The Slatest

Is It Normal for a Senator to Meet With an Ambassador?

Jeff Sessions attends a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Capitol Hill ion Feb. 2.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Is This Normal? is a Slate series that attempts to determine which controversial Trump World behaviors are outrageously unprecedented, which are outrageous but within the realm of what others have gotten away with, and which shouldn’t be considered outrageous at all.

The Issue

Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russia’s ambassador to the United States at least twice last year, contradicting his claim during his confirmation hearing in January that he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the Trump campaign. Sessions says he met with the ambassador in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Washington Post reports that of the 20 members of that committee who responded to a request for comment, none had met with ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year.

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Is this normal?

The Precedent

There’s nothing untoward about a senator meeting with a foreign ambassador, even one from a country that has a tense relationship with the United States. Sen. Claire McCaskill, also a member of the Armed Services Committee claimed on Twitter this morning to have never met the Russian ambassador:

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She was called out later in the day for that not being true:

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That McCaskill or Sessions would have met with Kislyak is entirely unsurprising. The Russian ambassador has discussed ongoing disputes between the U.S. and Russia with a number of members of congress over the years.

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Ambassadors are in Washington to represent their country’s interests, which often requires contact with legislators involved in debates over trade, defense, or anything else, really. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy when Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Murphy met the ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to discuss Syria policy, or when Sen. John McCain met ambassadors from the Baltic countries to discuss NATO, or when Sens. Mark Kirk and Mazie Hirono met the Chinese ambassador to talk trade, or when India’s ambassador talked to congressmen Eliot Engel and Brad Sherman, or when Mexico’s ambassador talked to Sen. Patty Murray.* Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who grew up in the United States and got his start in politics working with pollster Frank Luntz during the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, probably got his job in large part because of his knowledge of Capitol Hill at a time when relations between the Israeli government and the White House were on the rocks.

The Ruling

There wouldn’t be anything embarrassing or improper about a meeting between Sessions, as a senator, and Kislyak. It is Normal. Of course, this raises the question of why Sessions would say during congressional testimony that it never happened.

*Correction, March 2, 2017: This post originally misspelled Rep. Eliot Engel’s first name.

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