Ses­sions’ as­ser­tions blunted

In­tel in­ter­cepted two ac­counts of talks he had with am­bas­sador.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Adam En­tous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller

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 em­bat­tled 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 that Ses­sions — who tes­ti­fied that he has no rec­ol­lec­tion of the April 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 Rus­siare­lated is­sues and prospects for U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions in a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Ses­sions has said re­peat­edly that he never dis­cussed cam­paign-re­lated is­sues 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. offi-

cials said that as­ser­tion is at odds with Kislyak’s ac­counts of con­ver­sa­tions dur­ing two en­coun­ters over the course of the 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’s re­cus­ing him­self 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,” said Sarah Is­gur Flores, a Jus­tice Depart­ment spokes­woman 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 say 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 that 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 that the Rus­sian am­bas­sador re­ported speak­ing with Ses­sions about is­sues that were cen­tral to the cam­paign, in- clud­ing 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 one that Ses­sions has ac­knowl­edged took place in July 2016 on the side­lines of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

By that point, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin had de­cided to em­bark on 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.

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, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with in­tel­li­gence on Kislyak.

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 that “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, pro­vid­ing ir­refutable ev­i­dence. The in­tel­li­gence on Ses­sions, by con­trast, is based on Kislyak’s ac­counts and not cor­rob­o­rated by other sources.

For­mer FBI di­rec­tor James B. Comey fu­eled spec­u­la­tion about the pos­si­bil­ity of a Ses­sion­sKislyak 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’s 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.” Se­nate Ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee chair­man Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, an Iowa Repub­li­can, says Donald Trump Jr. and for­mer Trump cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort are in talks about be­ing pri­vately in­ter­viewed by Grass­ley’s com­mit­tee.

The men also are dis­cus­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of turn­ing over doc­u­ments. Grass­ley says he will not force the men to tes­tify pub­licly next week.

Rice meets with Se­nate com­mit­tee.

For­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Su­san Rice met Fri­day with staff on the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

Erin Pel­ton, a spokes­woman for Rice, says Rice was pleased to co­op­er­ate with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion “given its ex­tra­or­di­nary na­tional sig­nif­i­cance.”

In ad­di­tion to Rice, the panel also in­ter­viewed sev­eral mem­bers of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion last week. Panel staff met with for­mer Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per on Mon­day and for­mer Obama chief of staff De­nis McDonough on Tues­day.

Pres­i­dent Donald Trump has said Rice may have com­mit­ted a crime when she asked in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts to dis­close the name of a Trump as­so­ciate men­tioned in an in­tel­li­gence re­port. Rice has said she did noth­ing im­proper.

Trump team looks for Mueller con­flicts.

Pres­i­dent Donald Trump’s le­gal team is eval­u­at­ing po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­ter­est among mem­bers of spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­tiga­tive team.

Trump at­tor­ney Jay Seku­low told The Associated Press that the lawyers “will con­sis­tently eval­u­ate the is­sue of con­flicts and raise them in the ap­pro­pri­ate venue.”

Can Trump par­don him­self?

Views among con­sti­tu­tional law ex­perts are mixed.

“The lan­guage of the Con­sti­tu­tion em­braces the idea that there is one per­son who grants a par­don and a dif­fer­ent per­son who ac­cepts that par­don,” said Jes­sica A. Levin­son, a pro­fes­sor at Loy­ola Law School, Los An­ge­les. “There is also a prin­ci­ple of so-called nat­u­ral law, which pro­vides that no per­son should stand as her or his own judge.”

Jonathan Tur­ley, a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity Law School, said: “There is noth­ing in the text and lit­tle in the his­tor­i­cal record to con­tra­dict that as­ser­tion of power.” But a pres­i­dent par­don­ing him­self would raise se­ri­ous ques­tions “of an abuse of power.”

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