Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, told his bosses in Moscow that he discussed issues relating to President Donald Trump’s campaign during two conversations he had with now Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year. The ambassador’s accounts were intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies that regularly monitor the communications of senior Russian officials, reports the Washington Post.
Sessions, who at the time was a top foreign policy adviser to candidate Trump, had earlier said his conversations with Kislyak last year were not about the presidential campaign but rather as part of his work as a U.S. senator. “I don’t recall any discussion of the campaign in any significant way,” Sessions had said in March. Yet one U.S. official who is familiar with the intercepted communications told the Post that Sessions has provided “misleading” statements that are “contradicted by other evidence.”
This marks the latest chapter in the controversial meetings that Sessions didn’t even disclose at first, but then corrected the record after news reports revealed he had in fact met with Kislyak during the campaign. Although the attorney general has tried to play down the meetings, Kislyak’s account claims the two discussed substantive issues, including some related to policy that were of particular interest to Moscow. Officials did caution that Russian officials sometimes exaggerate or mischaracterize things in communications with Moscow in order to make themselves look better or even to throw off U.S. intelligence agencies. But Kislyak “has a reputation for accurately relaying details about his interactions with officials in Washington,” reports the Post.
Although there isn’t anything inherently inappropriate about a senator discussing things with a foreign diplomat, the key is how detailed the conversations got. “The question is whether he crossed the line and discussed classified information or talked about deals like lifting sanctions if the Russians were interested in investing in the U.S. or had dirt on Secretary Clinton,” an official familiar with the intercepts tells Reuters. “His memory is another matter.” In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June, Sessions repeatedly told senators he could not remember certain details of the conversations with the Russian ambassador.
The Justice Department declined to comment. “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,” a Justice Department spokeswoman said. “But the attorney general stands by his testimony from just last month before the Senate Intelligence Committee, when he specifically addressed this and said that he ‘never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election’.” The Post report doesn’t claim Sessions discussed interference with the election, as the Department of Justice seems to suggest.
A source close to Sessions told ABC News that the attorney general has no plans to resign following the report that comes during a week in which Trump harshly criticized him for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. In the interview with the New York Times, Trump made it clear he regretted choosing Sessions as his attorney general and said he gave “bad answers” during his confirmation hearing. The White House later emphasized Trump still has confidence in Sessions.
Trump turned his fire toward the Post on Saturday, taking to Twitter to blame “illegal leaks” for the story published by the “Amazon Washington Post,” a reference to Jeffrey Bezos, who owns both Amazon and the Post. The president also took the opportunity to refer to fired FBI director James Comey in his tweet, making the claim that he also is guilty of illegal leaks (even though he isn’t).