Attorney General Jeff Sessions is sworn in during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Alex Brandon/AP)
When then-Sen. Jeff Sessions first sat down in front of his peers during the confirmation process for his nomination to serve as attorney general, he rejected out of hand the idea that he’d spoken with any Russian agents during the election.
“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign,” Sessions said, in response to a question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), “and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) followed up with questions the following week. “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?” Leahy’s letter asked. “No,” Sessions replied, without elaboration.
That wasn’t true. Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at least twice during the campaign, including a meeting during the Republican convention in Cleveland in July and a meeting in his Senate office in September. (The two may also have crossed paths at an event at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel in April.) U.S. intelligence agencies later captured conversations between Kislyak and Moscow in which he described discussing campaign-related issues with Sessions.
Last month, during testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions was asked about his past statements by Franken once again.
“I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country,” Sessions stated. He also stated during that testimony that he didn’t think that campaign surrogates had conversations with Russians, either.
“A continuing exchange of information between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government did not happen — at least not to my knowledge and not with me,” Sessions said.
Pressed by Franken on the question of surrogates communicating with Russians, Sessions replied, “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”
This, too, was later revealed to be untrue. On Oct. 30, a charging document was unsealed showing that a campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos had engaged in ongoing conversations with people linked to the Russian government with the aim of setting up a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What’s more, Papadopoulos mentioned those efforts during a March 31, 2016 meeting that included both Sessions and Trump. Sessions reportedly “shut down” Papadopoulos’s mentions of a Putin-Trump meeting.
In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Sessions addressed the discrepancy between his denial of surrogate contacts with Russia and the Papadopoulos revelation.
“Frankly, I had no recollection of this until I saw these news reports,” the statement read. “I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said during that meeting.”
He continued. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter,” Sessions said. “But I did not recall this event, which occurred 18 months before my testimony of a few weeks ago, and would gladly have reported it.”
How did he forget it? The campaign was a “form of chaos” that affected his ability to remember things that happened a year before in its midst.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) pressed Sessions on his failure to recall the meeting, noting that Papadopoulos continued to communicate with Russians after this meeting, for a number of months. He relayed those conversations to campaign staffers, including, the New York Times reported, senior aide Stephen Miller, who worked for Sessions before the campaign.
Nadler asked Sessions if he’d taken any additional steps to cut off conversations between surrogates and Russian agents. To the best of his recollection, Sessions said, he did not, because he didn’t believe he was aware that there were further contacts.
To recap, then:
- Sessions denies contact with Russians under oath during his confirmation hearings.
- This is revealed to be untrue, given multiple meeting with an ambassador.
- Sessions refines his response to more narrowly focus on discussion of campaign-related matters.
- Sessions denies that campaign surrogates communicated with Russian agents.
- This is revealed to be untrue, given the sworn statement offered by Papadopoulos.
- Sessions refines his answer, saying that he didn’t remember Papadopoulos raising the issue in the March 2016 meeting — but once he remembered the meeting, he remembered telling Papadopoulos to cease those conversations.
All of Sessions’s testimony before Congress was under oath. His confirmation hearing was under oath; the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month was under oath; Tuesday’s House committee testimony was under oath.
Sessions’s opening statement addressed the contradiction between his being under oath and his repeated self-corrections.
“In all of my testimony, I can only do my best to answer all of your questions as I understand them and to the best of my memory,” he said. “But I will not accept and reject accusations that I have ever lied under oath. That is a lie.”
After Nadler’s questioning, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) took a different tack, asking Sessions yes-no questions about what he knew about various campaign interactions with Russians and other foreign actors. It was hard not to see the intent: Establishing possible future claims of memory failures by the attorney general.