Jeff Sessions speaks to Congress about Russia and Trump: A primer on his weird week
The embattled Attorney-General has a lot on his plate this week: A brewing scandal about Donald Trump's son and WikiLeaks, a new possible investigation into the Clinton Foundation, a Senate imbroglio in his home state and, today, testimony before the House judiciary committee. Here's a primer on what's happening today and how we got here
Sessions in the hot seat again
Attorney-General Jeff Sessions returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to speak to the House judiciary committee, amid growing evidence of contacts between Russians and associates of President Donald Trump. Under questioning from lawmakers, he rejected accusations that he hadn't told the truth about his involvement in the Trump-Russia affair. You can watch the recorded hearing below.
Mr. Sessions, an early Trump backer who led the foreign policy 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. Here are some of the new developments from Tuesday's testimony, and how they square with what Mr. Sessions and other Trump officials have previously said.
- On truthfulness: In his prepared remarks, Mr. Sessions lashed out at lawmakers who have accused him of not being forthcoming about the Russia affair. “In all of my testimony, I can only do my best to answer all of your questions as I understand them and to the best of my memory. But I will not accept, and reject, accusations that I have ever lied under oath. That is a lie.”
- On George Papadopoulos: Mr. Sessions acknowledged meeting in March, 2016, with Mr. Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide who served on a foreign policy advisory council with Mr. Sessions. Mr. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about foreign contacts. According to documents from the criminal Trump-Russia probe, Mr. Papadopoulos told the advisory council he could help arrange a meeting between Mr. Trump and the Russian President. Mr. Sessions has previously said he wasn’t aware of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. But on Tuesday, Mr. Sessions said he thinks he told Mr. Papadopoulos that he wasn’t authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government.
- On Carter Page: Mr. Page, a former foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign, told the House intelligence committee earlier this month that he had informed campaign officials about a trip he took to Russia. He said he mentioned in passing to Mr. Sessions that he was visiting Russia, and Mr. Sessions had no reaction. On Tuesday, Mr. Sessions said he didn’t remember speaking with Mr. Page, but didn’t challenge his recollection of events.
- On political interference: Asked about Mr. Trump’s tweets suggesting that Mr. Sessions investigate Democratic rivals, the Attorney-General said the Justice Department “can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents.” Despite the President’s “bold” comments, he added, “I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced.”
The Attorney-General was grilled on other subjects too, from gun control to the sex-abuse allegations against Roy Moore, a Senate candidate in Mr. Sessions's home state of Alabama. Mr. Sessions said he had "no reason to doubt" the allegations against Mr. Moore, who is being urged by senior party officials to leave the GOP ticket.
More reading on the Russia affair:
What Donald Trump Jr. said this week
The Trump-Russia saga took another twist on Monday when The Atlantic magazine revealed that the President's oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was in contact with WikiLeaks during and after the 2016 election.
Hours after the report, the younger Mr. Trump released some of his private messages with the whistleblower organization. In the exchanges – some of them around the time that the website was releasing the stolen e-mails from Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman – WikiLeaks praises his father's positive comments about WikiLeaks and asks Trump Jr. to release his father's tax returns to the site.
Here is the entire chain of messages with @wikileaks (with my whopping 3 responses) which one of the congressional committees has chosen to selectively leak. How ironic! 1/3 pic.twitter.com/SiwTqWtykA— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) November 14, 2017
Mr. Trump Jr.'s lawyers had released the exchanges to three congressional committees that have been investigating Russian intervention in the 2016 election and whether there were any links to the elder Mr. Trump's campaign. In a statement, his lawyer, Alan Futerfas, said thousands of documents had been turned over to the committees.
Putting aside the question as to why or by whom such documents, provided to Congress under promises of confidentiality, have been selectively leaked, we can say with confidence that we have no concerns about these documents and any questions raised about them have been easily answered in the appropriate forum.
The revelations are sure to increase calls in Congress to have Mr. Trump Jr. testify publicly as part of several committee probes into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And they add a new element to the investigations that have been probing for months whether Mr. Trump's campaign colluded in any way with the Russian government.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tweeted after The Atlantic report that he couldn't confirm the messages but then defended them after Trump Jr. released them.
WikiLeaks has such chutzpah that it allegedly tried to convince Trump Jr to leak his father's tax returns & his own "Russian lawyer meeting" emails (he did). WikiLeaks appears to beguile some people into transparency by convincing them that it is in their interest. 4/— Julian Assange 🔹 (@JulianAssange) November 14, 2017
What Donald Trump Sr. said last week
Mr. Sessions speaks before Congress on Tuesday as his boss returns from a two-week Asian trip, where he said some decidedly unhelpful things about the Russian connection to the 2016 election.
At the APEC summit in Vietnam this past weekend, Mr. Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking to reporters afterward, the U.S. President said the Russian leader had again denied to him that Moscow interfered in the U.S. election, as American intelligence agencies and the FBI say they definitely did. Mr. Trump raised eyebrows by saying Mr. Putin was sincere:
Every time he sees me, he says: 'I didn't do that.' And I believe – I really believe – that when he tells me that, he means it.
The remark, and another statement where he accused former U.S. intelligence leaders as "political hacks," continued to haunt Mr. Trump in Asia. Mr. Trump walked back his comments somewhat at a Sunday news conference in Hanoi, saying he believes both Mr. Putin and the U.S. intelligence agencies:
I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it, I'm with our agencies. As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.
What's this Clinton Foundation probe about?
The day before his congressional visit, Mr. Sessions left open the possibility that a special counsel could be appointed to look into Clinton Foundation dealings and an Obama-era uranium deal, amid concerns from Republican lawmakers and suggestions from the President that his job might be at stake.
In recent weeks, members of Congress have alleged that the Clinton Foundation benefited from a years-old uranium transaction involving a Russian-backed company. The President himself has repeatedly weighed in on Twitter on Justice Department business to call for investigations of Democrats and has challenged Mr. Sessions to be more aggressive in going after his political opponents, expressing particular support for investigating the Clinton Foundation. He has also suggested at times that Mr. Sessions's job could be in jeopardy.
The Justice Department said in a letter to the House judiciary committee Monday that Mr. Sessions had directed senior federal prosecutors to "evaluate certain issues" raised in recent weeks by members of Congress about the uranium deal. The letter said the prosecutors would report to Mr. Sessions and Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein and recommend whether any new investigations should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require additional resources and whether it might be necessary to appoint a special counsel to oversee a probe.
Any appointment of a new special counsel, particularly in response to calls from members of Congress or from Mr. Trump himself, is likely to lead to criticism complaints about an undue political influence on a department that is meant to function outside of any partisan sway or demand. Though the Justice Department falls within the executive branch, and its priorities are historically in line with those of the president, the White House is not supposed to influence the decisions of prosecutors on any particular cases.
Mr. Sessions said at his January confirmation hearing that he would recuse himself from any investigations involving Ms. Clinton given his role as a vocal campaign surrogate to Mr. Trump. He similarly recused himself from a separate investigation into potential co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, and in May, the Justice Department appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead that probe.
Meanwhile, Roy Moore
Mr. Sessions's name is coming up in another Republican furor that has nothing to do with Russia: What to do about Alabama GOP candidate Roy Moore, who is caught up in allegations of sexual misconduct.
Mr. Moore says allegations that he molested teenage girls during the 1970s when he was a prosecutor in his 30s are false. But Republicans in Washington are trying to distance themselves from him, with Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell urging him to step aside. But the GOP's options for making him step aside are limited: For starters, the election in Alabama is already underway. Absentee ballots are being mailed in for the Dec. 12 contest, and Mr. Moore can't be removed from the ballot, even if the Alabama Republican Party wanted to. And Mr. Moore still retains a base of supporters in staunchly conservative Alabama.
One option under consideration would be for Republicans in Alabama to abandon Mr. Moore and rally around a write-in candidate, perhaps Mr. Sessions, who held the seat until his confirmation earlier this year, or Senator Luther Strange, who lost to Mr. Moore in the GOP primary in September. Such a candidacy would be an uphill slog. Even if Mr. Moore were to step aside his name would remain on the ballot – siphoning votes away from any write-in candidate – and potentially swinging the race to Democrat Doug Jones. That would narrow the margin of control in the GOP-controlled Senate to 51-49. That's an outcome Republicans are anxious to avoid.
With a report from Reuters
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