Revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. last year — even though he did not disclose the talks during his confirmation hearings when asked whether he’d had any contact with Moscow — have produced more questions than answers about the extent of the relations President Trump’s inner circle had with Moscow.
News emerged Wednesday night that Sessions, while he was still a senator representing Alabama and an adviser to Trump’s campaign, had twice met with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, when Sessions was still senior member of the Armed Services Committee and serving as a top foreign policy adviser to the Trump camp.
The earlier one-on-one conversation between the two took place in July at a Heritage Foundation event around the time of the Republican National Convention that was attended by about 50 ambassadors.
A spokeswoman for Sessions told the Washington Post on Wednesday that the attorney general met with Kislyak last year in his capacity as a senator, when he was a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Officials also told the paper that Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak.
In light of that information, here are 10 questions that Sessions still must answer:
1) Who set up the September 2016 meeting? Did Sessions request it or did the ambassador?
There is little information about how this meeting was arranged. Did Sessions reach out to Kislyak, or vice versa?
Or did someone more powerful arrange it?
2) What was the purpose of the September 2016 meeting?
This could be the most critical question. It is known that the Russians were hacking into the email accounts of high-profile Democrats and leaked the information to WikiLeaks, as part of an effort to sway the U.S. election in favor of Trump.
It is also known that retired Army general Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser, was forced to resign from the post after it came to light that he lied about discussing U.S. sanctions with Kislyak ahead of Trump’s inauguration.
“What we still don’t know is, did anyone explicitly have a quid pro quo,” Richard Painter, who worked as former President George W. Bush’s chief White House ethics lawyers from 2005-2007, explained to the Daily News.
And even if there was no straightforward deal discussed, it must be determined whether Sessions and Kislyak talked about the hacking and leaking at all.
“Even if they (the Trump campaign) didn’t want to help the Russians, they certainly were willing to use the Russians’ efforts to win the election,” Painter said.
“One possibility is that the Russians did this hacking unilaterally to get revenge against Hillary Clinton, thinking they’d get a better deal with Trump as President,” Painter explained.
“But we need to know,” he added, “did anyone inside the campaign know the Russians were doing this?”
3) This meeting was at a time when Russian interference in the election was one of the hottest topics in the country. Is it really credible that the topic didn’t come up at all?
Sessions himself said Thursday that he had “not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign.”
Pretty much everyone else in the world was chatting about the 2016 election last fall. So what exactly did you guys talk about?
4) Was the meeting on a schedule or otherwise disclosed at the time?
Another critical question. If it was kept secret, that would suggest something nefarious occurred.
5) Did anyone take notes or make recordings of the September 2016 meeting? And if so who has them?
“The Russians almost certainly have recordings or detailed notes on this conversation,” Painter said. “And that would put them in a position to blackmail Sessions.”
If and when Sessions discloses what was discussed in the meeting, the former senator could end up perjuring himself “if his recollection doesn’t square with what the Russians might reveal was said or shared in the discussion.”
“They could really have him over a barrel,” Painter said.
Flynn had been warned that he could be blackmailed by the Russians because of some of the items that came up in his discussion with them.
“That’s my biggest concern going forward with this administration,” Painter said. “That the Russians could have leverage over people. And if they do, they could get whatever they want.”
6) Why was Sessions not truthful when he was asked during his confirmation hearings if he’d had any contact with the Russian government?
It’s been often said that “the cover up is worse than the crime.” This could be another example of that being true.
Sessions had said under oath at his confirmation hearings in January that he had no contact with the Russian government during the campaign. He also said during his hearings that he had no knowledge of anyone related to the Trump campaign communicating with Russian intelligence or government agents during the election.
Why lie about it if nothing nefarious took place?
A spokesperson for Sessions told the Washington Post that Sessions answered in that manner because he did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak.
A Justice Department spokeswoman added that Sessions met with the ambassador in his role with the Senate Armed Services Committee — not as a representative of the Trump campaign.
7) Who else knew about the meeting?
Did Sessions arrange the meeting of his own volition or did someone ask him to take it? Trump said Thursday he “wasn’t aware at all” that Sessions had spoken with Kislyak. Trump has also said he didn’t know Flynn had spoken with Kislyak about sanctions before the inauguration. If he’s not being truthful, that could spell serious trouble for the White House.
8) Are there any other meetings you held in the last two years with any representatives of the Russian government or allies of Vladimir Putin?
If Sessions was not truthful about the existence of the two recently revealed meetings, what’s to say he was not truthful about the existence of additional ones?
9) Have you reviewed any of the material from the ongoing FBI investigation into Russian interference?
The House and Senate intelligence committees are already examining Russian interference in the election, as is the FBI, which reports to Sessions.
If Sessions, now that it’s known he too was in contact with the Russians, himself meddled in the ongoing FBI probe, he could face significant legal consequences.
10) Have you been asked to review any of the material from the ongoing FBI investigation into Russian interference?
Even more serious could be the scenario where Sessions was asked by someone else within the White House to check in on the probe.