Foreign Relations Committee.

Many reporters mocked as nonsensical a clean-up statement sent out by a Sessions spokeswoman last night in response to The Post’s story:

These are consecutive sentences in the Sessions statement: “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

Approached by an NBC camera crew this morning, Sessions carefully denied meeting with any Russian officials during the course of the election to talk about the Trump campaign. “I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign,” he said, “and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don’t have anything else to say about that.” When asked about the calls by Democrats to recuse himself from investigating any alleged ties between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, Sessions added: “I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself. There’s no doubt about that.”

But the continuing pushback from someone else in the Trump administration is potentially making the story worse for them. Recall that Sessions keeps saying he didn’t talk about politics:

Trump admin official on Sessions/Russian envoy: “superficial comments about election-related news, not substance of their discussion”

‘Sessions should resign immediately’: Reactions from both parties following Russia revelation

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Here’s what Rep. Elijah Cummings, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the White House and more have to say about news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign, which he did not reveal in confirmation hearings. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

THE GATHERING STORM – A ROUND-UP OF KEY REACTION:

This was the chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush:

Misleading the Senate in sworn testimony about one own contacts with the Russians is a good way to go to jail https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/sessions-spoke-twice-with-russian-ambassador-during-trumps-presidential-campaign-justice-officials-say/2017/03/01/77205eda-feac-11e6-99b4-9e613afeb09f_story.html?hpid=hp_no-name_no-name%3Apage%2Fbreaking-news-bar&tid=a_breakingnews&utm_term=.0043b1da9c3c 

Photo published for Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose

Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose

The attorney general did not disclose the encounters during his confirmation hearing.

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