’16 race said in Ses­sions’ Rus­sian talks

Re­ports say spy in­ter­cepts con­tra­dict as­ser­tions of AG

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Adam En­tous, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller, An­drew Roth, Matt Zapo­to­sky and Julie Tate of The Wash­ing­ton Post; by Chad Day, Julie Pace, Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick and Jonathan Lemire of The Associated P

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.

SES­SIONS’ TESTIMONY

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.

FLYNN’S DOWN­FALL

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.

Kislyak

Ses­sions

AP/ALEX BRAN­DON

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.

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