’16 race said in Sessions’ Russian talks
Reports say spy intercepts contradict assertions of AG
WASHINGTON — Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the attorney general, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of two conversations with Sessions, then a top foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Donald Trump, were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, which monitor the communications of senior Russian officials both in the United States and in Russia. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then said that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.
One U.S. official said Sessions, who testified that he has no recollection of the April 2016 encounter, has provided “misleading” statements that are “contradicted by other evidence.” A former official said the intelligence indicates that Sessions and Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including
Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.
Sessions has said repeatedly that he never discussed campaign-related matters with Russian officials and that it was only in his capacity as a U.S. senator that he met with Kislyak.
“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said in March when he announced that he would recuse himself from matters relating to the FBI probe of Russian interference in the election and any connections to the Trump campaign.
Current and former U.S. officials said that assertion is at odds with Kislyak’s accounts of conversations during two encounters over the course of the 2016 campaign, one in April, ahead of Trump’s first major foreign policy speech, and another in July, on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention.
The apparent discrepancy could pose new problems for Sessions at a time when his position in the administration appears increasingly tenuous.
Trump, in an interview this week, expressed frustration with Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe and indicated that he regretted his decision to make the lawmaker from Alabama the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Trump also faulted Sessions as giving “bad answers” during his confirmation hearing about his Russian contacts during the campaign.
Officials emphasized that the information contradicting Sessions comes from U.S. intelligence on Kislyak’s communications with the Kremlin, and acknowledged that the Russian ambassador could have mischaracterized or exaggerated the nature of his interactions.
“Obviously I cannot comment on the reliability of what anonymous sources describe in a wholly uncorroborated intelligence intercept that the Washington Post has not seen and that has not been provided to me,” Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement. She reiterated that Sessions did not discuss interference in the election.
Russian and other foreign diplomats in Washington and elsewhere have been known, at times, to report false or misleading information to bolster their standing with their superiors or to confuse U.S. intelligence agencies.
But U.S. officials with regular access to Russian intelligence reports said Kislyak — whose tenure as ambassador to the United States ended recently — has a reputation for accurately relaying details about his interactions with officials in Washington.
Sessions removed himself from direct involvement in the Russia investigation after it was revealed in The Washington Post that he had met with Kislyak at least twice in 2016, contacts he failed to disclose during his confirmation hearing in January.
“I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions said when asked whether anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with representatives of the Russian government.
He has since maintained that he misunderstood the scope of the question and that his meetings with Kislyak were strictly in his capacity as a U.S. senator. In a March appearance on Fox television, Sessions said, “I don’t recall any discussion of the campaign in any significant way.”
Sessions appeared to narrow that assertion further in extensive testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June, saying he “never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States.”
But when pressed for details, Sessions qualified many of his answers during that hearing by saying that he could “not recall” or did not have “any recollection.”
A former U.S. official who read the Kislyak reports said the Russian ambassador reported speaking with Sessions about issues that were central to the campaign, including Trump’s positions on key policy matters of significance to Moscow.
Sessions had a third meeting with Kislyak in his Senate office in September. Officials declined to say whether U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted any Russian communications describing the third encounter.
As a result, the discrepancies center on two earlier Sessions-Kislyak conversations, including the July 2016 meeting, which Sessions has acknowledged took place, on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention.
By that point, Russian President Vladimir Putin had begun a secret campaign to help Trump win the White House by leaking damaging emails about his rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Although it remains unclear how involved Kislyak was in the covert Russian campaign to aid Trump, his superiors in Moscow were eager for updates about the candidate’s positions, particularly regarding U.S. sanctions on Russia and long-standing disputes with the Obama administration over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, according to the officials familiar with intelligence on Kislyak.
Kislyak also reported having a conversation with Sessions in April at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where then-candidate Trump delivered his first major foreign policy address, the officials said.
Sessions has said he does not remember any encounter with Kislyak at that event. In his June testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions said, “I do not recall any conversations with any Russian official at the Mayflower Hotel.”
Later in that hearing, Sessions said “it’s conceivable that that occurred. I just don’t remember it.”
Kislyak was also a key figure in the departure of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to leave that job after the Post revealed that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak even while telling others in the Trump administration that he had not done so.
In that case, however, Flynn’s phone conversations with Kislyak were intercepted by U.S. intelligence. The intelligence on Sessions, by contrast, is based on Kislyak’s accounts and not corroborated by other sources.
Former FBI Director James Comey fueled speculation about the possibility of a Sessions-Kislyak meeting at the Mayflower when he told the same Senate committee on June 8 that the bureau had information about Sessions that would have made it “problematic” for him to be involved in the Russia probe.
Comey would not provide details of what information the FBI had, except to say that he could only discuss it privately with the senators. Current and former officials said he appeared to be alluding to intelligence on Kislyak’s account of an encounter with Sessions at the Mayflower.
Senate Democrats later called on the FBI to investigate the event in April at the Mayflower Hotel.
Sessions’ role in removing Comey as FBI director angered many at the bureau and set in motion events that led to the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel overseeing the Russia probe.
Trump’s harsh words toward the attorney general fueled speculation this week that Sessions would be fired or would resign. So far, he has resisted resigning, saying that he intends to stay in the job “as long as that is appropriate.”
RUSSIAN LAWYER’S CLIENT
Separately Friday, another Senate committee investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election confirmed that Trump’s eldest son and his former campaign chairman agreed to discuss being privately interviewed.
The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort agreed to negotiate with the committee about being interviewed by members and staff as well as to discuss the possibility of turning over documents.
The joint statement from Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the committee will not subpoena the two men to force them to testify publicly next week, though it could do so in the future.
Both men face questions about attending a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in June 2016 that was described to Trump Jr. in emails as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign. Trump Jr. was told that the lawyer had damaging information that could be used against the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni declined to comment on the judiciary panel’s announcement.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top White House aide, also attended the Trump Tower meeting. He is scheduled to speak privately with the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday and with the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.
Veselnitskaya, meanwhile, was reported Friday to have previously represented Russia’s top spy agency in a land dispute in Moscow, according to court documents.
Veselnitskaya, a Moscow lawyer, represented a military unit founded by the spy agency, the Federal Security Service, in court cases in 2011 and 2012, court rulings seen by the Post show.
In those cases, Veselnitskaya represented Military Unit 55002 in a dispute over a five-story office building in northwest Moscow where a number of electronics companies were based. It was not immediately clear what the spy agency used the building for. But the state-run company that now occupies the property provides electronic components for Russian tech companies.
The news was first reported Friday by Reuters, which said it had seen documents showing that Veselnitskaya’s role in the legal tussle began as early as 2005 and lasted until 2013.
According to legal records, Military Unit 55002 was founded by the spy agency and it is located next to the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Soviet Union’s secret police and intelligence agency for decades. The military unit works on procurement for the spy agency, which directs Russia’s counterintelligence and border security agencies.
There is no information suggesting that Veselnitskaya is herself an intelligence agent or an employee of the Russian government. But the court rulings are the first legal evidence to emerge of a relationship between Veselnitskaya and the Russian intelligence establishment.
She could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.
Late Thursday, the Post and The New York Times reported that the president’s legal team is evaluating potential conflicts of interest among members of Mueller’s investigative team. Several people with knowledge of the effort said that process includes reviewing the political affiliations of Mueller’s investigators and their work history.
Trump attorney John Dowd, who announced this week that he will be the president’s lead lawyer on the Russia issue, giving Trump’s longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz a scaled-back role, denied the reports that Trump was seeking to target potential conflicts of interest on Mueller’s team.
“I know Bob Mueller,” Dowd said. “I trust him, and he is an honest man and I think he will call it straight.”
But White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, speaking in a Fox News interview on Friday, accused Mueller’s team of mounting a “witch hunt” against Trump.
“These were significant donations by members of that team. They clearly wanted the other person to win,” she said, referring to campaign contributions to Democrats by some of the lawyers working on Mueller’s staff. It “remains to be seen” whether they are prejudiced against Trump, she said.
President Donald Trump, shown Friday at the White House, voiced frustration earlier this week with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe. A former official said intelligence now indicates that Sessions and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related matters and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.