Attorney General Jeff Sessions returns to Capitol Hill this week amid growing evidence of contacts between Russians and associates of President Donald Trump, bracing for an onslaught of lawmaker questions about how much he knew of that outreach during last year’s White House campaign.
The appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday follows a guilty plea from one Trump campaign aide who served on a foreign policy council that Sessions chaired, as well as statements from another adviser who said he’d advised the then-GOP Alabama senator about an upcoming trip to Russia.
Those details complicate Sessions’ effort to downplay knowledge of the campaign’s foreign contacts, and Democratic lawmakers who already contended the attorney general had not been forthcoming with them have signaled that questions about the new revelations are likely to dominate what could otherwise have been a routine oversight hearing.
“These facts appear to contradict your sworn testimony on several occasions,” Democrats from the committee said in a letter to Sessions last week.
Republicans, for their part, are likely to press Sessions on their demands for investigations into the Clinton Foundation and an Obama-era purchase of American uranium mines by a Russian-backed company.
In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department said Sessions had directed “senior federal prosecutors” to “evaluate certain issues” raised in letters sent by Republican lawmakers, and to determine whether investigations – or the possible appointment of a special counsel – were warranted.
Sessions, an early Trump backer who led a foreign policy advisory council during the campaign, has been shadowed for months by questions about his own communications with Russians and by contacts of others in the Trump orbit. That issue has been at the forefront of each of his congressional hearings even as Sessions has labored to promote the Justice Department’s work and priorities, and Tuesday’s appearance is unlikely to be an exception.
Earlier in the year
At his January confirmation hearing, Sessions told Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that “I did not have communications” with the Russians during the campaign and said he was “unaware” of contacts between others in the campaign and Russia. Yet he recused himself in March from overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin after acknowledging two previously undisclosed encounters with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
He struck a similar note before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, when he denied knowledge of communications between Russians and Trump campaign officials.
“I did not and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened,” Sessions said under questioning, again from Franken.
But that narrative has been challenged by a pair of recent events, most notably a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, who last month admitted in court to lying to the FBI about his own foreign contacts. He was part of a foreign policy council that Sessions chaired, and the two are among the men in a March 2016 photograph that Trump posted on social media. Charging documents in that case indicate that Papadopoulos told the council “that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump” and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
One of the attendees at that meeting, J.D. Gordon, recalled that Sessions quickly “shut him down and said, ‘We’re not going to do that.”’
Gordon has also said that Papadopoulos went around him and Sessions and that they did not know he had continued to try to arrange such a meeting.
Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee advised Sessions in a letter last week that they intended to press him on what they said were “inconsistencies” between the attorney general’s past statements and the new revelations.
“If, as recent reports suggest, you rejected Mr. Papadopoulos’s suggestion that President Trump meet with Vladimir Putin at that March 31 meeting – a fact you appear to have remembered only after Mr. Papadopoulos’s account was made public – it seems likely that you were ‘aware’ of communications between the Russian government and surrogates of the Trump campaign,” the letter states.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment Monday.
Adding to the questions for Sessions was the release by the House Intelligence Committee last week of a transcript of a private interview with Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the campaign who acknowledged that he had contact with a high-level Russian official while on a trip to Russia last year.
Page told the panel he had informed some members of the Trump campaign about the trip, including Sessions. He said he mentioned in passing to Sessions that he was preparing to visit Russia and Sessions “had no reaction whatsoever.”