'Washington Post' Reporter On Jeff Sessions' Meetings With Russian Ambassador

Mar 2, 2017
Originally published on March 2, 2017 8:15 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's what we know and don't know about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his meetings with Russia's ambassador.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What's known is that Sessions met with the Russian diplomat during the presidential campaign. The Washington Post reports that, and NPR has independently confirmed it.

INSKEEP: So the only question is whether they discussed the presidential campaign during those meetings. Sessions denies that they did, which is how he explains a failure to disclose his meetings when asked under oath.

Adam Entous of The Washington Post first revealed the meetings. He's in our studios. Good morning. Thanks for coming by.

ADAM ENTOUS: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: So when did Jeff Sessions meet the Russian ambassador, and what was Sessions doing at that time?

ENTOUS: Well, there were two meetings. There was one in July, which was an informal gathering, a bunch of ambassadors on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention.

INSKEEP: OK.

ENTOUS: And there was a pull-aside basically, and he had a brief discussion with Ambassador Kislyak there.

INSKEEP: OK.

ENTOUS: Two months later, September, he has a meeting with Kislyak in his office in the Senate. And we've asked, you know - can you give us notes, tell us what was discussed? And they tell us they're not sure there are notes. And if there are notes, they're not sure where they are.

INSKEEP: OK.

ENTOUS: So at this point, we don't really know what was discussed in that meeting.

INSKEEP: In the absence of notes or any documents, what did they say was discussed in that meeting?

ENTOUS: They say that he does not really recall what was discussed, at least that was what they told us last night. So at this point frankly, you know, as in a lot of cases, we're looking here at what public statements were made under oath in testimony to the Judiciary Committee. And we are checking his calendar, and we're, you know, checking with officials that were at these July RNC events. And we're noticing that there's a discrepancy there, and that's what we're pointing out.

INSKEEP: You mentioned public statements under oath before the Judiciary Committee. Let's listen. The timeline here is he meets the ambassador - it's during the presidential campaign, the height of concern about Russian interference. Then, Donald Trump wins the election, becomes president-elect. Sessions is nominated as attorney general, has a confirmation hearing, and he has this exchange with Senator Al Franken.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL FRANKEN: If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

JEFF SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have the communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.

FRANKEN: Very well.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with that testimony?

ENTOUS: Well, we have evidence of - and they're confirming two meetings that took place with Ambassador Kislyak. You know, I think what advisers to Sessions are trying to argue here is that in his job as a - in the Senate on the armed services committee, he would have meetings in that capacity and that somehow that dual hat that he puts on - one as an adviser to the campaign of Trump and his meetings with the armed services committees are somehow things that Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, is making a distinction in between.

I think, you know, Sessions was getting lots of visitors last year from many ambassadors - the Japanese ambassador, Ukrainian ambassador. The reason they wanted to see Sessions was not so much because he was on the armed services committee but because he was advising the Trump campaign. And they wanted to try to get some insights into where that campaign was headed.

INSKEEP: So the question is - why didn't he disclose these meetings? His answer is - well, they weren't really about the campaign. But we don't know that. And we don't have independent confirmation of that. Couple of points of significance there. Sessions says in that testimony - well, I was a campaign surrogate a time or two. Doesn't that understate his role in the Trump campaign?

ENTOUS: Absolutely. I mean, he was one of the early backers on the Senate side for Trump. He joined his campaign formally in February of 2016. Some of his top aides have become top aides at the White House, for example. So the idea that he played a part-time role here is probably disingenuous and not the case.

And certainly, I think we can see that Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, was making a concerted effort in 2016 to spend time with several of Trump's top aides. Mike Flynn, who was the national security adviser, was another one. And again, you know, you had a similar sort of moment with Flynn where he basically was arguing that discussing sanctions with Kislyak was not discussing the expulsion of Russian diplomats in the United States. So there's a bit of a parsing here of language that's being used to basically say that these communications were valid.

INSKEEP: That clip of testimony also points at what's at stake here because Senator Franken was asking Sessions - if there is contact, what will you do? The reason he's asking is because Sessions is becoming - and now is - attorney general, overseeing the FBI investigation of Russian interference.

ENTOUS: Right. So this is the person who's overseeing the Russia investigation who did not disclose his contacts with the Russians. It does raise some interesting questions. And at this point, I don't think we know how this is going to be resolved. Certainly, Democrats on the Hill are calling for a recusal. Some Republicans have joined that call. But we're not sure exactly how Sessions is going to play this out.

INSKEEP: Adam Entous, thanks very much.

ENTOUS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a reporter for The Washington Post breaking the story that Jeff Sessions met twice with Russia's ambassador during the presidential campaign and did not disclose it later on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.